Are We Ready to Hear the Truth?, Proper 10 (C)

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

On August 28, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and delivered what would become one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century: his “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he called for civil rights and economic protections for all people, and decried the systemic racism and violence that haunted every corner of America.

In articulating his vision for a peaceful society that moves away from racism and embraces unity and harmony, King declared, “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 1

With these words, Dr. King, a modern prophet, was recalling the ancient prophet Amos, who first wrote, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

While most modern Biblical scholars confine Amos to the category of a “minor prophet” because of his brevity, if we devote anything less than our full attention to Amos, we do so at our peril. Almost every word of his nine short chapters packs a powerful prophetic word that the Church and culture alike desperately need to hear.

Amos unleashes a prophetic fire against Israel, whose people are suffocating under the weight of systemic injustice and rampant violence. He excoriates the rich and powerful elite who have amassed their position by standing on the necks of the poor, calling out a litany of sins: unfair lending practices, unsustainable agricultural and environmental policy, and gross income inequality – issues that continue to plague our society today.

It doesn’t take long for the people of Israel to realize that Amos is unlike the other so-called prophets of his day. The vocation of prophet itself had become compromised. The so-called prophets that the people were familiar with preached a watered-down message that had more to do with securing their own political and economic position than divinely-inspired truth-telling. And so, Amos proclaims, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos makes clear that he is not on the company payroll, and that social, political, and economic concerns have no bearing on the message he proclaims.

Suddenly, the people of Israel are exposed to all that they have conveniently ignored for so long. And so perhaps inevitably, Amos’ firebrand prophetic preaching lands him in trouble. Amaziah, the King’s chaplain, reports that Amos’ prophecy is a direct affront to the king, and that “the land is not able to bear all his words.” As a result, he is banished from the royal chapel and is commanded to return to his home in Judah. One can’t help but wonder how long Amos and other like-minded prophets would survive in the modern pulpit.

Truth be told, Amos presents a pastoral paradox that every preacher knows all too well: on one hand, the Gospel message bears an unyielding, uncompromising truth. But on the other hand, the sheer force with which it is proclaimed often proves too harsh to hear for the people who need to hear it the most.

As a result, Christians have become accustomed to being soothed on Sunday morning with a feel-good message that portrays God as little more than a Divine “fixer,” taking our failings and jagged edges, and smoothing them over into something sublime and holy. “God works all things for good,” we say.

But not Amos.

Amos proclaims that God’s patience with recalcitrant and hard-hearted people has come to an end. God has set the plumb line in the midst of Israel, and instead of finding an even plane of justice and righteousness, God has found Israel to be angled against the poor and the helpless, and so God summons Amos to stand and proclaim judgment against Israel.

“…the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword…”

It is little wonder that Amos’ prophecy was so threatening to Amaziah and King Jeroboam. He challenged the status quo, demanded justice at the expense of economic gain, and held up faithfulness in the face of the people’s fickle nature.

But what if Amos’ prophetic reach extends beyond Ancient Israel? According to recent studies, we live in a time in which more people are incarcerated in the United States than in any other country on earth;2 today, the US spends more money on defense than every other country—and more than the next seven highest spending countries combined;3 and we live in a time when more than 1 in 5 children in the United States lives in poverty.4

As we listen to this ancient prophecy fully aware of the truths of our existence that we so often ignore, Amos has a way of stepping out of the pages of Scripture, and marching up the aisle of the church, bearing a message that we desperately need to hear.

Amos teaches us that God does indeed work through our failings and jagged edges to bring about God’s purposes, but not with the kind of “cheap grace” that amounts to little more than a spiritual bailout. God’s grace is free to be sure, but it costs us dearly.

In the face of God’s justice, our own injustices are exposed; in the face of God’s mercy, our own contempt is brought to bear; and in the face of God’s constancy, our own insecurity is revealed.

As James Limburg observes, religion that is authentic to the Biblical witness is not, and has never been about avoiding conflict at all costs. Rather, the witness that Amos and the prophetic tradition proclaims brings comfort to the afflicted; but it also afflicts the comfortable.5

The question that Amos leaves us to wrestle with is this: when the prophets of our own day tell us the uncompromising Gospel truth that we’ve been ignoring about ourselves, will the land be able to bear it?

