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.
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,
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.
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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,
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.
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.