Have you ever brought someone to church, maybe someone who maybe isn’t a regular church-goer, hoping to show them how beautiful and life-giving it can be to worship here, to take part in the liturgy? And maybe it’s going really well at first: a beautiful, inspiring opening hymn; the lovely vestments and the stained glass windows; and then you get to the readings and you’re hoping for a real crowd pleaser, John 3:16 or Moses parting the Red Sea. But instead…you get something like this week’s texts. The grim and heavy stuff. Thanks very much, lectionary editors. You’re not making it an easy sell here.
These are hard texts, but we don’t get to skip over them. We don’t get to focus only on the passages of Scripture that comfort us or reinforce our worldview.
And as much as we might like to evade the thorny images and themes that come up in the lectionary, sometimes that is just not possible, because part of our gathering together is facing the hard things that need to be heard, that need to be pondered. So it is this week.
First there is the prophet Amos, a guy from the country, no professional slick talking seer, just a simple man consumed by a message, refusing to back down or be silent as he calls out the king and the ruling classes of Israel for their decadence and their empty piety.
He is prophesying at a time of relative wealth and strength for the kingdom, but he is telling them the things they don’t want to know about themselves, the grime hiding under the gold leaf, warning them, as all true prophets must, saying something like:
Don’t be too satisfied with yourselves, you who imagine yourselves powerful, you who have taken much and given back all too little to the land and the common people who have sustained you—you might be living lavishly now, but a time is coming soon when you will have to pay the price for the inequality and the injustice necessitated by your indulgence. You imagine yourselves just, but you cannot claim a just society when you feast while others starve. You cannot claim pureness of heart when that heart is bloated with its own desires. Empty yourself of your selfishness, drain the festering wound of your pride and greed. Lose your current way of life in order to save the life that God desires for you.
Not surprisingly, the powers that be weren’t too keen on listening to what Amos had to say. It’s a hard thing to hear.
Then, if that wasn’t enough for us to wrestle with, there is the gospel reading from Mark, this vivid carnival of horrors in King Herod’s court, the palace intrigue, the dancing girl, and the shocking twist that leads to John the Baptist’s execution, his severed head served up on a royal platter, which is both a foreshadowing of and an antithesis to the Eucharistic body that Christ would later offer his disciples in the Last Supper. But as disturbing as that image is, it is really just a more graphic version of what Amos was already condemning: a corrupt class of ruling elites ravenously consuming the hope of the poor, consuming the land, consuming whatever and whomever satisfies their personal agendas, convincing themselves that it is their right to do so.
These are hard texts because they are ugly reminders of the things we’d rather forget, reminders that the world can be brutal and capricious and unforgiving. And if we’re honest with ourselves, these are hard texts because they are still true, because they still speak to the conditions experienced by too many people around the world.
I probably don’t need to recount to you all the ways in which we still see these forces of violent consumption and exploitation at work today, but if we are brave enough to look and listen to what’s going on around us, and especially to the voices of the poor and the vulnerable, we will see that the powers that Amos and John challenged are still operative in society.
And if we are really brave, we will also look within ourselves to examine how these forces have taken root in our own lives. How we, like Herodias’ daughter, have been swept up in that hypnotic dance of death that has been winding down through the ages. How easily we learn its steps without realizing whom we are trampling, hypnotized by the desire for things for which we do not understand the true cost until it is far too late.
It takes courage to face texts like this, to take them seriously and not just as macabre bits of liturgical entertainment—to examine these enduring impulses that operate around us and inside of us. It is hard work.
And that is one really good argument for the necessity of Christian community, of coming together week after week here, to be both supported and chastened by what we discover in Scripture and the liturgy. It’s not something that we can do alone, because alone we are awfully good at only hearing what we want to hear. We need Jesus and we need one another to stay accountable to the totality of the narrative, to bear the sorrow and then to imagine a different way of being.
We need each other to practice living in community as though there is another, better way, a more loving way, because we trust that there is, and because we are tired of opening the news headlines to find a world still saturated by violent self-interest.
Because we are tired of a world that still proclaims that only the strong and the beautiful and the mighty deserve to flourish.
Because we are tired of a world that silences the truth-tellers, that kills the bearers of good news, that refuses the living bread of God and feasts instead on the corpse of curtailed hope.
And maybe it’s the long hot summer, maybe it’s the long hard year, but I am feeling especially tired of the old brutalities. Tired of heads on platters, tired of angry words, tired of cynicism masquerading as wisdom, tired of how easy it is to get caught up in the malice and the fear and become the very thing I hate.
And so I come here, and we come here, to look in the direction that Amos and John were both, in their own way, pointing towards. Towards the truth. We look to Jesus, the One who knows how hard it is, how exhausting it is, but who refuses to play by the same worn-out, bitter old rules of the game. The One who reminds us every day that we don’t have to play by them either.
We come here to be reminded, that, as hard as it can be out there, or in here, in ourselves, that the God-given truth about life is always the same.
That we can make a thousand mistakes every day, but we can’t change the fact that God still loves us and wants to redeem us.
That the world can try to kill the messengers of peace, but they can’t kill the message itself. That they can murder the prophet and put his head on a platter, but the eternal voice is still crying out in the wilderness, saying prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the way. God is coming. God is here. Start living like you believe it.
We come here and look to each other, to live like we believe it together, to show the world that church is a verb, not a noun, a body, not just a building, and that following Jesus is not about going through the motions, but about living with transformed hearts. It’s about taking a stand for the people who need us the most. About refusing to accept that the world as it is is good enough. About opting out of the dance of death.
These are hard texts, because this can be a hard world. And changing must begin with looking at it.
But it continues with looking to him, to Christ. And then looking to the people around you. This is all that we have to bear the world’s brutality and then to challenge it with our love. We have Jesus, and we have each other. Nothing more. But it is all that we need.
We come here because the story might be hard, but it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. And here, together, we are living our way into a different ending.