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Pentecost 20 October 11, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Pentecost 20 Proper 23 Year B
 
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10: 17-31
 
Christ Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 11
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
 
Not long ago, a friend said to me, “I grew up with the idea that God is pretty much angry all the time … and angry at me for just being me.” His assumption has been borne out in a Baylor University study of American perceptions of God. This study reveals how strong the view of God as authoritarian and angry is among Christians: Christians, who for the most part, have been raised in authoritarian families or fundamentalist churches – though no one, no one, has the monopoly on this view of God. Within this perspective, humans tend to be viewed as no-good sinners who persistently disobey God’s laws, are in trouble for such disobedience, and need to shape up and do so rather quickly. To say the least, fear is a strong motivating factor in this theology. It is, I might add, a theology, an understanding of God that troubles me deeply. While you and I are certainly fallible, prone to distortion and self-serving behaviors, and marked by our own peculiar neuroses, we are most assuredly God’s beloved creatures, created in God’s own image, marked in that astonishing act of Holy Baptism as sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ – you and I animated by the Spirit to live in this world as witnesses and servants of the loving and reconciling, just and peaceful kingdom of God.
 
And yet, while I affirm with my whole being the loving kindness of God, I also recognize that the Scriptures reveal with utter clarity the anger of God. There is no escaping this reality simply because it might make us feel uncomfortable. The question that confronts us is this: anger over what? And to that question, the prophet Amos offers a challenging response rooted in the historical context in which he lived some 2700 years ago, a context, I might add, somewhat similar to our own. Amos lived in a time when the northern kingdom of Israel enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. He himself, a poor shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah, witnessed the astonishing wealth of a few elite families, the growing economic disparity between the wealthy few and the many poor, and the insidious ways in which landowners colluded with lenders, ancient bankers, to take advantage of peasant farmers (the majority of the population) when they lost their crop, their livelihood, to drought or flooding. “If you can’t pay the tax or rent,” they would say, “you will forfeit your land and home." Thus, Amos witnessed the displacement of the many rural poor, now homeless, so that the few could make a tidy profit.
 
With me, perhaps you have a vivid memory of 2008 and 2009. I wonder if this ancient scenario rings a bell? For as we know well: someone made a fortune from the misery of others in our country.
 
 With what does Amos accuse the wealthy homeowners, the ancient bankers (lenders), and merchants whose only goal was the increase of their personal wealth? You hate the one who speaks the truth about your disregard for the poor. You turn justice to wormwood, the plant that thrives on human excrement. You take bribes and push aside the needy. Amos is clear: if God is angry, divine anger is directed against the injustices that individuals and groups willfully exercise against other humans, injustices that rob people of their God-given dignity and the very things they need in order to live, to flourish, in God’s world.
 
But let us not imagine that this was only an ancient Israelite issue. When, in Mark’s gospel, a man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus does not suggest that he write out a check to a local food bank or generously endow a worthy institution with a portion of his wealth – what you and I know as the twins pillars of American philanthropy. He says quite clearly: Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. But, then, as you may know, the history of Christianity – with but a few notable exceptions – has been the history of ignoring this precept of Jesus. And so running away from the plain intent of these words, Christian preachers and Christians of comfort or wealth have modified it, added conditions to it, and softened its clear mandate.
 
But I wonder if that misses the point Jesus is trying to make. And so I ask: Did you notice the man’s question? What must I do to inherit eternal life? What is it that Jesus discerns in this man’s question? Is it not that he speaks of inheriting, of inheritance, and did Jesus not know that in his world, wealth was not found primarily in money but in land – land that would be inherited by a young man from his father. What is the man’s assumption? Just as I own inherited land frequently taken from the poor, so I can inherit eternal life; after all, I own many possessions, much property. I am entitled. I wonder, then, can you see Amos in the background – pointing to this man as he pointed to the elite families of ancient Israel who believed that their prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing while all the time they seized the land of the peasant farmer and robbed the poor of life? What does Jesus ask of this man, ask of his world, ask of you and me, ask of our world? Treasure in heaven is this: returning to the disinherited what is rightfully theirs; ensuring that there is a just and equitable sharing of earth’s many gifts – God’s gifts – that sustain the flourishing of life.
 
It is of considerable interest to me, I hope it might be for you, too, that when you and I come to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, each of us – regardless of gender, orientation, race, ethnicity, economic or social status – each of us receives the same amount: no more, no less for the child, the priest, the single mother, the teacher, the divorcee, the business person, the widower, the retired couple, the social worker, the wealthy, the unemployed. There is – here – an equitable sharing of God’s gifts, drawn from the earth. Indeed, around this altar there is bread enough for all and yet no one is stuffed to excess; each sips freely of love unearned and yet the cup is shared with others; it is not mine, not yours, to hold as our very own.
 
There is, I want to say, a holy and life-giving economy practiced here that stands in sharp contrast, in sharp contrast, to an economy in which you and I are encouraged to horde as much as possible, without restraint, for the self alone.  There is, I want to say, a holy and life-giving economy practiced in this place that – if we let it, yes, if we let it – will shape and direct our commitments to those who have little if nothing to eat and drink.
Truth be told, I worry less about God’s anger and more about my own apathy, my own sense of entitlement. Perhaps that is why there are days when I wonder if I should eat and drink from this altar. For in such eating and drinking, you and I are saying Yes – saying Yes – to this gracious, challenging, and life-giving economy that comes from the Lord Jesus himself.