“The Unwelcome Truth” / Amos 7:7-17 / 14 July 2019
“O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy here. Don’t you know that this is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom? Don’t you know we’ve got a country to run here, and a church, and a population to keep happy? Your words aren’t welcome here because they are not what we want to hear. And so, go away. Go tell your unpleasant words in some other place.” Yes, Amos had a tough job, speaking truths no one wanted to hear. Amos was unwelcome in his own land, called unpatriotic because he criticized the way things were being done by those in power. O, Amos, rise up, Amos. O, Amos, speak your unpopular words with their discomfort, their rebuke, their unwelcome truths. And may the God of all truth grant us the courage in our times to do the same…and to hear others when they have the goodness to speak hard truths to us.
When has someone mustered the courage to tell you something you didn’t want to hear, something you needed to hear? And did you ever have the impulse to say to that person, as the royal priest says to Amos, “O seer, go away”? Unwelcome truths are often just truths told at a time when we’re not ready to hear them, an inopportune time. It’s a truth like the ones we’ve all seen in movies like Three Weddings and a Funeral, where the minister says that strange thing that ministers no longer say at weddings: “If anyone here present knows of just cause why this man and this woman may not be joined together in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” And just at that moment, the bride’s true love comes sweeping into the church and announces his love for her. A truth out of time is one thing, but it’s not the good and healing truth that Amos speaks to his wayward nation. No, here we’re talking about a timely truth that the hearer cannot bear to hear, but needs to hear urgently and fast.
Alas, when the preacher treads in such choppy waters as unwelcome truths, he really has no other stories to reach for but his own. For who else’s stories can we tell in cases like these? And some of them you’ve already heard. I hated them in the moment, but I’ve been grateful for the awkward Amoses of my life, folks who’ve loved me enough to risk their relationship with me in order to tell me a truth I knew deep down to be true but didn’t want to hear. Oh, how I hated my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Chambers, when he pulled me out into the hall and angrily told me I was wasting my brain, that I was lazy, that I was just doing the bare minimum that needed to be done in order to pass his class. But his well-meaning criticism had a positive side to it. He was telling me I wasn’t stupid, just lazy, and that I had the resources to excel, if only I would do it. And though I’ve forgotten the names of so many of my teachers down through the years, I’ve never forgotten his because he cared enough to tell me a truth that I didn’t want to hear. Not only did he make me a better student, but he caused me to see a degree of potential no one else had ever shown me. Mr. Chambers is my first Amos.
Then there was the pushy, overbearing chaplain at the school in Cameroon who showed up at my house one night and told me that I was reading the Scriptures in the service the next morning. I was petrified. To stand in front of 900 jeering students and read, it made me tremble. He said, “Someday, Brian, you will understand that you belong in the pulpit.” And I hated him for that. Insistent, assertive, stubborn old man! Who did he think he was to tell me where I would spend my morning anyway? I didn’t want any part of any pulpit. But he kept putting me in the pulpit. And here I am today. Pastor Mamiah was the second great Amos to trouble my peace…and bring me joy.
The third and last of my life’s Amoses that I will tell you of was an anthropologist I met in Africa. We were together, back in the States, and I had condemned myself to a very unhappy engagement to a woman who just wasn’t right for me. But if you’ve ever lived abroad for a long period of time, then you know that when you get home, you want it all NOW, everything you think you missed. I wanted a wife, a house, a career, kids. So I rushed into something ill-advised. And everyone who knew me during that difficult period of my life remarked on how unhappy I seemed, considering that I was engaged to be married. I had deep misgivings, but I was not well adjusted yet to America, and not thinking well. All my friends played it safe. You can’t tell a friend that you don’t like the person he or she intends to marry. That can come back to bite you hard. And so they all played it safe…except one. This anthropologist who’d seen my life over there and now the sad life I’d pulled together for myself in suburban New York. One night, out of the blue, she said to me, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. If you can’t even be happy about the engagement, how’s it going to be a happy marriage?” The only thing that hurt me in her words was the fact that it had been so obvious to everyone but me.
Oh, ha, I guess there is a fourth great Amos I could tell you of. My wife. She used to sit with me early on Sunday mornings so that I could prescreen the Sunday sermon with her. And the criticisms she offered were spot on, but they sure created a lot of anxiety of a Sunday morning, when it left only little time to fix them. But in any good marriage, our spouse is our constant Amos, isn’t that right? The one person who can tell us when our fly is open, or there’s mustard on our tie, or…that it’s time to go home.
