Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sermon: “The Chicken AND the Egg”, Amos 8:4-6, 9-12/Luke 10:38-42 (July 17, 2022)


It’s probably safe to say that we’ve all heard the riddle about which came first, the chicken or the egg. It’s an age-old paradox that asks, given the nature of bird reproduction, how did that cycle START? If you google the question, you’ll find all sorts of smarty-pants answers about how eggs predated chickens by millions of years in other species, or how the chicken came about when two “almost-chickens” laid an egg with just enough genetic mutation to make it a new species. So I suppose the “right” answer is that the egg came first. But to be honest, I don’t really like that answer. I feel like it ignores the intent of the riddle; that is, to point out how the two states of being rely upon one another to exist. In my mind, it’s not actually a question of “either/or”; it’s a question of “both/and”.

We often approach the gospel story about Mary and Martha in the same way that scientists tend to tackle the question of the chicken or the egg: by assuming that there HAS to be a “right” answer. This presumption is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s influenced our telling of the story itself. We’ve collectively decided that Martha is the silly sister preoccupied with frivolous things while Mary is the righteous sister with the right priorities. But while this interpretation is straightforward and easy to understand, it veers dangerously far from the nuances of the original Greek, and potentially the gospel writer’s original intentions.

You may have noticed that I departed from my usual habit of reading the CEB for today’s Luke reading. That wasn’t an accident. If you compare the CEB in your pew with the New King James Version that I opted for instead, you may not initially perceive any significant differences – our internalization of the story goes THAT deep. But notice how the two translations each describe Martha’s actions. The NKJV says that Martha was “distracted with much serving,” while the CEB insists that she was “preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal.” The Greek itself makes no reference to domestic chores at all – in fact, it uses the term diaKOnia [διακονία] to describe her actions, a term that’s later used in Acts to specify service done as ministry.[1] Martha isn’t simply a woman doing the tasks delegated to her by a patriarchal society; she’s the precursor to our modern concept of deacons!

Certainly, Jesus can’t be chastising Martha for engaging in active ministry! Given this new knowledge, we need to rethink what’s happening here. Jesus isn’t actually scolding Martha at all – he’s concerned for her well-being. A more nuanced translation might find Jesus observing that Martha is “unsettled, conflicted, and torn apart” by many things. She’s caring for others as a faithful disciple, but there’s something missing that’s keeping her from the peace and wholeness that one might expect of a life lived in Christ.

One thing is still needed in order for Martha to find balance in her life – and her sister Mary happens to be demonstrating exactly what it is. The word used in verse 39 to describe Mary’s actions is again more accurately translated in the NKJV than in the CEB: the latter says that she sat at Jesus’ feet and LISTENED to his MESSAGE, but the former says that she HEARD his WORD (logos). She isn’t just passively receiving Jesus’ spoken words; she’s taking his gospel to heart (the imperfect verb form indicates that this is something she does habitually, and the Greek phrase implies an element of active obedience in her response, as well). The time that she spends in relationship with Jesus is an essential part of Mary’s faithfulness; it informs her ministry and renews her spirit.

Like the chicken and the egg, Christ-followers can’t engage in service without relationship – and vice versa. Service to others is obviously not a bad thing at all (in fact, it’s a vital part of who God calls us to be), but without relationship to undergird and support it, service is neither complete nor sustainable. And of course, a relationship without actions motivated by love is shallow and essentially meaningless. If you try to put one above or before the other, you’re missing the point. They’re both necessary for faithfulness to flourish; they feed and fuel each other. The relationship inspires the service, which strengthens the relationship. The service builds the relationship, which informs the service. Relationship AND service, together. The chicken AND the egg.

The danger of prioritizing service above relationship is far greater than just the emptiness and exhaustion that Martha finds herself experiencing. If what we do is more important to us than who we are, it inevitably devolves into idolatry of our productivity and accomplishments. Certainly, this is something we observe all around us these days, in a culture that sees our output as a measure of our value and overworking as a point of pride, but this particular sin dates way back, at least as far the time of Amos. In his prophesy, he looks around him and sees people who dismiss the Sabbath because it inhibits their ability to make a profit, who push the boundaries of justice in service to the bottom line, who stop seeing other people as human beings and instead see them as commodities. They don’t realize it, but for all they’re accumulating in material wealth and prominence, Amos observes that they’re starving for relationship with God. Their feasts are sad affairs; their songs are funeral dirges, and their days are bitter. They’re miserable because they pursue the egg at the chicken’s expense.

Even well-intentioned acts of service, when upheld as the pinnacle of righteousness, are at risk of this “slippery slope” into idolatry. When we understand the Church’s value to lie exclusively in what it accomplishes, we’re missing half of what God created us to be. When we fret too much (or, conversely, take too much pride in!) how many service projects we’ve done, or how many people show up for worship, or how much we’re able to fundraise, or how many people have signed up for an event, we lose sight of the balance that God has intentionally built into the life of the Church. We strategize and crunch numbers instead of remembering our responsibility to proclaim the gospel and share God’s love where even two or three are gathered. We forget the importance of the lives that ARE touched, the connections that ARE forged – the parts of the kindom that are built not through “productive” actions, but through personal relationships. When we focus too much on the egg, we ignore the chicken – without which the egg can’t exist in the first place!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which came first – it doesn’t matter whether you were drawn to the Church by the opportunity to serve others or by the promise of deep and meaningful relationships. What matters is that, now that you’re here, you figure out how to incorporate BOTH into your life. Just as every chicken comes from an egg and every egg comes from a chicken, every relationship grows with acts of service, and every act of service builds relationships. A full and meaningful life of faith necessarily embraces both, and it flourishes the most when they work in tandem with one another.

Learn from Martha. Don’t let your acts of service be characterized by discouragement and burnout without relationship. AND learn from Mary. Don’t let your relationship with God and God’s creation be shallow and meaningless without action. Jesus says that “one thing is needed” – but this isn’t an ultimatum. Jesus encourages Martha to see service and relationship as two sides of the same coin, as a single, unified way of life that leads to wholeness and renewal: together, they are the one thing that can sustain an entire holy kindom forever and ever. You don’t have to choose between the chicken or the egg, friends. You can – and should – embrace both. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Thanks to Rev. Carol Holbrook Prickett for bringing this to my attention.

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