Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Throughout the powerpoint and on the bulletins you have if you are in person, you can see some little bubbles. Tasha would you pull up the bubbles again? Does anyone know what these bubbles are? Where have you seen them? That’s right. They are speech bubbles like in comic books and comic strips in the newspaper. I like how the shape of the bubble can tell you something about how you are supposed to read the words in it. When you see a bubble that is kind of fluffy, like a sheep, do you know what that means? Yes. It is words someone is thinking, not saying aloud. If it’s a regular old round bubble, I think it’s regular talking. I looked at one of the comic books I have at home and I saw that whenever someone is supposed to be shouting, the bubble gets kind of spikey and wild looking. Look at that one with the square edges and the lightning bolt leading down to the speaker. What kind of words do you think are in that one? Maybe the speaker is a robot? Or maybe they are mad, so the bubble gets sharp?
When I read today’s scripture, which is all about the ways that words from our mouths affect and reflect our hearts, I thought I about these little bubbles and how they help us remember the feelings within and behind the words we say. I bet you have been told, as I have been told, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but word will never hurt me.” I bet you have also learned, like the author of James had also learned, that that’s not exactly true. Words hurt. We know that. We feel it when cruel words are spewn at us and we feel it when we use cruel words to hurt others. Words do harm. We know that. God even seems to know that. There is a whole commandment about not using words to harm someone (the one about bearing false witness). While, it’s true that sometimes ignoring hateful words can help convince someone that it’s not worth saying them, that doesn’t mean that words don’t hurt. We know that and James knows that. Scholar Cain Hope Felder reminds us that the author of James, who wants to teach Christians how to live a life where their faith is reflected in their actions, including their speech, also wants them to remember that their words have power in the world. People who claim to follow Jesus should use that power wisely.
In the first verse of today’s reading, the author lays out the stakes clearly by saying most of the people of that community probably aren’t up to the job of teaching because most people can’t live up to the standards of care and truth in speech that a teacher of Christ must uphold. Nevertheless, the members of the community should try to live up to those standards anyway. In a commentary on this passage, the scholar J.B. Blue, notes that teachers, as public figures who teach in public spaces, are given a particularly clear warning on the power of their words. Some positions in a community, like teacher, nurse, firefighter, politician, come with a measure of authority attached to them. Blue reminds us that some of that authority is explicit, well-defined, and clear. These figures can offer access to learning, dole out discipline, assure basic public safety. And, some of the authority is implicit, indirect, and often unstated. The words of these kind of public figures, the teachers, the preachers, the politicians, can change lives, in good and bad ways.
On September 11th of 2001, I have a clear memory of watching Katie Couric, then on NBC’s morning show, trying to talk the country though what was happening. She was on the ground somewhere in New York city. She talked to a woman who was looking, desperately, for a loved one. At that moment, Couric knew that the authority she had been granted as a trusted reporter with a big audience meant that she could try to help. She made sure the woman was heard, reiterated the details of who she was looking for, and gave out a contact so she could share any leads with this woman. On that day, I watched one woman use her authority and her words to help a stranger on what was probably among the worst days of her life. Not everyone made the same choice or would make the same choice in the coming days and weeks. In can be tempting to use the authority of a public persona to harm. In a commentary, J.B. Blue states it plainly: “This authority is a breeding ground for sin.” James tells us that we cultivate a faith that helps us use that authority to work towards justice.
Anybody who has ever tried to train a horse to use a bridle knows it is a complicated, slobbery, and sometimes bitey task. Anyone who has ever had the rudder not work quite right on their boat knows how vital that small piece of wood or plastic is to the safety of those in and around the boat. A bit... a rudder... something as small as the tongues in our mouths can completely reroute us from or towards our ultimate destination. Part of cultivating a Christian faith, according to James, is immersing ourselves in God’s wisdom to make sure that our words are guided by God and not the forces of destruction that can bloom around and inside us.
I know someone who tells heartbreaking and completely believable stories about a childhood surrounded by people who were devout Christians who said they loved the Lord and, yet, would never let her eat at their table because they were white and she was not. That sure sounds like “blessing the Lord” with one side of your mouth and “cursing those who are made in the likeness of God” with the other. I, myself, have said words that harmed my relationships with people I serve because I chose a measure of pettiness over generosity. I bet you have your own memories of times when firey words you have said or have been said to you scorched relationships, scalded communities, and burned bridges that were still sorely needed to connect people to one another and to God. The tongue is a fire. And, that fire must be tended or it will destroy.
If I may return to comic books for a moment, as I read this scripture, I was reminded of a couple panels written by G. Willow Wilson in a book where a new character, Kamala Khan, assumes the role of Ms. Marvel. As Kamala is trying to figure out how to be the best version of a hero she can be and committing to training so she can be of service in her community, she says “Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do.” I think James is saying something similar. Your faith is not just ideas in your head. It needs to come to life in your actions and in your words, or maybe even your lack of words. Margaret Aymer, in her commentary on the text, reminds us that God moves in the silence, too. May we be on guard against speech that burns. And, cultivate speech and silence that connects.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-2/commentary-on-james-31-12-3
J. B. Blue, "Proper 19 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cain Hope Felder, introduction to the book of James, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, color artist Ian Herring, letterer VC's Joe Caramagna. New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 2014.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
In their book Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Emily C. Heath, shares a story of two churches that they were acquainted with when they were going to seminary in Atlanta. One church was large, so large that it was the biggest church in terms of membership in the entire denomination to which they belong. We’re talking about thousands of members. Millions of dollars in their endowment. Programs galore. Huge staff. Huge bunch of volunteers. By so many measures, this church, located in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, is an incredible success. And, during the era when Dr. Heath was living in the city, the senior pastor of the real big church occasionally invited the pastor of a really small church in the city to come preach.
This second, smaller church is about the size of ours. Actually, their membership was smaller, about 40 active members. They were a part of the same denomination as the big church and in the same city, though in a neighborhood that was considered, according to Dr. Heath, to have been pretty “down and out” for a long time. Dr. Heath noted that hey managed to keep their doors open, year after year, despite their small numbers. And, with those small numbers, they did incredible ministry. The thing they were most known for was their hospitality. Every night, they opened their door to the people in the community who did not have homes and let men who didn’t have a safe place to stay on sleep on a cot in their sanctuary. They fed these men meals, helped them find housing and navigate the healthcare system. Dr. Heath called tremendous ministry of welcome the church “walk[ing] with them on their journeys.”
When the senior pastor of the big church invited the solo pastor of the little church to come preach, it was often to have them about this particular ministry to people experiencing homelessness. The senior pastor was so moved by the incredible ministry of the small church that he just had to make sure the big church knew what was possible. According to Dr. Heath, the pastor of the big church wanted his church to see what could be done by a dedicated community, no matter how small, that assumed what they had, a good building, some dedicated people, some money, was enough to serve their community. After the pastor of the small church would preach, the pastor of the big church would stand up and say, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.” I know that there are lots of measures of successful ministry. It seems clear to me that that small church of about 40 members was pretty successful.
Last week, while Tasha and I took some time off, we stayed a night in a small cabin in Washington County. On our way home, we drove through Cherryfield. I first heard of Cherryfield, Maine five years ago when I learned about the Lamb House. Named for the family that used to live there, this house that was originally built in the 1840's, has been put to a new use by the Cherryfield Congregational church. The church had 33 members when they started the project. But they had their faith, some money, and a calling to serve their community. When one congregant offered to put up the funds to purchase the property, they knew they could use it as a tool for the Gospel. As they observed the needs in their community, it became clear how they could use the house.
