Making Good Trouble
July 18, 2021
Amos 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 6:14b-23; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-4, 7; Mark 6:14-29
This past week we spent two days in Washington, seeing old friends and visiting a couple of museums. (It had the salutary effect of making me reeeeeeally glad to come home!) One morning, before it got too hot, we had a stroll around the perimeter of the White House which I am happy to report is returning to normalcy—fences are coming down, and while there is still a large police and Secret Service presence, they are relaxed, they smile at old ladies like me, they’re even chatty. But the most encouraging sight was this: the protesters are back.
We Americans treasure the freedom to make our opinions known to our leaders. Over the years I’ve seen folks denouncing or proposing all sorts of important or whacky ideas, standing where they could easily be seen by the President should he happen to look out the window toward Lafayette Square. And if he was out of town or otherwise occupied, there was a good chance some media or other was there recording. Last Thursday, since Angela Merkel was in town, there was a well-organized but quiet demo protesting Germany’s foot-dragging on distributing the Covid vaccine worldwide. Another single protester held a banner denouncing the wearing of masks. Both were hoping to speak truth to power.
We all want to do that sometimes. Consider King David’s wife, Princess Michel. Remember way back in the story of David and Goliath, that King Saul had promised his daughter to the man who could slay the giant? Well David did the deed, but Saul went back on his promise and gave Michel to another man—a man whom she came to love and who loved her deeply. But then Saul is displaced by David, and in a vengeful act of pure power politics, David snatches her away from her husband and carries her off to his palace, claiming her as his rightful property.
The reading you heard from 2 Samuel is the record of a marital fight that happened nearly three thousand years ago. The consequences would affect not just the two people involved, but the kingdom of Israel as well.
We’re so familiar with the image of David, the shepherd boy who kills Goliath with God’s help, that we miss the prophetic words of Michel speaking to a now very much grown up and powerful king.
The text says David was dancing before the Lord, but Michel accuses him of lewd and sexually explicit dancing that may entertain the maidens, but is not fitting for a king. David replies, angrily, that she should remember that he’s the king who replaced her father and he’ll entertain all the maidens he wants to… and we know he did! We also know that one of them will be Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite whose death David will engineer.
David’s sexual indulgence will lead him into murder, intrigue, and grief over the death of his and Bathsheba’s child. As a powerful king, David will ignore Michel’s words, indulging his sexuality as he pleases.
Meanwhile, for having prophetically confronted the king, poor Michel will spend the remainder of her days isolated, rejected, and childless.
David would not be the last powerful man to be beguiled by sexuality. Nor would Michel be the only woman to hold up the plumb line of behavior to a strong ruler… and to suffer the consequences.
Some two hundred years later, after David’s kingdom had been divided, another unlikely prophet spoke truth to power. Amos was neither a hereditary priest nor part of the kingly retinue. He was the ‘outside agitator’ of the 8th century BCE. Amos was from Judah, the south, but when no prophet could be found among the priests of Israel, the northern kingdom, God called up one from Judah—an un-ordained herder and arborist. He was a reluctant prophet, called away from his quiet life of tending to trees and animals, called to preach repentance to the powerful in a time of unprecedented affluence.
Earlier in the book of Amos, his prophetic accusations against Israel had denounced their shows of solemn worship while they mocked justice. He had condemned their luxurious, self-indulgent lifestyles, while they, trample[d] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[ed] the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2:7)
In today’s reading Amos issues a warning to Israel that God will no longer tolerate their actions, and in response, Amos is insulted and threatened by the king’s representative and told to go somewhere else with his prophesies.
The ‘wall’ that is Israel in Amos’ vision, the wall that had been built in plumb is no longer straight and true. The plumb line of God’s judgment discloses how far the people have strayed from the righteousness that was their gift. Not only is that prophetic message rejected; so is the messenger.
Still, that’s better treatment than John the Baptist received.
