by Daniel Harrell
Cleaning out the desk of my mind in preparation to go visit Dawn’s side of the family this week. Never sure what to preach for a stand alone sermon—being more of a serial guy—I turned to the church lectionary, a line-up of assigned Bible texts for every Sunday of the year. Typically a reliable resource for tried and true Bible passages to preach, the text assigned for today is less familiar. It comes from Amos 7 which Dawn read for us this morning. Amos can be a bit stern—Old Testament prophets are like that—only Amos insists he’s not a prophet. Modesty aside, Amos lowers the boom against God’s people for their idolatry and indulgence, their immorality and corruption and oppression of others. Like so many times in Israel’s history, God’s grace gets taken for granted; treated as favoritism rather than mercy, as license to do as you please. God sends Amos from his tree-pruner day job on a mission to take down bigger timber.
Dawn’s family is a family full of missionaries. Her own parents served twenty years in Angola as medical missionaries. An aunt and uncle on her father’s side worked for years in Peru and Columbia as Bible translators. Long before Dawn and I ever met, I took a group of high school students to help another aunt and uncle who ran a Christian camp—in the French Alps—suffering for Jesus they would say. Actually Dawn could have gone had I known her then. She was 17 at the time. But that would have been weird. On her mother’s side of the family, another aunt and uncle translated the Bible on a remote island in the Philippines, with financial support from churches here in Minnesota. Years before taking kids to France, I traveled as a college kid to the Philippines on a summer mission stint. I didn’t meet Dawn’s aunt and uncle then, but I worked with a lot of their colleagues.
Among them was one named Arthur Lown. Having earned his PhD in Education, he worked as a high-level administrator in the Atlanta Public Schools when the Lord pushed him into early retirement and sent him to Manila. There he founded an organization called Resources for the Blind which produced Scripture in Braille and on tape. Now equipped with a strong staff of Filipino specialists, Resources for the Blind provides a full spectrum of services to the half million visually impaired people in the Philippines: from counseling and education to job training and spiritual formation.
Back in the summer of 1981, however, things were just getting started and incredibly difficult. Due to an oppressive socio-economic class structure under then President Ferdinand Marcos, blind and disabled people were cruelly marginalized, forced to live in the slums and shanty towns pock-marking Manila. However what blew me away was not the horrid conditions in which we often found blind people living, nor the joys that came whenever we were able to help them into schools or provide them with voice recorders or other tangible aids. What blew me away was how Arthur Lown did all this looking for the blind and helping the blind while being blind himself.
On my first day in Manila—jet-lagged and culture shocked and surprised by my first encounter with Dr. Lown—he had me hop a cab with him for one of his search and rescue missions. I couldn’t help but notice the cab driver size us up: a blind man with a cane and a terrified American tourist with a camera. The only question was whether he could stretch our twenty minute trip downtown into one hour or two. However, no sooner had the driver tried to snooker us by heading off in the wrong direction, Dr. Lown piped up from the back seat. “You missed our left turn,” he said. The driver freaked out. I freaked out too. I turned to Dr. Lown in awe, “You’re Daredevil!” (referring to the blind comic book superhero who’s had a great run as an original Netflix series. I preached about it last May).
Though Jesus spoke disparagingly of the blind leading the blind, an indictment against sanctimoniousness and privilege, in Dr. Lown’s case, the blind leading the blind was a proof positive of the risen Jesus’ words to St. Paul about power being made perfect in weakness. “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may dwell in me,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. With Christ, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” In most every culture, blindness is viewed as a debilitating barrier. Yet Arthur Lown not only earned his PhD and helped run the Atlanta Public Schools, but he married and raised two daughters who went with him to reach the outcasts of Manila. His was a mission of true beauty that you did not need eyes to see—a mission he could not have accomplished, he readily admitted, had he not lost his sight. It was his disability, he said, without a trace of bitterness, that made him able to trust the Lord in ways he would have otherwise not.
Make no mistake. He would have loved to have been able to behold his wife and daughters, to drink in the splendor of creation with his eyes. It wasn’t like he’d never had sight; his blindness emerged slowly over the course of his childhood. Like St. Paul, Dr. Lown had prayed that God might remove this “thorn in his flesh.” But also like with Paul, Jesus said no, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
As nice as all this sounds, it doesn’t make it enviable. Grace may be sufficient for weakness, but stay strong and you won’t need to worry about grace because you won’t have to worry about suffering and failure. We all prefer empty tombs to the bloody crosses that get you buried in the first place. Nobody hears a testimony about coming to Jesus followed by life getting worse.
And yet if we’re honest, we know that suffering, hardship and failure—the things that expose our weaknesses—these are the very things that emphatically display God’s power. Not that we pray for weakness and trouble. But we do pray whenever we’re in trouble. Writer Anne Lamott famously claimed how the two most popular prayers are “Help me” and “Thank You.” Unfortunately, these two prayers get prayed in uneven amounts. Even the most cynical skeptic will cry to the Lord in deep trouble. Yet once God comes through, we’re through with God until next time. Nothing dampens faith like getting prayers answered. As long as the Israelites wandered the dry desert, they earnestly relied on the Lord for daily bread. But once they reached the promised land with bakeries on every corner, God took a back seat to self-serving idols. In Luke’s gospel ten lepers pleaded to be healed of their leprosy, but as soon as Jesus did it, nine of them disappeared without so much as a word of appreciation.
In Mark’s gospel, a sinful woman crashes a dinner party to pour perfume on Jesus’ feet out of gratitude for his grace. A former leper named Simon, hosting the dinner party, looks on in disgust. Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon pour perfume on Jesus? It’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest even if he hadn’t cured him of a skin condition that banned him from proper society. In Luke’s gospel, this same Simon is a Pharisee who, observing the woman, wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may be wondering how a leper could ever become a Pharisee. But then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who end up acting like they don’t need grace anymore. And of course once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it too.
