Sermon for July 11, 2010
As you've probably noticed, Dr. Bob is out today, so I have the honor of filling in for him and preaching today's sermon. Now, long before I was a seminary student, I was a high school teacher. And before I was a high school teacher, I was a substitute teacher. Substitute teacher...substitute preacher... maybe there's some similarity? So, with that in mind, let me lay down a few ground rules: No, you may not get a pass to the restroom; Yes, I know that Dr. Bob “doesn't do it that way;” and no, I cannot be convinced that worship gets out at 11:30, even if you've changed every clock in the sanctuary to appear 30 minutes ahead.
Now that we have that cleared up, and before I read the second scripture reading, I'd also like to introduce you to my family, who are hear with me for this first time today: [Introductions]
Today's second reading is from Amos, chapter 7, verses 7-17.
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. 16Now 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 the Lord: 'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons 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.'”
This is the word of the Lord.
And what a word it is! Your wife will become a prostitute, you will lose your sons and your land, and you'll die in a foreign country. Note to Seminary Intern: When selecting the lectionary passage for your first sermon in a new and unfamiliar church, go with the nice sweet passage from Psalms, or the heart-warming story of the Good Samaritan from the gospels, or at the very least the obscure epistle from Paul that no one understands anyhow, including the preacher. Young Seminary Intern, avoid the prophets of gloom and doom at all costs! And indeed, all of those texts were options in the lectionary for today's sermon. So what drew me to Amos like a moth to the perilous flame?
There is much gloom and doom here, in the vision God sends to Amos, and in the message he must deliver to King Jeroboam and to Israel. There's even a dramatic face-off between two prophets, reminiscent of a late-night World Wrestling Federation smackdown: two costumed and muscle-bound giants hurling insults across the ring, in anticipation of the bell. Or maybe a Wild-West-style shootout: Two desperadoes standing back to back, whispering threats and promises over shoulders before counting paces down a dust-covered street.
Plenty of drama here, but it wasn't that. There's something else buried in this text, something that would jump out to any young, aspiring minister: This is a call story. God speaks to Amos in a vision, calling him out of another vocation and into ministry, giving him an important message to proclaim.
I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am 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."
I can identify with Amos on some level. I am no preacher, nor a preacher's son. I am a high school teacher, a lover of literature and a student of Shakespeare. The Lord took me from my 9th grade classroom and said to me, “Go, preach among my people, the Presbyterians.”
And as with Amos, the message these days seems to be pretty grim. I got a healthy dose of it this past week at the PCUSA General Assembly in Minneapolis. In committee meetings and in conversations with Presbytery Executives, I was reminded more than once that for approximately every five seminary students seeking a call, there is one congregation seeking a minister. And I don't think it's because there are so many more students in seminary these days – it's just that there are fewer and fewer Presbyterian churches these days. Some close their doors, some merge, and some just age, dwindling until they can no longer afford a full-time minister.
Therefore thus says the Lord: "Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons 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."
Is this the fate that awaits the Presbyterian Church? Your sons and daughters shall fall away from the faith while they are at college, never to return, and your church property shall be sold when no one is left to pay for its upkeep; you yourself shall die in a largely secular society while Christianity is in exile away from the land?
That is a harsh message indeed, and I apologize if I have offended any here. I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son. I haven't even been Presbyterian for more than a decade, now. What could I possibly know?
There is a power dynamic in the showdown between Amos and Amaziah as well. Amaziah is the reigning champion, the boss's man, probably (by implication) the son of the son of the son of a prophet. Amos is the underdog, the maverick from another town. Church tradition holds that he is young, and certainly inexperienced; his message to Israel is his first (and quite possibly only) sermon.
While I've said that I can identify with Amos, please don't jump to any conclusions about who Amaziah is. I'm not pointing any fingers in this place, but rather speaking from my experiences in the larger family of churches, Presbyterian and otherwise.
O seer—says Amaziah—go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.
I have heard this before: O young woman, O young man—take your bizzare music and obnoxious clothes and confusing technologies to some other place, but don't bring them here, for this is a Presbyterian church, and we do things here...the way we have always done things here.
I realize, of course, that I am overstating my case somewhat. Not all Presbyterians are averse to change, and last week at General Assembly I witnessed much change that is currently underway, much creativity and hope in the wake of challenging times. I hope to share more of this with you next Sunday in a combined Sunday school class that I'll be leading on my experiences at General Assembly.
But is there any hope in today's message from Amos? Perhaps. But first, a story: In any internship, it's a good idea to figure out early on who's really in charge. And in my first week here at First Presbyterian, I think I got that down. Since he's not here, I can safely say it isn't Dr. Bob. Now Patty Herrera, on the other hand, our Administrative Director—well, let's just say that I was admonished several times by several people in the office that when Patty asks you to jump, the appropriate response is “When would you like me to come back down?”
So, Patty asked me for some artwork for this week's bulletin. A quick Google search turned up a beautiful illustration by Gustav Doré of the solitary figure of Amos, setting his face toward Israel, which I liked. Patty's response? “That's soooo depressing! Why can't we ever have something uplifting and cheerful on the bulletin, like a cute little puppy dog or something?” If you're looking at the bulletin now, you probably think I didn't take her advice. But you'd be wrong. I actually photoshopped a picture of a cute little puppy dog into the Doré illustration (forgive me, Gustav) and if you look closely, you should be able to see it hidden within the dark folds of his cloak.
What has a puppy dog to do with a prophet? Patty's yearning, shared by all of us, extends beyond the cover of the bulletin and into the core of our lives. When confronted with harsh news, we search for mercy, for grace, and for redemption. And in Amos, it isn't easy to see at first. In fact, you have to keep on reading through to the end of the book. It gets worse before it gets better, and in the last chapter, Amos predicts (accurately) the total destruction of Israel. BUT...in the last paragraph of the last chapter, after Israel lies in utter ruin and abandonment, comes this:
9:11On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; 12in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this.
13The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 15I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.
Not only does this prophecy speak to the historic return of the Jews to Israel after their captivity in Babylon, and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, it also speaks to the resurrection of Christ after his death on the cross, and to our own resurrection in God's kingdom after this world passes away. We are a resurrection people, and I believe this prophecy is a fitting one for the Presbyterian church in this age. Notice who does the saving, too: It is not the actions of the people or even the prophets & priests that save Israel. It is God alone who saves. We can certainly choose our disposition—we can, like Amaziah, defy God's message and pretend everything is fine, or we can, like Amos, boldly follow where God leads us. And if the path leads us to death—death of our country (as was the case for Israel), our hallowed institutions, our churches, our culture—then let us follow in the footsteps of our Lord. Let us not fear death, but rather let us live into hope.
Because the time is surely coming, says the Lord, when robust and thriving congregations shall outnumber those in decline. I will restore the fortunes of my people—Presbyterians and all others—and they shall rebuild the ruined sanctuaries and inhabit them. I will plant them in their land and they shall never again be plucked out of it, says the Lord your God. And I might even throw in a cute puppy dog or two.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.