“Creating a New Table”
I don’t know if any of you had this same experience but as a kid growing up I did not like my name. I just never thought my name was cool. I couldn’t point to any cool role models named Wayne, except John Wayne but that didn’t count as that was his last name. John, however, that seemed to me to be a cool name. There was Wayne Newton but he just didn’t quite cut it when it came to being cool. Anyone else have this experience? As I have aged, I have become comfortable with my name.
I wonder if Amos felt the same way growing up as I did? You see his name, which we translate as Amos, means “bearer of burdens.” I also wonder about his parents — who would give such a name to a child — “bearer of burdens.” I am reminded of that old Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” And, I wonder what is it like to grow up knowing are a burden bearer? How does that shape your life?
Amos is one of the 12 minor prophets found in the Hebrew scriptures. These 12 are called minor, not in the sense that they are less than or what they had to say was less important than the three major prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, but rather due to the length of their books. Amos is only nine chapters long whereas Isaiah is 66 chapters long. The Book of Amos, is the earliest of the prophetic writings to be preserved in book form.
Whereas Isaiah is often called the prophet of “God’s holiness” and Hosea is often called the prophet of “God’s love,” Amos is usually recognized as the prophet of social injustice. Would it come as any surprise to you that Amos is my favorite prophet? Since Amos comes around very infrequently in the lectionary, I could not let this Sunday pass without preaching on him. Although it has been over 3,000 years since Amos was on the scene, I believe that today, perhaps even more so than the people of his own day, we, as a nation, need to deeply listen and take to heart the words of Amos and his call to repentance. Martin Luther once said that reading the Bible is like undergoing surgery. There’s something inside us that will kill us — but it’s painful to have it removed. My friends reading Amos is painful. It is convicting.
The basic theme of Amos’ message is the call to live in justice. The book of Amos addresses three types of justice: 1) justice among the nations; 2) justice in the nation; and 3) justice and piety of a nation. This morning, using Amos as our jumping off point, I would like to focus on why I believe we as Christians and the church should be actively involved in social justice work.
Amos was active around 750 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam the second. He was from the southern Kingdom of Judah but preached in the northern Kingdom of Israel. He was a shepherd and some scholars think he was a landowner and probably middle to upper middle class. He comes onto the scene during one of the most prosperous periods of Jewish history. Israel is free from hostile enemies, the economy is sound, and society is for the most part stable. There is peace in the land. However, Amos, the bearer of burdens, can’t help but see that within this outward peace there is a creeping rottenness at the core of society that will bring about its destruction in the end. He sees rampant cheating going on in business; judges being bribed in the courts; gross mistreatment of the poor; religion that has grown shallow and meaningless. Wealth is concentrated in a small minority of the people. The people who were growing richer were doing so at the expense of the poor, who were, of course, growing poorer. He sees the rich oppressing the poor and the prevailing attitude that might is right. He sees a people that have become self-indulgent and soft, and leaders who are increasingly corrupt. These religious and political leaders of the day insisted that Yahweh materially rewards those who are faithful in the performance of their ritualistic obligations to him. Hence, they interpreted their own prosperity and that of the nation as a whole as evidence that divine favor rests on them and will continue to do so for all time to come. At the same time, they reasoned that poor people deserve their hard lot in life. Does any of this sound familiar? Kind of like a society that arrests and puts 90-year olds in prison for feeding the homeless.
The underlying message of Amos is that we as a nation will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. A central concern in the book of Amos, and in all the biblical teaching about society, is that God has a passionate concern for justice for all, especially the poor, the weak, the expendable, and the oppressed members of society. God demands justice in the nation!
In one of the better-known verses in the Bible, Amos calls for justice to roll like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God calls for God’s people to do justice constantly and steadily. God’s desire is for justice to spread over the land like a stream that never dries up. It is not meant to be little pockets here and there, little ponds, but rather to cover the entire land. It is to be ever present. Justice is to be like the air we breathe.
It is not accidental that Amos pairs justice with righteousness. It is a common tendency for us today to view righteousness as piety. To be righteous is to be pious, to be pious is to be righteous. However, for Amos, as well as I believe for Jesus, righteousness is not piety but rather it is relational. Relational righteousness is the source of justice. If God’s justice is to roll down like waters, we must first be in right relationship with God and with each other. For Amos, righteousness is a life of doing justice.
The tricky part, the part we wrestle with is what is doing justice? What does it look like, what does it entail? What exactly is righteous social justice? I would like to give you a definition to ponder on. Righteous social justice, the kind Amos is talking about, is relational and it strives for wholeness and harmony by co-transforming the soul of a community. Let me say that again. Righteous social justice is relational and it strives for wholeness and harmony by co-transforming the soul of a community.
