Publish or Perish
Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, July 15, 2018
Readings: Amos 7:7–15; Psalm 85:8–13; Ephesians 1:3–14; Mark 6:14–29
Hear this sermon as it was delivered:
I could have been a scholar.
I could have grabbed the brass ring and entered the ivory tower. I could be teaching classes and publishing papers (publish or perish!) and building up stature as a high priest of… what was it? Oh, yeah, theatre scholarship. Or, y’know, more recently, linguistics.
But all my applications for teaching positions two decades ago were met with PFO letters. You know, PFO, stands for Please F—… uh… Please… fffind… otherplaces. Yeah. You know, please go away.
And when I got my master’s in linguistics, I didn’t even bother going on for another PhD. What for? I had already decided I didn’t want to write for other scholars. Plenty of people doing that. My first time around, everything I wrote was read by some single-digit number of people. Now things I write are read by, um, a lot more people. I even get paid for them by some publications.
So I have a kind of sympathy for Amos. Amos had a calling! He wasn’t from a line of professional prophets. (They had those, you know. People whose whole job it was to be prophets. At the time, these prophets were reaping profits by saying things that people with money wanted to hear. Hey, apropros of nothing, did you know that the inflatable orange president of the United States has a spiritual adviser?) Anyway, Amos looked around and he wasn’t happy. He said, “That country over there is going to eat sh— uh, dirt!” And people said “Yeah!” And he said “Those guys over there are also going to get spanked!” And people said “Yeah!” And he said “And Israel is going into the dumpster of history!” And people said “Y— Wait, what?”
The king at that time was Jeroboam, who must have been good because one of the huger sizes of champagne bottle is named after him. Next up after a magnum, I think. Anyway, the country was riding smooth. People with money were having a really good time. People without money… not so much. And Amos said, “I’m gonna go tell Jeroboam that God has a big bagful of bolt-blasts waiting for him and everyone here if they don’t let justice roll like a mighty river. I’m gonna let him know that a bunch of bells and smells mean jacksquat if you’re not taking care of the poor people.” And Amaziah, high priest, Archbishop of Can’t-believe-how-good-I’ve-got-it, said “Wait. Whoa. No.” He said to the king, “This guy is a real wet blanket.” The he said to Amos, “Please f—… go away.”
So Amos said “Fine.” (I mean, he also made some predictions about Amaziah and his family.)
Amos said, “I’m gonna go write this all down. And pass it around.”
So he did. Amos wrote it down. He was the first of the prophets to go do that. Hosea did it, Isaiah did it, many another holy sayah did it, but Amos did it first. He put it down so that even if he couldn’t fix it for then and there, people in other times and places could know about it and take action.
If Amos had gotten what he wanted – a little chit-chat with Jeroboam, who might have said something like “Gosh! You’re right! I need to do something! …Guards! Cut this guy’s head off!” – if Amos had gotten what he wanted, that could have been the end of it right there. Instead, he got something more enduring. Something that outlasted him. He didn’t perish. He published. He didn’t fix one problem in one time and place – or maybe not fix it in one time and one place – he spread it far and wide.
That’s the thing about publishing: reproducibility. The introduction of the printing press was such a revolution that historians of English set the dividing line between Middle English and Early Modern English as 1476, the year Caxton set up the first printing press in England. Amos, of course, first had to rely on hand-copying, but even that is not ephemeral like a conversation behind closed doors, or even like street preaching.
John the Baptist was a street preacher. He sure was. He was the star of the show. He made proclamations. He said God was going to come through and burrrrrrrnnnnnn the sinners to the ground. There was a certain similarity of tone to Amos. But there was a difference.
It’s not that John got the ear of Herod Antipas. I mean, he did, and then Herod got John’s whole head, but. John was predicting a coming messiah in the traditional model, a ferocious warrior. He got Jesus instead, which may have confused him a bit – after all, he did send disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the one or if they should be waiting for someone else. But what John didn’t do was come up with any sort of enduring legacy of his own. He’s a character in someone else’s book. Once he was dead, his followers went their separate ways.
It’s sort of like how the Romans destroyed the temple and finished off Judaism. Wait, no they didn’t. Judaism is still around. What the Romans finished off was the temple-based Judaism: the Sadducees, the high priests. The temple was their stronghold, their rock, and once it was tumbled, they were done. The Pharisees, meanwhile, didn’t need the temple. They worshipped in synagogues. You could set one up, and as long as you had enough people to worship – ten, that’s the official number – you had your own local temple and service. It’s a franchise operation. That’s how it lasted.
Franchise. I got that from John Dominic Crossan, in God & Empire. He wasn’t talking about Pharisees and Sadducees, though. He was talking about John and Jesus. John the Baptizer had what Crossan calls a monopoly. It was all him. One time, one place, one person. Knock down that temple and you’re done. Jesus, on the other hand, had a franchise. Has a franchise. You’re at one of the outlets. No, strike that. You are one of the outlets.
I’m going to read you a couple hundred words from Crossan’s God & Empire, page 118. (Isn’t it great how you can do that with published works?)
Jesus was promulgating not just a vision or a theory but a praxis and a communal program, and … this program was not just for himself but for others as well. What was it?
Basically it was this: heal the sick, eat with those you heal, and announce the Kingdom’s presence in that mutuality. You can see that communal program at work in such texts as Mark 6:7–13, Luke 9:1–6, Matthew 10:5–14, and Luke 10:1–11. Notice some unusual features of these texts. First, Jesus does not settle down at Nazareth or Capernaum and instruct his companions to bring people to him as monopolist of the Kingdom. Second, he tells others to do exactly what he himself is doing—healing the sick, eating with the healed, and proclaiming the Kingdom’s presence. Third, he does not tell them to heal in his name or even to pray to God before they heal—nor does he himself pray before he heals. This approach is actually quite extraordinary and can only be explained by the Kingdom’s presence and our participation in it—if we are in the already-present Kingdom, we are already in union with God and can act accordingly.
So. John got what Amos could have gotten. He was brought before the king, yo! Jesus got what Amos did get: published. Of course Jesus didn’t write down the words and hand them out as leaflets. He spread his word to people who spread the word and were empowered to spread it further. It’s not the book that is the real publication of Jesus. It’s the people, and the spirit spread.
That’s not to say that Christianity is doing spectacularly well everywhere now at carrying the words and spirit of Jesus. It’s become an establishment religion. There are many high-and-mighty preachers and spiritual advisers who are comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. You can imagine what Amos would have to say about the situation.
Things orginally designed for good can of course go awry. Fruit can rot. Young, vigorous revolutionary movements can become the establishment. Academic publishing, idealized as the free spread of groundbreaking thought among scholars, has become a prison and an oubliette: professors have to keep writing things and throwing them into a hole from which few escape. Publishing can be perishing. Because it’s taken the public out of publication.
How do you get the public back into publication? You don’t. You get the publication back into the public. You don’t just head for the centre of power here and now. You don’t feed the monopoly. For that matter, you don’t let it perish in your parish. You do like Amos and like Jesus. You spread the word.