Pentecost 7, Sunday, July 15, 2012
Greetings everyone and welcome back to the conversation. As many of you know, I spent the latter part of last week in Chicago attending the annual Ekklessia Project Gathering. Our theme this year was “Slow Church-Abiding Together in the Patient Work of God.” I suspect that I will be sharing more with you about this marvelous experience in the days ahead. In the mean time, anyone wishing to find out more about the Ekklessia Project or the Gathering is encouraged to visit its website at http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/.
The texts for this Sunday illustrate the cost of speaking truth to power. The cost for Amos was deportation. The price of speaking the truth was death for John the Baptist. I think that in our age the greatest threat to the truth comes not from tyrants that would silence it with violence, but rather from an avalanche of inaccuracies, misinformation and outright lies broadcast over television and radio, forwarded to millions by malicious e-mails and posted on Twitter and Facebook. The Twenty-first Century prophet must struggle to be heard over thousands of voices hawking their religious, ideological and political wares while lying with absolute impunity. Yet somehow, when the truth is spoken, it has a ring of genuineness that evokes a response. Sometimes the response is faith, but in some instances the response is hostility.
Amos is a cranky prophet with several strikes against him. For one thing, it doesn’t help that he is a foreigner. Though born and raised in the Kingdom of Judah, Amos is called and sent to preach to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel was experiencing a period of military might, economic prosperity and religious revival under its powerful and successful King, Jeroboam II. Happy days were here again and the people were convinced that the prosperity they enjoyed was proof of God’s favor. God was blessing Israel. Amos had a difficult message for Israel: God was not happy with Israel. Specifically, God was angry at Israel’s government and upper class “who oppress the poor and crush the needy.” Moreover, God was about to bring the reign of Jeroboam and Israel’s era of prosperity and success to a devastating end. Do you remember the national response to the sermon of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright when he said:” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America.”? Well, you can just imagine how Israel responded to Amos when he stood up in the national sanctuary at Bethel to announce that “the high places of Israel shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will raise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Small wonder that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, removed Amos from the clergy roster. It is hardly surprising that Amos was banished to the much smaller “Judah Synod.” As Amaziah observed, “the land is not able to bear [Amos’] words.”
Listen closely, however, to Amaziah’s words to Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom”. Seriously? Is the sanctuary really the property of the Kingdom and is God nothing more than the king’s humble tenant? It seems that Amaziah’s only concern is with the honor of the King and respect for the kingdom. He is fiercely patriotic, but not one wit faithful. Amaziah is deeply concerned with the political ramifications of Amos’ preaching, but it never occurs to him to ask whether that preaching might actually be true. True or not, it is unpatriotic, dangerous, offensive and upsetting. That is reason enough for snuffing it out. As far as Amaziah is concerned, Amos is a national security risk and the best way to get rid of him is to strip him of his official clergy status and send him into exile. But Amos will not so easily fade away. He is not the least bit ruffled by his removal from the clergy roster. “I am no prophet,” he says. He needs no official credentials. Unlike Amaziah, Amos is not the king’s patsy. He belongs to the God who sent him to preach-and preach he will!
I think we would do well to ponder this lesson as we contemplate renovations to our own sanctuary. The first question we need to begin asking ourselves is whether it really is our sanctuary. I suppose that from Amaziah’s point of view, Trinity’s sanctuary belongs to Trinity’s members. After all, we built it. Our offerings support it. We should have the final say in what it looks like, how it is used and what goes on there. From a worldly standpoint, it is hard to argue with this logic. But as Paul would remind us, we don’t view matters from a worldly perspective. We view all things from the standpoint of our call to follow Jesus. No, the sanctuary is not ours to do with as we please to meet our own personal needs. It is a tool given us to serve Jesus in this neighborhood in which we are placed. So the questions we always need to be asking are: 1) How can we transform our sanctuary in ways that will reflect to the rest of the neighborhood the welcome extended to all people in Christ Jesus? 2) How can we make our sanctuary a tool for reconciling conflict, overcoming injustice and building peace in our community? 3) What is God calling us to in this community and how can we use our sanctuary to answer that call? We cannot afford to forget who belongs to whom.
This is a psalm of lament. If you were to read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. This is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmists belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
What is remarkable about this prayer is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken out of a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the past faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one myself and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust in someone develops over years and many experiences of discovering that the someone you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also through the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
A word or two about Ephesians. According to the opening verses, the book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus. Although the piece certainly contains many images and concepts that can be traced to Paul, it is the consensus of most New Testament Scholars that Paul did not author the letter. Most likely, a disciple or associate of Paul composed the letter decades after the apostle’s death. The book of Ephesians was most likely composed somewhere between 85 and 90 A.D. toward the end of the first Christian Century. The apostles had all died, but the world kept right on turning without missing a beat. The second generation of believers was faced with the fact that the close of the age might be a long time in coming. So the question was, how to live in the interim? That is, in large part, what the letter to the Ephesians seeks to address. The author admonishes his audience to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” 4:1. Followers of Jesus are to live a life of love for one another in the unity of the Spirit. 4:3. As they make their long journey through time, they must bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ by lives lived in striking contrast to the surrounding culture governed by rulers, authorities, “principalities and powers, hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 6:12-13. They must support themselves with honest work, speak truthfully to one another and conduct themselves in a manner that glorifies the God by whom they have been called. 4:17-32. The Church is a people called to “be imitators of God,” “to walk in love” as Christ loved them and gave Himself for them. 5:1-2.
In the lesson for today, the author of Ephesians articulates an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” 1:8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. Rather, the church is the first fruits and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” To be chosen is therefore not a position of special privilege, but a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people.
John got himself in trouble for criticizing Herod Antipas (not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ child). There were plenty of reasons for criticizing Herod whose ruthlessness matched that of his father. Perhaps John addressed these misdeeds also, but the issue that got him into hot water was a family matter. Herod divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea in favor of Herodias, who had formerly been married to his brother, Philip. In this day and age, one might remark, “So who cares?” As it turns out, this illicit marriage played a huge role in an escalating conflict between Herod and his former father-in-law, Aretas which finally blew up into a military confrontation that went badly for Herod and the people he ruled.
While marriages today are typically not part and parcel of international treaties, they do involved families, friends, and frequently produce children. That is why who sleeps with whom is never a purely private matter, despite the insistence of many folks to the contrary. Marriage has ripple effects among large circles of people. So also does divorce. John understood that very well. There is no such thing as “purely individual and private.”
Note that when Herod hears about Jesus, his conclusion is that John the Baptist has been raised. In a sense, he is right. The same God that spoke through John is now speaking again through God’s Son. Herod’s attempt to silence John’s voice, first through imprisonment and then through execution, has failed. With the advent of Jesus, John is back in spades. Herod is rightfully fearful. Herod was always fearful of John. Having him in jail was like holding a hot potato. Herod knew John to be a righteous man and was afraid to kill him. Yet at the same time he was afraid to let him go, knowing that John’s words were as dangerous to his kingdom as those of Amos to Jeroboam. Finally, the king’s pride trumps his fear and he has John executed to save face in front of his guests.
It is interesting to note that John’s disciples came forward to give their master a proper burial. Jesus’ disciples will do no such thing. Only the women will visit Jesus’ tomb and then only after his burial.