Our Sorry Ambivalence

Lectionary 15 (6th Sunday after Pentecost), Year B
July 12, 2009
Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It was probably an administrative mistake,
an example of an appropriate policy poorly executed.
But hitting the headlines of a few news outlets this week was the story of Anna Williams,
whose letters filled with Bible verses and Christian inspiration were censored
before they arrived to her son’s jail cell 
at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, VA.
Passages from Scripture themselves and other messages of Christian inspiration
were blacked out, leaving little more than her greeting and signature 
for her jailed son to read.
Jail officials have had no comment 
on why quotes from Scripture were censored from an inmate’s mail.
Indeed, this behavior by the jail officials seems odd, 
for ever since Jesus promised paradise 
to the criminal hanging alongside of him on Calvary,
prisons have been places of Christian outreach and ministry.
And even though it is unlikely, this situation raises the question 
as to whether jail officials censored Scripture and religious messages 
because they perceived the Good News to threaten them 
and their authority over the inmate.
As I said, unlikely.  I’m inclined to trust the integrity of our criminal justice system,
and I’m not prone to conspiracy theories.
This situation was likely just a misguided application 
of other rules governing what inmates can and cannot receive in the mail.
I certainly hope so.  
But it puts the question into our head – 
were the authorities at Rappahannock Regional Jail threatened by the Word of God?  
In general, are any who hold positions of authority threatened by the Word of God?

The answer would seem to be “yes” after a quick read 
of today’s Old Testament and Gospel stories.
In our first reading we meet Amos,
the ordinary herdsman who speaks God’s word
much to the consternation and concern of King Jeroboam and of Amaziah,
the established priest of the northern Kingdom’s holy sanctuary at Bethel.
Though Amos  does not claim the title of prophet for himself,
he speaks in the manner and tradition of the prophets,
delivering a message of judgment to God’s people in the Northern Kingdom – 
who about 150 years earlier, following the reign of Kings David and Solomon,
were separated from the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Amos delivers God’s word of condemnation to the people of the North
for failing to observe God’s festivals and laws,
for mistreating and neglecting the poor,
and for sexual immorality, among other abuses.
And more … it’s not just letter-of-the-law violations 
that Amos calls to the attention of Israel,
but a general disregard for all that God has done for them.

“I destroyed the Amorites before you … I brought you out of Egypt …
I raised up from among you prophets and priests …” 
Amos, speaking as God’s prophet, declares in chapter 2.
But they disregarded the gift of deliverance, silenced the prophets, and profaned the holy.
For this reason, Amos speaks out.
And so in today’s reading, from Amos chapter 7,
we see that the six previous chapters of prophesying has gotten Amos into trouble.
In vs. 10 of the first reading Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, 
tells the king that Amos has conspired against him.
Note that Amaziah doesn’t say that Amos has prophesied, but conspired,
a much more politically threatening and volatile term – 
and that Amaziah demands that Amos should be deported from the kingdom.
Two verses later, however, Amaziah puts down this tough-guy talk, 
and approaches Amos with more of a plea than a command,
asking the prophet to please leave Bethel for Judah.
Amaziah doesn’t denounce Amos as a fraud.
He calls him a “seer,” but asks him to prophesy elsewhere.
It’s as if Amaziah knows that Amos speaks God’s word but,
knowing that “the land is not able to bear all his words,”
begs him to please leave 
and no longer cause trouble in the wayward northern kingdom.

On the surface there seems to be a rather simple tension
between the established authorities,
King Jeroboam and Amaziah on one side,  
and the “little guy,” Amos, who speaks God’s Word of truth, on the other.
But I can’t just paint this picture in the black and white hues of power and powerlessness,
in civil authority being challenged by religious truth,
because there is more going on in the story.
What I perceive as Amaziah’s ambivalence – 
tough talking before the king, modest pleas before the prophet himself – 
leads me to see this tension between Amos and the authorities
as more than just a straight-forward power dynamic between 
those who hold power and those who criticize the misuse of such power.

