Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sermon -- 16 July 2006

Proper 10 / 6th after Pentecost — 16 July 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Amos 7:7-15 Ps 85 Eph 1:1-14 Mark 6:7-13

“O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah; earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel.”

Maybe I’m just projecting my own naïveté onto everyone else, but my suspicion is that we all grew up with a fairly simple-minded Sunday School bible-story image of the religious life of the ancient Israelite kingdom (or kingdoms, as they became after Solomon when northern Israel seceded from southern Judah). We all know the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law, the Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai, and we probably assume that apart from the general sinfulness that we all share and a few notorious stinkers like Ahab and Jezebel, the people of God have been following the Law of Moses ever since.

Actually it’s not clear that such is the case. For instance, there is very little indication that during the days of the monarchs the great festivals and fasts, like Passover and Yom Kippur, were observed with any prominence. The Israelites offered sacrifice to the Lord God, but it’s not clear that there was really much difference between what they did, and what they thought about what they did, and what their pagan Canaanite neighbors were doing in their worship of Baal and the other deities of the Semitic pantheon. In fact, there was a lot of religious syncretism, people often worshipped the local gods, whoever or whatever they might be.

The reason I suspect that all that is true is because throughout the history of the Israelite monarchies from Saul (1000 BC, more or less) until the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians about 721 BC and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC, there is this recurring refrain from a few voices, whom we know as “the prophets” (although that’s a somewhat ambiguous term in itself; I’ll come back to that) about how the nation is going to hell in a handbasket. These are not occasional critiques! There seem to be at least some prophets speaking for the Lord God, ragging the Israelites all the time about their wickedness and faithlessness. Which suggests that any serious adherence to the Law of Moses may have been more the exception than the rule.

(Excursus: When did this change? It probably started in the religious reform under King Josiah in the late 600s BC, but it was too little too late; the Babylonians came; and so more importantly, the experience of exile in Babylonia. The Jews came back from exile in much better spiritual shape than they ever were before. Is there a lesson in that? Probably so. End of excursus.)

You have probably guessed by now that I am leading up to Amos, from whom we hear this morning. Amos was not a professional prophet. Thus the ambiguity about “prophets” that I mentioned earlier — the “sons of the prophets,” b’nai nabi’im, were guilds of cultic functionaries attached to shrines and temples. Among other things they acted as divine oracles to those who came to inquire of God. Ecstatic trances, sacred lots — sort of like psychics or fortune-tellers — lots of religious trappings but not really very much to do with God.

Anyway, Amos was not one of those prophets, as he makes clear, not an official prophet, not one of “the sons of the prophets”; he’s a herdsman and arborist, completely outside the religious establishment. He shows up at the royal Israelite shrine at Bethel and starts in about, “Hey, here’s what the Lord really requires of you, and you are out of plumb!” Well, that goes over like a dirty sock in the punchbowl, and the local priest Amaziah tells Amos to stuff it. They don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t fit in with their idea of nice comfortable religion.

(What exactly was Amos carrying on about? Well, for instance he was on them for lounging on ivory beds and drinking the finest wine and celebrating solemn religious assemblies while they trampled on the poor and needy. That wasn’t prophesying, that was meddling! You get the picture.)

We hear about Amos today because in the Gospel Jesus is sending his disciples on a mission, and gives them instructions about what to do if people don’t listen. Last week, you recall, we heard about how Jesus went back to Nazareth, and everyone said, “Oh, it’s only Jesus, we remember when he was just a little wad,” and Jesus said, “Well, a prophet is not without honor — except in his own home town!” You know, I just can’t help but think that the Bible — whether in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian New Testament — gives the distinct message that if we are faithful to God and to God’s message, the good news of God’s Reign, some people may not like us! Especially the religious establishment.

As we reflect on our vocation and task as the Church in the world today we need to keep this in mind. What is the Gospel? What is the Gospel really about? Who is God, and what does God really intend for us and want from us? And let me restructure those questions a little, because I don’t think this question gets asked nearly enough: If the Gospel is what we claim it is, and if God wants from us what we claim God wants from us, then what does that say about God? What does that say about who God is?

There are a lot of very religious folks out there who can quote the Scriptures for their purposes and who are very sure what God demands, especially what God demands of other people, but if they are right, then God is a pretty unpleasant fellow and not very much like anyone whom Jesus Christ would call “Abba — Father.” Folks like this gave Amos a bad time, because he did not fit into their religious system. Folks like this are likely to give us a bad time, because we don’t fit into their religious system. This should not be surprising: we follow a Lord to whom they gave a really bad time because what he said and did broke their religious system.

As our Church struggles with God’s call to Christian life and mission, as we seem to be doing these days — again — and always — let us pray to discern what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really about. Our ultimate context is what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Ephesians today: “[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.” Who is God? What does God really intend for us, and expect of us? This isn’t about religious systems. This is about God’s purposes for the meaning and destiny of the universe!

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

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