Prophets or Profits

Amos 5:22-24, 8:4-7, 11-14

Being a prophet can be a dangerous occupation. Your life expectancy is often short and you seldom stay in one place too long.  No one really wants a prophet to show up at town hall, corporate offices, Congress or the White House, and few welcome prophets in church as well.

Amos was a pain.  But he was God’s pain.  He had been a shepherd and orcharder, when God’s word came to him.  We don’t know the mechanics of Amos’ encounter with God, but he found himself being called to leave his familiar profession to speak on God’s behalf, sharing God’s vision, proclaiming “Thus says the Lord,” to the wealthy and powerful of the Northern Kingdom.

He was a prophetic migrant, having crossed the border from the South to the holy places and seats of power of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He set up shop outside Beth-El, the temple celebrating Jacob’s vision of a ladder of angels and God’s promise of prosperity to Jacob’s descendants, raising the ire of the chief priest, who challenges this upstart from the south.  “If you don’t love our country, leave it.  Your presence is not wanted here. We don’t need you to challenge our politics, economy, or religion.”

Amos was a nuisance and disrupter.  His words of doom were addressed to the political, religious, and economic establishment:  “People are dying, while the rich make profits.  People are losing their homes, while the wealthy use the levers of power to cheat them out of their life savings. Even the temple is complicit, beautiful buildings are erected from money stolen from the poor. In harming the poor, you are harming God.  Even if you have a talented praise band and dynamic preaching, it will do you no good if you mistreat the poor.” So says God through the voice of Amos.

Amos continues, addressing priests and court musicians: “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amos points out that God is present in the complexities of daily life and political decision-making.  In describing the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel uses the word, “divine pathos,” God’s sorrow and empathy with those who struggle. Pathos means that God has skin in the game, that God feels the pain and joy of the world and is empathetic rather than apathetic.  When the poor and vulnerable suffer, God suffers – empathetically, lovingly, and painfully. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead notes, God is the fellow sufferer who understands and the joyful companion who celebrates.  Our joy is God’s joy, and our pain is God’s pain.  Prophetic anger reflects God’s anger at injustice, poverty, exploitation, and practices that enable the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer.

The philosopher Socrates once said that injustice is more harmful to those who harm others than those who are harmed.  The philosopher believed that the perpetration of evil destroys the souls of the unjust, and though they may have wealth and power, their souls are impoverished. A few centuries before Socrates, Amos spoke of a famine in the land that would mirror weather-related famines, a famine of hearing the word of God. The temple would hold elaborate worship services, animals would be sacrificed and scriptures read, but people would go home spiritually malnourished, grasping at false gods to satisfy their spiritual desires. The prophet is not threatening the wealthy and powerful: he is simply stating the fact that if you fail to listen to the pain of others, or God speaking through the needs of the poor and forgotten, you will be unable to hear God’s voice in worship and study. No amount of sacrifice or praise music can connect with God, until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Thomas Merton, monk and spiritual leader, described our situation in terms of “Conjectures of a guilty bystander.” Merton was confessing that although he lived in a Trappist monastery in Gethsemeni, Kentucky, he still had a role in the evils perpetuated by the framers of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies.  Merton recognized that we all should have an uneasy conscience when we see the pain of the vulnerable and excluded.  Like Martin Luther King, his contemporary, Merton recognized that we are all part of an intricate fabric of relationships in which I cannot be what I am intended to be until you are what you are what you are intended to be and you cannot be what you are intended to be until I am what I am intended to be, the solidarity of life that Bishop Desmond Tutu describes as “ubuntu,” I am because of you.

Many days, I simply want to bury my head in the sand.  I hesitate to read the headlines on the Cape Cod Times or my New York Times news feed, much less turn on CNN or NPR News.  I don’t want to know that the world is on fire – the Amazon is burning, the glaciers melting, my tax dollars supporting traumatizing borderland children.  I want to avert my eyes when I go to supper at Columbo’s or the Roadhouse: the reality of poverty and homelessness can put a damper on a pleasant evening with family and friends; I don’t want to read about the emergence of policies that threaten the rights of LGBTQ people or erode the social safety net upon which millions depend.  And, yet, I am a citizen of this great nation, where I have freedom to worship and access to some of the most beautiful land on earth.  The words of Amos and today’s prophets can make us feel uneasy, but out of the uneasiness can come a new understanding of God and our vocation as God’s companions in bringing joy, justice, and beauty to the world.

Two of my favorite sayings come respectively from Frederick Buechner and Parker Palmer – “Listen to your life” and “Let your life speak.”  Amos calls us to listen – God hears the cries of the voiceless, the poor, the bullied, and the forgotten and God wants us to listen as well.

A whole generation has found the church to be irrelevant to their lives – when they think of justice and spirituality, they don’t think of church.  To them, the church is anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-woman.  In contrast, it has been the mission of our church leadership and my mission as pastor to be a place that challenges these assumptions, through our adult education programs, concern for the environment, outreach to the homeless, and quest to be open and affirming.

Yes, listen to your life, to your own struggles to do the right thing and promote justice in our country, and then let your life speak, perhaps in a small voice. But many small voices combine to make a symphony of compassion and generosity, challenge and change.  And, small acts, lived out each day personally and in churches like our own can change the world.  The spirit of Amos tells us, “you are the change you are seeking in the world; by God’s grace, we are the ones we’ve waiting for. Let our church speak, so that here on Cape Cod and in our nation, Justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”