Friday, July 19, 2019

Out of the Ordinary: A Flood is Coming

Clarke Fitzgerald's The Plumb-line and the City


"Out of the Ordinary: A Flood is Coming"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

July 14, 2019 

Amos 5:14-27; Luke 12:35-48





Friday evening from 8:30-9:30, several of us from this congregation joined about one hundred forty others at the corner of Bank and Vashon Highway to bear quiet, glowing witness to the atrocities being committed in our name by our Customs and Border Enforcement. The gathering began with some good old-fashioned protest singing, but then quieted as we held up lights for liberty – to say with Amos, “People should not be treated as things.” The most chilling thing I witnessed was a metal dog cage containing a cloth doll of a child in traditional Central American clothing. Thousands of God’s children are caged for profit.
How can we gather as followers of Jesus and not consider the plight of children held in concentration camps by our government? For that matter, how can we dismiss that it is happening in our name? In an interview with The Atlantic late last month, Dr. Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School and the director of the school’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, said, “I have been representing and interviewing immigrant children and their families in detention…. Last week I was in Clint, and the conditions we found were appalling. In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.
“An overwhelming number of children who I interviewed had not had an opportunity for a … shower or bath since crossing the border [days or weeks earlier]. They were wearing the same clothing that they had crossed the border in. Their clothing was covered in bodily fluids, including urine and breast milk for the teenage moms who are breastfeeding.
“Nearly every child I spoke with said that they were hungry because they’re being given insufficient food. The food at Clint is rationed on trays. Everyone gets an identical tray regardless of if you’re a 1-year-old, or you’re a 17-year-old, or a breastfeeding teenage mother who has higher caloric needs. The same food is served every single day, and none of the children receive any fruit and vegetables or any milk.”[i]
On Friday, after visiting the detention facility at McAllen, Vice President Pence said, “To be honest with you, I was not surprised by what we saw….”[ii] In other words, he had foreknowledge and was expecting to see, “a swelteringly hot room called a sally port with hundreds of men, a strong smell of sweat and overcrowding so extreme there was no room for cots, the migrants left to sleep [without pillows] on concrete beneath mylar blankets.”[iii] He knew that’s what he would see. We knew that’s what he would see, and smell, and hear. How well has he slept since Friday? How well have we slept? What do you suppose his pastor had to say this morning in worship? Most Evangelical pastors don’t follow the lectionary schedule of readings, but if the worship Pence attended this morning did follow it, he would have heard from the prophet Amos as well.
Last week I shared that, like Amos, though the message is not breezy, light, and summery, I feel compelled to speak it. Amos’ words for those who see themselves as righteous followers of the way, the truth, and the life, as they knew it, are pertinent to us as well. It’s relevant to us, and good and healthy for us, within the context of our faith, to be held accountable and reminded that it is not a forgone conclusion that we are favored by God simply because we were born into or continue to identify with this particular legacy of Jesus, who we claim incarnates God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice.
Commentator J. A. Motyer articulates the relevance to us today of Amos’ message this way:
“Affluence, exploitation, and the profit motive were the most notable features of the society in which Amos observed and in which he worked. The rich were affluent enough to have [more than one home] apiece, to go in for rather ostentatiously expensive furniture, and not to deny themselves any bodily satisfaction. On the other hand, the poor were really poor and were shamelessly exploited: they suffered from property rackets, legal rackets, and business rackets, and the defenceless … with no influence came off worse every time. When the poor could not contribute to the rich, they were simply ignored and left to be broken. Money-making and personal covetousness ruled all: [they] lived for their offices, [they] lived for excitement, [their] rulers lived for frivolity.”[iv]
