Holy Trouble Makers: Amos
I really hated the film Greenberg. Perhaps you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, I’ll try not to spoil it for you. If you have, well, I’m sorry.
It wasn’t that the film was bad—ironically, it’s very well-made and layered with metaphor and meaning. The problem for me was that the main character, Roger Greenberg, is annoying beyond belief. I couldn’t stand him during the film, and I left the theater still fuming (clearly) about how much I disliked him.
Roger Greenberg, played by the brilliant Ben Stiller, is a guy in his forties, whom we learn at the beginning of the film is a failed rock musician, now a carpenter, who just got out of a New York hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. The plot of the film, if you could call it a plot, is that Roger is spending six weeks house and dog sitting for his very successful brother in the Hollywood Hills. Over the course of the film we watch this annoying, directionless, angry, and mean character question his life and, basically, remain annoying, directionless, angry and mean.
Any film character who can annoy as much as Roger Greenberg has annoyed me all these weeks must be created with some measure of brilliance as, let’s note, he isn’t a real person. But one of the ways Roger Greenberg became real to me in the film was through his persistent writing of very detailed complaint letters.
While tragically unable to fix the dissatisfaction of his own life, Greenberg becomes a voice for, well, for most anything . . . through his numerous, lengthy, and ardent complaint letters. Over the course of the film his targets include American Airlines, Starbucks, and mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.
And every morning Roger Greenberg opens the New York Times and scans the letters to the editor page just to see if one of his rants has made it into the newspaper.
I imagine that, as the writer of this film was sitting and writing, trying to come up with the most annoying and unlikable character he possibly could, he must have made a list of characteristics that would be sure to annoy us and included all of them when he created Roger Greenberg. And one of those characteristics is that quality of spending one’s free time making trouble—of complaining, of saying things that people don’t want to hear, of being a trouble maker.
Today we’re beginning seven weeks of learning about a very interesting history of our faith: specifically the prophetic tradition of the nation of Israel, a tradition peppered with all kinds of complaint-raising trouble makers. This seven-week sermon series is called “Holy Trouble Makers” because the prophets of ancient Israel were just that: trouble making radicals who made everyone uncomfortable. They made lots of trouble, all of them, but not the kind of pointless trouble Roger Greenberg made. These biblical trouble makers’ voices changed the history of Israel and called the Hebrew people back to God, over and over again.
It may not surprise you to know that none of them were very popular while they were alive, but curiously enough, the prophets’ words were written down and preserved, creating an ancient prophetic tradition that has now found its place in a modern world—ours—and must have something to say to those of us who want to serve God here and now.
So while we’re looking closely at the messages of the biblical prophets, we’re also claiming the radical position that prophecy—holy trouble making—lives on, right here and now, and that there are those in our own personal histories who raise and have raised prophetic voices and made trouble, not just for the sake of complaining, but to call even us back to God. And . . . we’re even asking: if prophecy, holy trouble making, is alive and well, and part of our faith, what might this mean for us? Could it just be an excuse to annoy everyone around us? Or, more likely, might it be a call to you and me to find our radical voices and gather our courage to hear and respond, or even to become trouble makers—holy trouble makers—ourselves? Let’s see.
We begin our examination today with a prophet whose writings are part of a collection of shorter books in our Bible called the Minor Prophets. Amos was the first prophet to raise his voice during a time when the Hebrew people lived as though they had blinders on, having forgotten, it seemed, what God had called them to be. Here’s the back story.
The nation of Israel began, really, with the call of Abram to leave his home and head out for places unknown. Remember that God called Abram out of his tent one night and had him look up, way up, at the night sky. “Look at the stars,” God said, and went on to tell Abram that he would become the father of a great nation.
Well, lots of drama ensued, and the Abraham’s descendents eventually landed in Egypt as slaves, remember? Enter Moses, who led them out of Egypt and, after a short 40 year detour, into the Promised Land.
There they settled, living on their own, slaves to no one.
Then, one day, somebody got the great idea that, since all the nations around them had kings, well, they should have one, too. Saul became the first king of Israel, establishing the monarchy, and then who ascended to the throne but David, the greatest king Israel ever had. After David’s reign came his son Solomon, and then everything started to go south.
Tension was so high at this time that the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern part of the region was called Israel, and the southern region was Judah. A succession of kings reigned over each, some good and most bad, and as the situation deteriorated, the time of the prophets began. For the most part, the prophets came to call the people back to God, to give them important messages, to remind them of their holy identity as God’s people, and to try to keep them serving Yahweh.
And today we meet Amos the prophet. The little book of Amos is one of the most interesting prophetic books in our Bibles because it’s full of the traditional prophetic oracles—messages from God communicated through a person God selects to serve as a mouthpiece. It also has some beautiful poetry in its text, and, most unusually, here in Amos we get a good chunk of the biography of the prophet himself.
The book begins with a whole list of oracles, proclamations of judgment against neighbors of Israel and Judah who were not followers of Yahweh and who were living in ways that were displeasing to God. The book heats up, then, with pronouncements of judgment against Israel itself. Then the book gets even more personal, detailing some specific visions Amos had, very specific messages predicting the destruction of the nation of Israel.
Who was Amos? What was his experience? Why did he say what he said? All of these questions and more are answered in his fascinating story.
Amos lived during a time of relative peace and prosperity, when the threat of military conquest by neighbors had diminished, peace ruled the region, and prosperity began to blossom. Those who had money and land acquired more money and land, and they were growing their fortunes and reveling in their sense that they were special—that God had chosen to bless them. Amos was a resident of the little village of Tekoa, just south of the city of Jerusalem and right on the edge of the dividing line between the Israel to the north and Judah to the south.
While Amos himself lived technically in the southern kingdom, Judah, because of his geographical situation he couldn’t help but have a bird’s eye view of the politics and economics of the north under the reign of King Jeroboam II. Jerusalem was a major political hub of the northern kingdom, and Bethel, a short distance away, was the headquarters of the king.
Now, in Hebrew tradition prophets were generally professionals, like ministers today, hired to bring a word from God. But strangely enough, Amos the prophet was not a professional prophet at all—he was a shepherd. Based on the Hebrew words used to describe him we know that Amos was not really the kind of shepherd that ran around herding sheep all day—he was more likely a dealer in sheep. This meant that he was a little more well-to-do than your average shepherd, and also that he probably had a little bit of awareness of the world beyond his own back pasture. Amos lived just six miles to the south of Jerusalem, and because he did he encountered people from all over the region who traveled in and out, doing business with him trading sheep and other livestock.
And while he did all of this and apparently did it well, the text says that he was also was a dresser of sycamore trees. The fig-like fruit on the sycamore trees was an important part of the diets of the very poorest of the poor, cheap to buy and nutritious enough to serve as a regular entry on their everyday menus. And like any society of affluence and wealth, there was a population in Israel of the poor and destitute, those who had missed out on the sudden affluence and wealth of the region. They depended on the fruit Amos tended.
So, along with the wealthy, who traveled Amos’ hometown of Tekoa on their way to Jerusalem, or to see the king just up the road in Bethel, Amos also saw those for whom power, prestige, and affluence were still just a dream. Day to day Amos the shepherd and Amos the sycamore dresser came into contact with both groups of people, and the contrast of the two grew and grew and came into sharper focus with the passing of each day.
Amos’ career as a holy trouble maker began in earnest with some visions. He would be outside taking care of the sheep, or herding the goats, or dressing the sycamore trees—in other words, just minding his own business—when he would see a strange sight and then hear a voice asking him: what do you see, Amos? Each time he would see a vision it would remind him of the situation in which he lived, of the disparity he saw around him day in and day out, and the visions he saw would strike at the core of his convictions until he could not keep quiet anymore. And then he would proclaim the vision he had, speak up about the injustices all around him, and proclaim the judgment of God on the situation he saw.
