Sermon, July 17

When I first read over these lessons, I felt torn. I wanted to give the prophet Amos his due. And this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is so beautiful.  But they’re very, very different.  It seemed impossible to address them in the same sermon.

Amos and Paul lived and taught in very different settings. Amos was a prophet who spoke God’s word in the Northern kingdom of Israel, sometime in the 8th century before Christ. He calls out the king, the wealthy elite, and the religious leaders for failing to order their society in a way that reflects God’s righteousness and concern for the poor and vulnerable.

While Amos calls a whole kingdom to account, Paul speaks to a tiny group of believers trying to care for each other and grow in faith in a context of religious diversity and colonial rule. Unlike the people Amos addresses, the members of the church in Colossae have control over very little beyond themselves. Paul’s call to them is first and foremost to live their lives more fully in Christ, supporting one another in growing towards Christian maturity.

And yet – as different as the settings and messages are, there is a deep similarity. These are both texts of turning. Turning is one of the spiritual practices we named here in our work this spring. It’s shorthand for our capacity to be open to repentance, transformation, and call. Our affirmation that while God loves us just the way we are, God isn’t going to leave us that way.

The turn Amos calls for is a nationwide turn, away from an epidemic of affluenza, with the symptoms being rampant greed, indifference to the wellbeing of the poor, and superficial, perfunctory religious practice.

Amos lived in a time when David’s kingdom has been split in two, into the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria.Things were really good for the Northern Kingdom, under King Jeroboam: military success, wealth, peace, prosperity. For those at the top of the heap, things hadn’t been this good in generations. For ordinary folks, things were getting worse and worse, with increased inequality and exploitation of the poor.

Amos puts words to the greed of the times in today’s passage –

“We’ll use false balances and small measures when we sell wheat, and sell the trash of the threshing floor as grain, to maximize our profit, so that we can buy out the lives of the poor for the price of a pair of sandals.”

Amos himself came from a village in Judah, the southern kingdom. He worked as a shepherd and a tender of fruit trees. He wasn’t a member of one of the guilds of prophets; prophesy didn’t run in the family; he was just minding his own business when the word of God came to him and seized him: “GO, prophesy to my people Israel!”

Why might God have sent an outsider to Israel? We get a hint in Amos’ encounter with Amaziah, priest of Bethel, in last week’s lesson.  Bethel was a temple established by King Jeroboam, to make it more convenient for his subjects to fulfill their religious responsibilities without having to travel to Jerusalem.  Bethel was in theory a temple devoted to Yahweh, Israel’s God; but Amaziah’s words to Amos reveal whose power and authority are really honored there –  ‘Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and.. a temple of the kingdom.’

I read this week that a gaffe is when someone in power accidentally says something true. Amaziah’s gaffe suggests that God’s word wasn’t being heard or preached in Bethel. And so God called Amos.

So what was Amos’ word, God’s grievance? … The book of Amos isn’t long; you could read all nine chapters in half an hour. But I think the image from last week’s reading is a powerful summary. God shows Amos the image of a plumb line. This is a plumb line. You can walk into the hardware store up the street and buy one. It’s an ancient, ancient tool of carpentry. It simply uses gravity to determine whether something is straight or not.

The plumb line: symbol of the rules that simply exist, always and everywhere. Gravity is gravity. You can build your house, or your society, all askew. You can balance a huge unwieldy class of wealthy people on the unstable base of the poor, hungry and angry.  But gravity will eventually do its thing. And so will the righteousness of God.

God says to, and through, Amos, See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people. They can’t escape the consequences of their actions any longer.  Their high places and sanctuaries will be made desolate, and I will send enemies against the house of Jeroboam. Like a shepherd trying to rescue a sheep from the mouth of a lion who only recovers perhaps a couple of legs, or a piece of an ear, so the people of Samaria will escape destruction only with the corner of a couch or part of a bed. (Amos 3)

There is a call here, if a desperate and pessimistic one. God says through Amos,  It is not yet too late! Turning is still possible! Seek the Lord, seek good and not evil, that you may live. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will yet have mercy – and save, at least, a remnant: that leg or ear rescued from the lion’s mouth.