In 2011, the year before the church bought the property, 11 homes burned in their county, displacing 30 people. While house fires are always disruptive to the families who lose their homes, such tragedies are particularly difficult in a town as small as Cherryfield and a county as sparsely populated as Washington. I read a testimony of Larry Zimmerman, the pastor of Cherryfield Congregational Church, about how they were inspired to make use of the Lamb House. He said that members of the church regularly saw first-hand how difficult it was to recover from such a major fire and also stay in the community. He said that residents often had to relocate in order to find somewhere to live, sometimes even leaving the state, because there were so few resources to help them re-establish in Washington County after a fire. Rev. Zimmerman said that children often had to change schools, adding the loss of friends and familiar teachers to the loss of their homes. Sometimes families would even have to live separately for a while, with the parent with the better job needing to live near work but unable to find a place suitable for the whole family. The only place that most families could find for temporary shelter were the local hotels and motels or by staying with other family members.
After seeing the need for temporary housing, the church realized that they could provide it. They worked together with people from across their community. Accord to Rev. Zimmerman, one of the church trustees who was a local contractor began the work with start-up money and donations. A retired plumber showed up and donated his time. A local building supply company gave a very generous discount on building materials. Volunteers from all over came to help get the Lamb House ready to host people... neighbors from right here in Maine and folks from Pennsylvania who came up to help at the Lamb House while working at the Maine Seacoast Mission. Even inmates from the correctional facility in Machias came over to help renovate the building. Some volunteers wrote grants, too. And, they got some, including $5,000 from the Maine Conference Resourcing the Local Church fund. They also run fundraisers. I checked out their Facebook page, and they recently made about $3,000 in a yard sale, all of which goes to keeping this ministry going, to doing the work of serving people in need.
They have been hosting folks who have lost their homes as well as service groups since July of 2015. One of their guests, a woman named Tammy, wrote this about her time at the Lamb House: "I give many thanks to the good people of the Cherryfield Congregational Church. The Lamb House was a cozy and quaint home for myself, (my pets) Love Bug and Angus while I waited for my new house to come." That’s pretty strong work from a church of 33 people in a small town in downeast Maine.
We don’t really know who wrote the book of James. As you heard in Becky’s sermon last week, it is usually credited to Jesus’ brother James. What is clearer, however, is the goal of this letter. According to Dr. Cain Hope Felder, we should remember that these churches, largely made up of Jewish followers of Jesus, were small and surrounded by what he called “large populations that were indifferent or hostile to their beliefs.” This letter was written to help people to figure out how to live out their faith in a community that didn’t necessarily believe like they did when there would have been a lot of pressure to follow the norms of the broader culture, a culture that valued the rich over the poor.
For James, the key to maintaining a Christian identity is to live out your daily life in a way that reflects your beliefs. Faith is more than just what you believe. It’s what you do in response to that belief. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” To love your neighbor is to be moved to welcome your neighbor, to treat the poor as heirs to the kindom of God, to not show favoritism to the wealthy who already have what they need. Dr. Margaret Aymer says, in her commentary on the text, that this part of James challenges Christians to make the faith that lives in our hearts visible in the world around us. You don’t have to have a church of 3,000 people to do that. The small churches in Atlanta and Cherryfield show us that. All you have to start with is enough faith to see the work the Spirit needs done in the world. Then, you look around and see what tools you have to accomplish the work God is calling you to. James suggested that loving poor neighbors, in particular, is probably a good place to start. May we see the Work God needs done in the world and may we not be afraid to roll up our sleeves and do it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Hearing and Doing the Word
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James, Jesus’ brother, was a keen observer of human nature. He paid close attention to the details of everyday living. He noticed the generous acts, the small gifts, the gestures, and words that were used. He knew that such small acts were the nuts and bolts of everyday life, holding together the frame on which community and social order were built. In the passage that Cyndi read this morning he names the things he’s most concerned about to Christians in daily life.
I’ll repeat the first sentence that started this morning’s scripture: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James is telling us that God cares for the whole world, he doesn’t pick and choose who he cares for. God nurtures us, gives us gifts, and provides direction for our lives, and good things in people’s lives. God is constant with care and purpose.
One thing James is concerned about is the power of human speech to build up and to destroy. Why was he concerned with the way we used words? Words can make a big difference in the way we communicate and relate with one another. Words say something about our motivation, intention, belief, and emotional life. Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., writes: “Words can explain, express ourselves; convince and convict ourselves and others; describe, name, blame, or label things; to win arguments; to sell an idea or object; to lecture; to expound a point, to explain things into or out of existence, persuade, condole, console, counsel; to announce, denounce, deceive; to ask someone to marry; to declare war and make peace; to sentence someone, diagnose a condition, analyze a problem, deliberate or negotiate a deal. We can’t get along without words. Words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. They can reveal our inner thoughts. Where would we be without words?” Well said!
Have any of you seen the play or movie, The Miracle Worker? It’s the story of Helen Keller who was born blind and deaf. After a long struggle, she comes to understand the power of words. Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, recorded her work with Helen and this journal entry is the climax of Helen discovering words: “This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for water...I spelled w-a-t-e-r and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed...We went into the pump house and I made Helen hold her mug under the pump while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth filling the mug, I spelled W-A-T-E-R in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her.
She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled ‘water’ several times. Then she dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly she asked for my name. I spelled ‘teacher’. Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump house and Helen spelled ‘baby’ and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was excited and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours, she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”
That’s quite a story that tells the power of words. We, too, have the opportunity to become excited when we are touched by the Word of God. Understanding the message of God’s love for us in Jesus, how God sent us a Savior to be with us, bearing our burdens, lifting us up, dying for our sins, and promising us a new and everlasting life. That transforms us. Real faith makes us love God and helps us understand the importance of loving others, even those we don’t get along with.
We all have times when it’s hard to get along with someone that gets under our skin or we don’t agree with. James said, “...let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...” That can be hard work!! Have any of you noticed that you can be quick to judge someone when you have a disagreement, or you’ve already made up your mind about how things should be answered or done because the other person didn’t answer you quick enough? How do you stop that? Discipline! Patience! Step back and follow what James is saying, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...” Native Americans have a proverb, “Listen, or your tongue will keep you deaf.” The tongue can become a source of mischief and hurt, but it also can praise God and tell others the Good News of Jesus. Our words can commend and encourage others in their life’s journey. We all are in a different place on this journey and what we say makes a difference as we travel together. Words touch our emotional life and help us anticipate what is going to happen. But our actions make the real difference.
I’m sure many of you have been around people that can be “all talk and no action”. I can think of fundraising committees and special project groups I have been on at work, where people can “talk a good game”, but when it comes time to put the words into action, they aren’t there! They don’t roll up their sleeves and pitch in when things need to get done. James tells us to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Actions add value to our words and gives them life. Doers of the Word are different people, changed people. Faith in Jesus makes a difference in our lives. God works in us to use the fruits of faith he teaches us: Peace, Love, Joy. Sharing those fruits with others, giving our time and resources to help others will then become a joy and not a burden.
I’m sure we’ve had times in our lives when we have had the tendency to say one thing and do another. Or, we had good intentions to help someone, and something came up and we didn’t follow through. When that happens, people start to wonder if our words are any good and stop taking us seriously when we offer help or listen when they need someone to talk to. Our hearts are in the right place and we mean well, but we let people down. They begin to wonder if we are reliable and really “practice what we preach”. It’s so important that our words and actions become one and the same so others take notice and know we’re serious about what we believe.
Our words help us express our relationship with God. You don’t have to use theological terms to help people understand your feelings about God. You can express yourself by being a “doer”. Show kindness to someone in need, help “care for the orphans and widows in their distress”, make a meal for a shut in, take the lead at school to help a new person feel welcome, hold the door for someone when their hands are full, comfort someone by listening or give them a hug. These small acts of “doing” speak volumes about what you believe. St. Francis said, “Preach at all times; if necessary, use words.”
