Christian Stewardship of Planet Earth

Dear CCOV Family,

God gave humans stewardship of this beautiful world.  I know that many of us, as God’s stewards, are concerned with environmental headlines in the news today.  The Amazon, which produces 20% of the earth’s oxygen, burns; the Arctic burns; and looking out the window as I type, I can see smoke from Prescott-area fires. Glaciers melt, bees continue to decline, temperatures soar, and the oceans are full of microplastics.  Sometimes we feel overwhelmed because the news seems to be so bleak all of the time.  Take heart though: There is good news, when people make a concerted effort to make a change.  For example, The World Economic Forum reports that in Europe forests are again blanketing the continent as a result of increased protection and better land management.  Trees now cover almost a third of France—even more forests cover Sweden, Finland and Spain.  We know that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help fight climate change as well as produce oxygen, which we need to breathe.  Additionally, forests safeguard biodiversity. 

Responding to issues of environmental justice, our denomination is running a campaign called Three Great Loves: love of children, love of neighbor, and love of creation.  The three loves, of course, are all interrelated.  When we safeguard creation, we help to safeguard our children and our neighbor.   Below are some simple things we all can do, that when done broadly enough, will have impact.

  1. Demand climate solutions from our elected officials: vote, educate others, call our representatives, get politically active…
  2. Reduce energy needs in our homes: unplug computers, buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and energy-star label appliances, wash in warm or cold water, program your thermostat…
  3. Push for renewable energy: solar, wind, divest from fossil fuels…
  4. Eat differently: try “meatless Mondays,” buy organic and local, buy shade-grown coffee, grow your own…
  5. Explore alternative transportation: use public transit, ride a bike, carpool, buy electric or hybrid vehicles, fly less…
  6. Consume less: “pre-cycle” when shopping, avoiding over-packaged products, recycle, compost, buy biodegradables over plastics…

Let us all do what we can to steward wisely our God’s great creation.  See you in church!

Peace,

Pastor Sandi            

Great Expectations

Isaiah 5:1-7

5Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Sermon:  Great Expectations , preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, Sunday, August 18, 2019

Wine has always been one of my hobbies and interests.  Clint and I enjoy visiting wineries in our travels and learning about the varieties of grapes, types of soil, methods of production.  I love tasting wines and finding good ones that are a bargain.  I’m a big fan of organic farming as well and try to buy all things organic as much as possible—it’s better for us and it is better for the planet.  I learned about a technique at a winery called Montinore Estate up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that takes organic farming to the next level.  This next level is called “bio-dynamics.”  What that means is that the winery uses sustainable growing practices that ensure that the ecosystem functions as a whole; compost is, of course, used.  The idea is to leave the land in even better shape for future generations.   One practice often employed is burying cow horns stuffed with manure by the vines to slowly leach out fertilizer and promote a balanced ecosystem.  Vintners often use the lunar cycle for the optimal time to plant and harvest.  In short, bio-dynamics is an agricultural “philosophy and methodology that views a farm as a self-sustaining ecosystem entirely responsible for creating and maintaining its individual health and vitality without any external and unnatural additions [including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, sulfites].  It is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, creating healthier food…and a healthier planet” (www.montinore.com).  And the technique is applied to more than just wine—these practices can and should become the norm if we care for our children and their children’s future on planet earth.

So, let’s move into today’s passage from Isaiah.  You will see that even in Isaiah’s time, around 742-701 BC, wine was also enjoyed.  In fact, our passage today is widely titled, “The Song of the Vineyard.”  The “Song of the Vineyard” begins as a love song.  Isaiah sings about God’s love for God’s vineyard.  Vineyards, you know, are often written about in our Bibles because people lived closer to the land and understood agricultural images.  Think about our well-known gospel stories about vines and vineyards.  Jesus is the vine; we are the branches.  Remember the parable of the Vineyard Owner in Mark 12?  This is when the vineyard owner builds a similarly wonderful vineyard and then leases it to tenants and goes away.  Those tenants took the vineyard for themselves and beat up the slaves the owner sends—and even beat up the owner’s son who the owner finally sends to collect some of the fruit.  We can see the Jesus story through that parable.  Fruit, remember, in the Bible, is usually metaphorical for our good works, our seeking justice for the oppressed—that parable particularly harkens back to this Isaiah passage, and I’m sure Jesus had today’s passage in mind when he told it.  And then remember the parable about another vineyard in Matthew 20 when all the laborers get paid the same amount of money even though they worked varying hours?  That’s a parable about God’s unmerited grace.  And there are more vineyard references throughout our Bible. 

Anyway, the vineyard of Isaiah 5 is a metaphor for Israel—Judah in particular, since Isaiah at that time is prophesying to Judah.  In a sense, the Song of the Vineyard also harkens back to the Garden of Eden and may even function as a metaphor for creation itself.  God creates things to be good and then we make them bad—we get things woefully out of balance.  Even though Isaiah’s beloved (God) took great care to plant a vineyard on a very fertile hill by digging it and clearing it of stones, planting it with choice vines, building a watchtower in its middle, putting a hedge around it to keep out any animals that would eat the vine’s leaves and branches, and hewing out the wine vat in the vineyard’s center, God had great expectations, great intentions for that vineyard. Unfortunately, it yielded sour, wild grapes—not the good fruit that God was expecting, the kind that would make for good wine.  Any good winemaker will tell you that it takes good fruit to make good wine.  We know from our study of the prophets this summer that wild grapes are really a metaphor for the lack of justice in Judah’s society, when God had carefully created Judah—all of the Israelites—precisely to be God’s light to the world.  God had greatly expected Israel to be Godlike—just and caring preferentially for the “least of these.”  But Israel went wild and did not live into God’s careful cultivation, like our society often does not.  God’s intention all along was always to bless God’s people.  And through those people [and we too can think of ourselves God’s people], God’s intention was always to bless the world—and that is roughly the take-home message today.  

