Seventh Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
It’s that season again.
The sun is warm, the sky is blue. The lake water is refreshing, and there’s plenty of daylight to enjoy it in. Barbecues happen on a weekly basis, S’mores over the camp fire–and the race for the 2016 United States Presidential election is on.
Are you kidding me? The election isn’t for another sixteen months! It’s only June 2015! Every four years we go through this, and it’s atrocious. This year, the party started early—the first candidate to declare their candidacy did so back in March. Since then, as of today, 31 candidates have entered the race: 16 Republicans, 8 Democrats, 1 Green, 1 Libertarian, 1 Peace and Freedom, and 4 independents. More are expected to join until every party starts narrowing down the field. Until then, oh boy. Get ready for the onslaught of badly informed, flat-out lying TV ads.
I hate politics. I always have. I remember participating in a mandatory mock election in grade school back in third grade where we voted between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and maybe Ross Perot. Ever met any third graders who were passionate about who their next president would be and even knew there was an election going on? No! Nobody cared.
Even though I was eligible, I didn’t vote in the 2004 election, because the entire spectacle that we put on every four years disgusted me, and I still had no interest in politics. I did vote in 2008 and 2012, but since I don’t believe in voting for the “lesser evil”, it wasn’t until 2012 that I voted for a party I actually liked.
It feels like politics exists in an entirely separate world than I do. I don’t identify with it at all. I know it’s necessary for society to function, but I don’t like the way it works, the way it sees itself, or the effects it has on community.
One of the things I despise most about politics is that it becomes a castle, a fortress, which must be protected at all costs. Any challenge must be dealt with before it disrupts the system too much.
Two prophets we heard about this morning knew what it was like to butt heads with the political system. One escaped with his life; the other did not.
Amos is a fascinating prophet in so many ways. Of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament, Amos is most likely the earliest. He lived about two hundred years after the united Kingdom of Israel had split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Amos himself was not a professional prophet. He was a herdsman, a farmer, a rural working man.
He was also fascinating because he lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, but he preached just across the border in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Guy’s got guts. Further, he went to one of the two most important sanctuaries, or places of sacrifice, in Israel: Bethel, which is called the sanctuary of the King. And from there, he blasts the Israelite royalty and aristocracy for cheating the poor and oppressing them. Yes, the prophets in the Bible were most often concerned with how the people treated the poor—something we often forget today.
Obviously, Amos’s message isn’t well received. For one, he’s giving this message in the king’s sanctuary, the most prominent place of sacrifice in the kingdom of Israel. He’s causing a raucous, being an embarrassment. It doesn’t matter that his message is from God, and that he speaks truly when he speaks of the sins committed by the political powers in their treatment of the poor. He’s inconvenient, and so he is advised, for his own good, to leave Israel, the implication being that, instead of hearing his message, the powers that be will eliminate him. We don’t know what happens to Amos, but there’s no Biblical record of him being killed.
The same can not be said of John the Baptizer. The circumstances of his arrest, his preaching against the marriage of Herod and Herodias, are quite convoluted; the Herod family, in which it seemed every other person was named Herod, was the family that ruled parts of the area of Judea under the Roman Empire, and they were a messed up lot of people. Multiple marriages and divorces, trading wives, poison assassinations, this was a family that lived for political power at any cost. In any case, when Herod married Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother, John stood up and condemned it.
Herod’s response to John’s preaching is curious. He’s disturbed by John, but at the same time, he’s curious and fascinated. Terrified, yes, but we’re told that he “likes to listen to him preach”. If it weren’t for the political machinations that the Herodians were known for, John may have lived a much longer life.
It’s Herodias, who is annoyed and bothered by John’s condemnation of her marriage, who sets the plan in motion to have him killed. Using her daughter in what I can only assume was a highly inappropriate plan, she gets Herod to make a promise he has no choice to keep, a promise to give her daughter whatever she wants, a promise she manipulates to get what she wants: John’s head on a silver platter. Caught in his own political game, and needing desperately to save face and preserve his power a bit longer, Herod gives in and executes the prophet.
