Texts: Amos 8:11-13 (a famine of God’s Word) * Luke 10:38-42 (Jesus visits Mary and Martha)
Have you ever lived through a famine like the one described by the prophet Amos — a famine not of physical hunger or thirst but of the Word of God? Have you ever “wandered from sea to sea seeking the Word of God and not found it?”
Amos is not referring to Scripture. He wrote 2800 years ago, long before Jewish leaders compiled the books that would become the Hebrew Bible.
By the Word of God, Amos means speeches by people like himself who feel inspired to tell a nation what it must do to live in alignment with God’s will.
Amos focuses on justice. His words, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24) were made famous in 1963 by Martin Luther King in his “I have a dream” speech in Washington D.C.
I have listened to a lot of speeches during the past two weeks. First came the Republican Party National Convention in Cleveland, followed by the Democratic Party National Convention in Philadelphia. For eight nights over two weeks, U.S. prime time TV was dominated by the speeches of people like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton.
In the close public attention paid to those speeches, I believe we can see what Amos called a thirst for an authentic Word.
The appeal of Donald Trump this past year has baffled me. But I think I gained some insight from a recent column in “The Christian Century.” The author noted that Trump’s acceptance speech on July 21 was devoid of what he called America’s civil religion. There was no mention of “the touchstone events of American history — not the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, the civil rights era, or anything else . . . There was no rhapsody about family, community, or church . . . There was not even the cheapest paean to hard work, struggle, sacrifice, or ingenuity.”
Herein may lie some of Trump’s appeal. He doesn’t engage in the usual banal praise of his country.
The speech that I liked the most from the two conventions was the one given by Michelle Obama in Philadelphia on July 25. I found it to be heartfelt and moving. I especially liked her reminder that the White House was built by slaves.
But there was one part I didn’t like. Near the end, she countered Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” by asserting that the United States is already the greatest nation on earth.
While one cannot question the feelings that lie behind her statement – that she is thrilled that a woman may become President for the first time in November and that an African-American family now lives in a White House built by slaves in the 18th Century, or that she is pleased that crime rates are going down and that the economy has recovered from the recession of 2008-9 – the judgements that flow from these feelings can always be questioned.
Michelle Obama’s statement that “the United States is the greatest nation in the world” sets up an argument, especially with those who fear violence, economic insecurity, and war.
I appreciate hearing what Michelle Obama perceives, feels and values. Given that I trust her, I don’t question those, and so I feel free to react with my own perceptions, feelings, and values. On the other hand, judgements are always open to debate. For this reason, I dislike speeches that contain a lot of judgements. At best, I find such speech empty and boring.
This is not to say that Trump is devoid of judgements. On the contrary, his speeches are filled with negative judgements: that the United States is in crisis, its military weak, its streets crime-ridden, and its economy a shambles. But I wonder if some of his hearers feel relieved that he doesn’t offer the usual Pablum of national self-congratulation.
Part of Trump’s appeal is authenticity. In a world filled with careful rhetoric, many of us are thirsty for a voice that strikes us as real; and I can understand why some people perceive Trump to be authentic. Unfortunately, I also find him to be egotistical, misinformed, and racist.
Trump reminds me of the late Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford. Like Trump, Ford seemed to me an ignorant and racist bully; a person without vision or useful ideas; and a disaster as City Councilor and Mayor. And yet, many people loved him.
I first heard of Rob Ford in 2006. The media reported that he was escorted from a hockey game when he hurled drunken and racist comments at a Black family. It seemed clear to me then that he was a racist alcoholic bully; and I was confident that voters would defeat him at the earliest opportunity. Instead, Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto in 2010 with more than 50% of the vote. It seemed that many people were so thirsty for authenticity that they were content to overlook Ford’s addictions, outbursts, and incompetence.
Last week, Ford’s 22-year-old nephew Michael Ford was elected by a big majority to replace Rob Ford as a Toronto City Councilor despite no qualifications other than the Ford last name. It is enough to make me weep. So in a search for something to counter my despair, I now turn to today’s Gospel story.
In today’s reading, Mary experiences a feast of God’s Word as she sits at Jesus’ feet. When Mary’s sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her serve their guests, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part
I don’t view Jesus’ comments to Martha as promoting listening over serving. He chides Martha not for her work, but because she is worried and distracted. He reminds her how easy it is to miss what is sacred in any moment.
Luke does not tell us what Jesus said to Mary nor what effect his words had on her. We are not even sure who Mary was. Many 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.
All we know is that Mary listened to Jesus. As in the time of Amos, she and many others longed to hear the Word of God. They believed that they found such a Word in Jesus; and listening to him changed them and moved them to action. Although Jesus’ message was difficult, people were willing to follow him to the cross so strong was their desire for a new life of Love.
Today, surrounded as we are in speech filled with judgements and empty promises, we continue to yearn for authentic voices of Love.
I was unimpressed by the promises in most of the speeches I heard at the party conventions in the United States. I found it laughable when Trump said that all crime will stop in the U.S. the day he becomes President. I didn’t believe Clinton when she said progress will be made by her presidency on issues like climate change or international security. Neither one gave the sort of speech I wanted to hear — one with less judgement, fewer promises, and more humility.
In the absence of speech like this, I believe we are called to create some of it in our words in the church and with our families and neighbours.
Mary listened to Jesus as he paused at her house on his journey to Jerusalem. He would not have offered her empty promises of national glory. Instead, I imagine he spoke about love and the sure hope for God’s Grace regardless of what would happen when he and his friends confronted the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem.
In 2016 as we drown in a sea of words filled with judgements and empty promises, may we satisfy our thirst in the stark realism and loving optimism of the words of Jesus and his friends.
In a search for a Word that is authentic and true, I believe we need look no further.