WHAT IS NEEDFUL
Rev. Naomi King
Amos’ next vision, related to his vision of the Lord’s plumb-line being rather different from that of society’s, is the basket of fruits: the harvest. Instead of being a symbol of abundance and gratitude, it is a sign for the difficult times that are about to commence when a famine of God’s good word will sweep the land. It is possible to read this passage as one of punishment for ill behavior, and so this text has often been used, and skimmed over quickly by our spiritual ancestors because of that history and that possibility. But what if it isn’t a text of God’s exacting revenge, but of understanding the social swing, in which so much inequity and injustice is being committed, and predicting what we can so easily imagine when a significant portion of society acts unjustly? What happens when we cheat our neighbor in order to make our own lives a little easier? What happens when we cut safety steps out of processes, to make things move along faster and make matters a little less expensive? For a while, things can go very well, and wealth and blessings seem abundant, and…then something goes terribly wrong and we might remember that those safety protocols are there for a reason, or that if we sufficiently impoverish our neighbor, then our neighbor shall be unable after a time to participate in the economy and we find our business faltering. Now, we can read the suffering that ensues as God’s doing – and live in a faith that does not use the capacities for maturity with which we’ve been created – or we can recognize that we bear collective responsibility and collective care for the world, and that acting with more regard for personal wealth than common care is going to have predictable negative results. If you would like to see stories of the land trembling and widespread mourning, check out the daily news cycle and even dare to seek more deeply. If you would like to meet people who are perishing because they have not met God’s life-giving word, visit any class of society and listen for people speaking of their sense of inadequacy, their shame, their sense of hopelessness. Who knew that the relative abundance of an economy a few years ago would represent the last harvest before the great famine, one which continues and in which many people are now simply dropping off the rolls of the unemployed? We’ve lived this history before, many times, and we’ll read the people going through this history again and again, throughout both branches of the library called the Bible. They are reminders that we can still very often struggle with living rightfully, and that our misdeeds and mistakes might not even fall upon us, but upon the whole. That does not mean we are powerless, and it does not mean we are following a system of divine retribution; it does mean that our actions have consequences, and we might want to spend more time reflecting on how our actions affect the whole, which is where the rest of this week’s lection takes us. We would focus on what is truly needful from us in order for God’s life-giving word to be heard.
Psalm 52 reflects the rage and grief that arises when suffering comes as a consequence of misdeeds and failures to recognize how we each affect the health and wellbeing of the whole. We need a place to observe this pain; the psalms are not simply lovely poetry, but songs sung from the whole reservoir of human feeling, as people connect to the holy One, sometimes in celebration, sometimes in love, and sometimes from distance and loneliness and anger and fear. This psalm also repeats the ways we will be hurt and judged in times of trouble by our neighbors: people can laugh, can point to misdeeds and say we brought them on ourselves, can say we are cursed because we must have done something against God. Self-righteousness is one of the ways, of course, that we defend ourselves and calm ourselves in times of chaos and suffering. When I attend funerals, I routinely hear comments like, Of courseshe died from lung cancer; didn’t she smoke during the war? I rarely hear people saying, Maybe we need to do something about the air quality; she was outside in the smog every day for five hours helping the kids cross the street safely and look what happened. Even more painfully, I’ll hear, there but for the grace of God… or I told her to look after herself. And yet, does that stop me from my own self-righteousness? I wish I could say that I never utter a self-righteous word from rage or grief when suffering comes. I’ve found I need great practice to reach the state at the end of the psalm: to be as the olive tree flourishing in God’s unfailing love. For me, reading this psalm -- and others like it -- when suffering comes is part of that practice. Following the path from seeking blame and avoiding responsibility to feeling one’s rootedness in God’s great love is possible, but it is also so easy to be out of the painful feelings and into the safer ones without reaching the true safety zone, where we find our oneness and the place for all in the Holy. What practices help us in that journey?