Will we?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 10C.

Written by The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly

The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly is the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org, a weekly lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennial-ish preachers, teachers, and lay leaders for preaching the Gospel in the 21st century.

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1 Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” speech, 28 August 1963, Washington, D.C.
2 Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List (10th edition)” Report from the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex, http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf
3 Report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 18 April 2016, http://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison
4 Report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, 2016, http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html
5 See: James Limburg, Amos in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, James L. Mays, ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), pp. 79-126.

Paying the price of mercy, 8 Pentecost, Proper 10 (C) – 2013

July 14, 2013

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

There once was a run-down coffee shop in a neighborhood that was known for being dangerous. One day, an Episcopal priest came in to get some coffee on his way to somewhere else. He sat down to wait, busying himself with the paper, not paying attention to a man in the opposite corner who was clearly the worse for wear and crying silently. Just as the priest’s order was ready, in walked the church warden. The two shared a lively greeting and conversation as they waited for the warden’s coffee, with no acknowledgement of the man in the corner who had put his head down in his arms and was heaving with sobs. In fact, as they were leaving, they commented to one another, “What is with that guy?” just as the next customer was coming up to the door.

The customer was a young woman with short, spiky hair dyed in a rainbow of colors, heavy black make-up on her eyes and lips, wearing all black, with piercings in her eyebrow, lip, and several in her ears. The priest and the warden gave her a wide berth and both thought to themselves, “What’s with kids these days?” as they left the parking lot to get to their next destination.

The young woman came in and immediately noticed the man sobbing in the corner. She was moved with compassion. He didn’t look good – he had a black eye and what seemed like blood matted in his hair, and he was of a different race. There was no one else around. The barista was doing something in the back and the priest and the warden had departed. She sat down across from the man and stated the obvious, “It looks like you’re having a hard time,” and added, “May I buy you a cup of coffee?”

The man looked up with bloodshot eyes and saw a face looking at him with caring and concern, nothing else. She was the only person that had spoken to him in all the time he had been there that morning. She got some paper towels from the bathroom and a cup of water from the barista, as well as the man’s coffee, and cleaned off his wound while he drank and told her his story. The young woman realized quickly that he had been mugged and proceeded to help him contact the police, as well as buy him a gift certificate for the coffee shop so he could order whatever he wanted for the next couple of meals. She gave him some bus tokens that she had so that he could get to his job so he wouldn’t get fired, and called him at his work later to make sure that he was on the mend.

The man wanted to pay her back, but she refused and wouldn’t let him know where to find her. The young woman told him that she was a neighbor and that’s what neighbors do. He told her that he had never seen her in his neighborhood and thought that her understanding of being a neighbor was broader than his. She laughed good-naturedly and told him he was right, wished him well, and hung up the phone. The man sat back with amazement.

The distressed man was amazed and rightfully so.

As we hear this modern re-telling of the Good Samaritan story, it can cut us to the quick. Sure, it’s full of stereotypes, but there is a grain of truth to each caricature, and we have all been in each character’s shoes in one way or another. We have all been asked by God through circumstance to expand our vision of what it means to be neighborly. Like the people who would have heard today’s gospel story in Luke’s community, we have boundaries and rules that we live by. In the Jewish culture of that time, there were rules about how men should treat women, parents should treat children, Jews should treat foreigners, Jews should treat gentiles and Samaritans, and so forth. These systems set up a social order where certain positions of power and privilege were well maintained. Their society was not so different than ours is now over 2,000 years later. We have those systems in place, and they are difficult to escape or transcend.

Yet, this is precisely what Jesus was calling the people of his time to do, and it translates to ours.

Inheritance meant tangible goods back then – land, wealth, herds. It was the promised reward to Abraham and his descendants who belonged to God’s covenant. The Israelites were a covenanted people, and over time, the message of inheritance also included a future age to come.

But Jesus has a different message. Eternal life was congruent to living a life in God’s kingdom, with its boundaries and not societal ones. Jesus turns the lawyer’s challenge around to show that God’s sovereignty is over one’s whole life. Reading and knowing the law is not enough. Loving God, your neighbor and yourself characterizes someone who is already living life in the kingdom. The promise of inheritance is now attached to a demand: “Go and do likewise.”

