Grumpy, truthful prophet

Sermon: November 10. 2013 Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24 from The Message translation of the Bible.

The Message of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa, that he received on behalf of Israel. It came to him in visions during the time that Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam II son of Joash was king of Israel, two years before the big earthquake. God roars from Zion,
shouts from Jerusalem!
The thunderclap voice withers the pastures tended by shepherds,
shrivels Mount Carmel’s proud peak.Seek good and not evil— and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
being your best friend.
 Well, live like it,
and maybe it will happen. Hate evil and love good,
then work it out in the public square.
 Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, will notice your remnant and be gracious.

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
 your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?

 Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

In the pecking order of life, prophets are not the popular kids.  They’re the equivalent of the guy outside the stadium with a placard and a bullhorn, screaming THE END IS NEAR. Only prophets are way more offensive.  They’re way more offensive because they tell the truth. They are the ultimate truth-tellers.

Prophets are not fortune tellers or future predictors.  They speak for God and they tell the truth about God and about the world. Again, the ultimate truth.

Amos is such a prophet. But he’s pretty far down the pecking order as well. He’s a working class prophet. He’s a blue collar prophet. He didn’t inherit the title. He wasn’t born into it. He was a shepherd who was then called to be a prophet. And this is the kicker.  He’s an outsider.  He’s not even telling the truth to his own people but to those who would mistrust him from the word go.  He’s from the southern kingdom telling the northerners how it is.

And how it is is incredibly bad.  The gap between the rich and the poor has turned into a chasm.  And they’ve come to depend too much on religion – distracting themselves through their gatherings in the name of God.  Their gathering, their own worship seems to have taken their focus away from the one in need.  Amos’ words are an indictment of their community, of their religious community, and of their entire nation.  And his words hit them where they live.

Do you remember when Bill Tenney-Brittain first came to visit our church community over a year ago in September? River of Hope entered into a year-long consultation process that will continue to impact us for years to come.  What it entailed was a consultation group that visited 3 times and offered outsider critique. In return, a 150 page report was given in addition to a verbal report. Nothing was off limits. From worship to structure to our own lives of faith.  Are we reading the Bible on our own? Are we praying daily? What things about our worship turn away those on the outside? Do we actually welcome people? We heard that our location and 5:30pm worship time were holding us back. Ultimately, Bill asked if we were focused on the love we know through Jesus Christ or on the structure of church policy and things we were comfortable with. Bill was not interested in coming here to be our friend. He came here to point to God through Jesus Christ, which means everything else that isn’t attached to that foundation shakes. Just as it should.

So, we’ve begun to practice asking each other “what have you been reading in scripture that has intrigued you?” before table meetings.  It’s not asking for answers or a sermon or moral teaching.  It’s a question that assumes because you want to serve in a leadership role in this community, you turn to scripture for guidance, for grounding.  Sometimes that means frustration or confusion. Sometimes it means boredom. Sometimes it means being shocked at all the “inappropriate” stuff that’s in the Bible.  Sometimes it means feeling more connected. Sometimes it is downright difficult. Sometimes it reads just like the front page of the paper. Sometimes it seems old and disconnected. But scripture always connects us to a greater story. And scripture insists on being our story.

The people in the time of Amos – those living in the Northern Kingdom, the Israelites – had forgotten their story. They’d forgotten which god to worship and had begun adopting other nation’s practices.  And they’d let those practices isolate them from people not like them. And so injustices were piling up, creating a chasm between the haves and the have nots. And God sent Amos to the north as their church consultant and he spoke to them, right where they lived. I hate what you’re doing in the name of God.

Being part of a brand new church is equal parts exciting and exhausting. Because we get to start from the foundation of God and go from there. Because things aren’t like they were back when many Lutheran churches first started, 50 to 150 or more years ago.  Church is no longer the central meeting space of a community and I think this is key.  People are making meaning of their lives in new ways, have found other gods.  On the plus side, there is less guilt and shame; less threat of hellfire and eternal damnation that went along with the old school church.  And so it has been a critical time for us this past year to ask: why do we exist?  What is the purpose of church, anyway?

This is where the good news comes in folks.  It’s mixed in with these hard words from  Amos, from our experiences with a consultant, an outsider all our own.  Because God knows we love God and, in the words of Amos, wants us to work it out in the public square. Because God wants oceans of justice and rivers of fairness. And that means our worship has to leave the building.

So it’s no wonder Bill wanted us to turn to scripture in order to remember who we are.  Because it is so easy to lose focus and to define ourselves by the world’s version of God.

There is a group of folks who have been practicing the FAITH5 for over 6 weeks now.  They gather as a family (couples, singles – my sister and I end each night on the phone together) before bed and they share the high of their day and the low of their day.  They read the key verse from scripture from Sunday and then they talk about how God might be speaking to them through scripture, maybe evident in their highs and lows of the day. Then they pray to God for their highs and lows and they bless each other in the name of God.  It sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?  But it reminds them that God is there, through it all. Every day. And they fall asleep knowing what story they’re part of with a blessing on their forehead. Two kids shared last week that its changed the “how was your day” question in their homes, and that it’s awfully hard to stay mad at someone after you’ve prayed for them and blessed them.

We belong to God.  It’s the Old Testament’s desire to tell us that.  And when Jesus breaks into our lives in the New Testament, it’s a new way of saying we belong to God.  Present in flesh and blood, right there. Right here.


SO WHAT?  So what does this have to do with your every day life?  Well.  What gets in the way of connecting your life with God?  What would Amos take a good long look at and then tell you his unvarnished opinion?  As you go into your week, how will you remember you are part of God’s story?  Where will you see it, experience it?