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Amos Again

So Amos was our guest minister again on Sunday. My flock might not have come if they knew that the words of this fiery prophet were going to be the text for our corporate reflection! We survived a tough bout of bad news from him in chapter seven a week ago I’m blaming my scripture selection on the lectionary schedule of readings. It gives Amos a couple of Sundays in the three year cycle to make his point so it seems only fair to listen! Besides, if you think this is tough stuff, read on in Hosea over the next two weeks and Amos’ pronouncements will seem almost cheery!

Brace yourself for what our liturgist read:

Chapter 8 This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. 2 “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.
“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.
Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
3 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing.[a] Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”
4 Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure,
boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
6  buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
7 The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
8 “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink
like the river of Egypt.
9 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.

Yikes.

I mean, “Thanks be to God?”
The opening image God offers him is of a bowl of fruit. How relevant for those of us enjoying a West Michigan summer! It’s a pleasant thought to sit down to a bowl of Traverse City cherries or Krupka raspberries or Robinette apples! But God crushes the joy out of that vision quickly and the fruit becomes a warning of impending doom. What appeared to be healthy and beautiful is now past its prime and rotting.

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“The end is near” is funny stuff for cartoonists. There’s one cartoon by Roy Delgado of two men in suits talking by a desk in an office. At the doorway is a shaggy prophetic-looking man holding a sign that says in large letters, “THE END IS NEAR.” Underneath the picture is what one of the executives is saying to the other: “The scary thing is he’s our CFO.” Another cartoon by Roz Chast depicts two individuals standing next to each other with picket signs. The disheveled man in a long robe has a sign that reads: THE END IS NEAR FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS. He appears to be talking angrily to a prim and proper woman who is holding a sign that says, THE END IS NEAR FOR ECOLOGICAL REASONS. Above the image is a heading that says, TURF WAR ON WEST 49TH STREET. “The End is Near” is fodder for comedians but it’s certainly not so funny for Amos and the 8th century Israelites. God levies charges at them through Amos, who picked the short straw and became the mouthpiece for an angry Deity!
What we gather from this passage is that there is a great divide between the rich and the poor. The rich live in the lap of luxury, exploiting the vulnerable for their own gain. The upper-income citizens assume that all is well. Those at the bottom are starving, abused, enslaved, trafficked and underpaid for their work. Amos makes a connection between God’s good gifts that the wealthy are hoarding and justice. The poor are not on the political agenda. Worse yet, their suffering has become normative. The culture believed that they were somehow deserving of their misery. Merchants are singled out as being particularly culpable in taking advantage of the peasants.  Forbidden from working during the Sabbath, the charge is made against them for breathlessly counting down until the Sabbath was over. Then they could jump right back into their crooked business tactics. They falsified their scales so that people paid more money for less product. (Remember when ice cream containers were a half gallon? Then the producers pulled one over on us by reducing the size but keeping the price the same? Genius! I like to think of the discussion that happens behind closed doors in darkly paneled board rooms where business execs talk in terms of ‘profit margin’ but never admit to deception!) As we sit here on a Sunday morning where do our thoughts wander? Does our worship on Sunday still speak to us on Monday morning or do we shelve our religion for the week, convinced that Christian rules don’t apply?
The prophet continues by naming the evil of buying human beings with silver or in exchange for a pair of sandals! The gap between rich and poor was so great in Biblical times that people had to sell themselves or their child into slavery to pay off a debt. Families were commonly broken up as the vulnerable were exploited. Jeffrey Epstein has been in the news the past couple of weeks. Perhaps you heard that he was denied bail and will not be able to enjoy house arrest in his $77 million Manhattan mansion. In unison we can all say, “Oh, toooo bad.” A man accused of trafficking dozens of teenaged girls actually has to sit in jail to await trial and sentencing. His crime seems unthinkable…and distant.