The lawyer told Jesus that the one who showed mercy was the injured man’s neighbor. How do we go about showing that kind of mercy in our own lives? The kind of mercy that does not expect any kind of reward or perk. The kind of mercy that has no boundaries, as Jesus so cleverly identifies in his parable. The kind of mercy that often has a steep price: being beaten for defending a defenseless person; losing money to help someone else get back on their feet; losing a job because you stood up for a colleague who was being treated unfairly; being the victim of vandalism after standing up to neighborhood bullies on behalf of an elderly neighbor.  The list can go on.

We all know these types of stories and must ask ourselves if we are willing to pay the price of mercy or just walk on by.

Being a true neighbor means that we are living actively and not passively in the kingdom of God.

In today’s epistle reading, Paul tells the Colossians that he and Timothy are praying for them so that they “may lead lives worthy of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Our faith journeys take a lifetime.

We are asked in our Baptismal Covenant, “Will you proclaim by word and example the good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The answer is always, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot do this alone, and it is clear our work is never done. We continue to ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus continues to answer with results that should not surprise us, knowing how Jesus works, but they always do: the marginalized one, the different-colored one, the one with a different culture, the old one, the young one, the one missing all her teeth, the one with the flashy car, the one who is us.

What is surprising is how difficult it is to show mercy to those who do not fit in our boundaries, despite what we know Jesus is asking of us.

Living a merciful life is not defined as helping someone once. Instead, it is a life in which a person’s character is formed by the basic premise that they love God, love their neighbor, and love themselves. To put it another way, Mahatma Gandhi was once quoted as saying:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

The call to go and do likewise is challenging and transforming. Living out mercy changes us as a people. May we be blessed with God’s own mercy and grace as we strive to walk worthy of God’s calling in our own lives and communities.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

From belief to action, Pentecost 7, Proper 10 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17 and Psalm 82 (Track 2: Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-9); Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Today we have before us what is perhaps the most familiar story Jesus ever told: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Hearing it again might cause us to wonder, Is there anything new in this story that we haven’t already thought about or heard preached about? Hasn’t it been worn smooth? Hasn’t the parable lost its power to teach us because we know it so well?

After all, hasn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan become a cliché in our culture? We have Good Samaritan laws and Good Samaritan hospitals. We live with a common concept that any charitable act makes us Good Samaritans. But the parable means much more than that, of course.

Sermons on this parable often focus on those who encountered the beaten man on the road to Jericho – the two who passed by and one who stopped to help. Often preachers ask us, “Which one are you like? Which one do you want to be like?”

It would be interesting, however, to look at another character – to see how identifying with him might help us better understand what Jesus means for us to discover. Let us examine the victim – the one who was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.

For many of us, it might seem difficult or inappropriate to identify with the victim. It’s easy for most Americans to feel too privileged and blessed and lucky to equate themselves with such an unfortunate soul. Looking deeper, though, can’t we all recall times when we have suffered? Life cannot be lived without some difficulty. Some of us have been robbed of possessions when thieves broke into our homes, and others have been robbed of time and energy by those whose irresponsibility forced them to do more than their fair share.

Most of us have been treated unjustly, and all of us have been beaten down by our own sin and failures and disillusionment. We have been left half dead by the knowledge of our own limitations.

We have been stripped bare by rejection and abandonment, and we have been stripped by those who told lies about us and tried to harm our reputations. We may even have been left half dead by rivals seeking to ruin our careers or reputations. And perhaps more devastatingly, we have been left half dead by discovering that there is nothing we can do to change such conditions or relieve the pain they cause.

In greater or lesser ways, aren’t we sometimes as helpless as the victim in Jesus’ parable? Do we not also pray for mercy? Does not each of us come as a beggar to the Lord’s altar with cupped hands seeking the true bread that gives life and saves us from desolation and despair?

