Monday, July 22, 2013

Sermon: July 14, 2013 - The Voice of the Prophet

Amos 7.7-17

What does it take to be a prophet in our time?
1.     It seems to me that *indignation* is not a good measure of prophetic ability.
2.     In the same way, I’m not sure that being in the *right* is much of a measure either. In this post-modern world, everybody gets to claim the authority of being “right,” because being right depends on your perspective. (We all get a perspective, after all.)
3.     Being right also depends on the possibility that your cause or your video or your tweet will go viral, thus crushing the competition with the tide of public opinion – even if your righteous tide only lasts a week.
Under this constant pressure, the work of the O.T. prophet has gone silent or has been lost in the noise of ten thousand voices. What is the work of prophecy? [DEF:] Prophecy is the work of calling people to see as God sees.
+      To see injustice, poverty and exploitation with the eyes of God.
+      To see the possibility of a world of justice and plenty and fairness that God sees in the promise of the Kingdom.
+      Without God as the reference point for all our seeing and our prophesying, we are just throwing out one more opinion, hoping for a hit.

            Amos went into the northern Kingdom of Israel around 760 BC during the reign of King Jeroboam II; there he spoke out at the center of the capital.
            It happened that the region suffered an earthquake during this time. The walls of the houses, being built of stacked stone, suffered a great deal of damage. This earthquake would have thrown down the stone walls of all kinds of buildings and would have left others leaning at dangerous angles. The plumb line would have been one of the tools available to the builders of that day. Thus, the earthquake probably led to the image of the plumb line, which we hear in the passage.
            The reign of King Jeroboam II was a prosperous time in the northern kingdom. Unfortunately, this prosperity was not shared by all, leading to divisions between the rich and the poor. According to Amos, the rich and poor not only lived different lives; the divisions between them led to abuses, which added to the misery of the poor:
+      The rich amassed fortunes by force and by fraud.
+      The use of false weights and measures was common.
+      The poor were literally enslaved to pay their debts, even though they were fellow citizens; this was never the practice in ancient Israel.
+      It became common practice to take a person’s cloak as collateral for loans, even though it meant the poor person would sleep with no covering at night.
Addressing these divisions was at the heart of Amos’ message.
            Amos the Prophet did not rise from the priestly or prophetic families. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, thus his credentials were suspect by the establishment. His entire ministry lasted only a short time: some scholars estimate that his ministry lasted as little as a week.
            I find it odd that Amos’ message was remembered and written down in the scriptures. Logic would suggest that the words of a naysayer like Amos should have been buried at the first opportunity. The curious thing about Amos and about Israel’s attitude toward prophets is that his words have been preserved in the scriptures, while the words of the establishment priests and prophets in the King’s employ have been forgotten – except to the extent that they set the context for Amos’ words. That his prediction of destruction and exile came to pass only added to Amos’ reputation.
            In the 1960’s and 1970’s in this country, the Book of Amos became popular among those sympathetic to the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movements. They saw divisions between the rich and poor just as Amos identified them in his day. Thus, the poets of that time feasted on the indignation of Amos’ strong prophecies.

II. The passage we read this morning from Amos reports an encounter between the Prophet Amos and the King’s Priest, Amaziah, who reports the whole matter to the king.
A. Amaziah is exasperated. Amos has challenged the king, blaming him for the problems that run throughout society. Amaziah vents his frustration by saying, “The land is not able to bear all his words.” Actually, you could read this, as Amaziah probably read it, as a strategy to overthrow the king. The king represents the establishment in Israel; Amaziah speaks up in defense of his king.
B. So Amaziah confronts the Prophet: “**O Seer, flee away to the land of Judah**” - to the south. At one level, Amaziah is throwing his weight around by commanding Amos to leave the north. At another level, he might have been protecting Amos from the wrath of the king – who could not be expected to appreciate the suggestion that he deserved to be deposed.
C. “**Make your living there**” – Amaziah’s charge is that Amos is preaching for profit, to make a living. If he can convince the people who are gathered to listen to Amos that he is just doing this to make money for himself, then he will undercut the urgency and integrity of Amos’ message. Haven’t we seen people use the same strategy to undercut critics in our own time?
D. In response to Amaziah’s criticism, Amos speaks eloquently:

“**I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son;
            but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
The Lord took me from following the flock,
            and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.**’”

