Reflections on the Readings for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
By Matt Dunlap
July 10th, 2016
GLORY BE TO GOD: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; I offer these thoughts and meditations, praying they find favor in Your sight.
The readings of 8 Pentecost offer a wealth of reflection. On its own, the Gospel reading invites the listener to consider an array of lawyer jokes, at the very least. But I think there’s a little more to it than that.
The reading from Amos is fantastically marbled with mystery. The theologian could practically make a career out of studying the meaning of the plumb line, and the sudden role of Amos as herdsmanturned- prophet. But the key is what Amos is told by Amaziah—‘Go away, don’t make trouble here. Don’t rock the boat. Everything is fine as it is.’
Both readings talk to no small degree about appearances. Luke takes it in a somewhat different direction, but more on that in a minute.
The will of God is impossible to quantify or put into a formula. Oh, but how we try. The rigidity of scripture is often held out as evidence of absolute truth, and in my business, scripture presents itself as an occupational hazard in the debates around public policy. Instinctively, though, we know that scripture is not an exact rubric of how we should approach either God or each other in our daily lives.
Take the alarm of Amaziah. Amaziah would be very comfortable in the role of a city administrator in the town of Rockland, which made headlines last month when a new policy was unveiled that media inquiries had to be, in any case, referred to the city manager, and that under no circumstances did any employee have the authority to speak on behalf of the city. This is probably because of the message, as news reports intimated, that “our organization”, as they refer to it, was Page 1 of 8 being uncomfortably portrayed because of strife on the council about budgets and personnel matters.
For a press person, policies like that represent a public-relations nightmare. For Amaziah and Jeroboam, the sudden emergence and message of Amos not only questioned the predominant orthodoxy, it shook their authority, and they would have none of that.
Here, though, the message that is carried in the later appearance of Jesus is consistent. Just as Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple and mixed with undesirables as his people, so Amos emerges to tell the people of Israel that they can’t have the kingdom of heaven how they want it; they have to take it as it is, as they find it right in front of them—and that means following the will of the Lord, not the will or desire of the King.
In Luke, the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer about the good Samaritan rips away all the trappings of scripture and scrapes salvation down to its barest elements.
The unnamed lawyer was probably not a lawyer as we understand them—but probably was someone held in authority as an expert on the laws of scripture, and who could argue the text when there were disputes. Close enough for the intent of the translation, in any case.
He’s obviously heard about this new teacher who everyone is exalting, and as the big dog on the block, wants to take him on and assert his own knowledge and authority. But Jesus debates him in a way that would have made Socrates proud; answering questions with questions, and parrying the lawyer to make the case of Jesus for him by breaking away from the question about how one inherits eternal life and getting to the most powerful command of the Lord; to take care of one another.
Again, Jesus tells us to look beyond the appearances of scripture, and bring the love of God into our hearts.
Our opening Collect invites us to beseech the Lord to grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do. That’s different than simply mumbling a liturgy and hoping for the best. What Jesus tells us is that our prayers come from our hearts, not our prayer books, and that our actions should follow our prayers.
Last week I attended church in my hometown of Bar Harbor at St. Saviour’s. I forgot how different the services are there. One major difference is that announcements and the birthday and anniversary prayers take place in the middle of the service and not at the end, like they should be. Not to mention they follow somewhat different reading sequences than we do here at St. James’. I was struck by how strange it all seemed, even though I grew up there.
But in the lessons of faith, the structure of the service and the prayers really don’t matter; that’s the lesson of the readings. What matters is what’s in the heart.
Many years ago, scattered among the many unique opportunities that my life’s work has afforded me, I traveled to northern Russia. Trips like this are hardly relaxing tours. Because it was a government exchange for a limited time, our hosts crammed a ton of meetings in and every day was exhausting.
I’ve learned the hard way that while traveling through eastern Europe that it’s a good idea to keep certain items close at hand, and to exercise unusual care about what you eat and drink. In particular, we are always careful about bottled water. You have to be cautious to only drink bottled water, and to only acquire it from grocery stores or restaurants. Counterfeit bottled water is a big business, and drinking it can have dire consequences.
