“Not Above God’s Law, Not Beneath God’s Favor”

 

Pentecost 8

July 10, 2016

Text: Psalm 82; Amos 7:7­-17; Luke 10:25­-37

 

I came of age right around the time of the Watergate scandal. For those of us too young to remember, this was the scandal involving a burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington, DC in 1972, the investigation into which implicated several members of President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, and ultimately the President himself, leading to his resignation under threat of impeachment in 1974.

One of the principles that was voiced in the handling of that situation was the notion that no one is above the law. We heard that notion voiced again this past week in the wake of FBI director James Comey’s report finding that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had handled e­mails containing classified information carelessly, which is a violation of Federal law, but did not recommend prosecution because no evidence was found of malicious intent. Naturally, the ones most loudly and angrily proclaiming that no one is above the law (and therefore she should be prosecuted) are her political opponents, especially since she is her party’s likely nominee for President. I remember back at the height of the Watergate scandal my father said: “They’re all crooks. Nixon just happened to get caught.” If my dad were still living today, he would probably say much the same about this situation.

In the book of the prophet Amos we find a somewhat similar situation. Amos was active during the days when the Hebrew people were divided into two kingdoms­­--Israel and Judah. Amos was from Judah, the southern kingdom. God had sent him to the northern kingdom, Israel, to proclaim God’s judgment against that wayward nation and its leaders. The king of Israel at that time was Jeroboam son of Joash, also known as Jeroboam II. Although it was a time for prosperity for the kingdom of Israel, the prosperity was only being enjoyed by the rich and powerful few, who thought they enjoyed God’s favor, while the poor were being cheated, mistreated, and oppressively taxed. In a way, it was a time very much like our own, when an enormous share of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few while the middle class is disappearing and the vast majority find it more and more difficult to make a living. Amos proclaimed God’s judgment against Jeroboam and against the nation because of these conditions.

Amos had a vision of God standing next to a wall, holding a plumb line in his hand. A plumb line is used to check to see whether or not a wall is standing straight up and down. God told Amos he was setting a plumb line in the middle of his people Israel. Indeed, he had done so, and had found them severely wanting. They were not standing upright in their relationship with God or in the way they were treating each other, especially the poor. Therefore, God was going to destroy them.

As Amos proclaimed God’s judgment upon Israel, those in power became alarmed. Amaziah the priest went to King Jeroboam and reported what Amos was saying, and said that the land was unable to cope with everything he was saying. Then Amaziah went to Amos and told him to go home to Judah and prophesy there. “Don’t prophesy at Bethel,” he said, “for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house.” Amaziah was saying, or at least implying, that the king was above the law, above God’s commandments, and should not be held accountable for his mistreatment of the people. Amos, however, did not back down­­--he told Amaziah that he was not a professional prophet, but rather a poor farmer God grabbed out of the field to speak on his behalf to Israel, and then reiterated that God was going to send Israel into exile for its wrongdoing.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 82, depicts God standing in the divine council proclaiming God’s judgment upon the gods of the other nations: “How long will you judge unjustly by granting favor to the wicked? Give justice to the lowly and the orphan; maintain the right of the poor and the destitute!  Rescue the lowly and the needy. Deliver them from the power of the wicked!” God also declares that even though they are divine, they are not above the law, and informs them that because of their wickedness they would lose their immortality and their divine status.

Now the image of God lecturing other gods may seem strange to us. We have it well ingrained in our sensibilities that there is only one God, and all others that are worshipped are false gods. However, we can identify things in our experience that are sometimes used as substitute gods:  socio­economic status, wealth, power, pleasure, fame, success, and other such things. What these things all have in common is that they are really about worshipping oneself rather than submitting to the One who created us. When one worships self, one doesn’t care about how other people are treated. One doesn’t care about injustice. Such a person only cares about helping those who can help that person get ahead.

And then we have the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here, Jesus tells a story in which religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, act as if they are above God’s commandments by failing to help the man beside the road who had been beaten and robbed.

No one is above God’s law. It applies to all, whether rich or poor, insider or outsider, saint or sinner, leader or follower. All are called on to love God with our all and love our neighbor as ourselves. In saying that let’s remember that the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that all people, no matter who they are or where they are from or how they worship or what we think of them, are our neighbors and are to be treated with respect and compassion. Jesus totally shocked those who listened to his parable by making a Samaritan the hero, the one who did what God wanted, the one who was a true neighbor and a true keeper of the Law of Moses. Jews and Samaritans in those days had no use for each other. Each group considered themselves to be the true Israel and the other

group to be a bad imitation. The religions of the two groups were actually quite similar.

Recent events serve to remind us that our society does not measure up to God's standards. We have had several recent incidents where people have been killed for being gay or for being Black. We have had incidents where police officers appear to have used excessive and deadly force in situations where it would not have been necessary to do so. There have been innocent police officers killed by people seeking revenge. This is not how you love your neighbor. I am seeing love of neighbor in the people who are reaching across the divisions in society and in their own communities, saying the violence and bloodshed and unequal treatment has to stop. Although our local situation may not be like that, we still need to consider our attitudes toward our neighbors near and far away. Our attitudes need to match the attitude of Christ.

But if no one is above God’s law, it must also be said that no one is beneath God’s favor. After all, this is a God who rescued slaves out of their bondage in Egypt in a world where slaves were considered nobodies. This is a God who cares about poor and needy people and seeks their deliverance from their poverty and need. This is a God who demands that all people be treated equitably, regardless of their station in life. This is a God who insists that the beaten, bloodied, half­dead victim on the side of the road matters just as much as the well­off, comfortable elite. This is a God who can recognize faithfulness in the outsider and the stranger.

No one is above God’s commandments. Not I, not you, not anyone. But sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I want my way. Sometimes I want to make myself an exception to the rule. But God still expects me to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. God still expects me to love my neighbor as myself, including the neighbors I don’t want to love. God still expects me to treat all people fairly and equitably. And I am just as human as you are.

But even in my sinfulness, I am also not beneath God’s favor. For that matter, neither was ancient Israel in the time of Amos. Neither was King Jeroboam. The reason Amos told them that God would not forgive them was because they were obstinate. They either would not or could not acknowledge that they were not in compliance with what God wanted. They could not see that there was a problem in how they were going about business. They thought they were living in God’s favor, when in fact they were living in disobedience. Psalm 51 tells us that God does not reject a humble, contrite heart. Their hearts were neither humble nor contrite.

In our sinfulness, we are just as much in need of mercy and compassion as the poor, the downtrodden, and the rejected. But we need mercy for a different reason. The poor, downtrodden, and rejected need mercy so they can have a better life as full participants in the community. We need mercy because we have failed, either willfully or unintentionally, to do God’s work of making that possible.

May God reveal to us the places where we put ourselves ahead of God. May God soften our hearts toward those the world rejects, that we may be the neighbors they need. May God help us to turn away from our stubbornness to know ourselves to be sinners in need of a Savior. May we know God’s forgiveness and God’s guidance as we seek to live for him by seeking a world where all are treated equitably. Amen.

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