So while we are identifying with the victim, what do we make of it? Was the beaten man deserving of help from the Samaritan? What did he do to merit an enemy’s taking a serious risk and sacrificing his time and substance to save him, loving him with no strings attached and with no hope of gaining anything in return? Maybe nothing. Maybe the victim was undeserving. Was he not foolish to have traveled on such a dangerous road alone?

The point is, of course, that it did not matter. The Samaritan helped him unconditionally. He showed mercy as God shows mercy to his children. Are we deserving of the love and forgiveness that God gives us? It doesn’t matter, either. This is the primary message of this parable. It illustrates the truth of God’s mercy – f God’s love poured out for us unconditionally, with no strings attached. Without our being deserving, God cares for us in this extraordinary way.

If we can feel the grace that the beaten man experienced when he was helped by an enemy, we will know what God intends for all his children. Not only will we know how God cares for us when we are hurt, we will see the love that fills us in a new light. As the love continues to flow in us, it can overflow to others as we become the Good Samaritan in response.

This powerful and rich parable reminds us of the essentials of our faith. It is a foundation of Christian ethical and moral values. It includes the familiar themes, that Christians are called to:
• avoid the faithless idolatry of those who pass by on the other side
• take risks for the sake of the gospel
• care for our neighbors
• recognize that “neighbor” includes everyone, everywhere
• affirm the calling to give ourselves away for the good of others
• give with no strings attached
• provide for those in need without regard for whether they are deserving or not
• love even those different from ourselves, whom we may even despise, and whom we consider unlovable and undeserving

Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus takes us into the depths of God’s love. He answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” by giving us an unforgettable example of love in action. He will not let us get away with failing to put our money where our mouths are. Believing and knowing what is right is not enough. Jesus’ model story of the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho forces us to see ourselves on the roads we travel – the roads that surround us.

Seeing from the perspective of the victim can help us move from belief to action. Jesus’ parable forces us to see that knowing the meaning of “neighbor” is not enough. We can only express adequate gratitude for what God gives us by acting toward everyone – our neighbors – as did the Good Samaritan toward the victim of robbery and beating.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Consider each step, Pentecost 7, Proper 10 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17 or Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 82 or 25:1-10; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

In the story of the Good Samaritan that we just heard, where do the different characters end up?

The robbers have done their foul deed and have walked off stage with whatever they stole from the traveler they attacked.

The priest and the Levite have each continued on the way to Jericho after overlooking the half-dead traveler lying beside the road.

That traveler is recovering at an inn, where the innkeeper has been entrusted with his care and has received a down payment on whatever it will cost.

The Samaritan has resumed his journey, promising to return to the inn and settle up accounts for the traveler’s expenses, someone previously unknown to him.

But where are we left, you and I, who hear this story? We listen to it together with an unknown lawyer, the one who wants to know where his neighborly obligation begins and ends.

Together with the lawyer, we hear this command of Christ, “Go and do likewise.” We are given as an example of neighborliness this Samaritan, who at inconvenience and risk to himself, helps a half-dead stranger.

This story would seem to open the floodgates and drown us beneath the troubles of the world. For, truth be told, we have needy neighbors in every direction. It’s hard to know what to do. Can we keep our souls from turning numb in the face of the wholesale sorrows that surround us? How can we avoid ending up exhausted, adding ourselves to the list of those aching for attention? Is there a way to sidestep compassion fatigue, so that the fire of concern within us does not flare up and then burn out?

Let’s consider the story again, specifically the actions of this Samaritan.

First, he sees the wounded traveler. Second, he is moved to pity. Third, he does what he can to help. Each of these steps is essential if the Samaritan is to prove both compassionate and effective.

Let’s consider each step in turn.

First, the Samaritan sees the wounded traveler. He does not turn his eyes away. He does not glance at the victim and then look elsewhere.

Nor does the Samaritan see the wounded traveler and then dismiss him. He doesn’t say to himself, “That man must be Jewish, and we Samaritans are enemies of the Jews.” He doesn’t say, “That man was mugged because he dared to travel this dangerous road alone. Serves him right!”

Instead, the Samaritan recognizes the wounded traveler as a fellow human being, someone like himself, a child of God. He looks down upon this broken one and acknowledges the best and most important aspects of who he is, not other features which are secondary at best. Although the traveler is a stranger, somehow the Samaritan recognizes him.

