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"Out of the Ordinary: Good News..., for Whom?"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
July 21, 2019
1 Timothy 6:6-19; Amos 6:1-14
Call me Amos.
I could have stayed home, minding my own sheepherding business. I’m sure I’ll be misunderstood. Because what I have to say isn’t nice. But then I was reminded lately that “Nice people made the best Nazi’s. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly, and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”[i]
So, call me Amos, a resister. It’s actually against my nature. I’m what the enneagram theorists call a nine – a harmonizer, a peacemaker. I like it when people get along. I’m uncomfortable when there is awkward tension in the room. I want people to like me and to like each other. So, it’s hard for me to be not nice. Amos wasn’t nice. Amos was passionate and fully committed to the message that Y H W H – God who is Being itself – I AM Who I AM – had set upon his shoulders and his heart. Amos knew his message would not be easily received – much less heeded. So, he carefully crafted an argument that could not be refuted. He composed it of self-evident observable events and memories. He began with a condemnation of the atrocities of the neighboring nations – the ones upon whom God might have had mercy had they been guilty of three atrocities. But no, there were four! He crafted these fourth atrocities into an ethic describing the expectations of God’s favor. Treat people as bearers of the divine. Put human welfare before commercial gain. Promise only what is for the good of all. Bear no hatred in your heart toward those who seem different. Restrain your enjoyment in order to promote the enjoyment of all. Never seek revenge. These are the baggage that stand between us and the future – which is God’s favor.
Amos did this not because he claimed any special status. He did not inherit his calling from a long line of prophets. He did not claim a mystical vision in the transcendent presence of the divine like Ezekiel or Isaiah. He simply stepped out and said to the people and the leaders of the northern kingdom, “Wake up! Can’t you see what you are doing? Do you not understand the slippery path on which you tread? Can you not see where this is leading?” Amos indicts the leaders, the idle rich, but he pointedly includes the common and the poor among those who will suffer from the irreverence and the pride and the self-indulgence of the leaders. Commentator J. A. Motyer reminds us that “a leader is different only in position, responsibility, and risk, and not different in kind from others….”[ii]
What did Amos see on the horizon that could compel him so? An invading foe. Assyria was not the true foe – though it would soon rise to take advantage of the true foe that had already invaded the people whom God had sought to set as a lamp to the nations – a city on the hill – a shining example of excellence in devotion and righteousness. Motyer traces Amos’ argument through the middle third of Amos’ appeal. Amos “… is not concerned to act as a prognosticator but much more as an acute commentator on his own times. Therefore, he shows this [invading foe] in light of and caused by the existing social, personal, and religious conditions. [Amos] laid bare the inner motivation of self-pleasing as that which made them, socially, personally, and religiously, what they were and exposed them to the whole-hearted opposition of the Lord. … [And] what is more incredible to a religious people than that their religion exposes them to the wrath of God? [Amos] teaches that religion as they had organized it on the basis of self-pleasing is defective godward, lacking the vital component of … true repentance, and defective [hu]manward, lacking the fruits of righteousness in the worshipper and of justice towards others.”[iii]
The sixth chapter of Amos – which we have heard in its entirety today – is the climax of Amos’ indictment and warning – before he turns to the consequences and the slim, slight chance that God’s favor might return and the mercy of the Lion of Judah – YHWH – might prevail. “Their particular error was to isolate two components within the true religion which had been revealed to them and to act as if there was nothing else …: sincerity and ceremony. … But they treated the ceremonies as an end in themselves, done in and for the inherent, automatic benefits achieved by the ceremonial act, and they divorced them from their God-intended context in a life of moral obedience, righteous principle, and just conduct.”[iv]
The chapter is organized as a frame within a frame within a frame. Verse one wails woe to the self-important, luxuriating leaders who presume the safety and supremacy of their nation among lesser neighbors and in the shadow of a sleeping giant. It is paired at the end of the chapter with the declaration that God will raise a nation against them. The next inward frame describes supposed victories over neighbors, the justification for the leaders resting on their laurels and claiming the admiration of the nation. The next frame pairs practical absurdities with the leaders’ deliberate hastening of the day of violence. The next frame juxtaposes scenes of “… laziness, … gluttony, … frivolity, artificial … stimulation, and excessive personal vanity [with] that of ten men huddled together in the terror of siege conditions, ravaged by plague, mere skeletons of their former, well-padded selves.” [v] Nested at the center of this framework is the indictment that the leaders had so isolated themselves from human need – had abandoned their own humanity – that God, who chooses life, could no longer associate through them for the divine project of human flourishing. The foe of which Amos warns – complacency, pride, and self-pleasing – has already slipped in unnoticed and occupied the hearts of the people. Assyria will eventually merely be an opportunist.
