Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ceiling mural of Prophet Amos
A kind of hero

[ A sermon on Amos 7:10-17, delivered at a small church in southern Indiana …}

This episode in the life of Amos is a lesson in heroism. Not the kind of heroism that runs into burning buildings and pulls people out, or that jumps into rivers to save drowning children, but the kind of heroism that stands up to people who are doing what’s wrong, and defending others in doing what’s wrong, and champions what is right. Standing up for truth and right in the face of opposition takes courage. That’s exactly what the prophet Amos does, and that’s what makes him a hero.

This story from Amos is also a lesson in differences of perspective, differences that can make recognizing that kind of heroism difficult, sometimes … because sometimes one person’s heroism is another person’s betrayal … that’s another thing we see in this story from the life of ancient Israel …

From our perspective, here in 2017, as people who hear the Bible as the Word of God, the prophet Amos is obviously a hero; he has had the courage and faith to obey God, he has left his work down south, and whether he was well-off, as some commentators say, which means he had a lot to lose, or whether he was poor, as others say, which means he might be facing scorn when he addressed his audience, either way he does what God asks of him faithfully, he tells the truth, he delivers a difficult message to people who really need to hear it, in the face of opposition from powerful people. We can see all that.

Amaziah the priest, on the other hand, can’t see that about Amos, maybe because Amaziah can’t see past his own customs. Judged by those, Amos looks like a traitor, and he’s rude – it’s not clear which is worse, actually. So the first thing Amaziah does is contact the authorities and try to get Amos arrested. And the next thing he does is try to pressure Amos to keep his mouth shut: look, he says, you don’t belong here, [calling him a seer is basically calling him a paid outside agitator], you’re saying things that are way out of line, you’re threatening the king – you need to back off. Amaziah, from his perspective, is only doing what anyone in his position, anyone with any decency or sense of propriety, anyone trying to keep the peace, would do.

Unfortunately for Amaziah, his perspective is his problem. Amaziah is one of the priests at Bethel, the designated royal sanctuary, which was set up for the purpose of keeping people from going to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple of the Holy One, the Lord. King Jeroboam I did this, over a hundred years before this story occurs, and he did it to keep his hold on power in the north. So he built altars and made idols and he appointed his own priests … he took control of the people’s religious life. This is in 1 Kings 11 & 12, I’m not making this up. In other words, power and greed were what started this. But by the time Amos shows up, this northern kingdom way of life has been going on for over a hundred years, so people have gotten used to worshipping the golden calf at Bethel, deferring to the king, … all of this seems normal, official, respectable, proper … from that perspective, Amos looks like the one disturbing the peace.

And it is even easier to go along with that because people are doing pretty well materially. That is, some people are doing well. The king, the king’s counselors, the priests, the people who have some property … they are doing really well in the 8th century. Amos is there to point out to them that there are other people who are not doing well at all; there are poor people in the northern kingdom, too, and they are being oppressed; they’re being robbed by dishonest business practices, being allowed to get into debt, being forced to sell their land – which is the only means of livelihood in those days – and forced into slavery. And the people doing this are scrupulously “religious,” they come to the temple in Bethel every month at the new moon, fast, pray, make a sacrifice … they think they’re doing great.

So Amos points out, look, you’re not doing great at all. Your relationship to the God of Israel, the Holy One, the Lord, is messed up: do you even remember what the one true God asks of people? Do you even remember about loving your neighbor as yourself? You people have lost your way, you’re drowning in injustice, seriously, you are about to die from this, you need to make some big changes right away. So in a way, Amos is exactly the kind of hero who runs into a burning building and drags people out, or jumps into a river to rescue someone who’s drowning. And he doesn’t say this stuff in a nice, respectable way that makes feel good about themselves, he says it in a shocking, in-your-face kind of way that is meant to wake people up to the desperateness of their situation.

But that makes some people, these powerful people, like Amaziah, really uncomfortable. So Amaziah steps in to play the hero, by making all this disruption, all this disturbance go away, to get things back to normal.

But when normal is really bad for people, when it means letting our neighbors suffer, when normal is going against what God asks of us, getting back to normal is the opposite of what people need.

