Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Out of the Ordinary: Seek the Lord and LIVE!

Clarke Fitzgerald's The Plumb-line and the City


"Out of the Ordinary: Seek the Lord and LIVE!"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

July 7, 2019 

Amos 5:6-15; Luke 18:18-30





The opening image of the book of the prophet Amos is the lion. Amos says, “YHWH roars from Zion.” Zion is the comprehensive image of the seat of the God of the Hebrew covenant. Physically it is associated with Jerusalem and its temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant in the rocky high country of the southern kingdom of Judah. The image of Zion encompassed the ideals and aspirations of the Hebrew people a little like the image of Columbia the Gem of the Ocean encompassed the ideals and aspirations of the founders of our nation. The people of the covenant did not always heed the roar of the Lion of Judah, just as we do not always live up to the ideals we espouse in our nation. In our case, we like to sum up those ideals and aspirations with the bold phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Would that we lived up to them. We might then live up to the claim that we are a Christian nation – or at least a nation favored by God.
One of the curious and unique aspects about the Hebraic headwaters of our faith is the prophetic tradition. Some scholars claim that the Hebrew prophets alone represent critique of a religious tradition in its holy scriptures from within. This aligns with the assertion today that true patriotism not only allows but demands a critical voice – the voice that brings us back again and again to evaluate our fidelity to the ideals we claim. Are living up to them meaningfully and comprehensively? How much is enough? The Hebrew prophets, in most cases, operated in much the same way as other walks of life – handed down from parent to child, inherited generation after generation. The prophets were generally considered scholars – not quite priestly, but with special access to the halls of power, and special protections from prosecution for speaking truth to power.
The case of Amos is a little different. Amos is introduced to us as a sheep breeder – a simple nomadic herdsman – though this may be either an exaggeration of his modesty or even a claim to an association with the House of David. Later, in the seventh chapter of nine, we learn that Amos does not come from a prophetic line or school. From this we gather that the message from God must have been especially compelling. Amos was driven to convey it despite the lack of the usual protections. Further, the message drove him from his own people in the Southern Kingdom to deliver dire warnings to the leadership of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. Amos carries with him the roar of YHWH – asserting God’s sovereign rule over and above the authority of mere nations.
“The lion metaphor, of course, speaks of judgment, and [Amos’] series of oracles serves to show at point after point the things that come under the divine displeasure.”[i] We don’t much like judgement, especially when we suspect it is justified. Prophets like Amos are part of the reason most people would just as soon forget about the bulk of the Hebrew Bible. From our vantage point, all this judgement seems to contradict the claim that God is self-giving and abiding in steadfast love. However, Amos’ opening invocation of the name of God serves as a reminder of just who this God is. This is the God who stoops to enter covenant with a landless, wandering tribe – a tribe that wanders into captivity and, when liberated, wanders into idolatry.
This Y H W H God remembers, even when we forget, that in the opening report of creation, God declares every day good. It is good, it is good, it is good, it is good, it is good. And the day on which we are created in the divine image God declares, “It is very good!” This is God in whom we can and do trust. And though Amos and his people do not know it yet, this is the God who – even after the people’s idolatry and infidelity – will pull up stakes and follow them into captivity and exile once again.
Amos’ point seems to be that “the face which God turns to the world is predominantly one of mercy, that [judgement] comes, when it comes at all, late and overdue…, it is accompanied by the tears of God…. The God of Amos is a God of patient, moral providence.”[ii] God, after all, has sent this warning through Amos, and even God will not controvert the natural consequences of informed, calculated, deliberate evil.
Amos carefully lays out the nature of those evils over the course of two chapters, detailing the atrocities of six nations. In each case he announces three atrocities, but then, as if to say God might consider merciful intervention to deliver that nation from its predicament of just three atrocities, he says, “No! even four!” A careful eye will discern the defining last straw in each case. The nations Amos names are not so relevant to us as are the fourth atrocities – the unredeemable broken relationships. J. A. Motyer, in his commentary on Amos, and on which I am leaning heavily, summarizes:
“The spotlight falls not on what [the nations] may or may not have done in relation to God, but what they have done [person to person]: barbarity…, pitiless slave trading involving total populations…, promise breaking…, unnatural and persistent hatred…, and finally, sickening atrocities against the helpless…, and the dead. … In the case of the first two, nothing is stated except the fact of gross cruelty; the next pair, however, strike a rather different note in linking themselves together by the word ‘[sibling]’; and the final pair, associated as they are by contrasting ideas of destroying the future (as represented by the unborn children) and desecrating the past, are firmly linked by bringing before us two categories of [altered agency], the pregnant woman and the dead body. Thus we may say that Amos first examines violations of the general relationships of life, human being to human being, then the particular responsibilities of life, [sibling to sibling], and finally the special claims of life, the attitude of the strong to the weak. In this way he speaks out on six basic principles of human conduct.”[iii]
When the ruler comes to Jesus seeking the secret of eternal life, Jesus cites not the commandments regarding the relations between God and humanity, but the commandments regarding the relations between fellow human beings. The core of the ethic which both Amos and Jesus convey is that God’s favor, Amos warns, will never come to the Northern Kingdom if they maintain their evil ways, and eternal life, Jesus warns, cannot come to the regime which cannot put down the weight of its holdings in order to follow Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. Eternal life – that is God’s favor – is to live the ethic I summarize in this phrase: Whatever I enjoy, I must seek for the other to enjoy.
Amos says, to retain God’s favor:
·      people are not to be treated as things;
·      human welfare supersedes commercial profit;
·      no pledged word is negotiable for the sake of self-interest or self-advantage;
·      hatred of “the other” is inadmissible in the human heart;
·      personal ambition must be limited by the rights of the helpless; and
·      vengeance must be renounced.
Jesus says, to live the life eternal, remove the impediments to the fulfilment of life for all – the thriving enjoyment of everything that life has to offer. He doesn’t mean all should be rich, or that all should become destitute, but that whatever holds you back, weighs you down, impedes your following of the way of Jesus – the forgiveness-generosity-hospitality-inclusion-and-justice way of Jesus – give it up.
Set it down.
Take a load off.
It’s likely that the ruler’s possessions – his inherited wealth – contributed to the very atrocities that Amos specifies as impediments to life. I suspect also that by placing an unspecified “ruler” in this conversation with Jesus, the writer of Luke is passing judgement on the unholy alliance of the occupying regime and the complicit local leaders. It’s not just “a ruler” who thinks he has earned eternal life – it is a system of domination and control that expects to rule forever simply by inheriting wealth and adhering to the rule of law. Jesus says, in effect, “You can keep all the rules and still miss the point.”


