Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Ears to Hear, Eyes to See." A sermon on Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29; and Psalm 85, from Littlefield Presbyterian Church. Preached on July 12, 2015. This was an observance of the Week of Righteous Resistance, as we stand for racial justice and in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters whose churches have been burned. We received a special offering to donate to rebuilding..

The gospel lesson we just heard is part of a long story, that’s told partly in flashback.  The scene is suspenseful and as grisly as anything you’d see on television.  It’s really unlike anything else in Mark’s account of the good news, and it seems sort of out of place. 
            So it might make us wonder why Mark tells this story at all.  As David Lose points out, later evangelists must have asked the same question, because Matthew shortens it considerably and Luke leaves it out.[1]
            I think Mark was trying to show a contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus’ disciples—then and ever since.   Mark has placed this story just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he joins them in making that kingdom more tangible and real than they might have imagined.
            Herod’s Kingdom—the kingdom of the world—is dominated by the will to power.  This is the world of competition, fear and envy … the world we see on the evening news.
            How different the kingdom of this world is to the kingdom of God.  Jesus sends his disciples out in vulnerability, dependent on the grace and hospitality of others, to bring healing and mercy, with no expectation of worldly reward or recognition or gain.  
            Mark seems to be putting a choice before us: which kind of kingdom do we belong to and want to live into? 
            We have prophetic figures in both of our scripture passages today:  Amos and John the Baptist.    God calls Amos to leave his home in the land of Judah and prophesy to the rebellious people of Israel.  John is beheaded.   So this isn’t exactly Prophet Appreciation Sunday.  But then, God’s prophets don’t tend to get a lot of appreciation.  I think that’s because they bring messages that are hard to hear.   They bring judgment. 
            Amos sees a wall build with a plumb line.  A plumb line, as I understand it, functions to keep the wall vertically straight during construction.  The heavy lead at the end of the string judges how the wall is measuring up and helps to maintain the integrity of the building by providing a vertical reference point.[2]
            God is setting a religious and ethical plumb line in the midst of the kingdom of Israel to see how they stand, and they fail to measure up.  They’re not upright.  
            These words are hard for a lot of people to hear.  There are always people who want to silence a prophetic word from the Lord, to protect the status quo…  to protect the systems of power and privilege… to protect previously held and cherished beliefs.  Judgment is hard to hear.

            In the weeks since the massacre of 9 people at Emanuel AME Church, some of us have been thinking and talking a lot about race relations in our country.
            Whether the six African-American churches that have been burned since then are determined to be arsons or even hate crimes, when a black church burns—a half century after the Jim Crow era—it brings back troubling memories.
            It wasn’t so long ago that there were a rash of hate crimes directed at black churches.  Since at least 1822, when the first recorded burning of a black church occurred in South Carolina, church arson has been a default response of racists frustrated with progress on civil rights.
            Churches played a critical role in the civil rights movement and were targeted overtly.   One of the most heinous church attacks was that of 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed in a 1963 bombing while getting ready for Sunday school.       Torching churches such as Mount Zion persisted decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,  100 years after Booker T. Washington dined at the White House and 150 years after the end of the Civil War.[3]
            I know this is hard to hear for a lot of people… hard to think about.   A lot of us would rather not think about it.  For white people, it’s a sign of privilege that we don’t have to think about race every single day, or with the same kind of urgency as people of color.
            But I think God is calling us to a greater righteousness.   Our nation is still under construction, struggling to live more fully into a society where there is liberty and justice for all. 
            As people of faith, we continue to be challenged by God’s vision for us, the kingdom of God—if we have ears to hear.  Prophetic voices keep bringing God’s word to us.  They keep holding up God’s plumb line to our life together and calling us to greater faithfulness and righteousness. 

            To some people, it may seem like a hopeless cause.   But I believe the time is ripe for change.  And I believe nothing is impossible for God. 
            Today, I think many people in our society truly are against racism    and really long to live in a nation in which we have justice for all.  Throughout the 1700’s, many people were against slavery—in theory.  But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach.             