We are tempted to take the uphill climb of this chapter as a checklist to see how we are doing. We ask, nervously, does this apply to us? Are we lying on ivory beds and reclining of couches? Do we dine on younglings, delicacies taken before their prime value? Do we pursue extravagant pleasures and fancy ourselves musicians like David? Do we drink fine wines by the bottle, and show no care for the ruin of the people? While most of us dabble in some of these, none of us do all these things. And yet, as a body, evidence is mounting that we do not show enough care for the ruin of creation. It would be such a relief if we could evade our complicity by laying this all at the feet of a leader, who we are fairly certain is described to a ‘T’ by Amos – or on the shoulders of a contingent of leaders whose own status is perversely enhanced by the degradation of those whom God has reserved an extra helping of grace – the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – or in the hearts of millions who are entertained by the worship of greatness and wealth and pride.
Motyer summarizes the lessons of history that Amos offers to “Joseph” – which is us – the body that has inherited Jacob’s favor. First, “We should never be satisfied with things as they are, for the simple reason that in every human relationship there are seeds and forces of disaster, and their most fertile breeding ground is complacent, self-satisfied leadership. … Secondly, the welfare of the fellowship must always take primacy over the pampering of the self…. There is a godly self-care without which we shall never be equipped, physically, mentally, or spiritually to care for anyone else, but there is an ungodly self-concern which progressively blinds us to the ruin of Joseph. … We are all ‘Josephs’ to each other, the objects of mutual care which should mark our fellowship….”[vi] The third lesson is that which is most famously formulated by the prophet Micah, but is present throughout the prophetic witness, and about which Jesus was partially referring when he claimed continuity with the prophets: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. “Of all sides to the question of walking with God, Amos focuses on one alone: God opposes the proud. … Finally, Amos brings before us the necessity to discern the things which are more excellent: the principle of placing moral considerations above everything else. It is not technology that makes fools of natural impossibilities, nor weaponry which extends or secures national frontiers, but the exactness of moral values, that decides welfare, continuity, and progress.”[vii]
In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Dr. King echoed Amos’ prioritizing of the exactness of moral values. “… over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” ….”[viii]
Beloved, it is time for us to take direct action in whatever form we can. The foe has already slipped in unnoticed and occupied the hearts of the people. There is hatred and xenophobia and scapegoat-ism rising, and we as followers of Jesus – “the brown-skinned Jewish rabbi preaching about the poor being blessed and the broken-hearted comforted” – we the Jesus people, must speak calmly and clearly and boldly. “Wake up! Can’t you see what you are doing? Do you not understand the slippery path on which you tread? Can you not see where this is leading?” When we hear “Send them home,” we must say, “We are more just, more kind, more humble with you here.” When we see the children sleeping on the concrete floor, we must raise our voice and say, “Let the children come, for to such belongs the realm of heaven.” When we see the welfare of the stranger sacrificed for our national security, greatness, and pride, we must write to our legislators, and register people to vote, and show up in the street and in front of the detention centers and concentration camps declaring, “We are here as an act of the unconditional love and expectation of justice that is written by God on our hearts.”
We can’t help it. We are compelled.
Call us Amos.
Call us Jesus.
Call us Love.
[ii] J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1974), 145.
[iii] Ibid., 139-140.
[iv] Ibid., 140-141.
[v] Ibid., 143.
[vi] Ibid., 145-146.
[vii] Ibid., 146-147.
[viii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” [https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html].