Sermons: Resisting a Culture of Violence

The following is the sermon on Amos 6.1-8 that Sylvia C. Keesmaat preached on October 6, 2020 at Wine Before Breakfast … After Dinner.

What you hear
depends on the story that you are living.

For instance,
I’m sure that as that passage was read,
some of you heard:

“Alas for those who lie on their king size beds,
and watch TV on their couches,
and eat KFC from the flocks,
and Big Macs from the stall;
who shout empty lies to the cheers of the crowds,
and improvise on twitter,
who drink diet coke,
and anoint themselves with hair product and tanning oil,
but are not grieved over those dying of Covid.”

It is easy to hear that, isn’t it?
Easy because many of us 
have been immersed in the story
fed to us by the news cycle. 
Our imaginations have been shaped,
our consciousness surrounded,
by the out-of-control spiral of news
that is covid, and Black Lives Matter,
and the permutations of politics 
both in Canada and south of the border. 

And these stories are so loud,
so all-pervasive,
that it is hard to hear any other story,
hard to imagine plot twists that will bring
healing and hope,
hard to tear our eyes away
from the grim fascination 
of a society spinning out of control.
Part of what makes that story so fascinating
is that Canadian society
doesn’t seem to be spinning out of control.

In general we seem to have managed covid well.
In general our government has come to our aid.
Compared to the rest of the world
we’re doing okay. 
Aren’t we?

For we aren’t actually hearing that one story anymore. 
The story of the Canadian dream,
of a multi-cultural society 
were people of different ethnicities
live in harmony,
the story of Canadian acceptance
and politeness,
the story of a society
where everyone is taken care of
(don’t we have universal health care?
and then CERB and now CRB?)
has been challenged more and more loudly:
missing and murdered indigenous women,
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
the deaths of Joyce Echaquan
and Regis Korchinski-Paquet,
and now covid,
these stories surface
and disrupt the smooth flowing 
of the cultural narrative of increasing progress,
and upward mobility.

But they are seen as aberrations:
if we give some time to other voices,
hear their concerns,
have an investigation,
and just weather the pandemic,
we can get back to normal again
and continue with our dominant cultural narrative. 
The problem, of course,
is that our dominant cultural narrative
isn’t a life-giving story. 
And Amos knew this.

All of the prophets, including Amos,
make it clear that what lies behind
the injustice and violence at the heart
of Israelite life
is amnesia: 
the people have forgotten their story. 

Instead they have put their faith 
in the dominant narrative,
a narrative that itself is rooted in violence. 

That violence can be seen
in a number of ways in our text.

First, and most clearly,
is economic violence:
beds of ivory, one of the most precious commodities,
traded by their Phoenician neighbours;
an abundance of meat from flocks of lambs;
barns with stalls to house the calves;
so much wine that they drink directly from the bowl rather than a goblet
(wine in those days was mixed with spices in a bowl before being served);
and the finest oils—
all of this points to a life of opulence, excess and luxury. 

But, oddly enough, 
and this is the second point,
this life of excess is described
in ways that seem devoid of community
and oddly disconnected. 
Instead of being entertained by musicians
this well-fed person is singing idle songs on the harp
and improvising music for themselves.
They are anointing themselves, 
not being anointed by others with the finest oils. 
And, most telling, they are not grieved over the pain of others.
They are emotionally isolated. 
There is a sense of disconnection from community in this text.

Except, of course, for the slaves. 
The slaves who ensure the beds are comfortable and clean
who kill the lambs and calves 
and cook their succulent meat,
and bring the wine. 

You see, this kind of opulence 
this kind of economic injustice
is always rooted in violence
towards people who are not really human:
in ancient Israel that was the poor,
in our culture it is Indigenous people,
Black, and Brown people.
If you aren’t grieving over the pain of others,
then it is easy to use those others
to ensure your violent system survives.

And this lack of grief over the ruin of other people
hints at another kind of violence that is always
paired with economic violence in the biblical text
(and this is my third point):
the sexual violence described elsewhere in Amos. 

The lack of grief that characterises these people
is made possibly by not giving voice
to the pain of those who are abused.
The idle songs and improvised music
serve to cover up and silence the voices of lament.
It is a powerful contrast:
strong, purposeful songs of lament
that call out for God to act now, and act with justice
and idle songs that just fill the air with meaningless jingles.

All of these kinds of violence is considered normal
in a culture where the narrative is one of 
privilege for the wealthy,
denigration of the poor, 
and belittlement of women. 

Here’s the thing. 
If we are surrounded by this kind of a narrative,
if a culture of violence is all that we have access to,
then it is hard to imagine
what the way forward will be. 

Right now in our world,
all around us voices are calling
for the story to change,
for justice to be done,
and many of us are finally waking up and saying,
“yes, yes, it is up to us to change the story,
confront the violence,
bring change.”

But we don’t really know what to do. 
And this is why, I suggest, 
we need to draw deeply once again
on the story that shaped Amos
and his view of the world.

This is the ancient story of Yahweh,
the God who called Amos from his sheep
and his sycamore figs to challenge the people
about their forgetfulness.

Here are some ways that the story challenges
the three kinds of violence 
I described in the dominant narrative—
(and I am dependent on Walter Brueggemann for these three broad categories). 

1. First of all, the economic violence
that demands that the luxury of some
be rooted in the scarcity of others
is challenged over and over 
by the narrative of a generous Creator,
who created a world of abundance
and enough. 