As a result, the Samaritan is moved with pity. The word here in the original Greek of the New Testament means he is “moved to the depths of his bowels with compassion.” We might say that the Samaritan feels it in his gut, feels for the broken traveler as deeply as it is possible for him to feel.

The Samaritan recognizes a bond between himself and this stranger who lies half dead beside the highway. Such recognition comes at a cost, for the Samaritan identifies with the wounded stranger and as far as he can, feels his pain, his abandonment, his fear.

This Samaritan, who was moved with pity all the way down to his gut, stands as a portrait of God as God appears in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Prophets. For the God of whom these prophets speak is not unmoved by human pain and sorrow, but somehow suffers along with his people. The sorrow felt by the people becomes the sorrow felt by God.

The Samaritan’s fellow-feeling gives way to action. He does what he can to help. That turns out to be quite a bit – enough to make the difference between life and death.

What he does first is anoint the traveler’s wounds. He uses oil and wine for this. Here there is irony. Oil and wine are used in worship at the Temple. The priest and Levite handle them there, but for their own reasons, they pass by the wounded traveler out on the highway, providing him no relief. It is left to the Samaritan, someone hated by the Jews, to engage in true worship, to make an acceptable offering of wine and oil, and to pour them out on the altar of this broken human body.

Most people who travel the steep and curvaceous road from Jerusalem to Jericho do it on foot, but this Samaritan is fortunate enough to have a mount, perhaps a donkey, and he places the half-dead traveler on the animal’s back for the slow trip to the inn.

Once there, he opens his wallet and gives the innkeeper a significant sum for the traveler’s care and promises to return and cover whatever further expenses are required.

The Samaritan recognizes quickly what must be done. He does not hesitate to put his resources to use. Clearly, he is the right person in the right place at the right time.

In a world where we have needy neighbors in every direction, how can we keep from numbness of soul, exhaustion, or the extinction of our internal fire of concern? The actions of the Samaritan provide us with a pattern to follow.

First, we must see the wounded stranger. We cannot dismiss this person or rationalize her suffering. We must, in a real way, recognize this suffering one.

This is not easy, especially in today’s world, where we are bombarded by far too many images of all kinds, so that it becomes hard to take them seriously.

Only a few images can command our attention. Only a few circumstances, at most, can be the basis for our deep reflection and lead us to recognize the strangers there as real and similar to ourselves. But a few is all we need.

If we truly see the wounded of this world, then we will be moved to pity. We will feel their situation in our gut. At least initially, we cannot do this often; we lack the capacity. But we can do this on occasion. And doing so will enable us, not to fix the entire planet on our own, not to help everybody, but to help somebody.

When this happens, we will not be acting on the basis of obligation or guilt or compulsion. Instead, compassion felt deep down will motivate what we do and give our action a reality accessible in no other way. Our response will have to it something of God, for this is the way that God is moved.

On the basis of this seeing and feeling, we can take action that is worth taking. We can do what we can to help. This means putting our resources to intelligent use and recognizing that we have more to offer than we realized at first. We may discover ourselves to be someone who’s the right person at the right place at the right time, an agent of divine compassion. And what better role can any of us ask for than that?

When Jesus closes the parable of the Good Samaritan with “Go and do likewise,” he is not imposing a single strict way to respond to travelers who have ended up in trouble. His intention is far larger and more practical, something that applies to countless circumstances.

We are truly to see somebody in need. We won’t be considering every needy person on the planet, but we will be recognizing somebody with whom we have life and hardship in common.

The sight of that person will not lead to compulsive activity or obligation or guilt. Instead, we will be moved to pity. We will feel for that person in our gut, as deeply as we can feel.

This will lead us to action. Because we have truly seen and truly felt, there is reason to believe that the way we use resources will be wise and effective.

Thus we will find that, by grace, we have turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time.

And later, when still another needy neighbor lies broken beside the highway, we will be better able to see, to feel, and to act in a way that reveals us as a neighbor to that person. For the answer to our question, “Who is my neighbor?” will appear there before us, as plain as day in the one who awaits our action.

Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). E-mail: charles.hoffacker@gmail.com.