Monday, January 30, 2017

Amos: Economic Inequalities

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Amos 1:1, 5:6-7, 10-24:

Most of us are familiar with the words and images of the prophet Amos, even if we didn’t know that they were his words, or more appropriately God’s words conveyed by Amos. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, routinely used the words that close the passage we heard from this morning “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you look up that quote, sometimes you will even find it attributed to MLK, rather than to Amos. The book of Amos is rich with imagery, and with language, that made it appropriate to be used in civil rights and other social justice movements of the last two hundred years, and these modern-day prophets, plumbed the depths of Amos for a word of God to be used in support of their cries for justice. In that, our exposure to Amos is unusual, because the book has largely been ignored by both Jewish and Christians except at the time it was written, and in our times, and the reason is because there is little word of hope to be found in Amos, as there is in other prophets, but more importantly because of the message that Amos proclaims about justice, especially economic justice, and a call to God’s righteousness.

We know a little more about the prophet Amos then we do about Hosea and Joel, the first two minor prophets we have covered. Our introduction to Amos is also different than the others, in that for Hosea and Joel, we are told that the word of the Lord came to them, but here we are told that it is the words of Amos which he saw concerning Israel. That is that Amos is not only conveying the words of God, but he is conveying visions that God shows him. While this is common among some prophets, Amos is the first prophet we have giving us visions. We are also told that Amos is from the town of Tekoa, which is about 9 miles south of Jerusalem. What that means is that Amos is from the kingdom of Judah, but is being sent and is making prophecies about the Kingdom of Israel. That is and of itself makes him an unpopular figure. Just think of how we would deal with someone from another country coming and telling us how we were doing everything wrong and God is going to punish us for it. We don’t deal well with our own people saying that let alone someone else, and so we even have the high priest of Bethel telling Amos “O seer, go and flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel.” (7:12) Of course that is one of the things that Amos says, is that “they hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” (5:10) So if you don’t like today’s message it’s okay, because Amos has already said you won’t like it because it’s hard to hear things that hit too close to home.

We are also told that Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa when he was called by God, when he began seeing these visions. Now there is lots of debate about what this means. Some argue that it means that he is a common labor, a shepherd, and in another spot, we are told that he trims sycamore trees, which means that he is not an elite economically or politically. But, because the Hebrew word for shepherd here is not the usual word, say the one used to describe King David as a shepherd, and the only other time it is used is in relation to a Moabite king which leads some others to say that he is not a shepherd, but a sheep breeder, and he doesn’t just trim the sycamore trees, but he owns the fields, and thus is not amongst the poor, but amongst those with means. He is part of the economic elite that he criticizes. So, he is either wealthy or poor, powerful or weak, depending on how you want to interpret the text. We are also told that he prophecies during the reigns of kings Uzziah and Jeroboam, which puts his prophetic career right around 760 to 750. We know part of this dating because Amos prophesies that Jeroboam will die in battle, which he doesn’t, and so Amos career has to take place before Jeroboam’s death. But this was a time of stability, as well as economic and military enlargement, for both kingdoms.

What this dating also means is that Amos is the first prophet for whom we have writings of his prophecies, or a book named after him. That means all the other prophets, both the major and minor prophets, build upon these first proclamations of Amos, which turns the accepted order of God’s relationship with God’s people on its head. His prophecies, and more importantly his writings, therefore represent a significant turning point in the history of Judaism, and we can see just how important this is when we remember that 16 of the 39 books on the Old Testament are books named for prophets. But not only does this work represent the beginning of prophetic literature, but Amos is also considered to be one of the masterpieces of Hebrew literature when it comes to his imagery and use of the language, which may give more credence that he was from the elite rather than from poverty. But it is with those who live in poverty that Amos is most concerned, or at least for which his prophetic utterances are concerned.