Paul, a former Pharisee himself, acknowledged that Jesus gave him his affliction, afflicted him with his thorn in his flesh to keep him from getting cocky and making him dependent. God knows that whenever the weak get powerful, power gets corrupted and grace gets abused. Corrupted power and abused grace have been the theme of Amos. A weak nation prospers militarily and economically by the grace of God only to presume upon that grace and pervert it into permission to extort and exploit and oppress. In Amos 7, the stiffest resistance to correction comes from the staunchly religious—a powerful priest appointed by the king named Amaziah—who went so far as to trump up false charges of treason against Amos to shut him up. The religious establishment of Jesus’ day did the same thing to him.
Amos envisions a plumb line showing God’s people to be totally out of whack. They are doomed to collapse. Again, Amos previewed Jesus’ own warnings. “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus said, pointing to the massive institutional establishment of religious Jerusalem. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And they would be. Like Jesus, Amos didn’t pull his punches. The lectionary reading stops at verse 15 because the verses that come after probably shouldn’t be read publicly in polite company.
The abuse of grace doesn’t end with Amos and Jesus, of course. History repeats like a broken record. The persecuted and spirit-dependent early church became the power-laden, privileged church once legitimized by the Roman Empire. Empire Christianity went on to commit all kinds of perversion in Christ’s name through the middle ages, until the Reformation finally put a stop to it. Eventually, however, inquisitions leveled against infidels by Catholics soon became inquisitions leveled by Protestants against those who opposed them. America’s 18th century religious “Great Awakening” with its visions of cultural religious hegemony collapsed under the weight of misused authority as did mainline denominational influence in the mid 20th century once they cozied up to liberal politics. Similarly with Christian evangelicalism whose message got compromised by identification with conservative politics later on. All of this led to the postmodern cry for wholesale deconstruction of an irredeemably fraudulent enterprise.
Just last month I mentioned the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of religion in America. The Christian share of adults in the United States is in free fall across every denomination and region. Granted, 71 percent of American adults still self-identify as Christian, which sounds like enough until you read that it’s the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date. Moreover, identifying as Christian doesn’t mean you’re involved in church. The greatest decline is among millennials—those born between 1982 and 1994 with smartphones in hand—who’ve swollen the ranks of the religious unaffiliated in America. But actually people from every age category are losing their religion at a rapid rate.
In the shadow of the cross, this could be good news, of course. It’s long been argued that the church cannot make a difference in the world unless it is different from the world. Amos’ answer for the enculturated Israelites was exile; expulsion for the sake of embrace, failure for the sake of faith. Israel’s exile opened their eyes to how far they had capitulated to worldly affluence and entitlement which as God’s people they had been redeemed to resist. Established as a “light of salvation for the nations,” they’d become both indistinguishable and extinguishable. Missiologist Alan Roxburgh writes how Israel needed its exile to recover and reshape their community as the people of God, not from the perspective of success, but from living on the margins.” It’s from these margins that the church has always had its greatest influence. The most significant work of the gospel happens when the church refuses to seek celebrity limelight, when it takes counter-cultural risks, when it refuses to buy into the things that can be bought.
In Amos 7, the Lord makes a cattle-farming tree-pruner his prophet, just as he will make himself a humble and impoverished working-class carpenter, crucified on a cross in order to save the world: God’s power made perfect in weakness. The church, as the embodiment of Jesus, must abide according to this pattern—the cross-shaped, Christian pattern of humility and failure, ironic power and radical grace, subversive righteousness and justice with love. The church makes a difference in the world when we are different from the world.
I ran across this from a Berkeley medical professor named Marilyn McEntyre, musing on Amos. She wrote, “I like the idea that the Spirit comes in through the back door: that healthy spirituality is subversive because it hews to a plumb line in a culture of crooked walls. The one who stands straight among those walls will seem disturbingly out of line. As Flannery O’Connor put it, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.’ The courage to be odd and interesting seems to belong to the prophetic calling—both to those called for a lifetime and those called at particular moments to speak an unpopular truth when no one else is likely to.”
I saw such oddness in the incredibly interesting life and ministry of Arthur Lown in the Philippines. And I’ve seen it so many times since—most powerfully from weak run-of-the-mill weirdos we Christians can sometimes be. Whether its coming alongside homeless teenagers in Chaska, trying to make a market for sambusas to empower Somali women, helping college happen for adults with disabilities, strengthening weak communities in Burundi by leveraging their faith to build a sustainable economy and feed their families, driving month and after month over forty years to visit forgotten prisoners, to the point of making sure one you worried about was cared just before you died, improving health care, emancipating enslaved women and children, feeding the hungry, opening the eyes of countless people to the love of Jesus, pressing grace into troubled relationships, offering an apology for the sake of reconciliation even though you’d done nothing wrong, forgiving the worst evils in a way that succeeds in folding up a long-flying symbol of hatred, and possibly even hatred itself; odd, backdoor acts of love—courageous and prophetic and explainable only by grace, most without fanfare or headline, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
God so loved the world he sent his son to save it in a most unexpected fashion. God still loves the world and sends us as the embodiment of Jesus. Churches must abide according to the pattern of Jesus to succeed—the cruciform pattern of humility and failure, ironic power and radical grace, subversive righteousness and justice with love. The church makes a difference in the world when we are different from it. Then, with the apostle Paul, we can most gladly boast in our weirdness because of Christ’s spirit in us and through us. In Christ, the weaker we get, the stronger we become.