Br. Randy Greve, OHC
RCL – Proper 10 B – Sunday 12 July 2009
Br. Randy ascending toward Fontecolombo on a pilgimage to Assisi
May 2009 - Originally uploaded by Randy OHC
"Amos, what do you see?" The Old Testament lesson from Amos appointed for today which we heard earlier is about the clash of the prophetic word of repentance and justice against the established religious and political attitudes of the status quo. This clash is a recurrent theme in the Bible and continues to be a source of conflict in our day as we ask:
- What is the relationship of Christ and culture?
- How do we maintain our distinct Christian identity while living within our own circles of influence?
- What does it mean today to listen and speak prophetically?
- What might such prophecy cost us?
- What could we achieve by it?
I’ll answer all of those questions (!), but first some context…
One way to characterize this clash is to understand the difference between city and desert. The reference is not so much to literal city and desert, although that is usually how it works. The contrast has its roots in Scripture and carries into Church history. In general terms the city is characterized by reasoned theology, the established powers and authorities, Christian or other, and the preservation of that power and authority.
The desert or wilderness, on the other hand, is characterized by its mystical experience of God and its prophetic challenge to the abuses of those established powers and authorities and as a kind of nagging conscience, reminding leaders through an unswerving obedience to the Gospel that they are ultimately accountable to God. It is from this desert tradition that Amos, John the Baptist, and other prophets burst onto the stage of the sacred text to call the people to remember who they are and turn back to God when they had drifted into disobedience and dullness of heart.
One of the mega-themes of Christian spirituality is the call out of the crowd of unconscious indifference (exemplified in enemy tribes or oppressive empires) and into the light, the awareness, the courage, the risk of prophetic words and deeds that challenge us and challenge the ruling powers to act in service of God on behalf of truth, on behalf of the poor and oppressed, on behalf of something more than their own perpetuation. Again and again we hear the same story; the people make a covenant with God and commit to living within God’s law, then they stray and rebel and become comfortable and lazy and forget who God is, who they are, and slide into slavery - spiritually or literally.
Again and again God sends the prophet, the messenger, the deliverer who wakes them up (or at least attempts to) to get them back on the right path of life and freedom and surrender to God’s guidance, direction and grace. The prophet’s job is to disturb and unmask our false security and to exclaim that we have built our house on sand - we have bought the lie that we can arrive and coast along.
The prophet creates the crisis that gets our attention and makes us aware of how much we need the help of God and the community to wake up. The unsettling blare of the prophet dares to say that we can all too easily seek the easy walls of our own prejudices rather than the constant need for repentance and humility.
While the sacred story includes both city and desert, Scripture is clearly on the side of the desert prophets because God is on the side of the poor and oppressed - those most vulnerable victims of the unjust actions of corrupt power. Amos and others are the mystical and prophetic voices breaking into the conversation in a religious environment dominated by the agenda of the city.
The desert is not a familiar theological place for most American Christians. The world of Amos’ day in the seventh century B.C is so very radically different from our own. The idea that a prophet would speak God’s very words and that those words would bear the news of God’s anger at the people’s sin and the imminent warning of punishment by exile may not fit into your image of God.
As we dare put ourselves in this story perhaps we grope for a way out by thinking- “who does he think he is?” or “that’s fine if he wants to believe that, but I don’t have to!” Amos, John the Baptist and other prophets call the whole people to repent because they knew what we conveniently forget - our silent acquiescence, our passive acceptance of the evil and injustice around us is a participation in it, is an assent to its continuation and makes us just as guilty as if we had committed the act ourselves.
Carrying the themes of city and desert into Church history, while the early church was creating a new city of God - with bishops and councils and processes and procedures, defining doctrine and battling heresies, the desert monks pick up the mantle of the wilderness prophet and through lives of uncompromising obedience to the Gospel keep the focus of the early church’s growing power and authority on the eternal. For Christians both city and desert are important.
Either alone is dangerous. The city preserves the faith and cares for the faithful. The desert spurs them on to deeper commitment and is a corrective to the allure of worldly entanglements. Each has its unique temptations: the city to accommodate and compromise with the secular to retain power and control, the desert to an isolated and formless individualism where experience is the last word.
What does the story of the city and the desert say to us today? Both the city and the desert exist within us. Our spiritual lives are a balanced tension between head and heart, letter and spirit that must be consciously tended. Neither rigid conformity to external structures nor self-centered relativistic individualism is the answer to the longing within us, but a willingness to hear and see reality unfiltered and with our whole selves.
While genuine prophets come along from time to time, the Holy Scripture is our prophetic message and the basis for discerning the truth. When we read or hear the sacred text it is God asking us “What do you see?” - in the text, in yourself, in the world? We have to be willing and open to hear this voice, because it will come at times and in ways we may not expect.
As we cultivate this stance then God will act and speak prophetically through us to the Church and the world. God is inviting us through Amos to step out into the prophetic wilderness and hear God ask us “What do you see?” As monks we hope to claim, embody, and preserve the desert tradition and keep bringing heart and spirit into all of life alongside head and letter.
One of our gifts as monks is to be a prophetic sign and witness to the world around us: to ask hard, unsettling, and challenging questions, to speak honestly, to keep ourselves mutually accountable and responsible, to resist the temptation to compromise the meaning of our lives to be liked. We do this first by a commitment to our own ongoing conversion and through nurturing spiritual freedom, joy, openness, and humility in ourselves and in our community.
While we appreciate the value of the city, we stand outside of it and use our objectivity and distance to look at it with honesty and compassion. We seek to give a real answer when God asks us “What do you see?” and then we find ways to speak what is showing up for us. The prophetic voice is concerned only with speaking God’s truth - not identifying with an agenda, not taking a side, not entering into the institutional squabbles but pointing us back toward the essentials; obedience, compassion, humility, perseverance, boldness, courage, and a clear-eyed commitment to put ourselves on the line to say and do what is right no matter the cost. To our guests we pray that the offering of this place of prayer and stillness and our journeying with you expands your commitment to listen to God, to see opportunities for truth and compassion, and to act by loving your neighbor.
In his book The Way to Love, Anthony de Mello equates love with the desire to see. He says:
The first act of love is to see reality as it truly is. And this involves the enormous discipline of dropping your desires, your prejudices, your memories, your projections, your selective way of looking, a discipline so great that most people would rather plunge headlong into good actions and service than submit to the burning fire of this asceticism. When you set out to serve someone whom you have not taken the trouble to see, are you meeting that person’s need or your own? So the first ingredient of love is to really see the other. The second ingredient is equally important to see yourself, to ruthlessly flash the light of awareness on your motives, your emotions, your needs, your dishonesty, your self-seeking, your tendency to control and manipulate. This means calling things by their name, no matter how painful the discovery and the consequences.The prophetic alarm is not ultimately about catastrophe and condemnation - it is about conversion, it is an invitation to conversion, a conversion to love. Amos reminds us to listen for God’s question as we look around our church and our world: “What do you see?”