Year C, Proper 10
July 14, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Now therefore, hear the word of the Lord.” That is what prophets say.
Prophecy. We have some strong words of impending doom to be reigned upon a wayward and unrepentant nation from the prophet Amos. Disaster looms, treachery is afoot, enemies encroach on every front. Its weird, it sounds so similar to something I read last week in the Times… Some things change, some things never do.
Prophecy. In Ordinary Time, the season that runs from Pentecost to Advent, we have quite a journey through the prophets. We’ve already engaged Elijah and his protégé Elisha, this week and next we delve into Amos, then for the next 15 or so weeks we meet Hosea, Jeremiah, the Lamentation of Jeremiah, and the granddaddy of prophets, Isaiah.
The prophet Amos. Things don’t look very good, according to Amos’ vision. The world is pretty grim. It is hard to imagine it working out for Israel if things continue as they Amos sees it. (Spoiler alert: he was right).
Amos was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, lowly work in those days. He lived in a small, probably fortified village that protected the northern approaches to Jerusalem. It was and still is a tough neighborhood, the Levant. He lived in the early to mid-8th century, during the reign of Jeroboam II, king of the Northern Kingdom, also called Israel (Judah was the southern Jewish Kingdom.) It was a high time for Israel, there was prosperity, abundance and peace for many, but that wasn’t the whole story. There was great prosperity for some, but many, many more were suffering, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery. When Amos said most famously, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he said it because it wasn’t happening. So his warning, “woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountains of Samaria,” he was speaking unmistakable about the ancient 1%. Some things change…
Amos speaks through visions God gives him. One vision is the plumb line, a true measure of what is straight, upright, the way it is supposed to be according to God’s will, and it does not seem that the Kingdom of Jeroboam II is measuring up. And Amos prophesies, “the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid to waste, and I (God) will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Well, as is usually the case, someone in power took exception to these words. (We should cross-reference this with PVT Manning and Mr. Snowden.) The priest Amaziah tells the king about the rabble-rouser, the muckraker Amos, and all the dissent he stirs up with his malcontent. And he suggests indelicately that perhaps Amos would be more comfortable somewhere else, anywhere that his penetrating critique cannot disrupt the standing order the King and Temple rely upon for their survival. The life of the prophet, thanks to the principalities and powers of the world, is as admirable as it is unenviable.
Prophecy is a core category of the religious experience in all of the Abrahamic faiths, and it takes many forms. There are the prophets of record: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the rest of them in Judaism; the likes of St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and St. John the Divine amongst Christians, and of course Mohammed, the prophet of the one true God. Prophets are certainly most venerated religious voices that we have inherit from antiquity.
Then there is the gift of prophesy in the present moment, a phenomenon a bit more charismatic than we are accustomed to in most Anglican circles, but it right out of St. Paul, the gift of speaking the word of God and the gift of interpreting it. It goes along with speaking in tongues, and as foreign as it is to some of us, it is not to be dismissed out of hand. There is deep mystery there. And of course there is the category of contemporary prophesy that most of us are probably more comfortable with, the Martin Luther King, Jrs., Archbishop Tutus and Romeros, the Dorothy Days and Mohandas Gandhis; revealers of Truth in a broken world. Prophets, all of them.
Prophecy. The whole category, prophecy, speaks to the very purpose of religion. As religious people, we have to ask (and we have to continue to ask and re-ask and re-ask) a very important question, “what is the role of religion?” Well, what is the role of religion? Why do we bother with all of this?
Is the primary role of religion to offer consolation? To relieve suffering, comfort the afflicted, offer solace to the broken? Certainly religion has a critical role in the relief of suffering, but that is not an end, the relief of suffering is a means, a means to allow the full and true discernment of the will of God. If comfort is our chief goal then we will spawn a comfortable religion, and not many worthwhile things in the world are primarily comfortable. Jesus Christ did not promise us a rose garden, precisely the opposite, actually, so we must be careful to not model His church as such.
