July 11, 2010

Amos 7:1-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

When I first looked at this morning’s scripture texts earlier this week, I was fairly sure that I would preach on the Gospel story about the Good Samaritan. It’s such a classic story of our faith, and it offers us a lot to reflect on. And so, as I went through the week, my thoughts were centered on the question of what it means to be a good neighbour.

That theme was in my mind every day this week… every time the door bell rang here at the church, and there was someone in crisis standing in front of me and asking for help. I did my best to offer what I could. I listened, I prayed, I comforted and encouraged. I shared a few cups of coffee. I directed towards services in the community. And I handed out a fair amount of financial assistance from our Session Benevolence Fund.

I felt, as I often do, a mixture of frustration and guilt that I could not do more, as well as a good feeling too, because I often felt that what I was able to offer (on behalf of the church) did seem to help, to support, and to strengthen some families and individuals who really were in trouble.

I thought some more about what it means to be a good neighbour as I lay in bed the last few nights, listening to my young neighbours partying with their friends just a few metres away from my window. It didn’t make me feel very neighbourly at all! I wanted to sleep, and I just wanted my neighbours to “shut up”!

I thought about throwing on some clothes and marching across the lawn at 3 a.m. to give them a piece of my mind. I was getting to be that angry, in my sleep-deprived state! Instead, I just called out my window, and politely asked the group to keep it down because the neighbours were trying to sleep. After all, it was the middle of the night.

But in the morning, I turned back to the scriptures for today, and I noticed the prophet Amos and his angry words against King Jeroboam II and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos didn’t hold back his righteous anger against Israel and their king, and instead ask them politely to consider following the laws and commandments of God. But then again, Amos’ complaint was much more serious and much less self-centered than mine.

It was somewhere around the year 760 BCE, in the middle of the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, and it was probably the most prosperous time that Israel had yet known – Prosperity built on trade in olive oil, wine, and possibly horses, with Egypt and especially with Assyria providing the markets.

But the prophets, of whom Amos was probably the most harsh, condemned the materialism and selfishness of the Israelite elite of their day. In the book of Kings, King Jeroboam is said to have “done evil in the eyes of the Lord,” meaning both the oppression of the poor and his continuing support of the cult centres of Dan and Bethel, in opposition to the temple in Jerusalem.

What is striking about Amos’ words is both the passion of his concern for the oppressed, and the power of his language. He declares that God is measuring things up, like a plumb-line that checks the straightness of a foundation wall. And when God finds that the wall is not perfect – that Israel and its king are led by greed and selfishness and corruption, God is going to destroy them. God is going to send the wall crashing down. It’s going to be the end of an Israel that has failed to live up to their high calling as God’s chosen and beloved people.

Now, if you’ve studied some biblical history, and if you’re good at remembering dates, you’ll know that Jeroboam II’s reign comes to an end in 745 BCE, and by 722, the Northern Kingdom of Israel does come crashing down when it is conquered by the Kingdom of Assyria. And the prophets interpret that military victory for Assyria to be God’s doing because of Israel’s unfaithfulness and injustice towards the poor and oppressed.

People of faith today are much less likely to interpret the outcome of wars and conflicts between nations and peoples as related to God’s judgment and condemnation of one side or the other. The winners in most battles are rarely any more righteous than the other side, and the losers can hardly be said to have been conquered because of the misdeeds of their people.

But what the prophets made clear, and what must be just as true today, is that God is not at all pleased with the continuing greed and materialism and selfishness and oppression of the poor that plagues our world today just as much as it gripped the Northern Kingdom of the 8th century BCE.

The psalmist too declared in our reading today, that God was taking his seat in the divine council, that God was making his judgment over the “gods” that seem to rule the world. God asks, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” And then God instructs, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; Maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; Deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

The psalmist is sure that the “gods” of the world (with a small “g”) have no real power. “They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” Yes, God is sending them crashing down. God’s kingdom of love and peace and justice is coming. It is being established in our midst.

As I think about the Kingdom of God, I think about Jesus who came to proclaim its coming, who came to show us what it would look like, who came to usher it in and to empower people from all tribes and nations to participate in making it a reality.

There are only a few instances in the Gospels when we read about Jesus sharing the righteous anger of Amos against those who would oppress the poor and misrepresent the priorities of God. I’m thinking of the day that Jesus stormed into the temple, overturned the tables, and drove out the money changers.

Perhaps there are some appropriate times for people of faith to get angry… when women and children are abused and have nowhere to find help and safety, when medical care and nutritious food are not made available to all of our children and seniors, when despite having programs for welfare and disability in this country, there are still so many people who fall through the cracks in the system, and have nowhere to turn for help.

But the Christ, whom we have been called to follow, was not just another prophet or a political activist. His message was not “repent, or be destroyed – change your ways, or God will annihilate you!” No, Jesus proclaimed with his words, and enacted with his life, the truth that God’s Kingdom of love, justice, and peace was coming. Indeed, it had arrived.

The people of his time could see that kingdom coming as people were healed, lives were transformed, hungry bellies were filled, enemies were reconciled, and people on the edge were welcomed and included. With parables like “the Good Samaritan,” Jesus taught the common people and the elite alike to look for God’s Kingdom coming through the most unlikely people and situations. And he showed them that they were being called and enabled to participate in bringing that kingdom to its fullness.

I am fairly sure that even after reflecting on these things this week, I am still going to have moments when I get angry over things that aren’t really that important. But I hope, at those times, that I will think of Amos and his righteous anger, and maybe that will put things into perspective for me.

And I know that even after reflecting on these things this week, I am still going to have moments when I get angry over things that are important – over child labour and human trafficking, over terrorism and war, over racism and sexism and discrimination, and over the systemic oppression of the poor and powerless. But I hope, at those times, that I will think of Jesus. I hope I will remember that he got angry too. But that he was not overcome by anger. He was not led by anger, but he was led by love.

Jesus said, “Love God, and love your neighbour.” He told the story of the Good Samaritan, and then he said, “Go and do likewise.” May God’s Spirit fill us, encourage us, and empower us, to be God’s faithful people and to live as Jesus taught us. Amen.