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Choosing the Better Part

Judy Skaggs

July 18, 2010
Luke 10:38-42, Amos 8:1-12

This morning, Katie read the familiar story of Jesus visiting his friends Martha and Mary. When Jesus arrived, Martha’s first impulse was to get things going in the kitchen. After all, hospitality was very important in that time and culture. And Martha assumed her sister, Mary, would also come out and get busy preparing a wonderful meal for their guest.

But instead, Mary settled down in the living room with Jesus and began to listen to what he was saying. So after a time, Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping. In a way, she really put her guest on the spot!

But let us listen carefully to Jesus. Jesus does not chastise her service and offer of hospitality, but rather he addresses her frustration. Jesus would not criticize those who serve others. In last week’s story of the good Samaritan, he ends by saying – go and do likewise.

The problem is, we can read this story of Mary and Martha as setting the contemplative life up against a life of service. But rather than polarizing Mary and Martha, Jesus speaks to Martha’s distraction and to Mary’s being able to focus on Jesus alone. So that the forms of devotion whether they be contemplative or active are not what is important; rather the object of the devotion is what matters. And all acts of discipleship need to maintain this focus – that of Christ himself. Martha got so caught up in the fact that Mary was not helping that she forgot about the person for whom she was preparing the meal.

So this story seems to be more about focusing on Christ, rather than choosing one way or another of acting out our discipleship. As the writer of Colossians puts it, “In whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

To an even greater degree, the people of Israel in the time of Amos the prophet had also lost their focus. They had strayed so far from following God, that Amos says that God sees them as a basket of summer fruit that is ripe for destruction. And the prophet tells them that their life and their nation as they know it will be carried away into exile. The songs of the temple will cease, and silence will prevail.

In the 8th century, the nation of Israel was very prosperous, but Amos comes preaching that their prosperity has been at the expense of the poor and the needy. Unscrupulous merchants can hardly wait for Sabbath to end, because then they can resume cheating the needy by shortchanging them or overcharging them. And in that day, it did not take much for even small overcharges to lead to a family’s not being able to pay their debts, resulting in them having to sell themselves or their children into indentured slavery.

But Israel’s pride will surely be their downfall. It will be as if the sun will refuse to shine and their festivals will be turned into mourning.

And God says to them that there will be a great famine – not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of the hearing of the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it.

Somehow, listening to these texts reminds me of a seminary professor who asked the class, “With what is theology concerned?” And the students threw out their  answers – God, study of God, religion, spiritual things, etc. But he said, “No, Christian theology is concerned with everything! There may be other religions which are concerned with a personal, private happiness, but we believe that God created everything and continues to interact with it. And God makes no distinction between what is religious and what is secular. No, God is concerned with everything!”

It seems to me that both our texts this morning remind us that our discipleship is not limited to what we do for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings. In many ways, our worship time may be the easiest part of being Christ’s disciples.

But, it is in what we do and say and how we relate to others when we leave this place that determines who we really are. For God does not just want our attention on Sunday mornings, rather God wants our whole being all the time.

We may hear the words of Amos as harsh judgment, and they are. But we know from the totality of scripture that God speaks this judgment out of a vast love for Israel. And God loves them (and us) enough to call them to account. God chose and called Israel to be a light to the nations, to show all the nations of the earth who God is. And God has chosen and called the church for the same purpose. So when Israel or the church gets off the track, God has to remind us all how we are to live when we are called by, accountable to, and owned by a true and living, loving God.

This is one of those sermons that could easily cross over into a political speech of some sort. (In fact many of the sample sermons I read this week were exactly that!) Some of the words of Amos seem like they could have been written this week in the USA. But, from my perspective, we each have to deal with our discomfort when we listen to Amos. Instances of injustice abound in our day, and we have to decide how we will respond both as individuals and as a community.

Jesus suggests that Mary has chosen what he calls the “better part” which seems to be sitting and listening to Jesus himself.  So perhaps that is where we can begin. Now, for many of us, getting still and silent is not easy. It would be much easier to go to the kitchen and start rattling the pots and pans. But then, that is how we get distracted.

And getting distracted from choosing the better part is so easy to do. Getting so distracted that we leave God out of the picture completely seems to be what Amos preaches to Israel. Our text this morning ends with that very poignant description of a famine for God’s word. But then there is Mary sitting and listening, as the Word made flesh speaks to her.

For these two Sundays a lot of what we have heard in the prophet Amos sounds as if there was no hope. So as we conclude, I want you to hear is the very end of the book of Amos – listen to chapter 9:13-15.

This is a picture of Israel when they return from exile, but it also gives us a fuller picture of who God is. Yes, God was angry that Israel had strayed so far, and God called them to account. But that is never the end of the story. God’s love is always greater than any other love we can imagine. God’s nature is to be gracious, to restore, to redeem.

So may God grace us with new commitment and with renewed focus that we may sit at the feet of Christ as we continue to seek the better part. Amen.