Emily Hartner * Holy Trinity Lutheran Church * July 11, 2021
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
There are a few Sundays in the year when I’d like the readings to end with a question mark, as in, “The word of the Lord?” As in, really? This is in the Bible and it’s supposed to be good news? And I’ve got to tell you, this is one of those Sundays. The Ephesians text is pretty good, but our first and second readings leave me wanting and questioning.
If you listened closely, you may have noticed the thread that ties our Old Testament reading to the Gospel. That thread, at least as far as I can tell, is the person of the prophet. Prophets are good people, right? We lift them up, at the least as important to the larger story of God’s people. Though they’re not necessarily fortune, or future, tellers as they’re sometimes mistaken to be, they are truth tellers and they do speak for God, and that, we claim, is good and worthy. It’s good to speak for God.
But what happens to them is never quite as good. Here’s the pattern: Prophet speaks truth to power. Power doesn’t like the truth that’s said. Power gets rid of prophet. But here’s my question: What happens to truth? Does power get rid of truth as well? Does it cover it up? Erase it? Return to sender or send it running to the next town?
The “getting rid of” can take lots of different forms. Take Amos, for example. Amos lived in the northern part of Israel during the 8th century BC. It was a time of prosperity for the north, but their prosperity came at the expense of the poor. God called Amos to prophecy to the north and Amos speaks of a vision of a plumb line being held up against the kingdom, a plumb line that reveals its faults.The kingdom that is perhaps leaning like the tower of pisa, about to crumble in on itself if it doesn’t change its ways.
We have a strong image today of what that looks like. Images from the collapsed condo building in Florida have commanded our attention during the past several weeks. You might think of prophets like Amos as the inspectors who reported the structural damage to the building. The collapse, then, of Israel, is the natural consequence of a kingdom inadequately built on the foundation of injustice. The kingdom, built this way, simply can’t stand. I agree, 100%, with Amos and I find hope in this message for both the oppressed and the world. Will we destroy ourselves if we do not take care of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
But Amos’ words are not received so well. He’s told to go away, to go prophecy elsewhere. King Jeroboam and the high priest Amaziah don’t want to hear it and send him away, as if truth was something you could simply brush under the rug and not something that would eventually come topping down on you. “Truth not welcome here,” they may have just as well have said.
And then there’s John the Baptist who also speaks truth to power in this far from PG-rated story. If you remember, King Herod had unlawfully married his brother’s wife. When John the Baptist brings this to Herod’s attention, it’s not Herod who is so terribly offended. It’s Herod’s wife, Herodias. Herod’s birthday party presents an opportunity for Herodias to get even. When her daughter’s not-so-innocent dancing pleasantly entertains Herod and he agrees to give her anything she wants, her mother persuades her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Gruesome, right? And so what we learn from this story, then, is that prophets are not only quietly sent away. They also get their heads cut off. Truth is not welcome here.
You know, Herod was a little more sympathetic to John the Baptist than was Herodias. The scene of the birthday party is a flashback, as if Herod is recalling that he did, in fact, have John the Baptist beheaded. But I almost sense a little bit of hope in his astonishment that in Jesus, John the Baptist may have been raised. Of course it’s not John the Baptist. We now know what happened to him.
But it is Jesus, yet another prophet, whose demise combines both that of Amos and John. Just last week we heard that he, like Amos, was rejected from his hometown, pushed away to prophesy elsewhere. The sign into Nazareth might as well have said, “Truth not welcome here.” And then we know what happened at the end. Like John, Jesus was killed.
You see what I mean? This world is not kind to prophetic truth-tellers.
In fact, I wonder if the world will not always try to get rid of them, one way or another, and in the process try also to get rid of the inconvenient truth that they so often preach. Truth is not welcome here.
Gosh, that makes it feel like a harsh world, doesn’t it, when progress toward inclusion and equality and justice gets squelched, like a fly to a fly swatter. And not only do these stories reveal the harsh reality of the world in which we live, they also scare us away from any sort of prophetic work we might do on our own. If the fate of prophets is rejection, beheading, or crucifixion, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it. I’m not sure I have it in me.
Can I really risk everything when I have a family and friends that I love? Hasn’t the truth already been squelched enough for us to have learned that it’s not worth it? Are we not beyond saving?
Well, no, in fact. Yes, these texts leave me wondering about good news, but they’re not the complete story and it’s good for us to remember that. I think Mark intended for that last line of today’s segment–”they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb”–to foreshadow Jesus’ own death.
Jesus falls in a long line of prophets, and yes, prophets who have been rejected and killed as a result of their work.
But, dear friends, we know that not even that is the full story. We know that Jesus did not stay dead and that with his body, the truth that he preached, believed, and lived was also raised. And we get the sense that a prophet’s work is never done in vain. And I don’t know about you, but that empowers me a little bit to work on my own prophetic ability. The truth we speak to power can never be fully crushed or, as another prophet preached, “The arc of the universe always bends toward justice.” Truth may not always be welcome here, but there’s still a place for it.
Sometimes that truth can be a little difficult to identify. Well, you know how I said that the Ephesians passage was a little easier to swallow than the others? Well, it turns out that it contains some of that truth. “God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” It sounds lovely, I know. The growing edge is that it applies to everyone. Every child of God that has and does and will walk this earth. That’s the truth we’re called to proclaim.
I’ve got to be honest with you. We have a difficult task as the church and I think we’re always going to feel like our work is in vain. But I leave you with this charge, the dismissal from our Ash Wednesday service:
Go forth into the world to serve God with gladness;
Be of good courage;
Hold fast to that which is good;
Render to no one evil for evil;
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Support the weak;
Help the afflicted;
Honor all people;
Love and serve God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And know that the truth of our worth and the worth of all in God’s eyes can never be crushed. The truth and hope of justice lives on. And, as Jesus once said, that truth will set us free.