Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings and welcome to the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The lessons for this week are a tad unsettling. They focus in one way or another on repentance. Amos points out to his people that their prosperity has been built upon a flimsy foundation of injustice and exploitation of the poor. He warns them that God, not the invisible hand of the market, will decide Israel’s fate. Unless Israel begins to do justice, she will soon face justice. The psalmist recognizes that life is brief and often filled with hard labor, disappointment and tragedy. Often, the sorrows we experience are brought upon us by our own folly. S/he therefore prays for wisdom to live his/her life wisely and well. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the word of God is “sharper than any two edged sword.” Though it is, to be sure, a healing word, healing does not come without the pain of self knowledge and repentance. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus offers a rich young man the gift of a once in a life time opportunity-but he cannot empty his hands to take hold of it.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1386
For some autobiographical information on Amos, I suggest you re-read the comment of July 29th. Israel was experiencing an economic, military and religious revival under the leadership of her King, Jeroboam II. Business was booming; the long struggle with Syria had ended in victory for Israel; the chief sanctuary of the Lord in Bethel was packed to the rafters with avid worshipers. It was morning in Israel. Yet despite all appearances to the contrary, things were rotten to the core. The courts were turning “justice to wormwood.” A new commercial class was gaining unprecedented wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the poor even as they patronized the temple singing the hymns to Israel’s God. It was Amos’ job to tell his people that their wealth was not evidence of God’s blessing, but kindling for God’s fierce wrath. Wealth built on injustice will not be tolerated among the people called to be God’s light to the nations. So Amos calls his people to “seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire against the house of Joseph.”
The parallels here between 8th Century Israel and 21st Century Wall Street are not hard to miss. That pervasive infection of greed, selfishness and complete lack of conscience that built a mountain of phony wealth ending in a devastating crash ruining our economy is precisely the kind of sin infecting Israel. Like Amos, there were some lone voices in the business community crying out words of warning, but they were ignored. Though we can surely point to conduct by banks, mortgage brokers and venture capitalists that was absolutely despicable, I believe part of the blame for our present economic woes must fall squarely upon the rest of us who were all too willing to tolerate such conduct as long as it was growing our pensions and increasing the value of our homes. Nobody was trying to occupy Wall Street when the gravy train was on the roll.
Still and all, I think we need to be careful about drawing parallels. There is a difference between Israel and the United States of America. Israel was God’s covenant partner. She was called to be a light to the nations. She had received her freedom as a people and her land from the hand of God. She was God’s chosen people. Therefore, she was judged under the terms of the covenant relationship that her conduct had so grievously violated. The United States is not God’s chosen people. God has no covenant with America. Because America is not a party to the covenant, America is not answerable to its terms. That is not to say that God is unconcerned with what America or any other nation does or does not do. In general terms, God’s judgment falls upon all nations that practice injustice and unrighteousness. In general, God judges the righteousness of a people by how they treat and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst. I think we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that God is not pleased with the conduct leading up to the crash on Wall Street or with how the economic burdens resulting from that crash have been distributed. That said, Israel, as a people called by God to live in a covenant relationship reflecting a better hope for all humanity, is uniquely responsible for obedience to the terms of the covenant under which that hope is given concrete expression. So this word of Amos is more properly directed to the people of God, Israel and the church, than to Wall Street. So we need to ask ourselves how these words speak to us at Trinity.
Over the years, our church has been blessed with substantial real estate holdings as well as some very generous donations. We must take care lest this wealth become a curse rather than a blessing. I know from bitter experience that when churches come into money, they have a tendency to become more like lawyers, businesspeople and accountants than faithful disciples. It is sobering to realize that Israel’s finest hours occurred at times when she had her back against the wall and nothing with which to defend herself. That is where she most often witnessed the saving power of God. When Israel had wealth, peace and power she tended to forget where these gifts came from and began to imagine that they were hers to do with as she wished.
We cannot forget that we have been called to be the Body of Christ. We are in the business of making disciples-not growing our membership, maintaining our facility or investing our wealth to make more wealth. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. Most of us have a hard time having money without becoming attached to it and allowing it to run our lives. The gospel lesson is a very pointed reminder of that very thing.
This is a gloomy psalm. It is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. We reach the point when we can no longer drive. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change. As I said, this is a gloomy psalm.
Gloomy as it is, though, it contains a ray of light. The psalmist’s prayer was answered. The psalmist concludes his/her prayer with the words: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” That we have this psalm in the scriptures, and that we will be singing it together on Sunday demonstrates that God in fact “established the work” of this psalmist’s hands. (I should mention that I owe this insight to Professor Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.) As dark as this psalm may be (and it is pretty dark), it is nevertheless a testament to God’s determination to make of our lives something beautiful and worth preserving. It reminds me of Paul’s assuring word to the disciples at Philippi: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Time may be at work taking us apart piece by piece. But the Spirit of God is also at work piecing together the new person born at our baptism into Jesus Christ.
The writer compares the word of God to a double edged sword. This is a violent image. A sword has one purpose and that is to slay. Yet as discomforting as this image may be, it is entirely appropriate. To hear God’s word is to come very close to death. Recall the terror of Isaiah when confronted by a vision of God in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah 6:5. The word of God discerns the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In its light, nothing is hidden.
