Let us pray: God Almighty, we pray to you this morning. We pray for this church and the people gathered here, that you would come among us and speak to us, through your Word and through this sermon. May the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
If we are honest, there is nothing comfortable about our Scriptures today. We’re not always honest about Scripture, of course, intentionally or not: it doesn’t apply to us, we can soften it so it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, here’s a useful cultural difference…
But seriously. There is nothing comfortable about our Scriptures today.
We have Amos the prophet, who prophesied thousands of years ago. I’ve taken our reading from the middle of one of his prophecies, which begins with condemnations of other nations, of Damascus and the Philistines and Edom for their crimes against their neighbors: for unjustified attacks, for the way they had taken an entire nation as war booty, for betrayals of their allies. We all know this is familiar territory, right? We are quite happy to point the finger at other countries and their problems: corruption in Mexico, confusion in Europe, pollution in China. And God’s going to judge them for their war crimes, the ways they’ve mistreated and betrayed their neighboring countries? Sweet! Sounds good to them! To them and to us.
And then: “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, … Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” (my italics)
Israel and Judah–separate countries at this point–will not escape punishment by God. They do not escape judgment. Their neighbors have sinned, sure, but so have they.
What have they done? Judah has “rejected the law of the Lord.” They have not done as God told them to do, they have not followed the law as handed down at Mount Sinai; they have run after lies instead of looking to God. Israel has filled the land with injustice: the poor are sold into slavery over tiny debts, or for crimes they didn’t commit; the poor are overlooked, pushed aside, considered unimportant in every way; they sexually abuse their servants; and then they take all this ill-gotten gain, gathered by cheating honest people, and go worship and celebrate, as if God doesn’t mind in the least that they mistreated their servants all week before coming to service.
“I will not revoke the punishment,” God promises, and later, after our reading: “I will press you down in your place, just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves.” Your sin will be too heavy for you. You will be unable to flee the coming destruction, no matter how strong or fast you are now, God continues. Skill with a bow will not save you; a fast horse will not save you. The strongest among you will be forced to flee with nothing.
This is not comfortable. This isn’t how we like to think of God. This isn’t how I experience God, even. But Amos is not an outlier. God’s judgment, and God’s hatred of oppression, is a constant through the Bible. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s there. It is a truth about God.
And maybe it still feels distant. That was a long time ago, after all, a very different place. And you’re right, it was. But… the courts are unjust now, too–the rich get community service, the poor get years in prison. Sexual abuse is rampant now, too–there has been yet another scandal in the Catholic church at the same time as sprawling accusations have been coming out of the Southern Baptist Convention of widespread sexual abuse and coverups. (That’s just in the past few weeks) The poor are considered unimportant now, too–example???. Honest workers who just want to earn an honest living are pushed aside now, too–example???. And in our worship and our lives as God’s people, we do not always condemn this sin. We take part.
And I haven’t even gotten to James yet, who pulls no punches: “you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you,” for the rust on your possessions “will eat your flesh like fire.” You have defrauded your workers, you have condemned the righteous, and through it all “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure.” And, again, you may be saying: “That’s nice, but that isn’t me.” And sure, none of us are as rich as the Kardashians or Tom Cruise or whichever other rich person you’d like to point to, but on a global scale we are rich. Like, when I was in seminary and making $12,000 a year, I was still richer than 86% of the world (according to this wealth calculator). We have reliable electricity, clean water, heat during the winter and A/C during the summer, grocery stores galore… we live in luxury.
I know that can feel weird to say or to think about. We still struggle financially. There are plenty of people even here in the US who don’t have those things, who can’t just go to the grocery store when they’re hungry. There’s still so much that we want, or need.
But also–the reason we can buy $1 chocolates is because children are kidnapped and enslaved on the Cote d’Ivoir to work on cocoa farms. We can buy cheap, cheap clothes because workers around the world are paid less than minimum wage in their country.
“To sin against other human beings is to reject the rule of God as surely as following other gods… is to reject it.” (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I, p. 184) This quote from my reading this week struck me as the heart of my sermon today. As Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats: those of us who love the least of us by feeding and clothing and being with them–we have done those things also to Jesus. And those of us who ignore those people are also ignoring Jesus.
I am not calling anyone to completely change their life. God may, of course, but right here, right now, I ask only that we all look around. Who do we not see? Who is the least of these, and how is God already with them?
There is a story about Mother Theresa. A man came to visit her in Calcutta, where she worked with the poorest of the poor, and asked to join her in her ministry. But instead of inviting him to join her, she said, “Find your Calcutta.”
Find your Calcutta. Find the people around you who need love, and by love I mean food and clothing and presence. Find where God is calling you to love.