Artists and playwrights, composers and choreographers have all been fascinated by this dark and lurid story of sexual lust and twisted power. Historians of the 1st century confirm the depravity of the Herod family. Herod Antipas, the morally weak son of Herod the Great, knew that his father had murdered three of his own sons. Following in his father’s notorious tradition Herod Antipas had seduced and then married the wife of another of his half-brothers. Herodias herself was the daughter of one of the murdered brothers and was also, therefore, his niece and maybe his niece-in-law besides. In such a moral climate, John’s accusation of adultery actually seems mild. John had held the moral plumb line against the wall of Herod Antipas’ life and proven what everyone already knew: that wall was neither straight nor true.
The world has seldom welcomed prophets. They’re in the business of speaking truth to power, and they’re nags. They point things out to us that we’d rather not hear and point toward consequences we’d rather not consider. There are exceptions, of course. Jonah’s message was taken to heart and the whole of Nineveh repented. But that’s not usual. Mostly the job of prophet doesn’t bring comfort and joy, let alone honor to the prophet—at least not in his or her lifetime. Jesus was rejected by his hometown and said, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. A dead prophet is so much easier to honor! Think Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr.
So where is that elusive good news it’s my job to help us find in these stories? Certainly not in the lives of the prophets themselves. But it is good news for us that God continues to confront us, to hold up the plumb line. Can you imagine life without voices speaking for the poor, the disabled, the powerless?! Would you want to live in a world where the plumb line of ethics and morality had been abandoned in favor of the standards of materialism and survival-of-the fittest Darwinism?
Ultimately, the message of a prophet is good news because it calls us to repent, and repentance is the first step toward new life. Someone has to say, “Life doesn’t have to be like this. Life shouldn’t be like this.” But, bringing that good news isn’t always easy—it isn’t the message people want to hear. No one wants to be told they’re wrong, that they need to change.
For some folks it was hard to hear that segregation was unjust, and they reacted with anger and outrage when Martin Luther King quoted Amos. Let justice roll down like water and righteous like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24) But as long as there are prophetic voices in the land, we can know that God has not abandoned us to the “devices and desires of our own hearts.” And if the prophetic message is received, if there is repentance, then the prophet’s voice has been great good news.
19th century Americans dismissed Native Americans as savages lacking culture or education. They were probably aghast when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Standing Bear, a Ponca tribe member who was arrested in 1878 for leaving the tribe’s assigned reservation in Oklahoma in order to bury his son in their traditional homeland in Nebraska. The legal argument succeeded in recognizing Native Americans as persons entitled to rights and protection under law. Here’s what Standing Bear said:
“[This] hand is not the color of yours. But if you pierce it, I shall feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”
And when ever did anyone want to hear women’s voices? In 1637 Anne Hutchinson was tried and excommunicated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her crime was the heresy of claiming direct revelation from God, something men could receive and share with women, but clearly women could not. The presiding judge in her trial said to her, “Mrs. Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth…”
Jesus was right. “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” But, of course, that’s exactly where he sent his disciples—to their own people—exactly where followers of Jesus have been called to go ever since. It is not always a happy calling. Prophets are the troublemakers in society. They go around insisting that all of humanity was created by God and is equally loved by God. And that is a moral philosophy with social consequences. In a democracy it means that “equal protection under the law” applies to Black citizens and Native American citizens, and Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, and even White women Americans.
But those who have pointed out injustices have invariably been called troublemakers. Sometimes they’ve been exiled, like Anne Hutchinson and Standing Bear. Sometimes they’ve been beaten or attacked by dogs like John Lewis. Some have been killed, like Jesus. Mark has Jesus sending out the disciples to confront the wrongs of their society and urge change, and as if to illustrate cause and effect, news is brought, in the next verse of the beheading of John the Baptist!
Still, being a troublemaker is what we’re called to be—speaking truth to power, naming wrong, calling injustice to account. That sounds very grand, doesn’t it? But how do we live out that grand prophetic calling right here in Cove?
Well, first, we can remember who we are. We’re people made in God’s image…just like everyone else. We were created to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. I wish I could assure you that those are easy goals to meet, but you know better. They require a level of wisdom and discipline I don’t always have. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish truth from lies; justice from injustice. Sometimes kindness requires severity, and spiritual arrogance gets in the way of humility before God.
How can I know what trouble is ‘good trouble’?
Well, thanks be to God, there is still a plumb line to hold up… and that plumb line is Jesus.