Friday, July 12, 2013

8th Sunday after Pentecost

The late great American science fiction writer and social commentator, Kurt Vonnegut, had a fine grasp of the essence of Christianity.  He also had a cult following, particularly amongst the young who were drawn to his particular blend of humour and merciless observation of the ills of society.  At one event Vonnegut was asked by a young man, 'But can you tell us it will all be OK?' – which maybe is the contemporary secular equivalent for asking how to obtain eternal life – and Vonnegut looked at him for a moment before replying, 'Young man, welcome to Planet Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It's round and wet and crowded.  At the most, you've got 90 or so years ago.  There's only one rule that I know about – Goddamn it, kid, you've got to be kind'.

We make it too complicated sometimes, don't we? What Vonnegut didn't say, though he knew it well enough, is that human kindness, when it is real, is only our poor response to the one who made us and whose deepest desire for us is that we should become fully human.  It is also, I believe, the deepest and most consistent strand of teaching in the Bible, the Biblical ethic of kindness and mercy that is our response to the loving-kindness of God.

But we don't always get it right, and we need to be shocked awake, as Jesus today shocks his questioners awake by the reminder that, sometimes, our kindness fades into moralising and judgementalism, and we need to take lessons in mercy from those whom we had always dismissed as Godless.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German church leader executed by the Nazis just days before the liberation of the concentration camp in which he was being held, was safely in the United States at the outbreak of World War II.  The Church in Germany, both Catholic and Protestant, recognised and cooperated with the Nazi regime and saw its duty as providing spiritual comfort and moral legitimation in wartime.  This inspired Bonhoeffer to return to Germany and found the Confessing Church movement that openly opposed the Nazis, and that attacked both the evils of the regime and the evil of the Church in preaching the gospel of 'cheap grace'.  The vocation of speaking the truth, Bonhoeffer wrote, always comes at a cost but there is no alternative for a Church that wishes to be the body of Christ.

We began reading, this morning, from the prophet Amos – rather misleadingly, Amos is characterised as so-called 'minor' prophet because his message is absolutely central.  Coming in at the middle of the story, as we have, we might think Amos a prophet of doom – in a vision he sees God holding a plumb line against the corner of a building.  The Hebrew in this verse is a bit wonky – the word we translate as plumb line literally means a piece of tin, but plumb line seems to fit the context because a plumb line is what a builder uses to check if the wall is straight – if it is going to stand up – and if not then it needs to be broken down and rebuilt.  And this message is blunt: the plumb line is now being used to measure the straightness of God's people, and they don't measure up.

This is actually the third prophetic vision Amos has had in this chapter – the first vision of judgement was a plague of locusts, and the second was a shower of fire.  Each time, Amos interceded for the people and God relented, but this time Amos is speechless and God announces that this time the judgement will be carried out – 'I will never again pass them by' means enough is enough – no more turning a blind eye.  The sins of Israel – the northern kingdom – excruciatingly detailed in the first six chapters boil down to the usual prophetic denunciation – Israel – God's chosen and holy people practise injustice against the poor and have turned away from God's covenant: 'they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals … they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way' (2.6-7).

There are a couple of things I want to draw out of this morning's passage, and the first is this: that the judgement, and the argument, is with both Church and State.  Bethel is both the cultic centre of the Northern Kingdom, and it is the head of government – Amaziah the priest of Bethel receives Amos's words and immediately consults with King Jeroboam.  Correctly recognising the power of prophetic judgement he tells Amos off because 'this is the king's sanctuary and the official cathedral church – the temple of the kingdom'.  Amaziah the priest is not serving the same master as Amos whom the priest dismisses, more or less, as a crystal ball gazer.

When the Church sees its role in terms of keeping the peace and supporting the government, then it stops being the Church. It is the king's church?  Really?  Isn't it God's church?  The judgement here is not just against the evils of secular government – not that there really was any such thing 2800 years ago – it is also against God's people.  When God's people are seduced by the status quo, when we are silent in the face of injustice, then we are complicit and we face God's judgement.

