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Sermon – July 18, 2010: The Better Part

 

 Sermon for Sunday, June 18, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

“The Better Part:”

Amos 8: 1-12; Colossians 1: 15-28; Luke 10: 38 – 42

I knew a woman named Mary who was always unhappy with the story of Mary and

Martha, because she often fed people and she could see the justice in objecting to Mary’s

abandoning Martha to do that work while she took the chance to hear the talk that the men

usually got to hear. I start with this of our scriptures because the contrast between dutiful,

indignant Martha and apparently idle Mary always annoys people. Especially in this culture

we’re a can-do crowd, and one of the theses about Protestantism and the rise of capitalism

is that in the absence of more certain evidence of the invisible God mentioned in

Colossians, our Protestant forebears worked hard to make good to demonstrate that they

were being blessed in some concrete terms. It was hard to point to the purity of their heart

but it was not so difficult to point to the size of their house, and practical people, as they

were, and making their way in religion without the reassurances of priests or too much

confidence in rituals, they were driven to prosperity to measure God’s approval of them,

and so anxiety about God became a goad toward industry and the accumulation of wealth.

That old adage of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism “work all you can, make all you

can, give all you can” is an echo closer to our own origins of that busy, earnest, commercial

spirit which animated the Dutch in their golden age and that nation of shopkeepers which

succeeded them, as well as those Germans whose combination of toil and thrift has made

Pennsylvania the big industrial and agricultural state that it long has been.

Even people so serious about their religion as to be borderline kooks have tended

to shun idleness of any kind. The Ephrata Cloister is the product of a hardworking

community, and the Plain People famously benefit not only from eschewing many modern

expenses but by industry and ingenuity. Other cultures sometimes recognize ragged

individuals living in poverty at the boundaries of society as holy men, when they have zeal

for God, but we think people like that. are crazy. If a person acts too interested in religion,

no matter how prosperous he is, we think he’s crazy, too. But we certainly see no spiritual

advantage in poverty, despite a large Christian tradition–Catholicism–making a virtue of it,

and despite all the negative things said in the New Testament about the love of money and

reliance on money. What secures us from poverty, which we are inclined to view as

evidence of failure in life instead of aspiration to holiness, is work, and so we work. We are

some of the workingest people in the world. Those nations which every so often offend us

by being identified as more desirable to live in often have shorter work weeks and more

generous provisions for public services and still, so far, have enough economic muscle to

underwrite their overextended neighbors– they aren’t so self-professedly Christian as we

are, and they don’t work nearly as hard.

 

 

There’s two conclusions that can be drawn about such invidious comparisons. One

 

 

 

 

 

 

is that we’re going about things the wrong way. The other is that there’s something wrong

with European-style social democracies, and most of us prefer this second conclusion.

There’s something wrong with them. They’re like Mary in the Mary and Martha story.

They’re not pulling their weight.

I belabor the difficulty of agreeing that Mary is being more right than Martha because

it really is a difficult scripture. One problem is that we feel that Mary knows what Jesus is

going to say, anyway, so she might as well be making the hors d’oeuvres. Isn’t Jesus

always talking about the kingdom of God and the healing power of forgiveness and each

person’s responsibility to other persons? How many times does a person need to hear a

story about some lost thing that gets found and then the person who finds it is overjoyed?

See, we accept that God’s word is abundantly available. Why should anyone put

aside their ordinary, productive work in order to listen one more time? Some time back

Robert Fulghum made a splash with that bit about how everything he needed to know in

life he’d learned in kindergarten. There were posters made of it.

That’s one reason we don’t get the Mary and Martha incident. Mary must know this

stuff. It’s really traditional religion. It’s not that new. Jesus isn’t that much of an innovator,

even though he’s questioned by his peers and even though he characterizes what he says

as good news. The newest thing is that he represents a caring God who’s really there,

really there with people. But the teachings themselves–sharing better than greed, peace

better than violence, humility better than pride–that’s the same old stuff.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there? between knowing something and listening.