And so, our passage today takes a harsh turn.  Because the vineyard grew wild grapes, God through Isaiah said that the vineyard would be devoured.  God would break down the hedge; the vineyard will become a waste.  There would be no further pruning or hoeing, and it would be overgrown with briers and thorns. There would be no rain upon it.  Isaiah interprets his own song at the end of the passage and says, “For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planning; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.  God expected righteousness, but heard a cry!

We’ve talked this summer about God’s judgement being something like karma.  When the people don’t live in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth, God will leave us to our own devices.  Then we suffer the consequences of our sin, which eventually, hopefully prompt us to act, once we can’t stand the pain anymore.  Eventually the tipping point comes.  And hopefully that point of unbearable pain marking the tipping point won’t be too late.

As I worked with this passage this week, I kept thinking about the dire condition our planet it is—the planet God created to be good like Isaiah’s vineyard, the planet that God gave us stewardship of. 

This past week had a lot of distressing news regarding our country’s care of creation.  You may have heard how the US Department of the Interior announced sweeping reductions to the Endangered Species Act.  We know that God created a delicate balance of interrelatedness among all species on the earth—and we were supposed to be the stewards.  Instead, our country has abdicated its God-given responsibility.  The EPA won’t ban Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide tied to children’s health problems.  Additionally, the EPA is allowing the use of pesticides beekeepers say decimate beneficial insects, the very insects we depend upon to pollinate our crops.  Moreover, the current USDA has suspended the honeybee survey.  What we do know is that the population of bees, which help pollinate a third of food crops, has been in decline since 2006.  July was the hottest month in history—since records began to be kept anyway.  There is record ice melt in Greenland.  Fox and CNN aren’t even reporting on the unprecedented, 100+ intense and long-lived wildfires raging in Siberia and in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle.  These fires have been responsible for the release of over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The current administration has eased restrictions on coal-burning power plants, which are heavily polluting and major producers of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap sunlight and contribute to the warming the planet.  Fortunately, a coalition of 29 states and cities are suing to block this measure and keep the Clean Power Plan restrictions.  The Clean Power Plan had required states to implement plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2022 and generate electricity using natural gas or renewable energy.

As someone who lived in Europe, I know that there are better ways to preserve our planet for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  I got to see how European countries do things.  Here are some of the things I learned when living in Germany that we can all practice here—little things that can help make a dent anyway.  All trash that could be composted, was.  All trash that could be recycled went into the big bins in our village.  And then, the county issued a trashcan for everything else based upon a given family’s size.  Since there were only three of us in our home, we could only generate a couple gallons of unrecyclable trash every two weeks.  We were issued a trashcan with about this much space in it.  So that forced us to “pre-cycle” when we shopped.  We had to calculate while we shopped if the containers could be recycled or composted because we only had so much space for any other waste.  By and large, grocery stores didn’t give us plastic bags.  I learned to do what the German fraus did: march down to the local bakery and butcher shop with a sturdy basket under my arm.  Last summer, when we went back to our German village, we noticed windmills dotting all the hills in the distance that weren’t there when we lived there before.  Germany, and especially Scandinavia, are some of the most progressive in the world in terms of environmental success and sustainability.  They are moving forward with clean energy while the US is going backwards.  Yes, we may be making a quick buck now, but without caring for God’s creation and the succeeding generations who will inherit our mess, we may not make it very far into the future.

The United Church of Christ, whose current motto is a very biblical “A Just World for All,” continually talks about three great loves: Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.  And I think of how we at CCOV endeavor to promote God’s justice that prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea are talking about.  We show love of children with our healthy packs and back-to-school projects.  We show love of neighbor with UMOM and our Christmas collections.  To show love of creation, we have attempted to incorporate more sustainable practices at fellowship time here and not use Styrofoam or as much plastic and paper products.  We recycle.  It’s great when small systems like ours adopt these practices—and I am sure we could brainstorm together so much more to actualize God’s great expectations for a just world.  There is so much God wants to do through us.  For the most impact, though, we need to advocate for change in the way our country as a whole is heading—it’s going down a dangerous and unsustainable road. 

So, you might be saying, how did Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, which is really about that same old thing I’ve been preaching on: you know,  Judah’s lack of justice and lack of righteousness; how did this turn into an Earth Day message?  Well here’s the thing, our denomination is very concerned with what is known as environmental racism.  You can read all about it on the UCC website—you will also find a detailed list of how we can involve ourselves in achieving environmental justice. In short, the problem is that “hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries are often positioned in communities inhabited mainly by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, farm workers, and the working poor.  These groups were, and still are, particularly vulnerable because they are perceived as weak and passive citizens who will not fight back against the poisoning of their neighborhoods in fear that it may jeopardize jobs and economic survival” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism.)  Additionally, “Climate change and global warming bring an additional peril to communities of color or poor communities all over the world. Many who live near the coasts or in lower-lying areas will be the first to feel the effects of rising temperatures and oceans. They will not have the resources to make choices that others can make and may lose their homes and their livelihoods and will be displaced as environmental refugees. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast in 2005 was one of the most dramatic examples of what may occur in the future, as those who had no transportation or means of escaping the rising waters became refugees” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism).  We need to care about the worsening of the environment because of the impact first and foremost on the earth’s most vulnerable, the ones God keeps calling to us about through the prophets—the ones who don’t have second homes up north to escape the heat. 