So then, is the primary role of religion to provide a framework for the existing order of society? It has certainly been a central role of religion, being creator and maintainer of culture. Religion provides not only a religiously grounded public ethic, but also a way of being, a shared annual cycle, a common vocabulary, the hallmarks of society. The Protestant work ethic is, right or wrong, a lynch-pin of our economic morality, Christmas vacation at winter solstice and Easter bunnies at the vernal equinox, that we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. Basic stuff. Religion, less now than in previous generations, can be key in creating ethical norms and fleshing out and maintaining social relationships. But, as the Anglican exegete Hughell Fosbroke writes, “…it cannot be denied that a religion that is first of all the handmaid of the state and the servant of society soon passes from being of service to being servile.” Just look to the state of the church in the Christian monarchies across Europe. Poor at best, with record-low church attendance that is even worse than here in Oregon, and is in part due to the fact that the church in Europe, being beholden to the state, has no moral authority. Never forget, the Church was complicit with National Socialism.
“Rather, it is the first duty of religion to disturb;” Fosbroke continues, “its primary function is that of protest. The person who is truly religious is one who has come to be less and less at home in the world of sense, less and less moved by the things that do appear, less and less confident in the weight and power of sheer material force, and more and more assured of those eternal verities that are hid from the wise and prudent but revealed unto babes; more and more aware of those things which ‘the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard’ (I Cor 2:9), more and more at home in that greater and that better part of life that is out of sight.” Or to quote another dead white guy, “The Prophet’s mind is the seismograph of providence, vibrating to the first faint tremors that herald the coming earthquake.” (John Skinner) The prophet is the voice of the deep, the prophet personifies the fullness of mystery amplified into the world, the prophet is the herald of God’s will in every generation. And the prophet is invariably ignored, reviled, persecuted, exiled and all too often martyred on the heavy, notched blade of empire. Some things change, some things never do, and it is very, very important for us to discern the difference.
The words of a man from the western end of the Mediterranean basin in the mid-8th century BCE are very interesting, but are not, maybe, important to us here and now in their specificity. However, the form is dreadfully important even if the content is less so. In most of scripture, as I see it, the specifics are not what are important, it is the culture, the vocabulary of faith, the narrative framework of an historical community contained therein that provides something that we can hold in common: that is indelibly important, ontologically important, even. As important is the record of our spiritual ancestors, how they lived and died in relation to the idea, and practice of the reality of the Living God because we can learn from them. We must. And the prophets, they illuminate the drama of life in Technicolor.
The take home lesson from the prophets that I think is most important, that is most relevant to us 21st century Christians, is that the world can look incredibly different to different people; it all depends on what lens you are looking through. Abraham Heschel writes, “To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility.”
Our job as Christians is, at the very least, to give the benefit of the doubt to the subaltern, to the oppressed, the suffering, the broken and alienated. We have to consider what the Jeremiads are all worked up about. The prophets, the “wackos” in their time, were right about what… slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, seat belts, Viet Nam, DDT. We were completely right about Gulf War II, it actually turned out a lot worse than even the most alarming Jeremiads against the war dreamed… Are we right about Keystone XL? GM crops? Vast, total information awareness-like surveillance programs? Drones? The Federal Reserve? Our job is to offer an ear to the voiceless, an eye to invisible, a hand to the helpless, our hearts to the hopeless. We need to go and be with the ones most in need, that is absolutely what Jesus Christ did time and time and time again. He went to comfortable dinner parties expressly to bring the elite’s attention to the suffering literally on their door steps.
Prophecy. So when you hear our contemporary minor prophets offer worst case scenarios for the most at risk, when the writing on the wall bespeaks disaster in the near future, when you yourself get the niggly feeling in your skull base that things maybe things aren’t actually what things seem to be, aren’t actually what you are being told by the empire: for those of you with ears to hear, listen! Prophets never expect the call of God, but do I suspect that God expects us to listen more closely than we are want to do. AMEN