TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Roseburg, Oregon is the site of the latest mass shooting-an event so common in our nation these days that one can hardly call it news anymore. I have no doubt that this event will elicit another angry cry from all of us who want to see this madness end. It will certainly trigger the usual run on guns and ammunition by millions fearing the imminent government seizure of their weapons. The gun industry will cry all the way to the bank. We can expect the usual mantra from the NRA: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The presidential hopefuls will get into the act, walking the tightrope between public empathy for the victims and quiet assurances to their NRA donors that nothing will change. Once the victims are buried and forgotten, life will go on-for the rest of us anyway.
I don’t have any animus against guns or gun owners per se. I grew up in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula where hunting was second only to fishing in popularity as an outdoor sport. My parents did not hunt or own guns, but most of my friends’ families did. There were few shootings or gun accidents back then because gun owners in our community were, for the most part, responsible people who knew how to use guns, how to care for them and how to keep them locked away and out of the hands of children. Guns were something very different back then. We never thought of them as weapons. They were like fishing poles, designed to enable men and women to engage in a friendly contest with mother nature in the beauty of the wilderness.
Here I will pause and apologize to my animal loving friends who might find this characterization insensitive. Personally, I prefer not to kill animals. But in defense of my hunter friends, I would only say that their taking down a deer in the wilderness, as any number of animal predators might do, is a good deal more humane than the industrial slaughter of millions of cattle that never see anything like a natural habitat. Food for thought.
But I digress. Today guns are more than mere sporting implements. They have become the ultimate symbol of control in this increasingly violent and paranoid American cultural scene. My gun stands between me and the sweeping changes overtaking society. My gun is all that protects me from a government I can no longer trust. My gun represents my ultimate power to say “no.” When they finally come for me (whoever “they” are), I can turn my gun on them and fight to the last round. Then, in a final act of defiance, I can turn it myself. As the now well-known bumper sticker epitaph has it: “They’ll take my gun when they can pry it from my cold dead fingers.”
Despite the never ending string of school, workplace and public area shootings we have experienced over the last couple of decades, Americans for the most part remain firmly committed to retaining their fire arms. The shootings, we are told by gun control foes, are the price we must pay for maintaining our freedoms, and that requires unrestricted ownership and use of firearms. It is not surprising to me that we have become a nation that loves its guns more than its children. The Hebrew Scriptures teach us that false gods always demand the blood sacrifice of our children. It’s the price we must pay, they tell us, for the safety and protection they offer. So we hang on tight to our guns and offer the required sacrifice. The latest holocaust in Roseburg will not be the last. Molech is a hungry deity. At its root, our problem with guns is not in regulation or the lack of it. Our problem is idolatry.
Our gospel lesson tells the story of a young man who turned away from the kingdom of God because he could not let go of his wealth. Unless he had a change of heart that we don’t know of, I suspect that his money had to be pried from his cold dead fingers in the end. So it is with all the idols to which we cling so tenaciously whether guns, wealth or something else. They promise safety, security and happiness. But in the end, and only when it is too late, do we finally discover that they have robbed us of what is most dear, lied to us, betrayed us and deserted us.
For some autobiographical information on Amos, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12th. Israel was experiencing an economic, military and religious revival under the leadership of her King, Jeroboam II. Business was booming; the long struggle with Syria had ended in victory for Israel; the chief sanctuary of the Lord in Bethel was packed to the rafters with avid worshipers. It was morning in Israel. Yet despite all appearances to the contrary, things were rotten to the core. The courts were turning “justice to wormwood.” Vs. 7. A new commercial class had gained unprecedented wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the poor even as they patronized the temple singing the hymns to Israel’s God. Vs. 11. It was Amos’ job to tell his people that their wealth was not evidence of God’s blessing, but kindling for God’s fierce wrath. Wealth built on injustice will not be tolerated among the people called to be God’s light to the nations. So Amos calls his people to “seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire against the house of Joseph.” Vs. 6.
The parallels here between 8th Century Israel and 21st Century Wall Street are hard to miss. That pervasive infection of greed, selfishness and complete lack of conscience that built a mountain of phony wealth ending in a devastating crash ruining our economy is precisely the kind of sin infecting Israel. Like Amos, there were some lone voices in the business community crying out words of warning, but they were ignored. Though we can surely point to conduct by banks, mortgage brokers and venture capitalists that was absolutely despicable, I believe part of the blame for our present economic woes must fall squarely upon the rest of us who were all too willing to tolerate such conduct as long as it was growing our pensions and increasing the value of our homes. Nobody was trying to occupy Wall Street when the gravy train was on the roll.
