Jesus came so our joy may be complete. In John's Gospel Jesus tells us: I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete. Jesus wants us to have Joy. Not just joy, but his own, complete Joy.
Wait, didn't Jesus come to save us from the fires of Hell? Well, yes. But more than that. Before Jesus came to our human world, we’d already gotten the Law. We already knew that sin results in the Law-breaking sinner being tossed into the fires of Gehenna, burning in the refuse heap.
Jesus reminded us of this, but that's not all. Jesus didn't just burst into the world and suffer to pay for our sins. God had something more in mind. And it’s no secret. Jesus spelled out God's goal for humanity. God wants for us to experience fullness of joy. Jesus even showed us the way to this Joy. It starts with first, not sinning. Then, loving God and loving one another, even as Jesus loved us. But we humans are in danger of missing something very important. We're missing the "better part:" experiencing God's Joy.
First, let's look at our reading from Amos. What were the North Israelites doing wrong? Sure, the king kept idols for his wife and family to worship, but after all, the people were observing the Law. Sure, the despicable Ba'al was the god of the leadership, but the people of the kingdom observed the letter of the Law. Shops were closed for the Sabbath. Isn't that proof they were keeping the Law? But there was something rotten in Israel.
Here was God's accusation: You people close down your business for the Sabbath, but you twiddle your thumbs and can't wait for the Sabbath to end so you can get back to what's really important to you, selling your wheat. Worse, you mix the floor sweepings in with the good wheat you sell. And, you shrink the size of the measuring cups. You put your thumbs on the scale. You are trampling on the needy and the poor.
God speaks terrible prophesies to Jeroboam, the king of the North. Through Amos, God tells his idolatry has resulted in his people regressing to all kinds of corrupt practices. Yet the king thumbs his nose at Amos — and God. Corrupt King Jeroboam tells Amos to shut up and get out of town. Go back where you came from. The Lord then gave Amos a vision of a basket of summer fruit. Summer fruit piled up in a basket quickly rots in the heat of summer. Summer heat like today. Amos’ vision of this corrupted, rotten kingdom. This is no longer a warning to repent. God is past warning. Amos is there to tell them, "It's over!"
God says: 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.
This sounds strange. Why will the people thirst for the word when they so blatantly violate the Word? Maybe the key is the double-edged sword Paul speaks of in Hebrews: Sharper than any double-edged sword, the Word of God penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The double-edged sword of God's Word cuts two ways. (Doh) The first slash is Jeroboam’s people will be visited by disaster for their sin. Their sin was superficially keeping the Law, but perverting the Law in their thoughts and attitudes of the heart. The second cut of the sword, the back-slash, is that in ignoring the Word, they not only suffer the consequences of sin. They miss out on the good, the better part: They miss the fullness of joy and peace, freedom from anxiety, and complete liberation.
Many suffer from this second cut of the spiritual sword. This is a trap many keep falling into, from Jesus’ time until today. Literalists observe the letter of the Law and feel they are obedient. Wrong. Myopic. Short-hitters. God demands two more things from us. First, that we stretch into love. And then, that we reach for Joy. Without the stretch, the reaching for higher purposes, we not only distort God's teaching, we completely miss the joy of the kingdom. We miss the mark.
This brings us to the double-edged sword message in our Gospel reading today. Immediately after teaching the Ignorant Lawyer parable – oops, the the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus. They live in Bethany, a little village close by to Jerusalem. He is friends with Lazarus, and Martha, the older sister invited Jesus to stay with them. Jesus is speaking, probably teaching their neighbors and friends. As Jesus speaks, Mary, the younger sister sits at the Lord's feet, rapt at his teaching. Martha is bustling about the kitchen and dining area preparing and setting out food and drink. Jesus is teaching and Martha is working. Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet, listening, silent, absorbed.
Martha is incensed at her sister for not helping. Martha goes up to Jesus and interrupts him, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." Jesus answers Martha, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;2there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
So, why has "doing nothing" Mary chosen the better part? Martha is engaged in service of the Lord and the people. Yet, Jesus politely tells Martha she is the one missing the mark, not Mary.
Theologians spend a lot of words holding forth on sin of all types. We need to remember that there’s a passive form of sin, of missing the mark. This form of Sin is literally a falling short of God's glory. This is the correction Jesus taught Martha. This sin is to not listen for the Word of God, to stretch our listening, to reach for the higher purposes.
As we heard in Amos, the sin of closing your ears to the Word of God is a double-edged loss. Failure to fully listen to God's Word can directly lead to active sin, the seven deadly excesses of our fallen human nature. In our reading from Amos we’re told we can even reach such a point of not listening for God, that the Word will be withdrawn. A famine of the Word of God is a more desperate, literally hope-less famine than a deprivation of our physical needs. And it happened. The Kingdom of the North became Samaria, a Kingdom of lost souls, the Biblical poster child for people without God.
