This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 July 2001. The Scriptures are Amos 8: 1 – 12, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, and Luke 10: 38 – 42.
In his book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Thomas Kuhn coined a phrase that has developed a life of its own. The phrase in question is "paradigm shift" and is bandied about by commentators whenever there is a perceptual shift in public behavior. In actuality, a paradigm shift is used to explain a change in one’s thinking when one looks at a problem from a conceptually different viewpoint.
To Kuhn, the development of new theories could only occur when old theories could not explain new data. The shift from an earth-centered view of the solar system to a sun-centered view was such an example of a paradigm shift. It was possible to explain the observed motion of the stars and the planets in terms of the earth being the center of the solar system but, with each additional piece of information, such an explanation became more and more complicated. By making the sun the center of the solar system, the explanations became easier to accomplish. This change in the view of the solar system radically changed how other things were viewed, and thus could be considered a paradigm shift.
Now, it is possible to read today’s Gospel story about Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary in the old ways. But I think that, especially in the context of the Old Testament and Epistle readings for today, there is a new way of understanding what is happening in that house in Bethany.
The traditional view is that we should not put other things before our relationship with God. Martha is upset with her sister because Mary is not helping her clean up after the meal. Jesus calms Martha and points out that there are far greater things in the world, specifically one’s relationship with God, that are more important than doing the dishes.
But I think that there is a subtler message in what transpired in that house. Understand that in those days, women and children were on the peripheral edge of society. They weren’t counted in the census of the day and were often excluded from normal day-to-day activities. Keep in mind that when we speak of the multitudes fed by Jesus, the numbers that were given, 5,000 in Matthew 14 (Matthew 14: 17 – 21) and 4,000 in Matthew 15 (Matthew 15: 32 – 38), reported only the men who were there. In both cases, Matthew wrote "besides the women and children." We also know that on those occasions when children were present, the disciples were apt to push them away, only to be told by Jesus to, "let the children come to me." (Matthew 19: 13 – 14)
So, for Mary to be sitting in the room listening to Jesus teach is an indication that there is a change taking place. By societal conventions of that time, Mary should have been in the kitchen with Martha cleaning up, not listening to Jesus teaching.
But Jesus’ ministry was meant to change the ways of society, and that also meant the way individuals treated each other. There is nothing wrong with what Martha was doing but it was wrong to expect others to behave in the same manner. And this carries over into today’s society. We often expect others to behave in a manner similar to how we would behave. Or we hold to a hierarchy that may no longer be appropriate. What Jesus wants us to do is change our view of others and see them in the same light as God sees us, not in terms of how we might see them.
God’s presence changes the way things are seen. The presence of God in one’s life changes the way one is seen by people. But the reverse is also true. Taking God’s presence away also changes things.
Amos tells the Israelites that because they have angered God, he is pulling his support from them. Instead of a famine in terms of food, there will be a famine of faith. God’s words and works will no longer be present in their daily lives; the blessing bestowed on Israel will be removed. And while the Israelites may be celebrating the harvest and plenty, the season will actually be one of death, pestilence and destruction. Amos’ prophecy speaks of the promise of the final harvest of the year but in terms of it being the last harvest ever. What the people see is not what is reality.
The church today is much like the church back then, especially in terms of Paul’s words. Before Jesus, the view of the world was only in terms of the world itself. And a worldly view is one that is limited and bounded; it offers no hope and no possibility. But a view of the world through Christ changes what one sees and what is capable of doing.
In this world, we see conflict resolution in terms of greater force. If we have the greater force, then we will be able to resolve any problem. Our defense policies for many years were based on the realization that we had the power ten times over to destroy the world and that the Soviet Union also had the same power. This balance of power kept us from ever, hopefully, thinking of using this power.
We live in a different world these days. The Soviet Union no longer exists but that has not taken away the threat of violence and evil. It is just that such threats come from other sources, even as we still hold to traditional thoughts of evil being incarnate in the policies of other governments. Evil and violence are the products of mankind, not political systems; and the solution to evil and violence will never be found in similar approaches.
We also still seem used to this power mode of governance in our daily lives. We are reluctant to engage in politics because we are convinced that the rich and powerful control the process. We would much rather try to gain the power that others have and keep it for ourselves than seek ways to share power and make sure that all benefit.
