"LOYALTIES" - Amos 7:7-17; Ephesians 1:3-14

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, July 15, 2018

Texts: Amos 7:7-17; Ephesians 1:3-14


            Speaking truth to power has never been easy or risk free. Most of us know the names of Thomas More, who took on King Henry VIII of England and was beheaded, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who challenged the authority of Hitler, and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.  All of those names remind us of what can happen when people speak truth to power. Still, truth being what truth is – and power what power is – the work remains critically important. (see Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 3, p. 218)

            One of the first and most memorable people in history who spoke truth to power was the prophet named Amos, from whom the first lesson comes. Amos lived in the 8th century BC. God took him, called him, and said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

            Israel, in the 8th century BC, had been divided into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom was known as Israel; the southern kingdom known as Judah. Amos was from a small village named Tekoa, in the hill country about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. He left his sheep, left his familiar terrain, following God’s commands, and became a prophet in the north, in Israel.

            The message of Amos was this: “Next time the fire!” Through Amos, Yahweh said, “I will send my fire on Damascus, Gaza, Rabbah, Moab, and Israel. The end has come for my people.”

Amos was called to speak truth to power. And in the last quarter of the 8th century BC his word became history. Amos’ message came true. The kingdom of Israel passed through four decades of crises, defeats, and assassinations on the way to the abyss.  Israel was crushed  up by the Assyrian empire. Amos got it right.

            This is what he said: “the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, . . . . the Lord said, ‘Amos, what do you see? . . . a plumb line.”  . . . And God said: “The 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 a sword.”

            A plumb line is a vivid image and an important tool. A plumb line, I should remind you, is a cord with a weight used by builders to be sure that walls are erected on the vertical.

            God asks, “Amos, what do you see?”

            Amos answers, “A plumb line.”

            Then the Lord said, “See, . . . . I am setting a plumb line . . . . in the midst of my people.”

            There are several important things to note about this simple verse: “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.”

            The first word in that sentence is translated, “See.” A better word there for the context, for the importance of this message, might be “Behold!” That is the actual Hebrew word. “Behold” is the word more often used when God wants to get our attention. “See” is really not strong enough. “Behold” points to something unprecedented, something beyond expectations, like “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people,” from the Christmas story. It means, “do not miss this!” It usually means, ‘God is doing something hugely important.’ It is like the professor saying, “now you really need to understand this.” This is the emphasis that God is giving here with Amos: pay attention; do not miss it; this is crucial for all life.

            Then, “I am setting a plumb line. . .”

            If you look on Youtube, the “Do It Yourself” guru, Bob Villa, has a video on how to make sure your wall is straight, plumb, vertical: you use a plumb line. Hang a piece of cord from a nail with a weight on the end next to the wall and you will know if the wall is straight. The plumb line has been working for a very long time!

            God’s point is depicted with vivid imagery. God’s people were created upright and true. God’s people have been blessed through the ages. But God’s people are no longer vertical, plumb with God. In all the words spoken by Amos in the book, all this gets great clarity. God has lost patience with the people. The king and the people have stood tall in their religion, but neglected common humanity. They have moved the boundary markers of compassion in their own hearts so they can trample the needy. They have ignored clear signs of justice so they can bring wealth and success to themselves. They have placed added taxes and rules to ruin to the poor. They have worshipped God with their lips but not served God with their lives. A plumb line in their midst will reveal how very out of line God’s people are with God and God’s intentions.

            Then, there is the phrase “my people,” – a plumb line in the midst of “my people.” From the beginning, God is their God and they are God’s people. God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. God established them in the land. God promised to be with them, giving them blessing and identity and more. Amos says here that God has no more patience. God will not ‘pass over’ the people. God is not looking for repentance. God remains focused on punishment for God’s people. Why? Again, Amos says in the chapters before this one that you cannot go to worship and recite prayers, and then take bribes and take advantage of the vulnerable. You cannot claim to be king and God’s chosen leader, and then deprive the poor of justice in the courts. You cannot allow runaway greed in the halls of power and allow oppression in the land. Amos calls them “to seek good and not evil.” Amos says “God hates your religious festivals,” your songs and sacrifices. Rather “let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.” One thing only was coming God’s people – destruction and punishment.

            This was NOT a word that anyone in Israel would want to hear. This was certainly NOT a word that King Jeroboam would want to hear. Jeroboam was king from 786 to 746 BC. Amos, the herdsman from Tekoa, was announcing the imminent fall of that king’s dynasty, a dynasty that everyone assumed was ordained by God, sustained by God and beloved by God. Jeroboam was, for goodness sake, king of Israel. How could it be that an unknown herdsman from the southern kingdom could say these things?

            The king’s priest, Amaziah, seeks to intervene. He is so tight with Jeroboam that he believes the king and the king’s priests can determine everything that happens in Israel. Amaziah, worried that Amos would create too much turmoil, seeks to send Amos back south: “go and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

This is what happens whenever we get so caught up in ourselves and our achievements. Amaziah says, it’s the “king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom,” clearly revealing that they have lost focus and devotion to God, with whom they were in covenant. This is what happens when we are created for life with God, for God, and we shift our LOYALTIES elsewhere – to our own sense of pride and power. This is what happens when self-interest becomes primary, instead of God’s interests.