Yet not too far away we face our own harsh realities. Michigan is ranked tenth in the nation for human trafficking. Perhaps you remember the ad campaign about five years ago developed by the Kent County Human Trafficking Taskforce in which they had people look at a photograph of someone and describe what they imagined this person’s life was like. Volunteers assumed their lives were rich and full. In fact, each person pictured was a victim of human trafficking. Their story was hard. In the ad the volunteers were then led into a larger room where there was a huge billboard covered with photographs of individuals representing all the victims of this illicit but booming business in West Michigan. The ad showed people weeping as they took in the scope of this scourge in our community. One in three runaways will be approached in the first 48 hours on their own. One in six will become a victim. One in four are younger than 16. Amos makes the point that morality is, of necessity, tied to economics. Jesus knew that this was unwelcome news for the wealthy. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus preaches, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The reaction of his audience could easily be echoed by most of us. The text says that they were astounded and said, in essence, “Then what hope is there for any of us?!”

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America (2001). In it she reflects on her experience as a waitress: “The worst [patrons], for some reason, are the Visible Christians—like the ten-percent table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill.” Amos insists that morality and economics are inextricably linked!

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My email box popped up with a message for me: You have 5 repayments! It was from Kiva, an organization that makes micro-loans to people around the world. Six years ago I invested $100 in four $25 loans to women in different parts of the world. As these women repaid me, I was able to re-lend to others. Over the course of the past six years I’ve invested a total of $204 in 32 people living in 22 different countries. It doesn’t take much of my money to make a big difference in the lives of individuals across the globe. Guess how much money has been repaid by five grant recipients so far according to my email? All five totaled have reimbursed me $9.41. They struggle to put $2 toward the loan but they do it!  Economics and justice work hand-in-hand and it doesn’t take great wealth to make a difference!
Amos is asked to address a society where injustice has become normative. The kind of humane treatment God requires has become unimaginable. The guilty parties aren’t about to take this kind of criticism quietly. From the text we can imagine them starting to defend themselves: “How can we make a difference—the scale of the problem is so great?” “If it weren’t for me she would be living on the streets.” “He willingly came to me and is grateful for what I pay him.” God doesn’t want to hear it: “Be silent!” God is not finished yet with the accusations so they need to sit and listen. Willis Jenkins writes, “The prophet must find ways to silence languages of a people’s gods and goods long enough to let the words of justice be heard.” (Willis Jenkins, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 248).
What are the gods and goods we worship that blind us to the needs around us? What excuses do we make for filling our time with projects of personal improvement and pampering while ignoring the cries for help that surround us?
We aren’t accustomed to hearing this sort of message from our Sunday readings. I know folks who say they don’t like the Old Testament God. No wonder! But Amos would be the first to remind us that God corrects us out of love. God gives us a chance to turn our lives around but ultimately leaves us to our own devices. Our God loves us so much that there is no subject matter considered off limits when considering a holy lifestyle. We may prefer false gods because they will never tell us anything that we don’t want to hear. But they also don’t care about our well-being. They deceive us to earn our allegiance and then let us fall.
At the end of the passage from the eighth chapter God makes a surprising promise about the future of the doomed Israelites. God will send a famine not for food but of hearing the word of the Lord. People will wander great distances to hear from God but they will not succeed. They will be parched for the scriptures and guidance they offer. They will regret how they led their lives with no care for God’s rules. Psalm 42 reflects this yearning: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” In the 62nd psalm David cries out, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Are we living in a time of famine from hearing God’s Word? Is there a spiritual hunger that can’t be identified because Christians have either been loudly judgmental or silent about their faith convictions? Because we don’t want to be identified with another brand of Christianity, we often keep our love for Christ under wraps so as not to offend anyone? The people of Amos’ day learned that life in a world devoid of justice can drown out the sound of God’s Word.
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, three friends overhear laughter and riotous partying in the palace as those in power take advantage of their elevated rank. Marcellus proclaims to his friend, Horatio, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Is the fruit in our West Michigan bowl lush and juicy or is it overripe and rotting? Are our politics much different from the calloused elite of Amos’ time or the carousing body politic that Shakespeare mocked? Last I heard we have about two dozen Democratic contenders for the 2020 Presidential race ready to take on our sitting President. Sometimes we are inspired by a rousing speech of lofty ideals. Every now and then a politician puts the poor on the national agenda. But far too often it’s a free-for-all that reeks of mistruths, mud-slinging and carefully tailored posturing. Is there something rotten in our country today that we need to address? Have we ignored our spiritual needs for so long that we no longer recognize that our hunger is not for things or elevated positions or money? Willis Jenkins stated that Amos’ words “must silence society’s discrediting religious noise and political spin long enough for people to hear simple words of justice.”
Is that what we’re yearning to hear: simple words of justice? If Jesus Christ is our anchor in the crazy storms of our lives, shouldn’t we watch for opportunities to share that with others who may not even know what they’re missing? Isn’t that what we cling to when we hear our leaders authentically speak of compassion for the least of these and reverence for God first and foremost?

