NRSV AMOS 8:1-12
8 This is what the Lord GOD showed me – a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me,
“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord GOD;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
8 Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
9 On that day, says the Lord GOD,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when 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.
12 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.
NRSV LUKE 10:38-42
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In the movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a 30-something native of New York who is all confused about life and his part in it. So he goes to a dude ranch out west, herding some cattle where he runs into a crusty old cowboy named Curly – played to perfection by Jack Palance. They are herding the cattle one day and get into a conversation that meanders into the meaning of life. Curly points out that city folks are a lot like Martha, chasing after distractions for 50 weeks out of the year until they come out west to try to figure things out.
But Curly tells Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Robbins says, “No.” “The secret of life is just one thing,” Curly says. “You stick to that and nothing else means anything.” Mitch says, “That’s great, but what’s that one thing?” And Curly says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
What is that one thing for you? What is the one thing that you cannot do without, the one thing that keeps you going? Many years ago the noted psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his theory of a ‘hierarchy of needs,’ a listing of those things that every human being must have. The basic ones are the physiological needs – food, water, sleep, shelter, clothes. So basically assuming you have all of those taken care of, what is the one thing in life that you most need? For me, it is relationships – especially family, and those precious grandchildren. But I also know I need other relationships, from friends, from folks I work with – and even from those I barely know. There is an interesting video making its way around Facebook where someone just drops in next to someone in an airport or a train station, and starts talking. Rather than getting a cold shoulder or brusquely told to ‘go away,’ this person found that most people are starving for relationships; they are more than glad to have someone start up a conversation with them. They want to be connected.
What is the one thing you most need? For some people it is a sense of worthiness; a sense that they matter, that what they are doing is important and contributing in a positive way for the common good. For other people it is having something worth standing up for, advocating a particular position. In two months I will be celebrating my 50th high school reunion, and even though I have not seen most of my classmates in those 50 years I can tell you from social media that there is one whose main purpose in life is pushing for the protection of the environment. I can also tell you that there are others who have a completely different life agenda, so that reunion will be really interesting.
There is an ebb and flow in all of this. Life comes and goes and we have different things that claim our attention at various points in our lives. But there are some things which stay the same. Other needs might be important, but there is that “one thing” that stands out that we just cannot – and do not want to – exist without.
Part of that may be what is going on in this encounter between Jesus and two sisters, Martha and Mary. But first I want to take poll. It’s a bit sexist, and I apologize for that, but how many of you woman cringed when you heard this story, thinking that Martha got a raw deal out of this? Yes, I know, you are all good Christians and you do not want to be going against Jesus, but come on. Even us guys can feel that one. Martha, working really hard to be hospitable for this special, wonderful guest. Luke tells us that Martha welcomed him into her home; she opened her doors to Jesus. In that culture, being a gracious host was critical. I’ve never been there but I have heard that in the Middle East being hospitable is almost a sacrament; people in that part of the world will bend over backward to make you feel like an honored guest, no matter who you are. And since this was someone special, Martha made an extra effort.
But in the midst of that effort, her sister, Mary, sits and listens to Jesus. With all of her understandable busy-ness, Martha gets frustrated. It probably took a while, some banging of the posts to give Mary a hint, but finally rather than talking to Mary herself, Martha does it through Jesus. Classic triangle. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work. Tell her to help me.”
Before we get too critical of Martha, think of all the times you have uttered that line. How come I have to do all the work? How come I have to come up with all of the ideas? How come it always winds up in my lap? We have all been there, or we know people who have been there. And it is not a bad complaint. There is a time for raising up the injustice of when you or someone else are doing all the work and others are sitting on the sidelines.
So it may sound a little puzzling to hear Jesus’ response – “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
So there we are, right back with Curly talking about the secret of life being one thing, and we have to figure that out.
But I think something else is going on here. In the previous verses in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” Now it seems like Jesus is saying, “Sit and listen.”
So what is it, Jesus – go and do likewise, or sit and listen? And our Lord says, “Yes.”
Once again, Jesus will not be cubby-holed. To a world then and now that wants either-or, dualistic answers that choose one, close off the other and never turn back, our Lord points out another way. It is the way of letting God’s Spirit direct us to the word God has for us. Sometimes that word is a word of action. If all we do is sit there and do nothing, we may miss the opportunity to put that word into action, an action that may be all the difference for someone else, as well as ourselves.
But there is also the time to sit and listen. To take stock, to reflect, to get a new sense of direction, a new sense of purpose. To listen for the word that we need so that our actions will not be all over the place, but will be focused. We need that time to sit and listen.
We need that time because we need that word. Not just any word, thank goodness, because our time and place are full of words. In sermons, in presentations, in newspapers, on the internet, on TV, on social media. Our world is full of words. But not all words are God-given words. No less than Mary do we need to sit at the feet of Jesus and take the time to listen for God-given words, words that are reflective of the God who is revealed in Scripture. A God of love, a God of justice, a God of mercy, a God who breaks down walls and brings people together. A God of steadfast love who seeks to talk with us. But also a God of justice who will not be messed with.
Make no mistake. The word God gives can comfort us. But it can also be a word of challenge, said with care, the way only God can do. It can be a word to shake us up and get us to take notice that things are not lined up the way God wants.
That is clearly the message from the prophecy of Amos. This is not a word that keeps the status quo. This is not a word of political partisanship, because all have fallen short in Israel. The worship of God is a sham, used to prop up a shallow religiosity, one that is morally bankrupt because it has turned its back not only on God but also on those in need. Money has become more important than people. Scales that determine the value of something have been manipulated to get the most out of those who can least afford it, and the sweepings of the wheat – the stuff that is no good, that is usually thrown out – is sold to people so desperate they will eat anything.
To such a land, God gives the most chilling word of the Bible. I do not know of any threat from God more dangerous than this one. A famine is coming, God says – not of bread or water. It will be a famine of the word of the Lord. The one thing God’s people need more than anything else.
God will finally give up and walk away. The word of the Lord will not be there any longer no matter how hard people try. They have twisted God’s word to keep what is not just, not loving, not caring, not compassionate for others. People have used the system to benefit themselves against the needs of others. Therefore, there will be a famine of the word of the Lord.
As Christians we know by faith that God has not given up on us. God has taken on flesh and dwelt among us. There is always hope, there is always resurrection. But there is throughout Scripture and throughout the history of church-state relationships instances where people have used the Word of God to oppress and support a twisted political agenda meant to control the many and benefit the few. If we are not carefully listening for God’s word rather than our own, that can still happen.
We need to look at ourselves and constantly ask if we are really listening for the word of God; or are we listening for a word that will justify our own agendas, be they religious or political or economic. Do we really think that separating children from their families is something that God has ordained, something that will really make us safer? Do we think that allowing people to deny such atrocities as the Holocaust is justifiable? Do we really think that racism is okay if it is used against people not like us or those who do not support the political agenda currently in control?
Are we listening to God in a time when so much hate is out there? Rather than telling people to go back where they came from, maybe what God is telling us is to sit down and listen; to Jesus, always. But also to listen to those who are made in God’s image just like we are, and to consider ways that we might follow God’s word together. Rather than lording it over one another, maybe God’s word is telling us to look out for those who are most in need – after all, it says over and over again in the Bible to take care of the poor, the widow and the sojourner. To be mindful of those on the margins. To show love toward one another. To put away the rhetoric of hate and let the love and peace of Christ flourish.
In Luke, the word of God burns within those who open themselves to it. May we let that word burn within us, burn away the dross we don’t need that we might live in the love of the One at whose feet we sit, and listen – not for what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Amen.