This abundance is demonstrated 
again and again in the story: 
Abraham welcoming and feeding three strangers;
Boaz providing bread for Ruth;
Barzillia and Abigail providing food
for David as he fled for his life;
a widow providing cakes for Elijah in a famine.

All of these rooted in the larger narrative
of a God who provides enough in the wilderness,
manna, water, and quail, for a group of refugee slaves
trying to find a place to call home. 

And, of course, such generous abundance
culminates in the story of Jesus,
who can’t seem to help himself,
feeding 5000 in the wilderness,
then 4000,
with such an abundance that there are always left-overs
carefully gathered up by the disciples
to have for breakfast the next day. 

Is it any wonder that Jesus says to eat together
as a way to remember what his death and life
are all about? 

That’s why we get together every week,
to eat bread right?
Because the sharing of bread at the table in liturgy
is kind of like a dress rehearsal for the sharing of bread
we do in our daily lives. 

Ironic isn’t it?
We aren’t allowed to act out this bit of liturgy right now,
no dress rehearsal for acting out
the generosity that undermines an economics of violence. 

But, as someone who spent high school on the stage,
I can tell you that sometimes you just have go out there
and act out the story even without a rehearsal. 

If we remember the story of our God,
the story of generous abundance
that pulls us in, 
we will find ways to make it come true in the lives of others.

Maybe we can’t invite people to eat with us,
but we can still cook meals and deliver them,
we can still plant gardens for others to eat from, 
and we can enable those programmes 
that make food abundant
in the lives of others even now.  

2. Secondly, the disconnection from community
that makes it possible to live in safety
while the front line workers risk their lives,
is undermined again and again
by the narratives of care, welcome and acceptance
that shape a covenantal community.

The people are to take their cue from God,
whom Moses describes in this way:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods 
and Lord of lords, 
the great God, mighty and awesome,
who is not partial and takes no bribe,
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers, 
providing them food and clothing.”

This God is more important than the Prime Minister
this God is the supreme President of all the presidents,
in Harry Potter terms, The Supreme Mugwump
of the International Federation of Wizards,
and what is God up to?
Growing food at the Common Table,
handing out food and clothing at The Dale,
or bending over the hot stove at Church of the Redeemer, 
or covered in PPE at Sanctuary trying to build community,
or working at Romero House,
trying to figure out the intricacies 
of registering a refugee for health care. 
These are the things that God is up to. 

Because God loves the stranger, 
it is no surprise that Boaz welcomed a Moabite named Ruth,
or that the widow who fed Elijah 
was from Zarapheth near Tyre
(in other words, not an Israelite),
or that Elisha healed an enemy army commander,
or that the four women 
mentioned in Jesus genealogy in Matthew
are all foreign women, 
or that the early church made sure 
that Gentile widows were fed along with Jewish widows. 

This is a community that crosses ethnic and racial lines,
showing hospitality and solidarity
with those who might seem to be strangers. 

That’s why we share the peace every week,
to put into practice a welcome and acceptance
that we hope will spill out into our daily lives.

And there the irony hits us again. 
I won’t go through he whole dress rehearsal schtick again,
but just say this. 
Even in the midst of covid we can start by saying,
“Hey Jacqueline, tell me your story.
Hey Thea, Joyce, Ash, Cynthia, Mel,
tell us your stories.”
Or go to the facebook page of the
Black Anglicans in Canada
and watch their series on 
Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism.
This is where we begin to enter into the story. 

3. Third, this is a story
that breaks the silence of sexual violence.
Where else do we have an ancient text,
that tells the story of a slave raped by her master,
alone in the wilderness
to whom God appears not once, but twice, 
and who is the first person to name God
—and the name is “God who sees.”
God has seen the abuse that Hagar has suffered.
In a world of silence about the abused,
our God sees what is really going one.

This is a story where a king rapes a woman,
and is called to account for it.
(Just let the comparison with today’s leaders
sink in for a moment). 
This is a story where sexual violence happens, 
it is true, 
but where that violence is never presented as acceptable.
It is a story where the women’s testimony,
at the end, is true.

This is a story where the songs of lament
outnumber other types of psalms,
where the voices of rage, pain and resentment
are heard,
where pain is privileged 
and where the voices of the grieving
are not only heard, but lifted up. 

This is why in this community
we do something that isn’t done so often at church anymore:
we enter into lament.
We voice the pain. 
We read Amos and sit with the discomfort of hard truths. 
Because we hope that hearing the voice of lament together 
will give use ears to hear the voice of lament 
in other places
and in the lives of our wider communities. 
And because we believe the pain
of those we meet here,
perhaps we will believe the stories
of others when we hear them. 

You will notice that when I talked about the way
that the Bible counters our dominant cultural narrative,
I talked about specific people
in specific circumstances.
Because our story is not an abstract one,
it is rooted in real lives, 
with real struggles,
real pain,
and real acts of courage and imagination
that counter the stories of violence we are fed daily. 

We can work at a structural level
to undermine economic, racial and sexual violence,
and we should. 
But unless we have claimed 
these particular stories as our own,
unless we are living the story of generous abundance
in particular ways,
unless we are practicing radical welcome of the other 
with particular people,
and giving voice to the pain of those who are abused,
unless our imaginations are being shaped
by the actions of ourselves and others,
we will soon run out of stream.

If we are living only 
out of resistance to something
we will tire, 
but if our imaginations 
are being shaped by another story,
by the story of a new world
that God is bringing into being
in the lives of those around us,
if the story of a God who acts in resurrection 
is carrying us forward, 
why then our lives will be the story that God is telling 
of how to bring healing, newness and hope into the world.