My brother and his 15-year old son are doing a college tour and stopped this past week at the Library of Congress to dig through their records. They found what they were looking for: a prayer my father offered to open up the Senate on April 5, 1984. My father, a career Air Force Chaplain, was stationed at Langley Air Base in Virginia and got to know Senator Mark Hatfield. Hatfield invited him to give the opening blessing for the dealings of our politicians on that particular day. I find his words to be remarkably relevant to our country’s challenges and blessings now. And so I close with the Word of the Lord as shared by my father 35 years ago in our nation’s capitol:

ETERNAL GOD, CREATOR AND SUSTAINER OF EACH PERSON AND EACH NATION, WE BOW TO ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR SOVEREIGNTY OVER US AS A PEOPLE. WE KNOW THAT WHATEVER WE DO THAT IS NOT WITHIN YOUR WILL IS FUTILE AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. WE KNOW AS WELL THAT THAT WHICH IS YOUR WILL FOR US ABOUNDS BEYOND OUR WILDEST HOPES. YOUR REVELATION OF YOURSELF TO US HAS BEEN ENOUGH THAT WE KNOW QUITE WELL WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE US DO. WE UNDERSTAND THE GOALS THAT YOU HAVE SET BEFORE US. WE HAVE ARTICULATED THEM IN MAJESTIC TERMS IN OUR NATIONAL DOCUMENTS. SO WE DO NOT SO MUCH PRAY FOR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING AS WE DO FOR COURAGE TO DO THAT WHICH WE ALREADY COMPREHEND. HAVING RECEIVED YOUR DIRECTIONS FOR OUR LIVES, LET US HAVE THE HUMILITY TO PUT ASIDE SELFISH GOALS IN PREFERENCE FOR THOSE UNSELFISH ONES WHICH BEST SERVE YOUR KINGDOM. IF WE CAN DO THAT, THEN WE SHALL BE KNOWN NOT FOR PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT, BUT FOR THE SHARED GOOD OF ALL OUR PEOPLE, AND THROUGH THEM, THE WELL-BEING OF THE WIDE WORLD AROUND US. IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST I PRAY. AMEN. (Colonel Chaplain James W. Chapman)

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34 Years

I take the dog out to do his business. To give him some privacy (as if he cares) I look at my flower garden. There’s a spectacular rotation of flowers that bloom in succession all summer. I admire whatever species is showing off their true colors. But then my eyes are drawn to the weeds. I am never done weeding the garden in the front of my house. I have labored for three hours at a stretch, pulling up unwanted growth and I’m still not done. I have hearty grass that grows remarkably well amidst my flowers. It’s almost healthier than the grass in our cultivated lawn. How is it that a species we intentionally plant fares so much better in places where it is unwanted? I’ve tried to grow sunflowers before, pushing black seeds into the soil in a nice straight row. The sun shines. The rain falls. Prayers are offered. Nothing! But the black oil sunflower seeds that the birds devour at my feeder fall to the ground and take root before the birds find them in their relocation! I learned long ago that my efforts at producing growth cannot be matched by God’s coaxing of all things beautiful!

garden
So I arrive home from a fantastic anniversary dinner in which we celebrated my husband’s and my 34 years of wedded bliss. Part of the jubilant reunion that happens with our dog every time we come home is he bounds out the front door to see what’s new. The sun is long in the sky during our West Michigan summers so there’s still light at 9PM that allows me to check out my flowers. There are a few milkweed stalks I’ve been meaning to pull so, while Hunter sniffs for rabbits, I start weeding. Before I know it, I’m deep into the colorful growth, bending over and uprooting enemy plants. I can’t help myself! It’s as if the weeds taunt me and I cannot look away! For our dinner at a nice restaurant I put on white capris, a gauzy blouse and white leather oxfords. This is not an ideal outfit for getting down and dirty in the war against weeds. What started as pulling a few milkweed stalks near the sidewalk’s edge has become a hunt for infiltrators in the deep recesses of my garden. This is no place for white pants or polished nails. Alas! I cannot turn back!