Jesus said what he did, and he did what he said. His actions spoke the loudest. For instance, the story in (Mark 10:46-52) about the blind man called out to Jesus and asked him to restore his sight. Jesus said simply, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, the man’s eyes were opened, and he could see. Or in (John 8:3-11.) when Jesus doodled in the sand before the elders when they were going to kill a woman for adultery. He said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” And when everyone had slithered away, convicted of his own guilt, Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”
But I think one of my favorite stories is when Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room. He poured water into a basin and put a towel around his neck, and without saying a word he knelt before each one of the disciples and washed their feet. To me, that is such a powerful symbol of what it means to be a servant to others in the name of Jesus. The action of a simple foot washing that said so much without words. Jesus’ deeds and words were strong. James said, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Take what you know about God, the love and grace of Jesus, and put that knowledge into action. Say what you’ll do and then do what you say. Don’t just be a casual doer, be a 24-hour doer and spread God’s love in acts of kindness. Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Archie Smith, Jr., “Proper 17”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pgs. 14-18
James D. Kegel: https://sermonwriter.com/sermons/new-testament-james-117-27-doers-word-kegel/
Philip W. McLarty: https://sermonwriter.com/sermons/new-testament-james-122-25-say-mclarty/
The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press 2010) pgs. 1887-1888.
Psalm 84 The Joy of Worship in the Temple
To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
When I needed evergreen boughs for an altar, I liked to cut branches from the juniper bush down by the road or the white pine out by the hay field and the compost pile. When I wasn’t careful... which, to be fair, was several Sunday... I got white pine sap all over my hands. I also learned that the alcohol in the hand sanitizer (of which we had quite a lot) is great for getting rid of pine sap. That was a new piece of learning for me during Covid times.
Marie Hatfield always brought me pussywillow branches for the altar on Palm Sunday. In northern European countries, where palms were once in short supply, the fuzzy willows became the traditional substitute. When I made an altar at home, in my dining room, for digital worship, I found the branches for the altar in the messy flower garden to the north of our house. It’s like one of the families that lived here before we did just knew that there would be a preacher living here during a plague and trying to figure out how to lead worship from home. The pussywillow, when I realized that I could cut branches from it for worship, felt like a gift.
For months, my worship preparation on Sunday morning began like this: I get up, put on my clerical shirt, a cardigan, and some jeans. I scrounge around in the kitchen for scissors. And, then, I walk outside and across the land where we live to look for flowers and sticks and sometimes rocks for the altar, which was really the bar in our dining room. In my pre-worship walks, I learned that the crabapple in front often has red fruit that hangs on through the winter and early spring, good for a bit of color on a cold morning. The bare red twig dogwood branches out by the old goat barn are nice and red, too. As I walked and looked, I realized that there are at least three varieties of daffodils in so many places in the yard, evidence of the borders of flower beds, long gone, once planted by families who lived here 50, 30, 15 years ago. The poet narcissus that I found growing along the bank near the road are so lovely. They also make me sneeze so much, a fact I didn’t learn until I cut roughly 20 of them for a squat little vase I have and placed them 2 feet behind my head, on the altar, one Sunday. I think I made it to the Call to Worship before I had to move them. I had the same issue with the lilacs.
Grape Hyacinths, tall phlox, hawkweed, scilla... beautiful flowers that grow every year on the land on which we live that I hadn’t bothered to learn the name of until I began to walk and gather them for our altar. The tall phlox grows alongside the peonies next to the driveway. The hyacinths spring up with the scilla and jonquils along the wall outside of our living room window. The hardy rugosa roses grow along the road. The multiflora roses are slowly devouring one of the flower beds on the north side of the house. Lupines, chervil, black-eyed susans, bleeding hearts are all in that same garden. I walked and I looked and saw that asters, dandelions, goldenrod, and red clover are... everywhere. On fall mornings, when jacket weather returned, I gathered white oak leaves and red maple leaves for the altar, both brilliant red, after most of the flowers were gone.
Dr. Dennis Bratcher, in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, defines a pilgrimage as “a journey to a shrine, holy place, or sanctuary for a religious reason.” In the Bible, Jacob once built an altar in a place called Bethel because he had seen God there in a dream. He made a pilgrimage back to that altar later in his life. King David and his son Solomon, through their kingdom-building centered in Jerusalem, helped to create the traditions of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. You see, the Ark of the Covenant was in the Temple. And, the Temple was in Jerusalem. Even after the Ark was taken and the temple destroyed, Jerusalem, Zion, was still a focal point of the people’s faith. In his article about pilgrimages, Bratcher notes that when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, even without the ark, faithful Jewish people would often make the pilgrimage to the city, the center of their devotion, three times a year: for Passover, for Pentecost, and for Sukkoth.
Today’s reading is a psalm about the joy of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!” The pilgrim longs to be in God’s presence... to be near God in the temple. The scholar J. Dwayne Howell notes that it is not simply people who find solace near God in the temple. The animals of creation have found a home there as well: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” Remember when the birds nested in the forsythia wreaths on the church doors five or six years ago? These verses remind me of that.
But, it is not simply the Temple that is close to God. The pilgrimage itself is blessed and hope-filled. Happiness is having the highways to Zion start in your heart and move into your feet. You heard the reference to the Valley of Baca. It turns out that that was an actual oasis in the midst of the pilgrimage, a blessed place of refuge on the way to the greatest sanctuary. From longing in one’s heart through the oases into the temple... the Psalmist calls this “going from strength to strength,” being inspired by God, moving with God, and drawing near to God in Zion.
So many of our recent readings have centered visions of God as one invested in humanity’s well-being, as close to us as the bread we eat and the table we sit around, a God that is invitational and welcoming, invested in relationships that are loving, intimate, and tend to humanity’s basic needs. We can remember the house Wisdom built in Proverbs... big building, broad table, piles of food ready for any who would walk in the door. The Psalmist is so deeply moved by the potential for an intimate relationship with God that they would take the job of a servant in God’s house just be close to God. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Psalm 84 calls the ones who trust God happy. And, God will provide for the people on the pilgrimage both a sun for warmth and light and a shield for protection. No wonder the Psalmist yearns to be near God. As the scholar Mary Alice Mulligan puts it in a commentary she wrote on this text, “In God’s house people live in safety, holiness, and justice.”
After returning to lead worship following a couple Sundays off, I realized that I had come to appreciate the walks around the land where we live. I knew the land and the plants better for having walked through them. I thought more intentionally about what it meant to make good use of what someone else had planted for the worship services of this moment. The walks to find flowers for the altar at home became a kind of pilgrimage, leading me to a different sanctuary in a time when gathering in the sanctuary of our church building was not safe. As I pulled together the flowers and branches I cut along with paraments from church and art from our house, and sometimes even bread and wine from our kitchen, the bar in the dining room became, if not Temple, an oasis along the way to the sanctuary where I was accustomed to drawing near to God. Isn’t it good to be reminded by Psalm 84 that God is in the midst of the pilgrimage as well as the goal of the pilgrimage. God is found on the highways and trails in the wilderness and creation will find a home in God.
