by Rev. Sandi Anthony, preached Sunday, July 14, 2019
7This 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; 9the 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.”
10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center 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.” 14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 17Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
Sermon: The Priest and the Prophet
“Moishe, a medieval Jewish astrologer, prophesied that the king’s favorite horse would soon die. Sure enough, the horse died a short time later. The king was outraged at the astrologer, certain that his prophecy had brought about the horse’s death. He summoned Moishe and commanded him, ‘Prophet, tell me when you will die!’ Moishe realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately, no matter what answer he gave, so he had to answer carefully. “I do not know when I will die,’ he answered finally. ‘I only know that whenever I die, the king will die three days later’” (www.aish.com/j/j307287641.html?)
Today we are going to talk about the differences often found between priests and prophets, and how the tension between the Old Testament prophet Amos and Amaziah, the priest of Bethel plays out—and what we can learn about that. And you will see how there is nothing new under the sun, especially today, when we see priests (effectively “pastors of the court”) cozying up to kings or political leaders. Prophets have the difficult job of calling out the priests who give license to political leaders to enact policies of oppression. Prophets also call out the political leaders directly. A good priest or pastor is supposed to be many things, including God’s prophet. Amaziah was not this. Let me first clear up a misconception about what prophecy actually is, especially in the biblical canon. Prophecy is not so much “foretelling” as it is “forth-telling.” The clever Moishe was more of a foreteller, and biblical foretelling really takes back seat to the difficult art of forthtelling. So today, we will define prophets as forth-tellers, one who are critical of their own religions, especially when they see that religion becoming co-opted by the state and hurting the poor.
Let’s first look at what was going on in Amos’ day. I want to provide some background for understanding: Amos, of course, is the prophet most famous for the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He was one of God’s first and finest social justice prophets who announced that Israel’s punishment would be inevitable for its mistreatment of the poor. Amos prophesied during the time of the Divided Kingdom, when King Uzziah ruled the Southern Kingdom, which we call Judah, and when King Jeroboam II ruled the Northern Kingdom, which we call Israel. The time frame was between 786-746 BC. Amos’ primary concern was Israel, the Northern Kingdom. In the kingdom at that time, the society was sharply stratified. The gap between the rich and poor was stark, and the poor were oppressed by the wealthy, as they have often been throughout the ages, including today. The prophet Amos railed against those who abused basic human rights. He also criticized Israelite worship, saying that the people were more concerned with adhering to proper ritual than they were with the plight of the poor—and this made God angry.
So, in our particular passage today, Amos has a vision; in fact, it is his third of five visions Amos has of God in this Old Testament book. In Amos’ third vision, God is standing next to a wall built with a plumb line. Now I know nothing about construction, so I had to look up plumb line. I learned that a “plumb line is a weight suspended from a string used as a vertical reference line to ensure a structure is centered. As they always find the vertical axis pointing to the center of gravity, they ensure everything is right, justified and centered” (https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/tn-dpt-me-0724-commentary2-20160718-story.html). So, the plumb line is actually a metaphor for justice in society—our plumb line in Christian practice is that which ensures care of the poor, immigrant, marginalized and widow—which are always God’s primary and preferential concerns. So, the take-home message is that we need to be aware of how our votes, our political support, our personal giving, and our mission as a denomination and congregation measure up to God’s plumb line, where everything is right, justified and centered in God’s eyes. In other words, we need to ask ourselves continually if our participation in society is morally straight when measured by God’s plumb line.
So next, Amos engages with Amaziah, the local priest who is fairly cozy with King Jeroboam II, the political power of the time. Amaziah sends word to the king that Amos was conspiring against him. Amaziah tells Amos to flee to Judah and to prophesy there, because no one wants to hear this uncomfortable message in Israel, including the priest. Amaziah calls Amos on the carpet for prophesying in the “king’s sanctuary” and essentially messing with the status quo that the upper strata of society was enjoying. One can almost hear the privilege this priest enjoys in this liaison Amaziah has with the king; Amaziah does not want his cushy world rocked.
Now Amos humbly defends himself saying that he is “no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.” He says he is a “herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees,” which may imply that he is both a keeper of animals and a migrant laborer. This would make him a social outsider as most prophets are—but Amos still knows the system. We can think of him in the same way that we think of Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela—outsiders to be sure, but ones who knew the system. Now remember how shepherds in the ancient world were considered by society to be unclean because of their proximity to animals? They were part of society yet on its outskirts, as Amos was. Nevertheless, Amos maintains that God took him from the flock and gave him a message: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” And Amos is faithful in bearing the voice of God, who cares deeply for all human beings. But keep in mind that a prophet’s job is very difficult, because it rocks the status quo. People want to banish the discomforting voice and the inconvenient truths; as Amaziah says, “The land is not able to bear all [Amos’] words.” The Apostle Paul, in fact, lists prophecy as the second most important spiritual gift. But those who stand up to power can get crucified, as we well know. Remember how the gospels tell us that it was “the priests, the elders, and the teachers of the law” who condemned Jesus, who was another advocate for the poor. Jesus unfailingly embraced the prophetic office.
