July 15, 2012
I’m told that in polite conversation one never brings up religion or politics.
Good thing this is not a place for polite conversation! Today’s texts make BOTH topics mandatory! Whenever people ever tell you that religion and politics should not be mixed or connected in any way, ask them what we are do with these texts. I want to be clear about this: I don’t mean Trinity should ever endorse specific candidates or promote a political party or anything like that. But I do think that if we believe what we say we believe about God’s love for the whole world, our political opinions must be informed and shaped by our religious convictions. We have to think about how our understanding of God’s dreams for the world can best be addressed in our current context. We are obligated, as people of faith, to use our voices and our votes to draw attention to issues that we believe are dear to God’s heart.
I think a good example of what I mean is seen in today’s Old Testament reading from Amos. Amos was not a pastor or scholar. He was not a professional prophet, nor even related to a prophet–he was, in his own words, “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamores.” A layman like most of you. But he finds himself increasingly distressed by how the well-off people put on great displays of piety while ignoring the poor in their midst. Amos hears God nudging him again and again to notice how people with power are abusing those with none. Eventually he can’t stand it anymore—he finds himself compelled to speak out, to tell others what’s on God’s heart and mind.
Amos makes his way to the shrine at Bethel to talk to the priest, Amaziah. He points out to the priest that, while their little nation of Israel broke away from the southern Kingdom of Judah in 922 BCE in order to become become a shining city on a hill, it hasn’t worked. Instead, the kings of Israel have turned out to be exactly the same kinds of corrupt rulers that they thought they’d left behind in Jerusalem. Amos fumes about how wealth is becoming concentrated in the hands of an undeserving few, while the majority of Israelites are losing their land, being crushed by increasing debt, and being sold into slavery.
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you see how we can’t read this text and not consider our own political situation? But what concerns Amos is not just political–it’s a religious issue, too. What makes Amos REALLY mad is that the majority of Israelites, the people who consider themselves God’s chosen ones, seem to be convinced that as long as they keep worshipping properly, they are being faithful to God, and so, can ignore their covenant responsibility to take care of the poor and marginalized. Amos has had it with this sort of superficial religiosity.
The priest tells Amos, basically, “You don’t like how things are going here? You are welcome to leave, and go prophesy to Judah. Remember that this place is the sanctuary of the king.” Amos doesn’t shut up, though, and he doesn’t move. He continues to speak out about how believers should align their lives with God’s priorities.
This is the same thing that gets John the Baptist in trouble in today’s Gospel lesson. As you may remember from the texts we hear about John the Baptist every Advent, John’s constant message was–everywhere and always–“Repent, be baptized, and prepare the way for the kingdom of God.” John includes everyone in his call to repent and reform, including the king. King Herod’s, who married his brother’s wife, is fascinated by John, for reasons not fully explained. But Herodias, his wife, is angry with him, and tries to find a way to get back at him for humiliating her in public. At a lavish banquet, at which all kinds of high-ranking officials are present, Herod’s daughter dances. In front of all his guests, he tells her she can have whatever she asks for. She asks her mother’s advice, and Herodias seizes her chance. She asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And she gets it.
No one ever said that speaking truth to power was safe. It is not. That’s how we know a person has power—if there is danger inherent in crossing him or her. I know it is no small thing that I am encouraging you to do it. But I am. I don’t know how we can say we are living out our faith if we don’t. Faith isn’t just trusting God to answer our prayers. It is also allowing ourselves to be used as the answers to the prayers of others. And I know that right now, a mother is praying that her sick child will be able to receive the medication needed, even if there is no money to pay for it. And I know that there are people who need jobs, who are praying fervently for this economy to get back on its feet. And there are families without access to clean water, or safe homes, or quality education who are praying for all these things. You know it too. How can we fail to speak out?
I hope you are angry as well as sad about this state of affairs. I hope that the inequity between peoples and nations, social classes and races, between humans and other creatures makes you mad for God’s sake. Literally, for GOD’s sake! For God so loves the world that God gives up everything to bring it to wholeness! That’s what our epistle
lesson is about. It’s a reminder to the church in Ephesus–and the church everywhere!–that God has adopted us, has given us every privilege that a family member can have. We are inheritors of all of God’s goodness. We have the authority to speak and act as representatives of God’s household, wherever we go and whoever we are.
So let’s use our privilege and our power to say out loud that some things that are going on in our society–our city, our state, our country, our world–are NOT RIGHT. Let’s get angry about injustice. Let’s say out loud, as God’s people, that some things we see around us are unacceptable, and have to change, even if saying so is dangerous. It is what God’s people have always been asked to do.
That, my friends, is what is known in Lutheran circles as the Law. Not law as in “the legal system,” but Law as in, “God’s ideal for our world and how we live in it.” The hard thing about the Law is not that it is not perfect—it is. The Law is summed up nicely in the Ten Commandments. To keep the Law perfectly is what God would have us do. The trouble with the Law is not what it demands, but our inability to live up to it, even on our very best days. What the Law does is what Soren Kierkegaard described as holding up a mirror so that we can see our sins clearly. To be humbled by the Law is part of the double-edged sword of what Scripture is and does.
The other edge of that Sword is known as Gospel, but it is not found only in the 4 books at the beginning of the New Testament that we call “Gospels.” Gospel means Good News, and wherever God’s promises overshadow human error, the Gospel is found. I looked and looked for the Gospel in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but I couldn’t find any. Actually, the best example comes right after this portion of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus hears of his cousin’s execution and goes off to pray for a bit. When he returns from his solitary grief, the crowd is hungry, and his disciples are worried about
where they are all going to find food. You all know what happens after that. It is a tale recounted in all four of the books we call Gospels, and occurs twice in Matthew’s!
It is a story we usually call The Feeding of the 5000. This story is pure Gospel: humans don’t have enough–enough food, enough trust in God to provide, enough generosity to deal with the shortfall. But Jesus brings Good News to all. Jesus takes what little is there, blesses it, and makes sure everyone has more than they need. It is just like Jesus to serve a banquet completely unlike the one Herod threw in the lesson we heard today! At Jesus’ banquet, everyone gets MORE life—no one loses his head. At Jesus’ banquet, all are equally cared for, rather than some people getting more than others. At Jesus’ banquet, even the doubting disciples get fed with food and faith and friendship.
So grab the double-edged sword of Scripture! Hear the Law and feel God’s own righteous anger against those parts of the world that serve suffering and hurt to the creation God loves. Use God’s own words to appeal for mercy and righteousness among those with ears to hear. But then turn to the Good News. Let God’s love sweep over all. Let Jesus tend to the brokenness even while it is still broken. Let God love you as you struggle to be faithful and sometimes can’t do it. Let God love you as you speak the truth to power, perhaps with trembling voice and shaking knees. Let God love you even if the consequences for your action are hard. Let God love you.
The way of Christ is a way of justice, a way that seems both bold and ludicrous. It is a justice waged not by the right people doing the right thing, but by the Holy Spirit at work in and through all circumstances. The seeds of compassion and justice were sown by our Lord when he fed the hungry—and when he proclaimed Good News to the poor, offered liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and gave the formerly-lame the power to stand up. This same mighty love was planted in you in the waters of baptism, maybe even without your knowing it.
In a few moments we will gather for a feast. It will not be a feast of destruction and fear and death, like King Herod’s. It will be a feast of love and life and hope, where Christ is both host and meal. A feast in which God enfolds us all, saints and sinners, now and forever. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider