July 21, 2019
Julie and I are trying to eat a healthier diet. This is not the first time I have introduced a sermon with this concept. It is a discipline that seems to come and go. But recently we've made fruit a bigger part of our healthier diet. We love a mix of fruit; fresh raspberries, strawberries, blueberries with canned pineapple and oranges. It is a healthier snack than I would normally choose as you all know. She buys the fruit in plastic cartons, ripe fruit that is ready to eat. But sometimes we buy the fruit and it sits in the refrigerator a couple days and even refrigerated, it can start to mold and decay.
In the Old Testament book of Amos, God gives a vision of “summer fruit” to the prophet. This is ripe fruit and the inference is that ripe fruit does not have a very long shelf-life, it decays rapidly and needs to be destroyed. God shows Amos this ripe fruit then tells him what it represents, “The end has come upon my people Israel.”
Today's reading also emphasizes the abuses of the rich and powerful. From the translation The Message, here is what Amos charged, “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing...You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them. God swears against the arrogance of Jacob: “I’m keeping track of their every last sin.'” This was written nearly 2800 years ago but we read the same reports in our editorials and web-pages today. Israel had many laws to protect the poor and the powerless, but the rich and powerful abused those laws and the people. And God's judgment did come upon them. We do live in a different time with a different understanding of where God fits in our government but as Christians, we are to be aware of the needs of the poor, the needy, the stranger.
I was reading in succession on Thursday a letter from Truman Stehr and a book called “The Heartbeat of God.” They both spoke directly to this issue. Truman wrote of what society is facing: “the increasing intrusion of Artificial intelligence and robotics into the labor market” creating loss of job opportunities. The church “must keep our focus on God as the only source of true humanity and true meaning.”
From the book, “The current economic ills of this nation—indeed, of the globe-- are largely the result of greed. The poor are being exploited all around us, and excessive interest rate contribute mightily to keeping people locked in poverty.”1 there is obviously much more, but the point is that humanity hasn't changed all that much in almost 3 centuries. The rich and powerful continue, in the words of Amos, “to walk all over the weak... treat poor people as less than nothing... exploit the poor.”
Now I take a big U-turn, to the story of Mary and Martha and if things go as I hope they will, we will tie the two passages together before I finish. We are, I think, pretty familiar with this story; Martha very busy in the kitchen and Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha interrupts Jesus and his talk to try to get Mary to help in the kitchen. I've said before, I identify more with Martha in this story. I am not all that good at sitting and not doing. So let's look at Martha and her motivation.
Motivation. That is a key word in acting and as you know, I am once again in the world of acting in the community play. I have several roles—I am a crony of the villain Gaston. I am a villager who thinks Belle is a little odd and who thinks we need to kill the beast. And I am a member of the Beast's castle which is slowly being turned from human into a dustpan. So I am working at my motivation as a dustpan; what does a dustpan feel, how does one think, act, move? Our choreographer actually challenged us to find this motivation....
I like to think that Martha's motivation was purely to serve her Lord and master and Savior. Imagine her excitement when she heard that Jesus was coming to town! He has already raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. He is a close family friend. He is a miracle worker and loves them as they love him.
She is probably aware that he has many enemies and that there is also a degree of danger in him coming this close to Jerusalem—their home in Bethany is a stone's throw from the Eastern gate to the city. Jesus likely left from her house for his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. So there was added excitement in wondering just how he would be received by the people.
But all that paled in comparison to her excitement at simply having him in her house and being able to serve him. Her gift and her talent was the gift of hospitality. She knew how to make people feel welcome, she knew how to put together a meal that delighted the senses, and she knew that she wanted this meal to be extra special. So she went to work. Jesus arrived, but she barely had time to greet him; there were vegetables to peel, bread to bake, meat to prepare, desserts to bake. She flew from one task to the next, barely even taking time to breathe. But little by little, the tasks were closing in on her. Her visions of a perfect meal and being the perfect hostess were evaporating as first one pot boiled over then the bread got overly browned. Frustration crept in. No longer was she working to make the night special for Jesus, she was working to save the quality of food and to impress her guests with her skills.