We need to call our government officials.  We need to sign petitions offered by the Sierra Club and support organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which protects the land and water.  We can adopt green practices at home.  When it’s time for a new car, consider a hybrid or plug-in, or both.  Compost.  Recycle.  Pre-cycle.  If it’s yellow, let it mellow.  If it’s brown, flush it down.  Buy organic.  Better yet, buy bio-dynamic.  If you are a wine drinker, try Montinore’s wines or other bio-dynamically produced wines.

Friends, God took great care to prepare a wonderful vineyard for us.  God expects great grapes to grow in that vineyard, grapes that would yield sublime wine.  But again and again, all God got was wild grapes.  Israel, Judah, we—all of us often cycle back into unrighteousness, in other words, out of right relationship with God—which is really shown through our relationship with one another and with the earth.  But our New Testament even more so teaches us that God is never content to leave us wallow.  There is abundant forgiveness and grace.  God wants transformed hearts and for us to be in right relationship.  We can do this, through grace, and through the New Covenant.  That’s why God sent Jesus, so we can best know God’s heart, so we have the best example to follow of how to be in right relationship with God by being in right relationship with one another.  Justice and love flow out of that relationship, the kind of justice and love that wants the best for our neighbors, the best for our children and their children’s children, and for all of creation.  We can indeed have relationships characterized by the love God shows us.  Our God is always wooing us back to the garden, back to the good vineyard, because it has always been God’s intention and great expectation for us to be a blessed people cultivated to bless.  Amen. 

Preaching on the Same Old Thing

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Sermon: Preaching on the Same Old Thing

You may not realize it, but you have a best friend sitting in this room, especially concerning my preaching, and his name is Clint.  He gives me honest feedback in the car on the way back up to Prescott:  The sermon was too long, (never too short), the sermon rambled, was unfocused, needed a good story or joke, got too political, but most frequently I hear that it’s always about the same thing: taking care of the poor and or sometimes that God loves you.  He’s a really bright guy and I take him seriously and trust him completely.  He’s right, it does seem that I am always preaching on the same old thing or things, and I own that.  And today will be no different, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. 

Now I had an especially formative pastor who once told me that every good preacher has only one recurrent message, one recurrent theme in his or her preaching.  He told me his wife once told him what his was (this, by the way, is what ministry spouses are for):  His recurrent message was that God is in the mundane—God reveals Godself to us in the mundane.  All this pastor’s sermons somehow underscored how God comes to us in our mundane, day-to-day living and shares our common lot with us, and this is how we can know God best. 

I know that my messages are often centering on justice and peace, on caring for the marginalized and poor, which is good for our souls—and also that God loves us more than we can know.  But here’s the thing, every time I open my Bible, roll up my sleeves, and start reading, interpreting, and researching, I see that the Bible’s pages, whether they be Old Testament Prophets or the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, communicate the primacy of caring for the marginalized an poor again and again.

And so, I’ve chosen this summer to preach out of the lectionary, but just the weekly Old Testament passages, which thus far have covered significant passages from minor prophets Amos and Hosea—and you have heard about these justice prophets and what their messages were.  Today and next week the lectionary has us explore two passages from one of the major prophets called Isaiah.  And guess what!  Isaiah is saying nearly the same thing to the people as were Amos and Hosea!   And this tells me something.  In fact, it recalls one of voices of my seminary professors who used to say that there were over 2000 passages in our Bibles about how, if you really don’t want to get God mad at you, you really ought not oppress the poor, the marginalized, the alien, widow or the orphan.  Over 2000 passages!  Conversely, there are only about five passages that may even allude to what we call homosexuality, but we’ve certainly spent a disproportionate time on that in our culture.  Oh, for the day when the widely-heard TV preacher spends time defending the immigrant and disadvantaged in this world…And so your best friend here might say that I’m rambling, so I better get this focused pronto.   

But I kid you not.  Do you hear the echoes in Isaiah today of what we’ve been talking about in Amos and Hosea?  And by the way, our sermons are now posted on our church website: www.myccov.com, under the tab, “About Us.”  So, you can go back and revisit Amos and Hosea if you wish. 

Our passage today is from the first chapter of Isaiah.  In the first verse, we learn that Isaiah has a vision.  Not only that, but we learn the historical period of that vision: These were the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah.  This dates this part of Isaiah to 742 to 701 BC.  In the first verse, we also learn whom Isaiah’s oracles will be against.  This time it is not the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as were the oracles of Amos and Hosea directed.  No, this time the oracles are against Judah, the Kingdom of Israel in the south where Jerusalem was and is.  Then the lectionary has us skip over to verse ten, where Isaiah begins to cut to the chase.  At issue in our passage is that Israel’s sacrifice system and worship were superficial in God’s eyes.  Similar to what God said to Amos about temple worship in the Northern Kingdom (remember when God got mad about the people sitting there in the temple daydreaming about how they would make more money fraudulently off the backs of the poor?).  Here, God through Isaiah is communicating about the same thing to the Southern Kingdom, Judah.  God wants the people to hear that God strongly rejects the religious practices of Judah, even though God once required these practices, which were important; indeed, a lot of the OT functions to describe the requirements of Israel’s right worship in detail.  So, what’s the problem?  It appeared that Judah was following the prescribed sacrifices and burnt offerings okay.  Judah was observing its prescribed feast days, new moons, and appointed festivals.  But God says that these things are essentially meaningless now. The wording in verse 10 is thus, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?   I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats…In verse 15 God through Isaiah goes on to say, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen: your hands are full of blood.”  In short, God is unimpressed by their worship.  At this point in time, God wants something else, something absolutely crucial, that’s missing in the people: And I think that is integration of worship and service.