Which brings me to me second point, our modern, reluctance to hear a word of judgement.  Amos's people were equally reluctant and they had to be reminded: Judgement is the flip side of covenant.  Being God's people doesn't mean exemption from divine judgement, as Amos reminds Israel in chapter three – 'Of all the families of the earth you are the only ones I have adopted and for that reason I will punish you for your iniquity' (3.2).  Our modern reluctance to hear about judgement comes from a different direction – we think it's old-fashioned.  We think of judgement in negative terms as the out-of-date preoccupation of a grumpy, vengeful God.  A judging God is what we think we got over when we discovered a loving, forgiving God – the Old Testament, according to the old, rather self-serving chestnut, is full of laws and judgement – the New Testament is full of love and grace.  Except that – throughout the Bible, God's judgement is a part of the graciousness and the love of God.  There can't be one without the other.  It's a modern thing that we inherit from the Enlightenment, from Rene Descartes who tells us 'I think, therefore I am' – at one stroke putting the enlightened self at the centre of his or her own moral universe – these days it might more accurately be, 'I shop, therefore I am' – who I am is defined by my ability to exercise economic choice, and we feel ourselves to be immune from anybody else's judgement on how we live our lives – but actually the God of Israel sees it differently.

So what is so bad with us?  Why would the modern preacher want to bring home Amos's judgment – a judgement vindicated by the tide of history a generation or so later – on our modern heads?  What is so bad that Church and State need a telling off for today?

Parents, it seems to me, exercise a prophetic role with their children – and so for that matter do teachers.  Your vocation is to tell the truth, to correct with love and firmness.  Amos and Amaziah are two opposing models, it seems to me, for leadership in the Church.  Amaziah is for niceness – 'your words are too heavy', he tells Amos.  'The people can't bear them'.  We do niceness rather well in the Church, and very often even mistake it for love.  Amos, like Bonhoeffer, is the model for telling the truth.

I think we've lost our nerve.  We've given up on the prophetic role because we're into survival mode.  Too concerned about dwindling numbers of bottoms on pews to announce God's judgement on a people who can even contemplate turning around a rickety boatful of desperate women, men and children at sea.  A policy, can you believe, that a major political party maintains for the simple reason that it is going to get them votes.  Because they assume we approve. And the other political party, while it doesn't drive out the desperate into the desert of the ocean, sends them into permanent exile in detention centres and offshore processing centres where the only thing that isn't being done is the processing of their claims on our humanity and hospitality.  Where is the Church in this?  Largely silent.

This last week has been NAIDOC week – National Aborigines and Islander Day – the Barnett Government has offered to buy out all remaining Aboriginal land title claims across the Perth region for $1.3 billion, while capping at $2,000 individual claims for compensation for stolen wages.  This from a government that has attempted to compulsorily acquire Aboriginal lands for the gas hub project at James Price Point.  Aboriginal groups are pointing to the high-handedness and the manifest inadequacy and unfairness of subordinating justice for Aboriginal people to the interests of big business.  This NAIDOC week Aboriginal leaders are calling for resources to combat the appalling over-representation of Aboriginal youth in our prisons – in Western Australia we incarcerate young Aborigines at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the country.  So where is the Church in this?  Largely silent.

The planet we live on – the only one we have, incidentally – is suffering beneath the weight of a human population of 7 billion and growing.  Arguments about whether or not climate change is real, or if it is, whether it is caused by human activity – are the self-serving bleating of those who have a vested interest in things remaining the way they are, and in any case are beside the point – there is simply no argument about the crisis faced by the planet's water systems, the degradation of arable land and dwindling energy resources.  Our planet needs a break, it needs a Sabbath rest, and those who advocate passionately for creation and the environment are still treated like idealist do-gooders.  Where is the Church in this?  Largely missing, too little too late.  Last week our Diocesan Trustees refused to even consider a motion that our Diocese divest itself of investments in petro-chemical companies and other big polluters.

I think we are also seduced by a feel-good religion of self-affirmation and resist the imperative of our faith to actually do something for the poor who we see around us.  Time after time the NCLS surveys or our own congregation inform us that we value our spirituality of the Eucharist but don't much care for service in the community.  We leave to other denominations and other congregations to support local initiatives like LINC – Love in the Name of Christ – that provides volunteers to assist those in our community who are housebound.  We struggle to find volunteers to run our Op Shop, which actually has become the main way we support local welfare agencies.  I think we tell ourselves we don't have enough time – but I wonder what we are using our time for that is more important.

Whenever we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, the temptation is to put ourselves into the shoes of those passing by.  Would we stop?  Would we lower our eyes and keep going? Perhaps a better way is to imagine ourselves as the hapless victim lying in the gutter.  Who are we prepared to accept help from?  Would we object to the asylum seeker or the Aborigine picking us up and tending to our needs?  Who then are we bound to show humanity to?

Vonnegut hits the nail on the head.  Our vocation as the Church, our vocation as Christians is to practise kindness, which in the language of the Bible is mercy.  God's judgement is this – that if we do not, then mercy passes from us.  What goes around, comes around.