Sunday, July 21, 2013


Methodist pastor J. Cliff Christopher tells the story
            of a young parson fresh out of seminary.
The bishop sent him to a little church in rural Kentucky.
His first Sunday, he preached fervently on the evils of tobacco.
After church, the lay leaders took him aside and said,
            “Pastor you can’t talk about tobacco here. This is Kentucky.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

Next Sunday he held forth on the evils of alcohol.
After church, they said, “Pastor, Jack Daniels built this Church
            and Jim Beam pays your salary.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he answered.

Next Sunday, he warned them against gambling,
            especially playing the horses.
After church, the lay leaders said,
            “Son, you’ve got one more chance.”

That’s what happened to the prophet Amos in last week’s lesson.
He had prophesied against the policies of King Jereboam
            at the Shrine of Bethel.
The priest said to him,
            “You’re not from around here, are you?
             Get on back home, boy.
             We don’t have that kind of talk here.
             This is /the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom.”/

The irony is that Bethel means “house of God.”
But the priest said, “it’s the king’s sanctuary.
We say what pleases the king here.”.
Today we hear a little more of the message
            so we get a better idea what the king didn’t like.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

saying, ‘When will the new moon be over

so that we may sell grain;

and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,

and practice deceit with false balances,  

buying the poor for silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’

The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:

Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

God didn’t like the way the economy ran.
The poor were stuck in poverty while the rich
multiplied their wealth.

But the priest said,
         “You can’t talk about that Amos.
That’s politics. That’s business.
Religion isn’t about those things.
Religion is about our inner feelings.”

But Amos was following the way of Moses.
Pharaoh didn’t much like it when he
delivered God’s message “Let my people go.”
Pharaoh said “Shut up, Moses. That’s politics.
         Slavery is none of your God’s business.”
So when King Jereboam told Amos,
         “Shut up, that’s politics,” Amos kept on.
That memo on what religion can’t talk about,
         Amos didn’t get it.

Neither did Isaiah, Hosea, Mary, or Jesus.
Neither did Chief Albert John Lutuli whom we remember today,
or the women our church commemorated yesterday,
         Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer,
         and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Neither did John Wilberforce, Dorothy Day,
         Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan,
Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu.

My question today is this:
         What is the business of religion?
Or: just whose sanctuary is this?

Christianity has teachings on wealth and power.
The Episcopal Church has gospel-based positions
on matters of wealth and power.
So do our mainline and Catholic ecumenical partners.
We call them the social justice teachings of the church.

But we usually don’t talk about them,
         because our teachings on wealth and power
are not popular with some of the wealthy and powerful.
We’re too afraid someone will say,
         “that’s not the business of religion.
This is the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom.”

Even the most powerful people in the church sometimes
lack the courage of our Christian convictions.
Despite the strong economic justice teachings of the Roman Church,
Pope Francis recently told the American nuns
         to back off on demanding better care for the poor
         and stick to abortion.
Religion can talk about sex, but not money or power.

But who said that?
Was it Roger Williams, the father of religious freedom
in America?
No. He said the government should not interfere
         in a person’s intimate relationship with God,
         his practices of prayer and worship.
But Roger Williams vigorously applied the gospel message
         to the social issues of his day,
         particularly the rights of Native Americans.

Was it Thomas Jefferson who gave us the 1st Amendment?
Again, no. Jefferson said that the government
         should not establish a religion and make people join it.
But Jefferson did not hesitate to call for days of fasting and prayer
         to support the American struggle for liberty and justice.

Christians have been at the forefront of social movements
         from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to nuclear disarmament.
So tell me what is the business of religion,
         and whose sanctuary is this?

If you want to understand movements in philosophy,
         it’s like a criminal investigation. Follow the money.
American wealth exploded after the Civil War
         and the concentration of wealth increased.
That’s when philosophers turned legitimate love of county
into a state religion, with its own rituals, sacred objects,
secular saints, sacred places and a monopoly
         on questions of justice.
They pushed traditional religions to the sideline.
The distribution of wealth and power were no longer our concern.
Freedom, justice, equality, and peace,
were no longer our concerns.
None of the things that occupy the time, energy,
         thoughts, and passions of most of humanity
         most of the time were our concern.
Religion became irrelevant to most of real life.

What then are we here to do? What will the king allow us to say?
The business of a religion is to stir up certain vague emotions
         in its followers occasionally.
Some want to feel that way for an hour a week.
Others get by on an hour a month.
Others just want that feeling twice a year.
Modern religion is a wisp of an idea
embroidered with sentimental lace.

Even if it’s pumped up and passionate
         during the weekly hour of religious feeling,
         even if it’s a mega-church where everyone
         is happily entertained and high on Jesus.
it doesn’t reach us where we live.
It doesn’t matter on Monday.

But the religion of Moses, Amos, and Jesus
         is mostly about what goes down on Monday.
Amos’s God said Israel was treating the poor badly,
         and there would be consequences.
God said that if Israel persisted in economic injustice
         there would be a famine – but not like we think.
God said,
         “I will send a famine on the land;

not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,

but of hearing the words of the LORD.

They shall wander from sea to sea,

and from north to east;

t        they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,

but they shall not find it.”

Recently, God has turned my understanding
         of religion upside down.
This passage sums up that reversal.
I used to think people heard God’s word first.
Then, inspired by God’s love, they went out
         into the world doing justice and loving mercy.
But Amos puts it the other way around.
And it fits what I see in the Christians I know
– especially the young ones.

Justice comes first. Spiritual experience follows.
Serving God’s mission of mercy comes first.
Touching the world’s pain with our bare hands
         opens our hearts to hear God’s word.
If we aren’t at work in the mission,
         we can forget about authentic spiritual experience.
We can forget the peace of God
         that passes human understanding.

The mission is where God shapes our souls.
The mission is where real joy can be found.
The mission is the field where we see our Savior
         -- nowhere else, the mission field.