First Congregational Church, Columbus
22 July 2001
Preached by Rev. Elane O'Rourke
This is what the Lord God showed me - a basket of summer fruit. He said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the Lord said to me,
The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailing in that day, the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!"
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 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."
Last week we heard and studied the Good Samaritan, which is a Christian classic. Does everyone here know it? Beaten, robbed man by the side of the road. Religious folks (a priest and a Levite) pass by and do nothing. Samaritan (one of the folks considered "bad" in the Hebrew Bible) comes down the road, picks up the man, carries him on his donkey to an inn, cleans him up, gives the innkeeper money to take care of him and promises more. The minimal moral? Go out of your way to do good. There's more to the story than that, of course, but that's the obvious theme, and the part that makes it famous.
In fact, it might be said that the Good Samaritan is the basis for much of the culture of mainline Protestant Christianity. If we think of traditional Protestant Christianity, as it came through Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Wesley (who are theological forefathers for most of us), as putting a large focus on denial of self, doing good deeds, working hard, then we can see how the Good Samaritan story is foundational.
This week, we hear the story of Mary and Martha, another famous passage. Jesus and his entourage of disciples and others come to the home of a couple of women. One of them, Martha, does what women are supposed to do, or at least were then: she works in the kitchen to provide for the sudden appearance of guests. The other, Mary, sits in the living room with the men, doing nothing to help. When Martha asks for help in the kitchen to provide for the guests, Jesus admonishes her, and praises Mary. The minimal moral: prioritize discipleship over work.
As students of the Bible, we might ask: why does a story which tells us, at least minimally, to sit still and listen follow a story that tells us to get up and go do good? We barely catch our breath from being told, Go and do likewise, than we're told to choose the better part (by sticking around). What could Luke have intended?
What wisdom do we inherit, as hard workers and good Samaritans? Establish thou the work of our hands upon us: yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him. Idle hands are the devil's workshop.
Interestingly enough, the Amos passage is traditionally paired with the Mary and Martha. In Amos's vision, God tells Amos that Israel (that means you and me) will come to a bad end because we have trampled on the poor, and been dishonest in our dealings with one another. That seems like a Good Samaritan match, doesn't it? And then, at the end of the passage, God says that God will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord, and that we shall run from sea to sea seeking the word of the Lord, but won't find it. More like a Mary and Martha story - stick around and listen.
What can God mean for us, when we are simultaneously asked to go out of our way to do good for the poor and broken, and to stick around and listen?
I've always had a lot of sympathy for Martha. Hospitality in the desert meant that if strangers came to your door, and you invited them in, you must care for them. We see that moral all through the Hebrew Bible, and especially in the story of Lot in Sodom. The desert is a hard and rocky place, and there might be many miles between homes. Bedouins today, who live in wandering in the African desert, still adhere to a strict code of hospitable behavior. Martha is caught on the horns of a dilemma: clearly she is supposed to provide care to her guests, and yet, there is Mary, doing nothing productive, being idle, and getting praised. The Martha in me shouts in her behalf: But there is water to fetch, dates to pit, food to put out, baths to prepare. Do you not all see that I need help, and there is no time to be still!!!
Those of us here who call ourselves Christian know that to be a Christian means, in some way, to be called to a life of self-sacrifice. We value simplicity over wealth, at least intellectually, and understand that, even if we don't, we probably should. As Christians. The reason the good Samaritan is so famous is that it appeals to that understanding of ourselves, of the choice we believe we make when we call ourselves Christian, when we choose to follow Christ. And, since following Christ is what we're supposed to do, it almost makes sense that we should sit at Jesus' feet if given the opportunity to do so. So how do we balance the race to "do good work" against the admonition to sit still, and, even further, against the real and true desire to have, to own, to do?
In 1998, roughly 36 million Americans did not have regular access to enough food to meet basic needs. Of these, nearly 40%, or 14 million, were children. How do we sit still at the feet of Jesus - at the feet of God -- in the face of statistics like that?
Diane Ackerman, in her book, A Natural History of the Senses, luxuriously details the debauched excesses of first century Rome, and the extreme division between rich and poor, citizen and slave, that made them possible. She describes not only the extraordinary meals -- calf stuffed with pig stuffed with lamb stuffed with chicken stuffed with rabbit stuffed with dormouse, course after course of saffron and rose water - but also the extraordinary cruelties - gladiators fighting on top of the dinner table, splashing diners with blood; feeding eels with the flesh of slaves. And then Ackerman comments: "Small wonder Christianity arose as a slave-class movement, emphasizing self-denial, restraint, the poor inheriting the earth" it was from this pride in poverty and simplicity that pleasure became synonymous with guilt or, as Gibbon put it, "every sensation that is offensive to man was thought acceptable to God." And, I might add, in a time in which to be poor was much more common than to be rich, small wonder Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Wesley emphasized the moral goodness of poverty in comparison to the moral thinness of wealth, and urged their followers to live a life of hard and constant work.
