July 12, 2009
Commentary by Rick Marshall
See also: [Year B Archive]
Reflecting on Preaching:
As preachers, we have regular weekly appointments with Bible texts. If we use the Common Lectionary, they are texts that are given to us and we welcome them into our personal lives, and we play host to them as we engage the congregation with the text. As such, texts, like guests, should be treated with respect and the rules of hospitality apply. We invite them in, we make sure they feel welcome, we give them place of honor, and we let them speak.
Such regular appointments to the preaching task come despite different moods and energy levels. We preach sometimes when we don’t have energy or we feel discouraged, depressed, angry or fearful. The task of preaching can become arduous, and we can feel like Sisyphus, rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down, week after week. Where does the energy come from to preach? This is a theological question. Energy is not something that can be manufactured or manipulated, turned on like a light switch. It’s like the wind, blowing from this direction and then another direction.
For those who write sermon manuscripts and read them from the pulpit, the energy problem isn’t so crucial. The sermon is essentially finished beforehand. The advantage is that this allows for clearer expression of thought, and more control over the thread of the sermon. The disadvantage is that the sermon can sometimes lack immediacy. But if you preach without a manuscript, you must trust the moment of preaching, calling on your imagination, your memory and your ability to engage a biblical narrative or issue in real time. Preaching without a manuscript can be very difficult and amounts to an act of trust. I preach without a manuscript, and rarely with notes. I prefer preaching without a manuscript because it make me engage the text at the same time the congregation does. This leaves me more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of my emotions and energy level. Sometime I have to remind myself that even though I may be feeling down or when I believe a sermon did not reach its target, someone might express gratitude or surprise that a text had power for them. The listeners often experience a sermon very differently than the preacher. It is a reminder that the preacher sows the seed and the Holy Spirit does what it will with the listener. Preaching, under any circumstance, is an act of trust. I do the best I can in the preaching moment, after preparation, and then let it go. There is a third party in the act of preaching and worship: the Holy Spirit. The interaction between the three is a mystery to me and I accept it as such.
Sometimes preaching is easy. The congregation has energy; words come smoothly and the mind is clear with a firm grasp of the text and the moment. In this case, preaching is joyful and empowering. On occasion, several church members report seeing an aura of light around me when I preach. Those are the times of high energy in the congregation, which I believe is the clear and obvious presence of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that the Holy Spirit works in times of struggle and low mood. Sometime the act of preaching is like dragging a 100 pound bag of potatoes uphill; the energy level in the congregation is low and the preacher has to do the heavy lifting. Even then, I believe the Holy Spirit is present in the struggle.
Some of the prophets expressed reluctance to preach, or felt they were not up to the task. But when we go into the pulpit, we entrust ourselves to the moment as an act of faith, knowing that there is a spirit at work that is larger than the congregation, and cannot be conjured by the preacher. I have witnessed profound transformation, in myself and in listeners, while preaching on a text that could not be anticipate by my mood or energy level. A Bible text can become an instrument of transformation.
Language is our only tool. The simple act of imaginatively and creatively engaging a text openly and honestly, even courageously, can be powerful. This is true for the pastoral sermon as it is for the prophetic sermon, with or without a manuscript.
Discussing the Texts:
Amos was not a priest or what we would call a professional. He worked with his hands. He knew about growing and tending, probably using simple tools of the day to do his work. I can easily imagine him as a rough man with tough language who knows the fundamentals about relationships with others and with the land. So it seems natural that he would use the simplest of tools, the plumb line, to make a metaphorical point about Israel’s relationship with God.
A plumb line is a way of verifying if a wall is perpendicular to the natural pull of gravity. It’s similar to using a bubble level to see if something is either plumb or on the level, both being objective ways of measuring. Both are simple tools for gauging if a line is “true”. If something is not level or plumb or true, then steps can be taken to make the wall true, to reconcile the wall to the line. Sometimes things look plumb when they are not or they are plumb but don’t appear to be to the human eye. All you need is a string or rope and a heavy object. It is available to anyone at any time. The simple tool helps to objectify our perception. Who can argue with gravity? The law of gravity has no moral quality to it. No one voted on the law of gravity, or argues that it is good or bad; it just is. The plumb line helps to objectify our unreliable perceptions. It’s a reality check.
