Truth hurts, love frees – Sermon for Sun. Nov. 10th, 2013, Narrative Lectionary, passages from the prophet Amos

It’s a real special kinda person who likes to criticize, castigate, and slam other people.   It takes another kind of person who can really take it, I mean listen well to criticism and judgement. As the Ancient Greek playwrite, Sophocles declared,” No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”  Giving and receiving criticism, well it’s just not pleasant.  I guess that’s why we say, the truth hurts.  It hurts so much that we have developed a whole system of little white lies to be polite.  “My your shirt is–colorful; that dish was tasty, I’ve never tasted anything like it”.  We are trying to be nice, to say nice things even if we don’t think them, so that we don’t offend or hurt feelings.


We don’t get any of that from the prophet Amos.  In fact, that whole being nice thing it’s not really very biblical.  Nowhere are we extolled to be nice.  We are definitely supposed to love, there’s no exemptions or exceptions to that.  But love, love isn’t always nice, and it, like truth, can hurt.  The church leader and gospel spreader, Paul writes to a church in Ephesus, that we are to   “speak the truth in love”. Ephesians 4.15.


I think that’s how we need to also hear the words of the prophet Amos.  Because, well Amos doesn’t have nice things to say about or to the people of God in his day.  But let us not forget,  these are not just Amos’ words, he’s not grinding his own axe.  His only agenda is to speak the word of The Lord.  And although these are hard words, they are spoken from a place of love.


God called Amos to leave his own country, the south and preach in the northern kingdom of Israel. Now this isn’t the first time a prophet has words of condemnation.  A couple weeks ago, we heard about Elijah who contended with the King and queen who were worshipping some god named Baal, and just to be clear it wasn’t footbaal–BAAL


With the prophet Amos, the problem wasn’t to whom the people were praying.  They were praying with their lips; they were offering sacrifices, they were singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to The Lord God.   It’s hard enough to knock (tear) down a bunch of altars, high places, and temples to some other god, but today’s word from The Lord we heard from Amos, is even harder.  The problem was with something much more difficult to deal with.  It was with their way of life, their economic system.  And no one wants to hear that they way we are living, the way we are going about our business is all wrong. The people of God didn’t need to worship the idols and gods of the neighbors to become just like them. 


The had developed an economy, a way of running things that was set up so that some people would get really, really rich, as Amos says live in big houses made of stone, get fat from fancy food and lots of wine.  And all these profits, these good things were made at the expense of the rest of the people.  Some had lots, but lots had very little.  Sound familiar?  Well, the hard truth is we are not much better.  Now I know this may be a hard word to hear.  No one, no exceptions, including me wants to be told that they way we are doing things isn’t right.


It should make us uncomfortable to know that we live, work, and most importantly worship God in one of the most segregated cities in the country, where almost a third of the city’s residents and just over 40% of our children, live in poverty. We live in a country that cuts food aid to almost one million veterans, people working jobs that do not pay enough to support families, to elderly and children.   We live in a sick system.  All sorts of tax breaks and incentives and subsidies go to wealthy and to corporations, but we insist we need to balance a budget, it’s being balanced on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable. 


Today, just as in Amos’ day,  this is not God’s will, not God’s intention.  We continue to create our idols and bow to them, today we call them capitalism, we call them success, we call them, “that’s just the way it is”.  Even charity has become an idol.  For some say that all we are to do is give a little bit to the poor,you know a hand out now and then.  No for the prophets of The Lord the problem is deeper. 


We all want our entitlements.  We want cheap gas and other energy, cheap clothing even if the workers are paid pennies a day and live and sometimes die in sweatshops, we want our social security checks that will go far beyond what we have paid into the system.  Remember though as God’s people we don’t just speak the truth, do not hear me pointing fingers at you, we’re all part of the problem–with our purchases, votes, with our silence, and just minding our own business, taking care of our own.


Through the prophet Amos and believing that ours is a God of love, we can hear these words.  Otherwise, it would be so easy to just dismiss us, give up on us, leave us to our own sinful devices.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, and I didn’t come up with.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  There’s a practice among community organizers, it’s called agitation.  The thing is they don’t agitate everybody, they agitate themselves and each other.  They are pushing one another to grow, to become better, to act stronger and with more purpose.


That’s what God was doing when a bunch of slaves were rescued from slavery in Egypt.  That’s what’s behind all the laws that God gave them in the wilderness.  It wasn’t just a way to get to a promised land, God’s promise was a land where they could live God’s way.  Where sabbath rest meant that slaves and foreigners and even the land were not abused and used up by our greedy desires.  Where widows, orphans, elderly were not abandoned, where everybody gave a hand to pull someone up by the proverbial bootstrap.  Where debts were forgiven.


With this truth, with the words of Amos, and with preachers and prophets, God’s truth is trying to set us free.  Remember truth in love.  We are not slaves to a sinful system that says our value is only tied to how much money we have, where we live, what the color of our skin is, what language we speak.  We are set free to struggle to break open oppressions so that justice can flow freely for everyone, and not just those who can afford it.  With every purchase, every decision, every vote, every letter or email to a government official.  God is giving us a vision of justice to guide all our choices.  So, if the cuts to SNAP, and the debate over the farm bill are important, our church can help you speak up and speak out, to do your Christian duty to contact your legislator, and put your faith into action.  Out in the lobby, I have some handouts for the ELCA office for Advocacy and public policy.  We are called to show-up and be part of the decisions that impact people’s lives–issues like immigration reform, civil rights for all people, and more.  Our faith calls us to show up when and where decisions are being made. 


