By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
May 3, 2020
Video of full service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/2127496697396532/
Scripture: Amos 5:21-24
Now, I can’t see your faces, but I can imagine what you are thinking. Right up until you heard that scripture, you were thinking “That Pastor Chris… she’s such a nice lady.” Maybe now you are not so sure. Well, friends, those words were from the Prophet Amos – who was neither nice…nor a lady. He is one of the harshest prophets in the bible, arguably the harshest.
Like all prophets, he is working outside the power structures of his society. In fact, Amos came from working-class roots. He is identified as a “herdsman” and a “trimmer of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). That’s almost everything we know about his biography, except that he seems to have been kicked out of at least one sanctuary at Bethel. He was kicked out by Amaziah, the official priest of Bethel who reported Amos’s trouble-making to the king (Amos 7:10-11). Amaziah the priest has an institution to uphold, and he makes it very clear to Amos that his words are not welcome because they are making the people upset. The priest wants the people to be content. He does not want the people to be upset. He surely does not want the king getting upset.
But the prophet Amos really didn’t care what the priest said or the king said, and he also apparently did not care what the people were saying. I would venture to guess Amos had very few friends. Such is the life of a prophet. Prophets rise when the culture and the faith community has lost its way. Prophets rise when societies need warning, when they need to hear uncomfortable truths. Nobody likes that.
I don’t imagine myself to be a prophet like Amos. In church language, when we talk about pastors, we often talk about this in terms of the “pastoral” versus the “prophetic” role. I cherish my pastoral role. Especially in these scary and difficult times, I delight in being able to offer a word of comfort and hope. I know so many people are struggling right now, and I am grateful beyond words whenever something I say or do can ease any of the burdens you are carrying. To those of you who have met me in person and those of us who are getting to know one another virtually: I hope you know that I love you. I understand my role as first and foremost to embody God’s love and compassion as much as I can. So that’s what I try to do. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
I did not plan to preach on Amos this week. You can ask the Music Advisory committee – who right now is as surprised as you are. But it’s been (quite) a week, and as I walk through my weeks, I listen for the Holy Spirit to direct my attention. Last week, I was listening. The first thing I heard was governors announcing that “churches can open back up” after May 4. Then I heard that Omaha opened the parks back up because it was nice out and people were complaining. Then I heard about the outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat packing plants. At last count, that’s nearly 900 workers at a plant in Indiana and 669 in Dakota County, Nebraska. That’s at least 200 workers at the plant in Grand Island.
Then I saw pictures of protestors with guns and without masks screaming in the face of police officers in Michigan. I have read about shortages and political struggles about who gets Personal Protective Equipment. I read about an order of 100,000 body bags by the federal government – just as we are told it’s time to start opening up. I have seen the class divide: telling those who are poor to get back to work while my husband and I and so many others are safely telecommuting from home. And in the midst of all that, the politicians are encouraging us to open up the churches.
I was literally walking through my living room on Monday night, having just gotten home from the Church Council meeting where we decided to continue online worship only: in order to do our part in NOT spreading the coronavirus. And these words popped into my head: “I hate your solemn assemblies.” I’m sure I had read or heard them before, but I didn’t know where it was from. I had to Google it. And there it was…I mean it has a good ending “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That part is nice.
But I was like, “Ooh. It’s Amos. Shoot.”
This is the Prophet Amos predicting the utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His message is clear. He’s saying to the kingdom: you are exploiting the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed. You are not following the will of God who is a God of justice for the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed. You are toast. You are going to be destroyed. He was right. The Assyrians came in and destroyed the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC – twenty-some years after Amos’s warnings.
See, I didn’t want to preach on Amos because we don’t want to be in an Amos moment. Remember that I said Amos was one of the harshest prophets? That’s because in Amos, there is almost no hope. There is no vision of restoration. He doesn’t give the people a way out. He’s basically saying God’s had it with them.
The particular thing Amos takes aim at in the scripture we heard today is worship. You heard the words. They are very blunt.
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 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.
Now, over the years, people have interpreted this as Amos being concerned with worshiping in the wrong way or worshiping in the wrong place. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about hypocrisy. For Amos, creating a just society where all people have what they need is the foundation of faithfulness – and Amos’s people have abandoned that foundation. The people of Israel have lost their way. Those who have what they need no longer care about those who do not. Amos says they “trample on the poor” (5:11). They “push aside the needy at the gate” (v.12). They “oppress the poor.” (4:1). They “crush the needy” (4:1) while they sit around and enjoy their prosperity. They “store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (3:10).
…and the people who have abandoned justice make themselves feel better by performing all the “right” rituals. They justify their callousness to the suffering of others by participating in worship. They make that the most important thing. They tell themselves that it’s okay to be as selfish as we want – as long as we have our festivals and solemn assemblies.
Amos says: God hates it. God despises it. God is disgusted by it.
Now – I hesitate to stand here and declare that God hates or despises things. I don’t want to be an Amos. It is far easier to be a pastor than a prophet. But I am quite sure God does not delight in hypocritical worship. God is possibly quite over the idea that all it takes to be a Christian is to profess words with your lips and maybe spend an hour hanging out in a comfy building each week. Also, I am very sure God is really over being used as a political prop…especially when opening up churches puts the lives of the most vulnerable people in our world at risk.
How dare I stay silent about that? How dare I just stand up here and make everybody feel better? How dare I ignore some of the hard questions that need to be asked at this moment? Like why some people have safe working conditions and some do not? Why some live on the edge of poverty where taking off two months of work is catastrophic and some do not? Why we seem to value corporate profits and our desire to eat meat more than the lives of the workers who prepare the meat? We have to speak of these injustices. We have to not only make individual decisions to care for others but demand that we make societal decisions to care for everyone.
We have to listen to Amos. Why? Because his society crumbled. His prophecy was right. The Northern Kingdom was utterly destroyed because it was weakened by the collective greed and selfishness of its people. When go down that same road of self-interest and injustice, not only does God reject our worship, we risk being the architects of our own demise.
I know this is very upsetting. When Amos spoke to his people, there was no hope. But as a commentator, David Gowan, writes, “As long as we are not convinced it is too late and believe we still have a chance, we [should read Amos this way]: as a challenge not to make the mistake ancient Israel made.”
We don’t have to make the same mistake. We still have a chance. Yes, there is the coronavirus. It might affect how and where we worship for a very long time. But there is nothing happening right now that is stopping us from being Christians. Wherever we worship, we can still be people of integrity who serve the God of love and justice: the God that Amos speaks for, the same God we believe we saw in Jesus! In fact, we have the opportunity to be exceptional followers of that God. We can choose to care for the most vulnerable among us. In the way of Jesus, that means self-sacrificially. It means giving up our personal preferences and comforts so that others can live and thrive. It means creating a society that does the same.
Nothing is stopping us from honoring God and being Christians. Not the corona virus. Not social distancing. We can be people of faith. We can show the world what being God’s people really means. It doesn’t mean we simply agree with the same ideas about God and prove it by going to a specific building every week. It means we obey God. It means we follow Jesus. It means we seek justice and offer hope not just for the people who happen to gather at this church, not just for our neighborhood, but for the world.
When our whole lives reflect the courageous and self-giving love of Jesus, that’s when God will delight in our worship. That’s when we will see our society change into a place that honors the sacredness of every human being, that hears the plight of the poor, and that makes the radical changes it’s going to take to care for the most vulnerable.
That’s when God will delight in our worship, and according to the Prophet Amos, our very existence depends on it. My beloved people…there is still time. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
May it be so.