When we come to the Prophets in our three-year cycle of readings, I eagerly pull one book off my shelf: Abraham Heschel, The Prophets. Heschel was a Jewish scholar who grew impatient with the intellectualism of academic study, and became convinced that the prophetic works needed to be studied with attention to heart, conscience, emotion – the prophet’s emotion, God’s emotion, our emotional response to these words that can touch and stir, agitate or comfort us across three thousand years.

Heschel talks about how one of the hallmarks of a prophet is a tendency to see everyday injustices not just as the unfortunate downside of an otherwise functional society, but as an indictment of the entire social order.

Heschel writes (pages 3 – 6),

“The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply…. Indeed, the sort of crimes… that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster….

[The prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. [Yet] to the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions…

[Yet] if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?…

Prophesy is the voice God has lent to the silent agony [of humanity].”

Elsewhere, Heschel writes:

The prophet’s words “wrench one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation…. The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility.” (p. 8)

As a text of turning, the book of Amos bears a call to responsibility. From indifference to concern and action. A call to take the injustices we witness not as inevitable occasional failures of a basically functional system, but as urgent calls to the hard work of improving our common life. A call to measure the gulf between the straightness of the plumb line and the alarming lean of our society.

In contrast with Amos’ call to a society-wide U-turn, the turning to which Paul calls the Colossians is perhaps more like your navigation software telling you, “Proceed to the route.”

The people of the church in Colossae weren’t wrong in any big dramatic ways. They were a little confused about whose teachings to follow and how to practice their new faith. And Paul gives them guidance on those fronts, gently and lovingly. Elsewhere in his letters to the early Christian communities, Paul can be sharp and angry; but the tone of this letter is best described as tender.

Most of all, Paul simply urges them to grow in grace. To continue living more fully in response to Christ’s divine humanity. In today’s passage he writes eloquently about who Jesus was and is, and what it means for us as his people: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all things hold together. The one in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself. Jesus Christ has reconciled you to God, to present you holy and blameless, forgiven, loved, and free.

Paul speaks eloquently about his hopes for this young community, gathered by their faith in Christ: that they may be encouraged and united in love; that they may grow into maturity in Christ, rooted and built up in him, and abounding in thanksgiving. That they may seek the things that are above, not worrying about earthly matters.

And then there’s this passage, in chapter 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We could read that in church every week for a lifetime and still be encouraged and guided by it. Maybe we should.

As a text of turning, the letter to the Colossians bears a call to grow in grace. Paul passionately invites the people of that church to receive, with wonder and joy, the grace of Christ’s presence among them, and to live with one another as people formed by love, generosity of spirit, and gratitude.

Amos calls a kingdom to responsibility. Paul calls a church to grow in grace. Which are we? What do we hear?

I submit to you that maybe we’re a little of both. In many ways we are the little fellowship of faith in Colossae, surrounded by a pluralistic society that doesn’t share our values, uncertain about what our faith really requires of us, maybe nervous about being known as followers of Jesus. That passage from chapter 3 speaks my hope for how we will live with and care for one another in this church. We need to devote energy and time and resources and care to teaching and singing and loving and giving and forgiving. We need to cultivate our own and each other’s Christian maturity.  We are called to grow in grace.

And… in many ways we are the elites of the Northern Kingdom. We are people of voice and influence.I’m not making assumptions here about anybody’s wealth or connections. But I absolutely believe that if 50 St. Dunstanites decided that we were going to devote our energy and time and resources to changing something about the common life of our city, county, or even our state, we could move the needle.  We could contribute to meaningful change. Because we are citizens of a democracy, and showing up matters.  In the words of Margaret Mead, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  And there are many forces in our world, sisters and brothers, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We are called to responsibility.

Let us pray. Loving God, you have given us your holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may hear their message to us, and give us grace to respond to the call to grow in grace, and the call to responsibility, as your children, gathered and sent. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the One in whom we are rooted and built up. Amen.