This morning I’m going to invite you to spend a few minutes with a cranky old man. No, not me. I’m generally pretty good-natured, or at least I try to be. No, the cranky old man I want you to spend some time with this morning is named Amos. He runs a flock of sheep and keeps a vineyard, which means he’s probably neither rich nor poor. We know he comes from down south, a little village called Tekoa, near Jerusalem. But he’s managed to make his way up north to the city of Bethel, an important sanctuary city in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the seat of King Jeroboam. Most importantly, we know that Amos has a particular calling. He has been called by God to be a prophet. In the Bible, a prophet isn’t a fortune teller or a soothsayer or a seer, which is what Amaziah, King Jeroboam’s court preacher, calls Amos. A prophet doesn’t have magical powers to predict the future. A prophet is simply a person who is steeped in the ways of God, who knows God intimately. The prophet looks around, reads the signs of the times, and because the ways of God are so well-known to him or her, the prophet can say with certainty, “If you–whether you be the king, the religious establishment, or the nation–continue to act in this way, you can expect that God will act accordingly.” The prophet speaks truth to power.
So this morning, we find that this particular prophet, Amos, has looked around, read the signs of the times, and is pretty ticked off. But about what? We know from earlier in his story that there are two parts to his ire. First is the disparity in Israel between the rich and the poor. He says to the King and to the nation, “…you…trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land…(you) buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (8:4;6).” The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Sound familiar? The second focus of Amos’s ire is upon the worship practices endorsed by the King and supported by his court preachers led by Amaziah whom we also meet this morning. These practices include elements that have been adopted from neighboring gentile communities and amount to worshipping the King and the State. While the name of God might be spoken in worship, the real focus is on loyalty to the King. What it really amounted to was idolatry. Once again, sound familiar? It’s what we might call today, “civic religion” where a flag replaces the Cross and the national ideology is venerated in place of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The lack of justice for the poor and the corruption of religion to serve the State rather than the God of Israel has brought our sheep–herding, vine–dressing prophet to confront Amaziah, the King’s preacher. And he’s got some unwelcome news to share. Judgment is coming for Jeroboam and the Nation. God’s judgment. And it won’t be pretty. Amaziah’s comfortable world is about to be severely disrupted. God’s judgment can mean tough love. That’s what Amos is telling Amaziah. Even in the midst of what feels like “good times” in Israel, there’s a fatal flaw. The lack of justice for the poor and the corruption of worship to serve the State rather than God, shows that Israel’s house is out of plumb. Repairing that fatal flaw is going to require some pretty drastic reconstruction. Maybe even a tear down. And that reconstruction requires a plumb line to be set, only the plumb line of God’s truth will set Israel straight. Amos is just the truth-teller that Amaziah needs to hear.
This is what prophets do. Prophets are truth-tellers. They make nuisances of themselves by telling truths that the powerful and the mighty don’t want to hear. I’ve had some important truth-tellers in my life. Folks who have told me necessary truths that I didn’t necessarily want to hear. Let me tell you about one of them. Many years ago, long before I came out to the Northwest, I was in a rector search for a job I really wanted. It was an attractive parish in an attractive city. I knew that this job was just right for me. And, just as importantly, I knew that I was just right for these folks! So, I was deeply disappointed when I came in second. The job went to the “other guy”, dang it. I was still carrying that disappointment several months later when I went on a clergy retreat. The retreat lasted eight days and drew clergy from all over the country. The retreat was designed to give each of us the opportunity to focus on our callings, to get clearer on our hopes for ourselves and our futures and on the folks we were serving. So late one evening I was having a beer with a colleague whom I had just met that week. We were sharing stories about the trajectories of our ministries, and I began to tell him the story of my recent rector search. Although I don’t remember exactly what I said, I’ll never forget what my friend said after hearing my sad story. Looking at me in the kindest way, he said, “Breckinridge, God’s not done humbling you yet.” Whoa. Talk about a whack upside the head! “God’s not done humbling you yet.” Turns out that my new friend was a prophet. A truth teller who showed up just when the truth was exactly what I needed. Now, I’m a slow learner and I really didn’t want to hear this at first. “What? I needed humbling? Why, I’m proud of my humility. It’s one of my most endearing qualities!” You see the stories we tell ourselves, right? But as that retreat wore on, and in the weeks and months to follow, this deep truth began to take hold. God put this dear man in my path so that I could see clearly just what I needed to see. My ego, my sense of self-importance, was getting in the way of living out my true calling, the calling to be where God wanted me to be and not where I imagined I ought to be, if you see what I mean.
You know, truth telling is just another way of talking about judgment. Specifically, God’s judgment. Now I want to suggest to you that God’s judgment is not to be dreaded or avoided or run from. God’s judgment is to be welcomed. Why? Because Scripture tells us that God’s judgment is always filled with grace. The justice that God seeks is always tempered by mercy. Indeed, justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Justice without mercy is simply punitive. It’s more like revenge than real justice. Where there’s no opportunity for true forgiveness and for amendment of life, there’s no opportunity to restore right relationships which is the definition of righteousness. “Righteousness” means being in right relationship with God and with our neighbors. Mercy without justice, on the other hand, is mostly just sentimentality. No accountability required. We’re off the hook. Everybody gets a trophy! Mercy without justice does nothing to restore right relationships either. I’ll say it again. Justice and mercy are the two sides of the one coin, the coin marked “God’s Judgment.”
God’s truth, God’s judgment, is being revealed to us all the time. We just need to open our eyes and our ears to find it. God’s judgment is before us right now and will be in the age to come. You remember the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul’s beautiful meditation on agape love that’s often read at weddings? After describing the nature of this self-giving love, the Apostle observes:
11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (Corinthians 13:11-13).
In the present age, we see in a mirror dimly, but then, in the age to come, when God’s final judgment is at hand, then we will see face to face. We will see the Face of God which is the Face of Truth which is also the Face of Love. We will see the whole truth about ourselves and about our world.
We all need truth tellers in our lives. I hope you have one. Or more than one. Maybe it’s a spouse or a dear friend or a colleague. Maybe it’s someone here at church. I’m sure you’ve been convicted by truths you’ve heard from this very pulpit! Be on the lookout for someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth. Someone who wants you to flourish and thrive. Someone who wants you to see clearly so that you can live cleanly. Be brave enough to ask someone you trust to be honest with you about something that’s troubling your heart. Listen to them with courage and vulnerability. Listen to them with the ears of your heart, as St Benedict says. The truth is where true intimacy, true friendship lies. And it is truth, my dear sisters and brothers, that will finally set you free.