Sunday, July 10, 2016

Straight Talk with Amos

Amos 7: 7-9
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."

Luke 10: 25- 37
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 28And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

God’s prophets are a mighty odd group of people. They upheld the word of the lord and bad-mouthed the religion that everyone was practicing. They spoke for the poor people and against the rich. They pointed fingers and they were NOT well-liked.

Elijah was called the troubler of Israel.
Amos was thrown out of the country.
Hosea was called a fool.
Jeremiah got thrown in a cistern.
And tradition says Isaiah got sawed in half. 

It’s amazing that these profoundly unpopular people show up in our holy book. One of the things we don’t think about when we read the Bible is that it’s self-correcting. It contains both the Law of God and the exploits of the patriarchs and kings. But it also contains the critics who worked to keep Israel on track with God. The prophets insulted kings, predicted disasters, and shouted curses and woes.

Today we love Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the other prophets, but their peers didn’t. So why are they in this great book? 

Probably because people have been making the same mistakes over and over and over again. The prophets' words are as relevant today as they were in the Old Testament.

So the next few weeks we’ll explore what the Lord says through this group with the sermon series: Say What?

We begin with some straight talk from Amos.


Amos has a vision of God speaking to him with a plumb line—a tool that is used to make sure a wall is straight.  The prophets are known for using props to get our attention—like a plumb line or basket of fruit or some bread baked over cow dung.

Amos and the plumb line remind us that God has standards for us to meet. Amos tells the people around him that God is holding a plumb line up to their crooked generation. He’s telling them they don’t measure up to God’s standards.

Amos shakes his finger at Israel and says your walls are falling down. Your foundations are bad and you will suffer because of it. He, and most of the prophets, have two basic messages.

Message #1 You have been unfaithful to God.
The king in Amos’ time made two golden bulls at shrines used for worship. Remember how bad it is to make golden calves? The Israelites had already been there and done that when they were waiting for Moses to come down the mountain. You’d think they would have learned that lesson then. But no. They did it again.

Does anyone else have that problem? You make a mistake and swear to do better and then a few days or week later you find yourself doing the same thing. Yeah. Me, too.

Message # 2 You are not loving your neighbors.
God says of Israel (through Amos):  
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

Yikes! The people of Israel didn’t see how far they strayed because many of them were busy building nice houses and living an easy life. They worked all week. Had a nice glass or two  of wine with dinner Friday night, went to worship on Saturday morning and started it all over again on Sunday.

But God says, Stop—look!
Don’t you see you that you are serving yourselves?
Don’t you notice some people are oppressed?
Aren’t you helping the poor?
Don’t you see the injustice?

Beware, God is telling them through Amos and the plumb line, your crookedness will pull you down. Your walls will crumble.

And crumble they did. Israel was overtaken in war.  Their leaders were taken captive and moved them out of Israel. Their wonderful homes and walls and even God’s Temple came crumbling down.

Amos was right.

I don’t know about you but I feel like I’m seeing the walls of our society crumbling this summer. We have video footage of people being killed in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas. Because so many people have smart phones and the internet we are witnessing the horror firsthand. We are given a new vision.

I have to wonder, Is there something kind of prophetic about this?

We can record and expose things in our society that haven’t been seen in the media before. Our phones and cameras are shining a light on occurrences that might never have made the news otherwise. 

We, here in small town in Western Pennsylvania, can be witnesses to a traffic stop in Minnesota that leads to the death of a black man. We can read text messages from people about to die in a nightclub. We can watch as people and police officers scramble for their lives in Dallas. We can see news from cars and nightclubs and police body cameras. And it hard to be a witness. 

Today there is no question we mourn for those who were killed in this week’s violence. But I suspect many of us may also mourn the loss of a more innocent worldview.  Today we mourn the loss of the way things were before we all became instant witnesses to crimes committed around the world. Suddenly, our small town and our small lives are caught up in something bigger.

For so many of us our society looked straight and true for so long. And new it feels crooked or unstable. But, I wonder: Are we seeing new problems? Or are we finally witnessing problems that have been there all along? Problems that most of us here have been sheltered from because we’re not black or gay or a police officer.

In the Gospel of Luke (12:2-3) Jesus says, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Things are coming to light through our cell phones and other technology. We can’t unsee the events of the past few weeks. We can’t unknow the problems in the broader world. We can’t deny that things are off-center. And that makes us defensive. We want to protect our worldview. 

The prophet Amos pointed out the way Israel was off-center. That’s why he got thrown out of town. People didn't want to know what he saw. But he told them anyway.  His message is important, then and now. Amos and other prophets remind us that to truly love God, we have to love our neighbors. That means:

There is no room for racism in our hearts or in our culture.
There’s no room for vengeance in our hearts or in our culture.
Nor is there room for indifference in our hearts or in our culture. 

We are to heed the call of the prophets: Love God and love neighbors.  So how do we do this? 

Jesus shows us what this love looks like in the Good Samaritan parable. Remember Samaritans and Jews were enemies. They didn’t touch or talk to one another.

But, Jesus says the righteous man in the parable was not one of the Jewish leaders, as we would expect. The priest and Levite both tried to unsee the injured man and walked right past him. It’s the Samaritan who was willing to see and act.

We can’t ignore the people who are bleeding in our streets, whether they are black or white or dressed in blue. Whether they are addicts, homeless or mentally ill. We, too, are called to see.

And when we see, we are called to stop what we are doing and tend to the wounded around us. The Good Samaritan didn’t just call 911. He touched, he carried and he even paid the bill for the man—this enemy—so that the wounded man could recover. Not only did the Samaritan see the injured man, he saw him through his healing.
In the parable, Jesus shows us that ministry is inconvenient and expensive. A life of faith costs us something.

Today, I think being faithful may cost us our worldview.

We need to listen to the prophets, receive their criticism and confess the ways that we might be participating in creating an unjust society, even here in our little town. We need to hold up God’s plumb line to make sure it’s straight—in our hearts, in our church, in our community, and in our country. And if it’s not, we need to be willing to admit that something is crooked and tear it down. Only then can we try again to build it straight.

And really, we’ve been rebuilding churches and our societies for centuries. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think that with God's help each time we do it, we put those bricks up a little straighter and stronger. With Christ as our plumb line we get a little closer to God’s truth. Theodore Parker once said the arc of history bends toward justice. God’s justice and truth is coming. We aren’t there yet, but we are being called to participate in what God is building today.

I can’t unsee the violence of this summer. I can’t unknow the things that I’m learning about our society and myself. But I can choose a side.

I choose God’s side, even though it’s the costly side to be on. I choose the side where people are not shot for the color of their skin or the uniform that they wear. I choose the side where traffic violations are equally enforced and those who are working to keep the peace don’t need to fear for their lives. I choose to participate in the merciful, healing, and justice-oriented work that Jesus started.

And first that means tearing down the way I think of myself and seeing the ways that I’ve contributed to the crooked wall. It means confessing that I've been unintentionally racist. It means understanding that I've benefitted from the color of my skin and the circumstances of my birth. It means admitting to the hardest thing of all: I like my life and it frightens me to think about what God might need to change in me. 

It’s inconvenient. It’s costly. But in the end, it’s what all of us are called to do.