Amos: Summer Will Not Last Forever
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2013
It was summertime when God spoke to Amos. Sitting in front him was a basket of fruit. But instead of imagining the sweet taste of a tender grape, or the salty texture of a cured olive, or biting into the sticky meat of a handful of figs, or even savoring the tart juice of pomegranate, this basket of summer fruit conjures up for the prophet the meager wages of the field-hands who picked it, the injustices of the marketplace where it was sold, the exploitative practices of the greedy rich and, ultimately, the hunger of the poor. It aroused the prophets’ anger and frustration at the way things are, which is not how they have to be. And the summer fruit suggested to him a sense of urgency, for the seasons change, and those who ignore God’s Word now will hunger for it later – and it will be too late. It was summer time when God spoke to Amos.
Can you believe we are already halfway through summer ourselves? This means we are halfway through our survey of the Major and Minor Prophets, whose call for social justice is, as we have seen, unrelenting. Jeremiah spoke to us about slavery; Elijah showed us how to mobilize a community of activists while Elisha demonstrated care for the everyday details of managing an institution; Ezekiel provided us an opportunity to talk about issues of global trade (then and now), while last week the farmworker-prophet Amos taught us the necessity of not only promoting justice but naming and cursing injustice when we see it, much as Sarah did by addressing our broken and unjust immigration system. Prophets are like this – they persistently draw our attention to oppression, injustice and idolatry, and urgently call us to take action.
We interrupt now our summer series on the prophets to bring you a Word from Jesus.
We catch up with Jesus in Luke’s gospel at the mid-point of his journey toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, for Jesus, the center of the Israel’s highest hopes and dreams for justice and peace as God’s people. But Jerusalem was also the urban center where power, wealth and injustice were concentrated, and where he would go to publicly confront these things. And so, as attentive readers of scripture, Jerusalem can also be, for us, a metaphor for ALL that challenges our faith, or provokes us to turn tail and run. Jerusalem is always before us, we who would call ourselves disciples and dare walk with Jesus.
Before we get to Martha’s house, let me place us squarely on the road with Jesus by reminding us where he has been. On the first day of travel, Jesus instructed the would-be disciples in the cost of following him; discipleship to Jesus claims priority over the best, rather than the worst, of human relationships. Fred Craddock, using a phrase I particularly enjoy, says that Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. Jesus invited radical commitment for the creation of a radical community which he would call HIS family, brothers and sisters who are recognized because they are those “who hear the word of God and do it.” For it is only as part of this community that we can face the challenges ahead.
No sooner had they set out for Jerusalem than Jesus and the disciples experienced rejection in Samaria. Now this is important, because it heightens the impact of the story Sharron read, and our children studied, last week: the (so-called) parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Jesus told this story as a response to a young lawyer who “claimed” to have kept “all the commandments of Moses” by loving his God and loving his neighbor, but who wanted to justify himself by clarifying who his neighbor was. Jesus replied that neighbors are those who show mercy, and told him to go and do likewise. To be a disciple is to be one who not only hears but does what is required.
Hearing and doing! It is in this context that we must hear Jesus’ story today, about Mary and Martha.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops to rest for the evening, and Martha welcomes him into her home. In Aramaic (the language used by Jesus), her name means “the lady of the house.” Notice this: In doing so, in looking after Jesus, Martha makes him her neighbor,” doing exactly what Jesus asks of his disciples (remember the good Samaritan?). As Martha prepared the meal, we can imagine one of Jesus’ disciples (who are always male in Luke’s gospel) offering a word of praise for Martha. For surely, here was one who welcomed them into her home, as Jesus said his friends and family would do. And here was one who took mercy upon their hunger as Jesus said his friends and family would do. And for once, the disciples would enjoy the privilege of listening to Jesus in a comfortable setting. Martha was being neighborly, she was a model of hospitality; but of course, this didn’t require great faith on her part. It was expected of women. Women were always doing, and still are.
And that is when Martha saw Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, breaking the rules of doing, right here with Jesus’ approval. Sitting at Jesus feet, she claims the right of the male disciples to learn directly, from the lips of Jesus, what discipleship requires. Now exactly what the rest of the exchange means is a matter of wild debate among the commentators, but what is clear is that in his response to Martha, Jesus is not contrasting hearing and doing, education and activism, or even placing spiritual food above very real need for material food. It is abundantly clear that all these belong together. Perhaps, we would do best to listen to Olivia, a peasant woman from the Nicaraguan community of Solentiname, who suggests that we should simply see reflected in this text ourselves on (a typical) Sunday: sometimes so consumed with the things we have to do or perhaps the dinner we are cooking for our families, that we’re resentful, or simply not interested enough in this community, this FAMILY which Jesus believes to be most important.
Maybe we have simply heard too many stories where those who hear (the Word of God) are asked to do, that we are surprised when Jesus asks those who do, to take the time to hear – to listen, reflect, and learn. Now understanding what this means to each of us requires a process of discernment. What does Jesus say to YOU? Does Jesus need you to “Go and Do!”, like the young lawyer who questioned Jesus, or must you learn to “Stop fussing, sit down, listen and learn?” What is the Word of God for you in this story?
On listening and learning, one of the particular virtues of Presbyterians is our theological reflection upon and thorough study of the social issues confronting us. We’ve got a study document for everything, from global warming and gun violence, to fracking and food sovereignty, and it would warm your pastor’s heart if we made more use of them. I am confident that the four youth who just got back from the five day Presbyterian Youth Triennium in Indiana know more about what our church is doing in the world than many of us. We will make time to learn from them.
But that being said, if biblical and theological study is our virtue, it is also our vice. We often suffer from what Martin Luther King called “the paralysis of analysis.” We cannot study forever, but must take action and take stands. It impressed me that of the twenty folks from our congregation who turned out for the anti-racism rally on Tuesday, or the community solidarity vigil on Friday, every single one of them regularly attends adult education or church school classes here. Now if only every one who showed up for Bible study would drop off a manager’s letter at Stop n Shop or Wendy’s for farmworker rights, or send a letter to the White House advocating transparency in trade agreement negotiations, or offer their time to a ministry of change. If only every one of us who is nurtured by God’s Word in worship would take steps to reduce our carbon footprint, practice the language of peace rather than the language of violence; and if each of us pursued partnerships with those who have been made poor so that we could work together for change; then, THEN we might be recognized as the family of Jesus who both “hear the Word of God and do it.”
Hearing and Doing. Only YOU know what this means for your journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ, what challenges this poses to your priorities, what critique this makes of your celebration of God’s love, and what obstacles you must overcome in order to share God’s love with others and to make it real.
But THE PROPHETS know that whatever OUR RESPONSE is, it is a matter of some urgency: it is summer, and summer will not last forever.