And who have been the Amoses in your story? You’ve had them, just as I have. They made you angry, but they loved you enough to risk their relationship with you. And that! That is real love. Three thousand years ago, King Solomon wrote those words that we find still today in the book of Proverbs: “Faithful are the wounds inflicted by a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” Have you not found this to be so in your life? A parent, a teacher, a family member, a very true friend. We really only get a few Amoses in a lifetime, for their calling is so hard. Who have been yours? Celebrate them today. Follow in their steps. And if any of them are living still, tell them you’re grateful.
The humble Book of Amos is remembered to most of us for its one glorious quote, which Martin Luther King, Jr. so loved to repeat: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That basically sums up the message of this little book. Amos is a cry of discontent against a corrupt Israel. The Promised Land was meant to be a place where everyone had a piece of land to work and equal rights before the law. It was supposed to be a land of freed slaves who knew better than to inflict on anyone the kind of misery they endured in Egypt. But noble ideals tend to fade over time, don’t they? Visionaries like Moses, Jesus, Bill Barker…they pass along, leaving their grand ideals to men and women of lesser passions, people who never quite had the depth of spirit to keep the great vision pure. History is littered with failed utopias. Israel was one. It was a plutocracy, no longer a land of equals but of wealthy landholders and destitute tenants. People’s lands had been stolen from them by crushing debts that the king, and the nobles, and the religious authorities imposed on ordinary folk in order to steal their land as payment. Amos’s vision begins with God holding a plumb line up against the walls of Israel to see if they’re straight, and they are not. There are serious structural problem with the nation. It’s going to have to be torn down and rebuilt.
When Amos announces his vision, the royal priest, Amaziah. declares treason.
Funny how this theme has recurred down through history. If you criticize the unfair, destructive ways of a tyrant, you’re called a traitor. Of course that’s what Amaziah would say. Amaziah’s an old sellout. As the head priest, he ought to be the one speaking these truths that Amos names. But Amaziah knows which side his bread is buttered on. He’ll do best for himself by supporting the royal and religious structures that enrich the powerful. Ah, but here’s the clincher. Amaziah knows Amos is right! He recognizes the truth in Amos’s words, for he calls Amos not a poser or an imposter, but a prophet. He recognizes the divine source of Amos’s passion for the downtrodden. And so the old priest calls him a seer—which was a respected member of ancient society. “O seer, go away. Go spin your prophecies of divine retribution down in Judah. We don’t need your negative spirit here. We’re actually doing well. O seer, go.” Amos protests when he’s called a prophet. “I’m no seer. I’m a herdsman, and I tend sycamore trees, but this is the vision that the Lord has given me: Israel is doomed to fall like a crooked wall.” Amaziah the royal priest just wanted to maintain morale. Amos the prophet wanted to give people time to amend their ways. And of course Israel did fall. Less than fifty years later, the Assyrians would conquer Israel and take its nobles into generations of captivity. See! This is the irony of it. A nation is behaving as something less than it ought to be. Hence the plumb line. They’re not living like freed slaves who rejoice now in equity and freedom. They’re behaving more like the Egyptian taskmasters who once oppressed them. If they will not embrace the wisdom of Torah, the equality of all in the eyes of God, then they will be given over again to captivity. In other words, your blessings will be taken from you if you never learn to share them. And taken away they are. Why? Because they would not listen to the unwelcome truths of Amos.
We see this all over our world and nation today. The question is, just how much are we willing to pay to tune out the unwelcome truths that Amos speaks? How much would you give just to be able to go on a few more years as if everything can always be as it is now? People don’t want to hear about climate change. It’s too scary. It means too great a change to our way of life. A serious response to climate change would mean that a few very rich people will end up making a whole lot less money. They stifle the discussion and try to pretend it’s all a big scam dreamed up…to what end no one knows. People don’t want to hear about the racial injustices in our society. We really, really want to believe that all of that is behind us. But when credible accusations of rape stand against prominent white men in power, and nobody lifts a finger in response, but a black man selling loose cigarettes in the street can be strangled by the police in front of a crowd, then we come to understand why the church has us reading Amos still today. It’s a book of warning addressed to any society that forgets such noble principles as equality, justice, fair treatment of the vulnerable, and just plain old reaping what you sow.
They say that karma is a rubber band. You can only stretch it so far before it comes back and smacks you. There’s not a table in this life of years that will not be turned in time. Youth, station, rank, renown. Which of these will stand by you when the world has forgotten your name? But if a friend, or a family member, or maybe even a preacher cares enough about you to tell you a truth you don’t want to hear, then hold fast to that truth. We all need help, at times, to see beyond the fog of our desires—to see the truth as it really is, welcome or not. Has there been an Amos in your life of late, telling you a thing you know to be true but that you’re not ready to face? Or are you called to be an Amos, to speak an unwelcome truth? O seer, go and speak your truth. Amen.
“The Unwelcome Truth” / Amos 7:7-17 / 14 July 2019