And why is God so unimpressed with their worship?  Because it is superficial; it is not changing hearts and lives; it is not translating to right living and right relationship among the people, especially for society’s most oppressed.  There is no integration; no sense of oneness, unity, and connection among all strata of society.  So, what is the aim of the passage?  Yes, I’m preaching on the same old thing again:  We find out what God really wants of the people in verses 16-17: Verse 16 says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil, learn to do good.”  And what is it to cease to do evil and learn to do good per this passage in Isaiah and in about 2000 other passages in our Bibles?  Well, we will keep reading in verse 17: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  See, it’s not just me and my repetitive preaching about justice and the oppressed and the orphan and the widow.  Sometimes I wish more sermon topics were being suggested by the biblical texts.  But see, it’s right there; and it’s everywhere else in the Bible. 

Please know that good preaching, biblical preaching anyway, never begins as an idea in the pastor’s head.  He or she is not supposed to jump around in the Bible proof-texting this idea or that self-generated idea.  Preaching must start with a text and the topic suggested by the text.  And then you should hear what that text meant then, and next you should hear if and how it translates into our time: what it can mean now.  And we also have to see how the rest of the biblical canon backs up the point.  And by the way, the point today is heartily backed up—over 2000 times!  Then we ask, how do we churchgoers in 2019, in an era when children and families of another skin color are locked in cages and shooters go on horrific rampages, and American individualism and arrogance are undermining what once was a more civil society, how do we apply that text to our lives today?  How is it relevant now?  That part gets to what we call the application.   Oh, and darn, that can get political.  So, we pastors talk about how we have to speak out prophetically, but ultimately, we play it safe and don’t typically name names.  We don’t tell you how to vote.  That’s how our clergy retreat discussions go, anyway.

So, how does this text apply today?  We Protestant Christians don’t have an elaborate sacrifice system as part of our worship as did the Israelites in our text today.  We have our feast days, our holidays, our worship though, to be sure.  We go to our churches as Judah went to its temple, we, like them, take up a collection and sing praise songs and observe rituals—though most of the rituals were and are different for us (we don’t sacrifice animals here).  And God is saying to us through Isaiah that it’s not going to Temple and going through the motions that makes God happy.  It’s not going to church and going through the motions that will in any way save us or please God.  It’s not that you shouldn’t go, mind you, but you go to those places to learn how to be on the outside of worship; you worship to see the grand drama of salvation enacted again and again.  You go to worship to integrate your life, to be hearers then doers of the word.  Sometimes we say in the benediction, “the worship is over, but now the service begins.”  You go to your places of worship to remember that all of humanity are souls created by God, because how we can forget this through all of life’s distractions.  How quickly we forget our interconnectedness.  Worship must inform our lives; what we glean from worship must be integrated in our service, our practice.  There must be no disconnect between our worship and our living.  Isaiah tells us that Israel’s worship of God was not informing their lives.  And the litmus test is the same old thing: Israel, at the time of Isaiah, was not seeking justice rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.  And I wonder if we are doing much better.

So, let me tell you about a little skit that I watched introduce a Ted Talk about taking the bible literally verses taking it seriously—lest your best friend here tell me that there was no good illustrative story in my sermon today.  A man dies and is welcomed by God into heaven.  The man says, “Wow, I’ve finally made it to heaven.  I’ve worked every day of my life making sure I would make it here!”  God says, “Welcome to heaven!  Just a few questions to make sure you really belong here.”  The man interrupts, “I’ve been a perfect Christian all of my life!’  God says, “Okay, then.  Let’s see about that!”   “So first off,” God says, “I need you to categorically assure me that you have rejected any scientific teaching that contradicts even one word of the Bible.”  The man replies, “Absolutely, absolutely!”  God says, “Great!” and then continues.  “So, do you, based on the authority of scripture, accept that there are talking snakes,” to which the man replies, “I do, I do; they’re in Genesis 2.”  “What about talking donkeys,” to which he replies, “Numbers 22.”  God asks, “Unicorns?” and he replies, “Psalm 29.”  God goes on to ask, “And what about hoards of suicidal, demon-possessed, cliff-jumping pigs,” and the man replies, “The Gospel of Mark, the fifth chapter.”  God compliments the man and says, “Very good; I’m impressed.”  God continues, “One final question then before I let you in.  Did you do as I told you and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor?”  And the man hems and haws and finally stutters, “What?  Were you serious about that?” And God replies, “Very serious.  So serious that I said it twice.”  And the now-humbled man says, “Ooooo.”

And so, what is the point?  The point is that we become really disconnected from what God wants.  We get mired in insignificant details (that really don’t cost us much) like believing in talking snakes and unicorns only to reject the big picture of sacrificial living, because we deeply fear the most significant things God requires of us: To treat the outsiders well; to care preferentially for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the migrant, the one who does not hold the privileged places that we do.  We deeply fear that there are not enough resources to go around in order to maintain our own positions.  We deflect our energies elsewhere by getting all hung up on going through the motions and mindlessly and heartlessly perform the rituals, thinking that they will somehow save us, as we cling to and get huffy about ridiculous details (things like insisting on saying Merry Christmas rather than happy holidays) instead of doing what God tells us over 2000 times.

It’s like a Methodist minister I know who did something edgy: During his sermon, he posted a picture on the big screen above the sanctuary of a small child in Africa, so thin you could see his hip sockets, obviously starving to death.  Then he began to preach, and at one point in the sermon let loose a string of shocking obscenities.  The congregation gasped, horribly offended.  Yet, this was precisely his object lesson.  “How is it that my language so offended you, but you didn’t blink when I put up this picture?  What should offend you is how much that little boy and his village desperately need us right now.  How much “offense” energy are you putting into getting a program going at this church to help end this famine?”  See, this is Amos’ message.  It’s Hosea’s message.  It’s Isaiah’s message; it’s Jesus’ message, and I guess it’s why I keep preaching on the same old thing.  Because ancient Israel’s society and our society keep failing at safeguarding the oppressed.

