I’ve known many wonderful people over the years who claim no particular religious affiliation. Some of them haven’t been at all sure that there even is a God. Others feel no doubt about it, they’re convinced the whole idea of God is just plain stupid. For those people the notion of prayer is even stupider. They follow a line of reasoning that goes something like this: if there really is an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful presence in the universe, then why is there any need for prayer? Does this being require some sort of special incantation before being willing to meet our needs? Is it a contest where the best prayer of the day is the one that gets granted, while all the others are ignored? I sense that today’s collect would elicit an “are you kidding me?” response from this crowd. “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask” Really??? they would ask us. The problem here, is that the understanding of God that I’m describing perceives God as some sort of puppeteer, an all-powerful computer programmer if you will, capable of controlling not only our movements but the outcome of every situation. That is not my understanding at all of who or what God is.
As you’ve heard me say more than once, I believe that God is Love. God is that extraordinary force we call love that connects us to people both present with us and far away, living and dead. It is the force that motivates us to act on behalf of not only those we know well and care about deeply, but people we’ve never met, simply because something inside us tells us it’s the right thing to do. It’s the force that sends firefighters into a burning building to save total strangers. It’s the force that moves us to be kind. When we pray I believe we are heightening our ability to feel that force as well as to use it, by training ourselves to focus on the needs of others, as we struggle to discern at the deepest level who we are, and if that is the person God intends us to be. “Prayer,” Edmond Browning wrote, “is a thread of holy energy that binds us together.” Or as a friend of mine once said when I was deeply concerned about someone close to me, please know that we will wrap him in a blanket of prayer. To expand on a familiar quote, prayer doesn’t change God, prayer doesn’t change what love is, prayer changes us, it increases our ability to feel and to share the Love that is God.
So what happens if we don’t pray? We get a sense of that in today’s reading from Amos. Amos lived and prophesied at a time of great prosperity for Israel as a nation. However, the prosperity of the wealthy came at the expense of the peasants, the people of the land. It was the habit of the merchants of the time to cheat the poor, to kill the needy. The wealthy were so obsessed with money they could hardly wait for the sabbath to be over so they could get back to business, back to making still more money. Sound familiar? Into this world strode Amos, a shepherd and pincher of sycamore fruit, a fruit that had to be pinched so that it would ripen to an edible state, and which was eaten only by the poor. Amos was an uneducated layman up until the time when he began to preach. His message was dire. Because Israel had so totally turned its back on Yahweh, Yahweh would destroy Israel. Worst of all though, worse than the darkness, the destruction that would give rise to mourning and lamentation, there would be a famine in the land, not of bread or of water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. The people would turn to Yahweh in despair and Yahweh would not be there.
Think for a moment about what happens to people who become obsessed with success, however they may define that. They become so concerned with the next promotion, the next pay raise, the ability to buy a bigger house, make a larger profit, that they completely lose touch with the people for whom, theoretically at least, they’re doing what they’re doing. Like the rich merchants who couldn’t wait for the sabbath to be over so they could get back to selling, they, we, become so concerned with making money, with whatever details of life seem most important to us, that we forget about God. We become much too busy to pray, and if we’re not careful, we lose touch with our ability to love. I believe that’s what Amos is talking about. Ignore your family long enough while busily providing for what you perceive to be their material needs, and when the day comes that you finally take time to spend with them, you may well find that they’ve learned to be happy without you. Ignore God long enough, and when things completely fall apart and you desperately need the peace that only God can give, you won’t have the slightest idea where to look for it. God will still be there of course - Amos didn’t say that Yahweh would cease to exist, but rather that the people would look everywhere, seeking the word of God, but would be unable to find it. Love never dies, but we can lose our ability to experience it.
This is what Jesus was talking about in his response to Martha. Now I really relate to Martha. Clearly the responsible older sister, Martha works herself to exhaustion making sure that her guests are made to feel welcome, fixing the food, attending to the details that apparently don’t even penetrate Mary’s consciousness. If she had lived in our modern world Martha might have been deemed a bit obsessive, or if she had attended St. Mary’s, might well have been asked by Father Ted to become the liturgist. I just can’t oversee what everyone else in the sanctuary is doing while I”m trying to celebrate, is a rough approximation of what Ted said to me twenty or so years ago. I need someone like you to emcee our special services. The rest, as they say, is history. But getting back to Martha, she was much more than just the overworked obsessive older sister. Martha was a hospitable woman, apparently the head of a household that included both her younger sister Mary, and according to John’s Gospel, their brother Lazarus. In the much longer story John relates about this family, it is Martha who identifies Jesus as the Messiah, possibly the first person to do so. The woman wasn’t stupid. She was a strong, assertive woman of deep faith. Moreover, the word used for Martha’s “tasks” in the original Greek is diakonia, which is used throughout the New Testament to refer to both domestic service and Christian ministry - the word deacon is derived from the same noun. Some Biblical scholars, therefore, regard both Martha and Mary as leaders, perhaps missionaries, among early Christians. Faithful as she was, though, Martha really could get caught up in the details.
Admittedly, details are my bread and butter too. However, the deep satisfaction that I experience when a particularly complex service flows smoothly, the joy I experience when an acolyte serving for the first time gets it right, are not the reasons I come to church. I come for the moments, some call them thin places, when I experience what I can only describe as an overwhelming sense of connection. Moments like when I hear in my mind’s ear as if it were happening right then Zack’s six year old voice answering the questions asked of candidates for baptism. The moments when I remember with an almost searing clarity how special it was to give communion to my mother. The moments when I know in this place as I surely as I did in the Holy Land walking where Jesus walked, that God is real. You have your own thin places which are undoubtedly different from mine. Maybe it’s when you remember your wedding day, your childrens’ baptisms, the first time your child served as an acolyte. Or maybe your special moments don’t happen here in the church but up in the parish hall serving breakfast to the homeless, or taking communion to people no longer able to come here but who still recognize St. Mary’s as their church home. Perhaps the moments when you connect most powerfully with God occur in your classroom, or talking with a client in your office, or when you make the seemingly insignificant effort to smile at a stranger on the street. The point is these moments happen not when we’re obsessing over details or worrying about what we’re going to be doing later in the day, but when we’re fully present in the moment. They happen when our hearts are open and our minds are still.
Shortly after I checked to see what the lessons for today were, I had a dream. While most of it has long since faded away, one part has not. In this dream there was a little boy, I’m not sure who he was, but he was not well. A man whom I liked and trusted, I’m not sure who he was either, came along and quite bloodlessly, reached in and removed the little boy’s heart, leaving a seemingly lifeless body lying on the ground. At some point later in the dream the man came back and again without actually cutting the boy open, inserted a new heart. I put my head down on the boy’s chest and after a few seconds exclaimed, “It’s beating”. Within a few moments the little boy’s color improved, he opened his eyes and sat up. Somehow I think that’s what these lessons are about. While there isn’t any mention of replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, it seems to me that’s what happens when our focus shifts from worldly success to faithful living, from mundane details to truly connecting with other people and with God. That is what Jesus is trying to tell Martha, and all of us. Martha, Sharon, everyone, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing, love. Love is the better part, which will never be taken away from you, because love never ends. Amen.