Sunday, July 17, 2016

"The End of a Season". A sermon on Amos 8, preached on July 17.

"The End of a Season"

Amos 8:1-12

The prophet Amos could not have known, thousands of years ago when he was delivering his prophetic oracles, that they would someday appear in the lectionary at this particular moment in American history.  Certainly he didn’t speak his oracles with us in mind. But this passage from the prophet Amos comes at an especially fraught and difficult time in our national life, and it provides us with an opportunity to talk about our life together.
My heart aches each time there’s another shooting or terrorist attack.  In recent weeks, Philando Castile, a school lunchroom supervisor, was shot in Minnesota by a police officer, with his fiancé and 4-year-old daughter in the ca, and Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Then 5 Dallas police officers were killed and 9 officers and 2 civilians were injured by a military veteran who was apparently angry about African-Americans being killed by police.  Officer Lorne Ahrens… Officer Michael Smith… Officer Michael Krol… Officer Patrick Zamarripa… and Dallas Transit Police Officer Brent Thompson were the officers who lost their lives.  All of those killed were precious lives. 
We were still reeling from these deaths when in Nice, France, a terrorist used a 19-ton truck to massacre 84 people and injured more than 200 by driving through the crowds gathered to watch fireworks on Bastille Day.
The Republican National Convention is scheduled to begin tomorrow, and the Democratic National Convention will be held next week. 
This is an intense and troubling time in our nation. So it seems like a good time to take stock of our nation and our society, and to ponder what God might have Amos or some other prophet say to us today.
Amos was an “outside agitator” from Judah—a southerner who was called to speak to a northern audience in a time of national security and material affluence.  The wealth was enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many.  His words may be as difficult for us to bear as they were for Israel and its political ruler and those who were wealthy and privileged.
In last week’s Hebrew scripture lesson, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, went to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel.  The land is not able to bear all his words.  For this Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”
Then Amaziah told Amos to get out of Israel and go back to Judah. “Earn your bread there, and prophesy there.  But never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”[1]

When I was in seminary, one of my assigned papers in an Old Testament class was about distinguishing true prophets from false prophets.  What I discovered was that there were those who claimed to be prophets, who would tell the king what he wanted to hear.  As Jeremiah said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.’”[2] 
Ezekiel criticized the false prophets:  “Because, indeed, because they have seduced My people, saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace—and one builds a wall, and they plaster it with untempered mortar…”  Ezekiel brought a word from the Lord aboutthe prophets of Israel who prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and who see visions of peace for her when there is no peace….’”[3]