A key and pivotal point of this definition is that social justice is relational. It is being in relationship with those who are vulnerable and expendable. And the only way to be in relationship with someone is to spend time with them. Jesus is the perfect example of this. Jesus did not set up shop in the temple. He could have easily taught and preached and healed from the temple. However, he did not do that. Instead, he went out into the streets to be personally in relationship with the people. He met and sat with them at the community well, he went to their houses for supper, he went to their parties — and he provided the wine. He met with them in their workplaces, out in the fields, walking alongside the road, he partied with them at their weddings and cried with them at their funerals. He went fishing with them. He played with their children. That is the model we should be following, the model of Jesus.
You see, if we want to co-transform the soul of the community we must first be out in the community it and in relationship with it. I think where the modern church has gone wrong is that we are operating with the “fields of dream” model — you know, “build it and they will come.” My friends, that model is drastically failing us! Instead of people coming to our churches, they are leaving our churches in droves. For many, especially the younger generations, Christianity seems like so much nonsense and has become irrelevant. Part of this I believe is that the church is not taking seriously the words of the prophets. They want to see faith in action out in the community, in the flesh, in relationship with the people and they want to be part of something like that. Paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, perhaps the best writers of the 20th century, it isn’t that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting but rather it has been found difficult and left untried.
The second place I think we have missed the boat somewhat when it comes to righteous social justice has to do with the idea of co-transforming the soul of a community. Churches, Mountain View included, have done an excellent and very needed job doing what we typically call mission work. What I mean by mission work are things such as our burrito breakfast mission, the harambee effort we did last year after the flood, our collecting food each week, our contributions to such things as Aurora Warms the Night, etc. Other examples are church food and clothing banks, providing school supplies, furniture collections and so on. I want to be perfectly clear on this. These are very vital and much needed efforts. They are things the church should be doing. They fill a very vital and often times critical need that allow people to make it from day to day. By all means they should continue. However, they are only one side of the righteous social justice coin. The other side that I believe that we as Christians are to be involved in, and one that we have not always been as engaged in as we should be, is changing the processes, systems, and institutions that create the need for the mission work in the first place. That is what is meant by co-transforming the soul of a community.
I am sure that many of you have heard the story about the four villagers who were working along a riverbank. As they are going about their work they begin to see children floating by and out of sight. The first villager immediately jumps into the river and works frantically to pull out as many as he can. The second villager decides the best approach is to teach the children to swim. The third villager rallies the rest of the village to understand the plight of the children and provide them with towels and dry clothes, but the fourth villager marches upriver to find out why and how kids were getting into the river in the first place and put a stop to it. The first three villagers provided much needed aid, but it did not solve the problem. The fourth villager went and changed the source of the problem. That is righteous social justice. After all, it only makes sense that if we are called to help alleviate the suffering we should also be part of changing the underlying problem causing the suffering.
Yes, it is very good and by all means we should continue our mission outreach and work. Again, I want to be very clear about this. It is needed and it should continue. However, we are called to do more. Providing a breakfast burrito to a day laborer provides him with some very much needed nutrition to get though a hard day’s work but it does nothing to change the system that is exploiting him for cheap labor or addressing the constant issue of wage theft that he deals with every day. We are called to do both my friends. That is what Amos means by righteous social justice.
Another way of looking at righteous social justice is that it is the process of creating a new table. Many times, we use the expression that “all are welcome at our table” or that our social justice work is “making a place at the table where all are welcome.” This statement comes from a place of privilege. The problem with this, even if all are truly welcome, is that it is still our table. It is much like the “build it and they will come” model. Instead, I would offer that our calling is to constantly be at work to co-create new tables. Do you see the difference? We leave our table to help create a new table.
Again, I look to Jesus as the model for this. When we read the scriptures how often do we see Jesus in the temple? There was the time his parents brought him as a baby to be dedicated, when he was 12, the time at the beginning of his ministry, which leads to him to being run out of town and an attempt made in his life, the time that he overturned the moneychangers’ tables, and the time when he is put on trial. That is all. Jesus wasn’t found in the temple. Jesus was found out in the community in relationship with the people, not sitting in the temple waiting for the people to come to him. He was out building new tables not for but with the marginalized, the vulnerable, the expendable. If we are to be followers of Jesus we must do as Jesus did. That is what being a disciple is — doing what the teacher did. Remember the great commission and what is says. “Go therefore and make disciples.” Disciples, not converts. Discipleship infers action. And let’s not forget the first word of the commission — go. We are to go into the world.
Teresa of Avila, a l6th century mystic said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”
So, what is the rest of the story of Amos? Several decades after Amos spoke to the people, the ten tribes of Israel (the northern kingdom), as he predicted, were conquered and transported into exile by the superpower Assyria (modern-day Iraq) and assimilated into the other peoples of that empire. Only a very small remnant remained. Israel greatness was completely destroyed. All that was left was the one tribe of Judah, which eventually gave its name to the Jewish people and its religion, Judaism.
I would like to close today with the words of Dorothy Day, social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy said, “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” Amen.
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