Amos is in a pickle. Amos has some hard words to deliver to Israel. God has given the prophet Amos visions of locusts and fire to judge Israel, and in today’s passage, a plumb line to hold God’s people accountable for their faithlessness and wrong actions. A conflict between prophet and priest ensues. In an attempt to squelch unfavorable prophesy, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains to the king that Amos has nothing but bad news. Amaziah does not challenge the right of Amos to prophesy, only his authority to speak at royal sanctuary, and by extension, in the kingdom of Israel. Amos proclaims his authority in the face of the religious establishment, even the king. He does not profess to be a great prophet, only a humble farmer, a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. But his authority comes from the ultimate source ... the Lord God commanded Amos to prophesy to Israel. Don’t shoot the messenger.
John the Baptist was in even more of a pickle. Sandwiched between the mission of the twelve and the feeding of five thousand, Mark offers us a flashback describing the dispatch of John the Baptist. More than a gruesome text of terror, this account offers us kingdom lessons of the challenge of being God’s messenger in a world that can’t, or won’t, hear the Truth. Jesus is only indirectly included in this passage, but in a most significant way ... Jesus is the message.
Herod and others refuse to see who Jesus is. They speculate all the miraculous works surrounding Jesus might be because He is the prophet Elijah returned. John the Baptist seemed to ignite all this religious fervor among the people, announcing the coming of the Messiah. Herod hoped to avoid conflict with this man of God, but John spoke out against Herod, because Herod married his brother's wife, a violation of Jewish law. The wife Herodias and her daughter Salome plotted the end of John the Baptizer. Herod is caught up in a drama of intermarriage, confusing genealogy, lust, conspiracy, an oath unwisely offered, grief, and regret. Herod wanted to avoid conflict. John pays the ultimate price. We sense Herod’s regret and guilt. Don’t behead the messenger.
Grasping for an explanation of this Jesus fever, Herod states that all of the works of Jesus are because John the Baptist, who Herod had executed, has been raised. Herod refuses to see Jesus as Jesus, but his words ironically suggest the great power at work in Jesus. Herod destroyed the chief vessel and herald of the coming of a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. Herod’s kingdom will ultimately fall. The kingdom of God continues to reign.
Today’s scripture leaves us with at least one uncomfortable conclusion. We are all messengers. We are entrusted with the message of God’s salvation for humanity. The revelation of God to the world in Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our message to share freely with the world in both word and action. This message and mission is sacred, but the world may consider it dangerous. It flips the world humanity has created upside down, and threatens our comfortable, self-important existence. We are called to comfort the afflicted. Sometimes we are called to afflict the comfortable. At other times ... we are the comfortable. Amos was threatened for delivering God’s message. John the Baptist was killed because of it.
It is only natural to avoid change, conflict, and uncertain outcomes. It is natural to want to please those around us. Theologian and pastor Henri Nouwen observes good spiritual leadership can often be confused with the ability to "control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds." Church leaders often give in to vocal demands of some individual or group to save face or keep the peace. No one wants to end up with their head on a plate. But giving in to world politics, or even Church politics, can hinder the deeper theological reflection a community needs to engage our purpose. Good spiritual discernment helps us explore who we are in various situations of change, transition, or conflict. Are we Herod, Herodias, Salome, or John the Baptist? We must continuously ask if we are making choices that are based in self-protection, or based on God's transformation of the world.
So how shall we begin? How do we embark on our mission as messengers of God? We can start on page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer. "The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." This is proclaimed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We are adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ. This sense of an intentionally created family fills us with the grace bestowed on us, that all might live for the praise of God's glory. This is our inheritance ... not by our doing, not earned, but by grace. Through Jesus Christ we are included in God's promise. We are marked as Christ's own forever, with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. Perhaps instead of dividing up insiders and outsiders of the faith, we should understand that all those who seek Christ belong to God, not because we are less sinful or do all the right things, but because God bestows infinite grace and mercy upon us all. Through grace, God calls us to unity. This is a message the world needs to hear.
Reconciling ourselves to God and each other is our calling. We are the adopted children of God, and our inheritance is completely gratuitous ... a gift. This is an alternate view to the world's understanding of worth. Our worth is not of ourselves, rather we have been taken up into something extraordinary and offered this gift to receive as our own. This gift calls us to specific tasks of loving and serving God and our neighbor. We are to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Like John, we are to prepare the way of the Lord, lowering ourselves so that Christ might be exalted. We are to be disciples of Christ, loving one another as Christ loves us. We are to recognize God's love as excessive, tender, and richly abundant. And we are to be apostles, sent forth to be the Body of Christ and reflect Christ to a world in need of the Savior. This is a gift so great we cannot keep it to ourselves. This is a gift we must celebrate and share. We do all of this in faith that God is working with us, through us. We are called to faithfully, fearlessly, deliver this message to the world in word and action.
The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus movement has a unique expression of our faith to offer the world. We offer tradition and theology and liturgy. We also offer love. The Diocese of Atlanta has adopted a clear purpose statement. “We challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus, as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry proclaims, “I’ve seen Episcopalians stand with others no one else would stand with. I’ve seen Episcopalians stand with immigrants. I’ve seen us stand with refugees. I’ve seen us stand up for justice, not in the name of secular values but in the name of Jesus Christ, in the name of love. ... We do not come in hatred, we do not come in bigotry, we do not come to put anybody down. We come to lift everybody up. We come in love.” This is our message. Let us courageously deliver it to the world. Amen.
Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 2:11-22 |Mark 6:30-34, 53-56