The Bare Necessities
We need one another more than we ever suspected. We need positive experiences, a break from the hoopla, a bubble bath… But what does God need? God demands social justice and won’t have it any other way until we get with the program. Household of faith, we’ve been here before.
Amos 5:8-12, 18-24
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The Bear Necessities
I don’t remember the first time my mom took me to the movies, but I do remember her description of it. Rather than watch Disney’s first adaptation of The Jungle Book, she said that I sat in her lap and looked at her. The animals were frightening, the songs were too loud. That’s kinda how I’ve felt during this election—it’s often scary and too loud. Instead of my mom, I’ve looked toward Jesus. We’ll get to him shortly.
On the screen, behind me, a big bear began singing “The Bear Necessities.” Of course his name was Baloo! Now I loved The Jungle Book. He sang about his big home, the bees that work making honey just for him and no one else. Don’t work like those loser bees, advises Baloo, just sit back and relax. (How in this world did I ever become a preacher much less a Christian, raised on a diet like that?) Now of course everybody deserves their own hakuna matada moment, but to live like that is a destructive kind of denial. Unexamined privilege can only go so far before, well, a prophet shows up, shares their inconvenient truth and ruins everything by appealing to our innate sense of right and wrong. Prophets cuts through all the noise and go straight for the moral center.
How Amos is About You
Amos speaks to a sharply-divided kingdom. Half the people want a Davidic king and the other half don’t care about the lineage of their ruler. Amos comes from down south in Judah, the self-described righteous nation of the two. Do you think he might have something to say this Sunday after an election that has solidified our divisions? Amos was a migrant farm worker. He crosses over that ancient Mason-Dixon-like border from Judah into the northern kingdom of Israel, to preach and to prophesy on the other side. He will not agree to disagree. Amos will warn of God’s righteous anger for both the north and the south. He will claim the truth that there are bad people on both sides. In particular, Amos will chastise the more affluent nation of Israel for trampling the needs of the poor to satisfy themselves. Like Balloo, Israel’s version of the bare necessities included large homes and food intended only for them, served while reclining on ivory couches along with cups of fine wine. Amos even rails against the harps playing tinkly background music. He rages at Israel for seceding from the union and making deals with Judah’s enemies.
Assessing the current situation is the chief function of biblical prophets. Foretelling the future less so. Another prophet, Martin Luther, forebear of the Reformation, wants us to be sure that reading Amos is not an exercise in storytelling. Luther says the Bible is not only about your neighbors or our ancestors. It is de te loquitur, “it’s talking about you.” It’s themes are current and meant for each of us. De te loquitur—it means us. The story of Amos is the story of the United States, Calvary Presbyterian Church and you and me in the year 2020.
Wednesday morning, I got an email from a childhood friend. I have become her e-pastor. She lives in Rome, Georgia, where the president spoke last Sunday. So many armed domestic terror groups showed up, the local police were outnumbered. She and her Democrat friends were advised to stay home for safety. On Wednesday, she wrote:
“Victor…please use your connections strongly NOW!!!! I am copying friends on this email and if you will send us a collective prayer we will do whatever you tell us to do!!!” Here’s my reply, adapted a bit for public consumption.
I just heard Sasha Baron Cohen, of all people, say that “Democracy relies on shared truths, and authoritarianism relies on shared lies.” I am troubled by the number of people who proclaim “we don’t live in a democracy, we are a republic” — like China or the old USSR. Here’s the rub: if those who represent us are not elected democratically, our republic falls. Our military goes all over the world to promote what? Democracy. Perhaps that’s why authoritarian leaders disparage our military. Our country supports global democracies. Our Constitution is not intended to promote minority rule, no matter how intimidating and well-funded.
But you wrote me for a more spiritual guidance. The story of human liberation is a major theme in scripture. Christian belief rests on a theology of liberation, developed in Central and South America by Catholic priests who saw authoritarians rise to power illegitimately. They ignored the will and the needs of the people, the same people who collectively comprise the Body of Christ. These authoritarians sentenced their opponents to exile, prison and death. Additionally, the priests witnessed the exploitation of ordinary people by U.S. corporations.
On our church’s mission trip, we learned that along the Mexico-Guatemala border, unpublicized bases supported by our government are set up to curtail migrants from crossing into Mexico on their way to the United States. Refugees and asylum-seekers who are intimidated to turn back cannot make it to our border for a fair hearing. The people who live at the southern Mexican border are bought out, with U.S. corporate or government (tax) money, and put to work for the same people who gave them the pittance for their land. They learn skills like how to intimidate migrants into retreat and how best to pick bananas for the corporation.
“Liberation Theology” hangs on God’s special soft spot for these exploited people, the same people Amos is yelling about. Scripture overflows with how God inhabits the margins of society, opposes slavery and empire and makes us stewards of creation. The Bible shows us in no uncertain terms how we are to stand with the poor and vulnerable.
God’s grace is extravagant, undeserved and no one should ever try to earn it. In the person of Jesus Christ, God became a homeless, itinerant rabbi, targeted by religious authority and executed by empire. Through Christ, God demonstrates the “preferential option for the poor” which we are to consider our blu. In other words, Amos is prophesying what good preachers have been saying all along: Be like Jesus.
The great Howard Thurman wrote:
“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker and teacher appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of [all people].’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”
We humans have a way of straying into the “false self.” We buy into a soothing sin that we are somehow superior to others if our skin is lighter or our bank accounts larger or our neighborhoods are considered top drawer or we’re healthier. Conversely, those who have been targeted traditionally— women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, LGBTQ people, etc. — sometimes we begin to accept that we are inferior, broken or weak, we’re “out of touch” and deserve what the world doles out for us. But it’s the true self that will eventually stand before God as the sheep and goats are sorted. I have enough faith to lop off some and give it to you if you need it, that you can and will be and summon your True Self, the You God made, the self that can love others selflessly. That’s what Amos is calling us to do.
I saw a preacher from the Poor People’s Campaign tell the story of a group of priests who got tired of their congregations telling them that they were too outward-facing when they preached the theology of liberation. So, the priests took scissors and cut out every verse of scripture that pertained to social justice. Pretty soon, their Bibles fell apart. Without justice, God’s Word for us actually collapses in on itself. Disintegrates. Justice is the necessity of necessities, the bare necessity of faith.
Agape love demands selflessness and putting the needs of others ahead of our own selfish desires, our retirement accounts, our racial and gender privileges and even ahead of the law, if the law is unjust. That’s what prophets do. That’s what Jesus did. Be. Like. Jesus. It might not make you popular, but it will make you invincible. How’s invincible? Can you live with invincible? The peace God gives us is not the peace the world can give. Reciprocally, the world cannot take the peace and power of God away. In the words of Margaret Atwood, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Everything you need, you already possess, because in God, all things are possible. Hold on!
In the name of the One who showed us how, amen.