The Most Important Thing
Richard R. Crocker
July 18, 2010
Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-42
Amos was not fit for polite society. Like many prophets, he was erratic, irritating, and disturbing. Some would have called him a crazy man; others called him a troublemaker; others a traitor. Yet, despite his being so politically incorrect, so troublesome and irritating, so infuriating and so uncharming, he was judged, by the later compilers of the Hebrew scriptures, to have been a true prophet, one whose words were worthy of preservation for all time, because he spoke the truth. He told a nation that thought it was prosperous and thriving that it was really putrid and dying. He told a people who were confident in their wealth that they would lose everything. He told people who ignored and exploited the poor that their behavior would lead them to ruin. Those words were hard to take then, and they are hard to take now.
His language itself was appalling – not pleasant to the ear, not learned, not delicate. In the name of God, he spoke what people considered profanity. His was a message of judgment: Israel, your greed has gone too far. You have fallen in love with money, so that you exploit the poor; there is no end to your greed. There is no sense of holiness; you ignore the Sabbath so that you may continue to sell and make more money; you think that this will bring you a good life, but you are wrong, It will bring destruction. And, of course, it did. Israel was over-run by the Assyrians in 721 BC – only about 25 years after Amos prophesied, and it never existed again. The kingdom of Judah endured, but what had been Israel became the abhorred Samaria – home of half-breeds and foreigners. And, in retrospect, Amos’ words were considered prophetic.
It is hard to know what is prophecy and what is craziness. When Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said that 9/11 was God’s judgment on America for its embrace of “abortion and promiscuity”, some people considered them prophets, more of us considered them demented. But one must ask: does God ever judge nations? Is it true at all that lives of greed and corruption and selfishness result in destruction for a people? Or have we come to the conclusion that the only thing that matters is money? If so, making money is always good, and it should be unrestrained by rules, by decency, by compassion, by anything.
I do not believe in a God who destroys people randomly for his own glory. I do not believe that every natural disaster or every war or every disease or every act of violence is the judgment of God. Neither do you, I hope. We do not believe God would do that. But do we believe in judgment at all? Would God allow a nation that destroyed innocent people randomly to continue, indefinitely, with no consequences? And dare one ask: Since September 10, 2001, what nation has killed more innocent people randomly than we have?
Uh-oh, I hear you saying. There he goes again. We invite this guy in, and we never learn our lesson. He keeps saying things that upset people. What is Carla thinking? Well, I am no Amos. I am not courageous enough or faithful enough to be a prophet. I’m about as cowardly as they come. But, unless I am deluded, I am called by God and commissioned by his church to speak the truth, and the truth is upsetting. It doesn’t bear thinking of. Send this trouble-maker away.
You know, I didn’t pick this passage. It’s the lectionary text. I would have avoided it if I could. But, you say, you could concentrate on the gospel text. It’s a lot nicer.
So it appears. I tried. The story of Mary and Martha is nicer, on the surface. But even it leads us back to Amos. How? Well, think about it. Jesus and his entourage came to visit. Someone had to feed them. There was a lot to do, and Martha set about doing it, while Mary sat and talked with Jesus. Most of us sympathize with Martha – don’t we? Especially women of my generation and older sympathize, because many have been trained to make sure that people (especially men) are fed and taken care of. And I’m here to tell you that I appreciate it.
But if Jesus came to your house, and you had a chance either to sit and listen to him or to go prepare the food, which would you have done? Which would have been more important? Don’t we all – no matter how boorish we are – know that there are some times when there is something more important than our appetites? Such was the sense of that crowd of 5000 who gathered to listen to Jesus, forgetting about food until Jesus’ disciples said, “Master, these people have been sitting here a long time. They need food.” And Jesus then fed them. But the more important thing was listening to him.
Martha, Jesus said, was distracted. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” Worried and distracted by many things. If Martha was distracted, what about us? We live, don’t we, in an age of anxiety and distraction. Between radio, tv, email, cell phone, texting, twitter, facebook, you would think we would know a lot about important things. But the paradox is, we know less. We are just concerned with things that mostly don’t matter much. Our minds are stuffed with trivia. How long can we be concerned about Haiti? Not long. How long are we really aware of the peril that not only soldiers but civilians face in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan? Not long, not much. What about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf? Can we pay attention? Not really. Imposing limits on Wall Street greed? Haven’t they already taken care of that?
We live in an age of distraction and a society of distraction, and it’s hard to tell what really matters. We don’t think about it much. Even college students, who are supposedly thinking about their futures and about the meaning of life, don’t think about it much. They too are too distracted. Posing the question of what really matters makes us uncomfortable and squirmy. As T.S. Elliot said, “human kind cannot bear too much reality.”
And that’s what Amos was saying, too. When we are just unaware of the poor; when we spend without any holiday (holydays) – indeed when our holy days are turned into holidays, and holidays are shopping days; when the whole point of our lives is to acquire, doesn’t someone need to tell us that something is wrong? Indeed, don’t we need to hear that, even though we do not have a famine of bread, yet, we run about, seeking restlessly, wandering from sea to sea, from north to east, seeking something – the word of God, that we know is lacking in our lives?
Jesus says it gently to Martha. “Martha, Martha, 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.”
You know, looking back at Amos: what started his prophecy? It was looking at a basket of summer fruit. He says: “This is what the Lord God showed me – a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel….’” Now it’s hard to see how a basket of summer fruit leads to a prophecy of doom. Linguistic scholars help us a bit. The Hebrew word for basket is qayits; the word for end is gets. Gayits, basket; gets, end. So the basket of summer fruit was a symbol of the end of the ancient kingdom of Israel. Maybe only a linguistic connection – but perhaps a more substantial one. There are times in our lives when we seek to become free from distraction. It takes an effort, as Mary knew. In our distracted lives, some of us seek a quiet time and a place during the summer to just sit on the porch and think and read. Those times are valuable. And in our busy weeks, one of the important things we do is to come to worship, which is a time of quiet, and a time of thinking about what really matters. It is a time to look deeply into our tradition, into the words of the prophets, into the words of Jesus. And we ponder those words, seeking the meaning that they have for us about what really matters in our lives. I do not think such pondering, such opening ourselves to the eternal can happen in lives that are frazzled and distracted, it requires making space, making priorities. And it isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. That’s why Jesus said that Mary chose the better part. We, for our own good, must seek such times to think about what really matters, and to seek wisdom not from twitter, but from God.
You know, there are two ways to overcome distraction – one represented by Amos, the other by Mary. Amos represents crisis. A crisis concentrates our minds. If you have a flat tire, fixing it is most important. If you become ill, health is most important. When you lose a job, employment is most important. If you lose a loved one, grief is most important. Crisis, Amos says, can and will overcome distraction. But when you have no purpose, nothing is really important.
So the second way to overcome distraction, exemplified here by Mary, is through disciplined thought, introspection, and conversation – which, at its best, we call meditation, prayer, worship.
Both Mary and Amos testify that sometimes there is nothing better than pondering a basket of summer fruit, and realizing, as we see it, that the summer will soon be over, and asking ourselves what it all means, and what is finally most important in our lives. We do not ask those questions in a vacuum. We are part of a deep tradition going back thousands of years that provides us with a few words to think about and listen to, if we can free ourselves long enough from buying, selling, acquiring, talking, texting, to sit and listen. May you have such time – may you make such time, while there is still time. Amen.