The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 29, 2019
Let’s have a little fun first, for things get heavy fast in today’s scriptures. Allow me a contemporary rewrite of the prophet Amos’ words to the leadership and upper classes of Zion:
“And for those who are at ease in the United States, and for those who feel secure in Okatie, Bluffton, and Beaufort;
Alas for those who lie on beds of high thread count sheets, and lounge on their finely upholstered couches, and eat aged beef flown in from Nebraska, and oysters and fresh fish from the sea;
Who sing idle songs streamed from Spotify, Pandora and iTunes, and like Taylor Swift auto-tune on instruments of music;
Who drink fine bourbons from leaded cut glass, and anoint themselves with the finest bath salts from Bed, Bath and Beyond, but are not grieved over the ruin of the least and lost of the world fleeing Central American violence, being destroyed by climate change, and losing jobs in Appalachia;
Therefore, the irresponsible rich will be the first to be deported, and the partying of those inattentive to the poor shall pass a way.”
See, I told you it would get pointed very quickly, reminding us that in the USA, if you own a home, you are more wealthy than 92 percent of the world’s people. Most of us are “the rich.”
Amos’ prophetic words would have been uncomfortably challenging to the people of Israel in his day. His place in scripture contains a clear emphasis on social justice, as he understood Israel’s religion, at its best, to be one that embraced the interconnection between our relationship to neighbor and our relationship to God. Amos was speaking truth to power, calling out those with abundant resources for treating the disadvantaged as they wished, and forgot the teaching that comes in covenant with God.
Even more, he spoke against those engaged in the suppression of truth-telling, those giving a deaf ear to the prophets, even trying to silence those who would risk speaking God’s bold truth. His dire warning, and he could be severe, was to those secure in their riches, not able to see beyond themselves, having forgotten the call of God on them for attention to the most vulnerable, and closing with the warning that those who deserve deportation are the idle rich, not the least of these.
With that, we can gaze upon the Gospel story in Luke that portrays similar truths. The great question posed by that account is, will the five brothers and the readers like us follow the example of the rich man, or heed Jesus’ teaching and that in the Hebrew Scriptures like Amos about the care of the needy, and thereby be children of Abraham?
This is serious stuff, yes? Let’s pose the question another way. How are we going to occupy this life and use the resources and gifts God has given us? Are we going to be fierce seekers of truth, or are we going to be contentedly complacent and thereby complicit in the harm being done to God’s people in our own cities, state, country and world? We can’t do everything and it can seem overwhelming, but we can do something. It is Amos’ and Jesus’ challenge to us.
Here’s one bold example. Have you heard of 16-year old Greta Thunberg? She appeared before the Swedish parliament more than a year ago and now has spoken before the United Nations and assemblies and symposiums around the world to voice her concerns about the threat of climate change. I don’t know what you think about that whole issue, and that it is not my point. My point is that she attempted to get off her couch and speak the truth as she sees it out of concern for the health of the entire world.
I believe in this case she is a kind of Amos, speaking truth to power and those who could be described as the most fortunate. She is calling them, us, to neighbor love, for we know that the changing climate disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. It already is. Shockingly, in some quarters she has been ridiculed and told to go home and be “a good little girl” as she holds up the science before us. In some cases world leaders and political commentators, you can look up who, have attempted to shame her on newscasts and social media by attacking her appearance, her autism, her youth—all in an attempt to discount her truth. I’m not talking about politics here. This is Gospel work. In Timothy’s words, “…storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
I hope you can see here that today’s scriptures are not anti-rich. I Timothy tells us, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Not money itself—it’s how we use it. Likewise, Amos never says it is wrong to be rich. It is how we use it, or in that case, how we don’t use it for the good of our neighbor. Jesus teaches the same. The rich man is not faulted for his wealth, he is judged for his lack of compassion, for trivializing the plight of the suffering poor and the failure to offer the mercy extended to him while living.
It is impossible to store up contentment. We are called, however, to place our hope in God and nothing else, the place we find real and sustaining life. The Gospel again reminds us of the great reversal, the shocking paradox that the last and the least enter the Kingdom first. We know and proclaim that it is God who is enough for us all. This is the promise of Jesus. All is gift. We brought nothing into this world, and we will take nothing out of it. How will we live while on this earth?
Dear Good People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
As you likely are aware, mediation conversations will begin in Charleston on Thursday, September 26, in hopes of implementing the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court from August 2017.
