Sermons: Seek God and Live

The following is the sermon on Amos 5:1-17 that Deb Whalen-Blaize preached on September 29 at Wine Before Breakfast … After Dinner.

Last week, we gathered together, and listened to Aileen talk about apocalypse.  This week, my dearly beloved, we are gathered together to talk about death.

Hear the words of the prophet:

 “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up.”

No one to raise her up.  Strange words to hear the prophet say, as one who is speaking on behalf of a mighty God.  “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth”…  Surely THIS God can raise anything from the dead.  Surely Israel’s God, who delivered them from Egypt through a parted Red Sea and kept them alive in the desert -surely THIS God can save them.

But what I hear Amos saying to Israel in its apocalypse is not that God can’t raise her up.  What I hear Amos saying is that God won’t.  They have become a society God will no longer endure.  We’ve been reading this for weeks: they no longer behave like people who had once been delivered from oppression.  They, instead, have become oppressors who capitalize on the weak, poor, and needy. The memory of how it felt to suffer under systems of iniquity and captivity is no longer within reach of the most powerful among them; instead those with power choose to nurture a system that sacrifices the wellbeing, livelihood and humanity of the poor.  And in so doing, the rich and powerful have sacrificed their own humanity, and fail to live up what it means to belong to a just God.  There’s a decay of life in all directions, and justice has been turned to bitter wormwood.

To add further insult, they continue to participate in worship and observe holy festivals as if God still means something to them. The rich and powerful of Israel bring grain and livestock in portions that barely affect their legers and expect that God will be appeased and overlook their rotting culture of injustice.  Perhaps they think their offerings are just about meeting that bottom line.  Perhaps Yahweh will look away from what they know is piss-poor conduct for those who belong to the Most High, so long as they offer him a cut of the reapings.  The worship they offer includes nothing of devotion or gratitude, and does not resemble sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination.  I wonder which came first…  Did their conduct of increasing injustice corrupt their worship?  Or did an indifference creep into their worship and corrode their sense of righteousness and equity?  I certainly can’t tell you which came first, but there IS a co-relation.  Their devotion to power and greed flickered to monsterous life as their devotion and gratitude toward their life-sustaining God shriveled up and died.  Worship is supposed to be life-giving.  Yahweh asked for a practice of worship for Israel that would nurture and sustain their relationship, to God and to each other.   But this token appeasement?  It’s not worship.  It’s not service or devotion.  It’s no better than bribery -Hush money in exchange for the allowance of abusive inequity.  Of course, this is not the kind of worship God desires, nor accepts.

And thus the harsh critique is issued:  God is calling time of death.  Start the funeral.  Time for this whole system of death just die.  God is not interested in restoring THAT Israel.  But, thankfully, God is not done talking.

“You are dead.  But…  Seek me” God says, “And live.”

Death is not just a metaphor.  Most of us, by this point in our lives, have been very deeply affected by death.  We have been robbed of people precious to us by death.  COVID-19 shook us so harshly because of it’s capacity for death.  God uses this image of death because of how serious it is -and also because it’s more than a metaphor.  Systems of inequity literally lead to death for those who can’t find housing, who have no support through addictions or mental health challenges, and who can’t access income because they’re not seen as hire-able or because the wages for the jobs they are doing are insufficient and unfair.  Those of us with privilege can’t just brush these things off like they have nothing to do with us.  A society is not just a bunch individuals who are just near each other.  Our behaviour affects each other and we need each other, especially when things get bad.  So when things go well, we need to use our fortune and privilege to support and sustain those in need.  Everything we get is supposed to be seen as a gift from God, which helps us to nurture our understanding of Godly generosity.  However, if you’ve gained what you have from evil, unjust practice, you’re not going to think of what you’ve gained as being from God, or for God either.  The hoarding of wealth so often implicates that it was wrought by illicit means.  If you don’t care who you crush to acquire your fortune or your power, you’re probably not interested in using those assets to support and empower those you are responsible for crushing.

