The Adventurous Lectionary – The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Today’s scriptures join the cosmic and the local, the macro and the micro, the divine universality and the divine intimacy. They point to a deep Christology, a deep incarnation, that embraces every aspect of life, joining theology, mysticism, social transformation, and personal ethics. Christ is the Life of All Things and Each Thing, the infinite is the infinite, creating in us and with us, and calling us to abundant life and creative transformation for ourselves and all creation.
No doubt you’ve seen the battle of bumper stickers. A popular evangelical bumper sticker proclaims, “Honk, if you love Jesus.” To which a contrasting bumper sticker responds, “If you
love Jesus, seek justice. Any fool can honk.” Amos would have appreciated the theology of the second bumper sticker. Amos challenged his listeners – the wealthy elite of government and business, to embrace a holistic spirituality, one that puts justice above wealth and power. Amos imagines a “theospirituality,”embracing prayer and protest, head and heart, study and social involvement, andcontemplation and creative transformation.
Amos’ words are clearly addressed to those who have wealth and power. While they also apply to the working class and vulnerable, they are first directed to those whose actions can promote life or death, and who often escape the ethical consequences of their actions by claiming, “it’s just business, nothing personal.” But, to Amos, everything is personal. Everything touches hman experience, bringing joy or sorrow, or life or death. A stroke of a pen can lead to the death of thousands and separate toddlers from their parents. Faith and ethics are intimately connected. Worship is dead – in fact, deadly – if it is divorced from concern for the poor and from practices that promote the well-being of society’s most vulnerable members, so says the prophet Amos, who proclaims that God blesses our worship when we “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) This is surely a matter of personal ethics, but for Amos and the prophetic tradition, it is much more than individualism. It also involves citizens committing themselves to creating a just political and economic order.
Amos 8 is terrifying in its prophetic realism. It is an indictment on those who prefer profits to the words of prophets. Those who trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land will experience a “famine of hearing the word of God.” They will have beautiful worship services, lively praise music, mega-buildings, properly performed sacraments, and think themselves orthodox, when in fact God has abandoned their houses of worship. Such words leave me feeling, as Thomas Merton notes, like a “guilty bystander.” Like most Americans, even among many of those who think they are disenfranchised, I benefit from unjust business and investment practices, taxes that benefit wealthy corporations and individuals, and practices that destroy the ecological infrastructure.
Recently controversy emerged about whether or not Donald Trump had accepted Jesus as his savior. While I am in no position to judge Trump’s inner spirituality, it is appropriate to ask if his faith has changed his attitudes on race, gender, and refugees. To this point, I have seen no ethical changes reflected in his tweets, public comments, or governmental policies. It is also appropriate to look in the mirror, as the preacher, to explore our own apathy, hopelessness, or contentment with political and economic practices that destroy families and communities and our delicate ecosystems. We can ask ourselves, “Is there a famine on hearing God’s word in the United States?” Despite our numerical religiosity, some of the most religious among us are also the most racist, sexist, polarizing, and hateful toward outsiders or members of the LGBTQ communities. Just look at the invective from certain pulpits following the massacre at Orlando, the defense of separation of children from parents from noted evangelical preachers, and the identification of Trump as God’s agent for this time. At the very least, we need to live in the pathway of Jesus, beginning with a respect for those with whom we differ and a willingness to recognize the finitude of our own positions.
Psalm 52 challenges those of us who take refuge in our riches. Again, the Psalmist, like Amos, is aiming his invective toward the elites, powerful, and wealthy, and those who aspire to be like them. The Psalm does not exalt poverty, but in anticipation of Jesus’ words about how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter God’s realm, the Psalm reminds us to put God’s way first and let it be the standard for our personal and political lives. Economics matter to the poor, and they matter to God. While our quest for justice will be messy, we can look for ways to be faithful citizens in a religiously pluralistic society.
The deep Christology of Colossians connects theology, ethics, and hope. Christ is the creative and unifying power in the universe, whose energy joins height and depth and everything in between. The reality present in Jesus reveals the moral order of the universe, an order that seeks to reconcile and unify all creation in its wondrous diversity. In Christ, we are reconciled and have left behind evil. Living Christ-like lives involves for us behaviors that reconcile others. The wall of separation has been broken down: words and actions, whether by politicians, in daily life, or Facebook, that polarize are not worthy of those who proclaim the fullness of God in Christ. But, in the midst of messiness and our imperfect efforts at creative transformation, there is hope – there is a great mystery, “Christ in us – the hope of glory.” God’s glory is ours, not just in the future but now. Let us live as saved persons committed to saving the world as God’s healing companions.
What is the hope of glory toward which we yearn? Our hope involves bringing God’s realm to earth, embodying divinity in our finite lives. Christ wants to be born in us; Christ was to empower and enliven, yes, enlighten us so that we can be lights in the world.
The story of Mary and Martha is almost too well-known and requires the preacher to go beyond superficial interpretations that polarize these two beloved friends of Jesus. Mary is the contemplative, listening to Jesus, giving Jesus her full attention. Martha is busy about many things, feeling anxious and alienated from her sister. Yet, there is more to the scripture than this. The activist Martha is in need of a Sabbath. She needs to let go of perfection to welcome her friend. Yet, Martha is absolutely necessary to healthy spirituality and social concern: Martha gets things done! Martha is on the picket line and protests injustice. We need Martha’s in church and community. We need hands to hammer and voices to protest; we need to challenge and care. Mary is near to God, but there is the temptation that “she will be so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.”
Mary and Martha together represent a holistic spirituality. Faith and works go together. Faithful spirituality embodies daily life with holiness. Committed works brings holiness to our social and personal relationships. We would benefit from the wisdom inscribed on a bench at Kirkridge Retreat and Conference Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, “picket and pray.” Each of us has gifts, and our spiritual orientations need to be honored. Still, spiritual maturity invites us to deepen both aspects of the Christian journey – contemplative prayer and acts of love. We need, in our congregations, to nurture the Mary within the busy Martha and encourage Martha to come forth in contemplative Mary as we join head, heart, and hands, and create thin places joining heaven and earth wherever we find ourselves.
Justice and earth care require prayer and action, and the willingness to hear the cries of the poor, and sacrifice for the well-being of all creation. Today’s passages challenge us to move from self-interest to world loyalty for our own good and for the good of creation.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Spiritual Decluttering: 40 Days of Spiritual Transformation and Planetary Healing,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World.”