Hearing the harder Word that can heal us

30 years ago, about two years into our 34 years of marriage, Connie, the dog, and I were watching football on TV.  I enjoy hollering at the players, the referees, and the commentators. Connie and our dogs have found this ridiculous. Nevertheless, Connie is fun to watch football with. During college, Connie taught cheerleading at summer cheer camp; they memorized all referee calls and hand signals – illegal procedure, illegal procedure (twirl arms), off sides, off sides (hands on hips), first down, first down (point away), delay of game (arms crossed). So, my cheerful leader and I sat watching some long-forgotten game, when an opposing player leapt over the defender, caught the pass, pirouetted like a ballerina, zig- zagged, and shot into the endzone. Arriving in the endzone, the opponent engaged in an over the top, clearly scripted and seemingly excessive celebration. It was not the grand theater of Ocho Cinco, who once retrieved a cell phone hidden in the goal post and called his mother, but in my somewhat biased and deeply dejected eyes worthy of a 15 yard penalty for an unsportsmanlike excessive celebration. That was a rule. I began hollering at the TV for the flag, “Referee! Referee!” Being at the stadium, not my living room, the referee did not heed my pleas. While dating and our honeymoon years, Connie’s deep eye rolls at such behavior had no effect, but on that day, my beloved best friend looked right at me, called my name, and offered a burn, “Paul Purdue, if you could score like that, you would be the worst excessive celebrator in the world.” Wherein she proceeded to get up and do a silly touchdown dance in our living room. Stunned into silence by her “if you could score” part, I paused and imagined her proposed scenario. What would I do if I had won the game on national TV? I chuckled, knowing I would have surely been flagged for excessive celebration. Suddenly I wondered, who makes a rule against celebration? The slow work of transformation had begun; Connie’s burn invited me to ponder Jesus’ Golden Rule, how would I long to celebrate if I had won the game? 

Spiritual friendships and authentic love cultivates a safe space for accountability. Without her fun or flirty love, Connie’s words might have pushed me down more than they called me up. However, in our shared 34 years we have said things to each other that sometimes did not land as easily on our partner, although the tougher medicine might have been for our good. Who has not at times retreated, felt defensive, or been hurt by a word of correction? In this world of amplified divisions and social media tribalism, it may be harder than ever for anyone to absorb a helpful corrective word. Who wants to hear a prophetic word that calls us to change, even when those words flow from love and offer liberation?  

In our passage, the priest tells the prophet, “You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house.” Amos answered, “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd, and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” How often has the church preached ‘don’t preach politics- you’ll offend someone!’ as if Jesus said that? The Biblical prophets constantly challenged the king, disrupted systems, and called out the church. Even in Amos’ day, church folks said, “Do not preach about politics in the holy places, you’ll offend the king’s people.” Friends, how can we build God’s kingdom on earth and remain silent in the face of evil, injustice and oppression? Does not love of neighbor, compassion for strangers, and justice for all kindle a fire in our bones, strengthen our resolve and empower our speech? Still, it is much easier to see what “they” need to change than to see what I need to change in my life, neighborhood, party, or church. We are like Amaziah the priest, pushing away the prophetic challenge whenever it challenges the false idols we unknowingly worship and support.   

In the Bible God speaks almost exclusively through people! (“The word of the Lord came to Jermiah”, Elijah Ezekeil, Mary,Magdalene, Susanna … Jer. 1,  1 Kings 18, Eze. 3,, Matt. 28 ) We are not all called to be prophets like Amos, Junia, or Dr. King. (Romans 16) We may not even see the things outsiders like Amos see in our beloved neighborhoods, systems, and churches. So we need to listen and weigh the prophetic words. The Bible tells us there are false and misguided prophets, but we need to be careful not to push away or push down the unwelcomed prophetic word too quickly.  

