Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Challenge of the Face-to-Face Christ

My dad doesn’t answer unknown numbers on his cell phone anymore. He figures it’s a salesperson, and usually he’s right. He figures that part of what it means to be a friend is that friends aren’t selling you something. When it comes to everyone else, however, all bets are off.

I personally experience my dad’s cynicism through my mail box. Every day, with a childlike enthusiasm, I run out to the curb, check it, only to find myself inevitably sorting the mail into mostly two piles: ads for things I’m being sold and bills for things I’ve already purchased. Every day I fall for this.

I am beginning to think that it isn’t fully possible for a preacher or anyone else to overstate or adequately name the role that commercialism now plays in the lives of ordinary people. Consider, for example, what it would require for you and me to abstain from all purchases from now until next Sunday. I know, that’s crazy talk. Get serious, she says. OK, what would it take to abstain from all purchases from now until this Tuesday morning - just one full day elapsing between the start and the finish of our financial fast?

Now comes the truth: we aren’t just used to our always being sold something; we have come to insist on it.

For some of us, the ubiquitous nature of commercialism might simply register as a moral curiosity this morning - an individual application for individuals to consider. The problem, though, is that the impact of commercialism, even individually considered, extends far beyond the individual. The belief that I am always being sold something fundamentally alters my relationships with others - and maybe even with God.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks us to “imagine,” for example, “if at the end of Thanksgiving dinner you asked your mother-in-law how much you owed her for cooking such a wonderful meal. Would that increase or decrease her effort the next time you came by? (Assuming, of course, she would still invite back you after such an insult.)”

Dan’s point is that once humans like you and me assume we are interacting in the commercial market, we make subsequent assumptions of one another:  that our relationship is impersonal, indifferent; that the seller sees me as one of billions in a line of wholly replaceable consumers;  that anything approaching genuine relational interest must be contrived, pretended, for the benefit of the primary commercial interests at stake. In short, that the other person’s primary motivation is the money.

(And this might be why consuming can be so addictive; if we assume the world is fundamentally commercial and that the sellers don’t have interest in us unless we are buying, consumption may be the only way we can be sure we are worth anything at all.)

Even if that last thought is a bit of a reach - and I am not sure it is - the central point is that commerce - consumerism - plays with our relationships with one another. The solution can begin as simply as learning to treat those who sell to you - who serve you - as friends, but the fact that treating those who serve you as friends will change the relationship for the better only proves the initial point, which is that the context of the commercial transaction has already made the relationship less friendly, less open, and less genuine than it might have been otherwise. Put plainly: consumerism changes the way we love one another, and maybe, as we said earlier, the way we love God, too.

Full disclosure: I don’t know for sure that any of these commercial dynamics are at work in - or on the mind of - our prophet Amos this morning; I only know that as an American Christian in the year 2012, it is impossible for me not to ask. Here’s why:

In our lesson from Amos, Amos brings a prophecy to the king Jeroboam and the people of Israel. It isn’t good news. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

So far so good, right? I mean, it’s not happy good, but we’ve come to expect as much from the Old Testament (joking).

But here’s the connecting point to what we’ve already said: after Amaziah, the priest, tells the king about Amos’ prophecy, Amaziah goes back to Amos and says, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

“O seer, go, flee to the land of Judah, earn your bread there...”

Notice how Amaziah gives Amos the door-to-door salesman treatment, suggesting that Amos has only commercial interests - “go make your money somewhere else” - and so also insinuating that Amos is everything professional vendors are supposed to be: in it for the money, disingenuous, impersonal, contrived, indifferent. And in a strange way, this can be comfortable; the assumption affords Amaziah a distance from which to take or leave the message. We know this routine, too; we sometimes prefer it.

Amos counters by telling Amaziah that he is not a professional prophet; he is a particular person called by God to speak a particular word in a particular time and particular place to a particular people. In short, Amos embodies the remarkable truth that God’s People are not invisible to God. A generic word won’t do. And no, God is not so distracted that he doesn’t have time to be personal. He sees them. Through Amos, God is speaking to them. If you think it’s hard to feel ignored by God, try being noticed.

The God of Israel, and so also, say Christians, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the God of the personal, of the intimate: come to Israel, born to Mary, face to face with Peter when he says: “Come, follow me.” More than that, God is personal in that through the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, we have discovered the truth about truth and what it means to call God “Father.”

Jesus is the particular Word that comes to the people of Israel and, in the unfolding of time, also to us.

Amaziah, assuming a commercial context, patronizes Amos and uses that context to dismiss the word Amos brings to Amaziah: that sounds like a good word, Amos, for somewhere else - another people, another place, not for us, not for me. But Amos has not been sent to somewhere else. God has sent Amos to Israel. God is speaking to them. God does not count Israel as simply a part of his larger target demographic for the commercial success of his message; this is the word come to them, the word intended, uniquely, for their ears.

And so with us, when we come here and encounter the Word - or, better, are encountered by the Word - I wonder if we hear him coming as a salesman or as our Savior? “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says the Lord. Do I reckon him to be in the midst of an impersonal neighborhood canvas, complete with automated recordings on the phone, or do I believe that this Word has come on this day to me - that in this moment and only in this moment Christ is present to be found; that he comes to you and me and us particularly, with particular love making particular claims on the life we are already in the midst of living? (That is, that he longs for my particular response.) Are there days, I wonder, when I prefer the anonymity of consumerism to the intimacy of the God who speaks particular claims on my life?

The Good News is that God is more relational than we are. Infinitely more so. That in Jesus Christ, God’s Word comes to us. The hard news is that God’s Kingdom invariable engages, tangles, touches the kingdoms of the world and, more than that, the particular kingdoms of the lives in which we are our own kings.

A mentor of mine, my priest through my years in seminary, in welcoming the guests of the assembly each week, relayed his prayer that all who passed through the doors of the church would find it to be a place of challenge and rest. Every week, those same words. I came to understand that he prayed that the church would be a place of challenge and rest because he prayed that the church would be a place of encounter with Jesus - chiefly through the gift of praise and the sacraments of baptism, and the Eucharist.

To encounter the living Christ is rest, yes, and also challenge. Amos reminds Israel of this. Jesus, in his prophetic role, fulfills this. Let me slow down, then, and ask you: when was the last time you encountered the presence of Jesus as challenge - not just generally, abstractly, anonymously, for anyone - but intimately, particularly, presently, for you?

I ask myself, too: when, for example, I encounter Jesus, in his prophetic role, announcing the peace of the Kingdom, am I tempted to lament the wars of others without also praying myself to be made more peaceful? Alternately, do I seek the grace to name the violent, restless parts of myself - to let God’s Word come home in me? When Jesus as prophet challenges the wealth of the world, do I dismiss him as talking to Bill Gates and/or Buffet - or do I allow that he might also mean me? When he preaches love of the least and the lost - even though some days I might feel small and spun around - can I hear him jarring me just enough from my self-absorption to hear him calling me to love those I look down upon sacrificially?

Not professional, but particular, the call of this Savior to me, to us: called to be God’s discerning and responding People in this time, this place, this season; discerning and responding to the presence of the living Christ in this time, this place, this season.

The Good News is that God is more relational than we are, and so God’s People are not invisible to God. If you think it’s hard to feel ignored by God, try being noticed.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the Gospel’s alarming, Good News: God’s Word is for you.


Sermon preached July 15, 2012.

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