Still and all, I think we need to be careful about drawing parallels. There is a difference between Israel and the United States of America. Israel was God’s covenant partner. She was called to be a light to the nations. She had received her freedom as a people and her land from the hand of God. She was God’s chosen people. Therefore, she was judged under the terms of the covenant relationship that her conduct had so grievously violated. The United States is not God’s chosen people. God has no covenant with America. Because America is not a party to the covenant, America is not answerable to its terms. That is not to say that God is unconcerned with what America or any other nation does or does not do. In general terms, God’s judgment falls upon all nations that practice injustice and unrighteousness. Psalm 47:8-9. In general, God judges the righteousness of a people by how they treat and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst. Psalm 82:1-4. I think we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that God is not pleased with the conduct leading up to the crash on Wall Street or with how the economic burdens resulting from that crash have been distributed. That said, Israel, as a people called by God to live in a covenant relationship reflecting a better hope for all humanity, is uniquely responsible for obedience to the terms of the covenant under which that hope is given concrete expression. So this word of Amos is more properly directed to the people of God, Israel and the church, than to Wall Street. So we need to ask ourselves how these words speak to us as disciples of Jesus.
For the first three centuries of its existence, the church had no buildings, meeting places or financial reserves. It met in people’s homes or in the open air. Not until the church came under the patronage of the Roman Empire did it begin to accumulate wealth. As both Amos and Jesus point out, wealth often looks like blessing when, in fact, it is a curse. When churches come into money, they have a tendency to become more like lawyers, businesspeople and accountants than faithful disciples. It is sobering to realize that Israel’s finest hours occurred at times when she had her back against the wall and nothing with which to defend herself. That is where she most often witnessed the saving power of God. When Israel had wealth, peace and power she tended to forget where these gifts came from and began to imagine that they were hers to do with as she wished. The church is no less vulnerable to the temptations of wealth than was Israel. We are just as apt to confuse the gift with the Giver and place our trust and confidence on the shifting sand of financial security rather than on the Rock which is Christ Jesus.
The church must never forget that she is in the business of making disciples-not growing membership, maintaining church programs and facilities or investing wealth to make more wealth. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. Most of us have a hard time having money without becoming attached to it and allowing it to run our lives. The gospel lesson is a very pointed reminder of that very thing.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. This attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Gloomy as it is, though, the psalm contains a ray of light. The psalmist’s prayer was answered. The psalmist concludes his/her prayer with the words: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Vs. 17. That we have this psalm in the scriptures, and that we will be singing it together on Sunday demonstrates that God in fact “established the work” of this psalmist’s hands. (I should mention that I owe this insight to Professor Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.) As dark as this psalm may be (and it is pretty dark), it is nevertheless a testament to God’s determination to make of our lives something beautiful and worth preserving. It reminds me of Paul’s assuring word to the disciples at Philippi: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Time may be at work taking us apart piece by piece. But the Spirit of God is also at work piecing together the new person born at our baptism into Jesus Christ.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my general comments on the Letter to the Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, October 4th. You might also want to take a look at the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
In Sunday’s lesson, the writer compares the word of God to a double edged sword. Vs. 12. This is a violent image. A sword has one purpose and that is to slay. Yet as discomforting as this image may be, it is entirely appropriate. To hear God’s word is to come very close to death. Recall the terror of Isaiah when confronted by a vision of God in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah 6:5. The word of God discerns the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Vs. 12. In its light, nothing is hidden.
I think a lot of us put a lot of effort into keeping secrets on ourselves. It has been said that every person has three selves: the one she is, the one she thinks she is and the one everyone else things she is. It is the first one that I am least likely to know because I am overly concerned with the first two. I want to believe that I am a person of integrity, courage, wisdom and vision. Those character traits are important to a minister. So I when I am less than honest, I rationalize it by convincing myself that it is all to spare the feelings of those who might be offended by what I believe to be the truth. When I am cowardly, I tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. When I make mistakes, I make excuses. When I am at a loss over what needs to be done, I try to exude confidence. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a disguise. So as painful as a confrontation with God’s word may be, it is also liberating. There is nothing like the relief a person feels when a good and trusted friend says, “Who do you think you’re fooling. I know what’s going on here. Let’s talk about it.” Suddenly, the pressure is off. I no longer have to maintain the façade. I can stop making excuses, explanations, justifications and get down to the business of taking responsibility and making the changes I need to make.
