Text: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-14
Is it possible to be something by not being something? I know, that’s an intense question to ask so early on a Sunday morning, so let me ask it another way: one some level do we define who we are by who we aren’t?
Perhaps some of you have heard the contemporary term applied to many young millennials today, the “nones.” Recent social science indicates that one third of young adults (18-29) and just over one third of thirty-somethings in the US identify as non-religious. Spiritual, yes, but without religious affiliation. “Nones.” What does that mean? On the heels of celebrating the Reformation, remembering that our church must continually reform, that’s a question worth thinking about.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this young subset of society in recent years and learned a key lesson, one backed up by data from the Pew Research Center — “nones” have left established, institutionalized religion (like Lutheranism) due to perceived hypocrisy and distaste for empty rituals. In the words of one 22yr. old woman, “When I hear about clergy scandals and meet people who profess to be Christian, but lead totally selfish, immoral lives, I’m out.”
Such perspectives are hard to stomach, especially for those of us who love Christ’s church. Rather than sitting with the discomfort of what church has become to many in our community, it’s tempting to blow off such criticisms as nothing more than youth’s folly. I mean what does an inexperienced, disengaged 22yr. have to say to those of us who have showed up in this sanctuary for decades?
Well, perhaps the very same thing YAHWEH said to the religious leaders of ancient Israel through the young, inexperienced prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…take away from me the noise of your songs…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
What today’s young people long for, what God’s prophets of old longed for, was and is an authentic pursuit of God that brings life.
Before we dig into this hard-hitting text, let me say a bit about Amos and the role of prophecy in the Old Testament.
Last week we learned a bit about one of the earliest prophets, Elijah. What we know about Elijah and his mentee, Elisha we learn from the historical books. Neither of these prophets documented their oracles (or at least no such known documents exist). Like all prophets, Amos is first and foremost “a seer.” This is literally what the word prophet means in Hebrew, “one who sees.” And as articulated in the first two verses of our reading today, Amos saw the future or foretold what was to come, should the Israelites continue in their wayward ways. This is how prophecy is most often understood, as prediction. But Amos’ words also forthtell, or shed light on the current state of affairs, and as such also prove prescriptive. Prophecy embodies a reformation movement. So, as we respond to the Word before us today and prophets in coming weeks, I invite you to reflect in this spirit. Rather than thinking about prophecies as warnings for ancient communities ask yourself, “How do these texts lead me to more clearly see the truth here and now?”
Now, like Elijah, Amos lived during the Divided Monarchy (which lasts for 200 years, roughly between 922-722 BC). The unified Kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon fractured. With little to no reservation many Israelites (in the north) embraced the cultural practices of the day, which included cult worship. Others (primarily those in southern Judah) resisted, holding on to what they perceived as the non-negotiables of orthodox faith. Sound familiar? Culture wars are hardly new. They’re all over in the Old Testament.
And what’s at stake in this biblical cultural war is not merely the reputation of the faith community or the loss of younger members as it might be today; but rather life itself. Three times in the fifth chapter alone Amos reminds the Israelites, “Thus says the LORD, seek me, that you may live.” So the very practical question for us — the “Where Faith Meets Life” question — is what does it look like to seek the LORD?
Amos’ response is clarion. It’s clear, like a good Sunday-School answer. To seek God is to pursue the good and work for justice. Without justice, or relating to one another in life-honoring ways, worship is dead, evil and despicable. It is, to use the millenials’ term “non-worship.”
In the chapters preceding our text today we learn of the manifold ethical violations taking place among Israel’s religious community. Labor was waged from the poor without fair compensation, making it impossible for them to rise out of poverty. Neighbors were being sold into slavery to pay off even the smallest of debts. Demeaned and treated as sub-human, girls and women were exploited and violated. The wealthy were expanding their territories by plundering land from vulnerable farmers. And that’s to name just a few of the problems in Amos’ day.
Where in our communities are the poor expected to work without adequate pay? Why is it that the majority of homeless in our very county work more than two jobs at a time? And for those of us living above the poverty level, how do our patterns of consumption contribute to this problem? Are we supporting businesses that grant fair pay and needed benefits to employees?
And why is it that young people saddled with crippling student debt often face enslaving options like 1) landing the golden-handcuff job that pays the bills while yet sucking the life out of you or 2) beginning adulthood by embracing financial scarcity? Are those of us in mid and senior-level professions aware of this problem and are we working to help alleviate the burden?
For you social media peeps, how does the recent #metoo campaign illustrate perennial and pernicious evils like patriarchy, sexism and misogony? For those of us who prefer newspapers, why doesn’t the recent press on the rise of local sex trafficking leading up to the Super Bowl incite us to care as much about protecting girls as we do the latest football score?
How are you and I complicit in expanding the territory of today’s unscrupulous billionaries by purchasing cheap, more convenient produce from big box stores rather than meat, fruits and vegetables from local farmers
Now of course many more contemporary examples could be shared, illustrating what Amos calls “evil” in verses 14-15. Are you with me, uncomfortable though it may be to think on these things? Amos’ WORD is for all of us, and for every day, as we’re called to worship in both word and action day in and day out.
But this WORD doesn’t leave us condemned. The end-game here isn’t shame. Honestly to hear Amos’ prophecy and simply feel bad about ourselves would be to compound the problem and miss the point entirely! Why? Because Amos’ aim and YAHWEH’s promise is life.
And life takes place in relationship. If we mortals have anything to say about who God is it is that God is relationship, the “I AM.” And in Christ Jesus God models perfect human relationship. This is what is meant by biblical justice, to be in right, life-giving relationship with one another.
And our passage today gives us hopeful, earthy, fecund similies to think about such relationship; comparisons that would have been especially powerful to an ancient Israelite living in a desert climate. Just and right relationships must be a constant in our life, just as a stream ever-flowing. Just and right relationships should characterize all facets of our life, expansively as the oceanic waters. And as with water, there is a powerful result when one small act, something akin to a raindrop, meets many others, culminating in watershed work. This, I think was the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who cited this passage in his famous “I Have a Dream” urging every citizen, especially the Christian, to struggle and creatively protest against evil with what he called “soul force,” that the most vulnerable among us might drink from the cup of dignity and equity and be nourished by an oasis of freedom.
My friends, that work, that godly vision, is far from hollow, despicable non-worship. Amen? It cannot, nor will it ever be the nothingness so detested by today’s young people. Rather, it is life; life we are invited to pursue in, with and through Christ Jesus, who broken on our behalf, restored our relationship with God that we might live. Thanks be to God. Amen.