Where have you met the God of your longing lately? Have you found your Valley of Baca, a place of holy respite on the journey? May we find all find God’s home of safety, holiness, and justice. And, may we serve in that sanctuary as doorkeepers, ready to open the door to the next one’s who come seeking God.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Proverbs 9:1-6 Wisdom’s Feast
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
Guess who’s invited to dinner? You are. You are, too. And, you. And, all y’all on-line. We are all invited to dinner and Wisdom is cooking up a storm. Imagine the kitchen before Thanksgiving. Now, add the kitchen before Christmas. Now, add Easter supper and special birthday dinners and just a sprinkle of a wedding reception. We are talking about a big celebration or maybe just a Sunday Supper that always seems like a party. And, Wisdom is running the show and the reason we are there.
In a commentary she wrote on the text, Dr. Wil Gafney notes Wisdom is a woman at work. Wisdom is God’s Wisdom, represented as what Dr. Gafney calls an “independent and autonomous entity.” Dr. Gafney notes that, after working with God in building creation in chapter 8, Wisdom sets about hosting a great banquet. But, as Dr. Gafney notes, she doesn’t simply order other people to prepare for the celebration, as many wealthy and powerful people would. No. Wisdom joins right in with the work herself.
Look at all she does in just six verses. She builds an entire house. Do you know how long it takes to build a house? Of course you do. You all are a handy bunch. That means you also know how many skills it takes to build a house: Carpentry, masonry, plumbing, painting, engineering, design. It takes so much work to build a house. It’s sounds like it’s not a very small house either. It’s more like a banquet hall. You see, Wisdom is throwing a big party and needs a big space to host them all. So, she builds a house, directing her staff and working alongside of them, in a flannel shirt and work pants, with steel-toed boots, no doubt. Wisdom will make sure she has room for everybody who walks in her door. In fact, she’ll build the chairs herself.
Her home is both practical and beautiful. She has created seven pillars. While scholars disagree on why the scripture is so specific about the number and presence of the pillars, it seems clear that these pillars aren’t just posts to hold up a wall. Dr. Sarah Koenig notes that this kind of architecture is intended to be awe-inspiring, honoring God and marking this home as a site of something holy and good. And into this good and holy place, Wisdom will invite her guest.
I imagine her holding court in her kitchen. No doubt, you have seen someone at work like Wisdom was at work in this scripture. Imagine her in your mind now. Maybe it’s even you, having inherited the task of builder, host, and chef from your mother or grandmother or aunt. Directions and invitations ring out through the house: “Here, go cut these onions. Wash that big skillet and put it on the stove. Oh, it's almost time to put on the potatoes. Can someone find the good table cloths?” Wisdom brings out the good wine and the fancy grape juice. Wisdom sets her table, pulling out every mismatched plate in the house because she knows that people will keep showing up, and having a place for each and every one of them is more important that having matching dinnerware.
Wisdom builds a house and builds a table and cooks dinner... all in two verses. In the third, she sends out the invitations. She sends the girls from her household out to bring the neighbors. She also goes out to the highest places in town and shouts out to anyone who can hear, “Come on over! The table is full! We’ve got plenty to share.” She invites people she’s never met before, called here “the simple” and “those without sense.” It’s kind of funny word play, right? Because, if you’ve met Wisdom before, you wouldn’t be without sense, would you? It matters to her that she shares what she has with those who don’t already have it. She wanted them to come so badly that she went out herself, hostess of the party, and rounded up the guests who needed to be there most!
The final verse in our reading shows Wisdom inviting people to “walk in the way of insight.” What does this scripture mean when it talks about “insight”? I have appreciated the ways that Dr. Gafney unpacks the ideas around biblical wisdom helpful. She says that wisdom is not simply intellect. It is also a skill... expertise honed by experience and practice. Dr. Gafney notes that in the Bible, a person who is wise does not come to wisdom immediately. Wisdom is cultivated in the same way that an apprentice learns a skill from a master. Wisdom is your grandmother showing you how to add enough flour to dough to keep it from sticking as you roll it out. Wisdom is the mom who makes sure you point the knife away from your thumb when you carve, not towards it, so you don’t slip and cut yourself. Dr. Gafney calls this “heart-and-head knowledge.” In scripture, Wisdom is teaching, practicing, listening, learning, and knowing all wrapped up together.
In her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney made a list of some of the people who are called wise in the Hebrew Bible: the people who build a tabernacle, that is a resting place and home base, for God in the book of Exodus; the people of Israel who keep God’s commandments in Deuteronomy; the shrewd woman who leads her people and saves them from death in 2 Samuel 20:22; and King Solomon, in 1 Kings 4, who was able to build a country because he uses his wisdom to build up his people. Dr. Gafney says that their examples show us that “[W]isdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft, craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.” Wisdom is using all your wit, all your training, all your intuition that you have honed through experience, to honor God and to save your people. Here in Proverbs, a book dedicated to convincing younger people to dedicate themselves to God, we are shown a metaphor of Wisdom setting out a feast for strangers who haven’t met her yet. God hopes that you will crave insight as much as you crave a really good piece of pie.
This is a compelling vision of God’s Wisdom, isn’t it? A woman, competent and welcoming, ready to empower you and make sure you have what you need to thrive. We’ve been spending so much time lately talking about the ways that God is best understood in metaphors of abundance: in Elisha feeding folks in a famine, in Jesus feeding the 5,000, in God offering quail and manna. And, here, we have God’s Wisdom, building a big house, setting a big table, and drawing in the people who need her most to eat and be full and be changed by eating together. Our God is not a God who forces people to fight for scraps. Our God builds bigger and bigger tables. Wisdom keeps inviting us over for dinner.
This part of Proverbs is one of my favorite parts of the Bible. I am heartened by the way that it reminds us that from the earliest days of the faith that we have grown to call our own, well before there was anything called Winthrop Congregational Church United Church of Christ, well before there was even anything called Christianity, there was God and there was Wisdom and there was an invitation. There was hospitality and practice and work together to make something beautiful and useful. Some of us have been eating at Wisdom’s table for years. Some of us just showed up today, having heard her call from the hills and high places, “Come! Eat of my bread and the wine I have mixed.” Hers is a table we can return to again and again.
And, not only do we return as guests to this table, but we also learn how to set the table alongside her. We can become the girls she sends out to invite others. Wisdom shows us how to build this table and cook this meal at her side, so we can go out into the street and invite others to the feast. We take what we have learned, add in the leaf, pull up more chairs, and making the table bigger. We cook bigger piles of food. This story reminds us that ours is a faith rooted in this vision of abundance, of a table full of food that is always there if you but step in the door looking for it. We can even learn to prepare this kind of meal, to build this hospitable home, by the side of the One who makes it best. Guess who’s invited to dinner? All of us. And, the ones whom we don’t even know yet. We better get ready to scooch over and make some space.
Resources consulted while writing the sermon:
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1360
Sara Koenig: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=370
John 6:35, 41-51
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
Even Karoline Lewis, who wrote what is probably my favorite commentary on the book of John recognized how difficult this metaphor is to parse out. You see, whomever put together our reading series decided to have us consider Jesus as the bread of heaven for five Sundays in a row. Lewis said, and I agree, “How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” I decided that I probably couldn’t swing five sermons. But, I bet I could work on one, because, it is a fascinating metaphor isn’t it? What does it mean for Jesus to understand himself to be like bread? And, what does it mean for the people who follow him?
The last time I was invited to preach on this text was three years ago, on a morning when we had three baptisms, that of Penny Pray, Gaby Lazure, and Alice Lazure. It was also a morning where the rain nearly up-ended our plans. You see, we were supposed to be at our church camp. If it rained, there was no way we could all huddle inside that little building. Thank goodness Penny said we could come to her place. We got the phone and email tree going and stuck Doug Whittier, if I remember correctly, on the camp road to redirect anyone who didn’t get the message.
