Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Proper 8, July 1, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Amos 5 and 6 and Acts 7:37-60

Before I get into the Old Testament reading, I want to talk a bit about the prophets. We are looking at the prophets this summer; the Old Testament ones. We started with Jonah and today we move into Amos. We are going chronologically, with Jonah and Amos about 760 BCE and we will keep moving through time. Prophets are interesting because their time and their texts are more than 2,500 years old, from a long time ago and yet they are eerily contemporary. Even though their times technologically, socially, culturally, religiously, so different than our time, but what the prophets are talking about is so contemporary. Because even though much has changed, what we as humans fall into sin-wise remains about the same: abuses of power, forgetting to help our neighbors, etc.

So we are looking at prophets, and I want to address today, What is a prophet? I’ve mentioned this word a lot, and we don’t talk much aboiut wha a prophet is. But a prophet is someone who has been called by God to preach God’s word. To speak God’s word. It takes a calling from God and recognition from one’s community. Though prophets are generally, at the time they are alive and preaching, rejected by the community. That’s part of our sinful human nature, is that we don’t like people who speak the truth. We like the mythic, fictional worlds we build for ourselves. And so prophets are often not seen as prophets in their own time. It’s a generation or two later when people look back and say “Wow, that guy Amos or that guy that Jonah, or that guy Isaiah, really knew what he was talking about and we should have listened, so let’s call him a prophet.”

Think of a modern day one would be Martin Luther King, Jr. Think of the situation he was in: hated by many, mistrusted by many, mistrusted by people in the church and by people in the government. He was under surveillance, watched over, not particularly cared for. And eventually he was assassinated. And yet now looking back we recognize who he was, and so now we have a holiday named after him and we just built a beautiful new memorial in his honor in Washington, DC, the capitol, where his surveillance was initially sprouted from. And his monument is set up in a way that it points to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, tying those two together.

So a prophet is one who is called by God to speak God’s word. But not in a ritualistic way. The priests still were in charge of the rituals, the sacrifices, the prayers, all the stuff that had to be done in the Temple. And the priests were hereditary group. They were all the tribe of Levi. Prophets could come from anywhere. God called whoever God wanted to be a prophet. And they had the vocation of calling people to faithfulness. To greater faithfulness. And they did so with words and with symbolic actions, and we will hear from other prophets about they symbolically did things to preach God’s word as well as doing it with the words of their mouths.

They are often speaking specifically to political leaders and religious leaders, because they’re the people who had power. And they are the people who were abusing it, and they are the people who are not being faithful. Either leading people astray, or not following God’s command to be just. They were, in fact, often living against word. They were being unjust toward the poor, the orphans, widows, dispossessed, foreigners, immigrants, all the folks on the bottom. The prophets are speaking to the people who have power, because the ones with power are the ones called to a higher ethic. And they most often failed to live up to God’s command to make sure to take care of those who don’t have power: those at the bottom. They had a very special mandate from God to take care of those people, and they weren’t.

And also prophets spoke and preached to the people because there was a lot of going after other gods: the neighboring gods, the gods of the people they had conquered, even within the country of Israel. And the religious leaders were keeping up much of the ritual stuff that needed to be done: the sacrifices, the prayer, but it wasn’t going into their daily life. It wasn’t affecting how they lived as a community. So that’s what our prophets are speaking out against for the most part. It’s the lack of justice and charity toward the poor and dispossessed. Empty because their lives didn’t show any sense that such rituals had meaning to them. They were doing, on good days, the superficial but visible and easy parts of the faith, but not the stuff that matters: justice, righteousness, mercy, helping the poor and needy, not taking bribes, not using unbalanced scales when weighing things at the market, not charging interest ... like reducing Christianity to showing up for worship. It’s important, but being Christian demands one’s entire life be dedicated to being faithful.

So let’s tear into Amos. I am going to read two chapters. That may sound like a lot, but it’s kind of interesting and it is good to go through. Amos is the second prophet we’re going to look at. He preached in Israel. At this time, the country of Israel has split in half: ten tribes in the north are now the country of Israel, the south has split off and is now called Judah. Jerusalem is in Judah, and the new capital of Israel is Samaria. Amos is actually from Judah, but he is called to preach to the people in the Northern Kingdom. This is around the year 760 B.C.E. At the time, Judah and Israel were both at peace and prosperous. The mid-east was pretty quiet at that time. And so there was a lot of prosperity, but as I said, these are very contemporary prophets; the prosperity was mostly going to those who were already rich. The poor were getting poorer and more and more destitute, while the rich just collected more and more.

So let’s hear from our prophet Amos.

[Read Chapters 5 and 6]

[at 5:18 – Amos is now going to talk about the Day of the LORD, which has been expected, and to be a day of goodness and prosperity. At least, the rich were looking forward to. But Amos says that it is going to be different than they think.]

[Verse 5:24 – MLK, Jr. used that in one of his speeches, and it is engraved on the wall of his memorial. That’s what God wants: justice and righteousness. These next verses are quoted in the Acts passage that we will read.]

God doesn’t want the trappings of religion, but your heart.
And that is the end of Amos.

[Then we had our liturgist read from Acts 7:37-60; the story of Stephen using some of Amos’ words against the Pharisees to the point that they stoned him to death]

There is an awful lot of judgment in those passages, but don’t let that get you down. We’re not here to be doomy and gloomy. As I mentioned before, the prophets always offer their gloom and doom as an if-then. If you repent, this won’t happen; but if you do not repent, it will. Unfortunately, they never repent.

