July 14, 2013
I have heard and preached a lot of sermons in my life. I taught preaching for twenty-eight of the thirty-three years I spent on the faculty of Perkins School of Theology, and estimate that I listened to some 700 student sermons—twice. In addition, I heard a fair number of sermons in our chapel, and have myself preached perhaps 1000 sermons of my own during that time. On those occasions, I attempted to listen to myself, although I was not always successful in that task, I admit. Thus, I have been exposed to nearly 2000 sermons in a lifetime; I could count on one hand the number of sermons I heard that were based on the book of Amos.
Why? Amos is tough; Amos is blunt; Amos says things that no one wished to hear 2800 years ago, things no one much wishes to hear today. My own context for the preaching I have heard and done offers some clues. I have primarily listened to preaching in a seminary that was training preachers for the larger churches of the south. And let me be honest, I was preaching primarily in the larger churches of the south, and elsewhere, who could afford to pay me for my services. In my United Methodist denomination, there is a ladder that clergy are expected to climb, from associate pastor of a large church, to senior minister of a smaller church, and finally to senior pastor of a large congregation. To climb that ladder it will hardly do to ruffle too many comfortable feathers. Amos is a chief ruffler of feathers. Not to put too fine a point on it, sermons from Amos could knock one off the ladder to success.
That judgment may be harsh, but I do not think it is altogether unfair. Amos was called to the task of prophecy by YHWH sometime in the middle of the 8th century B.C.E., "two years before the earthquake," we are told in Amos 1:1. It must have been a memorable quake since the author calls it "the earthquake." But since one can suppose that earthquakes in that part of the world were as common then as they are now, that does not help us much to date the prophecy. However, the more significant issue, well beyond any specific date, is what sort of community Amos is called to address.
The primary concern of his work is the matter of justice. Clearly, the equality that YHWH has called for since the time of the Exodus from Egypt has been severely compromised. A few rich people have become rich at the expense of the increasing number of the poor. Amos announces this problem again and again. "They hate the one who calls for justice in the gate (the place of justice in the ancient city) and abhor the one that speaks the truth. As a result, you trample on the poor and snatch from them their necessary grain for living, building houses of well-dressed stones. But you will not live in them! You have planted lovely vineyards, but you will never drink the wine! You have afflicted the righteous, taken bribes, and shoved aside the needy in the gate" (Amos 5:10-12).
Amos caps his withering assaults against the greedy Israelites with his immemorial words, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a perennial stream" (Amos 5:24). Justice and righteousness, Amos demands, rather than fancy festivals, ostentatious offerings, splendid songs, and heavenly harps (Amos 5:21-23). Such language is poison to choir directors and worship leaders, not to mention preachers who are ever moved by packed pews and cascading cash.
But lest we imagine that Amos is only concerned with demands for justice at the expense of lofty and well-rehearsed worship, let us turn to the text for this Sunday. Here Amos becomes painfully and pointedly political, and urges us to question quite directly the proper relationships between the church and the state.
At Amos 7:7-10 he provides a telling metaphor for YHWH's deep dissatisfaction with the people of Israel. In a vision YHWH shows Amos a plumb line; at least that has been the traditional translation of this word that only occurs here in all of the Hebrew Bible. Verse 7:8 is an especially terrifying sentence. "Look! I am setting a plumb line in the very midst of my people; I will never again pass by them." Of course, Israel has been long defined as those whom YHWH "passed over" in the escape from Egypt. No more Passover, says Amos; YHWH will now pass through them wreaking desolation and waste on the "high places of Isaac" and "the sanctuaries of Israel." Their lack of concern for justice in the community, their rejection and abuse of the poor of the land, will lead to YHWH's utter rejection of them.
Then we hear a scene of Amos's confrontation with the high priest of the central shrine, the cathedral church, of the land of Israel, the sacred place of Bethel. Bethel ("house of God") was named by the ancient patriarch, Jacob, after his vision of YHWH at this very place centuries before (Gen. 28). The high priest of the day, Amaziah by name, a name ironically very close to the prophet's own name, has heard of the preaching of Amos and has warned his king, Jeroboam II, in a letter of the dangers that Amos represents to the crown. "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words" (Amos 7:10). It has ever been the ploy of those in power who are threatened by anyone who questions that power to accuse them of some vast conspiracy. J. Edgar Hoover, long time director of the FBI, accused Martin Luther King, Jr. of being in the employ of the communists. In fact, Dr. King was only in thrall to the God of Israel and Jesus.