In that service, hummingbirds and loons dropped by to remind us of the Holy Spirit showing up like a dove at Jesus’ baptism. Water skiers zoomed by, waving and sharing a bit of joy with us. Mel Burrowes played music for us. And, Kate Goodspeed was our reader. We had two reading for that Sunday. Kate read the first one, which was today’s text from John and a second from Ephesians, 4:25-5.2. I would go on to preach the Ephesians text. When I mentioned my choice, to my delight, Kate said “thank goodness” or something like that. She had noticed that the John text is an awfully weird one. It definitely talks about eating Jesus’ flesh like bread and, well, given that we are don’t believe that we are actually eating Jesus when we take communion, sorting out this kind of squishy metaphor is... complicated.
Even Karoline Lewis, who wrote what is probably my favorite commentary on the book of John recognized how difficult this metaphor is to parse out. You see, whomever put together our reading series decided to have us consider Jesus as the bread of heaven for five Sundays in a row. Lewis said, and I agree, “How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” I decided that I probably couldn’t swing five sermons. But, I bet I could work on one, because, it is a fascinating metaphor isn’t it? What does it mean for Jesus to understand himself to be like bread? And, what does it mean for the people who follow him?
Here are a couple stories we need to keep in mind when we hear Jesus call himself bread of heaven: the story of God feeding the Israelites in the desert and Jesus feeding the people by the Sea of Galilee. I have preached on those two stories. See, I needed a little lead in to get to today. If you remember from my sermon last week, when the people were six weeks into the wilderness and had grown afraid... when they misremembered the predictability of slavery as stability... God reminded them that slavery wasn’t great and the way forward into liberation was through God’s abundance. Even though the journey would be hard, God would provide for them. The manna and quail were meant to renew the faith and replenish the bodies of the people journeying to the Promised Land.
Two weeks ago, I preached on John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. Remember, it’s the only miracle story that is in all four Gospels. In that story, Jesus demonstrated the ways that God’s compassion and abundance moves through him by feeding an enormous crowd using a little bit of food donated from a child. He later walks on water, too, telling his disciples not to be afraid. It is the day after feeding all the people and walking on water that Jesus starts talking about food metaphors. Notice he feeds the hungry people first, like God for the Israelites. But, the food becomes a way that they can learn more about God, and, specifically, how Jesus is the Incarnation, God’s Word become Flesh.
Usually when I hear people say “you are what you eat,” they are trying to shame other people about their food choices and bodies. That is not how Jesus talks about food in John 6, though he does worry that people will get distracted by the food he shared with them and forget the message behind in. A few verses before our reading today, Jesus says to the people whom he had fed the day before that he thinks they are just showing up because he fed them. He says “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And, then Jesus unpacks how he understands his own mission as being a gift from God to renew and replenish God’s people.
In her commentary on this chapter, Karoline Lewis notes that bread is a significant foodstuff for the people that Jesus is preaching to. It is a part of every meal and often the only meal people had. To have bread is to have food. To have food is to have life. Bread is connected to the ability to live and survive in this world. Jesus seems to choose bread as his metaphor because it is so loaded with connections to survival, both in everyday foods, in general, and in the specific story of God providing manna in the wilderness. Lewis notes that, like the story of the woman at the well in chapter 4, whom Jesus offers Living Water, this metaphor of the bread of life demonstrates that what Jesus provides is “basic, indispensable for life.” God provided the manna, which made life possible. God provided Jesus, who gives new life to those who follow him. The bread and the fish, which Jesus gave them to support their living, helped them see him as this life-giver from God.
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is reasserting his claim to his divine mission, that he has been sent from God, like the manna, to renew and replenish the people. That is where we started today’s reading, with Jesus saying, remember, God sent the bread and God is sending me. My mission is love and abundance and life. Our reading skips some stuff where he explains that this means believing in him will be as satisfying as eating and drinking when hungry and thirsty. He says that belief will provide what one of my friends calls “soul sustenance” straight from God. And, these people, who know his family and know his past, can’t quite wrap their heads around him ever being more that Joseph and Mary’s son. We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? They understand their relationship with Jesus in one way, as neighbor, child at the synagogue, teenager arguing with his parents. And, Jesus is inviting them to understand their relationship with him in a new way, as a source of New Life, sent to them by God, as God once sent them manna from heaven. They are hesitant to see him in any other way than how they have known him.
Lewis argues, and I’m inclined to follow her argument, that at the core of the book of John is a message that abiding with Jesus, that is being relationship with Jesus, brings New Life. This bread metaphor, with connections to the physical acts of eating nourishment sharing food, as well as historical connections to the shared Jewish story of being tended to in the wilderness by an ever-present, food-producing God, is being used to help the people connect being in relationship with Jesus to being in relationship with the ever-present God. To believe in Jesus is to draw near to him, to be in relationship... to abide with him. In the past, the people ate what God had sent, that was, manna and quail. But, Jesus says, those people eventually died. Relationship with Jesus, though, will be different. He asserts that there is an eternity that relationship with him has to offer.
All of that seems well and good. But, what about this eating flesh business. That’s the most disconcerting part of this metaphor. As I wrote this sermon, and remembered that day on the lake three years ago, I remembered how our faith is lived out in our bodies, bodies that shivered in cold lake water, that stood strong on skis, and felt the rhythm of the songs we played and sang together. Our faith is lived in bodies nourished by the food we shared on Penny’s deck as much as the fellowship we shared by the lakeshore.
John tells us that Jesus was the Word made Flesh. Flesh like our flesh, that lived and moved and was nourished by God. Flesh that was born and tended to like ours. Flesh, life, that flourished in relationship with, and for, humanity. To assert that he was bread and that he was flesh was to remind people that, though he understood himself to be from heaven, his calling was to be here, providing life and renewal, physical and spiritual, to God’s people. Our relationship with Jesus is not up in the clouds, but right here, as close as the bodies in which we live. To know Jesus is to feel him as closely as the bread we eat and the flesh it becomes. The metaphor is still complicated. But, relationships are complicated. At least in this one, we know we’ll be fed. And, maybe that’s the kind of renewal he offers. Not quite quail, but new life all the same.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
I have heard that it is a curse to be told “may you live in interesting times.” And, while I’m not sure I’d call our current times cursed, they are certainly interesting. And, by interesting, I mean exhausting, frustrating, and difficult to plan in. They are certainly plague-ish, minus the frogs. Just about the time I feel like I’ve got a good idea about how to move about in the world as safely as possible, something new, and often bad, happens. While I’m not exactly yearning for normal, I could really use a dose of predictable for a while. As I read today’s scripture, I felt some resonance with the Israelites. Their lives have been interesting. And they are very tired of interesting.
These days, whenever I read this story of freed people missing the place of their enslavement, I remember that Margaret Atwood quote from A Handmaid's Tale: "Girls, I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary." This Israelites were longing for the ordinary, even in the midst of the extraordinary. This Bible story confirms what the newer novel tells us. People are capable of adapting to many difficult situations. So many hard things can become ordinary. When that happens, a new situation, even a better situation, can become terrifying. In the face of frightening uncertainty and predictable ordinariness, some would choose the ordinary, even when it is slavery, rather than reach for the extraordinary, even when the extraordinary promises liberation and grace and new life.
When we encounter the Israelites in the desert in our reading in Exodus, we learn that many of them would choose a terrible ordinariness over extraordinary uncertainty. The story tells us that these people have experienced the great power of God. They have seen the plagues that rained down upon Egypt at God's behest. They had run across the floor of a sea, with the waters churning safely at their sides, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army was unable to do the same. They had followed a miraculous pillar of fire and cloud towards freedom. And, yet, they had grown deeply afraid. In their fear, they began to complain. They will complain about a lot of stuff in the next 40 years in the desert. The very first thing they complain about is the food... or the fear that they won't have enough of it. What is the use, they say, of escaping Egypt if we are just going to die of starvation here in the desert? Yes, we are now “free,” we guess. Are we going to be able to eat?