The book of Amos begins with a judgment against other nations for their treatment of Israel and Judah, and even of other countries, and this had to make a lot of people in Israel and Judah really happy. It’s easy, and sometimes enjoyable, to hear that bad things are happening to those people we don’t like, especially our enemies, of being told they are wrong, especially when it’s God saying they are wrong. But this can lead to a position of preference that is undeserved, which is what Amos says has happened in Israel and Judah, and his proclamation of coming destruction for their enemies quickly turns to judgment against Israel and Judah themselves. They thought that because they were God’s chosen people, that they were living in the promised land, that there was nothing they could do to ultimately change that reality. That while they had been told that they had lost battles and even wars because they went against God, there was never any sense that they would ever lose the land promised to Abraham for all his descendants.

In addition, there was also a tradition that the Day of the Lord, or the Day of Yahweh, was a day in which God would come down and destroy the other nations and place the Israelites in their rightful place amongst the other nations. And so, when Amos begins with his prophecies against these nations, the people must be gloating and saying “Oh yeah, they’re finally going to get what’s coming to them,” but then Amos lowers the boom and tells them that the Day of Lord is not a day of celebration for Israel and Judah, but a day of judgment. While we also heard this message last week in looking at Joel, Amos is the first one to make this proclamation and to make this radical change to the understanding of what is going on. That Israel and Judah had become complacent in their beliefs, thinking that God would always be with them, and clearly because they were winning militarily and economically and the wealthy were getting even wealthier that had to prove that God is with them, because God is always with the winners and the wealthy, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t be wealthy or winners, they would be losers and poor, right? Amos gives a resounding no.

The idea that came out of the liberation theologians in Latin America that God has a preferential option for the poor comes, to a large, degree from Amos. There are clearly other scriptural witness to this as well, which, while Amos does not quote them directly, clearly makes reference to. Unlike Hosea who talked about the desire to worship other gods as the reason leading to their destruction, for Amos it is economic realities and economic inequality that lead to God’s anger and the destruction of the kingdom. These economic issues are not just minor squabbling or talking points, these are the fatal flaws that doom the society to destruction. Israel will be destroyed, God says in phrases that will be repeated throughout Amos, “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way… they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.”  The rich were getting richer off of people who were stuck in debt, taking their property, paying them wages that were not sustainable for a family. They were using the court system not to bring about justice, but to bring about things that benefitted them. They wrote the laws, they appointed the judges and they got the results they wanted. The rich were building bigger and bigger houses, buying multiple houses, living behind walls, living in luxury, buying new yachts and new planes, while the majority of the people lived in poverty and did not know where there next meal may come from.  Amos is obviously not talking only to his own time.

Amos gives two different visions that have become fairly well known, the first is the basket of summer fruit, representing a harvesting and death for the people, and the second is of a plumb line on a wall used to make sure the wall is built straight, as a metaphor for building society up according to God’s rules. While plumb lines can and are still used today, most of the time people use a level, which come in different lengths, and therefore tell different truths. A smaller level on a large wall isn’t going to tell you much. It’s like saying that Bill Gates and 9 nuns have an average net-worth of 7.5 billion dollars, but it’s still only Bill gates and ten nuns, and it tells us something about those 11 people but not much else. A larger level can give us greater perspective such as knowing that the 16 members of President Trump’s cabinet have a net-worth equal to that of more than 1/3 of American households, or 38.5 million households, which is 4 times greater than President Obama’s cabinet and 30 times greater than President Bush’s cabinet, which means there is criticism due to Obama as well. A larger level will also reveal that the 8 richest billionaires of which Bill Gates is at the top, are worth a combined 470.5 billion dollars, which is more than the bottom half of the word’s population combined, or more than 3.75 billion people. That is exactly the disparity that Amos is talking about, and the disparity that exists in our country.

