Sermon for Pentecost 24 Pr. 27
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 12, 2023
Amos 5:18-24 Ps. 70 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25: 1-13
I like preaching from the lectionary, because if I didn’t I would be preaching on variations of about ten sermons all of the time. The lectionary also makes me delve into the richness of the Bible while keeping my attention centered on specific passages. It is like eating at a restaurant that serves you a small portion of something on the menu before going on to the next small-portion dish.
On the other hand, the “small portions” of Scripture served by the lectionary readings/lessons for each Sunday is still often far too much to try to “inwardly digest”, as the collect for next Sunday puts it.
The lectionary also forces me to preach on texts that I don’t want to even put in my mouth and give me indigestion just looking at them!
And then there are the Sundays which have more than one text that are unpleasant to look at and hard to digest—Today we have Three of them! An angry prophet tells those who can’t get out of ear shot of him that God “hate(s) (and) despises your festivals and take(s) no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Yeah, that is supposed to fly here at St. Mary’s!
Then St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Thessalonica lays down Scriptural warrant for the Rapture—the idea, in case you aren’t familiar with it, that the literalists have that when Jesus comes back, those who are faithful will be swept up into heaven in the blink of an eye, leaving the rest of us dodging driverless cars on I-70, as they hang out with Jesus.
Then Matthew recounts a parable of Jesus’ which says we had better have oil in our metaphorical lamps when Jesus shows up or we are going to be pounding on a closed door in the dark.
I love the lectionary!
Well. pause O.K. then!
If I try to deal with all three lessons today we’ll all have indigestion!
Let’s encounter the angry prophet, Amos, you are on your own for the others. Though I would be glad to talk to you about the others outside of the sermon.
Amos, like all the prophets before and after him, was called by God to speak what God wanted to say to the King, government, and people of the divided nation of Israel/Judea.
Like all the other prophets, he wasn’t a predictor of the future, except to tell people that if they didn’t stop ignoring God, or trying to be God, and failing to live by the principles set out in Torah, they were going to shoot themselves in both feet. Doom wasn’t inevitable, but actions have consequences!
This role, naturally, did not endear people to prophets who were faithful to God. Old Testament scholar, Harrel Beck, once said that “the prophets were twice-stoned men. First, they were stoned on God when they delivered God’s message to the people, and then the people stoned them because of what they said!
Unlike the other prophets, Amos was not a citizen of the country he was prophesying in. After the excesses of King Solomon, revolts against the crown erupted in Israel, splitting it into the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judea. Enmity existed between the citizens of the two kingdoms from thenceforth, despite common roots and common faith. Amos was a citizen of Judea, not Israel. He was a foreigner!
Furthermore, he was not a “professional prophet,” he was a layman, not clergy of any sort, and was not of the elite of any sort—he was a “herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees,” a common laborer.
Israel, at the time, had not suffered the kind of political reverses that comes from being geographically located on the pathway of armies of some major players among the nations of that part of the world as Judea was. They were not under threat of invasion, they probably had a stable, perhaps prosperous, economy. Into this self-assured culture, Amos steps out of his pick-up in jeans and work boots and proceeds to lay into its citizens, in the name of God! Actually, he starts by laying into every known nation of the region with how they have offended God, before he tells the people of Israel that they were living high on the hog, caring nothing for the poor and vulnerable in their midst, in fact taking advantage of them to live high on the hog! He even calls the women Israel “cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy.” He wasn’t invited back to coffee hour!
He actually didn’t have anything kind to say to anyone! In this morning’s lesson he confronts the “church members” in their self-assurance about Israel’s destiny. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord.” “The Day of the Lord” was understood by Amos’s audience to be a time when God would vindicate their nation, who would destroy other nations who were possible 1adversaries, and they, the chosen, would be dancing in the streets.
