Seek God and Live

Sermon Preached at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal ChurchAtlanta, GA
July 2007

With apologies to Mary and Martha, my sermon today is on the book of Amos.

Only twice a year do we read from this Old Testament prophet, but its 13 brief pages have as much to say to us today as they did to the Northern kingdom of Israel two thousand seven hundred and forty-some-odd years ago.

While Amos is probably my favorite book in the Bible (confirming the suspicion of some of my friends that I ought to be a rabbi), it is not for the faint of heart.  For those who think coming to church should make you feel better, Amos has something else in mind.

You see, Amos delivered his prophecies during one of the rare moments of economic prosperity and political power for the people of ancient Israel.  Normally the underdogs, at this point in history the tables had turned and Israel was on top, with security, money, land, peace, and a lot of confidence in themselves, and in God’s blessing on them.

But Amos saw something else – a country that had grown fat on the backs of the poor, a nation whose religious rituals were a sham, and whose confidence in God’s protection was severely misplaced.  Just when Israel thought God was defending them and giving them glory, Amos comes along to say that a day of doom is around the corner.  For in God’s eyes, injustice cannot go on forever.

Now, if we were in my church back home, I’d invite you to turn your pew bibles to page 1303 and follow along with me as we explored these nine chapters together.  But today I’ll stick to  the main highlights – including the parts we never read in the lectionary – as we think together about what Amos means for us today.

After a brief intro, the text opens with God “ROARING” from Zion, like an angry lion whose voice echoes through the land – catching our attention and giving a glimpse of what’s to come.

First, Amos announces God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors & enemies – including places like Damascus and Gaza – because of their violence, anger, and the way they exiled towns and sold prisoners as slaves.

But this part is over quickly, as Amos goes after Israel itself – an Israel that “sells the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.”

It is an Israel where sick people are dumped on the side of the street, where poor people are commodities to be used and traded, where something as insignificant as getting a new pair of shoes is enough reason to take advantage of the most powerless on earth.

Amos sees an Israel where girls are raped and children discouraged from being prophets.  An Israel where some people have winter houses and summer houses, while others have no house.  An Israel where cows eat better than people. Where sacrifices are offered enroute to exploitation and warnings about the nation’s downfall go unheard, even as the land itself bears the wounds of unrighteousness in darkness and drought and famine.  All this in an Israel that thinks it is enjoying peace and prosperity.

Not so, Amos says: “Prepare to meet your God!”

The rabbis of Judaism taught that while 613 commandments were given to Moses, six to Isaiah, and three to Micah – for Amos, God boils the whole law down to only one thing: “Seek Me and Live.”

This simplicity is what I love about Amos.  There aren’t lists of rules, or witty stories with ambiguous meanings.  There are no words of wisdom or doctrine or convoluted histories or even songs of praise.  As far as God is concerned, Amos tells us, the ultimate measure of faith is justice, and justice alone.

On this count, Israel had failed.  There was a corrupt legal and political system in which bribes and favors mattered more than truth, in which taxes were paid by those who had little to those who had much.

The harshest words are saved up for the religious rituals of the unjust powerful, who bring their offerings to the temple, thinking that prosperity is their reward.

But God is having none of it.

“I hate, I despise your festivals” God tells them.  Don’t bother bringing offerings, I’m not going to accept them.  I will not even look at you, God says, and with a hint of irritation tells them to “Take away your noisy songs.”

This lashing-out is the prelude to those famous words, quoted by Martin Luther King, about letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Justice and righteousness have been blocked, God says, by the actions of the people … but not for much longer.

Things just couldn’t stay the way they were.  The pressure was building.  The frustration, the anger, the restlessness, the suffering, the hurt of all those people for whom this time of peace and prosperity in Israel brought nothing but empty promises.