But, according to Michael Norton, a faculty member of Harvard Business School, Americans have no idea of the reality of the income inequality that surrounds us in our own country. Several years ago, he ran a nation-wide poll asking people to say how much wealth they thought individual percentage groups of the population had, then what they thought the divide should be, and then compared it against the actual. What he found was that across all demographics, age, income, race, gender, political affiliation, education level, area of the country, every group greatly underestimated what the actual gaps were.  The actual looks like this. The bottom 40% of American’s wealth doesn’t even show up on the graph. This is what Amos is talking about. Who were the banks making millions of dollars off of during the housing boom? Those at the bottom, and when the bust happened, who walked away with their profits? The wealthy. And who walked away into economic oblivion? Those at the bottom. Let’s look at that quote from Amos again about the judgment: “They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” And we haven’t begun to talk about debt instruments, which Amos also brings up. We like to talk about usury being large amounts of interest, but scripturally any interest rate is usury, which is forbidden. But now interest rates more than 20% are extremely common, and for those who are using payday lenders, or other such “short-term” loans, the interest rates can be as high as 400%. God knows about the destructive power of debt, and in-particular the debt cycle, and called for the elimination of all debt every seven years.

What God says is that societies that do not practice economic justice will not stand, they will not be allowed to stand, and we cannot get off by saying “well I have nothing to do with this, and there is nothing I can do.” What we do has impact. Do we buy the cheapest towels, made with the cheapest labor in sweat shops, or do we buy towels where we know the people who made them earned a living wage? Do we buy free trade coffee, again so we know the farmers were paid for their labor, or do we just buy whatever coffee is there? Some of the worst civil wards of the 20th century took place in coffee growing countries, because coffee is a labor regressive enterprise. Do we get involved in advocating about these issues? The New Mexico legislature is considering reintroducing a tax on groceries, which is a regressive tax, that is it affects the poorest among us the most, because the cost of food and the amount we spend on food does not increase as we make more money. What would happen if we as the church stood up to do something about this? What if we as the church decided to tackle some of these issues? What if we as the church moved beyond thinking that church is only about gathering for worship on Sunday? What if we truly decided to hold up a plumb line to the wall of our society to make sure that it was straight and true, that it upheld justice and righteousness.

"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Now is Amos saying that God despises all religious practices? All worship? No, what he is saying is that unless our hearts have been changed, unless we are choosing to stop worshiping other gods, whatever forms they take, unless we start living every day as if God is in control, that what we do on Sunday has impact on the rest of our lives, unless what we do here leads to social justice, and living into the laws of God, then all that we do here is just meaningless and empty ritual. Amos isn’t saying this to 8th century Israelites, he is also saying it to us here today. Or as the evangelist, and former major league baseball player, Billy Sunday said “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than sleeping in your garage makes you a car.”

“I take no delight in your solemn assemblies”, although when they are accompanied by a potluck they are better, God says. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice, an idea we will come back to, refers to establishing a society based on God’s rules for society, in particular, economic rules, and righteousness refers to the fulfillment of the commands about relationships, how we deal with friends, family, neighbors and strangers. While we know Dr. King because of his concerns about racial issues, we forget that those concerns also came with strong economic concerns as well, which were also rooted in his reading of scripture and who God had called us to be and to do. And King, just like Amos pointed out, how in so many ways our lifestyle is built upon the misery of the poor. What we do with our money matters. What we don’t do with our money matters. How we think and how we live matters. Unless we take what we do here and live it out in the world every day, then none of this matters. And as Amos expert Donald Gowan has said, “Prophets, starting with Amos, have left us with the claim that the downfall of nations throughout history must be traced directly to their failure to maintain justice within and among them. We cannot prove the prophets were wrong, for no nation has yet lived up to the standards of God.” “Seek God and live,” Amos says. “Seek good and not evil, hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gates.” How we live in the world matters, how we treat other people matters. Do we see them as means to an end, our end, or do we see them as ends in themselves and seek to love them as we love ourselves? God has established a plumb line, a right way of being, and we are called to live up to it and into it, so that justice and righteousness not only are present, but that they run like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

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