Now I want to give you a contemporary example of how the tension between the prophet Amos and the priest Amaziah still plays out today. We need to be aware of the human tendency to marginalize and look critically at the voices of Celebrity pastors in particular, whose voices dominate the airwaves. Many of them have cozied up to the present administration in a similar attempt to defend the “king’s sanctuary” to retain their places of privilege and power. I want to share with you a recent quote from James Dobson, whose organization you may have heard of, Focus on the Family, which he led 15 years ago. Sojourners Magazine is a prophetic Christian voice and calls out, very much in the style of the prophet Amos, problems and abuses within contemporary Christian attitude and practice. Sojourner’s writer, Brandon Massey reports on Dobson’s July 2019 newsletter describing Dobson’s visit to McAllen, Texas, at the invitation of the White House, to share what he had seen “up close and personal.” It is troubling the way Dobson characterizes the men, women, and children in the border camps. He describes them as carriers of “lice, scabies, and other diseases;” they sit silently with “plaintive eyes;” they are from the “lowest rung of many societies.” The most alarming of Dobson’s rhetoric, according to Massey, occurs in Dobson’s closing paragraph, which reads:
“What I’ve told you is only a glimpse of what is occurring on the nation’s border. I don’t know what it will take to change the circumstances. I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.”
Massey goes on to point out that Dobson’s fear-filled rhetoric is alarmingly similar to that of German pastors and theologians in the Third Reich, the ones that were cozy with the state who did not use the prophetic voice to call out the atrocities of the holocaust. Massey gives this historical example and writes, “The closing paragraph of Dobson’s newsletter reminds me of a 1933 book by the German theologian Gerhard Kittel. The problem of the Jews living in Germany was, according to Kittel, based on the fact that they are a people perpetually in a foreign land and thus, as foreigners, they have brought decadence to Germany
[hear the echo of Dobson’s words, “illiterate,” “unhealthy,” “criminal,”
“overwhelming numbers,” “bankrupt,” “lice,” “scabies,” “disease,” and “lowest
rung of many societies.”]
But back to Kittel. “In an effort to solve this ‘problem’ from a Christian theological perspective, Kittel offers four possible solutions: 1) Extermination (which he rejects on practical, rather than moral grounds); 2) Deportation (which he also considers impractical on political grounds); 3.) Assimilation (an idea abhorrent to Kittel); or 4) Separation (the only possible solution)” (“James Dobson’s Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric is Dangerous,” Brandon Massey, Sojourners, July 3, 2019). And I should mention that the German theologian Kittel wasn’t alone in his support of the Nazi’s. Other court pastors and German theologians supported the Nazis as well, and it is common knowledge that many of Germany’s churches remained complicit in their silence.
Voices like Kittel’s and Dobson’s hearken back to Amaziah’s, but right now the world desperately needs Amos’ voice and prophetic voices like the ones featured in Sojourners. See, these celebrity pastors whose messages dominate our airwaves, folks including Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, and Jack Graham, and others are court pastors, court priests, not prophets in the style of Amos. Like Amaziah, these guys are not measuring with God’s plumb line in the current immigration crisis—even though their assorted contributions through the years might not have been all bad. Kittel, Dobson, and Amaziah were much more interested in protecting the king’s sanctuary and a privileged way of life, where resources are not shared with the very ones God is most concerned with. Court pastor rhetoric has been dehumanizing and perpetuates the inhumanity of the border situation; it makes the refugees look like contagion, less than us, even as they are children of God just as we are. Rather than speak creatively and prophetically, these court pastors and court priests communicate a fear-filled theology of limited resources rather than God’s abundance. They effectively stifle the creative visions that challenges like the border crisis inspire. Instead of inspiring ways to bring God’s kingdom to the least of these, they revert to protecting the status quo, retrenching rather than progressing toward a future that looks more and more like God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Richard Rohr, another contemporary prophetic voice says this: “The United States and many other nations need courageous prophets as today’s world leaders show little or no ability to criticize their own duplicitous power games. I suspect that we get the leaders who mirror what we have become as nations” (Meditations, Prophets: Part One, Struggling with Shadow, Tuesday, July 2, 2019). So, the priestly voice may not always be the prophetic voice, and we ought to be very careful when we listen to faith leaders, especially the celebrity ones whose voices dominate our airwaves. We need to measure their messages with God’s plumb line by asking “Is their primary focus safeguarding the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the marginalized, or are they trying to protect the king’s sanctuary and keep all the resources for ones who look like them?” We see this same tension playing out in our scripture today between Amos and Amaziah. Priests (called pastors in our circles), you see, are called to be Amos-style prophets as well.
Years ago, we had a dynamic pastor at Prescott United Methodist Church. I remember the words of his last sermon that he preached the Sunday before the bishop moved him on to bigger things. In his sermon, he recounted his assessment of his own perceived accomplishments and failures of his seven-year tenure there. I thought he was remarkably honest and brave. He felt good about the pastoral care he delivered. He felt reasonably good about his preaching and leadership in church growth and the new building program. But he said, “What I could have done better to have been your prophet. Every day we had people coming in off the streets in hopeless situations. I should have inspired you, the congregation, to develop more ministries for them. I should have challenged you more—even to the point of risking relationship with some of you who disagreed with me and wanted this to be a homogenized church that first and foremost looked after our own.” He really impressed me in his honesty while assessing his own perception of his prophetic voice.
I’ll end with this. The UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann says this about the role of the prophet in his book The Prophetic Imagination: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Friends, our dominant culture says, “Let’s safeguard what we have because there’s not enough to go around. Let’s spend our money to build a high wall and more gated communities rather than address the root of the problem. There is simply not enough for the other.” The prophets, like Amos, interrupt our self-focus, put forth a new vision, inspire imagination, and call us back to God, whose plumb line is the truest measure of morality, justice and righteousness. Amen.