Still, many people lived “at ease in Zion” Amos tells us: on ivory beds, overstuffed couches, eating meat and singing songs and drinking wine and covering themselves with fancy lotions and perfumes … while not shedding a tear over the ruin at hand.  But, Amos says, the “revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

Not surprisingly, Amos did not get a warm reception in Israel.  The official priest accused him of disloyalty and conspiracy to overthrow the kingdom, and he sent Amos packing back home.  But Amos got in one last word, which is where our reading for today picks up, in chapter 8.

It is another attack on religion and a final message of judgment.  Wailing in the temple and dead bodies in the street were on their way for the supposedly-religious people really just waiting for the Sabbath to be over so they could get back to making money.  For people who cheated customers with rigged scales  and sold phony products as if they were real.  The land will shake, the people will weep, the celebrations will end, and confusion will be the norm – as people frantically seek God, but finding nothing.

What makes Amos compelling is that these things he spoke of actually did happen.  There was an earthquake, and ancient Israel did fall, as the Assyrian empire swept in, took over, and scattered the people.

It is a grim scene; one which confronts us with the wrath of God – part of our tradition many of us would rather forget … for good reason.  The idea of God as punisher has been used to subjugate, enslave, wound, humiliate and ostracize countless individuals and groups, including many of us.

But if we exchange this image for a God who is always nice to us no matter what we do in our lives, we’ve missed the mark as well.  We see in Amos a God who really cares about what is happening to the poor, so much so that he is roaring mad.  Mad enough to get Amos mad in hopes he could speak enough truth with enough power to get things changed.

It didn’t work, then, but maybe it will now.

The parallels between the situation Amos describes and our own are obvious to anyone who reads a newspaper, watches TV or surfs the web.  Many of us are already following the lead of Amos, working for a more just and righteous world, whether through environmental sustainability, fair trade, simple living, eradicating poverty, empowering women, advocating for the disenfranchised, or simple acts of caring for others in times of suffering.  There is much to be truly proud of.

But Amos is pushing at least some of us just a little bit more, to go beyond adding acts of kindness and mercy to our daily schedule, and instead to open ourselves to some of that roaring anger of God, to see being a prophet as God’s call, as one way of being faithful in the world.

It’s interesting to me that Amos criticizes Israel for telling their young people not to be prophets, but to simply be conventional.  They had given up on prophecy, given up on speaking the hard words with uncompromising devotion.

I notice this because I’ve spent much of the last 2 weeks with a group of young prophets, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Kids4Peace from Jerusalem.  Each year, 12 young people come here to Georgia, to meet and live and pray with 12 of our Episcopal youth, including Robert, Sally, Bridget and Ivan from St. Bart’s.  They can tell you lots of stories about our time at Camp Mikell, learning about other religions and building peace, but the thing I discovered this year was just how difficult it is, for these 11 & 12 year olds, to be peacemakers in Jerusalem.

With not a few tears, Israelis and Palestinians alike talked about friends and family criticizing them for coming to Kids4Peace, saying they were naïve and foolish, even betraying the cause of their people.  I realized the risk they had taken to be here and came to appreciate Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of the prophet as a “person of passion” – for without passion, these Kids4Peace would never have come together.

A mere preference for peace wouldn’t be enough.  Only outrage at war, and a longing for a new way of life which springs from the depth of their souls could give them the courage to risk alienation from friends, whose approval is so vital for teens.

Heschel goes on to describe the prophet this way:

“To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent…. The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”’

I am doing my best to learn from these young prophets, to stand with them in the midst of the chaos, complacency and fear, in a world where there are already bodies on the streets and wailing in the temple.  To risk much and proclaim with them that a just and lasting peace in Jerusalem, and the world, is no mere luxury, but a divine requirement whose absence ought to provoke outrage, rather than pity.

And so, inspired by Amos, and knowing that we will ultimately be judged on justice alone – I pray that each of us will find our own place of prophecy, our own source of outrage, something so intolerable to us that we will give our lives to change it, so that predictions of doom will no longer be needed, so that our sacrifices may be acceptable to the Holy One, as we all choose to seek God, and Live.