Self-interests lead to crisis and destruction. God’s interests lead to hope, to security, and to peace. Self-interests lead to death. God’s interests lead to light and life.

Amos responds to Amaziah that he is not just mouthing off. Amos is acting on a call from God, who alone can command who may prophesy. Moreover, the sanctuaries and the kingdom do not belong to the King. They belong to God, no matter how much we think we are in power. And no matter how many times we might justify our religious ways, or move the markers of compassion in our hearts, and trample on the needy behind some claim, God places a plumb line in the midst. God judges according to the vertical – which is about justice, care for the less fortunate, compassion for the stranger, kindness, efforts that promote harmony and hope among all people.

All of this sounds so fresh and familiar to me.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was invited to gather with some faith leaders – Jewish rabbis, Muslims, a Hindu leader, a few other Christian pastors. The occasion for the meeting emerged from the continuing chaos of these times. The question before us – how do we “stand together” as people of faith for justice and hope in these days in our city? . . . . Stand together.

 One of my Jewish colleagues said with urgency: “these are times of moral emergency.” He was speaking out of his tradition – that of Amos – and about the immigrant crisis, especially with family separations. He was speaking about deteriorating relations with so many of our allies. He was speaking about our common call to foster a community of welcome and peace. We agreed as a group that we cannot just react. We need to seek to respond in ways that build an affirming community of connections, care, compassion, and hope. An event has been planned for next Sunday afternoon – an opportunity to stand together, to lament the immigration problems and others. This will be at Temple Beth-El at 4:00pm. We will share the details.

We are longing for a plumb line.  We are longing for fresh LOYALTIES that line us up with God’s real and intended purposes – with what is true, right, just, and good. This is what faith calls us to be about. It is not about politics. It is about community, compassion, and convictions because we know about God’s plumb line. It is about seeking good and not evil. It is about justice and faithfulness as God’s people.

On one hand, we can take comfort that we have been this way before – lots of times before – way back 2800 years to the days of Jeroboam and Amaziah and Amos. We have such a history of failing to see our sins as transgressions before the Lord Almighty.

But these words also remind us of our calling as a church, as God’s people. As a church, we are called to stand together for justice in a brutalizing society, to stand together for hospitality in an exclusive society, to stand together for generosity in a parsimonious society, to stand together for faith in a faltering world. As a church, we are called to evaluate continuously our LOYALTIES – we are in covenant with God and are always called to live and serve God’s purposes.

Here is how my professor, Walter Brueggemann, puts it: “We have made Jesus too pious, too nice, too patient, too polite. He was none of these. He was a dangerous alternative kind of power that was prepared to name names and call a spade a spade, to describe social relations exactly as they were, who counted on the fact that in the end, all the raw, abusive power in the world could not prevail. His honesty is grounded in his confidence about the rule of God.” (A Gospel of Hope, p. 50) As Amos reminds us, it is always about the rule of God.

Our second lesson today should give us confidence about the rule of God – something that Jeroboam and Amaziah had lost sight of. Listen to this from Ephesians 1:

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When we know those words to be true, we cannot let self-interest become the way. We live for God. God has chosen us from before the foundation of the world, destined us for adoption, redeemed us with forgiveness. We have an inheritance. We have been marked with a seal. All of this means we can live only for God – for God’s work in the world, for justice and peace, love and light for all people. That is what shapes our LOYALITIES. To the praise of God - this is what God intends.

If you have not yet seen the Mr. Rogers movie – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – you should. We all seem to think we know enough about Mr. Rogers. This movie goes far beyond his zip-up cardigans, and tennis shoes, and children’s messages. You may remember that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. The movie reminds us – especially in these days – about what is most important – it is like a plumb line in the midst. These are our LOYALTIES:

-                           God’s love for all people and God’s justice, especially for the most hurting;

-                           compassion and kindness, especially when that seems counter-cultural;

-                           neighborly acts that show real care;

-                           sincere gratitude expressed in generosity and hospitality.

We have been given an inheritance, a destiny. We have been chosen, adopted as God’s children. We are to live for the praise and honor or God.

This past week we have all be mesmerized with the Wild Boars – the boys soccer team trapped in a water-filled cave in Thailand. What if we could each summon up the amazing kind of fortitude, bravery, and conviction that was needed to swim out of that dark abyss? What if we could be so motivated to devote our LOYALTIES to the living God who rules and reigns? This is what God is always looking for.

May God’s Spirit so touch us to deepen our trust in God’s abiding care, and so inspire us to devote our LOYALTIES to living faithfully as God’s loving and serving people. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: You, indeed, rule and reign, O God. You are our foundation and our hope for the whole world. Lead us to align our lives in loving and serving Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on July 15, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.