JULY 15, 2018 SERMON at GRACE
AMOS 7:7-15 and MARK 6:14-29
“WHEN THE GOOD NEWS FEELS LIKE BAD NEWS”
It feels so good to be in a place where I am accepted – to come back home to this church community that was the first place I was celebrated for all parts of who I was:
the first public place my partner, Leah, and I could hold hands without fear;
the first place I shared the name and pronouns I had chosen for myself;
the first place I could voice my sense of call to ordained ministry.
Being surrounded by people who accept us feels good.
Part of me wishes I could spend all my time in places like this church.
But it turns out that always being accepted, always being liked, is not what following Jesus, what sharing God’s news for the world, is all about. Because sometimes, sharing God’s news for the world comes as bad news for the people who have to hear it, ourselves included. And no one appreciates the bearer of bad news.
Jesus himself was not accepted everywhere he went – as you heard from Cathy last week, he experienced rejection from his hometown. His message – the same message as Israel’s prophets of old – was just too out-there, just too offensive, for most people to get behind.
It was a message of a new heaven and earth, a world turned on its head, where the powerful would be cast down and the lowly lifted up.
That is the Good News of God – liberation and justice for the oppressed, a justice that wipes away corruption and brings us into a Kin-dom, a true kinship that has no hierarchy, no place for power struggles and exploitation.
Prophets tend to face rejection and even violence for proclaiming this good news.
Before Jesus suffered the ultimate rejection – execution at the hands of the state – his contemporary John the Baptist faced it first.
And several centuries before either of them lived and preached and died, the prophet Amos was exiled for doing the same thing in the Kingdom of Israel.
Let’s start with Amos.
Amos was busy tending to his cattle and his trees when God came to him with a mission that would take him from his little village of Tekoa up into the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
He had to leave his herds and trees behind to tell the upper classes of Israel that God had had enough of how they oppressed the poor in order to maintain their luxurious lifestyle – how they “sold the needy for a pair of sandals,” as Amos puts it [Amos 8:6].
God has Amos use a metaphor about a strange tool called a “plumb line” that boils down to this: God has measured Israel and found them completely skewed, due to the injustice that the rich inflict on the vulnerable. Their world must be leveled to the ground and rebuilt in order to be more just.
I bet those of us who enjoy lives of relative comfort – running water, a car that guzzles gas to get us where we need to be, access to billions of items we can have delivered to our doorsteps from Amazon.com – feel the same shudder of fear that the high priest Amaziah and his fellow elites felt at Amos’ words.
There’s no denying the similarities between our society and the one God called Amos to prophesy against: we too have gross income inequality, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, the worship of money at the expense of the marginalized…
In theory, sure, I like the idea of these systems radically changing, of no one being exploited…but does it have to mean I must sacrifice some of my favorite luxuries, or even my livelihood?
Must our fancy homes and all we have in them, our malls and factories and businesses, all be razed to the ground to make way for a system that does not exploit the poor?
Must there be destruction of the old, to bring in this new world of justice?
When we are at the top of the social ladder, or even the middle, when we are the ones benefiting from other people’s suffering, God’s good news about the world flipping upside down sounds a lot like bad news.
So Amos gets kicked out of Israel. He’s welcome to go spread his bad news elsewhere, the high priest tells him, but not there.
Some 300 years later, John the Baptist comes onto the scene.
Like Amos, John is disliked – feared, even – by those he calls out. Herod and his wife hate what John the Baptist says, so Herod arrests him and, ultimately, executes him.
As Cathy said last week, the prophet’s job is to shed light on injustice and denounce abuse. Amos did that. John the Baptist did that. Jesus did that.
What about us?
Are we all called to denounce abuse and shed light on injustice? Are we called…to be prophets?
Some people are anxious about claiming that title, prophet, and I’m with them – it’s a big title, it’s a big calling. Who are we, any of us, to claim to be prophets?
But in my Catholic faith the rites of baptism include the statement
“As Jesus was priest, prophet and king, so may you live always as a member of his body.”
– In other words, because we dwell in the Body of Christ, who is a prophet, we are all prophets ourselves.
It’s okay if we don’t all identify with the title prophet; after all, we see that Amos didn’t – he protests being called prophet, insisting he is just a shepherd, a dresser of sycamore trees.
Regardless of what we call ourselves, or what our career is in life, we are all called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to share God’s good but disruptive news of a world without corruption or suffering.
And we know from the stories of Amos and John the Baptist and Jesus himself that living such a life is not easy. It can mean getting in fights with family, losing friends, or getting in trouble at school or work. It can be uncomfortable and tense. It can be downright dangerous.
And it can feel pointless.
We try to explain why something is sexist, or ableist, or homophobic for what seems like the thousandth time without making much headway.
We call our representatives to explain the importance of a bill, only for them to vote against it.
We try to cut down our personal carbon footprint, but all the while scientists are telling us global warming is pretty much irreversible at this point.
Why keep fighting when it seems we can’t win, when Good News seems hard to come by these days?
Why did John the Baptist keep calling Herod out to the point of arrest, and even to the death? Why did Amos leave behind his comfortable job to go proclaim news no one wanted to hear?
Maybe the answer is different for everyone.
Some keep up hope that we can make a change, that with God nothing is impossible.
Some recognize how they’ve played a role in the suffering of the world and want to do whatever they can to make amends.
Others continue striving towards justice when it feels like a lost cause simply because it’s the right thing to do, because they are committed to God’s vision even when the world calls it foolishness.
For me, I feel strongly what another prophet, Jeremiah, says about proclaiming God’s word; he says:
If I say, “I will not mention God,
or speak any more in Her name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
Jeremiah talks about how he is surrounded by people mocking him, friends who want to shut him up, yet he still cannot stop speaking out when God compels him to do so.