Just as we can readily admit none of us is perfect, and we try to live, act, believe, think better.  We are freed by Amos and the prophets, most importantly freed by Jesus to admit, to confess, to be convicted that the political, the economic, the cultural systems of our world are not perfect (oftentimes not even close), and that we can, that God expects us to do something about it.  If you can, this week read the whole book Amos. I will admit it is hard, do not get too depressed, do not quit, read it all the way through, even that last chapter.  For those words are promises, God’s promise that the days are coming, and in Christ they are here, and now a time to rebuild, restore, repair, and replenish.  God is raising us up to the freedom of God’s true promised land, a place for all– no exclusion, no exceptions, no exemptions.  Amen

Draw a name

What do these things have in common?  Mascots, bullies, identity? They all have to do with names. Mascot names are in the news because for some people they can be degrading. Bullies call people names, and names are part of our identity that we don’t want stolen or forgotten.


I don’t think anyone would argue about the importance of names.  I experienced an example of the value of names this August, when Tanya and I were at the Churchwide assembly in Pittsburgh, there was quite a discussion around names.  Specifically, in considering a statement on criminal justice there was a decision to replace in a document the name blacks with African Americans. What followed was a lively debate, well as much as you can have with about a thousand people following proper parliamentary procedure.  But we did spend time hearing from people express their opinions on using terms like, blacks, African Americans, people of color and people of African Descent.


Now to some this may seem inane or silly.  However getting a name right is crucial. Moses in our scripture passage knew that.  He knew if he were going to try to convince his people that he should be their leader in a face off with one of the most powerful forces of the world, the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Moses would need to make sure he knew something about this god.  He knew he was going to have to take with him some powerful proof, a word, a name.


Names are important, especially for people like the Hebrew slaves, especially for anyone who’s been oppressed.  Because one of the ways of oppression is to take away your name, take away your identity. Hundreds of years ago, when Africans were loaded onto boats to make the horrible journey to this country, when they were sold at auctions, when they were born.  The white masters took away the names, the language of their people, and gave them new names–trying to define and control them.  And as my family has learned in our travels, names that weren’t supposed to matter, just as their lives didn’t matter much.  At  Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson–where a monument to he and his family stands to this day, at Mount Vernon home of George Washington, there are no grave markers for any of the hundreds of slave men, women, and children who built those grand homes, grew the crops, sewed the clothes, crafted the tools, cleaned, and cooked the food. There’s only a little grassy area where it is believe the slaves were buried.  Just as their names were disposable to their masters, so to were their lives.


Not so for us.  Names for us are important.  In today’s reading, we are given a name for God, in Hebrew it may sound something like this.  YHWH.  It means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”.  But you know, that is not the only name we heard this morning. It wasn’t a name of a King or a pharaoh, but actually the name of one of the so many nameless.The man who The Lord is speaking to on a mountain, beside a burning bush.  His name is,  shout it if you know it,  Moses.


Moses, who was a child of the Hebrews, a child of this oppressed, suppressed, distressed people.  A child again named by the powers that be, when he was just a baby, Pharoah’s daughter drew him out of the waters of the Nile, the waters into which his family had out him to save him from Egyptian genocide.  Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moses, which can mean to draw out.


 On one hand Moses’ life could have been so good, living in the Pharoah’s household, but as a young man Moses had taken things into his own hand, and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew.


In the story for today, God is drawing Moses out of his exile, out of his hiding, and The Lord is doing this, so that Moses can draw his people out of slavery, out of suffering, out of oppression.


Because that’s the thing with our God.  Our God, God Yahweh, the God “who will be who  she will” be chooses to not exist aloof, far away, but in close relationship with his people, close enough to hear and listen to the cries of the oppressed. Our’s is not the god of the winning team, the most popular and powerful.  But the God of the who is close enough, who is near to those who cry out in pain, in grief, in sadness, as their masters of the world seek to own, demean and define them. The masters, the movers and shakers.  They don’t want to really know this god.  They want to control, define, and own God too. 

But in the Bible, w the God who will be who he will be is the God of Moses, the God of Miriam, of others with names like Shiprah and Puah, midwives who save babies defied the command of Pharaoh.  Ours is the God who will be the God of the prostitute Rahab, and so many others, some with names we recognize and others with names we do not hear.


The God who will be who he will be is the God is today drawing us up, and out of whatever would hold us down, drawing us to be who She,  not the world, not marketing companies, not politicians, not bullies, bosses, and bigots would have us be.  We are not Chinese, or illegals, grown men do not answer to boy, grown women are not girls, we do not use words like fags.  The “n” word is not ours to toss around, women are not the same as female dogs. People struggling in poverty are not takers.  Middle easterners are not Muslims and Arabs.  God knows us, God loves us, God hears us, when we speak and when we are spoken about.  God is drawing us always closer.  This drawing you up and out began when your name was spoken as the waters of baptism were poured over you, it continues to this day.  We don’t get a burning bush, but a burning Word, a burning desire to have peace in our streets, peace for our children, jobs and schools, to know that your name is spoken it is used with respect. Ultimately, our God is the God is the God of whomever he will be, and draws us all together to her heart, calling us to be who she would have us be.  Amen.