St. George Chapel, June 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-13, Psalm 52, Luke 10:38-42
Rev. Ralph Moore
My mother called herself a Martha. She always seemed to have more to do than she could ever finish at church events and at home. Never rested, never time to think, she felt Martha’s fury when Martha went to Jesus complaining that her sister Mary choose to just sit and listen to Jesus. I guess we all have been around this story many times–Jesus sitting in a room or patio with a circle of a dozen or so people adoringly looking at him as he teaches. We’ve grown up with symbolic stereotypes: Mary the devoted learner, Martha the more shallow doer. Mary described by Jesus as concentrating on “the one thing needed,” the core of spiritual life. Martha distracted, preoccupied. And we’ve also had a kind of Myers-Briggs typology: in each of us is a Mary and a Martha, a contemplative tendency and an activist impatience to do things.
The lectionary throws a curve at our interpretations by pairing this story with the scathing words by the prophet Amos. This forces us to focus on what Jesus might be saying to his listeners. Many quotes of Jesus’ teachings are memorizable parables (prodigal son) and contemporary ethics (the golden rule). But over all is Jesus’ constant insistence that everything he says comes from the law and the prophets, the stories of the people’s struggles and the condemnations by the prophets of social injustice and oppression. This is the background for his thoughts and his actions.
In our picture of him this morning he might well be going over the denunciations of hypocrisy made by Amos. Amos the sheep herder and manager of fruit orchards; not of the wealthy class nor the religious elite. About eight-hundred years before Jesus’ day Amos feels called to leave his homeland in the south, travel to the kingdom in the north, and confront royalty and wealth by exposing their violation of divine commandments for integrity and truth, their material greed, their oppression of the poor, their hypocritical religion. Amos wrote these words himself–literary gems. Martin Luther King, Jr. used many of them regularly. And there’s no relief for us in Psalm 52, coming from a couple of centuries before Amos. The Psalm is addressed directly to the tyrant, the merchant, the powerful–who do evil by lying and stealing and forcing the poor into slavery.
So, we here today, might consider ourselves in that room listening to Jesus as he challenges us to ponder the society in which we live. For his listeners, it’s living in the Roman Empire’s occupation of their land; the military oppression, the exploitation of their resources, using their religion and their puppet leaders to maintain the status quo. In our day are huge parallels: the world is a horrendous challenge for any of us who seek to live in truth, to be responsible in the ways we use our power and our privilege, to understand the social costs of consumer choices we make, the suffering of millions in the world, in our own nation the trampling of values by authorities–political and corporate and religious. Jesus outlines the disciplines we must develop to not succumb to simplistic slogan and be silent in the face of bigotry and hate, to serve the common good, love of neighbor and enemy, celebrate life with generosity, exemplify Jesus. Jesus does not put Martha down for her fatigue and impatience, nor does he exalt Mary for her taking time out to ponder and contemplate. He does, however, insist that this moment together be valued, used as precious gift, for growth, renewal, and commitment.
Today, we dedicate a cross for this chapel. We’ll remember as we do so that for many centuries before Jesus’ time and many centuries afterward that crucifixion was a common method of execution for those who were perceived to oppose authority, anyone who fails to bow down in total loyalty to the status quo. One commentator has described the Roman province of Palestine as “littered with crosses carrying the bodies of trouble-makers.” Jesus is one of those, one whose death has, for his people, the meaning of life that does not cease in death but, rather, is lived powerfully beyond death. The fear of death is vanquished. God is in this all the way.
A grotesque example of this in the lives of our African American neighbors is rising in our awareness. In that period after slavery ended called Reconstruction, the mid-1860s through the late 1880s, former slaves were granted farmlands and new means for them to establish their economic independence. The vast majority found new freedom in farming. We now learn that the vicious white reactions, especially lynchings, were mostly designed to drive them off their land. Today it is still going on in modern legal terms–developers and county commissions are still finding “legal” ways to do this. One of our most cherished African American theologians, the late Rev. James Cone, (Union Theological Seminary) wrote a moving description of this just in 2012 entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The cross represents experience; faith and belief begin in experience. The cross is the event that defines how power over death comes alive in us as we encounter forces that destroy and kill. Still, today, the lynching tree is that event and therefore the symbol of resurrection power for African Americans. Still today, each of us is affected by the atrocities suffered by others far away and close at hand. Each of us puts aside the cross as adornment, sign of something that happened in the past, a discovers that it is in the lives that we lead.
Another reminder of sacrifices on the Cross comes from the Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Episcopal Bishop of Alaska (1991-96), Dean of Episcopal Divinity School (1999-2008), and currently teaching at. St. Paul School of Theology. He is a full-blooded Choctaw from Oklahoma (which is Choctaw for “red people). Speaking about the indigenous “native American” experience, he writes about the violent history of recent centuries: “It is not about who is a real American, since only a handful of us can make that claim legitimately, but who dominates, who has the power…the same tragic need to exercise power over others….If we seek a Native American view on the sacrifices [the crosses of our current situation] here it is: you all can stay, but let racism and injustice be banished from our midst once and for all. That is what is un-American.”
So, Jesus says to us in this discussion group, each one of you has had, now has, will have, this event in your life–this insane force of evil challenging all that you cherish, this world of indiscriminate suffering constantly trying to rob you of the good, of the love, of the strength of heart, by which you offer your life in serving one another as neighbors. Lift up your cross and follow me as I carry mine–he actually says that! Christ alive in one is the event of the cross in one–thoughts and actions that have consequences. The law and the prophets. The way the world groans onward to renewal and freedom. You shall overcome.
Dedication of the Memorial Cross
(from the Iona Abbey Worship Book, p. 106)
Do we believe that God is present in the darkness before dawn, in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands, conflict and caring link arms, and the sun rises over barbed wire?–Do we believe this? We do.
Do we believe that God is with us and in us in Christ, who walks with us and sits down in our midst sharing our humanity?–Do we believe this? We do.
Do we affirm a faith that takes us beyond the safe place into love in action, into vulnerability, into peacemaking in the world?–Do we affirm this? We do.
As we offer this Cross, do we commit ourselves to live according to its power, loving in Christ’s name, bearing responsibility, taking risks, standing with those who suffer on the edges of societies, honoring all who have gone before us (today we name Margaret Neeson), do we we commit ourselves to life over death, open ourselves to be used by the Spirit?–Do we commit ourselves? We do.
As we behold this Cross–may the light of God lead us; the power of God hold us; the joy of God heal us; the grace of God enfold us; the love of God bless us. Amen.