Texts: Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Last Fall, students at Yale, Wellesley, and Oberlin began demanding “trigger warnings” from their professors if they were going to be lecturing or assigning readings about ideas that might be disturbing. They argued that the university owed it to them to be a “safe space” where they would be protected from unsettling realities. The students claimed that even subtle challenges in their direction should be labeled “microaggressions.”
This Fall, the dean at the University of Chicago was having none of it, and sent a letter to all incoming freshmen warning there would be no trigger warnings at Chicago and that universities were not meant to be safe spaces. Facebook and Twitter erupted in controversy. The Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Washington sided with aggrieved students and promised that she would offer trigger warnings if she were going to preach on traumatic topics and would do her best to make the campus church a safe space.
Hence I begin this sermon suggesting that the Bible may require trigger warnings, and religion may not always provide safe spaces, and some of the prophets could be seen as microaggressors.
The Old Testament lectionaries for the last two Sundays are from the book of Amos. Last Sunday Amos was decrying those who trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor. Today he calls out those who are at ease in Zion, who eat and drink lavishly in gilded halls and pay no attention to those who have lost their land through sharp market practices. Amos proclaimed that the God who brought Israel out of Egypt long ago was having none of this, and that the people once rescued are now headed for exile from God’s presence. Amos was preaching around 760BC, and his words came true 40 years later when Israel was overrun by foreign powers and the chosen people went into exile.
In the chapter after today’s reading, Amaziah, the state priest, is warning the King that Amos is conspiring against the nation in its own capital city. Amaziah cautions that the country is not able to bear all the prophet’s words. He invites Amos for coffee and tells him, Go and flee from this land. Don’t ever again prophesy around here. Do you need to be reminded that you are preaching on the king’s podium and that this haven is a national shrine?
Things like this still happen. In 2008 word got out that candidate Obama’s black preacher was totally out of control back in Chicago. Instead of sticking to the national mantra, God bless America, this preacher was saying, God damn America. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s rival in those days, assured the country that Methodists like her would never say such a thing. Obama had to renounce his preacher and transfer his membership to a church where nationalism was guaranteed safe space. Americans sighed with relief. The country could not bear black words.
2. The Bible did not become any safer. Seven centuries after Amos, Jesus was telling the parable of the rich man and the poor man.
Amos hadn’t escaped the Word of the Lord. Nor would Jesus. The call of the prophet always chases you down, as Jonah found out. Prophets explode the status quo with words from the mouth of God. The prophetic word goes off in the middle of injustice and religious sell-outs. This means that things do not turn out well for most prophets. Remember what Jesus said while riding into the capital city like a king on a donkey, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone God’s messengers. Five days later Jesus was crucified.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is telling a story to a mixed crowd (as I did in the children’s sermon) which has been following and watching and debating what this new prophet was up to. Religious leaders who believed they had Moses by heart had come to keep check on Jesus. Much of the crowd were vulnerable, bewildered, desperate people looking for good news. What everyone heard was what we today call parables of reversal, stories that upset the applecart, turn the world upside down. Some people call the whole New Testament, beginning with the Christmas story, the great reversal.
Consider the implications of this parable. God doesn’t play by our rules. Social mores everyone has assimilated might be wrong. Religious elites, wrapped in memorized lines, might be the most ungodly in God’s eyes; but the poor and miserable are about to see good news Fed-Exed to their tent cities. The rich man had everything, just the way the system was supposed to work (you know, God rewards those who help themselves to large portions), but then suddenly he had nothing. The poor man had led a miserable existence (probably an unambitious ne’er do well), and now prospers in God’s presence. Everyone knows there will always be an underclass; and then there isn’t.
But even amidst great reversal, the rich man reverts to type and calls for the poor man, the eternal servant, to bring water and cool his tongue. Unexpectedly, the hero of self-congratulatory tradition, Father Abraham, says NO. Now desperate, the rich man begs—something he’s never had to do—for the poor man to be sent to his former estate to warn all the others that things are not going to turn out well for them. But Abraham replies: This poor man with the ugly sores was always lying outside your gate crying, and you didn’t even see him then. Why would your brothers pay attention now? Besides, your grand house has all the works of the prophets in gold-bound volumes, why not open and heed them?
