Amos, Martha & Mary

Sunday 21 July 2019

St Mary’s Hadlow

Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Amos was a shepherd, called to be a prophet.

He lived in troubled times, about 750 years before Jesus.   The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were divided and the nation was only a few years away from being conquered and its people carried off into captivity.  Through his visions Amos was called to name those things which had gone wrong in Jewish society and to warn them that God was preparing to punish them for ignoring him.

Our OT reading for today gives us one of his visions.  However, I will be the first to admit that the vision we hear about today is a bit of an oddity.

In 8 v.1 it says:  “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me…

If you have read the books of the prophets Daniel or Ezekiel or the book of revelation you might be expecting all sorts of weird and wonderful signs and portents.  But that is not what we get today:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me:  A basket of ripe fruit.”

Because: “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”

I told you that it is a bit of an oddity and, at first glance, it seems like a rather tenuous play on words  – ripe fruit to the time being ripe.

But like many things in the bible, the more one dwells on, or perhaps contemplates, the imagery the more it makes sense.

A bowl of fruit can be a blessing in a house – it can look attractive but it also holds a promise both of good taste and good health.  We often give baskets of fruit as a raffle prize.  A home with a display of fruit in looks somehow complete and wholesome. 

Because we are dealing with a play on words the words themselves are important.  Amos was not shown a bowl of fresh fruit.  The word used three times is ‘ripe’.  Although ripe can mean ready to eat it can also be only a short step from ripe, to over-ripe to rotten.  If we say that something or someone smells a bit ripe it is rarely a compliment. 

So a basket of fruit can be a blessing to a house and the people of Israel were meant to be God’s blessing to the world.  But it appears they sat around looking decorous, ripening in the basket, but not doing what they were intended to do.

The time is ripe, therefore, because the people were only a short step away from becoming rotten.

The language used here is blunt and scary – prophetically scary:

In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the Temple will turn to wailing.  Many, many bodies flung everywhere. Silence!”

Wow.  What were the people doing that was so bad?

In short they were going through the motions of religion but they had stopped being a blessing to the world and become part of the problem.

They were trampling down the needy.

Rushing to get through services and the Sabbath so they could get back to cheating the poor by overcharging them for short measures.

They were buying the poor and even selling them the sweepings of the floor.

The people had forgotten that they were a chosen people, that they were God’s people, they had forgotten the purpose of their calling, their festivals and their Sabbaths and they had become part of the problem of oppression of the poor and the needy. 

God was telling his people, through Amos, to rediscover their freshness, their purpose, before their ripeness becomes rottenness. 

Which is an interesting segue into the story of Martha and Mary from the Gospel of Luke. 

It is uncontroversial to suggest that the Martha and Mary we encounter today are the same as in the gospel of John, when Jesus called Lazarus back from the dead.  We are also told in John that Jesus loved the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Therefore the story we have today is not a random encounter with strangers but is either the beginning of or an ongoing part of a loving friendship between Jesus and this group of siblings.

And siblings is an important word, because sibling rivalry jumps out of this story, and anyone who has known a pair of sisters will recognise this very clearly.

Jesus entered the house of Martha and Mary and it appears that Jesus was teaching there as we are told that Mary sat at his feet, listening to what he said.  However poor old Martha was bustling about making preparations, presumably to cater for these visitors.  Martha was obviously riled that her sister was sitting at Jesus’ feet, letting her do all the hard work, and we have the line which screams siblng rivalry:

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”

Although it is hard not to feel sorry for Martha as a parent hearing the cry of “It’s not fair”, you can’t help feeling sorry for Jesus too.

Of course Jesus’ response is not to order Mary to go and help Martha.  Rather he says:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

There is so much that could be said about this, and I am sure you have heard many sermons on this over the years, but let me just draw a few points out today.

Firstly, Jesus gives Martha a clear “no” to her heartfelt request.  This is a reminder that Jesus doesn’t simply do what we want because we ask him, he does what is right taking into account bigger picture.  We may sometimes feel that our prayers aren’t answered because the thing we asked for hasn’t happened, but perhaps the answer to our prayers is sometimes ‘no’ and our job as disciples is to align ourselves with the ‘yes’ of God, rather than ignoring the ‘noes’.    Jesus loved Martha, and he doubtless felt more sympathy and empathy for her than anyone here can imagine, but he still said no to her.

Secondly, can you imagine how terribly patriarchal and oppressive of woman the history of Christianity would be if Jesus had ordered Mary into the kitchen?    

Pause to let that sink in a bit.

Jesus is being radical and inclusive in allowing Mary to listen to him like the male disciples and we know throughout the whole ministry of Jesus that he sought to challenge and overturn the societal prejudices of his time.  Imagine how different the witness of the church could have been had we held on to that spirit of radical inclusivity rather than allowing the hierarchies of the church to become another system of oppression.  I hope we are slowly overcoming that but it still saddens me to hear Christians define themselves by who they are against rather than who they include.

On that note, has anyone here read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood?  If you haven’t this is a dystopian novel based in a near-future America which has been taken over by Uber Evangelical Christians who create a fascistic regime.  Sadly that seems a lot more possible to imagine than when the book was first written.  Anyway, in that society they have a whole class of women, who they call the Marthas, whose job it is to be the domestic servants of the Commanders.  Interestingly they don’t have the Marys, only the Marthas, which says something about the selective reading of scripture.

Thirdly, and this is the obvious point, Jesus is making it clear that we need to stop being worried and distracted by all the things which we think need to get done, and spend time listening to him, and hopefully discover what really needs to be done.

The world tells us that we only have value when we are in a constant whirl.  Jesus reminds us today that there is another way, and a better way.  Stop being distracted and worried.  Perhaps stop looking at our phones and ipads and the news, not to mention the mess in the kitchen, and give Jesus the time and space he needs in our lives.  When we put Jesus in the middle perhaps he says ‘yes’ to us more than when we make demands to him out of our busyness.

And perhaps Jesus is not just speaking to us as individuals but it can also be a message to the church, both us and the wider church. Are we constantly active out of fear or out of love?

But, and you’ll be pleased to hear that this is my last point, there is something important to be said in defence of our dear activist Martha.  How did Jesus actually get into this house in the first place?

Martha opened the house to him.  Jesus only got through the front door because busy bustling Martha let him in.  Left to contemplative Mary there might have been no answer and Jesus may have moved on.

So this is not a simple dichotomy between those who are active and those who are passive, with the latter somehow being more holy.  It is about our attitude of mind and our motivation.  When we are being passive are we sitting at the feet of Jesus as a disciple, soaking up his teaching in order to be transformed by it and put it into practice or are we being lazy or flaked out with exhaustion?  When we are being active are we seeking to open the door to Jesus and live out his example and teachings or are we motivated by what the world thinks we ought to be doing?   

It does not matter whether we are physically still or rushing around, what matters is whether Jesus is at the centre of our stillness or our actions.

A bowl of fruit which sits around too long, and does not fulfil its purpose, stops being a blessing and becomes rotten.  Make smoothies, not compost.