Perhaps my ambivalence comes from my reading of the Gospel text,
where we meet Herod Antipas, the Roman figurehead ruler in Israel
and son of Herod the Great, 
who some thirty-odd years earlier upon hearing about the birth of Jesus 
had thousands of children executed 
in an attempt to kill the so-called King of the Jews.
The younger Herod, Herod Antipas, 
is portrayed as a foolish and easily manipulated ruler, perhaps,
but as one who is also quite taken with both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
In today’s text we hear how Herod believed John to be a righteous and holy man, 
and how he was simultaneously intrigued and perplexed 
by John’s preaching and teaching.
Now, John had condemned Herod for his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, 
yet Herod protected John, even though Herodias, his wife, wanted John dead.
But on the occasion of his own birthday Herod threw a grand party,
and we can imagine that the food and drink were in full supply,
perhaps leading to the reckless offer he makes to his daughter after her dance.
“Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, even half of my kingdom!” 
he insists, as the gathered guests looks on.
And so, this man who had protected John now had put his reputation on the line,
and was faced with the decision of whether to protect his ego 
or the prophet he seemed to admire,
for his daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist.
Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, the text tells us, 
Herod did not want to refuse his daughter’s request for John the Baptist’s head,
and he had John executed.

Mark could have told us this story in other ways.
He could have portrayed Herod in a much more straight forward manner,
as an insecure leader threatened by John the Baptist’s popularity and message.
Mark could have written this story to have much more of an oppositional tension
between John the Baptist and Herod.
But he doesn’t.  Rather, Mark takes us into the ambivalent, 
if nonetheless weak, misguided and morally corrupt mind of Herod, 
who seems to be unsure of how to deal 
with the words and wisdom of this man of God.

And so, are those who hold positions of authority threatened by the Word of God?
These stories from Amos and from Mark can certainly be read in that way,
and many a sermon delivered in churches today throughout the country 
are probably going in that direction.
But … but it’s not just about “them,” 
about “those people” who serve in positions of authority,
about some other group of people.  No.
I think there’s something of Amaziah’s ambivalence in all of us,
of recognizing the truth and legitimacy of God’s word but,
at the same time, seeking to keep it at arms length, 
knowing full well that we can’t really bear what it has to say to us.
I think there’s in us something of Herod’s simultaneous admiration for John the Baptist
and his self-conscious concern for his oath and his public image 
that eventually trumped any devotion he may have had to John and his message.
That is, when we read these texts it can be so easy 
to put ourselves in the place of the holy people of God,
of the martyr or the prophet who is shown the door.
We read these stories and we want to claim the role of the “good guys” for ourselves,
and we presume that other people must be the Herods and Amaziahs of the world
who are threatened by God’s Word.

But I think it only fair and honest that we also read these stories with an acknowledgment 
of our ambiguous relationship with God,
a relationship in which we are simultaneously drawn to and threatened by
God’s ever-gracious Word, 
a Word which comes to us both as Law and Gospel, 
a Word which in its daring and incarnate intimacy speaks a truth to us 
that breaks down our facades and sees through our pride, 
yet which also lifts us up with the promise of love and new life.

Ambiguity.  
It’s not only at work in the central characters and situations of our texts today,
But it’s also there at the end of these tex
ts,
ambiguous tension-filled places,
where Amos is being shown the door, but he’s not walking out of it;
where John’s disciples gather to take his body and lay it in a tomb,
and wonder what’s next.  
What is next, dear friends?  
Today’s readings send us into the next seven days not with an “Alleluia” moment,
a miracle, a healing, or a comforting word.

Instead, in the middle of the summer doldrums,
we are jostled by these words 
into looking our own ambivalence and ambiguity in the face …
and we should be comforted knowing not that it’s OK – 
I’m not trying to make a case for some sort of blessed ambivalence here, folks –
but that it is precisely to these situations of ambivalence and ambiguity that 
Christ shows up, calling us and empowering us in faith 
to clarity and conviction, to a new way of life.

And so, dear friends, let us drag our sorry ambivalence to the altar this day, 
let us bring the Amaziahs and Herods within us to this feast …
for there is nothing ambiguous, ambivalent, or conflicted 
in the words spoken at this meal:
this is my body, given for you.
this is my blood, shed for you.
Our broken selves might not be able to bear such gracious words, 
our incomplete faith might not be able to believe them … 
but God’s gonna speak them anyway.
Come to the table of God’s Word,
taste and see the Good News given for you.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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