July 21, 2019

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10:38-42
Amos 8:1-14
Psalm 15


I have a new hero and her name is Ashleigh Barty. She is an Australian professional female tennis player. In 2014, she took an indefinite break from tennis and made a career change. She played cricket and joined the Brisbane Heat to compete in the Women’s Big Bash League.

 In 2016, she returned to professional tennis. But, the woman who returned to tennis was different from the one left. She became a much more mature, more focused, and more confident player than she ever was.

 She won the French Open this year and, soon after, became the world number 1 in female tennis. She is the second Australian woman to hold the title. The other woman was her fellow indigenous player, the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

 Ash Barty’s story reminds us of one important thing: when we are stuck, take a break. When our mind is switched off, often it’s the moment when break through happens.

 Now, I often preach about the importance of doing. Last week alone, I preached about how our being and identity are defined by what we do. But, today, I want to talk about the other side of the equation: the importance of being; of sitting in silence to be with our creator God.

 The Italians like to call it ‘dolce far niente’: the ‘sweetness of doing nothing’. And they are very good at it.

 Now, it is not about being lazy. It is about getting pleasure from being idle, being in the present, and savoring the moment. It is about enjoying simple moments like spending time with friends in a cafe, or sipping wine at sunset, or taking a stroll in a park.[1]

 This may sound like a perversion, especially to our Protestant work ethic. Our society is obsessed with action. We want to cram more and more into our 24 hours. Our governments and businesses like to talk about productivity and how to increase it. In this industrial era, everything is seen through the prism of production. Everything is measured by what we can achieve and produce.

 Now, I’m not suggesting that productivity is not important; it is. We are created to create. It is our inherent nature because we are the image of the creating God.

 But, even God takes a rest. Even God rested on the seventh day of creation and made it holy. As such, taking a time off and just BE is as important as doing.

 Let’s talk about Mary. For sure, what she did was against the social norm of her time (and of our time too). Martha was right: Jesus was a guest and hospitality norm required that the host served him.

 So, taking a time off intentionally can feel like it is against the expectation of our society. But, often, other people’s expectation is one of the prices we need to pay to be renewed by God. And, according to Jesus - the guest himself - Mary rightly chose.

 Friends, what we can learn from this episode in Jesus’ ministry is the art of being a guest. In a world that is obsessed with actions, we are conditioned to provide, to care, to take action. We don’t like to be the recipients of help because we often think that receiving help is a sign of weakness.

 The same thing can happen in the church. In a not-for-profit organisation like the church, we are expected to serve. Like Martha, we can become so focused on serving that we forget to nurture our own spiritual need. We keep busy when we are supposed to be quiet. We forget that, here in the church, we are not the hosts; God is the host and we are the guests.

 That was the mistake that Martha made. Martha failed to understand that Jesus was the one providing; that Jesus was the host wherever he was.[2]

 This failure to stop and to listen to God’s words can also come with consequences. We can see this in the words of the prophet Amos.

 In our reading from Amos, he said many strong words of condemnation that are hard to hear. The words were a threat against the people of Israel; a warning that God would not stay silent in the face of their wickedness.

 The situation that Amos faced was like a dystopian society. It was a dog-eat-dog kind of world. The weak were exploited and the poor were brought to ruin. They were tricked to sell their proprieties far below their real values. Traders cheated by tampering their scales and goods. Human life could be purchased cheaply and people treated one another as object and commodities.[3]

 What worse: it was done despite their religious appearance. They continued their wickedness even during Sabbath and other holy days. Or, worse, they used Sabbath and other holy days to further their wicked plan.[4] At the very least, they waited for Sabbath to end so that they could continue with their wickedness.

 The situation that Amos faced shows us of what could happen when quality time with God is ignored; when we don’t have the time anymore to quietly sit, like Mary, at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

 When we are like this, we may damage ourselves and the people around us. The time may even come when our heart is so hardened that we can no more listen to God’s voice. Amos warned that the time would come when people would hunger for God’s word, but couldn’t find it.

 Emma Bombeck, an author and a wife, makes a good illustration on this issue. When her children were small, they liked to play in the back yard, running around. As the result, the lawn in the back yard was covered with muddy patches where the grass should be. So, her husband often looked to the backyard and wondered whether the grass would ever come back.

 The time comes when their children have grown up and moved out. The backyard is now a beautiful garden with an immaculate green lawn that is hardly used. But, her husband still laments. This time, however, he wonders whether the children will ever come back.[5]

 Likewise, we are often busy to keep our life ‘tidy’ that we forget the most important things in life.

 The key here is balance: one cannot stand without the other. To ignore one is to undermine the other. To focus only on doing without reflecting can result in the kind of behaviors that Amos faced.

 The other way around can also be as damaging. Worship means nothing if it does not result in righteous living.

 We learn about this from our reading in Psalm 15. Experts believe that the Psalm was used in the temple as a condition of entry into the temple. [6]

 And, the Jews required people to meet certain criteria before they could enter the temple. Some people were even never good enough to enter the temple. These included those who were born out of wedlock and some foreigners. Even to the tenth generation of their descendants were not allowed to enter the temple.[7]

 But, for the Psalmist of Psalm 15, the criteria for entry into the temple should not be people’s status; the criteria should be their integrity and honesty. Only those who had uphold their integrity and lived honestly deserved entry into the temple.

 For him, religious life should not be separated from day to day living. Those who were pure religiously were those who were pure in their hearts and actions.

 So, we may think that Psalm 15 is about championing righteous living at the expense of faithful worship. It is not. According to first Psalm[8], righteous people are those who meditate on God’s words, day and night.

 So, friends, there will always be a Mary and a Martha in our hearts. And, there are times when we have to be a Martha. Things need to be prepared, mouths fed, goals achieved, appointments met. But, let’s not ignore those other times when we are to be a Mary; the time when we can discover the sweetness of sitting quietly, listening to the words of our Teacher.

Toby Keva

[1] 7 Ways to Experience the Sweetness of Doing Nothing by Kelly Chaplin on www.huffpost.com (01/26/2016 11:09 am – updated 07/12/2017)

[2] Luke 10-38-42 Commentary by Brian Peterson - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[3] Amos 8-1-12 Commentary by Courtney Pace - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[4] Amos 8-1-12 Commentary by Courtney Pace - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[5] Richard J. Fairchild, The Better Part, Sermons.com for Proper 11 (July 21, 2019)

[6] Psalm 15 Commentary by Jerome Creach - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL)

[7] Deuteronomy 23:2-3

[8] See Psalm 1:1-2