My husband and I have a tradition of sharing what we appreciate about each other at our anniversary dinner. This is something we developed as part of our joint pre-marital counseling sessions we led when we shared a ministry position the first two years of our marriage. We would say to the groom, “Tell your fiancée what you appreciate about her, taking your time and listing whatever you can think of.” The first groom we ever counseled couldn’t come up with anything. It’s a good thing we did those early pre-marital sessions together because I was so stunned that Garrett had to coax him along. Finally, after some hypothetical suggestions, he shrugged and said, “She’s normal.” We learned years later that their marriage did not survive. Hmmm.


So what may have been a trite exercise for the couples we counseled has become something we happily adopted. I usually start it off and Garrett remembers that this is our custom. It’s seldom new things that we share with each other. But I certainly never tire of praise and I don’t think he does either. We walk slowly through the garden of our marriage, looking at the variety of blooms that have put down roots over the years. Some of these attributes surfaced only after a time of trial: a career shift, a miscarriage, the loss of a parent, a diagnosis of cancer. God walks with us through this garden of marriage and introduces some of the most beautiful species that arrive in response to our troubles. The vows we so blithely invoked at the altar take on life as time rolls by. Each year is a unique growing season. The weeds are thick in some seasons and require our attention. Other years a breathtaking bloom arrives, perhaps in the form of a child. We’re excited about the arrival of our first grandchild this September and know that our marriage will take on new color when we meet this tiny member to our family!


There are a couple of invasive vines that are thriving in our yard this year. As I pull on them I hope that they’re not rash-inducing! My father-in-law was always able to identify floral foe versus friend as our Botanist-in-Residence. I miss him as I navigate the dense plant growth, remembering how he embraced me as a daughter from the time Garrett first brought me to their home. The vines aggressively put down roots as they stretch across my flower bed. They entwine themselves around lily stalks, threatening to encase the long buds before they can open. I have to carefully unwind them and follow the vine back to the place where it originates. My gauzy anniversary dinner blouse has small seed pods all over it, clinging to me with an inborn hope to travel to another garden where they might propagate their invasive species anew! As darkness finally threatens, I realize that I have gone way too far in my impromptu weeding project. I have to fight my way out of the flowerbed. I’ve collected a sizable pile of defeated weeds that will have to be carried off to the woods when I’m not wearing white pants and shoes.

It’s perhaps fitting to pull weeds on our anniversary. Even as we lavish praise on each other for the gifts we freely offer the other, we recognize that we have to work against forces that undermine our relationship. In the United Church of Christ wedding prayer I think of the line, “Defend them from all enemies of their love…” It’s a beautiful prayer and I think newlyweds underestimate the power of that particular petition. There are enemies to our committed love: workaholism, financial instability, changing priorities, the demands of children, inattention to the need for romance and renewal. In addition to inviting couples in our premarital counseling sessions to tell each other what they appreciate about each other, we asked them to share what they need from their betrothed. We learn very quickly in our marriages how important it is to be able to articulate our needs. This is one way we weed our gardens. If an enemy to our love is not identified and eradicated, it will travel alongside of our relationship, putting down roots every step of the way and eventually choking out the beauty. We are never done weeding. The daunting challenge of reclaiming my flower bed this summer is greater than ever because I traveled all last summer and the weeds marched forth unabated amidst my perennials. If we take time off from our marriage, whether a mental or physical absence, we pay the price later with the enemies who are always ready to distract us away from our love.


So I hadn’t planned to weed my garden after my anniversary dinner. I simply took the dog out and found myself drawn to the beauty of God’s creation that is going crazy in my front yard. And when invasive vines and tough grass try to stifle that growth, I can’t help myself. I go to work to remove the threats. I dig. I yank. I collect and toss to the side. I will not let the enemy multiply unchallenged! Perhaps it was the most fitting activity for me to mark 34 years next to the man I love? The white pants can be washed, after all.