Now, Martha, a good friend of Jesus certainly was not a "deadly sinner." Martha was focused on doing good, on serving the needs of God and others. But, look at Mary as she listens. Mary is rapt; probably unaware of the stony glances from her sister Martha as she sits listening to the Word. You can imagine the body language, Martha "hmphing," slamming down plates of olives and hummus. Finally, Martha actually interrupts Jesus to complain about her sister. Martha had expectations for what needed to be done, what was really important. In Martha's view, Mary was ignoring the key obligations with which we all feel encumbered. "There are important matters to be attended to!"
Jesus gives us a very important post-graduate Christian lesson in this welcoming home on the slope of the Mount of Olives. Yes, life is full of life stuff. One of the laws of modern life seems to be that busywork drives out important work. This problem is as universal as Gresham's Law that "Bad money drives out Good." There is no end to the desperately important activities demanding our time. There's Facebook and phone calls. There's the last shopping trip and picking up the kids from their fourth event of the week. The house needs to be cleaned, the lawn mowed. The car needs to be washed. We are all Martha.
Do you wonder what Jesus meant when he said, "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."? Jesus didn't rebuke Martha for doing her good and helpful and useful work. Jesus’ rebuke was because Martha had so much anxiety about these mundane things, she couldn’t listen. She was so involved in the day-to-day tasks society and our routines demand of us, she neglected the more important thing. "Martha, Martha, the Lord lovingly said to her, "you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing."
The pressures of life cause us to pay attention to the chores that call out to us, the familiar routines of daily life. These are good. But they are endless. Preparations need to be made. Cooking and baking for the events ahead. The last hour or so at the office. Email needs to be answered. News needs to be analyzed. National, local, neighborhood and office politics demand our attention and focus and lively discussion.
Even and sometimes especially in our Church activities, we become so busy with administration, with committee meeting, with rational discussions, with activities — all good things – we become like Martha. But what Mary received will never be taken from her.
God does not present us with a schedule. God makes few demands. God lovingly enters our hearts and homes and waits patiently, resting within us. The Spirit is ready and eager to speak with us.
So, how do we hear what the Spirit of God has to say to us? Some of you already know the answer. It's in our gospel reading today. Mary sat in the presence of God, in silence and listened to what the Lord had to say to her.
From Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and the prophets, the answer is the same. People of faith create the occasion to hear God. The great Hebrew prayer passed on by Moses, but perhaps not completely understood, begins with the word, Sh'ma. HEAR, O Israel.
God is gently communicating. But unless we tune in, we will not hear. Our prayer time is full of spoken prayer, requests or praise from us to God. This is good. But aside from communities where the prayer service may include a time of listening and relaying words received from the Spirit, very few church services include more than what is called, "a moment of silent prayer." Even in silent prayer, we don’t have much time to listen.
Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount: But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. ‘In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him.
For some people, prayers of silence are their most important prayer time. Early Christian desert fathers cherished silent, Contemplative Prayer. We don't need desert caves to practice Contemplation. Contemplative Prayer, or Centering Prayer, is an effective way to tune out the world and the constant racket going on between our ears. In Centering Prayer we sit in silence, we consent to the presence — and action of God within us. It is a practice that has been deeply helpful to me.
Others find transport in music, when our own thoughts are tuned out, we make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and the possibility of hearing God presents itself. Some find they listen while working with their hands, knitting, crocheting, creating art. These activities can suspend our busy thoughts, our routine, and create occasions for the Holy Spirit to whisper soundlessly to the spirit which lives within our heart. What is important is not our method, but our intent. God is forgiving — and very creative, as you may have noticed. God wants our intent, our desire to be aware of the presence and action within us of our Creator and Guide and Friend.
Jesus is supportive of necessary things. Jesus admonition to Martha was not to ignore the work of hospitality or routine. It was simply, ...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. Good works are fruit of our faith. But let's be mindful of finding room in our lives for the better part.
There are many ways available to create the occasion to hear God, for God to activate your true self, the spirit of God placed in us from the womb. There is no famine of the Word. Our souls are thirsty and a feast is prepared. Hear the words of Isaiah:
Listen to me and you will fare well, you will enjoy the fat of the land. Come to me and listen to my words,** hear me and you will have life.**
Jesus wants us to experience completeness of joy. Not just salvation from the refuse heap. Loving God is deciding to be present to God, listening to God.
This mystery is real. Paul preached this mystery to the Colossians. The mystery which is — Christ in you, the hope of glory. The better part is to listen.