The lection helpfully supplies us with Genesis 18:1-10a, when Abraham is in the sacred grove of Mamre and he encounters three strangers. Notably, Abraham doesn’t ask them for identification, or wonder why they are there, or speculate on the nature of privacy and claiming land. Instead, he meets these strangers with great respect, bowing low before them. If you’ve read the rest of Genesis, you’ll notice Abraham doesn’t bow regularly, so this is an important departure from the way we’ve learned of the patriarch, a detail that should catch our attention, like the business in Amos about him being a dresser of sycomore figs. Details like this aren’t transmitted through oral narratives unless they signal something very important. Long before being written down, Genesis is a collection of orally transmitted stories. In this one, Abraham stops these three strangers and asks them to stay awhile, to let him wash their feet and for them to rest under the tree. Then Abraham turns to Sarah and asks her to prepare the finest bread; he sacrifices the choicest future of his herd, and he brings out fresh cheese while the rest of the food is being prepared. Abraham shows us hospitality asks us to offer and sacrifice the best of what we have in order to make the ones unknown to us welcome, to show our care and respect. The strangers bestow upon Abraham the blessing he has longed for: that Sarah will bear a son. The lection cuts out then – Sarah’s response isn’t part of the story of hospitality. Some might feel this silences Sarah, so consider how your attention would have shifted away from Abraham’s actions of welcoming the stranger. It is another story in its own right, one that deserves study and reflection. Another way to look at the story is that Abraham and Sarah meet the strangers in one way, which doesn’t mean that Sarah won’t meet the strangers’ blessing in another way. Check out again the emotional distance covered in Psalm 52. The practice of hospitality to the stranger reminds us that welcoming and being kind to those we already know, those who already belong to our smaller group of belonging – the family, the congregation, the company, the neighborhood, the country – is not the deepest and riskiest practice of hospitality. Some of the sages discussing this text over the centuries have posited that Abraham knew the strangers, but for me that would remove the wideness of his hospitality and the risks he took. Stranger danger is a gospel widely preached to children in the United States; yet stranger danger was much more likely to occur in the ancient world of Abraham, where nomads like Abraham were subject to raids from both settled peoples and other nomads. Abraham doesn’t call for defensive measures and he doesn’t call for slaughtering the strangers, or threatening them and driving them away. Now some have said this is because Abraham was at the sacred grove of Mamre, and because it was a holy place, he had to act in a different way. For me, this is another example of how we concretize specific places as sacred and others as not sacred, as though the opposite of sacred were mundane. The opposite of sacred is desecrated, and, indeed, Abraham would have desecrated the land to slaughter the strangers. Instead, Abraham honors the sacrality of place and persons by embracing the strangers, but putting himself into their care (the low bow and welcoming them to rest) and them into his (washing their feet and feeding them). He doesn’t retreat into his personal relationship with the Holy as self-defense; instead, he recognizes and honors the strangers’ relationships with the Holy. One of the practices we have before us in returning to our sense of God’s great love and flourishing as olive trees planted in the house of the Lord is this risky act of welcome and healing through hospitality for strangers. Since the stories are supposed to be read from every angle, when we are strangers, we also have a pattern for approaching those we do not know, to be guests who offer blessings. Both offering and seeking hospitality are ways of recalling ourselves and those we meet now as neighbors to the underlying grace and goodness of the Holy.
We might remember the story of Abraham and Sarah and the strangers at Mamre, or the image of the full fruit basket and Amos’ prophecy, or the psalm moving from rage and grief to affirming God’s goodness. But some of us best learn and remember from question and answer, catechism style, and Psalm 15 offers us that model. The psalm begins, Master, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? (Ps.15:1) Verses 2-5a then give us an affirmation and 5b words of assurance. You might recognize this format in some current and many of our older liturgies there because this is indeed a useful emotional formula and a way many of us learn well. Note, many translations will give you “Lord” or “God” instead of “Master”, which I’ve chosen to reconnect us to the older tradition of the schoolmaster or teaching master (to which that translation refers, not “King”. The Name Unnamed has many names, and sometimes it is useful to explore which ones appeal and which ones don’t. ) This little catechism references a great many passages where the rules are given taught and it is a nice exercise to go and visit those references, considering how you would frame the lessons to which Psalm 15 refers. These references are given in most study Bibles. Although the words of assurance are, The one who does these things will never be shaken, the body of the psalm makes several very discomforting statements, such as keeping oaths even when they hurt and casting no slur upon another but disdaining those who are vile. Like Psalm 52, and Amos 8, Psalm 15 points us back to the disagreeable business of our own self-righteousness and responsibilities for the way things are when they go wrong.
