Karl B

Strange New World

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

“What house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?”
-Karl Barth

The Lord God Almighty through the prophet Amos: “Seek me and live…. Seek the Lord and live…. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”

Check.

Got it.

Now what?

Right away Amos makes it known that the right response is not as obvious as one might think. “Forget about going to the traditional holy places like Bethel or Gilgal,” he says. Even though sacrifices and rituals were regarded as the ways that lead to God, the message was, “I hate and abhor your feasts.” The obvious things Israel did to seek God had become ways to mask the hard truth that she had betrayed her true identity and calling. The exploitative way she had arranged and grown accustomed to her socio-economic life led to an awful “prepare to meet your God” in the outworking judgments of history (Amos 4:12).

Early in his pastorate, Karl Barth watched in horror as German culture made a house-of-cards plunge into the orgy of destruction of World War I. Far from offering prophetic wisdom or resistance, his mentors and colleagues were merely cheerful chaplains sitting in their privileged seats on the roller coaster to destruction. He was stabbed by the “comfortable illusions about their knowledge of God and particularly about their union with Him,” and realized this was the result of a century’s worth of theology that had taken a wrong direction.

Out of this painful crisis, he discovered what he called “the strange new world within the Bible,” both witness and threshold to the God who is both revealed and hidden, a land whose center of gravity is not “man’s search for God” but God’s search for humanity.

This is a world easily overlooked because of what one brings to the Scripture. “The Bible,” Barth writes, “gives to every [person] and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more.” Or as a recent Face Book post puts it, “We all worship the gods of our preference.”

But he went on to say that there is

a spirit in the Bible that allows us to stop awhile and play among secondary things as is our wont – but presently it begins to press us on; and however we may object that we are only weak, imperfect, most average folk, it presses us on to the primary fact, whether we will or no. There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it – away from ourselves to the sea… “

Later, Barth would write more directly of the appointment of Jesus as the Christ, “the point where the unknown world cuts the known world.” With this Gospel, the church is a community of Christ, a visible outpost of the strange new world. Without it, the church is merely an ornament of Christendom, defined by Barth as “an ineffective peace-pact or compromise with that existence which, moving on its own momentum, lies on this side of resurrection.”

I wonder how the light of this strange new world might illumine two matters that claim our attention these days – stewardship and the national election?

As church leaders, we urge members of our congregation to be generous with their gifts and offerings. This is good. Cultivating the cheerful giving of tithes and offerings is a genuine way to seek the Lord and live. I once heard an elderly man of very modest means say, “I really worry about people who have to live on more than 85-90% of their income.”

But it gets more complicated than that. In one of his most disturbing essays, “God and Country,” Wendell Berry charges that the church has made peace with “the economy.” He says that as a public institution organized the way it is, “[the church] cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct.” He concludes,

No wonder so many sermons are devoted exclusively to ‘spiritual’ subjects. If one is living by the tithes of history’s most destructive economy, then the disembodiment of the soul becomes the chief of worldly conveniences.

That sure can put a kink in the old annual stewardship emphasis! Like the charge in Amos, the obvious religious act can mask a deeper disorder.

It’s the same tension of Mark’s account of the man who knelt before Jesus and asked about eternal life. Now here’s someone seeking the Lord! Yet Jesus digs beneath his piety, quoting the commandments and adding a poignant new one specifically for the occasion – “Do not defraud,” this spoken to the one Jesus “looks on and loves.” Jesus tells the man to redistribute his possessions, something the man is unable to do. Several commentators point out that this inability echoes the part of the sower parable in which “the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mk. 4:19). Growth as a steward has to do not only with giving, but with getting as well.

What about the national election? For a number of weeks I was deluged with e-mails from the Alliance Defending Freedom urging me to participate with other pastors in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on October 7. The purpose was to endorse and promote political candidates from the pulpit, in spite of the IRS threat to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. In fact, the intent was to provoke the IRS to action so that the restriction, the “Johnson Amendment,” can be challenged in court.

All this, I’m told, is a way to seek the Lord. What does it say about the present state of the church that when someone intones II Chronicles 7:14 I know exactly how s/he is going to vote? Can we become so intent on making an election come out right that our fervor takes on the same desperation as the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel?

Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, became so enraged at Amos that he warned him to leave town and never prophesy again in Bethel, “for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” The melodrama of a government-issued tax exemption is an Amaziah issue if I’ve ever heard one. The economics and politics of the king’s temple are not the new social and economic order of the strange new world.

Ched Myers keys in on the word “inherit” in the Mark 10 passage. Perhaps the man uses that word in connection with eternal life because he assumes that’s the way you get everything. It is indeed a challenge to acknowledge the role our “inherited alliances” have played in what we have and in how we try to follow Jesus, especially with Myers’ reminder that “the politics of inheritance is a bloody business.” If the church modeled for the world a conversation about matters like that, I’m positive that the predictable bread-and-circuses polarization of partisan politics would take on a dramatically different tone and substance.

The strange new world… where disciples, even the ones of us so entangled that to speak at all is little more than hypocrisy, can catch the current away from ourselves; where the living and active Word of God pierces to the division of soul and spirit, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart; where the One who calls us to costly discipleship is the Word that yields a hundredfold. “Seek the Lord and live.”

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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