How could people who say they followed Yahweh, God of justice and advocate of the downtrodden, ignore the pleas of the least of those among them? In their affluence and comfort, had they come to feel entitled and grasping, forgetting what God had done for them?
Amos saw all of this, and Amos could not stay quiet anymore.
There are five visions of Amos the prophet. Today’s passage details the third: the vision of the plumb line. Amos saw in his vision the Lord, standing next to a wall and holding up a plumb line next to it. He asked Amos, “What do you see?” Dutifully, Amos said: “I see a plumb line.” The Lord said to Amos, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”
Those of you who are really handy around the house you might know what this a plumb line is—it’s a construction tool that has been in use by humans for thousands of years. The plumb line Amos saw, interestingly enough, would have looked almost identical to a plumb line in use today. The tool is just a tear drop shaped piece of lead tied to a length of string. It’s used to hold up next to a wall to test whether the wall is absolutely straight. If it is, the plumb line will fall exactly next to it. If it’s not, the plumb line will show that as clear as day.
The meaning of Amos’ vision was clear: Israel was being held up against the standard of Yahweh, and Israel was coming up crooked. Its rich people got richer and richer; its poor people suffered without the compassion of those around them. Israel reveled in her prosperity, forgetting the days that Yahweh had sustained her. Israel had forgotten where she came from, had forgotten her call to care for those in her midst who were strangers and outsiders. Israel had become so enamored with her own success that the plumb line was hung . . . and Israel was standing as crooked as could be.
Upon seeing this very urgent vision, Amos went straight to Bethel, the headquarters of the king, to report the urgent need for Israel to repent. His appearance was annoying and his message labeled him a trouble maker. The head priest, Amaziah, confronted Amos and said, “I know you think you’re a prophet, but you’re just causing trouble. You need to go back where you came from and proclaim your message in your own neighborhood. We don’t want to hear what you have to say; we have our own prophets here.”
That’s when Amos really got mad. Do you think I WANT to have these visions? Do you think I aspire to be a prophet? Do you think I like people calling me a trouble maker?
No, he didn’t.
In fact, Amos wasn’t a professional prophet at all, he reminded Amaziah. He was just a sheepherder, a dresser of sycamores, a regular guy who saw what was going on all around him . . . how the rich were getting richer and the poor were suffering on the margins of society . . . how the people of Israel were getting complacent in their prosperity and forgetting that God had brought them out of Egypt and everything they had was gift and grace from Yahweh . . . how the arrogance of pride increased while justice and peace decreased.
Amos didn’t want to be a prophet.
He didn’t relish the role of trouble maker.
Aside from Roger Greenberg, who would, really?
But Amos could not look at all the inequity around him and keep silent anymore. He became a holy trouble maker because he had to speak out for what was right.
And what about us? What about you and me?
Perhaps some of us are called to speak from a pulpit every week; hopefully those of us who are will speak a word that is rigorous and truthful. But all of us . . . all of us . . . are called to speak the truth of what we know and believe, no matter who we are, no matter what we do. Like Amos, God gives us visions, shows us inequity and injustice all around us, and like Amos, we are called to speak out, called even to become holy trouble makers. We cannot keep silent when the plumb line is hung and the wall we see is desperately crooked. Like Amos, we must become people who call out the truth of God’s law and raise its standard, even when our perspective is not popular in the least.
While it’s my deepest hope that we do not become a congregation of Roger Greenbergs, it is indisputably part of our calling as people of God to hold up a standard to the world around us. We don’t have to be religious professionals to do this. Like Amos, we could be just going about our own business, and God may place us somewhere where we can see clearly something that needs to be brought to light.
As we follow Amos and all the other holy Hebrew trouble makers through the next few weeks, may our own eyes be opened to the crooked walls in our lives and in the world around us. And may we be, like Amos, faithful, holy trouble makers, willing to take a stand and speak up, no matter the cost.