Sermons: Listening to Injustice

Aileen Verdun preached the following sermon on Amos 1-2 at Wine Before Breakfast… After Dinner on September 15, 2020.

At the time that the book of Amos was written, the nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms: the northern Kingdom kept the name Israel, while the southern kingdom became known as Judah. At this point, both kingdoms were in the midst the long and peaceful reigns of their respective rulers, and Israel in particular attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity that was never again reached. At the same time, this prosperity led to gross inequity between urban elites and the poor. Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and land at the expense of small farmers. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to separate farmers from their patrimonial farms and personal liberty.

This is the context into which Amos arrives. This sheepherder-turned-prophet traveled from his home in Judah in order to speak to the nation of Israel.

Amos begins without delay, launching into a speech that, to his original audience, would be immediately recognized as a prophecy. It was a common feature of Israelite prophecy to indict foreign nations, because this implied God’s universal sovereignty, and that is exactly what we see here. Amos begins to indict six different nations that neighbour Judah and Israel, each for ethical transgressions not only against Israel and Judah, but against other neighbouring peoples. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, and Moab, are all decried by the prophet for their unjust treatment of their neighbours, and are told that they will suffer punishment at the hands of the Lord: their strongholds will be burned and torn down, their places of power will be reduced to rubble.

Each of these indictments begins with the sentence, “For three transgressions of ‘this people’, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” This too, would’ve been a common idea amongst the Israelites. Three plus four equals seven, the number of completion. Amos doesn’t actually lay out seven sins of each nation, but instead uses this phrase to allude to completeness: the injustice of these nations is complete, their transgressions have reach fullness, and now God will bring fire upon them.

So far, this is a prophecy no one in Israel is having difficult time listening too. God’s going to bring down judgment on the pagan nations around Israel for their war-mongering violence and injustice? Yes! I can imagine a crowd growing around Amos as he spoke these words. The people listening might have felt excitement to be an Israelite, and proud to follow Yahweh who could judge all the nations from a position of sovereignty and power.

But this crowd, while enjoying Amos’ words, would also be waiting to see where this whole sermon was going. So far, Amos has condemned six nations around Israel… but who would be the seventh? Of course Amos’ sermon would name seven nations; after all, seven is the number of completion. The expectation of a final seventh oracle would be as obvious to the Israelites as it is to us that a movie is finished when the credits are rolling.

So who is it? Who is the seventh nation to receive the wrath of God? Where does the fire of judgment finally settle in this farmer’s prophecy?

For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. Yes! This would certainly bring a smile to the faces of the people of Israel, perhaps even a cheer went up from the crowd. Of course it was Judah! This prophet from Judah had first hand knowledge of the sins of his own people. Of course this final oracle would land at the feet of Israel’s southern neighbours who thought they were so much better than Israel because of their Davidic dynasty and their so-called “city of the Great King”. Let them suffer judgement, they deserve it. The crowd all breathes a sign of relief at being spared God’s judgement.

But let’s bring this all a bit closer to come. Imagine with me, if you will, that we had a guest preacher from the southern USA coming to speak to us in Canada. This preacher begins their talk by teaching us the long history of racism and slavery in our world – naming all the ways the various colonial empires stole and oppressed and raped and murdered, naming the way science was use to created racial divides that have no actual bering in biology, naming the racist laws and systems that were set up so that wealth could be extracted from the earth by the blood and sweat of Black people and Indigenous Peoples and other People of Colour for the benefit of wealthy whites… this guest preacher then continued in this history of racism and slavery, to name the USA as the absolute peak of all of this horror: the most racist, the most systemically unjust, the true pinnacle of the colonial project of white supremacy.

Such a talk likely wouldn’t offend most Canadians. Some of us might even nod along to such a speech. Our popular culture certainly seems to agree with this notion. Yea, American is the worst! Just look at who they elected as president. We’re definitely not like them. We breathe a sign of relief that we are spared from dealing with this colonial history…

But this isn’t where Amos finishes his prophecy. The crowd expects him to stop at seven, but like an after-credits scene in a Marvel movie, the story isn’t quite over. To his listener’s horror, he goes on… For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. What? Can’t Amos count? Eight oracles doesn’t make any sense! The sermon is over, God’s wrath has been dealt out, we should all be able to go home.

