Our texts from Mark and Amos sound like plotlines from the HBO series, Game of Thrones, the top TV show which recently received 22 Emmy nominations.
King Herod would fit right in with the Lannister clan who rules Westeros, as they all redefine family according to their own passions, and throw extravagant parties where death is on the menu. John the Baptist believed that it was his duty to speak spiritual truth to political power and he admonished King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Because of a foolish oath to his daughter and to save his image, Herod behaved as many power-hungry people do: he sacrificed another life for his own gain, beheading the prophet and serving up John’s head on a platter.
Amos could be a prophet from Essos who, like Daenerys Targaryen, sought to free people from oppression, slavery, poverty, abuse, and injustice. Amos also spoke spiritual truth to political power: King Amaziah and Israel had forsaken their covenant with the God who lavished them with liberation from Egypt, the promised land, forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast love. Amos accused them in Chapter of 5 of “selling the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals; trampling on the heads of the poor and denying justice to the oppressed” and held up a plumb line for God’s justice. But King Amaziah didn’t want to hear this prophetic voice so he sent Amos away to southern Judah. It’s like being sent to The Wall in the north in Game of Thrones where winter is coming and there is no protection for the vulnerable.
In real life, no matter the setting or the era, winter is always coming for the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the homeless, the immigrant, the imprisoned. If we hold up a plumb line of God’s justice in front of our society, what do we see? 18% of children live in poverty; 34% of the homeless population is under the age of 24; almost 40,000 homeless people are veterans; 16 million American kids struggle with hunger each year; CNN reported on a survey last year that 66% people of color experience prejudice in this country as a “very serious” problem.
Ever since God called Moses from the burning bush to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh, a primary role of religion has been to speak truth to power. Our faith calls us out of the dignity and love endowed by our Creator to admonish, remind, and hold accountable, those in power so that our institutions, government, and public life promote the common good, and the well-being of all.
But this make us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Polite company dictates that we should not talk about religion and politics at all, much less put them together, but Amos and Mark do not give us a pass today. Many Christian traditions through history prefer making religion and spirituality private and personal—a morality-based faith with heaven as the prize, and church as the rule-enforcer, all the while neglecting the direct implications of our faith for a just economic, social and political life.
But an exclusively privatized faith is not consistent with the witness of Scripture, nor the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, and it is certainly not how Jesus embodied God’s presence in the world. Jesus also held up the plumb line of justice against political and religious powers in their treatment of the outcast, the sick, the marginalized, the poor, the widow, the hungry, women, and the children. Through his healing power—Jesus restored and reconnected the marginalized to their social standing in the Temple and the public square. Spiritual and physical healing by Jesus had social, political, and economic implications as they became re-connected with their community.
In fact, the word “religion” comes from the Latin word “ligare,” which means “to join” or “link.” This is often understood to mean the linking of the human and the divine, but it is also about being linked and connected to each other. The Greek word “polis”—which gave us the word “politics”—simply means “city” or “public forum” where people come together. Despite our discomfort with it, the public square is the very place where live out our connections—to God, to each other, and to the common the good. Religion and politics have been bound together since the beginning of human community.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (to whom I am indebted for many ideas in this sermon!) who established the Center for Action and Contemplation goes so far as to say, “There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something: To say nothing is to say that the status quo—even if it is unjust and deceitful—is apparently okay.”
That is not to say that as believers, we will all agree on the best course of action, or one policy solution on any issue. People of good faith have and will always have a diversity of opinions on how best to move forward. It is the illusion that our faith is private and has nothing to do with the public sphere of life that John the Baptist and Amos ask us to dispel today.
To move into the public sphere, we must always return to the core of our faith out of which our social and political action arises. Ephesians gives us one of the most beautiful descriptions in Scripture of what God has done for us:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
Faith doesn’t get better than this—God always takes the initiative to “religion us”—to re-connect us with the ground of our being—God’s creative and redeeming love. Even though the plumb line of our life is crooked, God has created us and links us to him eternally as beloved children, freely offering unmerited forgiveness and undeserved grace. Instead of seeing our imperfection, God sees the straight plumb line of Christ. God showers us in lavish love that changes our present, redefines our past, and seals our future.
Indeed, this is the purpose of our prayer and worship—to experience the lavish love of God that defines who we are—child of God, loved by God, made by God, saved by God, returning to God, always connected and re-connected to God through grace. Out of this experience of being loved, we move into the public square to advocate for justice, peace, food, housing, opportunity, dignity, and respect for all people, whom God made and also lavishly loves!
Ephesians gives us the final vision toward which we move "…God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
Again, Richard Rohr says, “God’s love always yearns to save and transform us and the world. From Genesis to Revelation, we see images of God’s intended and preferred vision for us: a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift.”
We live at the intersection of religion and politics everyday—there’s no way not to. Amos and all the Prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus call us to live in the world fed and led by God’s lavish love for us and all of creation. French poet and essayist, Charles Peguy said it this way, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Our inner world—must inform our outer world. When our political, economic and social structures mistreat or oppress any individuals, the role of us as God’s faithful people, is to re-ligare—to reconnect our structures and institutions with the values of justice, fairness and the common good. Such activism has enabled the reunification of some children with their immigrant parents last week.
Connecting religion and politics has also always been part of our Lutheran tradition. When you look up "Advocacy" on the ELCA website, you will read:
As members of the ELCA, we believe that we are freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor. God uses our hands, through our direct service work and our voices, through our advocacy efforts, to restore and reconcile our world. Through faithful advocacy, the ELCA lives out our Lutheran belief that governments can help advance the common good.
ELCA advocacy works for change in public policy based on the experience of Lutheran ministries, programs and projects around the world and in communities across the United States. We work through political channels on behalf of the following biblical values: peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, and concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease.
Together, we achieve things on a scale and scope that we could never do otherwise. When we act as a coordinated network of advocates and reach out to officials on relevant, timely issues, we effectively impact public policies.
There is an entire list of advocacy and justice issues you can get involved in through our church including food insecurity, keeping immigrant families together, gun violence, support for veterans, maternal and infant health, farm policy, climate change, homelessness, and more. You can sign up for Advocacy alerts on the ELCA website and join local efforts for justice with Faith in Texas—religious communities working together to promote a public life that seeks the common good. We can’t do everything, but we can pick one issues that breaks our heart, get informed, and communicate with our legislators.
We do not live with Amos in Scripture, or in Westeros of Game of Thrones, yet the abuse of power, and the cries of injustice are certainly as real. God calls us to speak spiritual truth to political power because God’s lavish love always yearns to save and transform the world and calls us to be a part of this work, creating a straight plumb line for justice in God's kingdom on earth!