I think a lot of us put a lot of effort into keeping secrets on ourselves. It has been said that every person has three selves: the one she is, the one she thinks she is and the one everyone else things she is. It is the first one that I am least likely to know because I am overly concerned with the first two. I want to believe that I am a person of integrity, courage, wisdom and vision. Those character traits are important to a minister. So I when I am less than honest, I rationalize it by convincing myself that it is all to spare the feelings of those who might be offended by what I believe to be the truth. When I am cowardly, I tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. When I make mistakes, I make excuses. When I am at a loss over what needs to be done, I try to exude confidence. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a disguise. So as painful as a confrontation with God’s word may be, it is also liberating. There is nothing like the relief a person feels when a good and trusted friend says, “Who do you think you’re fooling. I know what’s going on here. Let’s talk about it.” Suddenly, the pressure is off. I no longer have to maintain the façade. I can stop making excuses, explanations, justifications and get down to the business of taking responsibility and making the changes I need to make.
That brings me to the second part of this lesson. The writer of Hebrews does not urge us to flee in fear from this blinding light of God’s word, but rather “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God never wounds us unless it is for the ultimate purpose of healing us. If the word of the Lord sometimes scares the hell out of us, it is because we were made for something better than hell. Those of you who have undergone joint replacement surgery know that healing can sometimes be a long and painful journey. A successful hip replacement can relieve you of a lot of pain and give you more freedom of mobility. But to get there, the pain is going to have to get worse before it gets better. So it is with the Kingdom of God. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells in our midst and we live together in peace with our neighbors and all of creation is one to which I am irresistibly drawn. Yet I know that I am not the sort of person that could live in such a renewed creation. I need a heart transplant and the only surgical instrument sharp enough to perform that operation for me is the word of God. Only daily repentance and forgiveness among people of faith can assist me in growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. With the psalmist, I must rely upon God to establish the work of my hands. I must trust Jesus to complete what he began at my baptism.
This is without doubt one of the saddest stories in the gospels. The way Mark tells it, this young man coming to Jesus yearning for the way to eternal life was sincere. And let us be clear about one thing. When the gospels speak of “eternal life,” they are not merely speaking about some distant event in the “sweet by and by.” Eternal life is life that is spent doing the things that are of eternal importance, the things that matter to God. Naturally, then, Jesus refers the young man to the Commandments, all of which he claimed to have observed from his youth. We are told that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him.” “You lack just one thing,” says Jesus. But alas, that one thing is just one thing too much for the young man. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to spend the rest of his life doing things that matter
eternally. Instead, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”
I am afraid that I identify with this rich young man. No, I am not rich by Donald Trump standards, but like nearly all Americans, I enjoy a measure of wealth that two thirds of the world can only dream about. I have never had to go hungry. I have never had to travel further than the kitchen sink to find clean water. Like everybody else in America, I feel I am not making enough, that my taxes are too high and that everything is more expensive than it should be. But I have no fear of starving to death or having to sleep on the street or being driven out of the community in which I live. Even if I were to end up broke and homeless, I have enough family and friends that would see to my basic needs and a social safety net that, despite years of trimming down, is still there. That might not get me on the cover of Forbes, but it makes me filthy rich by standards of most the world’s population. I, too, want to live my life for the things that matter eternally, but at the cost of losing my wealth? I would like to think that this is just a hypothetical question. Of course Jesus does not expect all of us to give up everything. This rich young man was a special case because…well, because he was rich. He was addicted to his wealth. Just because an alcoholic must refrain from drinking to maintain his sobriety, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be teatotalers. So the argument goes. Trouble is, there is no indication that this young man was anymore addicted to his wealth than we are. In fact, we don’t even learn that he was wealthy until the end of the story. There is no indication even that Jesus knew about his wealth initially. Moreover, it appears that the twelve disciples, who do not appear to have been rich, also gave up all of their possessions to follow Jesus. I do not believe we can get ourselves out from under this troubling word by trying to make of the rich young man a special and extraordinary case. Giving up everything seems to go hand and hand with discipleship.
This story is so unsettling because it hits us right where we live. Next to the cult of individualism that has become so much a part of the American consciousness, I believe that the greatest threat to the health of the church today is our wealth. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be the church without elaborate sanctuaries in which to worship, a seminary trained pastor for each individual congregation, a Sunday School, numerous programs to meet every conceivable need and a big piece of real estate that does nothing other than provide a place for people to park their cars once a week on Sunday. The churches in the African nation of Namibia cannot afford any of these things, yet these churches are growing exponentially even as American churches decline. The question here is not about individual giving to the church-important as that is. Rather, the question is whether, as a church, we have given all to Jesus. How much of what we do is geared toward satisfying our own wants and needs as members rather than surrendering all to become the Body of Jesus in our community? Do we trust Jesus enough to follow after him doing the things that matter eternally-even when those things are not financially rewarding, desired by our members or promising in terms of increasing our membership? We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in Jesus, but are we ready to put our money where our mouth is? A church’s budget is frequently a portal into its soul. What do our financial records say about who we are? Do they reflect a passionate concern for the things that matter eternally?