July 15, 2018 – B Proper 10
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
In today’s collect for this eighth Sunday after Pentecost, we ask God that we as the Church may know and understand what things we ought to do, and for the grace and power to accomplish them. And this is a good thing to pray for, because we often don’t know and understand the things we ought to do.
Sometimes we do know what we are supposed to do but we lose our way. We start out on the path with a destination in mind and then we look up and realize we are way off course.
And this is why God sends us prophets. They help us find our way again. They call us back to the path and show us the way back to a life that pleases God. But they can be hard to understand. They can be wild and make us uncomfortable.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi who died in 1972. He was one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century who wrote an influential study on biblical prophets that has shaped Jewish and Christian thought on the subject. His mother and three of his sisters were murdered by the Nazis. This experience and his study of the prophets shaped his later life and his involvement in the civil rights movement. You can see photos of him marching with Martin Luther King, Jr in the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
And the reason I tell you about Abraham Joshua Heschel is that he has helped us understand prophets like Amos and John the Baptist from today’s readings. One of key insights he has given us is his idea of divine pathos. Prophets believe that God is emotionally involved with human history and that God suffers when human beings are hurt. To hurt another person is to injure God. And the prophets feel this injury to God and neighbor at the core of their being. Prophets carry this deep sense that any injustice to another person is also an injustice to God. They are both connected. That is why they feel so deeply about justice and equity among people.
So prophets call us to the truth that when we injure others, we injure God, and they feel this injury at the core of their being.
This is why Amos says that King Jeroboam will die by the sword and that Israel will go into exile. The people lived in opulence and self-righteousness and exploited the poor and ignored the weightier matters of justice and right-relations among the people. Amos says that God’s judgment will come because the people of Israel “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” They exploit the poor and imprison them in debt all while drinking the finest wines with the money from the fines they have imposed.
And to Israel, God’s chosen people, whose lives were commanded by God to be marked with festivals and offerings and a whole religious way of being, this is the divine message he delivers to them from God:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
Amos delivers the divine message that all of their religious life was unacceptable to God. And what does he tell them that God really wants? “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
It’s the divine pathos that animates the prophets: How you treat others is how you treat God.
This divine pathos is why John the Baptist ends up with his head severed from his body. This deep sense of justice animated his whole life and gave him the courage to tell Herod that he should not be married to his brother’s wife. This is the same Herod who had his own wife and three of his children killed because of paranoia about losing his power. This is the same Herod who orders the murder of all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem to eliminate the newly born King of the Jews that the wise men are looking for. It is to this Herod that John says, what you’re doing is not how you should treat others.
Amos and John the Baptist live out their vocations as prophets. Prophets remind us that how we treat others is how we treat God. And this is a message we as the Church always need to be reminded of because we have a tendency to be blind to injustice.
I mentioned some of the horrors that were inflicted on Abraham Joshua Heschel and his family by the Nazis. But we must never forget that Adolf Hitler and the vision of Nazi Germany was supported by most German Christians. There were prophets like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the confessing church, but they were largely ignored and dismissed. Heschel held German Christian religious leaders responsible for the widespread collaboration with the Nazi regime and their failure to provide theological tools for opposing anti-Semitism.
Christians like you and me, who said the creeds, read the scriptures, and received the sacraments had Nazi flags in their sanctuaries. This is a quote from that time by a German pastor named Hermann Gruner: “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.”
Another pastor put it more succinctly: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”
I know that speaking about Hitler and Nazi Germany is a really heavy thing to talk about on a Sunday morning. But I hope it underscores our great need to listen to the prophets. And it is even more poignant that one of the key insights in understanding the Jewish prophets whose words are scripture, comes from a 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher who wished that German Christians would have heeded the words of those same prophets in combating injustice and oppression to Jewish people. And we can only hear the words now from Heschel with deep sorrow. “You cannot worship God,” he writes, “and look with contempt at a human being as if he or she were an animal.”
Prophets remind us that how we treat others is how we treat God, and because we as the Church have a tendency to be blind to injustice, we must always be on the lookout for prophets who call us to seek justice and equity for all people. We sometimes don’t understand or know what to do, or sometimes we do and lose our way. But the prophets are there, telling us that how we treat others is how we treat God.
We must heed the words of the prophets in holy scripture, but also listen for the present-day prophets in our own day. I don’t who that might be in your life, but you will recognize them when you hear their voices calling for justice and equity for all people. They usually come from the fringes and are easily dismissed because they disrupt the status quo, but that’s how it is for prophets.
But if we pay attention we’ll recognize a similarity between what they say and what we promise to God in our Baptismal covenant.
Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
We will with God’s help.