Amos 8:1-12 Colossians 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42
“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” has got to be one of the strangest expressions I have ever heard. When would anyone ever do that? Why in the world would you need to tell someone not to cut off her or his nose? Of course the expression refers to hasty judgement. In its origin it may have had more to do getting even with someone else, as John Haywood wrote in the 18th Century:
“If there be any, as I hope there be none, That would lese [lose] both his eyes to lese his foe one,
Then fear I there be many, as the world go'th,
That would lese one eye to lese their foes both.”
Even more severely, it may go back to experiences such as those of Saint Abbe of Scotland who led a convent to disfigure themselves to save their chastity from invading Danes. It worked, and the Danes were so repulsed that they decided to burn the entire convent.
All of us have, at times, made hasty judgements. All of us have, at some point, decided that if we cannot have it our way then we would rather not play the game at all. It’s easy to see it in children on playgrounds or in homes, but it is hard to see it in ourselves.
That is one of the many layers of instruction we can see in the story of Mary and Martha. There are so many wonderful themes, juts, and eddies of wisdom in this short passage. The characters are often debated, and there can be a good conversation about why Jesus stopped there and how these women remained in his ministry. Some have highlighted the boldness of Mary – a woman taking the position of a student in the rabbinic tradition – or the inclusivity of Jesus.
Either way, Martha usually gets short shrift – dismissed as someone who just does not get it. I wish I could tell you that I am going to do better by her, but probably not much. Except to say that I get her – I understand her. In a lot of ways, I am her. I remember being in a small group at a Montreat Youth Conference several years back. I was one of three adults with eighteen youth from all over the country. The leader asked us to identify with Mary or Martha and get into pairs to talk about the passage. I remember being shocked that it worked out evenly and thinking, “Who are these so called ‘Mary’ people?” Obviously they aren’t as faithful – or honest.
Martha is the one who cares for others. Martha is the one putting in the work. Martha is not just fulfilling the socially expected role of hospitality – she is laboring in love, and no one seems to care! So, in her zeal for offering hospitality she crosses the line. She makes the guest accountable by asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her. She cuts off her nose to spite her face.
In this time of great and terrible social change that we live in, I can’t help but think of Martha as the church. The church, which is the Body of Christ. The church, which has for so long known who we are by the fact that people have come to us for answers, for meaning, and for hope. The church, which has become so good at generating the product of religion that we seem to have have forgotten the true meaning of Christian Discipleship. The church, which is Martha – trying to make sure all the details are covered, because if we don’t who will... and if no one does then we won’t matter... and if we don’t matter then how can we matter now... and suddenly we stand with knife in hand – looking at our noses.
The good news is that the church is also in a brilliant position of attending to Jesus, of being disciplined, and of offering answers, meaning, and hope because we can ask this question, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” And we can hear Jesus tell us, “There is need of only one thing.”
That one thing, as Paul taught the church in Colosae, is to know that we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ! The mysteries of all eternity – the questions of life and its meaning and fullness – are all revealed in the fact that the God of all that is knows you and wants to be known by you. The God of all that is wants you to know that God’s love for you is unlimited in all of time and space, except for the limitations that you put on it.
Last week our Agape Prayer Lunch got into a discussion about recent photos from the Hubble telescope and the possibility of habitable planets. We concluded that if God is God here, then God must be God there. And though it is interesting to think about what that means for our relationship with other beings, the Prophet Amos reminds us that we have more immediate concerns.
Now, it is one thing to say that we should take care of the needy because it is the right thing to do. It is also true that being overly hasty or vengeful can hurt us in the long run, and if those are the things you take away today I’m fine with that. But I think the God thing here is this – because of our relationship with God, if we systematically neglect the poor, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.
If we support a system that depends on a larger number of people making below a living wage so that a smaller number of people can live with comfort and ease, then we are not only hurting them – we are hurting ourselves. Amos, the farmer prophet, uses a bowl of Summer fruit as an object lesson to show that something good has been held too long. And though it may be hard for us to connect with the gloom and doom he predicts for Israel, it is not too far a stretch to say that expecting everyone to love us because we are working hard to be the church is not the same as being the Body of Christ – the Bread of Heaven – broken for the world.
Amos speaks of a hunger for something more than bread and tells us that the Words of the Lord will be hard to find. Another prophet, Jeremiah, speaks of a new covenant with the Word of the Lord imprinted on our hearts and minds. Which of these times are we living in today? Is there a hunger for the Word of God? Is the Word of God imprinted on your heart and mind?
I think both might be true, and I can tell you how I know. Every time I meet someone outside of the church and I describe our location I find that people know where Dominoe’s is better than where we are. Sure, Dominoe’s has millions in advertising, an iconic brand, and an easily consumable product, but is that really an excuse? People are hungry. People are hungry for the Word of God. The Word of God is not bound in a book. It is lived and breathed and experienced in our common unity.
Some time ago a United Methodist congregation about our size in Marietta, GA was facing similar constraints to ours. The neighborhoods had changed. The congregation was older. Well, somehow they decided that they would do better as a homeless shelter than a place of worship, and they opened the Elizabeth Inn. One thing lead to another – during the course of over ten years – and they became MUST ministries, focusing on basic needs. According to their annual report, last year they provided 82,071 hot meals, 145,991 safe nights of rest, and have returned an estimate of $6,000,000 to the community through their employment services by offering job training and placement. And all of this because they attended to the one thing – Jesus Christ offers salvation in this life and in the one to come.
We do not have to close our doors to attend to that. In fact, we do it pretty well with them open. Last Sunday you empowered our children to make and send Gift of the Heart School Kits to students in disaster torn areas. Many of you helped kick off the gift basket ministry for this Fall and Christmas. New drivers have stepped up for Meals on Wheels. A new group has expressed interest in managing our emergency food basket ministry. And right now, in someone’s heart and mind, God is planting a desire to support or begin some new expression of hope. It might not even be something church related – unless by “church” we mean the Body of Christ which is beyond these walls. All of this will be fulfilled in God’s good time if we can simply attend to one thing – that Jesus Christ offers salvation for this life and the life to come – and then let all our other actions flow from that truth.
Otherwise, all the stuff we store and all the plans we make may just as well be drawers full of spare noses we have bent out of shape and collected over the years, and that would just be gross. Thanks be to God that there is more to it than that. Thanks be to God that there is more to you than that. And may God bless us as we seek greater spiritual discipline under the Lordship of Christ. Amen.