The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 2019
Times were good. Times were very good. It seemed that everybody was getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Foreign enemies were weak and in that relative calm, the markets thrived. Capital was flowing. The people doing so well also thought they were doing good. See, they assumed that their wealth was a sign of God’s blessing upon them. They assumed their wealth was an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace upon them. They could pour another glass of wine, relax under the shade of the big tree, and watch their wealth grow day by day, with interest, of course. Everything was calm and peaceful.
Except, except that is for one man. One nuisance. One annoying little pest. On the face of it, he was a nobody. He lived no life of luxury, he had no pile of wealth. He was a laborer, working the land. And whereas others saw it as a peaceful time, a stable time, Amos saw this world of easy capital and quick cash as a threat. As a threat to a way of life. As a threat to the people of God. Amos was asking all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how the people made their money and spent their money.
Amos lived at a time in ancient Israel when some people were getting very, very rich. And the cost of it all? Oppression, debt slavery, and deceit. Because those economics were not good for everybody. And Amos knew it.
Amos was a prophet. And remember, prophets are not about telling the future. Prophets are not fortune tellers. No, prophets speak the truth in uncomfortable places and in uncomfortable ways. Prophets remind the people that God is watching. That God does indeed care for the people we don’t care about.
And so Amos started to make a fuss about it.
“You trample the needy,” he declared.
“You ruin the poor,” he pointed out.
“You go to worship but what you really care about is when the market will open again,” he said.
“You make the ephah small and the shekel great,” he detested. That would be like saying that if a pound of wheat was worth a dollar, you could only buy half a pound for a buck fifty. In other words, the rich are getting rich off the hunger of the poor.
“And worst of all,” he said, “the poor are slaves to their debt. Because you have trapped them in their debt.”
“So look out,” Amos said, “because God will not forget.” God will not forget.
Though we forget. It seems that nothing has really changed. Payday lenders have the capacity destroy a person’s ability to pay back a loan and get out from crushing debt. Credit card interest rates, oh so tempting at first, have broken many families, many souls. In 2015, a state senator went to put gas in his car. Somehow, he was able to fill his nineteen gallon tank with twenty seven gallons. Huh. The ephah small, the shekel is great, and somewhere, somebody made a buck of those shady measurements. It should not surprise us that the best performing schools are in the wealthiest neighborhoods, and that the lowest performing schools are in the poorest neighborhoods. Not because those kids are any less capable, but because if you can’t get food in your belly, how are you supposed to learn how to read? These are uncomfortable truths, because I know that I am invested in this system as well. I am certain that funds I hold are probably invested in corporations that do things I would call morally detestable. I am certain that some of the clothes I have bought, some of the technological gadgets I use, were produced in atrocious, sinful conditions. I see that the ways I live are detrimental to the welfare of others and of our environment. I recognize that I am part of the problem and that Amos has some stern, stern words for me. God has not forgotten.
Of course, commerce is not inherently evil. Buying, selling, and trading is part of what binds humanity together. It is only when this buying, selling, and trading becomes sinful that we need to speak out. F.D. Maurice said it best. He wanted a fair economic system so that “he could buy his coat without sinning against God and his neighbor.”
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. See, in today’s world, everything has become politicized. And I would imagine that based on what you have heard so far, you are trying to paint me with a certain political brush stroke. You are trying to paint Amos with a certain political brush stroke. And, depending on our inclinations, we will either admire or despise what Amos has to say about certain economic practices. Everything is heard nowadays with a political spin.
But part of what I am inviting us to reclaim today is nuance. Nuance in politics, theology, and economics. For instance, in our polarized society, we most often assume it is people of progressive ilk speaking about debt slavery and unfair economic practices, as Amos did nearly three millennia ago. But that would be missing the nuance of it all. Strange as it may sound, Amos is actually quite conservative. All throughout his prophecies and his words of judgment, Amos is not trying to turn the system upside down, he’s trying to call the people back to holiness, back to covenant, back to the law. Amos is trying to conserve what the people already have – laws from God. Amos is trying to turn something upside down alright – the greed and wanton lust for money that has corrupted the people. Amos simply reminds the people of who God is.
And this is the main point. Unfair and predatory financial practices, shady lending deals, and a blind thirst for wealth that tramples the poor is an affront to God. Because God is the defender of widows, orphans, the poor, slaves, and those for whom it would be easy for us to forget. It is an affront to God to worship in the right way, but to use our money in the wrong way. This is no modern day political debate, this is the ancient monotheism of Israel being worked out to its logical conclusion. The worship of money is idolatry. Using the poor for your own gain is a sin. The Old Testament doesn’t seem so old, does it?
It wasn’t old for Jesus, either. Jesus offers a strange, confusing parable about a dishonest steward. But the point is this – Jesus picks up right where Amos left off. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Strange as it may seem, this is the good news of Jesus Christ. To me, this is completely liberating, life giving. Take the words from Jesus another way – “you don’t have to serve God and wealth.” What a relief! I don’t have to be on the hamster wheel, always trying to run to the next toy, the next car, the next house, the next job, because my purpose in life is to serve God, not my bank account. And if I am serving God first, if I am careful about what I buy, how I invest, how I save, then I can be as sure as I can that my money is not trampling the poor, crushing the oppressed.
But best of all, my money can now serve God.
That’s the point.
My friends next week we are going to start our annual pledge campaign. This is the season in the church when we ask you to prayerfully consider how you will financially support the mission and ministry of this church. But it’s more than that – it’s a spiritual exercise. It is one very real and very tangible way for you to discern how you make your money, how you spend your money, and how your money serves of God. It’s a very real way to think about how your money is being righteously or sinfully. In the midst of all the buying, and the selling, I believe that my pledge to this church is an opportunity to do something different. That is, I give without expecting anything in return.
In this day and age of entrenched politics, in this time of uncertain economic futures, in this time of both wealth and poverty, I ask you to take a hard look at your money. Who is your money helping, and who is it hurting? Do you expect God to bless you with money, or do you bless God with your money? If you are resistant to the words of Amos, to the words of Jesus, could it be that money has become your god? Think about your week, do you spend more time watching the markets or more time thinking about the Spirit’s work in your life?
Because at the end of the day, in the economics of the Kingdom of God, there will be no buying or selling. No trading or exchanging. In the economics of the Kingdom of God, there will only be what Jesus did on the cross. An offering, a gift, that is completely free; a gift that costs us everything.