But the prophets never leave us without hope for change.  The end of our passage today communicates a soaring hope.  Isaiah, speaking for God says, “Come now, let us argue it out.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good on the land; but if your refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.”  Because we know that things often unfold like karma.  If we neglect the least of these, if we are unfair, there can be bloody revolution.  In these hope-filled verses at the end of today’s scripture, the Christian may even see Christ forecasted.  Sins that were once as scarlet become like snow.  But our works are still required, because the text uses that little, conditional word “if.”  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat good on the land, God says through Isaiah.

I remember when my daughter in early toddlerhood refused to eat at her high chair, turning her head away from the oncoming spoon.  We tried playing airplane.  We tried reverse psychology: don’t you eat that now!  And we’d close our eyes and hear a giggle.  “Here God speaks to us as a stubborn child.  Come then, let us reason together[; or as the NRSV says, let us argue it out].  I have something wonderful for you.  But as long as your head is turned away and your mouth is sealed tight, you can’t eat it” (Stan Mast, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-14c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary.)    

May our worship never become ironic, unintegrated with our lives.  May we never be unclean.  Serving God often means changing our ways.  We can only wash and purify ourselves by doing good, helping others, bringing about justice.  This is what God saves us for; this is always the response to our salvation.  That’s what brings about the kingdom come.  A Taizé service on this passage puts it this way, “Those who get off track politically and socially and violate the weak and the excluded have distanced themselves from God. As the true ruler, however, God invites them to return…” (http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-09-01).  May we never even stray.  Amen. 

Gun Violence

Dear CCOV Family,On Sunday morning we gathered with heavy hearts in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings that left 29 people dead and scores injured.  When tragedy strikes and we are grieving, many of us turn to our churches.  We want solace, understanding, guidance, inspiration, and prayer.  Increasing waves of domestic terrorism cause us to feel insecure and fearful for our own families, friends, and selves, because we realize that no school, workplace, house of worship, or shopping center is truly safe.  We prayed together on Sunday, to be sure.  But we’ve prayed after other tragedies, and the violence keeps coming.  While our prayers don’t magically fix anything, they do go to work on our own hearts and convince us of the need to make changes and take action, which we can do.  Below you will find a link to a statement our UCC denominational leaders, including Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, have published in the wake of these tragedies.  Per the article, besides prayer, our denominational leadership is urging all UCC members “to call on the Senate to act immediately on pending gun violence legislation.”  Click here to go to UCC website
Additionally, they want us “to attend town halls and candidate appearances and ask the candidates what they plan to do to end gun violence.”  I have already called my senator and asked her to pass Background Checks and a strong Red Flag Law.  Please join me in taking concrete action.  With Caring,Pastor Sandi

Parenthood

Hosea 11:1-11

11When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Sermon: Parenthood    by Rev. Sandi Anthony                     

Last week we talked about the opening chapter of the Book of Hosea.  Hosea the minor prophet who was commanded by God to marry a prostitute.  The symbolism is rich here. So last week our image of God was that of a husband—a husband of a prostitute.  This great drama is enacted by Hosea, who is commanded by God to marry a wayward prostitute so that he can restore her.  Symbolically the prostitute was Israel and can be, by extension, us when we leave our first love, God.  Sometimes we, like Israel, go off and sacrifice to other gods for material or short-term gain.  This week we will delve into the eleventh chapter of Hosea, which gives us another symbolic and relational image of God.  This time our image of God is not the husband of the whore, but the parent of a wayward child.  In this chapter God is the brokenhearted parent of Israel—also referred to as Ephraim (one of the lost tribes) in this passage.  And by extension, God is the brokenhearted parent of us, when we are wayward.  Know that when we go awry, we break God’s heart, who feels acutely what parents do when our own children stray into dangerous waters.

Now parenthood is messy; I know.  I had one child, for good reason—it was tough; she was not easy, though it was totally worth it, especially now that she is 25 and her frontal lobes are approaching full development.  But I’m telling you that I had a terrible time especially with the teenage years—some of you were my greatest support during those years before I was a pastor here, and you listened to me whine all the way through it.  And you were right—it got better.  Now our daughter has a nice boyfriend, a good job, and with our help, just bought her own house and she is genuinely a good person!  But let’s talk more about Parenthood—this time about the 1989 movie starring one of my favorites, Steve Martin who played Gil Buckman, the husband of Karen Buckman, who was played by Mary Steenburgen.

Their kids were a mess in that movie—and so were their nieces and nephews—the storyline, you see, encompasses the whole extended family with its black sheep, personality disorders, the whole gamut.  Gil is a perfectionist who works as a sales executive under significant work pressures.  Their oldest child, Kevin has emotional problems that Gil thinks he can remedy through coaching Kevin’s little league team.  Kevin often misses the ball and loses the game for his team, adding to his emotional angst.  He loses his retainer and frequently has emotional outbursts.  A bully steals his money; he wails and cries.  Gil and Karen’s two younger children also have deficiencies.  Their middle child, Taylor, kisses all the boys at school, and she also projectile vomits.  The youngest son, Justin, likes to “butt things with his head.”  The movie hilariously and poignantly follows the whole extended family.  One of the most interesting storylines, at least to me, is when Gil and Karen’s niece, Julie, played by Martha Plimpton, scores high on her SAT’s and her mother, played by Diane Wiest, has high hopes for her to go off to a good college, yet Julie gets sidetracked by her feral boyfriend, Todd, played by Keanu Reeves.  Julie, instead of going to college, runs off with Todd, ends up pregnant and at one point is even caught panhandling.  Yep, I really identified at one point with Julie’s mother in the movie with that brokenhearted feeling—that her teenage daughter is squandering her intellect and future for a boyfriend with no apparent ambition or future.

