Last week I had the happy (and weighty) privilege of preaching two services at my home church here in St. Paul. The text for the sermon was Amos 4.1-13. The manuscript for my sermon is below, and audio can be found here.
Judgment and Growth
Professor David Mowers, B.A.
Preached at Messiah Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
17th Sunday after Pentecost 2010
This morning’s Old Testament reading is the third Sunday we have read from the book of Amos, and, like the last two weeks, I heard the reading, and when it concluded with our reader saying “The Word of the Lord,” I responded, without thinking, “Thanks be to God.”
Thanks be to God. We respond with these words to thank God for the revelation we find in Scripture and for the strange new world that the Bible reveals to us. But how difficult it is for us to be thankful for the world of Amos 4, a world starved of redemption. It was a world which had been crushed – not by random chance or by human evil, but rather by the hand of Yahweh. This is a word of judgment, for which we say “Thanks be to God.” How odd.
This message also falls on the second Sunday of the ministry fair here at Messiah. [Upstairs in the loft…grow ministries], ministries which help us to grow into mature disciples of Jesus. I bring this up because I wonder if there isn’t a connection to be considered here. We have a text about the judgment of God on the same Sunday we think about how we can better encourage one another to become mature disciples, to live fully in the reality of God’s Kingdom. It seems that often in our lives as Christians growth emerges unbidden and unexpected out of the broken and jagged shards of God’s judgment. This morning, as we listen to the words of the prophet Amos, I’d like us to consider the connection between hearing the words of God’s judgment and growing up in Christ.
But in order to do justice to that connection, we must first look carefully at the picture of brokenness given to us in the reading this morning. What did this judgment of God actually look like? As we’ve heard in previous weeks, Amos is an unwilling prophet of God with an unwelcome message to preach. Traveling far from his home in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Amos pronounces judgment and impending doom for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And so begins Chapter 4, with the Lord bringing judgment on the cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, the women of the Northern Kingdom. [note that this is not an insult – Bashan known for agriculture and large, beautiful cows. He’s really calling them beautiful]. Just as we’ve heard for the two previous weeks, God condemns these women for the pain they unwittingly inflict on the poor. As a sign of God’s judgment, captors will come to lead these women away – and the image here is that the captors will use large fishhooks through the nose or through the ear to lead these formerly beautiful women away through holes and breaches in the city wall – holes and breaches no doubt caused by the same judgment.
It is a difficult image to think about, but unfortunately the imagery gets no better. In verse 4, God explains further the cause for this destruction by challenging the Israelites to go to Bethel and Gilgal, the cities of the Northern Kingdom where worship of Yahweh took place. Bring your sacrifices each morning; bring your tithes every three years – and then go home and brag about this to all your friends, because this is what you love to do, says verse 5.
The God of Israel clearly cared at least as much about people being properly taken care of, and about people not having to live under the yoke of bondage fostered by the excesses of the rich, as he did about ritual worship. For indeed, in verse 6 we learn that God has already been judging Israel for some time, but that Israel has been too self-absorbed in its worship of YHWH and in its lavish lifestyle to notice. “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town” and yet no one noticed; no one returned to the way of justice and righteousness befitting of God’s people.
And so, God’s judgment continues in verse 7. God causes rain to fall in one town but not in another. The people are already thirsty from the drought, but when they hear that the wells and cisterns are full a couple of towns over, they pack up their animals and servants and hurry, hurry to the next town in search of cool, refreshing, wet water. But just as they come over the hill on their long journey and glimpse the well off in the distance, the crowd around the well disperses, and soon comes the word. The well is dry. It just ran out. Imagine the disappointment, the thirst, the fear that other water cannot or will not be found. Behold: for these Israelites, says Amos, this is what God’s judgment looks like.
God’s judgment also looks like a wealthy farmer who went to bed one evening with an abundance of crops. He had planned his crops carefully, growing grapes and olives and figs. If one of his crops failed, he would still be able to rely on the others. And he slept in his bed that evening he dreamt of the money that his crops would draw from the merchants, because his plan had worked itself to perfection – better than he had hoped, because all of his crops were growing healthily and well and would surely fetch him a fortune. He awoke in the morning, whistling and humming to himself as he went to his gardens to tend his crops. As he reached his first grape plants, a surprising sight: the large leaves which had recently been green were now shriveled and black, covered with mildew. He began to walk down the row, and his walk turned into a run and then into a headlong, desperate sprint, as he passed plant after plant after plant which was shriveled and filled with fatal grey fuzz. He cried out as he reached the end of a row and looked out on his grove of olive trees, abuzz with swarms of hungry flying grasshoppers. The wealthy farmer knew that his crops were completely ruined; the wealthy farmer knew that he was very likely bankrupt; but did the wealthy farmer recognize that this was God’s judgment upon him? Apparently not, says verse 9: despite this destruction, the Israelites did not return.
And so, Amos 4 continues with numerous other images, designed to provoke and to capture imagination at the terrible nature of the Lord’s destruction. Armies go out and are slaughtered by the thousands, and the carcasses of men and beast fill the camps of the Israelites with unbearable stench. Others of the Israelites had estates which were overrun with fire and destruction, barely managing to escape with their lives, and yet they did not recognize the judgment of God. So verse 12 explains what will eventually must take place.
“Therefore this is what I will do to you Israel, and because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God.”
So yes, I did respond with the words “Thanks be to God” earlier when this passage was read. And yes, like a good guest preacher I did research on this passage and carefully thought and prayed over my message this morning. But I must confess that the imagery of this passage is difficult. On the one hand, one almost feels sorry for the Israelites because of the power of God’s judgment. On the other hand, the Israelites were not innocent whatsoever in this passage. Not only had they thoughtlessly and maliciously exploited the poor people among them in the name of material gain, but time after time when faced with the alternatives between exploitation and cooperation, between life and death, they chose death, and now death they shall be given.
But this passage is also difficult for Christians, for those of us who must read this passage and ask, “Where is God’s word to the church?” It is a simple thing to say, “God loves the poor and hates it when rich people exploit poor people for material gain,” but it seems to me that this is one place where we can listen and perhaps God’s word of judgment. But what should we do about it? We all spend money. We all participate in the economy in ways that almost certainly robs poor people of their personhood. But perhaps there are small things we can do to lessen this impact. We can choose to avoid spending money to support corporations which blatantly treat poor people in developing countries as though they are not persons. We can choose to use our resources to support ministries and programs which help poor people develop and flourish. We need not look very far for opportunities to help poor people flourish – to begin with, might I suggest reviewing the material from the ministry fair this morning? Several of Messiah’s grow ministries involve ministry to homeless, to refugees, and to elderly persons, and that might be a place to start.
How else can Amos 4 be God’s word to our Church today? It seems that this passage holds a special place of contempt for people who are especially religious but who continue to ignore God’s conviction, again, particularly when it comes to treating the poor with justice. And let me be especially clear here – it is hip and fashionable in certain parts of American society today to talk about the poor and about concepts of justice and fairness, about poverty and community, about empowerment and employment. But Christian faith is not about ritual without righteousness! Until Christians can move from talking about concepts regarding the poor and move towards helping people – towards helping actual people flourish – whether that be in our church, in our communities, or in our world, we stand under the judgment of God. The great preacher and theologian John Wesley once told his friends at Oxford that he seriously doubted the salvation of anyone who had not visited a prisoner in jail in the past week. Wesley certainly could be demanding and overly enthusiastic, but he’s correct that we cannot care for the prisoner as a concept, just like we cannot claim to love humanity but then struggle to show love to individual people who happen to be overly needy or difficult to care for.
How do we begin? How can we hear God’s Word to us, individually, whether that word be one of judgment or of something else? I would suggest that the first place where we can hear this word to us is in a moment, when we come together for the meal which makes us the Body of Christ. For it is in this meal that we remember that the important people in the kingdom of God are not the superstar pastor or the power-grabber or the glitterati. As we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, we remember that the important among us are the refugee in a foreign land, the widows, and the ones who are left with no one to defend them. May we come to this table not only for solace as we grieve the poor and mourn our responses, but also may we find strength to serve. May we come to this table not only for divine pardon and release from God’s judgment, but may we find renewal out of which to live lives which help the defenseless around us to prosper and flourish. And as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we might just hear words of judgment, calling us to repentance and to radical discipleship. And I pray that each of us might meet those words with the wholehearted reply, “Thanks be to God.”
In the name of God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.