So our lectionary occasionally provides us with readings that stop us short, I find. Our first reading, from the prophet Amos, is a pretty good example of this. He writes:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
So we hear that, and then someone says at the end of it all, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,’ and one is tempted to reply, ‘Sure, if you say so.’
You may remember from last week’s reading from Amos that was given the gears for prophesying against Israel. Amos himself, oddly enough, denied being a prophet. ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” ’
Amos prophesies, but he claims to be no prophet. Prophets in those days were often viewed as mouthpieces of the kings, claiming to provide God’s blessing on whatever the monarch wished to do; figures like Amos would have regarded them much as we regard party rags like the old Soviet newspaper Pravda.
If you were going to be taken seriously as a prophet, you had to have a reputation for stepping out of line, for being rebellious. From the perspective of the monarch, prophets like Amos were dangerous – and so they were, for Amos and others like him pronounced neither comfort nor blessing, but judgment as the word of the Lord.
The judgment God speaks to Israel through Amos begins with a darkly comic play on words. God shows Amos a basket of ripe summer fruit, and then tells Amos, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel’. The play on words is that the word in Hebrew for ‘summer fruit’ is ‘qayits’, and the word for ‘end’, ‘qets’. Another translation carries on the grim wordplay by opening the premonition of disaster uttered by God as, ‘The time is ripe for my people Israel.’
So we get a famine of hearing the word of the Lord; mourning on the day of the Lord as for an only son; songs being turned into lamentation, and all of this for what?
Turns out it’s because there are those who are trampling on the needy, and bringing to ruin the poor of the land; debasing coinage and falsifying weights and balances; buying and selling the poor and needy into slavery for a song; and peddling fraudulent merchandise. The people of Israel were crushing each other in the name of gain.
I don’t know about you, but I think it must have been a lot easier to be a prophet in Amos’s day. In Amos’s day, it seemed to be easier to tell when people weren’t doing what they were supposed to: you could check their scales and measures against accurate ones; you could see when they were putting their heart into their own gain instead of into building up the community.
Today when folks crush each other for gain, it’s harder to see. Ever more complex systems and laws of trade govern the marketplace. Nobody seems to be responsible when things go south, as with the financial crash of 2008. Big bank after big bank needed bailing out, in the name of financial stability.
There’s the rub: it seems impossible to sort out what went wrong, or who was responsible for it. It often seems as though we come across as fools the moment we open our mouths to say that there’s something wrong with this whole situation or others like it.
That’s a bit troublesome, because, you see, as the followers of Jesus, we are called to be prophets, just like Amos, or Jesus, for that matter. Our ministry as God’s people includes the prophetic calling out of injustice.
In short, when it comes to the injustice we see around us, our ministry is to call it like we see it; only thing is, it’s often hard to know what to look for. Not only that, but no sooner have you stuck your neck out to say something, someone will be happy to come along and chop it off. Prophesying against the established way of things isn’t going to win you many friends. It’s difficult to take the risk of alienating people; usually we want to play nice.
It’s difficult because we risk losing credibility if we ‘prophesy against Israel’, only we call out the wrong thing. We don’t want to crash and burn because we called something out only to have others come along and prove that we were wrong after all.
It’s difficult because we don’t want to come across as judgmental or intolerant. There are lots of Christians who claim to speak prophetically in God’s name whose messages we may find downright appalling.
It’s difficult because the social norms and conventions have changed a lot in the past three thousand years or so since Amos prophesied against Israel. I don’t know about you, but I don’t pay much attention to guys standing on street corners haranguing me about stuff.
How are we to find our voice as prophets in this day and age? How are we going to find the gumption to claim our calling as prophets, when there are so many compelling reasons not to?
At first glance, Amos’s approach doesn’t appear to lend itself to our contemporary difficulties in living out our calling as prophets. If you told most people today that there’s a famine of the word of the Lord in the land, they’d probably shrug their shoulders and wonder what’s so wrong with that.