The plumb line is a simple and obvious metaphor for the relationship between God and the people of Israel. We can easily connect the dots. We have a saying that a friend who is always there for us is a true friend, meaning on the level. Or another expression when we want to tell someone the truth, we will say, “I’ll level with you,” or “I’ll be straight with you.” Or, on the other hand, someone is “plumb crazy.” So there are lines and planes and angles to relationships, something natural to them. We might call these the natural laws of relationships. We can name them: loyalty, honesty, fairness and the list goes on; we know these qualities by heart. There is nothing mysterious about these laws of relationships, except when they must be pointed out because someone doesn’t understand them or breaks them. We might say Frank is not a “true friend,” for example. What defines someone who is not a true friend? It’s the opposites of the list of qualities of a true friend; relational boundaries are broken and cause hurt and anger. It could have been that Frank let me down or took advantage of me or borrowed money and refused to pay it back. There is a relational geometry that can be measured, gauged, leveled and plumbed. Reconciliation is a biblical word that can mean bringing a relationship that has gone out of kilter back to level or plumb. A wall or a relationship can be brought back to “true.” This can be a way of understanding the term “righteous,” living on the level with God, being true to the requirements of any relationship with our neighbor. This can also be a way to understand the term “authentic.” We can understand what it means to be an authentic human being. The Existentialists or the Clerics or the Philosophers don’t have a corner on these basic human issues. In fact, I believe these issues can be over-thought. Ordinary people recognize honesty, truthfulness, fairness and loyalty.
The text says that all of these relational parameters apply to our relationship with God. The emphasis here is on “relationship.” How could it be otherwise? We are familiar with the relationship between God and Israel and all the troubles they have been through together. Israel has, at one time or another, breached most of the natural boundaries of their relationship with God. This is not a problem with Israel, this is a human problem. That’s why the Bible can be a source of enlightenment on what goes wrong with this foundational relationship between human beings and the Creator, and what makes for right relations. God is not some remote, passionless being, but is someone with whom we have a relationship and, as such, requires all the parameters and natural values of any other relationship. All that is inherent and natural to relationships in our daily lives applies also to our relationship with God.
Much of the theology in the Bible is relational theology. The language of relationship is used everywhere: covenants are made, promises are broken, boundaries are crossed, consequence are faced; there is anger, jealousy, love, hate, reconciliation, family, sons, daughters, adoption. God is continually and intimately involved with the world and especially our area of concern, being humans.
The Mark text comes right after Jesus was rejected by his own people. It must have hurt him, but the text doesn’t speak to that. It might assume all the feelings that come naturally when one is rejected, ostracized, thrown out of town, without having to describe it or go into detail: it’s a given.
Today’s gospel text begins with confusion and involves a flashback to explain it. Why are the people in the text confused about Jesus, wondering if he is John the Baptist returned from the dead, or one of the prophets come back? The confusion was triggered by Jesus’ popularity and the kind of power that he used. People were trying to account for his powers of healing and casting out demons. Of course, King Herod was convinced Jesus was John the Baptist returning to haunt him for what he had done to him. John had condemned Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, a clear breach of relational boundaries. Herod was afraid of John. John had credibility with Herod, but went against his instincts and had him beheaded, at the behest of Herodias, who had a grudge against John because of his accusations and, at an opportune moment, asked Herod for John’s head on a serving dish. It’s easy to imagine court intrigue as she might have seen this marriage as highly beneficial to her. She needed John to be silenced. The flashback story is a recounting of how John lost his head. It is also a way of saying Jesus is not John.
John’s message was always the same, the blunt force of prophetic confrontation, a message that goes all the way back to the famous prophets of Israel, and that’s one of the points of confusion. John’s message was: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. In the midst of Jesus’ demonstrations of power, the message is the same as John’s and the prophets before him: repent. Little elaboration is required. Something basic has gone wrong with the relationship between human beings and God. Change is necessary. Steps must be taken to restore the broken relationship.
The prophetic voice has come through many prophets, and the message is the same, so whether it was John the Baptist, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos, or Jesus, the message is about repentance, justice and peace. If one prophet is silenced, another one comes along; there has been a long history of silencing the prophets. You can probably make a list of the modern prophets who have been silenced, one way or another; assassination of life or character seems to be the weapon of choice.
The reason John was murdered is typical treatment at the hands of those in power. King Herod was accused by John the Baptist that what he was doing was not right. He married his brother’s wife, which set into motion the steps that will eventually lead to John’s death. The message is simple, it’s always simple: repent. Stop doing what you’re ding because it’s out of line, you know it, everyone knows it, and you are not above the law. Stop harming others. Turn things around before it’s too late. The message to repent and the background of understanding that comes with it is a universal message.
Process Theology and the Texts:
Some people claim that God is outside the world, remote, passionless, that is, without feeling, and all-controlling, and intervenes in the world only occasionally through miracles. Yet, they claim that God is love. How is this possible because love requires an intimate relationship, one that is based on covenant, promises, loyalty and all the attributes that we experience with the complexities of human love. How can God be unmoved by our lives and yet still love us? This is not a dilemma; it is a contradiction. The idea of a passionless, omnipotent God flies in the face of the clear biblical representation of God as fundamentally relational.