And it’s not just wealth that is acquired or maintained easily by unjust means.  Power works that way too.  And I think this is where the church is the most susceptible to evil, death-dealing practice.  How many of us have suffered under power-hierarchies built and sustained by those in the church who do not actually represent all who belong?  How many of us have been told that we are less than, that our gifts are insufficient, because of our gender?  Our sexuality?  Our nationality or skin colour?  How many of us have been shut down and rejected because of expectations we could never meet?  Expectations never put on us by God.  Expectations that are set impossibly high so that only a select few have actual access to leadership and influence.  This exclusion and dehumanization for the sake of power is STILL happening in the church.  God’s church.  Rather than being an example of justice and equality and unconditional love and commitment, the Church in so many respects reflects and practices exclusionary economics.  And then the church says this is God’s way, sign God’s name to it and convinces themselves this is how God taught them to do church.

But this is not the unconditional, empowering, life-giving way of God.  It is the way of death.  It kills faith.  It keeps people from God.

I worry that as society wakes up to injustice and fights to dismantle it and evoke change, the church is getting left behind.  A few weeks ago I attended an online session about racism in the context of church.  It was sobering.  The lecture was being given by Michael Blair, a black man in leadership in the United Church of Canada.  He spoke clearly and prophetically, talking about the lack of diversity within the church in Canada, and the way that Canadian churches haven’t made any formal statement in support of the anti-racism movement.  Most of us don’t even realize how ethnocentrically European the church here is.  Many of us don’t WANT to know.  Because we benefit from this ignorance.  And because the work of change is hard.  Changing means we need to face and confess to the injustice we’ve perpetrated and participated in, and then we have to keep working and dismantle the corrupt system and then rebuild a new system that shares power.  If I’m honest, the white girl in me who hates conflict and has been fortunate enough to be able to ignore the problem of racism in the church for so long…  that part of me doesn’t want to do the work.  Because once we start, we can’t quit and it’s going to take a long time.  Injustice in the church runs deep in our history.  We’re going to be digging up and destroying those those roots for a while.  For so many reasons, I would much rather keep singing nice songs to Jesus and go on about my business, pretending I’m not ignoring the voice of God calling us to account.  I don’t want to confess to the wrongs I’ve participated in.  But how can I look at my family and friends of colour, how can I listen to their experiences of injustice and denied humanity, and keep behaving as if there’s nothing wrong?  My life-denying practice of racism and presumed privilege needs to die.  I’m finally willing to admit this.

At the end of Michael Blair’s lectures, I decided to be brave and ask a question:  Where do we start to dismantle our system of racism in the church?  What will it take for the church to get to a place of practicing justice and rebuilding a reputation for being anti-racist?  How do we seek God and live?

He said we need to start by admitting we have a problem -that racism IS present and practiced in the church.  We have to do the work of understanding racism so we can identify it and uproot it.  One of the things he says the church needs to do is recognize the diversity of its members, even beyond race. Each individual church community should be excited by diverse theology, experience, resources… there are more kinds of diversity than just racial.  We need to practice expressing and celebrating that diversity.  The more diversity that is on display in a congregation, the more it provides an opportunity to visitors to see something of themselves in the congregation, which leads to that community growing.  Diversity might be a challenge, but it’s absolutely a strength.  And it absolutely indicates, perpetuates and honours life.

“Seek me and live” says our God.  Whether through the audible voices of prophets and teachers or the inner voice of the Spirit, I am grateful that God continues to call us away from fear and death, and is ready to remind us how to nurture and practice life.  God is not afraid of death, but is powerful enough to overcome it.  I am grateful that death can be a disruption to evil, and can make room for life to happen.

And as it goes with practicing anything, when we commit to practicing justice, it will get easier.  We will see more and more life springing up around us and we will forget the fear we once nurtured.  Valuing the humanity in one other will become our riches and our pride.  We will be enlivened as we cultivate life.  We will love God as we love each other and justice will begin to flow from us with ease.  When the church practices justice, it will flow out of the pews and down the aisles, out the doors and into the streets.  Let’s stop damning up this river and instead trust God’s promise that his way of justice brings life. 

Dearly beloved: Let’s seek God.  And let’s really live.

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.