Finding the Better Part

“Finding the Better Part”

Amos 8:1-12               Luke 10:38-42



            Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part. In light of the current news chatter it might be good to ask, “What is the better part?”  Before I do that…let me share with you some of my real life experiences.

I only knew the man as Ace.  He was the dishwasher and busboy in the small restaurant in Syracuse, New York.  I was the server and counter person while I was in high school.  It was a very small restaurant tucked between a number of tall buildings a block off the main street.  It was busy at lunch time, but the rest of the day Ace and I had time to talk.  We talked about the news events of the day as we read the newspaper.  I had learned great reading skills in the public schools.  Ace had learned average reading skills from his single mom as she and he read their Bible together.

Ace had also learned how to play the trumpet…actually taught himself.  He played in a jazz club on weekend evenings.  Occasionally he would sneak me in the back door to listen to the music and talk with his friends.

Ace invited me to his home church…a small congregation that met in his basement…and I attended a number of Sundays.  I didn’t fully understand what was being said or done, but it sparked my curiosity about God and Christianity.  You see…at that time…at best…I could probably be described as an apathetic agnostic.

Sometimes…after church…I would eat lunch with Ace, his wife, their six children and some of his friends from the worship service.

Did I mention that Ace was Black…as were his wife and children, all of the people in his church and most of the people in the jazz club?

Once I invited Ace to go to a local coffee shop with me after work.  He said he couldn’t…couldn’t go to that coffee shop because it was in a neighborhood where his appearance meant that he didn’t belong…and would have people in it who didn’t want him around…simply because of the color of his skin.   I understood.  I hurt.  I never invited him again.

About three years later I went to the third of the three high schools I attended.  You might recall that I told you I graduated from a predominantly Jewish public high school just down the hill from a Christian private high school…both heavily populated with children of wealthy families.  You might also recall that the religious intolerance in the two schools was blamed for the burnings of students’ cars and the beatings of students.  That was the second high school I attended.

It was different in the third high school…Central High…just one block off the main street, and four blocks from the center of downtown Syracuse, New York.  It was an inner city school.  Most of the students and their families had no cars…they walked or rode a bus or bicycle to school.  My friend Tony and I were the entire white student population in that school at the time.  We found many of the students to be friendly and they invited us to their homes and events…but when we tried to return the favor they gave us the same reason for saying no as did Ace.  They would not go to areas where they were made to feel they didn’t belong and they felt threatened.

However….I was able to convince some to come to my wedding a few months later.  It was in a church that was on the edge of the so-called inner city.  A number of the guys brought along some of the girls…including those that Tony and I had dated. Tony was the best man in that ceremony.

About a year later many of them came to a double funeral in that church also…my friends Tony and Michael…classmates at Central High…a young white man and a young black man who was Muslim…buddies who joined the army together to serve the same nation together had been killed in combat in Viet Nam.

When I hear the pundits…the talking heads…talking on television…the President’s comments during a televised town hall…I am reminded of Ace and my high school classmates. When I hear some of the black commentators talking about instructions they had given their children…to go only where their appearance was welcome and where they felt safe…I have to ask, “In the past 50 years, have we made all the progress we need to make?”

I hear the President’s description of people who feel all black males…not just those who might be hoodlums…are feared.  I hear our black U. S. Senator tell of being stopped by police simply because he’s a big black man.  My friends, that’s not old history. That’s this past week.

Until thirteen years ago I worked part time… evenings and weekends…the high traffic times…in a top name department store in Greenville.   Part of our training was on ways to act like we’re tidying up but really watching suspicious persons…people who might be shoplifters.  We were also told to pass on our suspicions by phone to clerks in other areas of the store where we saw these people heading.  From time to time the uniformed police officer working in the store would pass on heads up to us, also.   Most of the alerts came from my white colleagues…alerting me to groups of Black males.  Yet in my nearly seven years with that store…working during peak hours…I only saw two people arrested for shoplifting…both were white females.

Nearly every weekday morning I eat breakfast in a restaurant that’s on the top floor of a building in downtown Greenville.  One of the long time employees of that restaurant is a black male in his 40s.  The timing of our arrival in the building lobby is such that about once a week he and I end up riding the elevator together.  So we exchange greetings and converse…largely about sports and news events.  On other days other people ride the elevator with me.  Many of them are women who work in the building but don’t dine in the restaurant.  Many of them carry purses or bags of some sort…usually held by the strap in one hand…quite loosely…some almost touching the floor.  A number of those women…when they enter the elevator and ride with the man who works in the restaurant hold their purses and bags close to their chests or abdomens.

Indeed…we have come a long way since the days of slavery….the days of Jim Crow…the days of Civil Rights marches in our streets and people being attacked with dogs on a bridge in Alabama…the assassination of a highly visible Black minister…but we…all of us…Black and White…male and female…native born and immigrants…young and old…aren’t there yet.  We…all of us…aren’t there yet.

Since the verdict was announced in the George Zimmerman trial…three years ago…there have been those crying for a conversation on civil rights in the United States.  That…my friends… is just what Jesus would have us do…converse civilly and peacefully after listening at his feet…as Mary did.

I believe that those who make the most noise on both sides of the argument are…pardon the seeming pun…in the minority.  It’s my belief that most Americans want a civil…prosperous…loving population of responsible…productive…contributing people….the entire population.   However…in the hype, anger and hate so common today…we often miss the better part…that better part…is as Mary did…sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning…learning  the word of God.

Would God have us spread urban legends that do nothing more than harm individuals and groups that might have a different skin color or ethnicity?  More than once during the trial three years ago I received a photo via e-mail of a large, muscular black male with a number of wounds and an explanation that it was Trayvon Martin and we were all being misled by the media.   The photo was a picture of a rap singer…not Trayvon Martin.   Why?  Where’s the love and trust we’d learn sitting at Jesus’ feet?

Would God have us use data…a good portion of which is accurate as far as it goes…in such a way or so often that it makes all of a group of people seem like hoodlums…thieves…or culprits…or vigilantes…of some sort?  Why?  Where’s the love and trust we’d learn sitting at the feet of Jesus.  This piece of data:  There are more males in America…of all races…who are not in jail than those who are in jail.

Would God have us decry and belittle those who are single parents…simply because there are a few single parents…of all genders and all races… who are trying to beat the system?  I was raised by a single parent who worked hard…but…no matter how hard he worked that government assistance made the difference between eating and not eating some days.   Isn’t that part of the love we’d learn sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet?

Would God have us do nothing when others are acting and speaking in ways that harm others?

In the past two weeks seven families lost their husbands… fathers…and sons in senseless shootings that made the news.  More were lost in similar senseless ways that didn’t make the news.

Across this great nation…there are many more just like them…of all races and nationalities.

Jesus grieves with all of them…equally.

Mary chose the better part.  She chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to the word of God.  As we look at what’s happening in our nation…let us also do the better thing.  Let us sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to the word of God…a word of love…not of tolerance alone…not a word that says stay in your neighborhood and I’ll stay in mine…a word of love for all of God’s creation…for all of God’s creation.

And…just like Mary…if that word tells us action is needed…let us do so.

If that word tells us action is needed in our own hearts…let us know that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to take that action…and take it.

If that word tells us we need to take action…out there… in our part of the world…that same Holy Spirit will give us the strength to take that action.

We are not called to simply listen to the word and live in our own little private monasteries… we are called to action rooted in God’s word.

Action based on love…not fear…anger…and hate.

That’s the better part.

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