Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Maybe you’ve heard that in polite conversation, the two topics you should avoid are religion and politics. All I can say, after reading today’s appointed texts, is “Good thing church is not a place for polite conversation!” Both our readings from Amos and from Mark make not just one, but BOTH topics—religion and politics!—mandatory subjects! I want to be clear: I don’t intend that Trinity should ever endorse specific candidates or promote a particular political party or anything like that. But if we believe what we say about God’s love for the whole world, if we believe that in our baptisms we are part of one family—the in-breaking of the kingdom of God—then our faith cannot be relegated to one hour on Sundays. Our opinions and actions—including the political ones—must be informed and shaped by our religious convictions. We are obligated, as people of faith, to use our voices and our votes to address issues dear to God’s heart.
I’m not saying anything new. The prophet Amos, who lived about 800 years before Jesus was even born, makes the same point. Amos was not a professional church worker, not pastor or scholar. Nor was he a politician. He was, in his own words, “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamores”–a layperson like most of you. Though the society in which he lived was relatively stable and prosperous, Amos found himself increasingly distressed by how unfair business practices and oppressive taxes squeezed the poor, forcing some into slavery. Consumerism and greed were running rampant, even among the good church-going, Bible-believing crowd. Amos hears God nudging him again and again to pay attention to how people with power are abusing those with none.
In today’s passage God explains the problem to Amos using a plumb line like this (demonstrate). This is a tool used by construction workers and other builders to make sure that walls are straight and structures line up properly. Measured against God’s dream, God’s plumb line of justice where, as the Psalmist puts it, “righteousness and peace kiss each other,” the people of God are completely askew. While wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, the majority of Israelites are losing their land, being crushed by increasing debt, and being sold into slavery.
Do you see how we can’t read this text without connecting religion and politics? Amos is concerned about people as whole beings—their spirits and their bodies. The two go cannot be separated any more than we can separate our political and spiritual selves. What makes Amos REALLY mad is that the people who considered themselves God’s chosen ones seemed convinced that as long as they kept worshipping properly, they were being faithful to God, and could ignore their covenant responsibility to take care of the poor and marginalized. Amos has had it with this sort of superficial religiosity, and tells the priest at the shrine of Bethel what God has been pointing out about how far from plumb the people have fallen. The priest tells Amos, basically, “You don’t like how things are going here? You are welcome to leave, and go prophesy across the border. Remember that this place is the sanctuary of the king.”
Taking the truth to the sanctuary of the king 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 God’s reign.” It’s his version of Amos’ plumb line speech. John includes everyone in his call to repent and reform, including King Herod, who has illicitly married his brother’s wife Herodias. She is angry with John the Baptist, and tries to find a way to get back at him for humiliating her in public. At a lavish banquet, where all kinds of high-ranking officials are present, Herod’s daughter dances. In front of all his guests, Herod tells her she can have whatever she asks for. She asks her mother’s advice, and Herodias seizes her chance. She tells her child to ask for the head of the prophet on a platter. And she gets it. No one ever said that speaking truth to power was safe. It is not. That’s one way we know a person has power—there is danger inherent in crossing him or her. (New members, I don’t blame you if you want to start heading for the door right about now.)
In the time of Amos, in the time of John the Baptist, and in our time, the struggle to live faithful, righteous lives has been the calling and failure of God’s people. Right now, in the richest country in the world, people are struggling with problems not too different from those that plagued a shepherd tree-trimmer three thousand years ago or a locust-eating preacher two thousand years ago. We are not plumb! Right now, from their cages on the border, mothers and fathers are praying to see their children again. Right now, black teens are feeling threatened by rampant racism that will disproportionately land them in behind bars. Right now, a child is praying that her sick mother will be able to receive the medication she needs, though there is no insurance to pay for it. A young person with two jobs is hoping he can buy groceries as well as pay the utility bills this month. A community devastated by a gas-line explosion or a mass shooting or a hurricane is seeking stability again. People who need access to clean water, safe homes, or quality education are praying for all these things. Right now, everything is out of whack. Our world, our country, our neighborhoods, our lives are not plumb! Lord, have mercy!
After he had John the Baptist executed, King Herod felt guilty for what he’d done. When he hears about what Jesus is saying and doing, he’s afraid that Jesus is John the Baptist reincarnated, come to haunt him. His conscience is confronting him with what is known in Lutheran circles as The Law. Not The Law as in “the legal system,” but The Law as in “God’s ideal for our world and how we live in it.” The Law is God’s plumb line, summed up nicely in the Ten Commandments. The trouble with the Law is not what it demands, but our inability to live up to it, even on our very best days. Herod knew he wasn’t plumb.
But cutting off someone’s head is only an extreme example of failing to keep God’s law. Every day, we allow injustice to take place in our names and with our dollars. We ignore the cries of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely. We wash our hands of unethical behavior that produces our technology, our clothes, our homes, our medicines. We take advantage of our racial, gender, class, educational, and other privileges without trying to extend those unearned advantages to others. We neglect and abuse the environment, and hurt ourselves and others in large and small ways. We do not keep the Law perfectly. We are out of plumb and cannot straighten ourselves.
But listen to this: before the world was formed, God loved us into being. Despite all those things we have done and left undone that have damaged our relationships and our planet, God gathers us in, looks on us with compassion and kindness. For God so loves the world that God gave up everything to bring it to wholeness! That’s what our epistle lesson tells us today. God has adopted us, has joyfully given us every privilege, every benefit, every quality of grace that God’s family members can have. We are inheritors of all of God’s goodness—and we don’t need to do a thing to inherit it. We just receive all the gifts God bestows on us because Jesus has claimed us as family. He is the vine and we are the branches. Put another way, Jesus is perfectly plumb, and we are all attached to his righteousness.
This is the Gospel, the flip side of the Law, the other half of the double-edged sword that is Scripture. This is the Good News that springs from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the sake of the world. In Jesus, “steadfast love and faithfulness have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” So let’s hear the Law and feel God’s own righteous anger stirring against forces that deal out fear, suffering, and hurt to the creation God loves. And let’s use God’s own words and God’s own fierce advocacy to appeal for mercy and righteousness among those with ears to hear.
But let us also turn to the Good News. We have the authority to speak and act as representatives of God’s household, wherever we go and whoever we are. So let’s hear how God’s love sweeps over all and embraces all. Let’s bring our broken hearts and promises to Jesus, who can tend to the damage even while we are still broken. Let’s remember how God loves us when we strive to be faithful and sometimes just can’t do it (and even more, when we don’t even try). Let’s heed God’s calling to speak the truth to power, in spite of our trembling voices and shaking knees because we have the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. Let’s remind one another how God is with us and for us even when the consequences for our actions are hard.
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. Jesus invites us to a feast of blessing and hope, where Christ is both host and meal. At Jesus’ banquet, everyone gets abundant 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. This feast binds us again to the plumb line of Jesus, and reconnects us to one another. Here God enfolds us all, saints and sinners, now and forever, at the family table of God.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider