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Prophet and Loss
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 14, 2019
A Reading from the Book of Amos
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent 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 thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of 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.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
I would like to introduce you, if you do not already know him, to the prophet Amos, one of the first recorded prophets of Israel, generations before exile, generations before most of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel come into effect. Before any of them, there was Amos, and Amos is on a mission. Amos is on a specific mission because 8th-century Israel is a complicated place. On one hand, this time period is a flourishing one; the monarchy is strong; wealth has flowed into the land; if you were to walk into one of the nicer houses in Beth-el you would stumble onto a very nice meal indeed. On the other hand, Israel’s prosperity has come at a steep price. For the first time in its history, the kingdom has developed a substantial underclass, an entire society of peasants and the dispossessed, folks who would have just a generation back had some claim to some spot of land but now they drift in the wind. Israel’s prosperity rests on their backs.
And so, Amos is on a mission to tell the true version of this story to whoever will listen. More to the point, Amos is on a mission to tell them that God has told him that God will punish them for the way they are treating the poor among them. Now, biographically, we don’t know much about who Amos was. At one moment in this morning’s text he identifies as a “herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, ” which is about the extent of the biography we get. We do not know whether or not he means to say that he was a laborer working on the land or whether he himself owned property and managed an estate, though, given the relentlessness with which he advocates for the forgotten poor of Israel, I can easily imagine that he was one of them. Moreover what makes his story even more complicated is that Amos is not actually from the Kingdom of Israel. We are in a time when the land we think of as Israel is actually split into two kingdoms — prosperous Israel to the north, and poor, rural Judah to the south. And so what we have is, potentially, the story of a migrant farmer who comes across a border to the north, to a land of prosperity, to be the prophet of a dangerously uncomfortable Gospel.
To make this more complicated, even though I told you that Amos was one of the first prophets of Israel, not only is he not actually from Israel, he’s also not a prophet. At least by his own definition, in our text today, he declares that he is not a prophet. Amos has been relaying this series of judgments of God against the people of Israel and in today’s installment of these judgments Amos goes even further than usual, and reports God saying that for all of Israel’s sins God will go against the King himself with a sword. And of course this is not a safe thing for a prophet to say. Here in church it might sound like a bit of theological poetry but in the real world it sounds like a threat of assassination. And it gets the attention of the king’s own prophet, Amaziah. Amaziah is what we call a court prophet — a prophet who works for the king — and whose job it is to tell the king what God is thinking and to reassure the king that God is thinking what the king would like God to be thinking and to convince the people from time to time that God is thinking what the king says God is thinking. And so Amaziah tells Amos, look, yours is not the sort of prophecy that goes down well in these parts. Go and be a prophet anywhere else.
But Amos replies, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.” Being a court prophet, much like being a king, is a hereditary position. If your dad was a court prophet, you were automatically next in line. Note that this is not how we usually think about prophets. We usually think about wild-haired John-the-Baptist types working on the margins. But being a court prophet is not that, it’s like holding municipal office, it’s like being the associate comptroller of public accounts, except you don’t have to run for anything, and nobody appointed you, you just got born into it, and Amos wants to be absolutely clear that he does not belong to that particular club. He does not come from the system. He does not hang out inside the beltway. He is not a prophet, not in the way you mean. He is a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees. Nonetheless, the word of God has come to him. And God speaks to him, and God compels him to speak on God’s behalf, and God has sent him north to bring this deeply uncomfortable word, to tell the truth about a kingdom that has forgotten who it is called to be and who it is called to care for.
It would be very easy to criticize Amaziah for his role in all of this. He’s the one who has the king’s ear, he’s the one who has access to power, he’s the one who should be tending the conscience of the whole thing, he’s the one who could step into the throne room and say,“Look, God has said otherwise,” though even for a court prophet I’m not sure how well that’s likely to go. And it’s easy to criticize the compromises he must make. The contortions. The conspiracy of ego that must compel him to set aside the theological and moral tradition in which he stands, for the sake of power and authority. It’s not like he wouldn’t have known what God would want them to do. The Jewish scriptures are already very clear on this point. God has already transparently called them to care for the least fortunate among them but Amaziah has set all of that aside for what end we might only guess. Does he like the money or the access, or the raw power of it? We all know how easy it is for people of faith to trade in our principles for money and access and power.