            One of the events I attended at the Wild Goose Festival last week was a Town Hall on Racial Justice, with Jim Wallis and other panelists.  Near the end, there was a time for questions and response, and someone asked, “When I go home, how can I talk to my congregation about racial justice without upsetting somebody?”   Can you guess what the response was?   “You can’t.”  For a lot of people, it isn’t easy to hear or think about it.  But it’s necessary and important.
            Whether people in Israel heard Amos’ message as good news or bad news would have depended on where they found themselves in the story.  If they were comfortable with the status quo, they probably heard it as bad news.  But if they were poor or marginalized or oppressed, they would have been glad to hear that there were consequences for those who act unjustly and that God would be bringing an end to this wickedness. 
            This week’s Hebrew scripture lesson began with a vision that the prophet received:
            This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit.  He said, “Amos, what do you see?”  And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.  “Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”
            In my study this week, I was reminded that puns are common in biblical prophetic literature.  When you get the pun in this passage, it’s jarring.  The Hebrew word used for “summer fruit”—qayits-- sounds similar to qets-- the word for “end”.   Some of the translations try to re-create the word play in English, saying something like “The time is ripe for my people Israel.”[4]
            Phillando Castile, Alton Sterling, police officers in Dallas, mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, the state sanctioned executions of those on death row, kids who are hungry in our own extended neighborhoods—everywhere we look, we find suffering,  injustice and death.  There are cycles of violence and retribution, oppression and marginalization that play out over and over again. 
            These things are painful to see and hear.   People who are privileged may get through life without seeing or hearing some of them at all.  But God calls us to be quiet and listen, and to see things through God’s eyes, to see the pain of God’s beloved children.
            Now that nearly everybody has a video camera in their phone, violence and injustice is being documented and shared over the internet.  So, unless we refuse to see it and hear it, we are more aware of it. 
I think—I hope and pray—that we have finally reached a tipping point, that we are heartbroken enough now that we are ready to recognize the end of a season in the life of our society and that we are ready to do the hard work of listening and learning, and to commit ourselves to God’s way of justice for all God’s people. 
            I think the time is ripe.  We can do better in our society, in this new time.  We can be better—with God’s help.
At the Wild Goose Festival, Jim Wallis reminded us that 75 percent of white Americans have entirely white social networks.  The lack of direct, regular, and personal connection makes it very difficult to get beyond the racial biases and stereotypes that are still so strong in white American society. [5]   
Fifty years after the great victories of the civil rights movement, and Dr. King’s reminder that Sunday morning at eleven o’clock was the nation’s most segregated hour, most Americans still live most of their lives segregated from other races.  In many parts of our nation, we live in different neighborhoods, and most of us are not together in our schools and churches.  So most people don’t have opportunities to talk more deeply together and develop the empathy and meaningful relationships that bring understanding, friendships, common citizenship, and even spiritual fellowship—unless you work at it intentionally.
When you’re not with other people, you simply don’t know what their lives are like, what they’re most concerned about, what their core values or top priorities are, what they’ve been going through, and what they desire for their children.  You learn about other people when they’re your neighbors, or parents of your children’s classmates or teammates, or members of your religious congregation….[6] 
You learn a lot about people if you did, as a pastor in Atlanta started to do a few days ago, on his daily commute on public transit, where he is surrounded by persons of color.  He usually focuses on reading on the train, which isolates him.  But after all the shootings recently, he decided to push past his comfort zone and engage with people. 
In his blog, Presbyterian pastor Greg Allen-Pickett wrote:  “Last week, our country convulsed from the untimely deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both precious children of God. I have been wracked with many emotions. But as I made my morning commute, I realized that what I am feeling must pale in comparison to what my black sisters and brothers are feeling. So for the past week, I wore my clerical collar on my train ride and I asked my fellow riders how they were feeling; this is what I learned….”[7]
I hope you’ll read his post.  In summary, he heard people of color saying that they’re sad, they’re scared, they’re fearful, and they’re angry. He was surprised to hear that they’re hopeful. The people on the train expressed hope that things will get better.  They expressed “hope that God is present, even the midst of all of this injustice, and that God is actively at work, redeeming and reconciling.”
So what did he learn from this experience?  He says most days when he gets on the train, he keeps his head down, and he usually reads a book.  But with his nose in a book, he wasn’t connecting with the people around him.  He learned that to be an ally, he needs to close his mouth and listen—really listen—and pay attention to the world around him.  He learned that it isn’t about him, that he can strive to live with empathy and compassion, and to be humble about his inability to fully understand the experience of being black in this country.  He learned that he needs to push out of his comfort zone, to make eye contact and interact with people who are different, to ask authentic questions and be prepared for authentic answers—answers that may challenge him and make him uncomfortable. 
As he writes, it is in that discomfort that we begin to grow.  And this Presbyterian pastor learned from this experience about the power of prayer. He learned how to pray from his sisters and brothers on the train that he prayed with.  He learned that “even in the midst of profound darkness, there can be hope and light.”

I think we need to hear peoples’ stories and acknowledge their pain and fears.  So I’m grateful for the courage of a number of people—mothers of black children, elected officials, and others—who have shared some of their experiences and posted them online, and I’ve been sharing some of them on Facebook, for those who “have ears to hear.”

When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things will not go well for you. The end of injustice is coming, whether or not you have eyes to see.  
The good news is that God loves every one of us and wants us all to live in beloved community together.  God wants all God’s children to  enjoy freedom and justice and joy. 
Do we believe this?  Can we trust that God loves us and all God’s children, and that God has a plan for us that is good for all of us?  Is anything too wonderful for God?
The time is ripe.  It’s up to us.  How will we respond?
Will we join God in heralding the arrival of justice for all?  Or will we stand in the way?
I pray that we will all respond faithfully. 
May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Amos 7:10-17

[2] Jeremiah 6:14
[3] Ezekiel 13:10, 16.

[6] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  Brazos Press, 2016.