Contrasting Visions

+ A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 10B / Ordinary 15B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on July 15, 2018 +

Texts: Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

During our time in Chicago, many of the seminarians lived in student housing that was owned by the school.
It was across the street from campus, was heavily subsidized by the seminary, but the apartments certainly had some character.
The buildings were nearly a hundred years old and the upkeep was…well, not always the best – and the apartments were a frequent griping subject among the student body.
Now don’t get me wrong there were certainly great aspects to these places – this was the largest and cheapest apartment I’ve ever lived in, there were hardwood floors and often built in cabinets and other nice touches, but there was also certainly room for improvement.
I remember when I was hanging up a picture in our new place – I was measuring to exactly center the nail on the wall, I meticulously checked the level to make sure it was straight, and when I was sure that it was perfect, I stepped back to admire my handiwork – but it wasn’t right.
Ryan walked by behind me, looked at the picture and said, “Wow, that’s crooked!”
I was so frustrated.
I grabbed the level again and sure enough, the picture was straight.
But it was so obviously crooked when we looked at it.
Then I realized what might have happened and I put the level up to the wall – the wall was crooked! And the floor was slanted! 2569010292_f03c9fe215_b
The decades had taken their toll on this old building to the point where this picture, which was hung level, looked so crooked, so out of place compared to the wall that it hung upon.
But even though the wall was so obviously crooked after years of warping and sagging, it was difficult to see how distorted it really was until we hung something that we knew to be level – until we compared it to something we knew to be right.

Sometimes we can only tell how wrong something is – or how right something is – by comparing it to its opposite.
It’s a common trope in storytelling – used from Shakespeare to Disney to Harry Potter – to juxtapose good and bad, right and wrong, to highlight the virtues and villainy of each.
We can better understand something when we compare it to its opposite, see a thing clearer when it is compared to something else.

I wonder if that’s what Mark is doing in today’s gospel reading, because, it’s a strange one.
It’s one of the longer stories in Mark’s famously quick paced story.
It’s one of those gospel texts where we wonder – ‘where was the gospel?’
It’s a story where, Jesus really doesn’t even appear at all.
So why is Mark using so many of his usually carefully chosen words to give us this back-story, this flashback to John the Baptist’s execution?
I think it’s Mark’s way of showing us some juxtaposition – some contrast between the two realities so we can see them each better – when the reality of the world as it is compared to the world as it should be.
Between the reign of earthly rulers like Herod contrasted to the inbreaking reign of God that Jesus has proclaimed throughout the preceding six chapters – the reign that John announced before him.

Immediately before this lesson is the one we heard last week where Jesus sent out his disciples to further spread the good news of God’s coming reign.
Where the disciples joined Jesus in his ministry of preaching and healing, bringing the new reality of God’s commonwealth to people throughout the countryside.
And maybe in a way to show how radical this new reality will be, how it will benefit people in real ways and will spread the good news of God’s expansive love to more and more places, Mark shows us the startling reality of the status quo in a scene more suited to Game of Thrones than it is to God’s new kingdom.
That the Reign of God is so fundamentally different than the kingdoms of this world that we see through the reign of Herod, kingdoms built on hatred and fear, on political corruption and dysfunction, of questionable morality and the dehumanization of those not in power.

And Mark shows us how threatening this new reality is to those who are benefiting from the status quo.
baptistsemiprofileHow preachers like Amos and John the Baptist and eventually Jesus scare the powerful so much that they will do whatever they can to silence them through banishment, through imprisonment, through beheading, and through crucifixion.
How this prophesy, this spreading the gospel of God’s new coming reign, is dangerous business.

Mark is reminding us that this type of tyranny is not what God has in mind for us and for our world – that rulers like Herod and systems of fear and corruption fall outside of God’s vision for us – that God is giving us a new vision for a new and better world.

So even when these systems seem to surround us – even when stories like this one fail to shock us anymore because they almost seem normal, that doesn’t mean they should be. Even when we become accustomed to visions of the world we see in Game of Thrones or House of Cards, we know that’s better suited for compelling fiction than actual reality.
Even when new tales of corruption and outrageous acts seem to great us with each news cycle, even when we become so used to the world as it is, Jesus is still telling us of a new vision, a new reality that is coming into the world, a new commonwealth where God’s love drives out hatred and hope overcomes fear.
Because while the oppression and injustice that surrounds us may seem like business as usual, it’s so far from God’s vision.
When we compare this reality and the rulers of this world to the coming reign of God, we see that the status quo is unbearably crooked.
That when God’s plumb-line that Amos envisions is set against the walls that we have built, we can see how far off the mark we still are.

As Amos proclaimed to King Jeroboam whose kingdom was built on the back of oppression and economic injustice, as John the Baptist announced to Herod and the establishment the need for repentance and reform, as Jesus preached to the political and religious elites, God’s reign is built in a new way, a better way, where all people are truly equal, where fear and hatred are vanquished, where God’s perfect vision overcomes the realities that still cause so much destruction and pain.

plumblineAnd through this plumb-line, through this contrast, through seeing our current realities through Christ’s eyes, we can see how far we still have to go as a country, as a human collective, and as individuals.
How we can continue to grow into God’s vision for us and join with Christ in the unveiling of this new reality.
How we can better align our own lives to reflect and enact Jesus’ ministry.
How through that font and this table, we can glimpse a world where all people are equal, where we all have the same access to clean water, where we all have enough to eat and no one’s banquet puts them ahead of anyone else.

But when we see this perfectly hung picture, when we align our vision to God’s plumb-line, we know that it will be even more uncomfortable to the status quo than a picture hung straight on a crooked wall.

Lincoln Cathedral and a Crooked House

How this new reality will be so threatening who grasp onto their earthly power and corrupted values that they may reject our prophetic message in the strongest ways.
There is a cost to rejecting the visions the powers of this world espouse and clinging to a new vision of hope and love.
But even despite the anger it may cause from those who benefit from the status quo, we are called to help enact this new reality both in our own lives and in our collective lives.
Because it’s through this contrast, through this discomfort, that we can see how far we have to go and how much better God’s vision for us is than the reality in which we live.
That God still calls us to join with Amos and John and Jesus in proclaiming the radical and expansive nature of God’s coming reign.
And we are reminded that through the waters of our baptism, we have rejected the false promises of this world and claimed our citizenship in the Reign of God; through this meal we join with the ever growing realization of Christ’s banquet feast; through our discipleship, we can spread the good news, heal the suffering, and reconfigure the world around us.

plumbline1We as followers of Jesus, as coworkers with Christ, have a message to share with a world that needs to hear it.
We get to help our neighbors and our leaders envision a new reality that is aligned with God’s hopes for us.
It’s not an easy job, it’s not an easy message for some people to hear, and by truly following Jesus, we are risking a lot – but through our words and our actions, we have the opportunity to build a new reality.
We have an invitation to join in this new commonwealth and spread it beyond ourselves until the empires of this world are overthrown and God’s perfect reign is realized.

This is God’s vision for us and for the world around us.

Thanks be to God.

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