Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2018 | Pentecost 23
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10:17-31
A number of years ago, I wrote an article that was published in a diocesan newsletter sent to all our parishes throughout western Washington. That short article, a reflection on the season of Advent, included the suggestion that we focus our attention on two images that emerge in the Sunday readings and the ancient evening hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – the image of Jesus as the sun of justice and the prince of peace. I suggested that the season invites Christians to consider the dawning of God’s justice and peace as revealed in God’s son, Jesus Christ, and the call we receive to participate in the brightening of God’s justice and peace in our communities and our nation.
Within a week of the article’s publication, I received an email from a rather irate lawyer [from Tacoma, I might add] who said, in effect, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. “The only form of justice that matters,” he wrote, “is the system of justice meted out by the courts. Period.” Well, my first thought was uncharitable. “Who’s your rector,” I wondered to myself, “and what is your clearly unenlightened rector preaching and teaching?” And, then you, Mr. Lawyer, with a law degree from Harvard (I “googled” him), don’t you know something about research and looking at a case or a proposition from more than one angle? Those uncharitable thoughts soon evaporated as I began to wonder if this man’s incredulity actually reflected a larger ignorance of the very words we confess in the baptismal liturgy: our commitment to strive for God’s justice and peace. Was he, the concerned lawyer, and many others in our parishes, unaware that the Bible, liturgical texts, many of the hymns we sing, and the large network of church agencies we support focus on God’s call to be and become a people committed to the promotion of God’s justice and peace in society?
The prophet Amos cries out, “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice.” But what does he mean when exhorts the people of God to establish justice?
I now have enrolled in my university courses some students who are homeless; that is, they live on a relative’s couch, bounce around to the homes of their friends, or live in a car. The charitable impulse in each of us, encouraged by the words of Jesus to welcome the stranger, might instinctively ask how we can respond to this immediate need, that is, if we believe that the suffering of others calls out to us and asks for a response rooted in faith. We might offer food, financial support, or a room in our home to a person in need. Indeed, churches and synagogues have established vast networks of charitable support, of social assistance, to respond to human – and now – environmental suffering. But, the work of charity by individuals or groups is not what concerns Amos nor Jesus when he asks the young ruler to abandon the pursuit of comfortable wealth.
Rather Amos focuses his criticism at the larger system that encourages people to look out only for themselves; the larger system that gives preferential treatment to the wealthy, the healthy, and the educated; the larger system that allows the powerful to use the poor, the weak, and the uneducated as cheap labor – the powerful who benefit personally from the labor of those who earn little and are consigned to a life of hardship if not early death. That kind of tragic life is not what God intends for God’s many children here on earth. Thus, Amos trains his criticism on those who imagine mistakenly that their comfortable wealth, their security, and their economic, political, or social influence is a blessing from God. He trains his criticism on the system that allows lobbyists to bribe rulers for the benefit of those with cash to offer bribes. He trains his criticism on a cultural system that rewards the pursuit of wealth or personal power but cannot imagine for a second that God offers an abundance to be shared among all people equitably.
I find it of considerable interest that when you and I come to this altar to receive the Body and Blood of the prophet from Nazareth each of us receives the same amount of bread and wine. The priest receives no more than the young child; the retired elder receives no less than the active businesswoman. What we practice here is the just distribution of God’s abundant life, the equitable sharing of food and drink that bears the imprint of the One says those who are accounted last in this world are first – are first – in the kingdom of God.
Yes, let us act each and every day with charity. But, then, let us remember that no one has ever been crucified for giving a handout to someone in need, for being generous to the poor. And no one has ever been raised from death to return to the way things have always been in this world. Rather, you and I encounter here the risen One who says to each of us who struggle and grow weary in the work of brightening God’s justice in this world: “For mortals this work may seem impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”