This is the temptation of the ordinary. As slaves, at least they knew what to expect in their days. Back-breaking work, abuse by overseers, food enough to allow them to work, and a little sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Day in and day out, they understood what was expected of them. And yet, even though life was hard and they cried out to God to save them from it, the Israelites had grown accustomed to it. Oppression had become ordinary. In fearful times on the road, when nothing seemed ordinary or even like anything that had ever happened to them before, the fear would overcome them. Their bellies rumbled and they looked at the desert, and in moments of terror, they, as Dr. Stephen B. Reid describes it in his commentary on this text, misremember slavery as a time of stability.
Now, to be fair, it was probably reasonable for the Israelites to be worrying. They were in the wilderness after all, and the wilderness, as we have discussed before, is a hard place to live. Scholar Wil Gafney points out that, at this point in the story, they've been in the wilderness for a while, probably six weeks. It has been six weeks since the miracles of the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the plagues in Egypt. It has also been six weeks since they left the oasis with fresh water and abundant food. They are six weeks into a journey that they don't yet know will turn into 40 years, and they are definitely getting worried. Let’s remember what it was like for us last summer, six weeks into Covid precautions. I’ve looked back at emails I wrote and conversations I had wondering when we could “get back to normal.” I had no idea what the next year would look like. And, I’ve had food, cable, and a job the whole time. I haven’t been living on the run in the desert.
I appreciate Dr. Gafney’s reminder that the Israelites had actually had a great faith... that's what had gotten them six weeks into a new life of liberation in the first place. But, in the midst of the sand and the dwindling provisions, they needed a little renewal. They needed something to remind them that if God had gotten them that far, God would make sure they got the rest of the way. Who here hasn't needed their own bit of manna and quail in order to have the courage to take the next few steps towards liberation? The gift here is that God heard their needs, and, instead of dismissing them as whining, God provided them with a way to keep going and a lesson on how to take enough without taking too much.
One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training is that, at some parts of our lives, we develop coping skills to survive adverse situations. Spiritual maturity comes when we learn that the skills that were able to help us in one situation aren't always the best skills to use in other situations. When I read about how God responds to the people's complaints, it reminded me of that lesson. God doesn't lash out at the Israelites and call them big whiners. God doesn’t say, hey, if you don't like freedom, you can turn around and go back to where you came from. Instead, God constructs for them a new way to order their lives, a new rhythm based not on the Pharaoh's whims or on their greatest fears, but instead on creation and God's recreation of life within their people.
God promises to feed the people and asks them to harvest their food on a particular schedule, so that they do not begin a cycle of hoarding that can be tempting when people believe resources are scarce. God assures them that there will always be enough. In the verses that follow today’s reading, you can see the change in their lives. Slowly, their habits shift from away from the terrible ordinariness of slavery back into stride with God's creation. All of their work becomes their own work once again, oriented to their communal well-being and needs, not pharaoh's whims and power. Each family will be able to gather all they need. If they fell back into scarcity thinking and tried to hoard food, the extra they collected would rot. So, they learned to take just enough, because they didn’t need to hoard. God would always send more food. As their lives shifted from oppression into provision, their sense of the ordinary became readjusted, this time for the better.
Something I have heard persistently in response to the pandemic is people wondering what comes next. Some of the wondering about what comes next is planning. Some of it a deep need to spend time thinking about something other than the unpredictable, un-ordinary, overly interesting time we are in. Most of us, at least some of the time, really need things to feel normal again, whatever “normal” means. At the same time, we’ll probably realized that some things about “normal” were insufficient. Or, at the very least, will not be the things that sustains us on our next steps through the desert. Did you see the article about how emergency Covid aid lifted so many people out of poverty? That is certainly a kind of sustenance that wasn’t available before but is helping people now. If the normal is returning them to poverty, I don’t really want to do that. I hope we can learn something from Exodus, not just about God, who will provide in abnormal, extraordinary ways in abnormal, extraordinary times, but also about ourselves, as we might hear echoes of our own fears and insecurities in this ancient story. What is God providing us right now that sustains us in our desert? And, how can we let these gifts from God realign us out of oppression and into the stride of liberation. We can’t live like we used to. Too much has changed. But, we can learn to live differently. And, the new ways we will learn to gather what God has sent to us will probably be the ways of living that carry us through to the promised land.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Exodus, Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2536
Stephen B. Reid: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-exodus-162-4-9-15-5
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1986)
Good news about an unintended side effect of the financially-based Covid relief measures: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/us/politics/covid-poverty-aid-programs.html
2 Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left.” ’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Food for Fifty: Lentil-Sausage Soup*
Brown in a large kettle 5 lbs. of pork sausage, broken into chunks.
Remove meat and pour off all but 1 cup of drippings.
Add: 10 medium onions, chopped; 5 cloves garlic, minced;
and 20 medium parsnips, cut in chunks (optional).
Cook 5 minutes until onions and garlic are tender.
Then add: 4-4.5 lbs. lentils;
5 Tbsp. salt; 1 Tbsp. marjoram;
6 qt. Cooked tomatoes or juice;
7 qt. water; and browned sausage.
Simmer about 30 minutes. Makes about 4 gallons.
– Doris Janzen Longacre, Living More with Less
If you had to suddenly feed fifty people, what would you feed them? I, personally, would probably panic, for at least a minute. Then, I would run to the pantry. If we had to suddenly feed 50 people, we have enough pasta and pre-made sauce to cover 10 (could cover the vegans with this). We also have enough pancake fixin’s for probably 10 people (would cover the vegetarians). And, with the beef stock, canned veggies, and rice, we could probably whip up a pretty hardy soup... enough to fill our big soup pot. Oh! And some frozen fiddleheads I could cook and put on grits. There’s another vegan dish. Tasha wanted to simplify things and said “Can’t we just order pizza or buy all the pasta and pasta sauce at Annie’s.” Annie’s is our local convenience store.
I asked three friends, all generous folks and good cooks, what they’d do. Kristy said chili or soup: “Something where a little goes a long way.” Tijuana, who is a pastor, too, and was working on her own sermon, said she’d make roasted veggies and farro and try to have tahini or sriracha sauce for people to use. If she had the ingredients on hand, she’d make beef stew, too. Emily said she’d roast veggies, too, and chickpeas. And, cook up a bunch of lentils. Cheap. Easy to cook up a bunch. Good for vegetarians and vegans and a lot of different food allergies. If you had to suddenly cook for 50 people, what would you cook? How would you feed everyone?
If you are the prophet Elisha, and a group of a hundred people is sitting in front of you, people who are living in the midst of a famine, you know that they need to be fed. And, because you are a prophet, you want to remind people of the love and compassion of God. Everything you do is an attempt to reconnect people with their covenant with God. That includes figuring out how to feed 100 hungry people. Dr. Dora Mbwayesango, in her commentary on the text, says that Elisha is following the footsteps of Elijah, by “showing God’s care and power through miracles.” Feeding 100 people, when you just got back to town and there is also a famine, is certainly a miracle.
Because he is a prophet and known to be close to God, a stranger has brought him an extravagant gift as an offering to God: twenty loaves of barley and more fresh ears of grain he’s carrying in a satchel. Dr. Mbwayesango said that kind of offering is usually made to a priest at a sanctuary. This offering is also far more than was asked to be given to a priest in Leviticus 23:10-14. Elisha, who follows a caring and powerful God, knows what to do with extra, unexpected food: Share it. But, even this much food won’t be enough for 100 people. Elisha’s servant is worried that it won’t be enough and maybe that the people will fight over what little there is. Remember how people were about the toilet paper last year? Dr. Mbwayesango said, “Fear sometimes brings a spirit of individualism that disregards the needs of others and ignores the connections among us.” That’s what the servant was worried about happening right there in front of Elisha.
