Amos’s vision is of a “plumbline,” as if God is a builder, measuring Israel’s moral straightness (or lack thereof). Sweeney points out that ’anak could mean “plaster” – as if God is a renovator. The walls of the kingdom’s lavish sanctuary and palace were in superb condition – or so they presumed. Marianne Williamson suggested that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce the place up a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over.
My first pre-seminary sermon, somehow, latched onto Amos’s disclaimer: “I am not prophet.” I was no preacher, for sure. Amos wasn’t a pro; he spoke only under divine compulsion. Hans Walter Wolff: “Amos establishes a sharp contrast between a prophet by virtue of office and one called by the Lord, one trained and one sent, between a salaried cult official and his own independent activity sanctioned by the Lord alone.” Amaziah, not surprisingly, bans him from the precincts – and Amos’s reply proves he didn’t take Kindness 101 in seminary: “Your wife will be a prostitute, your children will be slaughtered.” Yikes.
Colossians 1:1-14 opens an astonishingly eloquent letter, which commences with this flourish about faith, hope, love, fruitfulness. Paul was clearly energized, as verses 3 through 8 form a single sentence with no break in Greek. You have to love the way he portrays prayer. Our prayer requests are about gall bladders, better jobs and nice weather. Paul’s is that they may “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” What if we prayed this for one another?
Some details: plerothete, “filled,” is a passive, intimating that God is the actor, as Jerry Sumney explains: “The Colossians do not attain this knowledge for themselves; God grants it to them. The divine passive represents a subtle rejection of the other teaching, which prescribed means for its adherents to attain heavenly knowledge and experiences for themselves.” Any versions of Christianity today that do the same?
This business of “pleasing”: we ding pleasers, but God would be pleased. How cool is it that God actually can be pleased by us? Think you aren’t too important? You can please God. And you can “live a life worthy…” The verb here is peripateo, which means literally to “walk around.” As we walk around, our life is about pleasing God.
And why bother? “He has rescued us from power of darkness.” Pretty different from the pale religiosity that imagines a distant God who gives you a boost now and then. Of course, Paul is just warming up for the brilliance of verses 15 and following… Verse 13 (in the meantime) carries a political ring: “One’s allegiance must shift to the king of the new realm. This requires the believer to relativize all other allegiances and commitments” (such as empire, nation, city, even family, as Sumney reminds us).
Luke 10:25-37. They “test” Jesus – but the reader knows they stand little chance, as he’d survived the onslaught of the devil’s testing already. The tester “wanted to justify himself” – as do we all; this being our primal difficulty, right?
Jesus, responding to queries about what love of God and neighbor are about, responds not with “Here are 7 principles of love for God” or “There are 6 ways to love your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story, and then winds up in a story. A made-up story – the best kind. I love it that in Israel you can visit “the Inn of the Good Samaritan” – which isn’t a real place... Love this photo of my daughter Sarah, aged 8, with Jason Byassee, at this spot! But back to the topic:
“Love” (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) isn’t just an inner emotion, but something concrete, touching, doing, sacrificing – and not just for someone easy to love, or someone you really like. The “neighbor,” Jesus suggests, is the one who is offensive to you, the one you are least likely to “like,” a dreadful Samaritan (whom the Jews despised)… which raises awesome questions about how and where we spend our time and energy.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “St. Francis loved everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking.” Who is hard to love? and who is the stranger? According to Jesus, eternal life seems to hinge on whether we go out of our way, find these people, and love them, selflessly, thereby fulfilling God’s plan for our lives.
In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I suggest that with many texts, listeners have a sermon in their heads they believe you will preach. An excerpt: “So, at all costs, the preacher must know where people think the preacher is going – and steadfastly refuse to go there. Suppose the reading is Luke 10:29-37, the duly famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The reader begins, and people tune out – the way frequent flyers pay no attention whatsoever to the flight attendant who is reviewing the safety and emergency procedures before the plane takes off. Where do they think you’re going with this text? They yawn and wait for the pedestrian lesson: ‘So often you’re like the priest or the Levite, in such a rush, hurrying right past the poor person who needs help. But God wants you to be like the Samaritan. Slow down, help the guy who’s beaten and bleeding by the side of the road.’ They are snoring by now, or rifling in their minds through the afternoon’s to-do list.
Maybe the predictable sermon is more nuanced, with some modern parallels to today’s Samaritans: ‘Jews and Samaritans loathed one another; we have our Samaritans, don’t we? People with AIDS? Immigrants? The poor (or rich) person across the tracks? Jesus wants us to love them.’ Like the priest and Levite, the bored pew sitters quite justifiably rush right past the poor bleeding sermon lying by the side of the road.
So what to do with the Good Samaritan text? You may not know just yet, but you firmly make a vow to yourself: ‘Whatever I say this Sunday, it will not be the predictable or the trite.’ Notice it may well be a superb idea to help people who are hurting, or to reconcile with strangers. But when Jesus told the story it wasn’t an old saw. People who heard him left home and family to follow him, risked life and limb to proclaim him. In fact, at the end of the day, Luke 10:29-37 is about this one they left home and family to follow. Jesus is the teller of the story, and that must matter. It’s not a free-floating story Confucius or Plato might have told. It’s from the mind and heart of Jesus, and the story is in full harmony with who he was.
In hatching sermons we can reconsider what I call the ‘identification game.’ We hear a Bible story, and we begin to identify with some character or another – understandably, and even helpfully. But we don’t play around with the possibilities thoroughly enough. With the Good Samaritan, the options seem to be priest/Levite? or Samaritan? But what about the bloodied victim by the side of the road? Don’t listeners know what that feels like? What about the guys who beat him up in the first place? Whom have we hurt, even if unwittingly?
These are questions with energetic potential in the preparation of a sermon. But the better questions are always about Jesus, the teller of the story – or by extension, about God, the subject of not just the sermon, but the subject of all subjects. Wasn’t Jesus beaten and bloodied? Wasn’t Jesus the one who spared no effort in helping a stranger? Isn’t Jesus the stranger? Augustine saw Jesus as the stranger who helps – and we may even see Jesus as the wounded one we tend to…