And so, perhaps, I glimpsed an inkling of what God must have felt when dealing with a wayward Israel in the middle of the eight century BC.  Just to recap the historical milieu, Hosea prophesied for at least 38 years during a time when Israel was suffering from a war with Assyria and in virtual anarchy.  Four Israelite kings had been assassinated within fourteen years after the death of Jeroboam II.  Remember him?  He was king when Amos was prophesying.  Jeroboam II’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite, who gained their prosperity on the backs of the poor).  Remember that Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos.  Hosea’s time was marked by Israel’s worship of the Canaanite fertility deity Baal.  There was a conflict simmering during that time in Israel over who they believe made the land fertile.  Was is Yahweh or Baal?  Moreover, Israel was struggling with if it were possible to give allegiance to more than one deity.  The prophets, of course, answered a resounding NO—including Hosea.  By attributing prosperity or fertility of any kind to Baal, the people were committing great whoredom.  God, in fact, was brokenhearted over this, in the manor of a parent who sees a daughter go off with a feral boyfriend young rather than get a good education and wait until she meets the right young man.

Now who was this Baal and how does Baal worship translate into the 21st Century?  As I mentioned, Baal was a deity worshipped by pagan cultures around the Mediterranean world at that time.  His symbol was often the bull.  People sacrificed to him for rain to water their crops and  so that women would produce children.  Sacrifices to this deity were based on “sensuality and involved ritualistic prostitution in the temples.  At times, appeasing Baal required human sacrifice, usually the firstborn of the one making the sacrifice.  The priests of Baal appealed to their god in rites of wild abandon which included loud, ecstatic cries and self-inflicted injury” (www.google.com/amp/swww.gotquestions.org/amp/who-Baal.html).  In the seventeenth century AD Christian belief, Baal begins to be seen as a high-ranking demon with legions under his command.

Today we use Baal as a metaphor for things that compete with us for right relationship with God—things like greed and selfishness, dishonesty, lack of compassion, unfaithfulness, addictions, judgmentalism, adultery and fornication, pornography and all kinds of immaturity, spiritual and otherwise.  These things can ruin our lives, of course.  And when they infect us, God grieves—because they hurt the sinner and those in relationship with him or her.  Those of us who have had children, when we see them straying into dark paths, we grieve; we are alarmed.  Sometimes we don’t know what to do.  Spend time coaching their little league games?  Try to get them into therapy?  Tough love?  Cut them off?   Sometimes all of the above, but the sleepless nights always come, nights when soliloquys like the one God utters in our passage today play over and over again in our own heads.  We crank similarly: 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim (another word for Israel) to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them…”  By verse 5, God talks about the calamities that will befall his children because they have turned away: “They shall return to the land of Egypt and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes…”

And I think of all those sleepless nights, checking for the green dot on Facebook to let me know my teenage daughter was alright and on line, even when I didn’t know where she was.  God continues, “How can I give you up, Ephraim?”

In our passage today it sounds a bit like God is expressing doubts, questioning decisions, having change of heart, and ultimately deciding not to act on the basis of legitimate anger.  Overwhelmingly, compassion wins out.  Verse nine is the heart of this soliloquy and the center of Hosea’s thought: “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  Bible commentator Gene Tucker explains, “Hosea takes human metaphors for God’s love as far as they will go and then stresses that the difference between God and human beings involves [God’s] capacity for radical, forgiving love” (Gene M. Tucker, Harper Collins Bible Commentary, James M. Mays, ed., HarperOne, 642). 

It is always God’s image that we are called to emulate.  Who in your life needs your constancy and your compassion, and radical, forgiving love even when that person may have strayed?  Even when that person disappointed you, hurt you or pushed you to your limits.  Are there relationship breakdowns and failures that haunt you in this life?  Are there steps you can take toward reconciliation, which mind you, can indeed cost you something?  Granted, you may not be met in kind, but as a Christ follower, we need to at least take the initiative. 

Let’s go back and examine another scene toward then end of the movie Parenthood.  Julie’s feral boyfriend is now her husband (and is also the father of the baby she is now carrying.  Todd gets into car racing.  Julie is panicked at a race.  Her mother, even though she does not approve of Todd or their teenage marriage, comes to be with Julie at the race.  Todd indeed crashes his car.  Julie’s mom rushes to the side of Todd’s wrecked car; Julie can’t—Julie is too overwrought.  In the crash’s aftermath, Julie’s mom tells Todd he is important and valued, because he is going to be the father of her grandchild.  Later Julie’s younger brother, who had taken a liking to Todd, admires his mom for her devotion to Julie and Todd.  She replies simply to her young son, “Julie wants Todd.  Whatever you guys want, I want to get that for you.  That’s the best I can do.”  We see this mom err on the side of compassion for both her daughter and for Todd.  Julie and Todd, while far from perfect, are children of God, after all.  Julie did not pursue the course that her mother had dreamed for her—going to a great college because of her high SAT scores and making the most of her young intellect, yet her mother came to be with her even in the trouble that ensued.  Julie’s judgement would most likely be forthcoming in life, in something like karma; her mom did not need to enact any kind of punishment or cut her off.  Without an education or viable plans for the future and a baby on the way, Julie and Todd would likely struggle and scrape—the odds weren’t in their favor.  Was Julie’s mom hurt and worried, disappointed and upset?  You bet!  It’s one thing when your children go off and make you proud in life.  It’s another to accept them as they are; stand with them in their mistakes, and love them unconditionally.

