July 10, 2010

Whose Word is It Anyway?

by Jenny Williams
Amos 7:7-17

In late summer 2004, I was approached by the Chair of the Democractic Party in the county in which I lived to offer a prayer at an upcoming appearance of John Edwards, then-Vice-Presidential candidate and pre-fall media darling. I received this phone call just weeks after returning to full-time pastoral ministry from maternity leave. I hemmed and hawed in response to her invitation, explaining that I was still trying to figure out each day how to get a shower, tend to pastoral duties, and be my son’s main food source. She was shocked at my lack of enthusiasm. Even though we had never met and she did not know me, she exclaimed, “I thought you would be honored to do it!” Truth be told, I faced the prospect with dread. The maternity issues were only part of my concerns. I knew I would have to speak the truth.

The Ekklesia Project has spent a lot of time in the past week considering the importance of words. Words matter. Our life begins with a divine Word who walked among us. Proclaiming that word requires both humility and courage.

Words got Amos into trouble. The Lord told Amos to prophesy to the people of his own country and heritage. The Lord’s words would not be pleasing to them as they were not the smooth words of a blessing of the status quo. They were jagged words, critical words about not measuring up. Amaziah, chaplain to the king of Israel, knew these were troublesome words and certainly not the kind that should be uttered in the king’s beautiful state-funded sanctuary. (“Constantinianism on a stick!” Stanely Hauerwas would say.)

Amaziah approached the king with a conveniently altered version of the Lord’s word to Amos—a version that did not include any mention of the issues for which Israel (and thereby the government) was being criticized. Rather Amaziah reported only that Amos was speaking of an impending punishment for Israel.

Then Amaziah confronted Amos, presumably under the pretense of guarding Amos’ best interests. Amos not only rejected Amaziah’s instruction to leave Bethel but corrected his deceptive spin. The words which Amos had spoken were not Amos’ words, but were the Lord’s. Amos reports, “The LORD took me from following the flock…the LORD said to me, ‘Go prophesy,’…Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.”

Will Willimon used to say that when a parishioner came to him with a complaint about Sunday’s sermon, he’d reply, “Don’t be mad at me! Be mad at Luke [or Mark, Matthew, John or Paul]! I’m just telling you what HE said!”

Gathering my courage, I did accept the invitation to pray at the rally. I wrote out my prayer in advance, knowing that I would be incredibly nervous about speaking the truth before Empire. After the Pledge of Allegiance, I was asked to come forward. I prayed — a longer prayer than they expected and certainly not rah-rah. My prayer was supposed to be a blessing of the event, I suppose. I never know why secular organizations insist on an “invocation.” I really don’t think most of those gatherings want or expect the Holy Spirit to show up.

In my prayer I recalled ancient Israel’s desire for Leaders; the fallenness of the people of God and their leaders; and the fallenness of leaders of modern-day nations. I prayed that God would enable them to admit when they had made mistakes. I asked God to help them be Christ-like leaders, and to help us be Christ-like in our support of leaders, which included our responsibility to hold them accountable. I don’t remember what else I prayed. But I did pray in the name of Jesus Christ. The room was strangely silent after I finished, so I suppose the organizers must have been grateful that my prayer was followed by some loud patriotic music to usher in Mr. Edwards.

A pastor’s job is to proclaim the Word of the Lord. The enfleshed, crucified, and resurrected Lord. But the proclamation of the Word does not only come from the mouths of pastors. It is proclaimed each time bodies gather to protest the School of the Americas, or mountaintop removal, or bulldozers who make way for settlements in the West Bank. Proclamation in word and deed is scary business.

When this calling sets us before the State, we have a choice. If we choose the way of Amaziah, we choose the way of mistakenly believing that we stand or fall on our own words — which is to choose the way of ignorance and perhaps privilege if you’re really smooth. If we choose the way of Amos, we choose the way of remembering that we stand only on The Word, knowing that it is not our own but it is the one spoken into existence before the ages. It may not be smooth, but it is true.


Barry Harvey said...

Nicely put, Jenny!

Anonymous said...

Have to say, the Will Willimon quote is what caught my attention, and not in a positive way.

Blaming the Bible for what you say in a sermon is at the very least inaccurate. Unless the sermon consists solely of reading Scripture, it's your words too...your interpretation of what was said, your choice to emphasize one part over another, your choice of the text,and so on.

At the least, it's inaccurate. At worst, it's intended to stifle complaints by ascribing the message to God, and daring the critic to take it up with Him.

Unknown said...

Jenny, I think this is a true and truly painful point you're making. I'm left with only one question: what have I gotten myself into?

Jenny Williams said...

Barry, thanks.

Anonymous: Point well taken. Willimon's quote is glib, indeed. But don't you think there's at least a nugget of truth to it?

Krysta, welcome to the roller coaster. Buckle your seatbelt; it's a wild ride.