Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Culture of Crooked Walls

Amos 7:7-10,14,15; Psalm 85:8-13

From a variety of perspectives, I would suggest many of us believe we are captured between our dreams and the reality of the world. Those of us who celebrated tie dyed tee shirts and bell bottom jeans as a fashion statement are not the only folks who envision what the world could become if others would come to their senses. Take the Dominion Pipe Line……please. I have only lived in Nelson County three years but I ask you, has there ever been a local issue that has simultaneously united blacks and whites, gays and straights, hippies and red necks, retirees and locals. Any day I expect to see a rainbow colored, Stars and Bars flag brandishing the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Nelson County”.

Unfortunately, a majority of Virginians, and all the stockholders of Duke Energy, view our consternation as confirmation that we have lost touch with reality. While countering with the time honored phrase, “The truth will set you free,” we secretly fear Flannery O’Conner was right when she wrote, “All that truth does is make us odd.”

No character in the entire Biblical narrative comes across odder than the prophet Amos.  The biblical scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “A significant aspect of the office of prophet was to remind the king his sovereignty was limited and secondary to the justice of God.” Amos, a native of Judah, had no problem going north to the Temple at Bethel and pointing out King Jeroboam’s disregard of the God to Monarch relationship. As you might imagine the King’s cronies were not receptive to the prophet’s inflammatory remarks. Imagine me, the product of a cotton mill in Georgia, going to New York City and telling Madison Avenue God wanted the truth to be told in advertising. I am sure they would cart me off to Mount Sinai Hospital.

While no one in New York would give me the time of day, the priest let Amos talk. That was their first mistake. Much to their discomfort the sheep herder from Tekoa had plenty to say. Their second mistake was not listening. Amos declared God had set a plumb line on the people of Israel and the final results found them sorely lacking.

A few months ago Deb and I had some carpenters frame a portion of our basement. After watching them work for thirty minutes and then sleeping in a Holiday Day Express Hotel I feel qualified to elaborate on the absolute necessity of a plumb line. If the wall is not plumb, the wall is going to fall down. In other words, if the people of Israel were not righteous, the house of Jeroboam would collapse.

Ministers love preaching on Amos because we enjoy putting the plumb line on everyone else. But just for giggles, let’s investigate the reason Amos was so upset by the conditions he discovered in the kingdom of Israel.

In all fairness to the Jeroboam II, Israel reached the summit of its power and prosperity under this industrious king. Jeroboam sat on the throne forty years.   When Amos arrived the land was literally flowing with vineyards to pluck and grass to graze their livestock. The rich owned summer and winter homes. Life was good. So what was the problem?

According to Amos, there was no justice in the land. The poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery. The justice system was corrupt. Bribes rather integrity settled court cases. Amos accused the wealthy of not only abusing the Sabbath but wishing it would end quickly so that they could resume their cheating and exploitation. Was Amos over reacting? Was Amos unable to understand each clog in an economic system has to be in synch so that the institution functions perfectly? Could Amos be accused of mixing religion and politics? Shouldn’t a man of God be careful to remember the abstracts of religious thought are often in conflict with the hard realities of business? What do we do with agitators who question our economic success?

I again turn to Abraham Heschel. “A prophet is a man who feels fiercely God has thrust a burden upon his soul. A prophet is a man bowed by poverty and stunned by fierce greed.  So frightful is the agony of this man no human voice can convey its full terror.  God has lent to this silent agony a voice, heard by both the plundered poor and the profaned rich, proclaiming few are guilty but all are responsible. It is a lonely and miserable voice, a voice in deep sympathy with the divine pathos.”

Those are certainly the words we wanted to hear before heading out to the pavilion to gorge ourselves on fried chicken and potato salad. Reading any prophet, but particularly Amos, can give us indigestion. Please understand the words of a prophet like Amos are meant to be heard one octave too high. They are loud, shrill, and seldom sung in our key. They challenge our reality and are too often dismissed just for that reason. When the prophet speaks, usually we are not ready for the words offered. Let’s face facts. We don’t like to think about issues of injustice, poverty, racism or even war. During joys and concerns, when someone mentions issues in the Middle East, or even Middle America, some of us want to close our ears and repeat the mantra, “Not here, not now. Not here, not now.””

 Prophets send a shiver up our spine. No matter how necessary they might be, we don’t want to be the one they are addressing. Perhaps for this very reason, the Bible is a narrative of prophets and poets. The prophet identifies the sin, a poison we ignore until we are polluted by our own transgression. But pathos is not the only language of God. In captivity, we hear the poet sing of redemption, hope, and the transformational power of a grace filled God.

In the midst of captivity, the children of Jerusalem encountered one such poet. For years, from the mouth of Amos and Jeremiah, they had heard The Word of the Lord as a precursor to their eventual downfall. Then they hit rock bottom. Jerusalem was destroyed. The survivors were living in make-shift along the banks of the Euphrates River. They no longer needed to be chastised. They longed for an expression of hope . Listen to the sonnet they received.

When God speaks of grace,

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.

When God speaks of grace,

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

When God speaks of grace,

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

And righteousness will look down from the sky.


Some might find that to be a strange language for our culture, and it probably is, unless you are someone who has witnessed the crumbling of your sturdy, dependable walls.

You don’t have to go to Babylon to experience exile. What happens when your life partner begins losing her mental capabilities?  What happens when you watch your grown adult son battle a life threatening addiction to “over the counter” drugs? What happens when the money set aside for retirement is severely challenged by inflation? What happens when dreams are overwhelmed by the world’s reality? What happens when Amos was right but you don’t need more words of guilt to get you through the challenges of the day? What you really desire is a poet.

I have been blessed to have spent some time with an old friend this week. Gary suggested I take a look at Anne Lamott’s latest blog. Lamott is an irreverent mix of passion, insight, and humor that springs from experiences I would wish on no one.  In Traveling Mercies she writes, “One day in 1985 I woke up so hung-over I felt pinned to my bed by centrifugal force. I decided to quit drinking. That is when I panicked. Thankfully a moment of clarity set in when I realized it wasn’t I drank so much but rather I drank too quickly.  So I went to the market to buy two beers. On returning home I realized the two beers might not be enough for the night. Luckily I had a Nike box full of prescriptions. I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”

In Anne’s blog on July 7th she wrote, On this day 29 years ago I picked up the 200 pound phone and called the same sober alkie my brother had called 2 years before. He said to me, “I’ll be there at 11:30. Take a shower and try not to drink. The shower is optional.” I couldn’t image there was a way out of the sickness and deceit but what I discovered was that God can make a way out of no way. No matter how bad things might look, Grace bats last.

As long as injustice and poverty remain part of our economic landscape we need the voice of Amos. As long as wars and the rumor of wars dominate our political boardrooms we need Micah speaking of turning spears into plowshares. When the worship of our culture or our nation supersedes the adoration of God we need to reread Jeremiah.   The prophets hold our feet to a holier fire than those motivated by profit or fame or power.

But God does not leave us alone to face the ebb and flow that often appears to dominate us. Amidst the lost, amidst the exile, amidst the darkness, comes the poet to remind us it is God’s future and not our present circumstances that governs our lives.

Grace bats last.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

The dreams of our God have a wonderful way of trumping the realities of this world.

Just ask Anne Lamott. Or ask yourself. I suspect somewhere along the way we each have a story of the amazing grace of the one we call Christ.

Become a poet.

Sing of righteousness and peace.

        Live faithfully toward the dreams of our God.





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