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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Message of the Prophet - 11/08/2020

I remember this time when I was living in SW MN – the land of endless soybean, corn and windfarm fields. I was driving by a bean field and scattered throughout the field were these volunteer stalks of corn. And I thought to myself, these are like false prophets ... like the beans, they take root in the soil in the spring. They gain life, grow and dig their roots deeper under the care of the farmer. When they sprout and begin to grow, they reach up and slightly to the south to follow the path of the northern summer sun – but it's not long before they show themselves to be something other than the beans that rightfully occupy that space.

I noticed that often there were quite few of these corn stalks sprouting up – all gangly and false – in the lush covering of bean plants that spread out to the edges of the field. It made me think of the 400 false prophets King Ahab called to tell him what he wanted to hear about going to war. When you are willing to pay them for their services and opinions, false prophets are a dime a dozen and rise up from all over the place.

And then I started looking at the corn fields themselves a little differently. I noticed when you are driving past a field of corn in the fall, most of the plants are pretty much the same height, 10-12 ft. But once in a while there was a stalk that stood a full 12 or 18 inches higher than everything else. And I thought to myself, these are like true prophets, according to what the scriptures teach us about prophets. They rise up out of their surroundings surprisingly. Prophets are rarely people who come into their vocations from places of power or wealth. In fact, I’m still working on it, but I haven’t thought or learned of one yet. Even Moses, who did grow up in the household of Pharaoh, didn't start there. His beginnings were in that vulnerable little reed basket sent down the Nile River and surviving only by the grace of God.

Traditionally, the marks of a prophet are that they feel driven to work for spiritual purposes that serve God and the people, especially those who are most vulnerable, most often ignored. The poor. The disinherited. The dispossessed. (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited) These true prophets seem to live modestly, if not impoverished. And they spoke messages of truth that are not softened or couched. They cannot seem to worry about whether they will upset the people getting the message. They speak what they understand is the message of God – even when it is not popular, or it is hard for people to hear.

That is the case with Amos, our prophet today. Like that single stalk of corn that grows up and out of that unassuming sea of corn, he rose up out of the lowly profession of the shepherd in the southern kingdom, the home of Jerusalem. God sent him to the northern kingdom with an urgent word from God for the people there.

Amos comes to his northern siblings with a hard-hitting message – while they have been enjoying the promised abundance of God, they've forgotten their ways – they've forgotten their end of the covenant with God. They've become complacent, they are worshiping idols, they are now the oppressors, the enslavers. “Thus says the Lord,” Amos pronounces to the Israelites.

“Because of the three great sins of Israel
    —make that four—I’m not putting up with them any longer.
They buy and sell upstanding people.
    People for them are only things—ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
    They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
    shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
    a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
    is piled up at the shrine of their god,
While they sit around drinking wine
    they’ve conned from their victims.” (Amos 2:6-8)

Whoa. Harsh and pointed words from a foreigner … even if he is right.

Amos is known as the first of the literary prophets of the Old Testament. He joins other prophets whose names you may recognize also – ancient people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel. But these prophetic voices are not confined to antiquity. They continually rise up out of the landscape throughout human history.

Many consider the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to be a contemporary prophet. He rose up out of the field of an American culture that was continuing to lynch and oppress black people a full 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in this country. As a preacher and civil rights leader, Dr. King brought the continued oppression of our African American siblings to the forefront of civil discourse in a peaceful and powerful Christ-centered way.

He helped this nation set forth on a long and difficult, but righteous, journey of confessing our national sins of racism; of forgiveness; and with a vision of a beloved community as brilliant and varied as the most dramatically rainbowed sky you’ve ever seen. It’s a journey we are still on and unfolds beneath our feet.

Like so many of the slaves Dr. King descended from a century before, he leaned into the narratives of the Old Testament and the founding documents of this great country to shine a light on the hypocrisy of denying basic human rights to people based on the color of their skin. And in his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, D.C., and his I Have Been to the Mountaintop speech in Memphis the night before he was murdered, he invoked the words of Amos we hear today: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (5:24)

There’s something else these prophetic voices have in common – they convict us. They pick up these difficult messages and bring them to people like us, like the Israelites, like the citizens of a segregated nation. People who strive to be faithful people of God but who often fall into patterns of being complacent, of using all God gives us to insulate our lives instead of pushing our lives outward for the sake of all God’s beloved.

Like the prophet Amos, these voices push us to seek God and confront evil. They remind us that our journeys as people of God don't end in our worship, they begin here. That was a big part of the problem Amos was addressing in the northern kingdom where life was good for those at the top. They rationalized that because they came to worship regularly – as they were supposed to – they were technically honoring the covenant; they were technically living in right relationship with God. Amos was there to remind them: Righteousness that never makes it outside the doors of the worship space is hollow and does not please God. And he told them God's response to this hollow worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” God would not smell or taste or hear their offerings.

And these prophetic voices we have through the ages remind us of something else too – as hard as they may be to hear, as much as we may feel convicted by them, they are voices of hope that call us back into complete relationship with God.

I have to point out what may be very obvious. This reading from Amos sounds vastly different today than it has in times previous.

We truly are the ones who “desire the Day of the Lord,” our much loved and previously predictable gatherings for worship, song, a holy meal and time together. We think of those Days of the Lord with fondness and even grief. They nurtured us in so many ways and we desire to have those Days of the Lord again. It is our fervent prayer.

However, that is not where we are today – on this Day of the Lord.

In a way, our life as a worshipping community has been stripped to its essence – word and prayer, mainly … and our utter dependence on God. And I suggest this, coupled with the words of Amos today, gives us a unique opportunity to consider – where our worship of God may feel hollow? Where our worship may not please God? Where our worship on the Day of the Lord is more about how we insulate ourselves and not enough about the fact we know justice and righteousness is not rolling down like waters of an ever-flowing stream for a whole lot of God’s beloved creation …

… for the black and brown and indigenous people, the poor and imprisoned who are infected and die from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than most of us.

… or the 545 children in our country who were separated from their families at the border by people who have apparently lost track of their families and cannot get them home.

… or the fact that in the United States alone, and even before the pandemic, 35 million people are living with food insecurity.

… or the knowledge that about 6,300 species are on the endangered list right now because of intense human pressure on the planet’s ecosystem.

At times do we run the risk of treating our duty or privilege to observe the Day of the Lord like an item to check off a task list? Or an insurance policy against the blind eye we too often turn to suffering? Or our tendencies to become too insular because we are afraid of being the evangelists God asks us to be? (And don’t let that dreaded “e” word scare you. It just means telling others the Good News about Jesus.)

This isn’t easy self-reflection to do, but I do pray we all do it – individually and collectively, so that when we do come back into our communal life fully, we are more passionate then ever … not only for worshiping together, singing and sharing our holy meal, but passionate in our entire lives as worshiping people who seek a world in which justice does flow like waters of an ever-flowing stream for everyone.

It’s not easy. I’ll be the first to admit that. This self-reflection may feel very much like a bear trap or a snake bite if we really dare to be brutally honest with ourselves.

But it is to the end of filling those hollow places with life … and reflecting our brilliant rainbow selves outward for the sake of God’s beloved creation. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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