There is something in me that can’t not speak out. Something in me that burns when I know I can do or say something to further God’s kin-dom on earth.
When I fail to say or do anything, the missed opportunity sits with me for the rest of the day, for a week, even for months after.
There’s an encounter that is still burning in me from early June. I was swimming and a older woman, also white, came to the pool and eventually struck up a conversation with me.
We were having a good time, talking about our families, and pets we’ve had, when suddenly, somehow, we got on the topic of police violence.
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” my new acquaintance began, and my stomach twisted. We all know what comes after that statement. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body, but…” and then she said something racist.
And I…said. nothing.
I didn’t say anything to agree with her, sure, but my silence was approval enough.
At that point, insisting that God’s good news means recognizing the racism pervading our society, pervading ourselves, would have felt like delivering bad news – I would have made this new acquaintance feel bad. So I was silent.
And what’s the big deal, anyway? I mean, it’s not like me saying something would have changed her mind. Why put forth the effort? Why be such a downer?
Well, from a selfish perspective, I should have said something because now my silence is burning in my bones weeks later.
God compels us to speak out against the injustices that we would rather ignore but that we cannot deny are embedded in every system of our society. As Rachel Held Evans says in her new book, Inspired,
“Saying we are a nation of peace doesn’t make it so – not for Trayvon Martin, not for Tamir Rice, not for the twenty kindergarteners shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School… not for the Iraqi villagers in the crosshairs of our drones.
Tensions around issues of injustice must not be avoided in the name of an easy peace and cheap grace, but rather passionately engaged, until justice rolls down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” End quote.
I should have said something to the woman at the pool because who knows? maybe, just maybe, if enough people start calling her out – especially her fellow white people – she would eventually start rethinking her beliefs.
I say “especially white people” because research shows that white people are more likely to listen to other white people about what is and isn’t racist.
Men are more likely to listen to other men when called out on sexism, straight people listen better to other straight people about homophobia…and so on.
When someone says or does something prejudiced, it is more likely for those with privilege to get through to them than the people they’re being prejudiced against – because people of color, LGBT people, women, are all just being too sensitive. They’re reading into things, seeing discrimination that isn’t there. Or so the theory goes.
If one of the people with privilege speaks up, well then, they must have a point. They’re an objective party.
This failure to believe the people who actually experience oppression is a problem, of course, and one we should keep working to dismantle. But for now, it means those of us with privilege have a responsibility to use that privilege. It can make a difference.
I know that when a cisgender person speaks up about transphobia so that I don’t have to, I could weep with relief. It’s only right for me to do the same when I’m the one with privilege, when it’s still uncomfortable but not dangerous for me to call out an injustice.
But of course, speaking up is only part of our calling – we are not just like the prophets; we are also the ones to whom prophets speak.
We are not just Amos and John the Baptist; we are also the high priest Amaziah, we are Herod and Herodias.
We must listen without getting defensive when we are the ones who are called out; we must train ourselves to pay attention to the voices this world tries to silence.
We have a prime opportunity this very week to listen to the voices of people enduring inhumane conditions. Amazon workers in Spain have called upon their fellow employees around the world to join them in a walk-out for Amazon Prime Day, beginning tomorrow, July 16 and going through Wednesday, the 18th.
These strikers are asking would-be customers to avoid shopping on amazon.com for the duration of Amazon Prime Day, in the hopes of acquiring better working conditions and pay.
It’s a small thing that we can do, but I hope you’ll all do it with me. Stay off of Amazon for the next few days. Those with power will only listen to their workers if we, the consumers, join them in their struggle.
It is this sort of solidarity, banding together to fight injustice so that no one needs to do it alone, that gives me hope. Facing rejection is a lonely thing, but none of us is truly alone.
At the end of our Gospel reading, John the Baptist’s followers have not abandoned him even in death. They take his body and care for it, bury it. In our own day we do the same for our fallen prophets – we say their names, we make sure no one forgets them.
And we also support one another while we live. People face rejection from the state, or from workplaces, or from their families, but find acceptance and love elsewhere. We band together to help them pay legal fees, or for surgeries, or simply for a meal; we offer our homes for them to stay in, our shoulders for them to cry on.
Following in the footsteps of the prophets is no easy thing – it’s an often uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous or costly, frequently thankless task.
People receive the good news like it is bad news – because from the perspective of the world, it is. God’s good news of social norms turned on their heads, of liberation of those who are dehumanized and exploited, demands major changes, changes that will come with losses. We may lose some friendships, some comforts, some unfair advantages in order to reach the new heaven and earth.
We will all die a little before we are raised up utterly transformed.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why we are doing it, why we keep proclaiming God’s news – but in those times that burning in our bones urges us onward. And the communities where we are accepted – for me, places like Grace Presbyterian Church – provide us with the support and rest we need to continue the struggle.
Sometimes I wish I could stay in places like this forever. And I thank God that places like this exist, places that are not perfect but are actively working towards living into the Kin-dom of God.
But we cannot stay forever.
God has given us an incredible gift – She has invited us to be part of the incoming of the Kin-dom! This is the good news for us – that we do not passively receive the Kin-dom of God, it’s not something that happens to us; it’s something God invites us to help build.
So, friends, let us gather strength for the journey, and let us go out together, and let us proclaim God’s good news no matter the cost.
Because even though we don’t always see it right away, although the world sees the justice and the mercy of God as bad news, we can trust and expect the Kin-dom that arises out of our old world will be something beautiful, something just, something really and truly good, for all of us.
Thanks be to God.
https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/22767/Drury_washington_0250E_11507.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y ; https://medium.com/gender-theory/men-need-to-get-more-active-in-feminism-8e73b959850a