Sermon from July 12 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.
These texts today about Israel losing God’s favor and Herod beheading John the Baptist are not exactly pick me ups. They’re the kind of texts where you respond to “the Word of the Lord” with “Thanks be to God?!” What on earth does this have to say to us? Where is the good news? However, these are stories that, oddly enough, have to do with our every day lives.
In Rwanda, one of the first places we visited was the genocide memorial in Nyamata. It was a Catholic Church that had been the site of the killing of 10,000 people in 4 days. There, on display, within the walls of this church were the skulls of some of the victims. I was horrified. And yet, I knew I had to be there. I had to learn from what I saw before me. When we had time to walk around, I found myself in front of those skulls, praying that I would never forget what I had seen. I asked God that I might know what lesson I was to take away from that place. The answer came in the form of a question: how many times have I hurt others or caused death in their lives with my words or deeds?
Staring at that gruesome scene, I realized that the truth of the matter is that we all have the potential to do harm to one another. Maybe not in such stark ways, but in a thousand different ways each and every day. The potential is there and the temptation to power and force always beckoning. As the famous Lord Acton quote goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Herod and his wife succumbed to power. John’s words of truth spoken against them stung and eventually, they proved to be too threatening to the established power. Herod’s wife Herodias wanted John dead and Herod, for the sake of an oath and to save face among his contemporaries, would not refuse her.
The established court priest and prophet Amaziah didn’t like that the farmer prophet Amos was speaking on his turf – in the king’s sanctuary at Bethel – and saying such negative things about Israel and the king! So Amaziah tried to get Amos to leave, but Amos was following a higher calling.
Jesus and his disciples set out, preaching and teaching, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near and that all people should turn once more toward God. But this proved threatening to the established religious leaders, to Rome and to those who wanted to put themselves first, rather than God. Jesus would be crucified and many of his first followers martyred for speaking of God’s kingdom and against the powers that wanted to coerce and manipulate.
We are often threatened by words of truth – they have power – they challenge us, shake us out of our comfort zones and complacency, cause us to reconsider what we thought we had figured out, and make us squirm. Sometimes we become frustrated or angry because we know that what has been said is something that is really too close for comfort. Words can make us angry because they pull back the masks we present to the world and ourselves, and we cannot hide the truth from ourselves or anyone else anymore. Words can cut to the heart and we see revealed, all too clearly, that with which we are struggling.
These words can be read or heard in Scripture, preached from the pulpit, heard in a song, from people we know and love, or even from strangers. I know that I hate it when someone else speaks that kind of uncomfortable truth to me. They say something and it’s absolutely irritating because I know in my heart of hearts that the other person is right, but I don’t want to admit it or deal with it. And now that whatever I was conveniently trying to ignore is out in the open, I have to deal with it. Has anyone else experienced this?
As much as this can be incredibly uncomfortable, challenging and even painful, it is one of ways I know I learn. And I give thanks for the people in my life who are patient and wise guides, able to shepherd me through this learning process. Those who speak truth and gently urge me to give up the power and control I think I have in favor for the forgiveness and healing of Christ. We all need people and communities that can hold us accountable and call us to be the people God is calling us to be.
Because that’s the paradox of the Gospel. Real power – power that isn’t coercive or manipulative – springs forth from the cross of Christ. It was through Christ’s weakness and vulnerability that salvation came about. It is through death that we are able to experience new life. It’s through letting go of the things we want to hold so tightly – being right, important, intelligent, rich, or even our mistakes – that we discover true freedom and the power of Christ’s love to heal and redeem. And without being in touch with those places where we have sinned or fallen short, the good news remains something that sounds good, but stays at arm’s length and cannot change our lives.
The cross, and following Christ, bid us to die to ourselves. Being a disciple is hard. Following Christ will cause us to examine our lives and let go of things we thought important in order to follow God. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it is profoundly good. And the Holy Spirit is always guiding and strengthening us to follow. Following God frees us to become more open to what God is doing in the world – to see things through the lens of the cross and resurrection, and to work on behalf of God’s kingdom.
It’s like a scene from A League of Their Own, about the women’s baseball league started during World War II. In that scene, coach Jimmy Duggan, speaks passionately about baseball to Dottie, an amazing player, who is leaving the league now that her husband is back from war. Jimmy says, “Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.” When Dottie says, “It just got too hard,” Jimmy responds: “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great!”
Trying to follow God is hard. I’m sure Amos, who was a simple farmer, called to be a prophet by God, had his moments of thinking, “this is an awful gig – I don’t want to do this.” But he knew he had to. And John the Baptist, as wild and unconventional as he was, probably knew that speaking the truth to the king and to all people would end up getting him in trouble, but he pressed on, knowing he was called to proclaim God’s truth. Jesus sent out the disciples knowing that they would encounter those who wouldn’t want to listen. And we, too, are called to listen to what God is proclaiming to us and to share that news with the world. It is hard, but in doing so we experience new life and resurrection. And the good news is that God never ceases trying to reach us, calling us to be transformed by God’s grace, and to share the good news with the world.
Words, especially words of truth, can catch us off guard and frustrate, irritate, or challenge us. But they can also help us to turn once more toward God. As the Psalmist says “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying.” Are we listening? What is God saying to us today? Are there things God is calling you to reexamine in your life?
Maybe what you hear is that God is calling you to step out of your comfort zone to follow God into a new place or a new task. Amos was a simple farmer when God called him to be a prophet. How might God be calling you?
The stories of Amos and John the Baptist remind us that we need God’s word and other people to speak truth to us, even if it’s hard to hear. We need that help to remove the masks we wear, to challenge us to examine our sins, to encourage us to seek forgiveness, and to live in God’s grace. Thanks be to God for the prophets old and new who point toward God and call us to follow. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.