Colossians 1:15-28. This section of the Letter to the Colossians forms the basis of orthodox Christian Christologies and theology of atonement. Both Unitarians and Universalists have affirmed and debated these passages historically. Substitionary atonement, though, hasn’t been a dominant theology in Unitarian Universalist circle for a long time, now, and some may wish to reject rather than understand or wrestle this text. Why would this passage describe redemptive sacrifice for so many? How is it that the blood of Christ saves or that Christ, who is named first of all creatures, would please God by sacrificing himself? The ideal of redemptive sacrifice crosses over a lot of different cultures. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition is called the Greater Way precisely because the ones who are enlightened do not trade the suffering of this earth for nirvana, but stay present as bodhisattvi to ease the sufferings and care for those still in this cycle of existence. Martyrs for social justice, when their deaths focus great energy and attention to bring about the justice they sought, have engaged in redemptive sacrifice. By analogy, rather than God expecting and only being satisfied by Jesus’ sacrifice for human failures, the Letter to the Colossians could be describing a being who would only sacrifice himself for the greater good of others, much like prophets, healers, and teachers have for millennia, across cultures. Jesus then shows us the way of the great leader: the capacity for sacrifice for the greater wellbeing. The people Paul is writing to have felt separated from God – alienated is a common translation. And what’s one of the most common reasons for people to feel separated from God? Suffering. Suffering that raises the why and when and how long, O Lord, questions drives people commonly away from our sense of God’s great love and acceptance. Jesus’ blood may or may not wash away the sins of the world from your theological stance, but the idea that one may shed blood to show great love isn’t all that difficult to imagine: how many adults would willingly fall before the bus in order to save a child? Paul is telling us we are hallowed by the blood shed for us, blessed by Jesus’ sacrifice. Who are the ones who have sacrificed for you, for your greater good and existence, even if they did not know you? After my family, I’d name a great many members of the American Indian Movement, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the spiritual teachers and leaders in our own religious movements, just to speak of some of the ones who have blessed me, if not personally, still, made it more possible for me to belong to society, more possible to strengthen and develop my own connections with the Holy.
Luke 10:38-42 Our larger culture is one that favors busyness. I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. The curse of underemployment and unemployment is not being considered socially worthy enough to be busy. Thus, busyness becomes proof of our holy worth. It is possible Martha fell prey to this view, too, given the Roman colonial extraction of resources and prizing busyness to support the greater Roman Empire. Thus, refusing to be busy becomes a countercultural act, a revolutionary way of being, reclaiming our bodies, our labors, our time, and then directing how we will be and what we will do. Mary’s resistance to busyness so she might devote herself to the holy is a resacralizing of her being; she is consecrating herself out of the colonial invasion of her being. Such a reading would make this passage parallel to Jesus’ calling of Andrew and Simon to be fishers of men, rather than fishermen filling the salt casks of the Roman Legion. The thing about colonialism is how insidious these expectations of worth are and how we enforce them. One of the best ways of enforcing cultural invasion is to appeal to fairness – we’re supposed to share these labors equitably, otherwise someone has to carry an unduly heavy load. Within our communities, how do we enforce an ethic of busyness and fairness? This famous passage has Martha complaining to Jesus about Mary not doing her share of the chores required to make the right preparations for Jesus and his disciples. Martha then is caught in being the colonial enforcement for busyness as a social virtue. Caught up in what is needed, Martha is focused on making sure the codes of hospitality are met. After all, did not Abraham command Sarah and his servants to make welcome the strangers at Mamre? I’m deeply sympathetic with Martha. I’m not sure at all, given the lapses the disciples have on a regular basis of living in a more gracious way, that they wouldn’t snipe and grumble if they felt unwelcome. I can easily imagine trying desperately to avoid such sharpness and grumpiness and seeking assistance to make things right, sure I was