I get it, the rich man says, but what if someone came back from the dead and explained God’s plan, I’m sure they would listen then. Hmm. Luke’s Gospel probably began circulating around 80AD, as the story of Christianity was spreading. Do you think some of the people hearing this story for the first time might say, Wait a minute, someone did come back from the dead. Is everyone paying attention?
Stories of reversal never play by the rules of safe space. The prophets are micro-aggressors. I lost my safe space years ago when I, as a comfortable middle class American, first heard the absurd assertion of Latin American liberation theology that you can’t get to heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor!
How do these texts from Amos and Luke find us this Sunday morning? Are we at ease on Peacock Hill or trying our best to act out rituals of reversal? What is God’s plan for us Christians today? How do we discover it and work it out?
Hillary and the Donald haven’t yet quickened revolutionary dreams in America, and they’ve been on it for nearly a year. It’s not likely we’ll resolve things this morning. But here’s something to think about to start with. There are legitimate responses to Amos and Jesus that would allow both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, to step up to the plate.
Liberals are likely to believe that social injustice is a structural problem, not merely a personal problem, and so they look to government to take the lead in resolving it. As Scandinavian countries do. (Is this embedded Lutheranism?) As I was typing this sermon I received an urgent email from Bread for the World (a national social justice organization founded by Lutherans). It said: Sign the petition. Tell Congress we must do more to support lifesaving programs by expanding funding for global nutrition. Bread for the World likes to remind us that a single bad vote in Congress can undo an entire year’s worth of Christian charitable giving. So we must remember the poor politically, not just through an extravagant $20 to someone begging by the mall.
But all of us no doubt hear conservative appeals as well, from ELCA hunger relief to the Salvation Army or Associated Ministries. A recent facebook posting said American religion processes trillions a year, more than very many corporations combined. So for conservative Republicans, it’s not about government, it’s about our individual consciences and the call of the Gospel. Remember the poor.
We could do both you know. But we have to stay tuned to the prophetic voice. The German poet Rilke imagined a situation in which God alters someone’s hearing so she can only tune to the divine voice, remaining deaf to all else. In the earliest Christian liturgies, already showing up in the book of Acts, the last words the people hear at every worship service are, Remember the poor. Still today. Listen for it, just before Elmer shouts Hallelujah.
The evangelical-based Sojourners movement, joined by some Catholics and Protestants, has called on the Church to create a Circle of Protection. In the middle of the commons the poor and the homeless and the sick gather, with their hunger and sores, and dogs licking them. Can we promise, can we find ways, to encircle them, keep them from further harm, and minister to them? Enact rituals of reversal in which we protect the weak from the mighty, the poor from corporate America, the powerless from disinterested government?
OK, it’s almost over, but I offer a closing tale from Dubuque. When little Donny Heinz was in the eighth grade Confirmation class long ago, he was assigned a special role in the Sunday School Christmas Eve program. He was to memorize Mary’s song, the Magnificat, stand in front of the congregation, and recite it. His parents bought him a new long-sleeved white shirt and tie—a real suit would have been out of the question.
The Magnificat, like Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is a song of reversal. Donny Heinz had no clue about this at the time. Later when he was at a Lutheran college called Concordia, he learned one of Luther’s great lines about Incarnational reversal: “O God you have created all/How did you come to be so small?” By the time he was at Concordia Seminary he learned that songs like Mary sang probably initiated among circles of the urban poor in Jerusalem, like Black Lives Matter today. By the time he was doing graduate work in social ethics it occurred to him that the Magnificat might be calling Christians to radical social upheaval. Ponder in your heart Mary’s reversals: scattered the proud/lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things/sent the rich away empty. Did Mary’s Son believe in redistribution?
You have to start somewhere. Little clueless Donny Heinz started by reading the text from Luke over and over until he had it memorized. It was now salted inside his head—later his heart—never to be forgotten. Same for all of us whose vision of God and the earth is salted into us through liturgy. Right after this sermon—it’s over now—we’re going to sing a wonderful hymn, Canticle of Turning, which is a modern poetic setting of Mary’s Magnificat. When you sing words like this long enough, you become them. We are shaped by the stories we tell, the songs we sing. Listen:
From the halls of power to the fortress tower
Not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more
For the food they can never earn.
There are tales spread, every mouth be fed,
For the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn.