02 Jul Amos: Resisting Social Injustice & Religious Complacency
Majoring on the Minors
Amos: Resisting Social Injustice & Religious Complacency
Amos 2:4-8 and 5:21-24
June 30, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Click below to listen to the sermon!
Today is our third Sunday in this summer’s Minor Prophet series, and one of the things I am loving about these small Old Testament books is how diverse they are while at the same time having a unifying thread that runs through them. It’s probably obvious already that the purpose of the prophets is to shake things up, to confront and challenge us. God sends prophets to his people, both ancient and modern, when we need to wake up, measure up, or make our way back to God in some way. And today’s prophet is no exception.
Unlike most of the Jewish prophets, Amos wasn’t a priest or a religious scholar. Amos was a rough outdoorsman, herding sheep and harvesting sycamore timber. He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II, at the same time as two of the other Minor Prophets, Hosea and Jonah. Jeroboam was on the throne 760 years before the birth of Christ, and Amos lived just a few miles south of that “Little Town of Bethlehem” where Jesus would be born.
For Israel, Jeroboam’s reign was a time of peace and prosperity which sounds like good news except for the fact that Israel did what a lot of us do when our lives are calm and things are going well: she became self-absorbed and self-indulgent, forgetting about the Lord who had lifted her out of slavery and fear. Life was comfortable and easy, so who needed God?
Enter Amos, who was intensely burdened by what was happening amongst his people. In fact, Amos’ name actually means “burden-bearer,” and he was bearing two weighty burdens in particular: Israel’s social injustice, especially their treatment of the poor, and the people’s religious complacency. You see, Israel’s wealth had come at a price, as all wealth does. The prosperity that accompanied the peace with their neighbors was not being equally shared and enjoyed by all. Instead, a few people were getting rich at the expense of the many, creating a small class of the affluent at the top of society.
Amos calls out the wealthy for exploiting their workers, for treating people as nothing more than cogs in the machinery of greed and accumulation. He exposes them for treating the poor with disdain, denying them legal due process, and creating a class of debtors stuck in cycles of poverty. All the while the upper class, including the political leaders, are indulging themselves with rich food, fine wine and world-class entertainment. Amos finds the growing divide between rich and poor disgusting and accuses the powerful and wealthy of arrogant self-satisfaction. Is any of this sounding familiar yet?
But Amos is just getting warmed up. If he minces no words about Israel’s failures to live up to its mandate for social justice, he gets downright harsh when it comes to assessing their worship which, under the circumstances, he condemns as being hollow and self-serving:
“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you want to see God come? God’s coming is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? For I hate, I despise your religious meetings, says the Lord. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religious projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your marketing and growth strategies. I’ve had all I can take of your worship that’s all for “show.” When was the last time you sang from the heart to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice rolling down like a mighty river. I want righteousness—never-ending, cascading streams of it. If you really want to honor me, if you’re serious about following me, if you’re ready to give me more than lip-service and do more than go through the motions, this is what I want. Get your heart and your life right.” (5:18-24)
Wow. We need a moment with that, don’t we?
Amos reminds the Israelites that the reason social justice and true worship are so critical, so intertwined, so central to the life of the nation is that everything they have and everything they are—their identity, the land, their traditions and families, their blessings, their very lives—are solely the result of God’s gracious action in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. God did not bring them out of Pharaoh’s controlling grip so that they could turn around and exert a controlling grip on others. God brought them up from the hopelessness and despair of slavery so they could model to the entire world how to live in loving harmony with God, creation, and their fellow human beings. But they’ve forgotten all that. In their peace and prosperity they’ve forgotten “from whence they came” and their loss of memory has caused them to act just like everybody else. The oppressed have become the oppressors. The victims have become the perpetrators. The slaves who knew only toil, hardship and poverty have now enslaved others in cycles of the same.
Men and women, heed the Word of the Lord. Like the Israelites of old, we are not to live like everybody else, yet it is so easy to slip into the patterns of the culture, especially when things are going well with us because we’re benefiting from the culture. I’m not saying everything about the culture is bad. To our shame, there have been times when the culture has been ahead of church in standing up for what is right and just. But, part of our job as the church is to stand outside the culture so that we can, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, “speak truth to power.”
