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If this was the Sunday when you came to church for some gentle words, you’ve come on the wrong day. Let’s face it. From Amos to Luke, there’s a lot of sound and fury in our readings this morning: wailing and dead bodies; deception and darkness; even a good old-fashioned, out-of-control tantrum.
This is a Sunday when we’re taught largely by negative example. And we have to be willing to enter into these angry dramas to explore the question beneath them: How do we stay in conversation with God?
Let’s start with Amos, a humble sheep farmer from Judah sent to deliver God’s harsh words to Israel. It’s not an easy message to receive or deliver: even the basket of summer fruit in his opening vision is a symbol of imminent decay.
You see, like this very ripe fruit, the culture Amos is confronting with his prophecy is gradually rotting. The kingdom of Israel appears prosperous, but we’re told that its wealth comes from cruelty to the needy, from abuse of the poor, from materialism and greed. And so the economic injustice of this society will lead to a bitter end.
What do we hear in God’s fierce judgment of doom over Israel? Of all the extreme punishments threatened—death and earthquakes, reversal of day and night, mourning and lamentation—the greatest is the threat of silence: “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.”
This is the most terrible form of silent treatment for a lost people: “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.”
What a chilling image. A people yearning to be in conversation with their Higher Power, but cut off, without reconciliation. An ancient cautionary tale that still speaks to us today.
Because like it or not, we can hear in Amos’s prophecy and David’s Psalm 52 echoes of our own present-day economic arrogance: our tendency to twist the truth for our own advantage, or ignore those in need, or count on wealth or entitlement to insulate us from others.
Those self-centered actions can begin to block and absorb our attention. Perhaps it’s not that God is silent. Perhaps it’s too hard to hear through our preoccupation with what we think we need and must have. And cut off behind this wall of self-centeredness, we can feel in emotional darkness—just as Amos describes. Lost in spirit.
Other preoccupations can also cut us off. Look at poor angry Martha. The older sister of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany, she opens her home to Jesus and his followers with a warm welcome—then becomes burdened with the tasks of serving them. Losing sight of her purpose—to meet her guests’ needs with grace—she becomes over-anxious in her overwork. And bitter that she can’t make her younger sister share her compulsion.
So bitter that, completely losing it in a tantrum, she rudely rebukes Jesus and tries to publicly shame Mary for being in conversation with her Teacher. Somehow in the heat of the kitchen and the heat of her anger, Martha has made this occasion all about her. And walled herself off from meaningful connection, as Jesus gently observes, by worry and distraction.
So we’re cautioned here by negative examples of action and attitude. Acting solely out of concern for ourselves causes injustice to others and alienation from God’s word. And if we intend to serve others, but are driven by attitudes of self-importance or control, that also leaves us alone.
So, what do we take home today? These cautionary tales may grab our attention, but they teach through fear. And perhaps you’re like me. It’s the positive examples that stay with me longest, that teach me through love. Where can we look for models who teach us “the better part,” as Jesus says; who show us actions and attitudes that can help us stay in conversation with God?
Today is the beginning of a new series in our Adult Forum that Eric and I are calling “Biography as Theology.” We’ll be looking at the lives of Christians whose actions and attitudes communicate their theology as clearly as any system, theory, or statement of belief. Step by step, their decisions keep them connected to God and to others—not in fearful obedience, but in partnership. In a true exchange of love; in conversation.
So, I offer two examples of biography as theology this morning: a man and a woman whom I see as positive guides for our conversations with God and each other.
First, Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Like Amos, he lived in a rotting society where the toxic fruits of racism had poisoned generations, had caused endless divisions and countless deaths. Yet Tutu kept listening to God’s message of peace, prosperity, and justice for all.
And he kept speaking this prophetic truth with humility and strength. Not only to the growing number of human rights activists working beside him—whom he called “the rainbow people of God”—but also to the leaders of apartheid across the divide.
In fact, he says in his book God Has a Dream: “During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to P.W. Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. . . . God is a God who cares about right and wrong,” Tutu says. “God cares about justice and injustice. God is in charge. That is what . . . upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail.”
What was the grace of the theology Tutu lived? To stay in hopeful, persistent conversation with God and the human family. Eventually, as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu not only brought to light the atrocities of apartheid but also achieved reconciliation with the former oppressors. Throughout, his actions were not burdened by overwork, anger, or revenge. His guiding attitude was an African concept called Ubuntu—“the essence of being human.”
Tutu says Ubuntu is a hard word to translate, but here’s his attempt:
The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation. . . . [Ubuntu] speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours. . . . It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that they belong in a greater whole.
What a powerful antidote to the isolated self-centeredness of a Martha. In fact, if we look closer at Luke’s gospel, we see our second positive guide: Mary, the younger sister with Ubuntu. Her example is much quieter, but teaches a powerful theology.
Her form of genuine humanity and hospitality is to first meet Jesus’ needs—not her own. To wash his feet in welcome, and then to stay beside him with warmth and generosity. Slowing down to notice that his greatest need in that moment, under her roof, was not a meal, but deep listening and companionship.
Mary stays in conversation, even if this defies the gender norms of her society and the angry expectations of her older sister. She has the presence to center her attention on her Teacher, claiming this dialogue with him with a proper self-assurance and an attitude of grace.
This is, I believe, is what it looks like to stay in loving conversation with God and with each other. Listening quietly, deeply, and respectfully. Staying connected in partnership, despite our distractions and urges to reject or control. Sharing what we have. Centering our attention on the greater whole and the highest good of all.
This is the “better part” that Mary and Tutu chose, a living theology of action and attitude we too can follow. I invite you, as we go forward with our parish self-study—deeply listening to each other, creating a vision for our future—to remember the essence of Ubuntu. So that all those who come under our roof and meet us in the world feel its welcome, warmth, and power. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
July 21, 2013