If there is to be a radical shift in societal thinking, it has to come from the lowest levels. It cannot come from the top down. Interestingly enough, many of the great innovations in today’s business world have come, not from the top of the organization but from individuals working at the bottom who have been given the freedom to develop ideas.
I received a newsletter from another church organization the other day. In it were two statements that particularly appealed to me. But in looking at the newsletter a second time, I found a third statement of an equal value. If we are to see things in a different way, it sometimes help to step back and take another look.
There is a thought these days that peacemaking is something that happens "over there" or in some other country. But the issues that create dissension between peoples, which lead to violence and repression, are issues that are also found at home. While we may think of the problems in terms of a global vision, we must practice them in a local setting. Beverly Wildung Harrison is quoted as saying, "Like Jesus, we are called to a radical activity of love, to a way of being in the world that deepens relation, embodies and extends community, passes on the gift of life. Like Jesus, we must live out this calling in a place and time where distortions of loveless power stand in conflict with the power of love." The pastor who used this quote noted that the local expression of who we are is the congregation. So, if we are to be peacemakers in the world, we must be peacemakers in our own congregation. (From the On Earth Peace summer newsletter, page 1)
A second pastor noted that if we are committed to the cause of peace in this world, it must be because the Spirit and compassion of Jesus compel us. It would be very difficult to have that commitment simply because we happen to attend church and are nominal in our commitment to Christ. This same author noted that she was the pastor of a small church in Maryland and, as such, had to work hard to discern the various differences between the members of congregation. Such work is necessary so as not to be blown away by the conflicting opinions, personalities and factions.
But she also noted that this congregation has to work hard at bridge building and maintaining relationships so that the focus on peace that is brought back from conferences is not lost on the congregation. (Note from Paula Browser in the On Earth Peace summer 2004 newsletter) Now, the focus of this church is on peacemaking in the world but it is a point well taken. If we are not in accord with what Jesus asked us to be, we are going to have a hard time accomplishing what Jesus asks us to do.
And it is that challenge of what Jesus asks us to do that is so difficult. In a world where the schedule seems to work against us, it seems easier to make a casserole for a grieving family than to offer words of hope. It is easier to welcome new neighbors with a fresh baked loaf of bread than to invite them to worship on Sunday. The former are acts that require no commitment or true effort on our part; the latter require that we show someone else who we truly are.
Our own view of the world has taken us away from the true sense of the Sabbath. Worship is no longer the focus of lives but just something else that must be crammed into an already crowded schedule. We end up so tired from trying to do everything we no longer have the strength or time to come to church on Sunday. While in keeping with the scripture that the Sabbath be a day of rest, it is a view that deprives us of being with God. It is a view of the scripture driven, not by a desire to be with God, but rather by the demands of the world. I can understand the need to have alternative services and have services at other times besides Sunday mornings. But are they services that bring people closer to God or are they services driven by this world’s schedule demands?
We know one thing that those in Mary and Martha’s house do not know. We know that hearing and doing are not parts of the law but rather parts of the Gospel. We know that the view of the world has changed because of Jesus’ ministry. (From "Living by the Word", Stephanie Frey in Christian Century, 13 July 2004)
In a world where power was the key, where economic status determined your future, Jesus showed that there was another view. He showed the world a view that was free from political or economic status; He showed a view that offered hope and promise. It was a new way to see things.
And as those who have heard Jesus’ call we are called to love one another, to break down the walls of hostility, to build bridges across differences, and to make conscious choices about how we act in this world and how we treat others. We are asked to show others that Christ is in our life.
We see the choice very clearly. The prophet Amos tells us that when the people ignored God and the covenant they had made, they were forgotten. What they saw as celebration was death; what they saw as prosperity was poverty. But, as Paul pointed out, there was a way out of that world. But, in accepting Christ as our Savior, we see the world differently.
Perhaps, at a time when we are struggling, we need to stop and find a way to look at things in a new way. Instead of looking at or to the world for the solutions to our problems, perhaps we need to invite Jesus into our hearts and see the world through the presence of the Holy Spirit.