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Bad News

I’m afraid it’s all bad news today. If you’ve been searching for that scripture passage that speaks of hellfire and damnation, Amos hands it to you in the seventh chapter! “Thus saith the Lord…” rolls off the tongue of the prophet and we brace for the charges levied our way. The prophet Amos calls out to us from the 8th century BCE, catching us in the net he set for the wayward Israelites. It’s an uncomfortable text that forces us to reflect on the chasm between judgement and grace. Is God all merciful, abounding in steadfast love for us? Or is God angry at our sinfulness and ready to smite us for our transgressions? We squirm in our seats and wonder how much of his harsh message from chapter seven is meant for us:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.

 

10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
    and Israel must go into exile
    away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am[a] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am[b] a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

16 “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
    and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

 

We are a vindictive society. Law suits are levied for exaggerated infractions. There’s always someone else to blame and we don’t hesitate to do so! But we’re very slippery when accusations fly our way. We dodge bullets and defend ourselves against blame. “Who are you to judge me?”, we yell at the office mate who criticizes our business ethics. We have bought into the myth that we are answerable to no one. We operate with no one daring to critique our choices. We feel particularly deserving of immunity from God’s judgement. Why have younger generations left the church? “It’s too judgemental” they proclaim as they head to Founder’s Brewery to badmouth their lousy boss or ex-girlfriend. Many of us grew up in an age when Mrs. Johnson down the block had just as much right to correct our bad behavior as our own moms. Those days are long gone and today’s Ms. Johnson is likely to find herself a defendant in a lawsuit if she dares to discipline even a neighborhood bully!

In the 8th century BCE Israel lived in relative peace and prosperity. The Assyrians were the super power that was crushing nations to expand their turf. But the Israelites were a tiny group who were sure that they would be overlooked as insignificant. It’s easy to be seduced by the status quo when you’re able to enjoy lemonade on your front porch. Who needs God when your paycheck covers your expenses and your children are thriving?

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In plucking Amos from obscurity and sending him out as a prophet, God was stirring up the placid waters of Israelite daily life and calling for reform. He used the image of the plumb line which relies on the natural force of gravity to determine uprightness. Gravity is a non-negotiable, God-given force that aids us in building homes that do not lean like the Tower of Pisa. Amos used this image to inform the self-satisfied Hebrews that they had come “out of true” as a nation. Like the Prodigal Son who spent his father’s money on all forms of debauchery, the Jews had no understanding of what deep and murky waters they were treading.

We have four characters in this historical narrative. Amos was the prophet chosen by God to be the Divine mouthpiece to a wayward people. Amaziah was the priest hired by the King to take care of sacred duties at the palace. He was, therefore, a powerful priest who admirably ingratiated himself with the royal court. He was more politician than priest and knew the provenance of his paycheck. If God and the King called out to him at the same time, guess whose summons he would most likely obey? We have King Jereboam, a King to the Israelites who was understood to be the monarch of God’s choosing. The expectation is that he would lead the people in a practice of daily piety through his own personal example. He was only in the shadows in this story but we can tell that he had power and wasn’t afraid to use it. Finally we have the nation of the Israelites whose spiritual life had slacked off to a point of being judges of their own lives, accountable to no one. The story takes place in Bethel which was akin to the National Cathedral for the Northern tribes. It was a place of intricate collusion between the religious and political aspects to the Jewish nation.

A prophet is someone who sees what others cannot or will not see. A prophet names reality no matter the cost to him or herself. Amos was that person and he told the Royal Priest, Amaziah, that bad things were about to happen. The good times were about to end, starting with the King down to the lowliest peasant. Amos announced that God’s patience had come to an end. If the people had been so spectacular in their ability to ignore God for years, then God was going to hand them the reins to direct their own destiny. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” right?!? Prophets are the plumb line who determine the extent to which the community has gone spiritually off course. It would be as if an insider on Capitol Hill proclaimed into the microphone, “God curse America.” Yikes! No matter how messed up the nation, that’s not going to get you re-elected! Remember how quickly presidential candidate Barack Obama separated himself from his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Video footage of the U.C.C. pastor surfaced in which he gave precisely that message but with stronger language. The context for the proclamation was never probed. It was preached in an African American church where the Chicago parishioners knew all too well the discriminatory tendencies of the police force and politicians. This was long before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the singing of the National Anthem to bring attention to unequal treatment of the races in our country. Our nation has been broken for a long time with factions who try to yell over each other.

