Today’s gospel reading relates a story about one of the three possible ways people can respond to Jesus. In the preceding story, people respond to Jesus and his disciples’ ministering to them with enthusiasm and with welcome.
But today, we hear from those who are incensed by him and from those for whom his ministry threatens a way of life. Today we hear about the fearful reaction of some leaders to what Jesus says and does. Their fear, like all fear is irrational. It leads King Herod to wild speculation: Is Jesus the reincarnation of John the Baptist?
Most of the reading is a flashback, designed to answer that last question affirmatively. King Herod is convinced Jesus was John the Baptist returning to haunt him for Herod’s having executed him, unjustly. John had condemned Herod for marrying his own brother’s wife, a clear breach of relational boundaries. Herod was upset by John’s truth-telling, and afraid of him as result. When Herod’s wife, at an opportune moment, asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, Herod easily complied. Each had their own reasons. But in the end, each needed John silenced. The flashback story is a recounting of how John had been unjustly executed. It is also a way of saying Jesus is not John returned from the dead.
More importantly, it is a way of saying that the issues of breached community thatJohn addressed, will not go away. John’s message and Jesus’ were the same. The blunt force of the prophets bears up through time and under pressure because the message is not special to the prophet but instead inheres in the very idea of the community of which these leaders are stewards. And that message is that something basic has gone wrong. John argued the people must repent and turn from the imperial direction of unlimited desire and power accumulation to something he called the Kingdom of God. Both Amos and John, and now Jesus, in plain words, argue that something basic has gone wrong in the human relationship; something has gone wrong with our common sharing of the magnitude and bond of love. Steps must be taken to restore the broken relationship.
So here’s where these two readings come together, the reading from Mark and the story from Amos. Amos was not a priest nor was he a professional religious. Tradition has it that he worked with his hands. He knew about growing and tending and building. He’s not a philosopher. He’s not prone to making sermons. But he is a rare, clear voice about the fundamentals of human relationships. He uses the simplest of tools, the plumb line, to make the point: What matters is basic. What matters is that we are true. When a wall is straight up and down, it is operating according to the laws of nature, and not fighting against it. It is true. When a relationship is true — similarly it is not fighting.
We know this — at least we know it in the sense of feeling it — we are authentic, true to ourselves, and true to the community we find ourselves in when all that we do we do to edify, to build up, to allow others to flourish. We all recognize honesty, truthfulness, fairness, loyalty. There is nothing fancy here about Amos.
There is one small issue that I need to address — and that is that these qualities Amos recognizes are qualities that are not only relational, they are fundamental. What I mean by relational, I’ve just tried to express. What I mean by fundamental is that they are what it means to speak of God. This is important because much of at least what I learned about God, and much of what I still read about God, might suggest just the opposite. We learned that God was mysterious. But despite this mystery, we have also been told that God is outside the world, remote and passionless. We have learned, by implication, that God is without feeling, and all-controlling, and intervenes in the world only occasionally through miracles.
Given that 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, why have we embraced this God? How can God be unmoved by our lives and yet still love us? The idea of a passionless, omnipotent God flies in the face of the clear biblical representation of God as fundamentally relational. To recognize this is to recognize that Jesus and John and Amos cannot be dismissed as some ancient prophets calling for a new world of socialism. That’s not it. That’s not what matters here. What matters is that we come to see each other in a way that invites the ideas of the other; that digs in to find what the roots of our fears are; that understands that our highest obligation as humans in this world is to see ourselves as each other’s business, as each other’s magnitude and bond. We are no prophets — we are simply people with a drive to worship in truth.
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. This way is, no doubt, risky; it is nevertheless, to live in line with the magnitude and the bond of love apart from which our lives crooked and tumbling walls. Amen.