Sam Magill is a coach and poet. He has served on the Bishop’s Committee at St. Hilda St. Patrick and has chaired the stewardship committee. This sermon was preached as a response to the texts for Proper 23. Track 2.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable to you, oh Triune God.
In a very few minutes, our community with God will grow by one person, Kaylea. Right after her Baptism, we will say together: We receive you into the household of God, Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.
This is a profound statement!. I see us standing at the door of God’s house welcoming a new family member. A sister and friend.
But let’s back up a bit. Throughout the readings for today, beginning with Amos and continuing into Mark, it seems to me that a central question is posed: What must we do to enter the kingdom – the household of God? And I have to say that I think God is playing with us just a bit – is this entry difficult or easy? That’s what I would like to reflect on together.
In Amos we hear two sentiments from the prophet.
In earlier chapters of Amos, we hear of a God bent on warning and punishing Israel’s neighbors: The Lord roars from Zion….pastures wither at the top of Carmel, for three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment because they have threshed Gilead….fire on the house of Hazel, break the gate bars of Damascus……Hear this word, you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…..The time is coming when they shall take you away on hooks. Not a pretty picture… The focus is on Israel’s neighbors. Kind of like – back off and stop being mean to my children. (I have to ask….aren’t all humans children of God.)
When we get to Chapter 5, the Lord’s anger shifts to house of Israel….Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire and it will devour Bethel. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground. Now the focus is within the house – shape up or else. A punitive parent using a very heavy handed approach. I’m tempted to ask God – “How’s that working for you?” I can’t help being a leadership coach – regardless of my client’s status. Oh, well.
The words from Amos are filled with warning. He begins:
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
This passage from Amos reminds me of another Amos. One of the most memorable films in the Magill house is “Cold Comfort Farm” – it pictures an accursed farm pressed under the sins of a former generation. The father figure of the household is Amos! Now Amos is a preacher and convenes the Church of the Quiverers. Not the Quakers, the Quiverers. In a scene at the church, we see the congregation huddled together, literally quivering. Here’s what Amos warns them of regarding the hell they will all occupy:
“You know when your mother is baking some bread in the hot over. You reach in to grab a bit before it is done and burn your finger. Then you take some butter to sooth the paid….Aye….Well there is no butter in hell! “ Amos is all about sin and there’s no way out.
Then, after a few more admonitions, Amos of scripture turns his focus towards an invitation:
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos turns to something more like guidance then condemnation: Seek the Lord and live, seek good and not evil, hate evil and love good, establish justice at the gate. Now I sense a parent who is positive and wants to guide the children’s development toward good, life-giving behavior.
This inches closer to Baptism.
As we begin to embrace Kaylea, we will repeat our own, and hers for her, Baptismal Covenant: Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the break of bread and in the prayers. Will you persevere in resisting evil, will you proclaim the word and exampl of the Good Nes in Christ, will you serve Christ in all persons, will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being….and we answer to each question, I will with God’s help.
So old Amos is already hinting at these tasks….
As we move on to Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear and echo of the warnings from Amos: 2 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Yikes. There is no place to hide from God……and my sins of omission and commission are always seen.
Once again I’m troubled. If I’m so bad, if God is so threatening, how then can I enter the kingdom of God? How can I qualify?
And now we come to Mark’s reporting of a wonderful encounter between Jesus and a rich young man who has steadfastly followed all the rules of good behavior.
The man who asks boldly, what do I need in order to enter the kingdom of God. Just give me the rules and I’ll follow them! Tell me what to do. As children grow, it is helpful to have rules to follow – look both ways before crossing the street. Hold hands with an adult when walking in a parking lot. Say your prayers. Do your homework…..
And Jesus offers a rule to the young man: sell everything……
I might get myself in trouble here: I think Jesus is messing with him. Giving him Micky, as the Irish say. You see, Jesus is not a blue eyed, white, angelic guy in white robes. He’s out on the trail, dusty, sweaty – with his guys. How preposterous for him to say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. We have lots of quilters and knitters here. How big is they eye of a needle? Jesus might as well have said, it is easier for an elephant to walk in the front door….
But then he gives the clue, I’m just messing with you – of course that’s impossible. (Perfection is not possible for humans) . But everything is possible for God and it is God who invites us in. So, I picture Jesus saying. I’m just messing with you. Come on guys; just come follow me.
We remember the Gospel from last week: come on, follow me, take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me – my burden is light ….I will help you carry the load.
If only we could hear this message we receive over and over again and really believe it. God is not here to berate us…..we are not the church of the quiverers…Maybe God has been learning how to be a parent all these years from the time of Amos to Jesus. Maybe God develops from a harsh, demanding, punishing father to a guide in learning – knowing we will never live up fully to the old demands. In Jesus we encounter a friend a brother who walks with us and knows the rocky road.
How do we enter the Kingdom of God….. set down your burdens and follow me, Jesus says. Sound impossible for such creatures as ourselves? Not for God….and that is the point.
Kaylea – the road can be steep at times, but we have an advocate, a teacher to guide us. A member of our triune God. We receive you into the household of God, because we were received with open arms, just as you will be in a moment. Set down all the trouble, the kingdom is already here.
We don’t say, hi Kaylea, we welcome you into the household of God at some future point in eternity. Jesus didn’t say to the rich young man, sell everything, give it to the poor and down the road you’ll be rewarded. He just says, set down your burden and follow me. NOW! In the Baptism, you will be touched with sacred oil and marked as Christ’s own forever, Starting when? NOW!
So, to wrap up: I’d like to return to the simple instruction of our praise song – from the prophet Micah:
It answers the question very simply – What does the Lord require of you, of us: To live simply, to love justice and walk humbly with our God.