Hosea gives us two great relational images of God’s unconditional love for God’s people in this Old Testament book.  Hosea (whose name means salvation) at God’s command marries the whore Gomer, who symbolizes the people of Israel.  God so loves the people that God uses the metaphor of wedding them—even when they are errant.  Later, Hosea uses the parent metaphor to show how God feels about God’s children.  God feels hurt and worry and anger when God’s children become involved in the Baals of this life.  Because there is temptation and great danger there.  Ultimately, we learn, in fact, that the difference between God and most human beings is God’s capacity for radical, forgiving love.  What does it take to save us from ourselves?  Radical and forgiving love.  Because the alternative is a lifetime of brokenness, angst, heartburn, obsession, and ultimately isolation.

That’s what Jesus teaches us—Jesus who tightly focuses God’s nature into a human being so that we can best understand.  Jesus, who during his life and ministry told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a story more about the nature of the father rather than about the prodigal.  Like Julie in the movie and so many humans are apt to do, the son squandered his inheritance.  That inheritance can be money, other resources, or natural gifts and talents.  The brokenhearted father of the prodigal waits for karma to set in, for the consequences of squandering the inheritance, until the child is in so much pain that the child will return home, ready to make changes.  And Jesus tells us, when the prodigal is still far off, that the father is filled with compassion.  And I think of how Julie’s mother in the movie is so filled with compassion that she goes to stand beside the car wreck, even when Julie and Todd were similarly a “long way off” of where she would have them be.

Our God comes into the car wrecks of our lives and wants so much more for us.  Does God want right living?  You bet.  Does God grieve when we go off and metaphorically sacrifice to the Baals of this life.  You bet!  Is forgiveness and a fresh start still available?  Yep, 70 times 7.  Hosea’s OT book demonstrates all of these things; but the life, death, and resurrection of Christ communicates all of this even more deeply.  Jesus is how God so loved the world.  May we grasp the incredible implications of God becoming vulnerable like we are, then pouring out sacrificial love on the cross, so we might live into wholeness.  Amen.

And yet…

Hosea 1:1-11

1The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.  2When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” 6She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”

8When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. 9Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” 10Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Sermon:  And yet… When the Divine interacts with humanity, it often does so in stories and symbols.  Think about the burning bush, Ezekiel’s wheel, the forbidden fruit, the tree of temptation and the tree of life, the stake that when gazed upon, healed; the cross, where humanity and divinity intersect.  I could go on for a long time, and I’m sure you could think of profound symbols of great meaning from our Bibles alone, not to mention symbols from other religious traditions, recording other people’s perceptions of interactions with that which is Mystery and Other.  God communicates deep truths to us out of images and events that beg to be interpreted and decodified.  Interpretation, you see, requires our engagement.  God goes to great lengths to engage us in a kind of theater, mesmerizing us with story, stories we tell and reenact again and again, Sunday after Sunday ever since Pentecost—remembering, until the narratives and the images become real to us and shape our thought, lives, and communities.  We are meant to be entranced, hypnotized and psychically shaped by the power of the stories we read in our Bible.  Jesus knew this; that is why he often communicated deep truths through telling his parables.  Now these were offensive stories to some, especially the Pharisees and rulers, because they disrupted the natural course of the human mind with an unexpected twist—a twist that pointed to God’s favor of the poor, the ordinary worker, the migrant, the refugee, the mixed-blood Samaritan, and the sinner.  So, know it is not unusual for God to ask prophets to do something, even as strange as marrying a prostitute, to produce an image, a visual lesson.  This is how the Divine communicates with us. And so, with that background, we will now approach today’s passage about the prophet Hosea.  The story of Hosea is an offensive, shocking story, at least to our modern ears.  Sometimes women in particular have a tough time with this story, as the bad person here is the prostitute wife.  It’s not a good tale for a feminist—and if you read it in full, you might see why.  But I would say, stick with the story, because allegorically, it has a lot to reveal about God’s nature.  Remember that there are many virtuous tales of women in the Bible as well, and men are often bad guys in the Bible too.  I’m glad we have no children here today, because Hosea is about a prostitute—but there’s the thing, we can all be like the  prostitute Gomer, men and women alike.  Now with all of that said, I should tell you that some modern-day theologians even go as far as to say that this is the second greatest story in the Bible—next to the Jesus story of course, because if we stick with Hosea’s story,  you will see that God is communicating something profound to us through it: God does not leave us even when we leave God—that is your take-home message in a nutshell.  God is always actively at work, going to great lengths, and we find this good news simmering just below the surface in the story.  Hosea communicates to us God’s very nature, a nature always working for our redemption and restoration.  God is the ever-pursuer, even when Israel breaks its covenant, again and again.  And it is our calling as Christians to always imitate God in life—not the prostitute Gomer.  We too must be the ever-pursuers when it comes to loving and matters of justice.  Now, the covenant God made with Abraham was conditional in that God would guide and protect Israel if Israel would obey God.  That little word “if” is a clue that it was a conditional covenant.  Even though Israel did not uphold its side of the covenant, and the covenant was broken again and again, God’s love was never, ever conditional.  It was steadfast, even when the people committed, as the Book of Hosea roughly calls it, “great whoredom.”

So, let’s dive into the first chapter of Hosea with a little historical background: Hosea, who prophesied for at least 38 years, lived during a time when Israel was suffering from a war with Assyria and in virtual anarchy.  Four Israelite kings had been assassinated within fourteen years after the death of Jeroboam II.  Remember him?  He was king when Amos was prophesying—Jeroboam the Second’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite).  And by the way, Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos.  Hosea’s time was in the middle of the eighth century BC.  Both Amos and Hosea were calling out Israel for its offenses against God—oppressing the poor and worshipping other gods for material gain.  During this historical period, God commanded Hosea, a native to his own people, to take a wife of whoredom; in other words, God tells this prophet to marry a prostitute and have her children, which Hosea does, expediently and obediently; Hosea marries the local prostitute Gomer.  Now I’m not sure this was pronounced “Gomer” (as in Gober Pile) or “Go’mer,” pronounced with more of a French accent!  No doubt this great drama, this theater is to exemplify in a symbolic way that Israel has committed great whoredom by forsaking God—because Israel was worshipping other gods, Baal in particular.  They were worshipping for water and bread, wool and flax, grain and wine, all those material things.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel, you see, had delved into pagan practices, believing that there was favor and reward to be gained.  The whole Hosea drama is an analogy; Hosea (who symbolizes God), will deal with Gomer.  Gomer is a symbol for Israel, or by extension, even us.  As the book of Hosea unfolds, the prophet’s personal life becomes an embodiment of God’s redeeming love and amazing grace.  You will also see the Christ motif.