There’s a story about what happened when the Rev. Vernon Tyson, pastor of the Jonesboro Hills United Methodist Church, invited Dr. Samuel Proctor to come preach at his church on February 2, 1964. It’s told in a book by the Rev. Tyson’s son, Tim.* Dr. Proctor was the President of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and he was a great preacher; and he was black, and the Jonesboro Hills United Methodist Church was white; not everyone thought the invitation was a good idea, and some people thought it was an absolutely terrible idea, and some thought it ought to be stopped.

In other words, there were Amaziahs in the congregation. So there was a lot of conversation about how “Vernon might be right, but it’s not worth tearing the church apart over this …” and there was a big meeting in the fellowship hall demanding that the pastor disinvite this preacher, and there were even calls to the house threatening the pastor, and his family …

And not being Presbyterian, the Rev. Tyson hadn’t asked the Session’s approval back in the fall when he made the invitation … whether or not that would have helped, I don’t know. But finally, in desperation, Rev. Tyson held an emergency meeting of the church’s administrative board the night before the fateful Sunday, to try to smooth out the conflict and get support for doing the right thing, and you can imagine how tense that meeting was … because there were members of the board who were sure this was wrong to have a black preacher come to a white church … But after the arguing had gone on for some time, one of the members of the board stood up, Miss Amy Womble, who had been the first grade teacher of almost everyone in the room, and she slowly made her way to the front of the room, and addressed the meeting, and said two things: first, she said, if any “tearing apart” happens, it seems like it’s we who are doing the tearing. And then she told a story: a young man in Chapel Hill had taken a curve too fast, crashed his car, and killed himself – or so it seemed to the bystanders, who called an ambulance, and stood there waiting … when an airman from the neighboring base came upon the scene, stopped to help, checked the boy’s airway, cleared it, administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – and saved his life … but, she said, I neglected to mention that the airman was black, and the boy was white, and then she turned directly to the fellow members of her church, and said, so, which one of you fathers, in that situation, would have told that young black airman, hey, “Don’t you touch my boy …”

That woke them up – so the church board voted 24-15 to support their pastor and to welcome Dr. Proctor to their pulpit the next morning, several members of the board told Rev. Tyson they had really seen the light at that meeting, and had changed their minds, the service the next day was packed to the rafters with church members, and in the end only one person left the church over it, and someone else from another church joined, so in the end things turned out pretty well for the Rev. Tyson and for the Jonesboro Hills United Methodist Church.

Miss Amy Womble was a hero, by standing up for truth, even though it challenged what was “normal” in North Carolina in 1964. Amaziah could have been that kind of hero, too. Amaziah had an opportunity to be part of a story like that. He could have listened for the voice of God, he could have recognized the truth in what Amos was saying, he could have stood up on that side. Amaziah could have been a hero for the God of Israel, the God of justice.

But he chose instead to be an ally of king Jeroboam II, to stand on the side of his position, his prestige, his power, on the side of the king and what he thought of as propriety, to be a hero for normal. And Amos tells him, look, that normal way of life you’re standing up for is doomed, because it’s not the way God wants to see you doing things; holding on to that, telling me to stop talking, just makes it worse, it means you are turning down the best opportunity you have to actually make things better, by changing … if you do that, you’re going to end up losing everything you care about.

Fortunately, … at least, I think it’s fortunate … most of us aren’t called to be prophets like Amos; and we seldom face situations as dramatic as the one in North Carolina in 1964, either, which I think I’m also pretty happy about. What we get, which is challenging enough, are lots of opportunities to listen to the exchanges in our world, the accusations and judgments, the warnings and defenses … those are going on all around us, in the news, in conversations with our families and our friends, on Facebook and Twitter and so on, if we’re plugged into that … so what we get are lots of opportunities to listen for which voices sound more like Amos, and which voices sound more like Amaziah. That’s hard enough. Happily, though, in doing that, we have the benefit of a perspective that knows Jesus Christ – who told us and showed us that He came to preach good news to the poor, and that power, position, privilege and property should benefit the least. So we have the advantage, of being able to listen for who would be more Jesus’ kind of hero. We can thank God for that.

*Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood Done Sign My Name (New York: Random House, 2004)

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