But Amos isn’t finished. He goes on to tear apart Israel, pointing to the way that they sell the righteous and the needy into slavery without a second thought, exploit the marginalized in every imaginable way, and unjustly amass wealth at the expense of the poor. And unlike the other nations, who were judged without knowledge of God and God’s laws, Israel knows better. The prophets points to Israel’s long history as God’s chosen people, and the ways that they have ignored and forgotten who God is and who they are supposed to be. As the eighth oracle, their sins and systems of injustice go beyond completion, beyond fullness. Through Amos, God is expressing just how deeply and profoundly Israel is out of line. The fullness of God’s wrath and judgement will come down, says Amos, on those who exploit the marginalized: those who have taken and exploited and held no compassion or mercy in order to become strong and powerful will be pressed down and will loose what they took unjustly.

Our southern prophet has defied expectation by slamming the north with their own corruption. He subverts their exception in order to shake them awake to their own systems of injustice toward which they’ve willfully turned a blind eye.

So where are “we the north” to find ourselves in this story?

As Canadians, our dominate white society is so quick to compare ourselves to our southern neighbours. News story after news story, we right opinion pieces on what we think the state of the States means for us as Canadians, we point to their systemic racism and ask how could it get that bad, and we define ourselves as being not American. We’re quick to say, well we’re certainly not as bad as all that!

But Amos is telling us that’s the wrong game to be playing. Stop looking to condemn your neighbours while your society is filled to the brim with injustice. We have nothing to say to our southern neighbours when Black people in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. We have nothing to say when there are 61 long-term water advisories still in effect on Indigenous reserves. We have nothing to say when our government is criminalizing Indigenous people for defending unceded land, only one hour away from Toronto. Amos points to the reality that our society has no legs to stand on in the blame game, and that if we don’t open our eyes to the see the injustice going on around us, we have no way of participating in the Kindom of God.

Conversations like this one are always hard, because they’re so big. It’s true that Canada is built upon legacy of colonial racism and injustice, that the society that we exist within has systemic injustice baked into it’s core. But it’s all so much more than I can handle. There are so many ways our society is unjust, so many ways that our society is set up to further marginalize the marginalized. I find myself asking… what do I do? what can I do?

As I was reflecting on this passage I realized that Amos doesn’t ask Israel or the people of Israel to do anything in these first two chapters. Amos is just naming the injustice that he see running rampant. This is not to say Amos has no action plan for Israel, he will certainly get into that later in the book, but in the first sermon that he preaches, the first word of God that he shares with the people of Israel, he is simply asking them to listen. To see. To become aware of the injustice they are embroiled within, the systemic oppression that fuels their society.

We are often quick to look for something to “do” about it all. I’m guilty of this – I want to feel, If I’m brutally honest, not even hopeful but productive… I want to push down these overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, sorrow, anger and despair at I see around me and what I see myself tangled up within, by grabbing onto something to do. I rationalize that if I can be part of the solution, maybe I can absolve myself of those hard painful feelings, absolve myself of this unjust society.

As natural as these feelings might be for people who have grown up benefiting from a white dominate culture, we must resist the instinct to run from the difficult words and painful feelings by finding something to do. Instead, we need to start with the hard work of listening, of opening our eyes to injustice, and to sitting with the pain. We need to hear what is being said, not just in the scriptures, but by the people in our society who day-in and day-out suffer at the hands of the extractive, exploitative, unjust, powerful systems in our society. Marginalized people have so long been telling us that things aren’t right, and we need to listen. We need sit with the words we hear from these texts and from the marginalized, and see ourselves in light of those words.

This community has taught me a lot about lament. And one of the things that I have learned is that without lament, there can be no deep, abiding hope. As we walk through the book of Amos over the next few weeks, we will be encountering God’s condemnation of injustice and God’s calls for justice. My prayer for us is that we can hear the words of God in our own time, that we can see our ourselves and our society for all the injustice, and than we can sit in lament together in order to experience deep resurrection hope. Amen.