But, like I said, Elisha knew he was following a caring and powerful God. He told the servant to put the food out. “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘they shall eat and have some left.’” The servant is worried. It’s like me looking at our three cans of chick peas, a small bag of couscous, and some beef broth and trying to figure out how to make it something that tastes good. He’s worried. But he puts the food out. All the people come. All the people eat. There was some left. Elisha knew God could pull it off. And, isn’t it beautiful that God worked through one faithful man’s gift to make sure a bunch of hungry people could eat.
What if you’re Jesus and you want to feed a whole bunch of people? What do you do? Turns out, something a lot like Elisha. Each of the four Gospels record Jesus working miracles. There is only one miracle that is in all four: Jesus feeding the five thousand. There isn’t even a birth narrative in all four of the Gospels. But, each of the people who wrote and compiled Jesus’ story into a Gospel though this story was so important that they each had to include it. Our reading today is the version from the book of John. It is not a time of famine, but it is a time of tension: Passover, a holy festival for the Jewish people that was also closely guarded by Rome, who feared rebellions might bubble up in those holy days dedicated to remembering God’s liberating power.
It is no coincidence that the story of Elisha feeding 100 people and Jesus feeding 5,000 are paired together as readings for today. In her commentary on the text, Dr. Susan Hylen notes that the author of John respected prophets and used comparisons to prophets to help people understand who Jesus was. Like Elisha, Jesus knew that God was caring and powerful. In his own ministry, Jesus mirrored the actions of earlier prophets, working miracles as signs pointing to God’s abundance and concern for the people, and inviting people to return to the promises they made in the covenant. Jesus was more than prophet, but as one who was also sent by God, he knew, like the prophets knew, that God would feed the people.
Jesus looks at the 5,000 gathered and knows they need to eat. He says to a disciple, “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?” Bread must have been Jesus’ go to recipe instead of grilled veggies and lentils. Phillip, ever the pragmatist, says “six months of wages would not buy enough bread for all these people.” Andrew, a little more optimistic, looked around to see what was at hand and found a boy who was willing to share five barley loaves and two fish. Yet another generous person willing to share what they have, even though it’s less than the man in the Elisha story. Jesus looked at the people and the food they had and he knew God would make it work.
So, he had his disciples sit everyone down. He gave thanks for what they had and began to break it apart, sharing the bread and the fish. And, he just kept having enough. Some people wonder if, in seeing the boy and Jesus share, it inspired others to share, with everyone digging into their purses and backpacks and pockets for any little bit of food to bless and share with their neighbors. That’s its own kind of miracle, generosity bearing more generosity into the world. I don’t know if that explanation is necessary though. Jesus does some wild and powerful stuff in John. But, it’s always to point back to God. How ever the people were fed, they were fed. And, they knew something more about God’s loving abundance after having eaten.
There’s more to this story. The people call Jesus a prophet, which is kind of true, and some even want him to be king, which Jesus doesn’t want at all. Dr. Hylen reminds us that Jesus will later be clear that ‘his kingdom is not of this earth.” And, he was not seeking his own power or exaltation. He performed miracles to show people something about God. Even when he walked on water at the end of this reading, it wasn’t just about showing his power. It was about telling the disciples not to be afraid. The things they will do together will be frightening. But, God’s power lived in Jesus. God’s abundance moved through Jesus. Jesus can be more powerful than a force of nature and gentle enough to feed strangers with food borrowed from a generous child. If the people are hungry, they will be fed. God will make sure of it.
There’s plenty of hungry people right now, needing to be fed. Whenever we are generous like the man with the extravagant offering or like the boy with a simple meal, we are getting a glimpse of God’s abundance in action. We are most often in the place of the servant or Philip, clear that what we have isn’t enough to feed everyone. But, I pray that we can be like the servant and Andrew, and look at what we have and share it anyway. God will still work through it. And, when the people are no longer hungry, they know something more about the caring and powerful God we service. And, they won’t be hungry anymore.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Recipe originally shared by Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: https://www.ucc.org/worship-way/pentecost-9-july-25/
Dora Mbwayesango: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-2/commentary-on-2-kings-442-44
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-2/commentary-on-john-61-21-4
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
We’re back to talking about shepherds again. We’ve talked about shepherds before... Jesus as the Good Shepherd, God as the shepherd that guides you through the valley of the shadow of death. The prophet Jeremiah needed to talk about some bad shepherds... shepherds who didn’t know how to care for the sheep entrusted to them or misuse the power for their own game. As we well know, just because someone has been put in charge, it doesn’t mean that they know what they are doing and it does mean that they will do the job well. Jeremiah is clear that the shepherds who have been in charge of Judah have not done right by the sheep, God’s people. Jeremiah wants the shepherds to know that God will hold them accountable. Jeremiah also wants to assure the sheep that God has not forgotten them.
Last week, when I preached from the book of Amos, I talked some about what stressors Amos was responding to in his prophecies. One was the systems of acute inequality that were enriching powerful people and making a lot of less powerful people very poor. The second was the looming threat of a powerful neighboring country that was looking to gain more territory through war. Amos connected the two, warning the Northern Kingdom of Israel that the unjust systems, contrary to the covenant they made with God, would be the downfall of their kingdom and divine retribution would come through war with their more powerful neighbor. About a hundred and sixty years later, Jeremiah would respond to similar issues in the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, with a similar warning. The promises of the covenant come with expectations for ethical behavior. To fail in your ethical expectation is to risk destruction. The shepherds who have scattered the sheep will face accountability.
Amos was delivering a warning before the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria. Jeremiah appears to be offering a rebuke-filled explanation for Judah’s loss, and Jerusalem’s destruction, at the hands of Babylon. Choir members, when you sing that beautiful setting of Psalm 137, you are singing about the same period of history that Jeremiah is addressing in this part of his prophecy. Here is part of Psalm 137, written as from the ones who were kidnapped and taken to Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon--
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
I appreciated reading Dr. Julián Andrés González Holguín’s commentary on this part of Jeremiah. He reminds the readers and hearers of this text, which began as prophecies shared by the prophet and remembered by the people and was later collected and edited into the version we have today, that this book is a product of a community processing a significant trauma. The siege of Jerusalem, a destructive, several-month attack on the city at the heart of the communal religious life in the Southern Kingdom, is the particular event that the prophet and editors of the prophet’s words were trying to explain.
The temple was destroyed. The ark of the Covenant, that is, the resting place of God, was carted away as treasure. The king, his family, court, and other members of the ruling class were forced to go to Babylon. Many other leaders and elite in the community were killed. Life became even harder for the poor folks. Dr. Holguín notes in his commentary that everything about life in this city changed in the wake of the siege. So many people were displaced. So many people struggled. It was, as Holguín describes it, “a multilevel debacle,” a disaster on national, economic, and spiritual levels. Displacement from one’s home and disruption of religious spaces and practices, in particular, threatened the survival of the people of the covenant as a whole. We can look at the histories of indigenous communities and the descendants of Africans kidnapped and brought here to North America to see how much damage a nation can do by moving people against their will and forbidding them from participating in the common religious rituals that give life meaning.
