The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.
This morning, as we continue to explore the theme of sabbath renewal, I want to take the opportunity to spend some time thinking with our eighth century prophet, Amos.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we drop right into the action, namely a contest between two figures, Amos and Amaziah. One is a shepherd, the other is a royal priest. These are people from very different backgrounds. It is a conflict across a class divide.
This portion of chapter seven is the only bit of narrative in the biblical book that is composed almost entirely of prophetic speeches and visions that warn of the coming Day of the Lord. God is angry. Amos has the unfortunate job of delivering the message that judgment is on the way.
God calls Amos in a way that is familiar to other stories in the Bible. Like Abraham, Moses, and those memorable shepherds tending their flocks by night, Amos is minding his own business—looking after sheep, as it were. He didn’t go to school to become a prophet. He didn’t volunteer. He’s out there with his animals. Then, God suddenly shows up and tells him: “Go, prophesy to my people.” So, Amos leaves his work as a herdsman to speak the word of the Lord to those who have gone astray. I imagine that like the rest of us, he is utterly unprepared for such a task.
By chapter seven, Amaziah, the royal priest—a person of education, status, and power—has had enough of the incivility of Amos’ protest. Amaziah tells him to hit the road. God’s hand-selected prophet, Amos, is condemned not by the idolatrous nations, but by the very religious establishment of Israel.
The book of Amos as a whole is a meditation on the relationship between love and justice. It is a series of sayings, visions, and pronouncements against the nations, but Amos takes particular aim at God’s own people, divided in the eighth century between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos warns of the coming day of the Lord in which justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In our passage today, we see God represented as a builder, wielding a plumb line, a device for measuring the vertical line of a structure. God finds that the religious and social structures of Israel need to be radically adjusted. They require transformation. This is not a message that the establishment wants to hear.
The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Amos in this way: “Most of us who care for the world bewail God’s dreadful silence, while Amos appears smitten by God’s mighty voice. He does not hear a whisper, ‘a still small voice,’ but a voice like a lion’s roaring that drives shepherd and flock into panic.”
In response to God’s roar, Amos goes to the northern kingdom of Israel and indicts the people for their opulent lifestyles that neglect and despise the poor. In the voice of the Lord, he proclaims, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Amos is on the hunt for religious hypocrisy.
Earlier, in chapter 3, Amos proclaims, “The lion has roared; Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; Who can but prophesy?” (3:8). As Heschel notes, “The voice of God is compared with the roar of a lion about to fall upon its prey; Israel, God’s chosen people, is the prey.” The God of love is known here, in the book of Amos, according to the requirements of justice met with righteous anger. The God of Amos is a God who rages against the civility that masks injustice. Who can but prophesy?
In our own time, we are exceedingly anxious about civility. And this worry is not always misplaced. We should be anxious about the spectacle of the 24-hour news cycle. We should be anxious about Twitter as the preferred medium for discourse. We should lament the obstacles to dignity and respect in our civil society. Yet, we should be wary of the desire for the comfortable— in the pulpit, and in our congregation, and in our publics. Amos reminds us why.
Amos is the prophet’s prophet. Last week, the Reverend Neil Elliot spoke about the abiding relevance of Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Rev. Elliot helpfully reminded us that the greatest threat to social justice are not racists with tiki torches, but white liberals‚—that is, lots of us here gathered today. King’s letter famously denounces those who claim allegiance to divine justice, but instead preach messages of gradualism dressed in the wardrobe of civility. In that famous letter, as in many other places in his ministry and activism, King appeals to the authority of the prophet Amos. Amos, in King’s words, is an “extremist for justice.”
“So the question,” King writes, “is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” Early in his career, King exhorted a group of students “to be as maladjusted as Amos.” Later, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and in the speech he delivered on the eve of his assassination, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” King deployed those powerful words from Amos 5, “Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King indexed his own vocation to the vocation of the prophet Amos. We would do well to follow his example.
Throughout his career, King argued that we must become “maladjusted” to injustice. The point, of course, is that we are all too often perfectly well adjusted to the persistence of injustice. Injustice is built right into our institutional lives and we are often numb to it. And when someone names it, we, like Amaziah, are likely to refuse to hear the message. We kick them out, or take our leave.
So, what does this all mean for our Sabbath renewal as a congregation? Must we be uncivil with one another? No, I think not. It is my hope, after all, that the line at ice cream social today will indeed be a civil affair. The question of civility, rather, doesn’t get to the core of the issue.
Amos 7 is, instead, as Dr. Elaine James observes, a “a searching call for self-reflection” for worshipping communities. James continues, “When does our well-meaning comfort mask indifference? When does our lack of love and justice render our own piety meaningless? How do the institutions that benefit us build dams against the deep rivers of justice?” I take these to be meaningful questions for our own community (and not just because I am married to the author). The longer we sit with them, the more uncomfortable we may become. Or, such questions may invigorate our moral imagination. Perhaps both at the same time.
As members of St. John the Evangelist, we are exploring our calling to be Companions in Transformation. This time of sabbath offers us rest and renewal, but it also invites reflection on how we, individually and collectively, might be well adjusted to injustices—both big and small. The world is full of Amaziahs. We are very good at neutralizing our prophets.
In this time of transformation and renewal, let us commit again to be a people who listen for God’s roar. Let us commit to the task of witnessing to God’s justice one to another, in our congregation and in the world.