Trouble and Transformation: Reflections on Sunday’s Bible Texts

By Bruce Epperly

Lectionary Reflections for July 11, 2010

Texts:  Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Reading the prophet Amos hits too close to home these days.  No one wants to be a harbinger of bad news, especially when anxiety is gripping the community already; but that’s Amos’ vocation.  To speak words of disorientation, with just a few final sentences of hope, is Amos’ challenge to an already unsettled nation, facing the “perfect storm” of unfixable problems.  Before the good news, there will be a lot more bad news to come, Amos tells his listeners.

People were worried in Israel, and they’re worried in North America today.  While some have people have profited from the past few years of economic insecurity, most of us anticipate working harder – if we’re lucky – with less compensation, benefits, and job security.  The baby boomer’s dream of a redefining retirement as a mystical or hedonistic adventure still plays well on commercials during tennis and golf championships.  But, elsewhere boomers hope that they won’t end up as Walmart greeters or living with their children a decade from now.  And, like Amos’ listeners, we face the perfect storm of economic insecurity, global anxiety, unfixable oil spills, international conflict, and cultural unrest.  Would you dare to preach his message in your church this week?  And, if you did, what would the result be?

Amos doesn’t let his listeners off the hook, nor does his message give us a break.  Actions have results, and while there are forces at work beyond the infidelity of Israel, Amos believes that idolatry, injustice, and infidelity have led to the current national crisis.  Amos’ God seems to be in the midst of the crisis as both its primary provocateur, and ultimate hope for recovery.  Powerless before the threats of its enemies, Amos tells Israel that God is in control of the affairs of persons and nations, and that they are really only getting what they deserve.

The Temple prophets attempt to silence this outsider.  “Don’t prophesy against Israel?”   Today, we might be told, “Don’t prophesy against Wall Street or the oil companies or the Chamber of Commerce?  Don’t bring us bad news?  Or, at least sugar coat what you have to say? We need something uplifting, even if it’s a lie.”  But, Amos presses on, “Unscrupulous business dealings and unrestrained profit-seeking have hurt the nation.”  There’s no denial here, in fact, there seems to be little hope for the wayward nation.  The evangelicals I grew up with often spoke of being “convicted,” that is, seeing the error of their ways and how far they had stepped off the path of righteousness.  And, that’s what Amos is about in this passage.

While we might not like the theology of divine control of historical events, we need to be convicted as a nation: our salvation is not in shopping or retirement funds, but in relationship to the just and living God who asks us to “walk the talk” of faithfulness.

I do not believe God controls the affairs of nations or unilaterally raises up enemies: indeed, the Falwell’s and Roberston’s have given us too much of this punitive theology.  Still, values have consequences; the USA’s consumerism, greed, and profit motive have led us to the current impasse, and I believe have placed limits on the possibilities God can offer us.  A God who is not fully responsible or wanting to punish us still can be disappointed and saddened by the way our actions have worked against God’s vision for our lives and world.

Psalm 82 doesn’t make things any easier.  Disoriented by threat and persecution, the Psalmist cries out for justice.  For the Psalmist, justice in this case appears to involve crushing the oppressor.  But, he may be singed himself: the oppressed who call for destruction of the oppressors only repeat the sins of those who tormented them, and will most likely be the objects of hatred and recrimination in the future.

Any preacher who attempts to tackle Amos from the pulpit cannot be an impartial bystander or innocent observer.  In fact, many of us may be tempted to preach a gentle summertime message and drop the lectionary altogether, but deep down we are left with an uneasy conscience – Amos is right in his observations, even if we don’t like the theology.  Denial will not get us anywhere in the long run, only serious commitment to a new way of life and new priorities will open the door to an injection of transformational divine possibility.  Perhaps, Amos saw his task as saying what everyone felt deep down, but didn’t want to say.  And, perhaps that’s our task, too, to raise the provocative proposition that we’re really in trouble as a nation and planet, and we don’t see a clear way out.

We get a little relief in Colossians insofar as we are no longer being threatened by the scripture or preacher.  Paul has great affection for the Colossians, but recognizes that they need to continue on the path of wholeness and salvation. Paul’s prayer is that they continue to grow especially in awareness of God’s vision of their lives in terms of their spirituality and understanding.  God’s guidance is everywhere and if they follow God’s guidance, they will “bear fruit in every good work.”  While the faithful may be subject to persecution, cancer, and economic reversal, those who lead lives worthy of God in body, mind, spirit, and relationships will experience God’s power and fidelity in their lives, regardless of external circumstances.

The gospel of Luke joins eternal life with holistic spirituality.  In loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength we overcome the contemporary split of contemplation and action, and spirituality and social concern.  Eternal life is alignment with God’s vision in the present moment.  Jesus connects spiritual attentiveness with neighborly concern.  Kinship crosses boundaries of ethnicity, but also boundaries of agenda.  We have all felt like the priest and Levite: we have been so engaged in our agenda, our schedule, and our appointed task that we have missed God’s call right in front of us.  While it is surely irresponsible to miss church, especially when you’re preaching, nevertheless, when we see someone in need, our “responsibility” can indirectly lead to another’s death.  In this case, the religious leaders’ irresponsibility led to neglect.  The Samaritan traveler was equally busy, but he let go of his agenda in light of a bigger vision, the vision of reaching beyond barriers to help someone in dire need.  God inspires all people, but sometimes the most unlikely respond to God’s call for mercy.

My former colleague Jennifer Lord, currently teaching at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, focuses on “mercy” in her recent Christian Century lectionary commentary on this text.  We need to show mercy as well as receive mercy in times of trouble.  Perhaps, we need a dose of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner” these days, even if we don’t like the use of “sinner” as a noun rather than a verb!  Mercy opens our heart to our own pain and the pain of others, indeed, to the pain of the earth.  Mercy leading to action – to new behaviors and priorities – is the only thing that will save us.  We don’t need to circle the wagons for survival; in fact, what will save us as people and as a nation is greater open-heartedness, evidenced in loving and transformative actions toward immigrants, gulf wildlife, vulnerable persons, and other nations.  At the end of our efforts, we need to open our hearts to the mercy of a loving God, who embraces all of us and in the embrace calls us to transformation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.