But how much is enough? How much do we need to give up, set down, unload? That’s the question we ask ourselves when confronted with Amos’ condemnation and Jesus’ seemingly impossible “one last thing that is required.” How much is enough to live according to the ethic of Amos and Jesus? Last Sunday, I served the community meal. The night before I received a call from a wealthy acquaintance on the island who had hosted a catered party. They had far too much very tasty food. Did I know someone who could use it? So, after worship last Sunday, some friends of his brought it over so I could heat it up and serve it. It was good. It was very good. The guests at last Sunday’s meal enjoyed what I enjoy and what my wealthy, generous friend enjoys. At the conclusion of the meal, one of the guests offered this comment. “You really should offer Dijon mustard. Some people don’t like yellow mustard.”
My first thought was something like this: “Who do you think you are?! I just served you a free, ample, tasty, high quality meal. And you don’t like the mustard? You should be happy – not critical.”
Then I thought again. My wealthy friend who donated the meal was much closer to eternal life than I was. He gave it away. The least I could do would be to offer some Dijon mustard – which I also enjoy more than yellow mustard.
Amos’ evaluation of the atrocities of Israel, and his ethic of respect and regard for the enjoyment of all members of God’s beloved community is established in the first quarter of the book. The point is that to seek justice and compassion IS to seek I AM WHO I AM – I AM BECOMING WHO I AM BECOMING. So, when we get to the second half of Amos – here in chapter five – we are ready to receive his advice for how to please a rightfully disappointed God. “Seek the Lord and live!” He has already spelled out what this means. 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.
Selling all you have and giving it to the poor may in fact be the entry fee for your eternal life – I doubt it. However, everyone’s “entry fee” is specific to the one seeking God’s favor – to their capacity. In the case of the ruler, it’s what stands between him and the one thing Jesus says is missing – to follow Jesus’ way – to seek the Lord, and live. What stands in your way? How much is enough – for you?


[i] J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1974), 25.
[ii] Ibid., 30.
[iii] Ibid., 37-39.

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