Sermon for the the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 21, 2013
I will never forget the first paper I had to write in seminary. The class was introduction to the New Testament, taught by one of the finest scholars on the Gospel of Matthew. The purpose of the paper was to draw out and reflect on the meaning of the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew. We won’t go into that parable now, you can look it up later.
To write my paper I dutifully gathered all the appropriate materials; checked out the funky words in Greek; and wrote a paper that I thought was God’s gift to the parable of the wicked tenants. With that smug, arrogant grin on my face I turned that paper in and waited for the praises to start rolling in. You probably see where this is going.
My professor gave me the worst grade known to man. A B plus. Ahhh! A B plus! That’s just cruel. That’s like quitting a marathon at mile 25. That’s like getting a silver medal at the Olympics. That’s like when you’re at a restaurant, and when your food comes, the person you’re with definitely ordered right, and you definitely ordered wrong.
So why’d I get a B plus? Well, in all of my pride and arrogance, I straight up forgot to mention the key verse in this passage. Verse 43. Can you believe it? Verse 43! You know what I’m talking about, right? Ahhh, another thing you can look up later.
When I got that paper back, I was so, so angry. That bum of a professor in his ivory tower, telling me what I’m doing wrong? Who does he think he is anyway? I mean, he’s not Jimmy Abbott, so what could he know? Verse 41, whatever! Didn’t he know that I deserved an A plus?
So do you know that feeling? When you have done something, worked so hard, just to have somebody telling you that you’ve done it wrong? God I hate it when that happens! We get so mad, and before considering that we might actually be wrong, we just take it out on the other person. We do not take the time to think that perhaps the other person is right after all, and that we are woefully wrong.
So, could it be that Amos is actually right? Amos is the Old Testament prophet that we’ve been reading from lately on Sundays. And Amos is not the nicest guy in the world. Amos is giving the people of Israel a B plus. He breaks out the red pen and scribbles all over the people of Israel: you are trampling on the needy. You are ruining the poor. You are cheating. All you want to do is make more money, and you don’t give a thought to the poor. Amos is like my New Testament professor. I forgot verse 41, the key verse. The people of Israel were forgetting the poor, and remembering the poor is the key to holiness.
See, Amos is a prophet. When we think of prophets, we often think of people who can tell the future. Well, that’s not really what a prophet is. A prophet is somebody who speaks God’s truth and word. A prophet is a mouthpiece for the Lord God. And do you think that the people like hearing from the prophets? Of course not. The people of Israel did not like hearing that they were getting a B plus; just the way that we don’t like it when somebody tells us that we are doing it incorrectly. We get angry, upset. We want the A even if only deserve the B plus. What the prophets do is hold a mirror up to our lives, and show us the parts we don’t want to look at.
Prophets did not just live long ago. Prophets are still holding up mirrors to our lives. And we have never liked it. In 1917, and three long years in the worst warn known to man, the Hnited States entered the First World War. All the bishops in the Episcopal Church expressed their support. Except one. Bishop Paul Jones saw the writing on the wall, he was the millions of young men dying needlessly. He trusted that the way of Christ was the way of peace. He held up a mirror to the church and said that nonviolence comes first. So what did the church do? The church kicked Paul Jones out, and removed him from his position as bishop.
In the 1960s, a young man named Jonathan Daniels went to Alabama during the civil rights movement. He was a seminarian, training to become an Episcopal priest. He was holding a mirror to the world, giving the world a B plus. Jonathan Daniels was using his red pen to say that in Christ, there is no difference between black and white. So what happened to Jonathan Daniels? He was murdered. Shot on a hot August day in 1965.
That’s what happens to the prophets. We cannot take their criticism so we get angry and lash out. We do whatever it takes to prove that we are right, even if we only deserve a B plus. Rather than taking a hard look at the mirror they are holding up to us, we smash the mirror. We don’t want to know just how wrong we are.
So let’s take a step back. And before we lose our cool, let’s look again at what the prophet Amos is saying. Let’s consider Amos and the long line of prophets that we can hardly bear to listen to. Amos lived two thousand seven hundred years ago. But reading this passage, it’s like Amos wrote this yesterday. Trampling the needy. Ruining the poor. Turning a blind eye to injustices. I’m not going to overwhelm you with numbers and statistics, because they could go on forever. But as you know, the poverty rate in Houston’s suburbs is growing rapidly. (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Poverty-on-the-rise-in-Houston-suburbs-4529783.php)
More than one billion people around the world live than on less than one dollar a day. (http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/resources/fastfacts_e.htm)
We get our cheap clothes at the expense of enslaved workers in horrific factories in places like Bangladesh. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57591427/despite-promises-bangladesh-factory-still-unsafe-for-workers/)
I don’t like hearing these facts just as much as you don’t. Nevertheless, Amos holds up a mirror to our lives. And Amos doesn’t say that this is a money issue, because it’s not. Amos holds up a mirror, and asks us to look at the poor, because it’s a spiritual issue. Remember, the poor and the oppressed are under special protection from the Lord God. When we forget the poor, we forget the one who came to us in poverty – Jesus himself.
We have two options when confronted by the prophets. We can smash the mirror and kill the prophets; like we’ve always done. But if we do that, listen to what Amos says, “There is a famine coming. Not a famine of bread. Not thirst for water. But a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” If we kill the prophets, if we turn our ears to criticism, if we neglect the poor, then the Lord God will remove his word from us. A frightening proposition.
The other course of action is, obviously, to change our ways. To remember the poor. To correct injustices. To show mercy. To accept the criticism of a B plus as a chance for a new start. That’s why we are sending the youth of our church on a mission to Bastrop. That’s why our youth group has received a grant from the Diocese of Texas to serve the poor in our community. That’s why we collect food for Northwest Assistance Ministries. That’s why we help Spring Assistance Ministries on Thanksgiving. That’s why we collect supplies for the Seafarers’ Ministry in the Port of Houston.
This is our chance to prove Amos wrong. This is the time for Holy Comforter to look at the mirror, to swallow the pain of the B plus, and find new ways to serve the poor. Do not get frustrated or upset, do not deny the problem.
And finally, let me describe the real aim of our working with the poor. When we collect food for NAM, or send our kids on a mission trip, it’s not so much about those we help. It’s about our hearts being changed. Those of you who have gone on mission trips know this – that when we help somebody in need, it’s not their lives that are changed, it’s our lives.
I think Amos is calling us to task and getting us to serve the poor not for the sake of the poor, but for our sakes’. To serve the most needy around us, we have to open our hearts. And if our hearts are open, that leaves room for the one person who needs to be in our hearts. Christ Jesus, the Lord.