Process theology takes seriously the relational dynamics between Creator and creation. It sees the dynamics of relationships that we experience applying to God. It also recognizes that conflict is expected in any relationship, but such conflict can be transformative or it can be oppressive. Anger, mistrust, hurt, are feelings that can be acted upon with creative transformation or they can feed a continuous and downward spiral of a failing relationship. Healing, loving, trusting, must be forged by both parties in a relationship. The Bible affirms that God learned to not use anger in a destructive way (the Noah story), but choses to deal with the troubled relationship with forgiveness, grace and mercy. In any broken relationship, if there is to be any reconciliation, one party must reach out to the other. It the case of the God of the Bible, God is the one who reaches out, seeking restoration. The invitation is to reach back.
Preaching the Texts:
It seems obvious that using both the Amos and the Mark texts together will provide plenty of grist for a sermon. If brought together, these two texts could be used to set up a tension that will play the point of the Amos vision against the confusion about who Jesus was and an account of why John was put to death. This is also key to why Jesus was put to death. Jesus had the same message as John did and that was, “repent for the kingdom of God is here.” The message is inherently provocative to those in power. “Repent” is a code word for an elaborate biblical critique of power. The critique is voiced by all of the prophets and now John and Jesus. What those in power are doing is wrong, they know it, everybody knows it. Stop hurting and oppressing people. Repent! What will it take to move those in power to hear such a message? It’s not because they are stupid, but that they are corrupt. “Sin” is the word the Bible uses to describe these conditions. The “system” is set up, rigged, for the rich. They don’t want to hear it because it threatens their position which is entrenched in failed political and economic behavior. Any system, devised by human beings, that oppresses the poor on behalf of the rich is by definition unjust. Who, in any position of entitlement would want to hear this? The message of repentance destabilizes the status quo.
The gospel stories present the most powerful expression of the contrast between human kingdoms and God’s kingdom. It is played out in the teaching of Jesus, the kind of power he used to help and heal, and in his death and resurrection. Both John and Jesus confronted oppressive power in the most direct, personal, way. They put their lives on the line. This is not unusual for a populist movement against an oppressive regime to focus on one person or a handful. We witness it regularly in various places and times. Right now, the people of Iran are rising up. Why are they? What are the dynamics of this movement? It is about justice. Their government has become oppressive and it hurts people and it must stop. There are prophetic voices being raise in Tehran this very day. The push-back comes from those in power who are threatened by the prophetic voice. In this case, their religious leaders have become oppressive. The people want justice. Does this sound familiar? Does it sound complicated? Only those in power want to make it seem complicated because they have control of the levers of their society and they will do all they can to stop the movement toward justice. The Jewish world has had a very bad track-record of mistreating their prophets, and so has Christianity, and so has Islam. This oppressive behavior is not exclusive to one religion or people. It is a human problem.
The story of Jesus in the gospels is highly theatrical, perhaps the most dramatic of texts. It gives flesh and bone to the message of repentance. Its as if Jesus was saying, “I come in the name of the Lord and I give my body to show you to what extent those in power will go to resist God’s call to justice. But God’s power will overcome.” We know this on a grand scale with all of the violence in the world. But the story of Jesus makes it close and personal--and undeniable. His particular life is the face of the general call to justice. To be a Christian is to go the way of Jesus in speaking repentance to those in power, trusting God’s power of creative transformation, knowing that the issues are clear and the stakes are high. To pray for peace is to seek justice. To seek justice is to act against oppressive people and systems. To act in this way provokes the wrath of those entrenched powers that oppress.
The preacher will require clarity of purpose, imagination, and courage to preach such a prophetic message. “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” (For all you students of philosophy.)
Children and the Texts:
In this time with the children the preacher could talk about conflicts with others that the children might have had, with siblings, or parents, or friends. Discuss what others do that hurt us. They might hit us or say mean things. Talk about friendships and the sometimes troubled feelings we often have. Is love easy? Sometimes. But it can also get complicated, too. The preacher could then move to ask the question, does God have feelings? Can God get hurt by us or feel proud of us? Does God get mad? Of course God has feelings. It’s hard to know how that would be, but the Bible says that God loves us. What does it mean when someone says “I love you?” How do you think they feel? How does that make you feel? Can we disappoint those who love us? Of course. Can we hurt them by what we say? Of course. But that doesn’t mean they will stop loving us. A good father loves his children. A good mother wants the very best for her children. That kind of love is good. And that’s the kind of love God as for us, like the kind of love a good mother or father has for us.
Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.
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