Will Willimon spoke of a time his congregations brought in an expert to better understand the membership decline in their parish. His summary evaluation was along the lines that every organization is full of fear and leaders must face the fear and tell the truth. He writes, “A leader must put an organization in pain that it has been avoiding at all costs. The leader tells the truth out of faith that the organization already has the needed resources to face facts.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 224.)

Amos’ message was wildly unpopular with Amaziah who went to the King to tell him that Amos needed to be banished from the kingdom. He was making terrible predictions about the future of the king and the country. Amaziah told Amos to go to another town to do his little prophetic dog and pony show because they didn’t want to hear it in Bethel. Unintimidated, Amos reminded powerful Amaziah that he was not getting a paycheck for delivering this bad news. In fact, he was, by profession, a shepherd and arborist. God had plucked him up from work he loved and commissioned him for the holy task of telling unpopular news to those who didn’t want to hear it. He ended his speech by mapping out in horrifically graphic detail how Amaziah’s family was going to fall apart, lose their land and all of Israel would be overtaken. They would be marched off as prisoners to a foreign land. While this may not have worked well to earn Amos the Toastmaster’s top award, they must have remembered his words when all of this came true within a matter of years.

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Our own national prophet, Martin Luther King, claimed Amos as a colleague. In Amos 5:24 the unwanted prophet told the people what God wanted from them: “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This became Rev. King’s challenge to our nation. When you’re out of alignment the solution is to right the wrongs faced by people in much more dire straits than your own. Take on a cause that is bigger than your personal comfort. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages (such as Tekoa) and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns…I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.”    [Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 77-100.]

True prophets are hand-picked by God, not self-appointed. It has nothing to do with pedigree or power, alma mater or beauty. What matters to servants like Amos and Dr. King is that the call originates with God. Few of us in the ministry yearn to pronounce unpopular messages to folks sitting happily in their Tommy Bahama chaise by the pool, sipping umbrella drinks. There is angst that comes with the territory of being a prophet because people want grace extended always and at all cost! But how far should grace stretch? We wrestle with that when our teenaged children rebel and insist on their own path that is not aligned with ours. Some of us know the agony of ending a marriage because we’ve reached the limit of how far grace can and should extend. Is it unloving of God to judge against a wayward nation who doesn’t give a thought toward their Creator? Should God always excuse those who are so inwardly focused that they refuse to notice the needs of those around them? The Apostle Paul probed the elasticity of grace in his letter to the Romans: “What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”

For many of us we assume that ours is a God of grace. No matter our sin, God is always quick to forgive. The bad news from Amos is that God’s patience runs out. Or is that bad news? Do we correct our children so that they will find deeper joy by following rules that work toward their well-being? What happens when a spoiled child goes to kindergarten assuming that everyone’s effort and attention should revolve around her? She’s eaten alive by kids who, at the very least, begin to avoid her and probably take delight in knocking her off her pedestal.

selective focus photography of three disney princesses figurines on brown surface
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A loving God corrects us, points out where our foundation no longer supports us, calls us to leave our sin behind for an ordered life. Few of us want our faults to be named. Fewer still want to do the hard work of changing. But the good news is that God sends folks with their “Thus saith the Lord” messages. Their words land in our hearts as if custom-tailored to our needs. They call us, correct us, encourage us if we’ll listen. And when God shows up with answers, we, like Amos, are sent out with our own proclamations about God’s will. God holds a plumb line up to our lives. We hold a plumb line up to our communities and do the hard work of naming realities so that wrongs can be righted. When we are called from our mundane tasks to effect holy change, we partner with God so as to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It doesn’t sound like such bad news after all!