Amos claims that his authority is God call; he had nothing more to claim. Amaziah enjoyed institutional authority; he had an office, he wore the official robes of the priest, he enjoyed the confidence of the King. Amaziah the Priest should win this shouting match. All Amos can claim is that “The Lord took me from following the flock” just as the Lord took young David from following the flock to become king over all the tribes of Israel.
E. Finally, Amos levels a terrible prophecy against Amaziah the Priest:

You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
    and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

Amos’ prophecy stands as a reminder that *those who lead* bear responsibility for the nation or institution that follows them. In Amos’ mind, Amaziah’s priesthood will come to a terrible and final end.
F. What this report of the confrontation between Amos the Prophet and Amaziah the Priest provides for us is just that – a confrontation. They throw charges against each other; they make claims that their authority is greater than the other. Except that the stakes are so high and the language so eloquent, they might be boys on the schoolyard about to start a fight.

III. So, what do we make of all this confrontation? My first impression of the ancient confrontation is that it mainly sounds like the common confrontations that pass for debates.
+      Maybe one of these angry men will make the better point and silence the other.
+      Maybe one of them will win the shouting match, but the events won’t unfold as he predicts, so it all becomes pointless anyway.
+      They may define the terms of the argument however they want, but if the terms of the argument have nothing to do with the way God sees it, it all becomes pointless again.
What are we to believe? How can we act and speak out prophetically in our time?

A. You may not know the name, but recently (2013)Will Campbell died. His was one of the voices of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, silenced by retirement and by some surprising decisions he made. A white Baptist preacher, he appeared on the national scene working in the American South for the Civil Rights of African Americans. He took some unpopular stands; he suffered some threats for his trouble. He was a hero to many in that movement; he was villain to those who opposed that movement.
            At the height of the Civil Rights movement, he made what appeared to be a 180 degree turn in his life by beginning a ministry among the Klu Klux Klan. It was this decision which tarnished his star among the *bona fide* civil rights activists of the day. At the time, he made the point that the African Americans of the South and the rank and file members of the Klan were equally victims: equally poor, equally powerless, equally without a voice to address their station in this world. It was a position that he held alone for the most part.
            Recently, Will Campbell died at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Kyle Childress, also a preacher, wrote recently in *The Christian Century* about Will Campbell’s passing:

            Rev. Childress recalled his own efforts to speak out for racial equality and some of the heat he had taken for his stand. He wrote to Will Campbell expecting to hear an “atta boy” from the great Civil Rights legend. What he heard instead was counsel “to love my enemies and discover that they are my neighbors, my sisters and brothers whom Christ has reconciled.” Whether I decided to leave the ministry or to stay, Campbell said, “The issue is not right or wrong, justice or injustice, good or bad. It’s human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take up sides. You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it.” Maybe some of your church members are [*terrible people* - my softening of Campbell’s language], but God loves them, and us, anyway.
            I heard that no ministry, no service, no action is the *gospel of Jesus Christ* if it is not incarnated in flesh and blood community, relationship, and friendship. For me, that means… living in hope in the midst of tragedy, and ministering to the hurt wherever we find it (2)

[CONCL:]
            I wonder if the better prophet for this world is the one who lives out a ministry of flesh and blood in community, relationship, and friendship, responding to the tragedy wherever we find it. It is certainly easier to send a blast to the twitter-verse or to make scathing comments on someone’s blog posting. The showy-er strategy is to march in a parade or join in the demonstration. But, standing at once with the oppressed AND with those fearful of change before the issues of this day is the more difficult path. The list of this day’s causes can be found on the nightly news. But, come back to watch the news tomorrow night, because the list will change quickly, even though the hurt is rarely resolved so easily.
            We are called to listen for the prophets of our day; they might be speaking the Word of God to a world afraid of their truth. We are called to speak our Truth; we might be the Amos for this day. We are called to live in welcome with those who get stepped on by this world. As Will Campbell said, “In a tragedy you can’t take up sides. You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it.”



Notes:
3. Childress, Kyle. “The Steeple Dropout,” a memoriam for Will Campbell. The Christian Century, July 10. 2013
4. Clendenin, Dan. “Remembering Romero: The Prophet Amos vs. The Priest Amaziah,” Essay posted 5 July 2010 on www.journeywithjesus.net



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