Both Amos and John confronted the political systems of their time. Both systems responded as you would expect; the prophets were threats to their power, and to they made the prophets go away. These two people spoke the words of God, called for justice for the poor and the oppressed and spoke out against immorality, and both were ignored.
These prophets challenged the prevailing political power of their times and called for attention to a different world, a different way of living. They offer a vision of world based in God’s rule, a rule for the poor and the outcast, a world of blessing and surpassing abundance. It is a vision that challenges the political world for the rich, the shameless, filled with intrigue and power plays.
It is part of our reality as Christians, that we live in both worlds. We live in a world and society dominated by the ugliness of politics, where our congressional job approval rating is about 15%–in 2013 it fell to about 5%–because we’re so fed up as a country with our politicians and their crap. And yet, so important is the political system to our lives that we fervently defend it and put our hope in it.
We also live in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, that is already present in the world but is yet to be fully present. We live in a world characterized by radical love, hospitality, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is a world that is so important to create that God literally died to make it happen.
We live in both of these realities. To which do we owe our allegiance?
It seems like an easy question. What Christian wouldn’t want to give their allegiance to the kingdom of heaven? But, remember, allegiance to the kingdom of heaven can get you killed; it happened to John, it happened to the martyrs, it happened to Jesus Christ himself. If pledging our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven was as easy as pledging our allegiance to a piece of cloth, more people would do so, and gladly at that.
Allegiance to the kingdom of God means giving up a lot of things that we’ve taken for granted as necessities. We love to be winners, and the political, worldly kingdom certainly offers that. There are winners, and there are losers. There are those with power, and it is actually possible to go from having no power to having a ton of it. We trust people to wield power on our behalf, and thus to keep the world in order.
But none of it lasts forever. There are winners, yes, but the victory is short lived. Even in our presidential elections, the party in power has switched 24 times. And who remembers the Whig party or the Federalist party, both of which are defunct? One can only hold power for so long before inevitably losing it. And yet we crave that power, whether it’s through actual politics or the politics of everyday life that puts us in constant competition with one other to see which one of us is best on any particular day. It’s a mad, mad system where we scramble toward the top, taking out anyone else in our way, only to, inevitably, fall back down to our doom. It seems like our allegiance to the political, worldly realm may be misplaced.
On the other hand, there are dangers associated with allegiance to the kingdom of heaven. We’ve already heard how God’s message can be unpopular, unpopular enough to be killed for. It also means, as we try to live out radical love and hospitality, that we’re going to be taken advantage of. And we hate being taken advantage of. (At camp, during adult Bible study, a heated discussion began about those who milk the systems we set up to help the poor and the oppressed, and how we can keep them from doing so, and I finally raised my hand and my voice and said, “Living out the Christian life as God taught us to do means that we will get taken advantage of; not that we might, that we will. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can get back to actually doing the things we’re called to do.”)
Allegiance to the kingdom of heaven brings with it a certain vulnerability. Instead of relying on ourselves, which carries the possibility of victory, we have to rely on God, who has already won the victory. At the same time that we’re grateful to God for this, we also secretly wish it had been us instead. And by opening ourselves up to the radical nature of the kingdom of heaven, we risk losing part of our connection to the worldly kingdom that we have been convinced is our only hope.
With these two competing worlds, these two kingdoms before us with what can be considered fairly distasteful qualities, the choice of allegiance can be difficult. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of good choices here.
It feels like one is more imminently present in our lives. Think about it: we are no longer surprised when he hear about those in power committing horrible acts. Scandals are not so scandalous anymore. Corruption is the name of the game, and everybody plays. Violence is everywhere as people fight over the smallest scraps of power so they can carve out a life that they own.
When compared to that reality, what chance does the kingdom of heaven have? Amos was shut out of the sanctuary. John was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. If death is the result of our allegiance to God, is there any hope at all? Absolutely.
It is because of the evil we see in the world all around us, to which we have become numb, that the kingdom of heaven is necessary. And in fact, the victory has already been won. We are already dead. And we are already alive.
Featured Image: “Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey – 3D Icons” by DonkeyHotey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.