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A Theology of Awe

AAA reported that 49 million Americans were expected to leave home to celebrate our nation’s independence this past weekend. That’s a mass migration! Miraculously some of our church folks stayed home and marked the holiday weekend with a joint worship service uniting three congregations. There were no red solo cups for our communion celebration but we had some out for the potluck that followed the service!

On July 3 I traveled down to my family’s cottage just south of Saugatuck on Lake Michigan. My brother and his family were spending the week there so I joined them for an evening. Upon arrival I approached the bluff, bracing myself for what I would see. Over the winter the bottom flight of stairs to the beach were torn away, destabilizing the rest of the structure. A storm about three weeks ago destroyed our neighbor’s stairs so that no one on our stretch of the lake has access to the beach.

stairs to beach

 

In the early 80’s lake levels were high. We built our cottage in 1974 but the eroded bluff forced us to move a three-story A-frame back through the woods to a secure setting. We have been spoiled with relatively stable lake levels for 25 years but that ended this past winter. I looked over the bluff to see new trees that have fallen down. The lake laps menacingly at the base of our property. Real estate washes out with each wave and the promise is that the lake will continue to rise. Our neighbors to the south are banding together to place huge boulders at the base of their bluff as a protective seawall. I wished them well but said that we weren’t planning to attempt any intervention with Mother Nature. My parents paid for a seawall when we moved the house back in the 80’s and it had minimal effect. We’ve learned to have a respectful awe for God’s creation, discerning when we can impact our surroundings and when we cannot. The very water that has drawn my family to the Saugatuck area since the 1890’s is now an aggressive force tearing at our land. The lake is always awe-inspiring–sometimes in very different ways.

So where are you going on vacation this year? What attracts you to your vacation spot? When I meet with families to plan the funeral for a loved one I ask them about their memories with this person. Inevitably stories surface about moments that took place on the lakefront, at the cabin, fishing with grampa, spending the night on the boat, cooking s’mores over a campfire. In these settings the usual chores are put on hold. The distractions from the demand of job and home ownership are minimized. Kids get the undivided attention of the adults in their lives. There is a reverence toward this more intimate interaction with God’s creation. These moments fill our cup—for a lifetime!

In the patriotic songs that we sang in worship yesterday I heard a theology of awe. A breakdown of the word “theology” is “Theo” = God and “ology”= study of. A theologian studies God. So a theology of awe could be understood as Godly reflections on awe. We choose to live in places that inspire us. We pick vacation spots because they take our breath away. Some of our church folks just returned from a mission trip to Honduras and the beauty of the land and people indelibly marked them! When God shows up we can expect to be awestruck.

Psalm 60 addresses an era of divine rejection by the Israelites. Consequently a divine anger shook the land. God’s people experienced desperate times because they were relying on their own strength. This psalm marks a turning point because the next 12 psalms showcase an increased reliance on God and a widened inclusion of all the peoples of the earth. Rather than rejecting God, Psalms 65-68 urge believers to praise the One whose goodness will inspire awe in those near and far.

windmill and flowers

We focused in worship on Psalm 65. It’s a perfect companion to the beloved hymn, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Psalm 65 has three segments. Verses 1-4 offer praise to God for the gift of forgiveness. Verses 5-8 give praise for God’s stabilizing power. Verses 9-13 celebrate the blessings of the land.

The first segment begins with Zion and ends with a reference to the holy temple. From whence does our awe originate? It derives from our relationship with God and the community of faith. Zion, as Jerusalem was called, was the place where Israel’s religious and political hopes converged. There was no separation of church and state. It was a natural marriage for the Jews and Jerusalem was the locus of their devotion. The writer of this psalm states, “…to you shall vows be performed…” What vows do we make to God? With baptism, confirmation and new membership into a congregation, we take vows. When we get married in a Christian ceremony, we take vows to love each other out of an overarching love for God. What vows do we fulfill as Christians—in our homes, offices, neighborhoods, church meetings, interaction over the fence with our neighbor who consistently plays loud music on their back deck all summer long? What promises do we understand that we have made as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?