Motivations. She started out with a wonderful motivation; to create a welcoming atmosphere for her friend. But as the hours passed, the motivation became about her cooking and her baking and her frustrations. No longer was Jesus the main purpose of her afternoon, her tasks were front and center. In the room where Jesus talked, they may have heard the pots and pans being banged around. Perhaps they even heard a few heavy sighs designed to garner pity and help from Mary. But no help came and finally, totally frustrated with the heavy load she had taken upon herself, she burst into the room and addresses, not Mary, but Jesus. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
You may have been there, I know I have. You start a task with a heart of service. You have someone close to you you want to serve in a special way. But pretty soon the task has become bigger than the purpose. And that can happen to us in life. We come to church on Sunday morning and leave determined to live a life more centered on loving and serving Jesus. But like Martha, we get distracted by many things; dirty dishes, weedy gardens, dusty shelves, lunch dates, sermons to write, family to care for, supper to make, etc. etc. etc. We can lose sight of our love motivation in the hustle and bustle of life.
And I haven't talked about Mary yet. What was her motivation? And it is rather obvious; to spend time with Jesus. She “sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.” And what was he saying? We don't know, but since we are tying Amos in with the Mary and Martha story, I'm going to suggest that he could have been teaching about the very thing Amos did. “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing...You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.” I always liked to think that he was teaching wonderful truths about love and salvation and peace and grace. But maybe it was a prophetic rant and rave about the way Israel was treating the poor, the needy, the outcasts in their society. And maybe Mary took it all to heart. And maybe when Jesus was gone, when life in Bethany had returned somewhat to normal, maybe she was inspired to use her gifts to serve those in need. Maybe. I can imagine her and Martha opening their house to the needy, to the stranger, to the homeless of Bethany. Maybe that evening was a turning point in both Mary and Martha's lives. Martha learned to maintain her purpose and not be distracted. Mary learned that time with Jesus can inspire us to be better people. And they both learned that Jesus is Lord and that means following where he leads.
Jesus did come with good news of grace and love and peace. But he also came as Lord and with the command to love others; friends and enemies alike. In Matthew 25 he tells what his righteous judgment will look like: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And we know that those who failed to care for others do not receive the reward promised to those who do; there is judgment in the message of Jesus.
So maybe Jesus told the people gathered at that house in Bethany a parable about ripe fruit and how the people were living in such a way that the poor and needy were abused rather than helped. Maybe he told a story about judgment and that how we treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, prisoner and stranger matters. The love and grace of Jesus should be motivating us to love as he loved.
Mary and Martha could be read as a story of sibling rivalry, both competing for the approval of Jesus. But in reality, it is about the forces of this world that compete for our time and attention. Jesus is to be our priority. We are motivated to live out love because God first loved us and sent Jesus to be our savior, guide, friend and Lord.
One final thought—Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part. That was not so much sitting at the feet of Jesus but knowing why she was there, they were celebrating the fact that Jesus was there! She enjoyed that time with him and did not allow the distractions of the day take her away from him. Martha got distracted from her main goal.
I save articles to use in the future, I want to quote Elizabeth Boulton from March of 2011 in the Christian Century, “Mary has chosen this single-minded savoring and delight... the story is not a celebration of study or inaction or even sitting still. It's a celebration of savoring, of delighting in God.” This is the key, know that delighting in God, in Jesus, is the heart of living the joyful Christian life. And it won't look the same for all of us. But remember why you are doing what you are doing; let it be motivated by the love that motivated Jesus to come as our Lord and Savior. I'll let Boulton conclude for me: “So if study is your thing, by all means sit at the young rabbi's feet. If caring through cooking is your thing, or cleaning up, or serving the poor or getting things done—do the same. For (Jesus) is everywhere. Delight in him. Savor him. Choose the better part.”2 Amen.
Hymn: O soul are you weary and troubled 252 HLC (turn your eyes upon Jesus...)
1Schori, Jefferts The Heartbeat of God pg 10 11
2Elizibeth Myer Boulton The Christian Century, March 8, 2011 page 11