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To Choose The Better Part

Amos 8:1-12;Psalm 52; Colossians 1:21-28; Luke 10:38-42

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

July 21, 2019 –Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

In 1859, the world received Charles Dickens’ twelfth novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He opens it with one of the great first paragraphs in all of literature.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

If some great writer were to publish their greatest masterwork about this year in this year of our Lord 2019, they could hardly hope to begin that work with more winged words.

We celebrate the 50th anniversary this day of one small step for mankind, Neil Armstrong planting the first human boot print on the surface of the moon.

We are enjoying one of the longest periods of economic growth in the modern and post-modern history of the richest, most powerful, and greatest nation in the history of the world.

We are experiencing one of the most polarized eras in the history of that same great nation. We cannot speak kindly of those who disagree with us. Our argument is not with their views, but with their character.

What a puzzling paradox this is. We went to the moon when things were good so that we could have a goal worthy of our dreams…we needed a challenge…and the dream we chose was beyond anything any earlier generation had dreamt.

We need work worthy of our hopes …worthy of our faith…worthy of the love we have for the lives we have been given to live…or we stumble…fall down…blame others.

So we find Amos, a shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah in the northern kingdom of Israel again this morning, prophesying their doom. The people are like a basket of summer fruit, ripe for the picking…about to rot on the shelf.

Things are so good all they can think of is when the next fun time is coming. “When will the Sabbath be over? Our wheat is ready, and we want to sell it now.” Money. Money. Money.

Let us focus on the carrot and forget about the stick. And we deserve all we can reach. We want to get it the easy way…maybe even by putting other people down. We read on:

“We can’t wait to cheat and charge high prices for the grain we sell. We will use dishonest scales and mix dust in the grain. Those who are needy and poor don’t have any money. We will make them our slaves for the price of a pair of sandals.”

But as we read all the way through our scriptures this morning, a fuller picture emerges. When we choose to apply all the gifts that God gave us…to make the world a better place…the world can be transformed from easy pickings into a paradise of never ending opportunity…and we can feel better about the world…and ourselves.

Paul writes to the Colossians and us, “You used to be far from God. Your thoughts made you his enemies, and you did evil things. But his Son became a human and died. So God made peace with you, and now he lets you stand in his presence as people who are holy and faultless and innocent.”

We are creatures capable of schoolyard taunts and winged words. Such a combination of possibility rests in our hearts and minds. And it isn’t that one person is good and another person is bad.

There is a little bit of good in the worst of us and a little bit of bad in the best of us…and when things are a challenge, people get better…but when they are good…when the living is easy, people have a tendency to backslide.

We need an Amos…a John the Baptist…to call us to judgment. We need an Amos or John to get us moving again…doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Being humble for the good it brings us.

But it is hard to be humble. You can’t just do it or get it. When you think you are humble…you have become proud. But like that moon shot…by choosing a goal that is beyond what we think we can do, we become a good example for others…we transcend our lot…and we make our days more worthwhile.

What God gives us in this world is the power to choose what course we will take. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, puts it nicely:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,/

And having perhaps the better claim,/Because it was grassy and wanted wear…

It’s like one of my high school classmates liked to say, “Why is it that the straight and narrow path is worn the most along the edges?”

President Kennedy understood this in September of 1962, too, when he spoke at Rice University about going to the moon.We aspire to noble and significant challenges because they“will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

In order to make good decisions, then, we need to be intentional about it. We need to pray about it. We need to step out of the way, invite the Holy Spirit in, and ask God what we should do.

And that is our gospel reading for the day. Jesus has supper…is the honored guest…at Martha and Mary’s home. Martha is scurrying about to prepare the meal, but Mary simply comes to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear whatever he has to say.

This is a subversive thing for her to do. She is neglecting her duties as a hostess…and she is stepping out of the place that the culture at that time and place assigned to women.

Society might be scandalized by this behavior, and her sister feels over-burdened because of it. But Jesus sees the humility and the goodness in it…Mary has chosen the better part…and it will not be taken from her.

The challenge before us, then, is to sort through our thoughts and our emotions and come out at the right place. We need to consider our circumstances…We need to identify all the possible alternatives…and we need to choose the very best one.

This is made more difficult today because we are so busy. Our lives are so mediated that we have a million things to do every hour of every day. And our smart devices outsmart us…distracting us from where we were going to where they want us to be.

From time to time we need to stop and ask ourselves what we are doing…what all our choices are…and what the best choice is. We need to become mindful.

We did it with the moon shot. We did it this morning when we chose to spend an hour in worship, intentionally focusing on choices and making the best choice we can…because choices become habits, habits become customs, customs become traditions…and our traditions become our character.

The nice thing about choices is that we can get better at them with practice. I did a public information program on corrections my last summer in law school and I got to know the administrative assistant to the Warden at the Prison pretty well that summer. He told me that the guys who made bad choices again and again got to make better choices when they hit 60. We are too soon old and too late smart.

We feel like we are losing our abilities, sometimes, as we get older, but maybe we can get better at making decisions. It’s like the guy who comes out of the bathroom one morning and tells his wife that he just got a good look at himself in the mirror.

“Wow. I’ve really aged!” he tells her. “Can you say something to me to make me feel better?”

“Sure,” she says, “there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

Even as our eyesight is fading, we can see better with that third eye… the one that summons up our long term memory and our long term planning capabilities.

If we can only choose what is best, it will not be taken from us. An example for you to ponder comes to my mind.

We have a fund in our budget this year for ministry. It used be dedicated to payment of the mortgage, but we have freed ourselves from that burden…to take on new burdens…inspired by faith…tinged with hope…infused with love…to engage in random acts of kindness…to commit insightful acts of community service…to perform acts that just might encourage the young people around us…faithful acts of hospitality…selfless acts of love for our neighbors.

This is harder than paying off our mortgage…being in conversation about all the things we can do and picking the one we are most equipped for…finding a way we can accomplish things together…and being one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world throughout this time God has given us to be together…to be one…to be light in a dark world.

Everyone has a say. Nobody has a veto. We talk and plan and pray and hope our way to becoming a force for good…in Bigfork…to Infinity and Beyond.

We can now show people how hard it is…but we can also show them how possible it is, too…to choose well and justly, with love…and that when we choose what is best it will never be taken away from us.

Here is Robert Frost again:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.