In this psalm the writer acknowledges our sinful nature: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.” In more modern language it might sound like this: “When we’ve blown it predictably and again, you forgive us! Amazing!” The writer goes on to state that those invited to live in the temple, where God was understood to dwell, will be blessed. There could be no better place to live. Psalm 84 describes the yearning to be with God: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of the wicked.” In other words, I would rather stand all day as an usher at our poorly ventilated church, welcoming people for prayer than drink margaritas belly-up to the bar in the coolness of air conditioning with scheming pals! Right?? Right!

The second segment of Psalm 65 praises God for the awesome deeds that deliver us from our troubles. The places we seek out for vacation show off God’s power. Sometimes we travel far from home and discover that even those who live on the other side of the earth are filled with awe at their slice of creation! But awe does not take away the challenges of each day. The water levels rise. Wars are fought. Relationships are fractured. Migrants flee and a nation reacts. Amidst all this tumult, God shows up as a the Great Stabilizer! This reminds us that we are NOT the ones in charge gives us both hope and joy.

We hear this awe for displays of God’s power in the hymns we sing around this time of year:

My native country, thee/Land of the noble free/Thy name I love;/I love thy rocks and rills/Thy words and templed hills;/My heart with rapture thrills/Like that above. (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on. (The Battle Hymn of the Republic)

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way; thou who has by thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray…  (Lift Every Voice and Sing)

The last segment of the Psalm offers praise for the blessings of the land. God’s provision is celebrated and the images given of God as caretaker of the earth still resonate with us: rivers, rain, ridges, grain; hills and valleys, pastures, flocks. Together all of creation sings out praise for the Creator who so abundantly meets our every need. The land throws a party in response to God’s grace. Picture the team that has just won the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series: victorious players spill out onto the field and what do they do? They grab each other, jump up on each other. Grown men hop up and down, up and down! Some fall to their knees and raise their hands and faces heavenward in an act of praise. These images of victory are fitting as we imagine the joyful chorus that sings God’s praise from every corner of the globe.

soccer team victory

This psalm was probably used by the Hebrew people as a liturgy for national thanksgiving for a rich harvest. For much of their history the Jews didn’t have their own land. When they were able to build homes and plant fields in the Promised Land, they had much to celebrate! It’s interesting to note that their thanksgiving begins with repentance. Theologian Walter Brueggeman interprets this psalm for us: “Let us not miss the dramatic claim. The whole people (together with the kings, presumably) concedes its guilt and celebrates its forgiveness. Such a scene is nearly unthinkable in our public life…Psalm 5 reflects a public imagination capable of a troubled spirit, not so full of self, but able to reflect on its life in light of the majesty of God, a community forgiven and therefore ready to begin afresh…If we were to use this psalm, we might reflect on the dimensions of guilt which vex public life, e.g., colonialism, exploitative economics, or misuse of the ecosystem of creation. Our public life is not lacking material for such a liturgical act…”  (Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms, p. 135.)

Can you imagine us doing that sort of corporate confession on the Fourth of July, beginning with our President, Congress, the Supreme Court and our local elected officials? The Jews, whose political and religious life were inextricably tied together, knew that confession cleared the way for awe which brought hope in the most difficult circumstances. Inasmuch as we can acknowledge that it is truly and solely in God that we trust as a nation, the well-being of every person who lives in our alabaster cities and purple mountains majesty is assured. But if, as is increasingly evident, it is in national pride, partisan politics, and personal greed that we place our trust, we will lose our ability to sing songs of praise to the God who shaped such a beautiful country that we call home.

When the British government was putting together a worship service for the “victory” of World War II, Archbishop Temple wanted to begin the service with the words, “Our spirits are troubled.” No hopping up and down. No excessive celebration of the sidelines because of a military triumph. Rather a humbling before the God of all nations that acknowledged our corporate sin. Brueggeman assures us that Psalm 5 is instructive to us because it “reflects a public imagination capable of a troubled spirit, not so full of self, but able to reflect on its life in light of the majesty of God, a community forgiven and therefore ready to begin afresh.” (Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms, page 135.)

On this holiday weekend we celebrate the presence and provision of God in a country that fills us with wonder in so many ways. As we head to cabins and boats, campers and parks this summer we do so as followers of Jesus who are willing to confess, repent and wildly rejoice in the gift of being forgiven! Forgiveness fills us with awe and that is what will make us noteworthy among the nations!