I know many of you are already doing so, but I invite everyone in our Diocese, individually and when gathered together in worship, to lift up in prayer all parties at the mediation table. While your prayers will be your own, I will pray that all who are present at mediation will be open to the Spirit’s presence, respectful of the dignity of each and every being, and that we will begin earnest preparation for a future that brings us all together in the spirit of reconciliation and unity under God.
Going into this meeting has for me a feel very much like Advent, a time of waiting, a time preparing for what is not yet seen. So it is that Scripture often used in Advent comes to mind: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3). By grace this is what we will seek to do.
Blessings and peace to you in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III
Bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 15, 2019
Paul’s first letter to Timothy informs us that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I’m not inclined to harp on the sinner part too much. Most of us know that in some way we are broken if we have any self-awareness at all. I’d rather love people into the Gospel, however, rather than try and judge them into it. Yet, so that we have a common understanding here, I understand “sinner” to mean that we have a broken relationship with God and with each other that needs healing. We keep missing the mark of God’s vision for us and the whole earth. It is the vision of justice, peace and mercy for every single human being.
That’s why we get such stern words from the prophet Jeremiah, because we human beings always have and keep messing things up. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Well! That’s a message that will suck the wind out of a good party.
In response, God, rather than give up and abandon us, chooses in Jesus to “leap down from heaven” as is said in the ancient antiphon to the Song of Mary. Or, to quote from that wonderful Christmas hymn: “Love came down at Christmas.” Today’s Gospel/Good News gives us in a couple of parables what that passionate love of God looks like and it seems to me a perfect thing to remember in the midst of a celebration of a new relationship in ministry with Fred.
St. Luke portrays God’s love that looks like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after one that has become lost. God’s love also looks like a woman who sweeps the house, every single nook and cranny, to find the one lost coin. These are pictures of God’s pursuit of us. They sound great don’t they, even heartwarming? But please note—in neither case is this normal expected behavior, yet it is God’s behavior Jesus is telling us. As is often the case, Jesus turns expectations around in order to surprise us into a new vision that transforms us into Kingdom people. Here’s what I mean.
The shepherd goes off to find the one that strayed. Anyone listening to that parable would declare this to be an incompetent shepherd. No shepherd who knows what he’s doing would go off for just one. When he got back he wouldn’t have the 99! And of course in every day practice it is our tendency to write off the one lost and be thankful still to have the 99. We cut our losses. We might call it collateral damage. The religious righteous who are challenging Jesus would leave to their own devices, by expelling or shunning, those who wander off, those who don’t conform, those who won’t be like us.
That’s what the Pharisees did as their teaching was that it was better to stay with the 99. Jesus throws in the big reversal of a story as if it is normative behavior and shocks the stuffing out of them. You can be sure that it was not lost on the tax collectors and sinners, however, the ones on the edge who always experienced rejection.
Then of course there is the woman sweeping her house for the lost coin, again as if it is the norm. And it would be, for the poor. But the Pharisees? They wouldn’t waste their time. Jesus is telling of a God who gives of self, one who leaps down from heaven, dies for the one who looks most expendable or worthless to the rest. This is also not lost on the so-called tax collectors and sinners within earshot.
Jesus again overturns expectations, always challenging the norm with a new Kingdom possibility. What is being said here, in the words of a seven-year-old who had heard this Gospel and gave a succinct and clear interpretation: “God gets more happy from one person who messes up than a bunch who stay good.” Is that offensive to our sense of fairness, that mystery that one criminal, one drug dealer, one petty thief, one person on death row, who is drawn back to the flock prompts more joy than then those of us who never fall off the cliff or run into brambles?
That can be hard to embrace especially when polite society seeks to make invisible those who do not measure up to our standards.
So where does that leave us? What the Pharisees wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, is that they too were lost. They saw no common ground with the sinners and tax collectors. They and we are called to drop our well-constructed facades and be honest about our own inability to measure up, our “foolishness” as Jeremiah calls it, our lost-ness, and see that we are in the same boat in our brokenness as every other human being. I’ll never, ever forget Mother Teresa’s words to me almost 30 years ago: “Unless we recognize the Hitler that is in all of us we are in grave spiritual danger.” Not doing so makes it very difficult to be open to Jesus’ call, to being found, which ushers in pure joy and hope.
God seeks to rejoice with us. It was C.S. Lewis who said that the clearest indicator of a Christian is joy. Joy not being mere happiness, but a deep centered grounding in the hope of God. There can be no better reminder as you embark on this time of new ministry between priest and people. Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. It is a religion of celebration, of a party, of Eucharist, as we discover a God who rejoices in us and among us. We were lost. Now we are found. Fred and people of Edisto—Celebrate!
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.