If something really bad happens when you are in charge, you should expect people to assume that you should have been able to prevent it. That is part of Jeremiah’s critique here. According to the scholar Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah is a part of theological tradition of priests who were already in conflict with the kings of Judah. He may have been primed and ready to be critical of the ways they were leading the kingdom. Chapter 22, the chapter just before today’s reading, is a critique of three different kinds of Judah, who, according to Blake Couey, “ruled unjustly and exploited their people.” In her commentary on the text, Elaine James points out specifically that these kings failed to follow the ethical demands to care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow (Jeremiah 22: 3-4). Jeremiah 22:13 says: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” If Babylon was able to destroy Jerusalem, according to Jeremiah, it was because the rulers of Jerusalem were more concerned with building up their own comfort than adhering to the demands of God’s law.
Dr. James makes it clear: the consequences of corrupt leadership is a scattered flock. Now, Jeremiah will make an argument that I won’t. I don’t believe that God empowered Babylon kill so many people. But, I understand why Jeremiah would argue that God would. In Jeremiah’s understanding, nothing happens in the world without God’s command, including war. Dr. James also notes a tenderness of God held in tension with God’s scrutiny. Other scholars I read this week talk about this as the patterns of judgement and restoration common in prophetic books of this era. As surely as God will mete out justice on those who ignore divine ethical requirements, God will also provide for the restoration of God’s people.
Our reading for the day describes it this way, with God speaking to the kings who have been poor shepherds: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. I will attend to you for your evil doings.” That’s the judgement. Here is the restoration: “Then I myself will gather then remnant of my flock out of all the lands when I have driven them and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Dr. James notes the ways that the shepherd metaphor is flexible here. God, once again is the ultimate shepherd who gathers and tends to the sheep. But, God will also raise up new shepherds, that is kings, who will tend to God’s people with justice and righteousness. Under this king, “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” Did you notice that, in this time of restoration, the two kingdoms we be reunified? Judah and Israel will both be safe under the new king. That’s the ultimate restoration, isn’t it, two nations, split by arguments over leadership, brought back together in justice?
We are in a time when people are trying to make sense of the on-going trauma in our world. Between the Pandemic and the failures of leadership that have incited even more suffering, and the droughts, fires, and floods, and the failures of leadership to address climate change that is at the root of these dramatic weather events, I know that we are hearing prophetic voices, right now, warning us of the further destruction that awaits nations that don’t attend to the ethical demands of care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow. May we be more moved by the prophets to change than these ancient kings were. And, when things seem the most bleak, I pray that we can remember the promise of restoration. We can be gathered together as God’s flock and live in righteousness. We don’t have to be satisfied with a nation that stomps on the needy. God’s leaders rule in justice and righteousness. If we are following God, we can insist on justice and righteousness, too.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Prophets, Shepherds, and Plumblines: Amos 7:7-15
I have spent part of my week learning what a plumb bob is. Plumb line… plumb bob… these are both phrases for an ancient building technology that helps people build straight walls and posts and roofs, really anything where it’s important that one part of the build be aligned with another part vertically. I watched videos where one guy used it to place a rafter, one of the pieces of a building that holds up a roof. I watched another one where someone used it to add a support beam in a temporary wall. The 2x4 at the base had to line up with the 2x4 that had already been attached to the ceiling. I watched another video where one poor guy had already framed a corner of a building, guided by a level, and it looked pretty straight. But, he just wanted to make sure everything was as level and plumb and straight as it was supposed to be. He said “the plumb bob never lies” and used it to double check his work. Sure enough. He was 3/8th of an inch off. Three-eighths might not seem like a lot. But, if you are off a little in one part, that can throw off the whole house. Best to measure twice, early on, to make sure that what you’re building will stand. I hope it didn’t take him too long to rework that corner.
I had to learn how to use a plumbline because the Prophet Amos once had a vision where God was standing next to a wall that God built. God was holding a plumb line. God had measured the people and found out that they were not properly aligned. And, God was not happy about it. God says to Amos, “I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Yikes. None of that sounds good. Not even one bit.
What, you may ask, is God so mad about? A thing God is usually mad about: Injustice. Let me set the scene. I feel a little like Sophia Petrillo of The Golden Girls: Picture it- Israel, 752 BCE (or, at least, sometime between 760 and 750 BCE). A couple hundred years after the death of Solomon, Israel has split into the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom for a while. The Northern Kingdom is still called Israel and also Samaria. The Southern Kingdom is known as Judah. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried -- was in the Northern Kingdom. Amos is arguing with the priest at Bethel, Amaziah, later in this reading. Amos is a shepherd, turned prophet, who is from the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, is in the Southern Kingdom.
According to scholars I read this week, the book of Amos, along with the books of Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, are dealing with prophetic interpretations of two significant culture issues of this era: 1) the increasing wealth of the elite of the both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms that was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people and 2) the looming threat of Assyria, the powerful neighboring nation with imperial aspirations. Amos, like Isaiah, understands that faith in God not just to be about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, puts it this way: Israel’s covenant with God did not provide it with a special privilege. The nation, as a whole, is required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on this passage, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.” Amos, along with other prophets, believed that Israel had so thoroughly ignored their ethical commitments that God would soon punish them by letting Assyria defeat them in war and take over their nation.
I’m not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. In his commentary on the text, Walter Brueggemann cited scholars who outlined the impacts of these unjust systems. They might seem familiar to you. While some lose land, homes, and family, others managed two own two homes and to have homes decorated in fine ivory and ornate masonry (all of that is described in Amos 3:15, 5:11, and 6:4). While some could not find enough to eat, the elite would throw lavish banquets (4:1b). This is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. Amos’ vision of God The Builder with a plumbline is a visualization of this frustration. God’s builds justice and righteousness. The nation’s behavior should be plumb, that is, in alignment, with God’s priorities. And, it is not.
Amos, who God plucked out of the fields and sent to the Northern Kingdom to warn them to change their ways, tells the people that individual rituals of piety aren’t enough to make the nation plumb. In chapter 5, verses 21-24, Amos shares that God says:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Dr. James notes that you might remember those words from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King had been criticized by white clergy in Birmingham who had grown too comfortable with their good life to stand up for racial equality with the speed and intensity required to do right by their Black neighbors. Dr. King reminded them of the ethical commands found in Amos and the plumbline with which God could measure a nation. To paraphrase Dr. King, and maybe Amos, the right time to live according to the demands of love and justice is right now.
This is not exactly a fluffy and sweet vision of God. It is a hard word delivered by a simple man to a religious professional who is not prepared to hear it. Amaziah, the priest, who assumes that he is living right, or at least living right enough, has no interest in the harsh critique of Amos. “Go back to Judah and prophesy there,” he says. Amos said “No, God sent me here to tell you when you trample on the needy, your nation will not survive.” Sometimes you have to be willing to hear the hard word, really hear it, if you are going to change the path you are going on and make yourself plumb with God. At least Amos reminds us that God is invested in humanity and has expectations of us. And, the greatest of these is that we will care for each other as a reflection of our love of God.
I called Hariph (the moderator of our church whom I always call with questions about tools and wood-working) on Friday morning and asked him if he used a plumb bob. He said “not anymore!” But he used to. You see, we have lasers now. A lot of builders have switched over to them. They are accurate and fast, and can do a few things that the plumb bob can’t do as easily. But, the lasers and plumblines all do that same work: they help you build something that is plumb... that is strong and in alignment with the rest of the structure around it. The tools we use to follow God might be different now, but the good ones still help us discern if our structures -- our churches, our local and national policies -- are in alignment with God’s priorities. Amos shows us that a community that is so out of alignment with God’s priorities that a small group of people own most of everything while many people struggle to survive is not sustainable. We can be like Amaziah and try to run out Amoses off. Or, we can hear their words for the plumbline that they are. May we be willing to be measured and make the shifts necessary to align ourselves with God.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.