doing the right thing, and not having a wide enough perspective at that very moment to be able to not cry about fairness and for help. Can you? Really? Most of us believe we’re attending to the right thing most of the time, but if that’s so, how is it we’re not living in the kingdom of God yet? Oh yeah, because, unhappy those Jesus’ words are to Martha, because we’re doing the necessary thing, but not the most needful. But there’s this cultural expectation of busyness and of valuing more those who are blessed by busyness. Of course Jesus would ask us to pause and ask ourselves what we’re doing and why we’re valuing busyness and being so busy. We all have a right to participate in Jesus’ teaching, in hearing and learning the holy word. No one should be expected to work all the time, not by those around us, and not by ourselves. The next time you’re feeling like the way hasn’t been prepared for you, you can remember this scene. Maybe the way hasn’t been made because we all have times we need to devote our attention primarily to God, then secondarily to the demands and expectations of each other. Feel free to remind me, too, when I’m out of sorts. Being busy doesn’t make us more worthy; it just makes us more tired and more busy, and more confused about what we really need to do. Ask yourself, what do you cut when you’re busy? Time with kids? Your prayer life? Study? What are you doing that’s needful, but may be more attuned to a colonial cultural value and not how Jesus is calling you?
There are a number of saving lessons in this tiny passage:
- everyone has the right to study the sacred stories and be part of the learned and learning community;
- everyone belongs to God’s holy love and word;
- everyone can be caught up and caught out at doing what we’re sure is right and discover that while right, not the most needful right at that moment;
- it isn’t just the twelve or the folks who seek Jesus out who are caught up in busyness and not in holy business;
- when we attend to what is truly the most important at that moment, what we receive in that moment can never be taken from us.
Although this story is a time management professional’s dream, the reality is that most of us are going to struggle in deciding what is most needful of all the good that is calling us. How we discern our way through that remains an open question; that we might treat each other with greater grace in the ways we’ve discerned remains a persistent possibility.
How often in your life do you consider the actions you take every day? In what you eat and how you travel and who you meet? What actions do you take that might be contributing to greater trouble? Greater healing? Is it easier for you to focus on the ways you harm or the ways you help?
Psalm 52 begins in rage and grief. Since the psalms reflect the wide variety of human feelings, how does your weekly worship service make room for the wide variety of human feelings? What feelings might not have much space? Why? What might the consequences be of cutting out or shutting down those feelings as people search for a sense of connection to the Holy One?
When have you been the stranger? How do you feel about strangers?
How do you define hospitality? What do you risk in your practice of hospitality? What blessings do you receive?
What acts that are required of the righteous make you uncomfortable? Which ones have you struggled with?
When have you felt distant from God? How have you returned to a sense of connection? How have you sought reconciliation?
What do you believe about the atonement and reconciliation?
Who are the ones who have blessed your life through their redemptive sacrifice?
If you don’t believe in the redemptive power of Christ’s blood, talk with someone who does. Listen deeply to why they are grateful for and moved by Christ’s living sacrifice.
If you do believe in the redemptive power of Christ’s blood, talk with someone who does not. Listen deeply to how they understand redemption and reconciliation, and how they approach redemptive sacrifice.
Ask yourself, what do you cut when you’re busy? Time with kids? Your prayer life? Study? What are you doing that’s needful, but may be more attuned to a colonial cultural value and not how Jesus is calling you?
O God, I want to do what is right and live in your will and your way. At times I feel lost and confused and far, far away from your loving presence. Teach me, through your gracious word and all the readings before, to reconnect when I feel lost, to pause and draw your saving love around me, to rest and discern what is most needful. As you remembered Elijah in his days faint with hunger and weary, as you remembered Mary and Ruth and Esther turning to you in their ways of living in your Name’s Sake, so, too, remember me, and guide my heart through this thorny way to the shade and rest beside your living waters. Amen.