            On New Year’s Day, 1773, in a small church in a market town outside of London, the congregation gathered for worship.  The pastor rose to preach, and began with a poem he had written to describe his conversion experience 25 years earlier—a poem we sang today.
            Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

            That saved a wretch like me!

            I once was lost, but now am found.

            Was blind, but now I see.

            The preacher, John Newton, had been the captain of a slave ship.  While crossing the Atlantic on his way home, he and his crew encountered a terrible storm.  Assuming all was lost, the captain of the ship cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us!”
            They survived.  It was May 10, 1748.   John Newton never forgot that moment for the rest of his life. 
            For Newton, this initial conversion experience came suddenly and clearly.  One moment he was blind to the presence of God.  The next he could see.   For the rest of his life John Newton observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day when he subjected his will to a higher power.
            There are various versions of the story of John Newton’s conversion.   Some tell a story of how Newton’s life was so changed that he turned the slave ship around and sailed back to Africa and set the captives free.  Some tell how humanely Newton treated the slaves on the ship.
            The truth is,  at that point and for many years afterward, Newton was captive to his culture’s understanding of slavery.  Slaves were seen not as persons—but as property…  as cargo on a ship. 
            Newton continued to see his work in the slave trade as what he described as a “creditable way of life.”  He valued the time he had at sea to study the Bible.   On his voyages, while slaves were lying in shackles below them, Newton gathered his crew on deck for prayer,   “according to the liturgy…officiating myself.”[4]
            Looking back, Newton wrote:  “During the time I was engaged in the slave-trade, I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness.  I was upon the whole satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out for me….   It is indeed accounted a genteel employment, and is usually very profitable.”[5]
            Newton continued to make his living in the slave trade for some years.  His last voyage on a slave ship was in 1953-54—six years after his conversion during the storm.  After leaving the sea, he eventually studied for the priesthood.  He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1764 and,  over time, gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher.
            During these years, Newton’s mind and his religious faith were focused not on changing the social order of his world, but its spiritual life.   He had come under the influence of the Evangelical movement.          
            To the Evangelicals of 18th century England, theirs was a nation that had lost its moral bearings.  There was widespread alcoholism and prostitution.
            Evangelicals advocated studying the Bible,  frequent prayer, and rigorously keeping the Sabbath.  They disapproved of theatrical plays, gambling, most dancing, and pubs. 
            At that time, most people in Great Britain were convinced that the British Empire’s economy would collapse if slavery were abolished.  They couldn’t imagine the Empire without slavery.  They didn’t really see how their faith was a reason to oppose slavery.
            For fifty years, William Wilberforce and other activists, including the Quakers worked to end slavery in the British Empire.  
As for the preacher John Newton:  in around 1772, he wrote the words for “Amazing Grace.”  But it wasn’t until 8 years later, in 1780,  that he began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade--  thirty-two years after his conversion.
            In 1785 he began to speak out openly against slavery.  He wrote a pamphlet that was widely read, and he testified in court about the evils of the slave trade.  He continued to speak out until his death in 1807.
            Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery. 
            In 19th-century America, religious revivalism was linked directly with the abolition of slavery and movements of social reform.  Christians helped lead the abolitionist struggle, efforts to end child labor, projects to aid working people and establish unions, and the battle to obtain voting rights for women.  Evangelical Christians fought for social causes.  For Evangelical Christian evangelists and leaders like Charles Finney, the gospel and the cause of working against slavery went together.
            Change can be hard.   Change can be slow.  But the church has done amazing things in the past—things that transformed the society.  
            When we have ears to hear… when we have eyes to see—God can use us.   The Psalmist sings of this promise:

            When we pray, “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD,
            and grant us your salvation.
Let us hear what God the LORD will speak;
For he will speak peace to God’s faithful,
To those who turn to God in their hearts…
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other…
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before the LORD
And will make a path for God’s steps.[6]

May it be so!

[1] David Lose, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” at In the Meantime, at

[2] Since my construction knowledge is limited, I am grateful to Tyler Mayfield for his explanation, at the Working Preacher.

[4] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 71-75.
[5] Ibid., p. 71.
[6] Psalm 85

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