We take for granted that we have ready access to clean drinking water. The same is not true in much of industrialized Russia, where the water is loaded with microbes that will happily run rampant through the human digestive system.
It so happened that our merry band had consumed some bottled water of uncertain origin at a roadside picnic.
It made for a miserable experience.
While waiting for a delayed flight out of the Vaskovo Airport in Archangel, my esteemed colleague, then-Representative John Brautigam of Falmouth, simply couldn’t take it any more. Despite the fact that you could smell the rancid odor of the basement bathrooms in the airport up three flights of stairs, he simply had to use them, and there was no toilet paper. “Mr. Secretary,” he politely inquired. “Would it be possible that you still have toilet paper in your carry-on bag?”
“Indeed,” I replied. “But Representative Brautigam, before I make it available for your comfort and relaxation, I must finish an earlier conversation we began about your commitment to vote for me in the next election.”
His response, as I recall, was somewhat terse.
I thought it was funny at the time, but I was hit by the microbes as well. But our schedule did little to accommodate dyspepsia, and in the breakneck pace of our work that week, we found ourselves far outside the city to visit a 16th century Orthodox monastery along the Siskiy River. I was miserable; my entire abdomen was wracked with cramping pain, the grounds of the monastery were swarming with a variety of mosquitoes that are exemplary in the annals of entomology for their merciless savagery, and we were exhausted. But here we were, for a tour.
The monastery was established in the 1520’s by the Orthodox Saint Anthony, who is buried in the sanctuary of the church there. Orthodox churches are notable for having no pews, and many are only used on the feast days of the saints they are named for.
I was mindful of the importance of the monastery and what it represented, even through the fog of my misery and discomfort. As we went about the grounds and were regaled with the history of the area from its founding through the purges of Communism to its post- Communist restoration, we made our way into the sanctuary.
Before we entered, our hosts stopped us. “Silence, please. Please be silent in the presence of the saint.”
We entered the sanctuary in utter, unbroken quiet. The dirt floor was scattered with hay, and singing birds freely made their way in and out through the windows of the cupola. Dim light streamed in; and after a moment I noticed that there were no mosquitoes in the sanctuary. After a brief time, we exited back into the courtyard, and the mosquitoes still made their way for us.
I also noticed that my discomfort was gone, and I felt refreshed, even strong. I’ve thought a lot about that visit over the years, and the readings of today speak strongly to those moments, and the others that surround us in light.
I did not seek healing there; but I found it. The good Samaritan did not look to serve God; but he did. Both circumstances happened without instructions, without permission; without prayer books.
The efforts of the good Samaritan stream from all of us, and speak to those small blessings that we live in our hearts and, through our prayers, to accomplish those things the Lord would have us do. It’s hard at times for me to fully grasp in my world of comfort, where I can pretty much do as I please and enjoy what I wish, how important a warm plate of food is to one of our guests at the fourth Friday suppers, or the washing of relief that overcomes a patron of a food pantry when they reach for an item to feed themselves and their children that we may have absently tossed into the basket from our shelves of plenty. Those are blessings, and the answers to prayers.
What Jesus and Amos tell us, though, is that prayers are not spells, and that scriptures are not instructions, and that our prayers are sometimes answered, even if we don’t utter them completely or at all; and that God touches us through the Holy Spirit. If He didn’t, how would we be here? That is the I did not seek healing there; but I found it. The good Samaritan did not look to serve God; but he did. Both circumstances happened without instructions, without permission; without prayer books. The efforts of the good Samaritan stream from all of us, and speak to those small blessings that we live in our hearts and, through our prayers, to accomplish those things the Lord would have us do. It’s hard at times for me to fully grasp in my world of comfort, where I can pretty much do as I please and enjoy what I wish, how important a warm plate of food is to one of our guests at the fourth Friday suppers, or the washing of relief that overcomes a patron of a food pantry when they reach for an item to feed themselves and their children that we may have absently tossed into the basket from our shelves of plenty. Those are blessings, and the answers to prayers. What Jesus and Amos tell us, though, is that prayers are not spells, and that scriptures are not instructions, and that our prayers are sometimes answered, even if we don’t utter them completely or at all; and that God touches us through the Holy Spirit. If He didn’t, how would we be here? That is the manifold gift of Pentecost.