Friday, July 13, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 8, Amos 7.7-15, Mark 6.14-29, Speaking Truth to Power

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Is there anyone in our land capable of speaking truth to power?
Or has truth itself fallen victim to appeasement?  Have we come to the point that all that matters is that we tell people what they want to hear?
“What is truth?”   Pilate asked Jesus.
                “What is truth?”
Instinctively, I think we know what we are doing.
Within the political realm, and throughout the news organizations of our day, we sell as truth what is purely bias.
We know, don’t we, that we will hear one thing if we listen to MSNBC, and quite another if we listen to FOX.  So we tune into that which we want to hear.
Who will speak truth to power?
When I ask that question, one way to hear it is “Who will speak the truth to our politicians?”
But this is a land in which the government is not one person who holds the reign of power.
Abraham Lincoln said it best when he concluded the Gettysburg Address with the words:
and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
If Lincoln’s words are true, that ours is a government by the people, for the people, and of the people, then the question is who will speak the truth to the people?
The problem with democracy is that people hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe, and rarely does anyone concern themselves with the question of truth.
We know our bias, and embrace it, but will we listen to the truth when it is spoken?
Even if it is God who speaks that word of truth?
Case in point:
One example.
Scientists are alarmed at the rate at which the world is warming, and the melting of the polar ice caps.  They warn of a drastic rise in the sea levels, and other calamities of nature that will result.  Of this there is almost universal agreement among scientists.
Now when we hear that, we are divided.  We see it as a matter of bias, and believe what we want to believe, and are content with that.
But truth is truth.
Either the ice is melting or it is not.
Either the oceans are rising or they are not.
Will it take Miami being underwater for us to recognize this truth? 
Will we heed the words of the prophets in our midst?  Or for that matter will it be the scientists themselves that will look like fools in the end?
This is not a new problem.
Prophets have never been welcome.
In our Gospel lesson John the Baptist is beheaded.  Herod had thrown him into prison because John had spoken the truth to Herod, a word of judgment against him.
And yet Herod had grown somewhat fond of John.
Mark tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
I’d suggest to you that Herod was attracted to John, because at a very deep level, he recognized that John spoke a word of integrity, of truth, God’s word.
And even though John’s words were sometimes against Herod, himself, Herod found the truth to be somewhat satisfying. 
When you’re surrounded by “Yes men” having someone who speaks the truth can be refreshing.
Yet that did not prevent Herod from beheading John in the end, for his wife was not fond at all about hearing John speak the truth.
Amos is another prophet who spoke the truth.
His word was not welcome.
Amaziah, the “King’s prophet”, the preacher who the king liked to hear, said to Amos:
"O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
It is a temple of the kingdom.  Civil religion.
One of the rules of civil religion is that you tell the people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.
In our country, the civil religion that we all adhere to in one way or another is best expressed in the simple phrase: “God bless America.”
Likewise, we outright reject the words of anyone who speaks otherwise.  For example, when Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor for some twenty years, used the phrase “God damns America” to express the judgment of God against our sinfulness, there was outrage across the nation, and even Obama had to severe his ties with Wright.
Wright had violated one of the tenants of American Civil religion, namely that “God blesses America”, by suggesting that God was judging America for its sins.
Amos answered Amaziah:  "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel. '
The word Amos prophesied was hard for Israel to hear:
Thus says the Lord:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;
And again Amos writes:
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.
A prophet, a true prophet, speaks the truth to power, and most often is rejected.  It’s hard to make a living as a prophet.  You are more likely to get fired or killed.
Amos’ word that he spoke to Israel was one that called for justice and righteousness, especially for the sake of the poor in the land.
More than any other theme in the Bible, God’s concern for the poor and outcast is one that the prophets constantly return to.
It’s a word that the rich and powerful in Israel refused to listen to, and the result, according to the prophets, was the demise of the nation.
The Kingdom which they thought would last forever was destroyed and its people taken into captivity.
If “God bless America” is one tenant of American Civil religion, “It’s the economy, stupid!” is another.
In other words, we understand God’s blessing of America in terms of economic prosperity.
To an extent, I think we are all guilty here.
I know I am.
Many of you know, for example, that I am not one of Donald Trump’s biggest fans.  I didn’t like him as a reality TV star, and I certainly don’t like him as a president.
But you know what I do a lot, these days.
I check the stock market.  I have a pension, and so I watch the stock market.
And you know what will really make me happy in the end? 
I’d be delighted if the stock market rose another 20 to 25% by the time I retired.
The most difficult question for me to ask myself in this regard pertains to this:
I’m sixty one, and most likely won’t retire fully until 70.  Eight years.  Trump maybe president for 6 more of those years. 
What will concern me the most?
Will the way we treat the poor, or the immigrant, or minorities, or any other group really matter?
Or will everything be cool if I can retire comfortably?
American civil religion is all about God blessing America with prosperity. 
And to a degree, most of us buy into that.
But who are the prophets in our midst?
Are there people like John the Baptist whose call to repentance would prepare the way of the Lord?
Are there people like Amos, not a religious professional by any means, but a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees that was called to speak the truth to power?
Many a pastor would fancy themselves to be a prophet.
I mean, after all, we are called to speak God’s Word, are we not?
You’d probably be concerned about my humility if I began every sermon with “Thus saith the Lord. . .” but at the same time, we believe that pastors should not be speaking anything but God’s word.  Kind of a tension there.
Yet we are kind of like Amaziah.  We are paid prophets.  And that means that we are hesitant to speak the truth, because, among other things, we are concerned about our pay checks and the status of our pension account.
But the truth is the truth.  It’s not a matter of personal bias.
God is either concerned for the poor, and for justice and righteousness, or he is not.
God’s will matters.  Or it does not.
Will we heed the words of the prophets God sends to us or will we ignore them?
And if we hear God’s word, we will act according to it?
It’s this last question that is the most difficult.
I may believe that global warming is as dire as they say, but does that belief change the way I live?
I may believe that God’s concern is for justice and righteousness for the poor, but does that affect my own pension account and checkbook?
I may believe that God speaks a word of judgment to his people from time to time, but will I hear that word of judgment as a word spoken to me, and will I repent?
When we hear God’s word, are we willing to consider changing our lives to conform to it?
That’s the question.
Belief apart from action is rather meaningless.
And yet to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result is insanity. 
If we want to experience the blessings of God we need to conform our lives to his will.
Otherwise it will be a word of judgment that we hear from the likes of Amos or John.
And that’s a word we don’t want to hear, none of us.

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