Or just for comfort. In some ways I actually feel quite sorry for Amaziah. He’s in an impossible position. His job description is fundamentally untenable. The whole point is that he’s supposed to tell the king what God wants and also make sure that it’s the same thing the king wants and that’s not a sustainable proposition. It’s also, in a hereditary system, not something that Amaziah can opt out of — he’s just stuck, hoping that the king will make Godly decisions, or that God will make kingly decisions, or perhaps hoping that he won’t notice if the king doesn’t make Godly decisions, either way, he’s stuck because the system around him can’t handle hearing the truth. There is no threshold for hearing God say something that might not be right up the king’s alley. There is no threshold for hearing God say something challenging. There is no threshold for hearing God say something uncomfortable. “The land is not able to bear his words,” Amaziah says of Amos’s prophecy. This isn’t simply a political problem; it’s not just about a king with a bad personality or an overworked ego or a severe case of executive narcissism. This is a theological problem. It’s about what happens when God makes us uncomfortable.
Now, we can get uncomfortable all the time talking about God, or hearing about God. You could go listen to some fundamentalist preacher and get uncomfortable hearing about God, it’s easy to get uncomfortable hearing something that you think is fundamentally wrong. I’m not talking about that, because the problem in this story isn’t that Amos is wrong. This story would be so much easier if Amos was wrong. If he were wrong, he’d be easy to dismiss and we already would have forgotten him. The problem is that he’s right. The problem is that Israel has forgotten its poor and vulnerable. The problem is that Israel has created a fundamentally immoral arrangement of wealth. The problem is that God will in fact send God’s people into exile and tear down their icons. The problem is that Amos is right. The problem is that he is saying something uncomfortable, and he’s right. The problem is that he’s saying something uncomfortable in the name of God, and he’s right. And that can make us squirm.
I think about my encounters with our contemporary prophets. I remember the first time I read Chris Hedges talking about the moral cost of war. Or the first time I heard William Barbour describe the theological cost of economic inequality. Or the time I watched Bree Newsome arrested for removing the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. The problem isn’t that the prophets are wrong. The problem is that they’re right. And that they make us squirm.
Even in church. Even here, we can get uncomfortable. Maybe one day the sermon makes you uncomfortable; maybe it’s happening right now. Or maybe it something else, a stray comment in a Sunday school class, a stray line in the newsletter, on the billboard, some stray thought overheard in the hallway. Admittedly, it would be significantly easier if it never happened. Admittedly, it would be easier if this could just be the one place in our lives nothing uncomfortable ever happened, where we could come and be fed without consequence, where we could drink without effect, where we could be joyful and gracious and sense only the love and compassion and mercy of God who created us. It would be great if we could come here, week in and week out, and Sunday in and Sunday out and be reassured that God is always thinking what we would like God to be thinking. It would be great if that could be the case. If it could be that easy. It would be comfortable. But it would not be true. It would not make us disciples. It would not make us faithful. It would not help us grow. It would not help us follow. It would not help the kingdom come. When I was a kid, I would scrape my knee and Mom would put a little Neosporin on the cut she’d say that if it stings that’s just a sign that it’s healing. The discomfort matters for something.
After all, when we gather up for the worship of God, the stakes are almost unimaginably high. Not just because we might talk about some hot-button issue like poverty or racism or privilege. No, the stakes are high, first and foremost, because we gather up here and easily and routinely and matter-of-factly invoke the power and presence of the one who created all things. That alone should make us squirm, at least just a bit. One of my favorite churchgoers, Annie Dillard, puts it this way: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?” she writes. “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
Friends, this, finally, is why our discomfort matters, because if we are not just a little uncomfortable, then our God is not free. If we are not squirming just a little bit, then our God is too small. If we are not shifting in our seats just a little bit, then our God is not God at all, not the God who created Amos, or the God who created Amaziah, or the God who called Israel into being, or the God who judged them for their iniquities, or the God who kept covenant with them and new covenant with them and wiped away their transgressions. Not the God who walked with them every step along the way, not the God who even today calls us and judges us and walks with us and forgives us and goes before us in ways we cannot possibly imagine. That God, the true God, the great and Almighty God, the God who made all things and even yet is here right now in this place. That God who loves you is running around free with all the powers of life and death.
We should definitely be wearing crash helmets.