Remember that in the ancient Mediterranean, the nation, it’s cult, and the state were more connected, somewhat like the separate branches of our federal government. Motyer continues: “When Amos turned his gaze upon the [cult] he found a religion which was very religious, which adored what was traditional, but which had shaken free from divine revelation. The religious centres were apparently thronged, sacrifices were punctiliously offered, the musical side of worship was keenly studied. But it had no basis outside the “mind” of [the people]. …under the analytical gaze of Amos, [the shrines of the northern kingdom] were but exercises in self-pleasing, abhorrent to God. Amaziah, [their chief priest, about whom we will hear more in a few weeks,] offers a case history of the best sort of worshipper, … establishment -minded, careful for the ecclesiastical proprieties, but supremely disinterested in any word from God.”[v] I often ask myself, am I like Amaziah, only interested in the performative aspect of worship? Or am I truly motivated by the binding of my heart to God’s desire for the thriving, beloved community of creation?
Amos preached to the northern kingdom some thirty years before it was overthrown and scattered by the Assyrians in 732 BCE. Was he prescient? Or was he one of many prophetic voices that survived the test of time and circumstance. Motyer’s commentary on Amos was first published forty-five years ago, and yet his defense of the relevance of Amos also seems to have only grown more relevant. He continues:
“Authority and the rule of law were despised, and national leadership, while reveling in the publicity and dignity of position and quick to score debating points, was not facing the real issues, but seemed even to be contributing to the complete breakdown of law and order by allowing personal likes and dislikes to take primacy over caring for the nation. Public standards of morality were at a low ebb: Amos could speak of sexual indulgence, transgressions and sins, and [callous commercial] practice as matters on which he could not be proved wrong.
“These things provided him with grounds for speaking …, and they also provide us for grounds that he will have something to say to us today. These are the things which mark our society also…. None of them is true about everybody; each of them is true about somebody. Amos might well have been walking through any of our great cities.”[vi]
Considering the accuracy, potency, and relevance to us of Amos’ preaching, it’s important to take a breath and consider his tone. It’s easy to hear only an angry voice. But I’d like us to consider a tender voice – a voice of sorrow and concern – a voice that conveys confidence that some incisive judgement might lead to our recovery, our healing, our salvation. “Seek good and not evil, so that you may live.” Again, and again, Amos cries out in compassion. “Seek good and not evil, so that you may live.” Amos is concerned both with the natural consequences of evil actions and systems, and the fear that God cannot continue to champion justice through a people who do not embrace it. God is not interested in demonstrations of formal piety and has instructed the people of this – through flood and rainbow, through captivity and liberation, through privation and providence. Again and again, God has said to us, “I love you, but you know to be better than what you choose. You know what I choose – I have chosen it from the beginning. I choose life! So, … choose life! You are made in my image. Live like it. Seek good and not evil so that you may live, and so that Y H W H may truly be with you as you have been claiming.”
But our proclivity to fall back into formalities instead of substance also seems to be deeply rooted in the human condition. And so we find Jesus, who said “I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them…,” yet again warning the disciples, who have left everything to follow him, to be ready. And Jesus, like Amos, has been clear about what it means to be ready. It’s not about what we do when we are presenting ourselves properly before God at our designated times of worship, but about how we comport ourselves around the clock, when we think we are outside God’s scrutiny. By the time Peter askes Jesus, “Teacher, do you intend this parable just for us, or do you mean it for everyone?” Jesus has already declared his mission to bring good news to those who do not enjoy mansions and servants and good health and plenty of clean water and state-of-the-art healthcare – but to those who have been cast aside. Jesus has already taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor – the neighbor being defined as the one who seems to be different and outside the sanctioned practices of faith. Jesus has already taught the disciples to pray for enough simply for the day and to extend dignity and welcome to all, just as God has extended dignity and welcome to them.
Beloved, we do not know when the owner will return. I, for one, believe that the owner has never left, but is at hand, trusting us to call on our better natures to bring these things: forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice into the world daily. To live according to the ethic: “That which I enjoy, I must seek for the other to enjoy.” This is the true worship God desires – to let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like an unfailing stream. If we do not impede that flow, we will not be swept away in the flood that is coming. So may our feasts and solemn assemblies and offerings and oblations and sacrifices become pleasing to God, because they prompt and prepare us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

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