Saturday, July 20, 2013

Compassion for Us All

Proper 11C: Amos and Martha and Mary

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 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, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”… 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. (Amos 8:4-6, 10)

Sunday’s reading from Amos (Amos 8:1-12) does not describe the people with power and money in Amos’s time in a flattering way. They walked all over poor people in order to advance their own enterprises. Far from enjoying the opportunity for rest and joy in God’s creation on the Sabbath, they were impatient for it to end so that they could get back to selling wheat and making money. While they followed the letter of the law by not working on the Sabbath, their hearts were centered on their wealth rather than God.

When we look at the people Amos describes as a group, it’s hard to find any compassion for them. They sound like arrogant, self-centered people who think their agenda is more important than the lives of those who have less than them and even more important than God and God’s commandments. But I wonder what it was like to be one of these people. A child growing up in a family and a community that has unholy priorities will learn the same twisted values as the generation before. Someone wanting to make a living and have a comfortable enough life could easily have gotten caught up in business practices that oppressed the poor out of fear that not participating in the same deceitful practices as others might put them at a disadvantage in the marketplace. Close attention to God’s word could have reminded people that their way of life was sinful, but the system that encouraged all of this taught people to care for the acquisition of wealth more than the word of God. Only those like Amos who managed to stay spiritually awake and focus on God’s could see this oppressive system for what it was. While everyone going along with the system could and ultimately would be held morally responsible for their actions, most of us know all too well how easy it would be to go along to get along.

Even while seeing from a distance how wrong this way of life was, we can then have some degree of compassion for them. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that our own situation has a lot in common with theirs, giving us reason to feel empathy for these ancient people and reason to reflect on changes we need to make here and now.

Our culture holds up prosperity and comfort as ideals. A perfunctory practice of Christianity that ignores most of the teachings of the Gospel is encouraged in an attempt to support the pursuit of wealth and jingoism.

Just as poor people in Amos’s time suffered because of the pursuit of wealth by the powerful, the poorest people in today’s world suffer because of our pursuit of wealth. Greenhouse gas emissions, most of them historically from the wealthiest countries, have already produced enough warming to cause drought, record heat, epic flooding, and sea level rise that affects people in other places right now. Some people worry about climate change because of the effects it could have on their grandchildren, and that’s a legitimate and serious concern. But in many parts of the world, the suffering has already begun for other people’s children and grandchildren, and for adults whose seasons for planting and harvest have been disrupted, whose homes have been destroyed by floods, high winds, or rising seas, and whose risk of acquiring diseases like malaria and dengue fever have increased. So much of the suffering is invisible to most people in the United States, as it gets little news coverage and all seems so far away.  But that’s the way it has always been when poor people suffer because of the self-centeredness of others: they are all but invisible to those whose way of life produces the suffering. As Christians, though, we are called to see them and to have compassion for them.

Like the people of Amos’s time, we are caught in a system not of our own making. We can be gentle with ourselves even as we step back from it all and resolve to work for changes that make life more sustainable for all of us. God’s word can help us see the way; immersing ourselves in the Gospel can keep our eyes clear and our hearts focused. If we have compassion for ourselves, we can allow ourselves to step back from a destructive system and ground ourselves in Christ.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42) is the story about Jesus’s visit to the home of Martha and Mary. Mary is focused on listening to Jesus’s words, while Martha is busy with her household tasks. There will need to be a meal for the entire household and its guests, so at least some amount of work is necessary. But evidently Martha’s tasks have distracted her to the point where she isn’t listening to Jesus’s words, as he says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Our distractions have skewed our priorities, making it difficult to hear God’s word and making it difficult to see the very people in the world that Jesus always managed to see and feed and heal. Compassion for others calls us away from our system of selfish distractions to a willingness to see and serve those who are suffering in today’s world. Compassion for ourselves and our children and for all of our sisters and brothers on this planet calls us to ground ourselves in the Gospel so we have the strength and faith to do whatever we must to make life more sustainable for all of us and to rediscover the joy of following Christ.

The World Is Too Much With Us
(William Wordsworth)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

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