That brings me to the second part of this lesson. The writer of Hebrews does not urge us to flee in fear from this blinding light of God’s word, but rather “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Vs. 16. God never wounds us unless it is for the ultimate purpose of healing. If the word of the Lord sometimes scares the hell out of us, it is because we were made for something better than hell. Those of you who have undergone joint replacement surgery know that healing can sometimes be a long and painful journey. Successful surgery can relieve you of a lot of pain and give you more freedom of mobility. But to get there, the pain is going to have to get worse before it gets better. So it is with the Kingdom of God. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells in our midst and we live together in peace with our neighbors and all of creation is one to which I am irresistibly drawn. Yet I know that I am not the sort of person that could live in such a renewed creation. I need a heart transplant and the only surgical instrument sharp enough to perform that operation for me is the word of God. Only daily repentance and forgiveness among people of faith can assist me in growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. With the psalmist, I must rely upon God to establish the work of my hands. I must trust Jesus to complete what he began at my baptism.
This is without doubt one of the saddest stories in the gospels. The way Mark tells it, this young man was sincere when he came to Jesus yearning for eternal life. And let us be clear about one thing. When the gospels speak of “eternal life,” they are not merely speaking about some distant event in the “sweet by and by.” Eternal life is life that is spent doing the things that are of eternal importance, the things that matter to God. Naturally, then, Jesus refers the young man to the Commandments, all of which he claimed to have observed from his youth. We are told that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him.” Vs. 21. “You lack just one thing,” says Jesus. Vs. 21. But alas, that one thing is just one thing too much for the young man. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to spend the rest of his life doing things that matter eternally. Instead, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” Vs. 22.
I am afraid that I identify with this rich young man. No, I am not rich by Bill Gates standards, but like nearly all Americans, I enjoy a measure of wealth that two thirds of the world can only dream about. I have never had to go hungry. I have never had to travel further than the kitchen sink to find clean water. Like everybody else in America, I feel I am not making enough, that my taxes are too high and that everything is more expensive than it should be. But I have no fear of starving to death or having to sleep on the street or being driven out of the community in which I live. Even if I were to end up broke and homeless, I have enough family and friends that would see to my basic needs and a social safety net that, despite years of trimming down, is still there. That might not get me on the cover of Forbes, but it makes me filthy rich by standards of most the world’s population.
Like the rich young man in our gospel lesson, I want to live my life for the things that matter eternally, but at the cost of losing my wealth? I would like to think that this is just a hypothetical question. Of course Jesus does not expect all of us to give up everything. This rich young man was a special case because…well, because he was rich. He was addicted to his wealth. But that’s not me. I am no addict. Just because an alcoholic must refrain from drinking to maintain his sobriety, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be teatotalers. So the argument goes. Trouble is, there is no indication that this young man was anymore addicted to his wealth than we are. In fact, we don’t even learn that he was wealthy until the end of the story. There is no indication either that Jesus knew about his wealth initially.
Moreover, the twelve disciples, who do not appear to have been rich, were also required to gave up all of their possessions to follow Jesus. Vs. 8. So this is not about class warfare. Jesus is not siding with 99% against the 1%. Jesus asks no more or less of this young man than he does the rest of his disciples. But unlike the twelve, who left everything to follow Jesus, the young man cannot walk away from his wealth. So I do not believe we can get ourselves out from under this troubling word by trying to make of the rich young man a special and extraordinary case. Giving up everything seems to go hand and hand with discipleship.
This story is so unsettling because it hits us right where we live. Next to the cult of individualism that has become so much a part of the American consciousness, I believe that the greatest threat to the health of the church today is our wealth. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be the church without elaborate sanctuaries in which to worship, a seminary trained pastor for each individual congregation, a Sunday School, numerous programs to meet every conceivable need and a big piece of real estate that does nothing other than provide a place for people to park their cars once a week on Sunday. The churches in the African nation of Namibia cannot afford any of these things, yet these churches are growing and thriving even as American churches decline. The question here is not about individual giving to the church-important as that is. Rather, the question is whether, as a church, we have given all to Jesus. How much of what we do is geared toward satisfying our own wants and needs as members rather than surrendering all to become the Body of Jesus in our communities? Do we trust Jesus enough to follow after him doing the things that matter eternally-even when those things are not financially rewarding, desired by our members or promising in terms of increasing membership? We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in Jesus, but are we ready to put our money where our mouth is? A church’s budget is frequently a portal into its soul. What do our financial records say about who we are? Do they reflect a passionate concern for the things that matter eternally?