Amos gives an alternative view: The day of the Lord will be “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it.” He gives a darkly comical account of what will really happen. “It will be as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house (maybe to get out of the sun or rest from running from a lion?) and, resting their hand against the wall, were bitten by a snake!” If God shows up in their midst, He won’t be happy!
Since we are to read the Bible as a living document, not a relic from the past, we are always being invited into the world of the Bible to find that that world is really the one we are living in now. That being true, what are we to make of Amos addressing us as he addresses the citizens of ancient Israel,
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . take away from me the noise of your songs (“The word ‘song’ -shir- is nothing less than the title of the book of Psalms!)” – Maryann McKibben Dana Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4, p270) --I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
I rather like our solemn festival masses, and the beauty and majesty of our music. The sung Psalms—beautiful!! We don’t have a harp, but we do have an organ. Our worship space is a place of sacred beauty. What is Amos telling us?
Well let’s not turn off the lights and go home!
With a little background from the scholars who dig around in such things, we can infer that the people of the northern kingdom could have been celebrating their prosperity by confusing it with God’s providence, in essence saying, “Thank you, God, for making us exceptional.” Or maybe they were saying something like, “Look at how we adore you, God. Look at the lengths we go to worship you!” OR, “Look at the size of the gifts we bring you!” Things were going well for them, and they were resorting to flattery and bribery of God to keep things that way!
To look at the character of God through the whole sweep of the Bible—and that is something we have to remember to do, rather than judging God, and ourselves, by fragments of Scripture—it is sound to say that God isn’t interested in being impressed—He doesn’t need, or want, the flattery of mere mortals, and how can you bribe Someone who is the source of everything?
What God wants is to be in relationship with us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” this is the first and great commandment.” Love is a two-way street; we are to love God because God FIRST loves us—desiring the best for us (which isn’t necessarily always the easiest or the most comfortable). AND he desires that we take seriously our being in relationship with others. “And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In fact, the heart of the “Law” within the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, affirms that to love God is to love others, and that when we love others we are loving God. And when we grasp that God loves us in spite of who we are it is easier to love others. In fact, out of His love for us God will give us the wisdom and the energy to love others. Our love might be, probably will be, imperfect, flawed, and insufficient, but it will give us, and those whom we show love to, a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is, and will someday become.
A prophet like Amos reminds us, however, that God, even though steadfastly loving, can be angry and fed up with us and what we do to others. The people Amos addressed are self-satisfied with their worship rituals: both ceremonies and gift-giving. They are proud of their performance of impressing God even as they ignore the sick, the poor, the vulnerable, and the hungry. Amos tells us, “Don’t be those people!” But he goes on to say, but “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” Justice is more than random acts of kindness. To champion justice, which is basically see that others are treated as we would like to be treated requires more than one on one interaction. In involves such things as who we vote for and the causes we work for.
I like to think, and I’m willing to bet, that those who love to use their gifts of music and ceremony here at 13th and Holmes are not creating music and beauty to impress God, but to celebrate the relationship they have with God, acknowledging His love and presence in their lives. And those of us listening, watching, and participating within our own abilities, as we come together for worship each time we gather in this place, are doing the same.
And furthermore, the gifts we give of time and treasure to support this old church and its traditions, as well as the mission of this parish, diocese, and national church, are truly thank offerings instead of bribes.
That doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us, or sees us as doing all that we can, because most of us probably aren’t. I know I’m not. But, then again, “doing all we can do” is not necessarily what God desires from us. We don’t gather here to get a “to do list,” which would be a “one more thing to do of many” list. Another stone thrown to us when we are trying to swim in the challenges and stress of our lives. What God desires is to allow Him to love us and to love others through us. He will work out the details as we go along. We show up here, not to get a “to do” list, but to be empowered, through worship, prayer, and sacrament, to hear whatever God speaks to us in our hearts and minds about, and follow Him through any door He opens.
And any time we find ourselves patting ourselves on the back for doing that, let’ go back and read Amos!
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!