So, you heard how Amos was referenced in that Acts passage. This was the Apostle Stephen preaching to the religious leaders soon after Jesus’ ascension into heaven at the beginning of the Christian movement. He referenced that part about Amos talking how the Israelites were in the desert they went after other gods, and while they were in Israel, in Amos’ time, they went after other gods. Stephen called them by different names because he speaks a different language is was speaking 800 years later, so the gods’ names have changed. But he brings Amos’ indictment against the religious leaders of Amos’ time against those of his own time, some of whom were in collusion with Rome, and therefore the Roman gods and the Roman religion. So Stephen is speaking out against the religious leaders of his time like Amos was in his time. And like many prophets, Stephen gets killed for pointing out the sins of the powerful. That is the prophetic message. That God hates abuse of power. So often, that is what it comes down to. The political and religious leaders are using their power in bad ways, not in ways that benefit the people. In ways that benefit themselves.

This passage in Acts that we read is the only direct reference to Amos in the New Testament. But, Jesus’ message is very much built on Amos. Jesus would have had Amos’ text (and the texts of all the prophets). he would have known very much who they are. Amos was definitely one of the important prophets who would have been read a lot, and Jesus’ message is clearly building on Amos as well as that of the other prophets. Especially building on this idea that what God cares about most is that people be treated well. Especially that the poor be treated well. That’s what God cares about. God’s preference is for the poor. It so often is in the scriptures. So often that those who are in the margins, or underneath at the bottom, those who often get ignored, God says, “ALL of my people are worthy of dignity, health, and goodness, and so all must be raised up.” And those who are in power have a responsibility to justice and righteousness for those who don’t have the power. But God did not want so much the rituals and the sacrifices, and people to go through the motions in the Temple of doing these things. God wants a life lived faithfully. And a faithful life is a life that is lived on behalf of others. A life that is lived in justice and in righteousness on behalf of the poor, the indigent, the mentally ill, the widows, the orphans, the immigrants, the foreigners, the sick and the weak, customers, pilgrims, etc. This is all the stuff that is in the law that was given to Moses. We find it in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that there is this call to justice. But it also the easiest part of the law to ignore. Partly because it can be so difficult. But what Amos was calling the people to, and what Stephen was saying in his message, is still so contemporary to us! We still have abuse of power in this world. We still have unequal distribution of resources. We have people who go hungry while others of us throw food away. We have people who have no access to health care, while others have no access to it. Many are homeless while some of us have two or three or four or more homes. Those working minimum wage can barely survive, while their bosses higher up the chain may make in a day what some of their employees make in a year. The 1%-99% dichotomy.

And it’s not an indictment against wealth, which is sometimes the easy path to just be anti-rich or anti-wealth. I don’t think that’s what Jesus said, or what the prophets were after. It is not so much an indictment of wealth, but an indictment against selfishness. And an indictment against misusing one’s wealth. Instead of using it for the good of others, using it for yourself. And there is an indictment against the selfishness and arrogance that says, “I did this myself, I earned all this myself, so I ought to serve only myself.” Jesus would say that if you have much, then you have been blessed with it to do good. To make the world a better place. So they’ll give $10,000 say, to the temple to buy some animals for sacrifices or to put in another gold brazier, but won’t give that money to the needy, or lower their salary to raise their employees’ or stop cheating their customers or treat the immigrant like a human being. And so Amos says to the people of his time, there is all this injustice, the poor are being neglected, the sick are being neglected, the rich are living in luxury and enjoying their ivory couches and eating meat while others suffer, and Amos says, “The Day of the Lord is coming. This is not the way God wants us to live. God chose us to be a special people. Not to live like this, but to be a blessing to the world, to be a blessing to the other nations. And so the Day of the LORD is coming, but it won’t be light and goodness like you oppressive ivory-couch dwellers think it will be. It’s going to be a very bad day for you. And for the country. And all of the people will be made to suffer. It shall be a day of darkness and death, punishment for the bad way you treated your neighbors.”

And it did come to pass, a generation or so after Amos, that the country to the north, Assyria (remember we read Jonah a couple weeks ago, he went to the capital of Assyria, Ninevah, to preach to them to repent) and God does, in a sense, choose Assyria to be the agent of punishment for Israel. Assyria does invade, does crush the people, sends an awful lot of them out into exile. Scatters them around the mideast, and Israel ceases to exist as a free country for 2700 years. Not until after WWII is there another truly free, unoccupied, Israel.

But yet hear these final words. I have mentioned before, and will mention it repeatedly again, that the prophets’ words always end with reconciliation and forgiveness. There is never complete destruction. There is always that promise that God made to Abraham that he would be a great nation to be a blessing to the world. That promise always holds. God keeps promises. So even if there is to be some discipline or punishment, it will never be total. There is always a calling back of the people, there is always a second chance, a third chance, a seventieth chance, a two-hundredth chance. To be back in relationship with God. So this is how the book of Amos ends (we read part of this in the prayer of Assurance), talking about a future day. [Read Amos 9:11–end.]

There is always forgiveness and restoration. Always. Always a final answer. That is the message of Jesus, and that is the message that was Jesus. This promise of forgiveness, and Jesus, in a sense, the vineyard and the garden that Amos mentioned here. We have that in our Communion table with the bread and the wine, this table to which Jesus calls us to enjoy the fruit and bread of the Kingdom. So thanks be to God who sent us Jesus, and thanks be to God who calls us to justice. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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