Sunday, August 25, 2013

Matha, Mary and Martin Luther King: a meditation on listening and serving

Texts: Amos 8 1-12 (a famine of God's Word); Luke 10 38-42 (Jesus visits Martha and Mary)

Have you ever lived through a famine like the one described by the prophet Amos -- a famine not of physical hunger, but of not hearing the Word of God? Have you ever "wandered from sea to sea seeking the word of the LORD and not found it?"

In our Gospel text, Mary experiences a feast of God's Word. She sits at Jesus' feet and listens to him. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says to her sister Martha, and perhaps Amos would agree with that statement.

But in today's reading, Amos also demands social justice. He tells rich people in Israel to stop cheating the poor. He says that listening to God leads us to act justly. Listening and acting. Is one of these really the better part?

A sacred moment from recent times that connected listening with action was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of this speech. It was delivered by King at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

In front of 250,000 people, King called for economic justice, racial equality, and an end to police violence.  Then, near the end of his speech, the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him, saying, "tell them about the dream, Martin." King left his prepared text at that point and let his rhetoric soar.

As a Baptist minister, King was able to draw on images and phrases from Isaiah to the U.S. Constitution, and from the hymn "My Country Tis of Thee," to the spiritual "Free at Last." He linked the American Dream with God's dream for a world of justice, peace, and equality, a world in which freedom would ring.

His speech was influenced by the long struggle to reverse the effects of slavery in the United States, by his previous sermons and speeches, and by the scores of marches and acts of civil disobedience that King had taken part in before 1963.

Martin Luther King's speech made a difference in the struggle for civil rights. His words were heard by the crowd gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, by a large TV audience, and by people who read about the speech afterwards.

People not only listened to him. Many were also inspired to act. After the March, more people began to resist racist laws and police in the U.S. South. The U.S. government passed civil rights legislation. Some people examined old prejudices and opened their hearts to those of different racial backgrounds.

Unfortunately, other people who heard his speech 50 years ago did not change their opposition to racial equality and social justice. The FBI was alarmed by King and worked to disrupt the Civil Rights Movement. One FBI leader wrote after the speech, "we must now mark [King] as the most dangerous Negro in this nation from the standpoint of communism and national security."

King was assassinated five years later in 1968. Given the violence of the opposition to civil rights, few were surprised. 50 years later, racism has still not been eliminated.

This week, I watched the season finale of "Mad Men," which was set in November 1968. In this episode, the lead character of this TV series, Don Draper, is sinking deeper into alcoholism under the pressure of career, marriage, and the turmoil of the times. In a bar in Manhattan, a street preacher approaches him. Draper challenges the preacher by asking where Jesus was in that year when the War in Vietnam escalated, Richard Nixon was elected President, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. When the preacher says that King was not a true believer, Draper lashes out in anger. He punches the preacher, and spends the night in jail.

King advocated non-violence, but I can understand why Draper attacked this narrow-minded preacher. Draper had been inspired by King; he was frustrated at the continuing racism and violence in America five years after King's most famous speech; and he felt despair after King's assassination.

So it was during the time of Jesus. Jesus spoke, and many people were moved to follow him. Others, unfortunately, were alarmed by what he said, and they conspired to kill him.

In our Gospel reading today, we are not told what Jesus said to Mary nor what effect his words had on her. We are not even sure who Mary was. Most people assume that Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus. But Lazarus only appears in the Gospel of John, and the story we heard today only appears in Luke.

In John, Lazarus' sister Mary is the woman who anoints Jesus with oil. But in Luke, the woman who anoints Jesus is an unnamed sinner. Mark and Mathew's versions of that story are different yet again. As is often the case with the Bible, the details are not clear.

Perhaps the Mary in our story today is Mary Magdalene, whom John says is the first person to see Jesus on Easter morning. If we assume this, then perhaps Mary is moved by what Jesus says to follow him to the Cross and beyond.

Jesus says that listening is the better part. And listening often leads to action. It can move us to change our opinions and to act differently.

In 1963, many people in the United States longed to hear the Word of God and believed that they had found it in Martin Luther King. Listening to him changed them and moved them to action. But others said that King was on the side of the devil. They heard him and decided to disrupt his movement and kill him.

In the time of Jesus, many longed to hear the Word of God and believed that they found it in Jesus. Listening to him changed them and moved them to action. But others said that Jesus was on the side of the devil. They heard him and decided to disrupt his movement and kill him.

Today, we also long for the Word of God. But when we find it, how can we be certain that it truly is of God if others label the same thing as the work of the devil?

The stories of Jesus and the history of the civil rights movement remind us that there is not just one opinion about the way forward in our crazy world. Amid competing voices, all we can do is pray and listen to our hearts in community as we try to live into God's dream for a just world.

Then when we are confident that we have heard God's Word, what next? Are we just to listen or are we also to act for justice? Well, consider that Amos, Jesus and Martin Luther King, although all preachers, were also men of action.

Jesus tells Martha that her sister Mary has chosen the better part. I don't see his statement as drawing a line between listening and serving. Jesus chides Martha not for her work, but because she is worried and distracted. Jesus reminds Martha that it is easy to miss what is sacred in any moment.

Mary may have done nothing after she listened to Jesus, or she may have joined Jesus' movement. We are not sure. But in either case, we know that the God's Word contains the good news that we are healed no matter what we do.

Jesus urges us not be worried or distracted. But if we do succumb to worries, God will still love us. If we miss what Jesus is trying to say to us, he will still love us. If we don't immediately act after listening to Jesus, he will still love us.

We might be discouraged that although Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago of God's dream for a just world, injustice still abounds. We might be discouraged that although Martin Luther King spoke 50 years ago of God's dream for a world of equality, he was killed and inequality still abounds.

Personally, I am encouraged that so many people are inspired by King and his dream all these years later. I am thankful that so many of us still listen to Jesus all these centuries later. The struggle goes on, and with joy, we find God's Word within it. The struggle is its own reward even though the road can seem long and hard.

Christ shared our human frailty and travelled the Way to the Cross. He lights our way down this path and assures us that at its end, we are all welcomed back into God's Love from which we have all come

On the path, we try to listen to Jesus' voice and serve God and neighbour. But there will be moments when worries overwhelm us. God's Grace supports us regardless. We don't have to be anything, believe anything or do anything to receive the free gift of this Grace.

The struggle continues. In the midst of it, we hear the Word again: Christ is with us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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