Anyone who’s ever had one of those heart-to-heart talks with a misbehaving child of

anything like an age of reason will get told by the child, “I know, I know”. It’s wrong to take

things–“I know, I know.” It’s rude to eat in front of guests–“I know, I know.” People know.

People know a lot of things. In fact that was one of the things which made Fulghum’s thing

about learning everything in kindergarten strike a chord with people. We do know. We’ve

known for a long time.

But knowing and listening aren’t the same thing, or there never would be those heartto-

heart talks between big people and children, or those lectures from the bench in the

courtroom. People know, but people need to listen. Listening demonstrates a desire to

have one’s knowledge reinforced– in the case of religious listening, it shows a will to live

more conscious of the presence of God and one’s personal responsibility in God’s world.

The kind of listening Mary does shows a conviction that being reminded of the nature of

God and what God wants is important.

Does that make the thing about Mary and Martha seem a little more reasonable. It’s

not that Jesus is commending loafing around or abandoning work. It’s that Jesus approves

of the desire to pay close attention to godly things. Jesus believes that a person’s getting

what a person needs to be spiritually healthy requires time apart from the busyness of life.

 

 

It is so important that he is compelled to side with Mary, even though Martha might take it

 

 

 

 

 

 

wrong, and even though most of us might find it hard to take it right.

There are an awful lot of people who are unchurched. There are thousands of

people within a few miles of here who never go to church, who don’t feel any need to pay

attention to God in the way that we’re trying this morning. Some of them honestly believe

that there’s nothing to religion, but a great many of them have an attitude like the one which

makes us miffed at Mary. Many of them think they know what it’s about already and they

don’t need to take time away from other things that they feel should be done simply to be

quiet, even for a very little while, to pay attention to God.

I had a preacher friend once who had a brother who told him, “I can worship God on

the golf course just as easily as I can worship God in a church service,” and the preacher

said to him, “I believe you can–but do you?” Martha could honor what Jesus had to offer

and gain from it herself despite feeling the need to provide hospitality–but did she? Was

her wanting to take her sister away from Jesus’ teaching an indication that she wasn’t as able

as she might have thought to be on Jesus’ wavelength while taking care of her own

agenda?

The prophecy from Amos has an interesting punishment foretold to give the willful,

greedy, religiously indifferent Israelites their just desserts. It’s not the typical fire and sword

or swarms of locusts or famine– it’s a famine of the word of God. God’s not going to waste

God’s breath any more. God’s through talking. People will discover that they do need to

know who they are and what life means and what hope they can have, but God is going to

withhold that information. That’ll teach ’em. They treated the word of God lightly, they took it

for granted, they reserved the right to pay attention to it when they finally decided they had

time to do that, and to fix them, God simply will take it away. It won’t be available. All that

stuff that “everyone knows” because it’s been said over and over and taught to children and

celebrated by faithful worshipers, all that stuff will be gone. People will hunger for the word

of God but it will be too late.

It’s a good scripture to read alongside the Mary and Martha story because it gets at

the importance of hearing God’s word by a different path. If you were to tell people they

couldn’t go to church, if you were to ban reading the Bible, people would show an interest.

It’s simply too easy to think it doesn’t make much difference, the way things are now,

whether people take time out of life to work on the health of their souls or not.

The part from Paul’s letter that I want to highlight here is when the apostle says that

the word of God is shared with people, and people are informed and warned by God’s

word, in order that people become mature believers. Paul was converted himself, but he

followed his accepting the news of Christ’s being alive with years of effort to understand

what that meant and who he was to be and how he was to live. Paul converted lots of other

people, and he understood that merely getting them to say “I believe” wasn’t the end of it,

but the beginning. Discipleship is what it says–accepting a discipline, serving a Way,

apprenticing oneself to a Master. That takes more than knowing–it takes listening.

 

 

 

 

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