And yet, we Christians also inherit the Song of Solomon, a long, luscious love poem saturated in sensuous language. And yet, we are given this extraordinary, glorious planet, rich in variety, blooming and bursting and brazen to live in and to tend. And yet, we have libraries full and overflowing with language and story redolent of shared experience and unfamiliar dreams. And yet, we sing in the voices of angels, hear the rumbling up of the organ's voice billowing out upon the gathered congregation in sounds of sweetest water and bird call. We smell the fragrance of oranges, picked when the sun is high, fresh and energetic. We feel the tender breezes that cool the tiniest hairs on the backs of our necks when the heat of summer makes us limp and languid.
We humans are creatures unfathomably created and born to smell and to taste and to touch and to hear and to see. And yet, as Christians, we know that to do this is somehow wrong, somehow pagan, not productive, not fruitful, just not good work. Meditation is a luxury. Even prayer tugs at us as being, somehow, wasted time. We are called to put aside everything else and be the Good Samaritan, to follow Christ, to do good and work hard. And sitting and listening to anyone, even Jesus, when there is work to be done, feels wrong. Standing still and breathing in the first scent of the magnolia in early summer when there are bills to be paid feels like sin.
"Scientists" have recently discovered that multitasking, isn't. When we do that highly praised activity we call multitasking, what we are really doing is repeatedly, rapidly, and inefficiently shifting our attention back and forth between multiple thought processes. Each time we do that, we lose a bit of the whole, and the efficiency and value, of each one. Yet, we value the juggling of the tasks over the concentrated effort of the one at a time.
The magnolia and the breeze and the children and the orange and the organ and the books are the word of God as much as the Bible is the word of God. God's creation is God speaking to us as much as are the Gospels. God said, let there be light. And God called it good. God's creation is God's word. And we are called to listen to God's word.
What does Amos tell us that the end will look like? Amos says that we shall wander from sea to sea, run to and fro, frantically chasing what seems important, looking desperately for the word of God. And what does Luke tell us about Martha? That she was distracted by many tasks, and could not see what was in front of her - what was truly important.
It's easy to say that we must stop doing so much for ourselves, and do more of what matters for others. How hard it is to say that sometimes we must stop doing so much for others and do something for ourselves that is also of God?
36 million Americans face hunger. And we are called to linger at the feet of God.
It is no good to do good and to not love God in the doing and in the ones with whom and for whom we do it. When the goal of Good is greater than the goal of God, truly we sin.
My brothers and sisters, there is a reason that God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit. There is a pun in it - the word for a basket of summer fruit sounds like the word for the end times - but there is a choice in the pun. Imagine for a moment an entire basket of summer fruit, ripe and orange and yellow and purple and sweet and juicy and rich and fragrant and sultry - and only briefly here. When we pass by the great and glorious creation that God has given us, and see only our tasks and our need to be busy, we become bitter. When we prioritize the making of money over savoring the word of God, we lose the ability to hear that soft and soothing voice. When we worry too much about doing good, doing right, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, helping the poor, caring for the sick, staying busy - and we don't take the time to sit still and listen to the word of God, to really sit still in heart and mind and body and listen - we become bitter and nasty and exhausted. We cheat our neighbor. We are unkind. We are lost - and we run, to and fro, to find God again.
It takes discipline to sit still, to revel in the glory of God. But it makes us better. Sitting still and taking in all of God's glory - not just the simple morality, but the abundance and blessing and joy - makes us not only good Samaritans, but better Christians.
We're not talking about so-called retreats, in which we gather for two days and remain overloaded with activity and conversation. We're not talking about vacations, folks, especially the ones when we stay very busy for two weeks doing a hundred other different tasks than the ones we do at home. We're talking about staying still, and hearing the word of God.
I know that when I stand for a moment outside the church door, and gaze on the flowers that Jeff, our church building manager, has planted, those flowers that grow and bloom in reckless color and vivid abandon, crashing and sighing, when I take the time to take in that stunning creation of God's and Jeff's I not only love God more, I love Jeff. I feel a tenderness toward him that no amount of saying "hi" to him in meetings could muster.
When I stop in the middle of the shelter in which I work, I smell the pungent odor of 150 adults and children and institutional lunch and scented oils. I see overwhelming need, and, often, remember the bitter words said in a meeting by the exhausted people trying to fulfill those needs. When I stop for a moment, and pick up one of the children and close my eyes and smell the scent of innocent sweetness . I make a face and she laughs, and I hear the tinkling exuberance of hope. Those moments when I pause in the tasks and duties of being a paid good Samaritan and hear and see and smell, I love God more and love those children more and love the people I work with more.
When we pray for someone who has hurt us, or for an enemy at work, taking the slow time to picture that person and imagine him as a small child, trusting and laughing, or sad and hurt, in time we love God more, and love that person more, and forgive.
And when we love God more, when we sit still and listen to the word of God here and take in the wonder of God's creation, when we take in all of God and humankind as if it were a basket of summer fruit - God pungent and fecund and singing and colorful - we are more able to not merely be good Samaritans, but redeemed and glorious children, members of the extraordinary moment of God.
Be still, the Lord says, and know that I am God. Idle hands are a moment of holiness. Take time to be holy. Smell and taste the summer fruit, the ripening flower, the word of God.
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