Rock Bridge Christian Church * July 13, 2013 * Year C Proper 10 (15)
This sermon was composed for a particular community at a particular time and meant to be heard (not read). The manuscript that follows is by request of some who where there when I preached this morning.
There are three other lectionary texts for this Sunday morning. I briefly contemplated preaching from the Gospel of Luke, the Good Samaritan was the story for the day. But I’ve preached from Luke at least several times, and I’d never really studied Amos, and those iconic words kept running through my head: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” I thought – the book of Amos – now this is a message for Rock Bridge Christian Church. By the time I realized otherwise, it was too late.
Friends, this is an ugly text. And really, Amos is an ugly, book. Vindictive. Destructive. Judgmental. Violent. And in fact, the 146 verses and 9 chapters in the book of Amos with about three exceptions give us an unforgiving picture of both prophet and God. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the heading in The Message translation of this scripture summarizes today’s lectionary text, and I quote: “To Die Homeless and Friendless.”
Amos has a vision of Yahweh holding a plumb line. The plumb line dangles in the midst of the prosperous nation of Israel and demonstrates how far they are from righteousness. So Yahweh makes a promise – really three promises: the high places are coming down; the holy places will be made a wasteland; and the house of the king will be the victim of God’s sword.
Amos delivers the message, and the high priest Amaziah responds. Now the high priest serves the king and is understandably offended. It’s high stakes Hebrew scripture drama when Amaziah says to Amos – go back to where you came from. You are not welcome here.
Amos, not to be stopped, says, I’m just telling you what God told me, and because you don’t listen, you’re going to get it. Your wife will become a prostitute. Your children will be killed by the sword. You will die, and your nation Israel will go into exile.
With these terrible and cruel words, thus ends our scripture reading.
A preaching professor (John Holbert, Perkins School of Theology) writes this: “I have heard and preached a lot of sermons in my life. I taught preaching for twenty-eight … years … and estimate that I listened to some 700 student sermons—twice. In addition, I heard a fair number of sermons in our chapel, and have myself preached perhaps 1000 sermons of my own during that time… Thus, I have been exposed to nearly 2000 sermons in a lifetime; I could count on one hand the number of sermons I heard that were based on the book of Amos.”
It’s no wonder. The book of Amos emphasizes God’s destructive activity. There are 28 different verbs in the original Hebrew that describe the divine as a warrior, a destroyer. The rolling justice is not about the winds of social change through peaceful protest and political process and a loving God.
There’s really no way around it. Amos is an ugly, violent book, and this is an ugly text.
So what do we do with it?
Consider our choices:
- Agreement. Of course God is a harsh and righteous judge. There’s nothing wrong with any of this.
- Supercessionism. These disturbing Old Testament texts were replaced by a more complete revelation of God in Jesus, and so we don’t need to worry about them.
- Evolution. That was then; this is now. We’ve moved beyond. It doesn’t apply anymore.
- Avoidance. This violent image of God represents the embarrassing underside of our faith, and if we stick to the stories we like, we won’t need to deal with it.
None of these is a satisfactory way forward.
As people of faith, we are often faced with complex ethical questions like these. We have this situation in front of us, this circumstance, this challenge, this conflict, this text. Now, in light of our faith, what are we to do?
Over the last month, here in our city, here in Columbia, there have been a number of high profile incidents. Activity that involves firearms and drug deals gone bad, sometimes in very public places. One of my co-workers from outside the county saw me the other day and said, “Sarah, what the heck is going on in Columbia?” And I’ve heard several people from smaller towns say, “I’m so glad I don’t live in the city.”
A couple weeks ago the city held a press conference to begin to think about what to do with this ugly context. Various officials offered their perspectives: we need an enforceable curfew for youth; we need to treat this is a gang violence issue; we need to create better networks of community accountability.
The police chief said, “I don’t think anyone cares if [the thugs] go out and… shoot each other. But they’re subjecting us, as the citizens of this city… to that same violence, and I’m ready for it to stop.” As if to say, we’re not the problem. They are. It’s tempting, isn’t it to create a narrative that explains away all the ugly before we get to ourselves.
In ugly contexts, like ugly texts, there is confusion, fear, avoidance, and more than enough blame. But the question is still, what do we do with it?
Here is one way forward. Find the uncomfortable truth. Stop avoiding. Stop passing the blame and instead, move into the text. Treat it as inescapable, not a lesser scripture. Treat as necessary, not embarrassing. Treat as a substantive word for our faith, not as the unenlightened words that our progressive community does not need. Treat as smart, intentional, purposeful word for our faith then and now. Treat as a text that says exactly what needs to be said.
We don’t know very much about Amos the person. We know he was from the southern kingdom of Judah and he was speaking here to the northern kingdom of Israel. We know he used to care for sycamore trees. We hypothesize that he probably lived around the middle of the eighth century Before the Common Era, and that’s about it.
But what we do know is that Israel in the eight century BCE was a prosperous nation. It was stable and expanding its territory, but within its borders was vast inequality. The rich and powerful oppressed the poor and weak. We don’t know what they called it – classism, racism, heterosexism, white privilege, but it was simply how it was. It was how the world functioned. It was the system within which we – I mean they lived. Sound familiar?
The people who compiled these texts knew what they were doing. To get anyone’s attention in times like those, the prophetic voice had to be ferocious. The biblical scholars I read this week write about how this violent language, the rhetoric, was not as much way to describe God as it was meant to get the attention of a society gone off track. The commonly heard voices at the center upheld the status quo. These images from the margins had to be forceful, because it was their job to address a society that was in more trouble, that was more out of plumb that it was able to understand.
There is artistry in this ugly text, because it demands that we wrestle into the depths of its meaning by looking at ourselves. This text says what needs to be said.
The writer Wendell Berry gives us a modern example in his poem Questionnaire:
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
Can you find the uncomfortable truth here? And our response as people of faith is to be unsettled. To be compelled out of our normalcy.
Prophets shake us up. They challenge our sense of safety and stability. They say what must be said to us in a society, in a city where inequality is normal, with a poverty rate hovering near 20%. In a city where we segregate ourselves by race and class without giving it a second thought. Where some of our leaders struggle to understand how they are part of the problem because they can’t see their privilege. In a country where last’s night’s verdict in the George Zimmerman trial reminds us that “unnamed, unspoken, unacknowledged cultural values continue to haunt us” (Alice Hunt).
When I was first testing my ministry calling, I had an internship at an urban church that had become a center for the neighborhood’s homeless community. As I was walking in for the first time with the lead pastor, Phil and Josie stopped us and asked for prayer. They smelled like body odor and alcohol and looked even worse from years on the fringes of society.
But I soon learned that because of their position in the world, they could see things that I couldn’t. So I sat day after day at my makeshift desk in the youth room, and from time to time, Phil and Josie would make their resting spot by my exterior door. I kept the blinds pulled, but I could hear them clearly. Isn’t this supposed to be a church? Why do you lock your doors? Why don’t you let us sleep inside?
I have rarely been so uncomfortable.
Pay attention, Amos says from 2800 years ago. Listen to the voices from the margins. Pay attention to the places that make you uncomfortable. Listen to the oppressed – whether the ancient words of a raging prophet or the unsettling words of a modern poet or the pointed questions of those astute observers who have no place to lay their heads.
This is a difficult calling, and as people of faith we cannot do this alone. We need a community to remind us to step out of our own privilege, to challenge our comfort level and to walk with us in the struggle. Today if you would like to join us as a member of Rock Bridge Christian Church on this journey of life and faith, come forward as we sing the hymn of invitation…