On Thursday morning, I woke to the news that a second black man in a second American city had been killed by a police officer for the second day in a row. Two more incidents in a string of killings going back as far as memory.
For most of the day Thursday, I walked around in a funk, feeling anger, sadness, exhaustion, and pain that two more lives had been extinguished in questionable circumstances.
I tried to write this sermon that same day but found the words would not come. So when I went to bed late that night, as I tossed and turned waiting for sleep to come, I prayed. For the families of the killed; for my own child who will soon be born into this broken world; that God would help me find the words. I eventually drifted off around one in the morning, convinced that the morning would bring clarity from the fog.
But then I woke up Friday morning to the horrific news from Dallas that five policemen had been murdered after multiple gunmen turned a peaceful protest into a killing field.
And the fog returned.
It is easy to feel hopeless and helpless when the news cycle churns out story after story about murder, bloodshed, and violence upon violence.
As we have done many times before, and should do in times of suffering, as well as in times of joy, we turn to scripture. We turn to scripture in times like this for comfort, but this morning, our lectionary passage comes from Amos, and he is a prophet that is unconcerned with comfort, Israel’s or ours. I struggled with whether or not I should put this prophet aside for the week and turn to something more consoling, but I have chosen not to, because this morning, we should not be comforted, but warned and challenged.
7This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16“Now, therefore, hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 17Therefore thus says theLord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
See? Amos has put the preacher in an uncomfortable position this morning.
A little background on this prophet: Amos is a short book of nine short chapters, and he cuts right to the point, though he is expert at leading his audience in. We get the sense that he is just an ordinary, everyday guy, “who was among the shepherds of Tekoa,” as we read in 1:1, and that he is anxious to say what he needs to say and get back to his flock.
For the first chapter and a quarter, Amos rails against Israel’s enemies. He calls down God’s judgment on the Aramites, the Philistines, Tyre and Edom, and the Moabites. His audience in Israel probably would be cheering at all of this. These are, after all, Israel’s enemies, and he is prophesying their defeat and ruin.
Then Amos begins a slow pivot, casting judgment on Judah. At this point in history, Israel had divided, Judah to the south, Israel to the north. The Israelite audience Amos is preaching to would still be on board with his chastisement, even though it is hitting a little close to home. Of course, the astute observer would probably be able to tell where he is going next.
By pronouncing judgment on Israel’s neighbors first, Amos relaxes his audience. He has no trouble condemning them in front of this audience, but when that same judgment comes around home, they are most likely not expecting it.
Most of the offenses Amos is highlighting in the transgressions of Israel’s enemies is militaristic in nature, some against Israel, and some against each other. Each nation has violated another, and Amos identifies God as Lord of all nations, and it is God’s judgment that will be visited upon them.
Now, by saving Judah and Israel for last, Amos is highlighting their transgressions, their sins, as worse than the rest. Judah’s sins reflect a turning away from the law and not keeping God’s statutes. But Israel’s sins… they are much more blatant: exploiting the poor and the needy, trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and pushing the afflicted out of the way. Israel’s sins anger God much more as they have to do with the treating of the poor and afflicted. As the chosen people of God, they have a higher calling with they have egregiously failed to live up to.
Amos uses many metaphors to describe how God will judge Israel. In chapter seven, Amos describes a vision of God holding a plumb line to determine Israel’s moral fitness. A plumb line is used to measure the straightness of a wall in building a house so that it will stand straight and not collapse. This wall is shown to be crooked, and for that reason, it will fall.
We are Israel. Our country is the crooked wall. Israel failed to repent, which would have put them back into alignment with God. Will we?
This is a hard word this morning, but an important one. Amos will not let us off the hook.
For too long have we as a country trampled on the head of the poor and marginalized.
For too long have we stood idly by while the system we support kills our brothers and sisters.
For too long have economic interests and corporate billionaires lived off the blood of the marginalized.
I saw an interesting quote this week: The system is not broken; it was built this way.
From the beginning of our nation, the wealthy and powerful have built their prosperity on the backs of slaves, widows, orphans, and immigrants.
From the beginning, whiteness has been a way to avoid the ugliness of life.
We are privileged, even if we don’t feel like we are. We have the option to turn the television off and disengage from the violent images we see every day. We have the choice to pay attention, or to not. Our brothers and sisters who are black, Latino, African, Caribbean, and so on, do not have that choice.
When Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are shot and killed by police officers, they see their son, their brother, their father, their husband… When Sandra Bland died in police custody, they see their daughter, their sister, their mother, their wife…
None of this is meant to minimize the shooting deaths of the five officers in Dallas. Those atrocious killings are just as shameful.
But we must realize that while we are witnessing these kinds of police shootings for the first time in the past couple of years, communities of color have been living with this kind of violence for generations.
So where do we go from here? I think the second part of our reading from Amos, as distressing as it may seem, can lead us to a place of progress, if not hope.
One of the main things Amos is speaking out against is Israel’s violent mistreatment of the poor. This violence has not been physically perpetrated, per se, though that was likely a factor in Amos’ prophecy.
The violence Amos is railing against was economic, social, and institutional. The marginalized poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant… Amos identifies these as God’s preferential. Amos is reminding us that “God is with the poor, he is for the poor, he is working on their behalf, and he is inviting us to join him” (elenateresaann.com).
Last fall, my wife took a class that focused for a time on liberation theology. In a response to a reading, she wrote eloquently about what this means:
“The thing I love most about liberation theology is that it starts with the experience of the poor and oppressed. It begins with them. Liberation theology is something that arises organically from their stories, their lives. It is not something that is acted upon them. It is something they have a say in, a role in. They are not victims. They get to play a part in their own liberation, and… in doing so, they free their oppressors as well… What I love about it is that this mindset returns dignity to the poor and oppressed. Their poverty, oppression, and circumstances may have tried to snatch that dignity and sense of value, of worth, away, but in liberation theology, we as Christians have the beautiful opportunity to give it back to its rightful owner. Instead of dehumanizing them, it humanizes instead. It makes me think of when Jesus met the woman at the well, a story we read in John 4:4-26. It would be easy to label the woman, strip her of her humanity: Adulteress. Samaritan. Outsider. But Jesus speaks to her at a basic human level; he engages in dialogue with her, and in doing so, she is led to truth and, even more so, liberation” (elenateresaann.com).
Amos is confronted by Amaziah at Bethel, and we see in this interaction how Amaziah, a priest, was in the pockets of the royalty. He wants to shut Amos up, keep him from disturbing the status quo. Go back to where you came from and do your soothsaying there (soothsaying he calls it, minimizing the quality and validity of Amos’ message).
But Amos replies by saying, “I am no prophet.” In fact, he probably did not see himself as a prophet. He sees himself as just an ordinary guy chosen by God to preach truth to the systemic injustices of his day.
We might be Amos’ intended audience, but we can also be Amos himself. We are called to speak truth into the injustices of our world. We are called to educate ourselves on the very complex and complicated issue of race in our culture. We are called to demand legislation that will keep assault weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of people who would use them to kill. We are called to stand with our brothers and sisters of color, to put our very bodies in front of and behind their bodies, to silence our voices that theirs might be uplifted. We are called to demand that while all lives do matter, it is the black lives that need our attention right now because the judicial, educational, economic, and political systems do not recognize that their lives are of value.
Let justice roll down like waters for:
Officer Brent Thompson
Officer Patrick Zamarripa
Officer Michael Krol
Officer Lorne Ahrens
Officer Michael Smith
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
May our love overcome our hate. Amen.