That means that as the church, we cannot, we must not avoid the hard issues of social justice that confront us as a society. When it comes to our modern-day issues of poverty, racism, immigration, prison sentencing, welfare reform, opioid and drug abuse, homelessness, access to medical care, the mental health crisis, sex-trafficking, third-world debt, and a whole host of other concerns, there are seldom clear or easy answers, but what we are called to do is engage, to dialog without becoming strident and judgmental, to listen and learn, and to keep uppermost in mind that the people affected by our attitudes and decisions are beloved children of God. They are your brothers and sisters and you are responsible for their welfare.
For those of us in this room who are white, it is imperative that we acknowledge that we have benefited by the sins of our nation in ways we are primarily blind to. We cannot understand the centuries-old, generational impact of discrimination, racial profiling, economic segregation, sub-standard housing, education and medical services, and limited opportunity that confronts people of color every day. Most of us in this room, black or white, have no idea what it is to have our hometown overtaken by drug lords or machine-gun wielding political rebels for whom raping our daughters, conscripting our sons, and terrorizing young and old alike is standard operating procedure. What would you do to protect and provide for your family in that situation?
We often have little daily consciousness of the winners and losers that the global economy creates every day and the American economy in particular. Do you realize that when we are delighted that wholesale coffee prices are down, making our standard of living sustainable, farmers in Guatemala are abandoning their farms because that same decrease in coffee bean prices means they can’t eke out even the barest of survivals? Does it occur to us that when we buy clothing or other items we don’t actually need, we are part of the economic machinery that fuels child labor practices in numerous countries around the world?
There are no simple solutions to these problems. And the point in raising them is not to cause us to become paralyzed by them. It is to spur us to think and act with greater consciousness and intentionality, to recognize the impact of our attitudes and choices. The social justice concerns that face us are not Republican issues or Democratic issues. They are Christian issues because they involve and affect people. Let me ask you: when you think about an issue that concerns you, whatever it may be, do you think through that issue visualizing the people affected as brothers and sisters in God’s family? Do you evaluate your actions through Jesus’ commandment to love others as he loves us? Do you use kingdom “people eyes”? Amos is shaking us awake to do exactly that.
In the context of Israel’s egregious disparities between the haves and have nots, perhaps it is not quite so shocking that God is less than thrilled with Israel’s worship. Like the rest of their lives, their worship is all about them. It’s self-serving, comfortable. They’ve disconnected their worship from any other part of their lives and their world which means, according to Amos, they’re not worshiping at all. They’ve just created a religious club and God is not impressed. Again, we are called to heed the prophet of God. As a church, we do not exist for the comfort of Calvary’s members. We exist to proclaim the Word of the Lord and to make disciples who follow that Word in every area of life. Some days we will find comfort and support and encouragement in and through our worship—that is as it should be. But some days we will be confronted by the Spirit of God and it will be convicting, not comforting, a call to arms, not a pat on the shoulder while we sit in our Lazy-Boys. If Amos is poking you awake today, you’ll notice a page in your bulletin that lists a number of social justice resources. This is by no means a comprehensive list; merely a starting place for more active engagement.
One last thing I need to say. It is an easy trap to fall into to hear Amos and the other prophets and think that all they’re about is standing in the bully pulpit, finger wagging, shame dripping. Please don’t walk out of here having heard this prophet like that. I’ll grant you—Amos is “in your face,” but he comes on so strongly because God wants us to experience this glorious, abundant life that God has made us for, and we are settling for so, so little. When we make life all about the next achievement, the next big purchase, the next trip, the next plaque or diplo-ma; when we pursue the prizes that the world dangles in front of us, our lives have shrunk to serve our own egos all the while cutting us off from the limitless power of God to work eternally significant purposes through us. Amos is sounding the alarm while there is still time for us to turn around, amend our lives, and experience the power of God’s Spirit let loose in us both individually and corporately as a community of faith. Are we willing to love others with the same compassionate abandon with which Jesus loves us? When we do, our lives and our worship will be caught up as part of God’s ever-flowing stream of justice and mercy. That’s what we are made for; it’s what we are called to. Thanks be to God. Amen.