Nor would many people see anything so wrong with asking when the new moon will be over, so that they may sell grain, nor the sabbath, that they may offer wheat for sale, or whatever else they please. The days when folks not observing religious festivals would cause a scandal are over, and it is open to question whether such days ought to be revived.
It’s easy to lose focus with Amos’s dramatic pronouncements about the Nile rising and flooding and famines and all that; but at root, he’s talking about the people’s relationship with God and each other. Amos’s prophecies have to do with what the lawyer and Jesus bantered about in last week’s gospel reading, loving the Lord your God with all you are; and loving your neighbour as yourself.
Amos is talking about how the people’s relationship with God and neighbour has gone awry. Significantly, however, it is not a relationship that is coming to an end. The time might be ripe for God’s people Israel – but they’re still God’s people. God may have sworn not to forget their deeds, but he does so by the pride of Jacob.
Amos might not have a lot of good to say, in today’s reading, about the state of the people’s relationship with each other and with God – but his words testify to God’s concern for God’s people. God desires that his children treat each other lovingly and justly, and isn’t just going to let things slide when they don’t.
Interestingly, Jesus’ rebuke to Martha in our gospel passage is, in its own way, a mild form of the kind of thing Amos has to say. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he had to say; Martha was distracted by her many tasks. It’s as if she were saying, ‘when will the new moon be over so I can get back to tidying the kitchen?’ In her own, quiet, innocuous way, Martha is experiencing a famine of the word of the Lord, and Jesus gently calls her out on it: ‘Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one. Mary has chosen the better part.’
Jesus and Amos both called their audiences to reconsider their relationship with God and neighbour. Through the prophets God recalled his people to right relationship with each other. God restored his people to just and loving relationships.
Just as he restored the people of Israel to right relationships, God restores us to just and loving relationships, too, and one way in which he does so is by means of prophets. It may be through classical prophets like Amos. It may be through the words of Jesus, himself reckoned as quite the prophet.
I think more and more often it will be through the patient, quiet work of Christians and others who want just and loving relationships to bring people together. Those who studied Henri Nouwen’s book on spiritual formation these last few months here at St Albans will know how he discovered that those whom outsiders account as helpless – the core members of L’Arche communities – had strength and power to love and to reveal God that he, an educated and sophisticated priest, psychologist, and professor, did not.
The work of Centre 454, not only to serve their clients but to share with the world that those whom they serve also possess the strength and power to love and to reveal God, is also prophetic work.
Sometimes this quiet, patient work needs to be defended by prophetic words that sound like the kind of stuff Amos said. I remember when it was first announced that Centre 454 would be coming back to St Albans, Archdeacon David Selzer had to get shirty with people who were decrying the move. In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman of legal wrongdoing in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, one of our own at St Albans, Matthew Simmermon-Gomes, wrote an ‘open letter to whites’ in which he shared some of the hurtful experiences he has had to deal with, day-in and day-out, all for the colour of his skin.
I don’t know what your prophetic ministry is going to look like – I’m still figuring out mine, for that matter. Maybe you’re living out this calling already. Maybe you’re going to be doing the kind of patient and quiet prophesying like they do at Centre 454, like Henri Nouwen, like Jesus with Martha in our gospel reading. Maybe, like Matthew or Archdeacon David, or Jesus at other times, you’ll need to speak in your Amos voice.
We’re also continuing to envision and dream how, as a community, we’re going to live out our prophetic call. We’re already on top of things with our ongoing and growing relationship with the Centre, and with our social justice group. We’re learning to use our prophetic voices when we participate in things like the workshop, held this past May, on diversity led by the Rev. Eric Law, or the Fill the Hill event about water rights during Joint Assembly earlier this month.
Whatever your prophetic ministry looks like, know that you have been given the gift of just and loving relationship with God and neighbour, and the high calling of reminding others that they, too, have received that same gift. You may find yourself ‘prophesying against Israel’, but in the end, whether quietly and patiently, or loudly and brashly, you are calling others to claim for themselves the gift that is theirs for the taking, the gift of just and loving relationship with neighbour and God.