Sermon: 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 10th July 2016

St.Alban’s Epping, 10th July 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37)

There is something going on with the lectionary readings in these weeks surrounding the Federal election. I preached a month ago about the power struggle between Elijah and King Ahab, as Ahab and his wife Jezebel used their political power to have a man killed and his property seized. Last week, Catherine Eaton was referring to the quest for power, and how that power is to be expressed. And today again, politics and power take a prominent place in our readings.
We heard in our first reading of a stoush between the prophet Amos and Amaziah the priest, who spoke very much as the king’s representative. In the book of Amos, we read of the prophet’s condemnation of Israel, and especially its political and religious leaders. Israel’s worship had become more and more dominated by pagan customs, and the poor and the powerless were being treated oppressively.

Amos here uses the image of a plumbline to communicate his warning to those who will listen. In those days, it was a light cord weighted down to keep it vertical and straight. When it was set against a wall, it could tell you pretty clearly whether the wall was straight and vertical and sound.

Amos was saying that God had been patient with the rebellious people of Israel, but the time was coming when he would not only demonstrate how unfaithful his people were to him, but he would act on it. As a poorly built wall can be so dangerous that it may have to be pulled down, so the moral and spiritual plumbline by which God tested Israel was indicating that it was time for drastic action to be taken. The Lord would allow Israel’s enemies to invade and overrun Israel, and Israel as the people knew it would be no more.

Amos does not mince words in his prophecy, and of course those in power do not like it. The priest of Bethel, one of the religious centres, tells Amos to go back to his home south of Jerusalem. If Amos wants to prophesy, let him do it there amongst his own people. Perhaps he can get a bit of pay for it. Remember that Israel had separated from Judah long before, and Amos came from Judah, not Israel. Bethel is the king’s sanctuary, says the priest, and it is a temple of the kingdom. Of course, that is the problem. Israel’s true king is the Lord, but the king has usurped his place. The true sanctuary is at Jerusalem: the sanctuary of Bethel is not only illegal in God’s sight – it is thoroughly corrupt, and pagan in so many ways.

Amos is no professional prophet: the kind that will keep him in the pay of the king. The Lord has called him, and he has no choice but to speak the Lord’s message, even if it makes him unpopular with those in power. And sadly that message must be a warning of coming judgement.
Our Psalm for the morning links up with that message of Amos. Psalm 82 pictures the Lord as standing up and giving judgement in heaven in the council of the gods. It is a strange idea to us. We know that the scriptures insist that there is only one true God, the Creator of all things, and the covenant God of Israel. Other nations had their gods, but the scriptures made clear that they were false and powerless and evil. But because so many people believed in them, they could not be ignored. God’s people must not worship them or obey them: they are to keep themselves separate from them. At times some of the prophets mocked pagan gods as powerless and foolish and useless, and said that those who worshipped them were foolish. But the scriptures show that many people believed in them.

Experts are not sure whether the writer of Psalm 82 was trying to depict actual gods gathering with the Lord, or perhaps even angelic figures. However, what is clear is that these heavenly figures really represent earthly kings and rulers. And the message of the Psalm is for these people in power. If you have power, says the Psalmist and says the Lord, you must judge justly, you must use your power justly.

And so the Psalm becomes a call for people in power to use that power in the right way. They are to judge for the poor and fatherless, to vindicate the afflicted and oppressed, to rescue the poor and needy, and to save them from the hands of the wicked.

It is always easy for people to use their power for their own purposes: to take advantage of those who have little power, or to ignore them. It is not the poor and the refugees and the handicapped who can pay to have dinner with the Prime Minister and to get his close attention: it is the rich and influential who do that. That is the way things work in politics, but this Psalm says that the needs of the strugglers must be heard and responded to with justice.

And the Psalm reminds those who have power that ultimately they are only human: they too will die – they will end up the same way as those whom they rule and those whom they oppress. It is a challenge for those who have power to maintain a realistic personal humility, as well as a recognition of the humanity of those who are strugglers. And it does sadden me that so little real attention was given in the recent campaign to the needs of those who are really doing it tough.
Which leads us to today’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ best-known parables. The question Jesus was asked was: “Who is my neighbour? If I am to love my neighbour as myself, who falls into that category of people whom I should love?” Jesus didn’t actually give a direct answer to the question, although the implications are quite clear. But the question was the wrong question.
Anyone can be my neighbour. Yes, family and friends are our neighbours. Fellow-Christians and pleasant acquaintances and nice people are our neighbours. But so are foreigners and heretics and people from whom I am very different, and people with whom I disagree on all sorts of matters, and people whom I find it hard to like. Anyone can be my neighbour. I cannot eliminate anyone from the list.

So the question was the wrong one. The question is “To whom can I be a neighbour? Whom can I love as a neighbour? Whom can I serve as a neighbour?”
We live in a world which is becoming increasingly divided: a world where people trust each other less and less. We see the rise of those who want Australia to revert to being an Anglo society. Those who want to say, “We will determine who shall come into our country, and the circumstances in which they will come.” We saw much of this outlook in the Brexit campaign, whatever its pros and cons. Similarly distrust and disconnection is surely a significant factor in the power of the gun culture and the readiness of people to use guns in the United States. And the rise of militant Islam also expresses the idea that if you are not like us, you don’t ultimately matter.

But God is the God who is love. His purpose is to bless people from all nations, and to draw people together into his kingdom of love and community. We start by seeking to show love to our neighbour – the likely neighbour and the one we might be tempted to ignore. We also show that love by speaking and acting on behalf of our neighbours who are struggling.

Politics is part of life, if we don’t completely withdraw from the world – which is certainly not God’s purpose for his people. We need to keep praying for our political leaders and representatives, and particularly for those who profess a Christian faith, that they will find the appropriate way to express their commitment to the God of love in their roles, and that they will be able to steer clear of the dangerous traps of office. We need to keep praying for our community, our country and our world, with all its division and tension, with its cruelty and oppression. And we need to keep on seeking to act in genuine compassion and active love to our neighbours, whoever they may be. Amen.

Paul Weaver