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The ‘Protestant work ethic’ is a phrase coined by sociologist Max Weber. Also known as the ‘Calvinist’ or the ‘Puritan’ work ethic, the Protestant work ethic is all about discipline, diligence, and frugality. These are the things that will get you far in life and most importantly, these are things that will get you close to God. 

Martha—from our gospel reading today—she’s the poster child for the Protestant work ethic. I try to imagine how Martha’s day was going when Jesus arrived and her sister shlepped off and left her with all the work. I imagine Martha got up with the rooster. She splashed some water on her face; changed from her nightie into her work clothes. Before the sun was up, she’d baked bread for the week; had food on the stove; was plastering drywall for the kitchen reno and was well into turning all of the furniture upside down to give the house a proper sweep. 

Mid-morning, there’s a knock at the door. Jesus and his entourage are stopping in for lunch. 

“Come on in!” Martha says. 

She adds a little water to the soup, pulls out the flour, and sets to making some scones for her guests. 

Then, in comes Mary. She’s been out for a walk “collecting water.” Mary has twigs and flowers arranged in a crown adorning her head—little pieces of nature she’s picked up while out. 

“Oh, Martha” I can imagine her saying, “Isn’t it just the most beautiful day?”

“Don’t you just feel so carefree and unencumbered by the world?”

If looks could kill. 

Martha tells her sister they have guests and asks her to set the table. But Mary has plopped herself down in the living room where Jesus is sitting and teaching his disciples.

“Lord,” Martha says, coming out of the kitchen. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

“Martha, Martha”, Jesus answers, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The most important word in this short, pithy tale isn’t what we might expect. It isn’t “welcomed” or “listened” or “distracted” or “worried.” The most important word in this story is, “But”.

In Koine Greek, the language that these stories were written in originally, anytime the word “de” (which means “but”) is written, it signals a major shift in the narrative—both at the level that the story is taking place and at this bigger, theological level. 

The word “but” appears twice in this short passage: 

1 - “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks . . . ” 

2 - And, “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

What this tells us is that Jesus’ words to Martha are like a spiritual U-turn. They stop her dead in her tracks. She’s given an invocation by Jesus to put aside what she’s doing and come and listen to Jesus’ teaching. 

On a different plane, on this other theological level, Jesus is saying something profound about the role of women as active, full members of his ministry. Just as the domestic work of cooking and cleaning isn’t just women’s work, so also studying, learning, teaching, preaching—this isn’t solely “men’s” work. In Jesus’ family, all work is everybody’s work.

Further, lest Martha get the wrong idea and think that she can simply exchange her domestic tasks for other tasks and still “work” her way into God’s kingdom, Jesus sets the record straight. 

“There is need of only one thing” Jesus says, and that’s simply to sit and be in the presence of God. Jesus disrupts the Protestant work ethic. Jesus disrupts the notion that how much you do is how much you are. 

I wonder how we might finish that sentence?

How much you do is how much you are loved . . . 

How much you do is how much you are valued . . . 

How much you do is how much you are seen . . . 

How much you do is how much you are known . . . 

Jesus turns these ideas right around and says, “Your stillness, your stopping, your sheer being in the presence of God is all that’s required.”

People of St Clement’s: this morning I want to say to you that your hard work matters. Your putting up booths for Lynn Valley Day, your gardening, your hosting coffee hour, your taking refugees into your homes, your cleaning of altar linens, your processing cheques, your producing bulletins and making schedules, your volunteer service in the community, your care for your families, and your overtime at your jobs. All of it matters. All of it is good, hard work.

And, God requires none of it. God requires none of it for you to be loved, valued, seen, and known—just as you are.