We are not all called to be preachers, prophets, and organizers, but God’s Spirit calls us all to change. We hear God’s corrective and healing Word best when we are in groups of loving mutual accountability. Our souls flourish in a safe small spiritually focused group. Jesus led one for 3 years. We hear God’s Word best together. In community, we overhear God’s voice in the stories and insights of others struggling to follow Christ and understand the Bible. As a young preacher, I was in a weekly lectionary group. We learned more by sharing our mistakes than victories. Once when a pastor wanted to lay some holy heat on their people, Ben Jordan gently said, “So many of our people live lives of @#%$ (ugly word for quiet desperation). We need to offer hope.” In Ben’s blunt word choice I heard John 3:16 in a new way.  We Methodists affirm that “the Holy Bible reveals the Word of God for us ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation” and that the Bible “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for our faith and practice.” (Article 4 of the EUB Confession of Faith) That phrase “reveals the Word of God” reminds us of the importance of using the tools of community, tradition, and reason to receive a Word from God while we read the Bible.  We are people of interpretation-not wooden literalists.   We need each other to understand the Bible.

I think many people who do not regularly read the Bible perceive  the Bible as a book of comfort or condemnation. I have found the Bible the most challenging call upon my life. I am no longer worried about debating the parts that I don’t understand, I am more concerned with the parts I do understand. I am not sure what to think about Amos’s tougher words, the ones we did not read today, but Jesus’ words ring true in the depths of my soul. They call me into a harder, narrower, and richer space than any place our consumer driven worldviews can take us.   We should always read the Bible remembering that we are deeply loved by God, but let us lean into Jesus’ prophetic challenge. Consider the Sermon on the Mount. 

“Be modest, wise, and merciful. Comfort those who mourn. Be just. Make peace. Be pure. Shine hope. Do good. Religious talk is cheap. Reconcile with enemies. Don’t dwell long in anger. Do not lust, break vows, call names, or swear. Be faithful, content, plainspoken, and generous. Disarm evil with good deeds. Give. Give some more. Absorb an insult. De-escalate violence and hate. Offer redemptive goodwill to everyone, even your enemies. Pray for your persecutors (real and imagined). Avoid religious pageantry. Pray from your heart. Pray to know what God wants; focus on doing God’s work on earth. Forgive. Find God’s forgiveness through forgiving others. Do not stockpile wealth.Do not live for wealth, prestige, or things. You cannot serve God and wealth. Do not judge! Fix your own mess before anyone else’s. Keep at it; spiritual living takes time. Always treat others as you long to be treated. Do not be afraid to take a less traveled spiritual path. Build a spiritual foundation that can weather life’s inescapable storms. … Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s Love- you are worth so much more than sparrows.” (my summary of Matthew 5-7 &10) 

The prophetic word always pivots towards love. Jesus offers this Word to us not to shame us but to draw us deeper into loving others, God, and ourselves.  If we push Jesus’ harder but healing words away from our pulpits and our daily prayers we will get stuck away from the deeper end of grace, love and justice. Let us wrestle together with God’s Word in smaller accountability groups, weekly worship, and our constant prayers.   So I was wondering, what would happen if I gave myself over to living into Jesus’ challenge in the Sermon on the Mount? Who would I become? What might living out the Sermon on the Mount actually bring into our lives?   I do not know about you, but my soul longs to be modest (that’s a longer term project for me), wise, and merciful; comforting, peace-giving, and pure; hopeful, good and authentic; reconciled with others. How beautiful would it be if those around us knew us to be peaceful, faithful, and generous; disarming, just, and trustworthy; deeply giving; able to absorb an insult, one who de-escalates violence and resists evil? I want to be more loving, prayerful, and credible; grounded and rooted in God; beloved, forgiven, and forgiving; unhindered by material things; welcoming, empathetic, and healing; admirable, confident, and holy; strong amid life’s storms; building God’s kin-dom; or in a word: Christlike! (Matthew 5-7).  

Dearly beloved, God created us and names us as beloved, but we live in a broken world, so let us dwell in Christ’s challenging words long enough to find Christ’s life arising within us. Amen. 

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