Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
July 22, 2007
Amos 8:1-12 Luke 10:38-42
I don’t know about you all, but I sort of shudder when this passage comes up. It seems like such a put-down of poor Martha, doing what’s needed in order to get dinner on the table, anyway, and then being reprimanded by Jesus, who says Mary has “the better way.” Now, I’m always one to sit and talk rather than work around the house, so perhaps I’d be Mary in this scenario, but geez, don’t we need the Marthas of the world? And haven’t there been times when you’ve been trying to get ready for a dinner party, maybe doing those things that just have to be done at the last minute, and you would have liked to be sitting and talking with your guests, but hey, somebody’s got to whip the potatoes or make the gravy or pull the rolls out of the oven …
Anyway, if you’re like me, it’s easy to build up a fair head of resentment over the way Jesus treats Martha here … and that’s kind of a clue, isn’t it, that maybe we’re not reading the passage quite right. Because, hey, it’s Jesus! And surely he wouldn’t be putting someone down, especially when she was doing something she was supposed to be doing.
When I looked back at the passage again, I noticed a few things. First, it was Martha who welcomed him into her home. She’s the hostess. Mary is probably the younger sister, and although we often hear this passage referred to as the story of Mary and Martha, with Mary’s name first, it’s Martha who has done the inviting and welcoming, so—in my mind, at least—she’s got even more reasons to want to make sure things are just so. She’s got a responsibility.
Second—and I had to check the Greek for this—the word that our translation has as tasks, as in “Martha was distracted by her many tasks,” that word is diakonian, which is usually translated ministry or service. (It’s the word that gives us Deacon.) What Martha was doing was ministry—she was serving her Lord.
So why did Jesus say that she was distracted by this work? I think it’s a matter of attention. I read a story this week of a group who were shown a film clip of a basketball game and asked to count the passes made by one of the teams. Some saw 13, some 14, and some argued for 15. Then the instructor asked how many had seen the gorilla. What gorilla! Most of them had seen no such thing. They then watched the clip again—not counting passes this time, just watching—and, sure enough, a woman dressed as a gorilla “entered stage right, passed between the players, stopped to face the camera and thump her chest, then left stage left.” Because they had been paying attention to the passes, they had entirely missed the gorilla. What they were looking at determined what they didn’t see.
And this is Martha’s problem, I think. There’s nothing wrong with housework or being hospitable or serving people in concrete ways. But because she was so focused on serving Jesus in that way, she missed the gorilla, so to speak. She missed the chance to sit and learn, to be inspired, to be transformed, to give the gift of her presence as Jesus was giving them the gift of his … the chance to hear the words of the Lord.
And that brings me to the third thing I noticed as I reviewed this passage. “Mary has chosen the good part (and the Greek indicates good more than better), which will not be taken away from her.” Mary chose the chance to sit in Jesus’ presence and hear the words of the Lord. These words will be with her always—they cannot be taken away.
What questions does all this raise for you about your own lives? What is it that you do in your life—and it may very well be a very good thing to do—what is it you do that seems like the most important thing to do right now, the only important thing to do right now—that in reality has you “worried and distracted,” to use Jesus’ terms, so that you may be missing the gorilla?
If you’re a parent, do you sometimes fall into the trap of working so hard to keep the house clean and the yard manicured that you rarely get down on the floor to play with the Matchbox cars or the Polly Pockets? Do you find yourself concentrating so much on your career—and your ability to support your loved ones—that you miss having a relationship with them? If you’re a volunteer at church, do you get so engrossed in committee meetings and responsibilities that maybe, just maybe, you’re missing a chance to sit and listen to Jesus?
We live in a culture that emphasizes doing. Get things done! Be active! Listening to Jesus, on the other hand, often involves not doing. Being. Being still. Being present. Listening for the word of the Lord. And don’t we crave that word, under all our doing? Don’t we want to know that God loves us and that we need not be afraid of death, that the Lord has a mission for us—a purpose for our lives—that takes us beyond our earthly limits?
That’s the threat that in Amos’s prophecy in our Old Testament reading. Bob Higgs introduced us to him last week—Amos who was not born a prophet but called by God out of his shepherding and dressing of sycamore trees to prophesy to the folks in the
A famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Wow. The people’s attention has been turned away, and what is coming for them is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. No more ability to hear that word that we crave.
And that’s why what Mary was doing—listening to Jesus—was the “good part.” She was paying attention to the Lord and being distracted neither by the kind of deceit and cruelty we read about in Amos nor by the necessities of living, like Martha.
Now, there’s one other piece of that Amos passage that I want to talk about this morning. I could go on for a while about how our nation is like the wheeling and dealing Israelites, but I’m not going to. No, what I want to bring back to your attention are the first couple of lines of that passage. Did you listen to them? Did they make any sense to you?
God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and says, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos says, “A basket of summer fruit.” And the Lord replies, “The end has come upon my people
It works a bit better when we look at the original language, for the word for “summer fruit” was qáyiç and the word for “end” was qēç. Amos says I see qáyiç, and God says, Yup, the qēç is near. (The Ancient Hebrews loved their puns.) Now we could leave it at that—hah, hah, it’s just a pun—or we could look a bit deeper. Guess which one we’re going to do.
Think about summer fruit. I don’t know what the summer fruit in ancient
And that’s a famine for summer fruit. No chance for that sweetness, that juiciness, that wonder. An end, a qēç. Because we weren’t paying attention.
Is it that peaches and blueberries won’t exist if we don’t eat them this summer? No. They’ll be there—we just won’t experience them. Is it that God won’t love us if we don’t pay attention? No. We just won’t be able to feel that love. Is it that we won’t be saved if we don’t listen to the word of the Lord? No. Salvation is ours, but it’s awfully hard to remember our salvation when we don’t stop to listen to God.
The word of the Lord is delicious. As the psalmist says, “How sweet are your words to my mouth, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Like summer fruit, the word of the Lord is a sweet gift to us from God.
And so, my friends, I invite you to partake of God’s juicy, sweet Word. Pray. Read your Bible. Meditate. Talk with friends about God’s gifts. Leave your diakonian—your busy service—and listen to the word of the Lord. As it was with Mary, God’s word will never be taken away from you.
And keep your eyes open for gorillas.
And eat peaches.
Thanks be to God. Amen.