Now the symbolism I was talking about earlier runs deep.  Hosea’s Hebrew name means “salvation” or “deliverance.”  Imagine that!  Not surprising if Hosea represents God in this story; Hosea, in fact, is an early Christ figure.  Now, Gomer’s name means “completion,” in the sense that she was the complete measure of idolatry, or ripeness of consummate wickedness. Her name symbolized the complete adultery and idolatry of the very kingdom she represented. “As ‘a wife of whoredoms,’ this woman of the Northern Kingdom, regarded as an idolatress, became a symbol of her people” (All the Women of the Bible, Zondervan, 1988, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-women-bible/Gomer).  In fact, Gomer likely was one of the Temple prostitutes, hanging out near the front door of the temple.  Ironic and kind of funny, since Hosea, as a prophet, had probably been condemning such prostitutes all of his life—and then God commands him to marry a prostitute! 

Soon after they were married, Gomer begins to bear children, whose names also have prophetically symbolic meanings.  And I should tell you that the children were not Hosea’s; these children were born out of Gomer’s continuing unfaithfulness—we learn this if we keep reading through chapter 2.  Even during marriage, Gomer continued prostituting herself.  She bears three children.  The first is a boy, Jezreel, which means “God Scatters.”  The second is a girl, Lo-Ruhamah, which means “not pittied.”  And the third, another boy was named Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people.”  Our passage today tells us that Gomer was the daughter of Diblaim, whose name is also interesting.  Diblaim means “double layers of grape cake,” double layers of cake being something sensual and indulgent.  The prostitute, symbolically at least, came from a father, whose name represented sensuality and indulgence, which were prime temptations for Israel.  But as you will recall from last week, God’s wrath often ends up being something like karma—cause and effect from the lack of right living—from lack of caring for the poor and from worshipping other Gods, which in this day and age may look like worshipping the God of money at the expense of the poor or the earth—when the legacy of such will be revisited upon us with long-reaching social ills or environmental calamities.

We see God’s utter exasperation with Israel in Chapter 1.  God says things like “I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel.  You are not my people and I am not your God.  And yet…juxtaposed with that exasperation, God goes to say, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered, and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’  The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel’.’”  So, you see, Israel’s punishment it not final; there is hope for the future—a hope that Christians see actualized in the coming of Jesus.  Something else is coming—a new and final covenant.  There is another place in the Old Testament that is absolutely pivotal regarding salvation history, and that’s Jeremiah 31:31-34, which reads, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the Lord.  ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord; ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’”    These verses, like the Book of Hosea point forward to the coming of Jesus, the embodiment of God with us, God joined like a husband to the church, the bride of Christ.  Hosea tells us that God will be steadfast even with a sinful humanity, even when his wife, Israel and us by extension, have courted other lovers.

I want to provide a little sermon illustration that sums up the point of Hosea’s unconventional marriage with a prostitute.  “A couple married for 15 years began having more than usual disagreements.  They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had.  For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “fault” box.  The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations.  The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: ‘leaving the jelly top off the jar,’ ‘wet towels on the shower floor,’ ‘dirty socks not in hamper,’ on and on until the end of the month.  After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes.  The husband reflected on what he had done wrong.  Then the wife opened her box and began reading, They were all the same, the message on each slip was, ‘I love you’” (www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/marriage.html. The husband here is so much like God, who rather than harping on his wife’s faults, just wants to love her into reconciliation.  And so, how can the first chapter of Hosea be good news for us?  How is your relationship with God?  Do you see God as one continually wielding a big stick, out to get you?  Or do you see God as the ever-pursuer, even when we fall away.  

I was kind of brought up to see God wielding a big stick, someone always out to get you.  I remember an awful episode from my childhood right after my father died, when I was 12.  We had a big estate to keep up—four acres of lawn to mow.  My younger brother was out on the riding mower and my little sister had jumped onto the hitch in back of the mover and held on to my brother, bumping along for a joyride.  My mother caught a glimpse of this out the window and went into a bit of a frenzy as she ran out the door to intervene, bawling at me: “The dear Lord is going to take her next because of the way you mistreat her!” Fortunately, I was in confirmation class at the time, and our good UCC pastor was able to disabuse me of any notion of God exacting any kind of retribution for sibling rivalry and meanness by having my sister get run over by a lawnmower.   

Do you see God as the one who writes the message, over and over again on the pages of your Bible, “I love you?”  Fierce judgments are proclaimed on the pages of the prophets, to be sure, but we need to stay close to the text and keep reading.  Fierce judgments, that play out something like karma, and yet…Something else is coming:  Hope, steadfastness, demonstrations of sacrificial love…A love that woos us, calling us to respond, actively at work to buy us back.  A love calling us all the while to forsake the Baal’s of this life, to forsake all that is cheap and all the easy money at the expense of the poor and the earth and our relationships.  Because we are wedded to the Divine and often forget this—but deep signs abound everywhere, reminding us that we are joined to God.  That is what going to church and taking communion are all about—a weekly reminder that there is so much more than this material universe and all of its distractions.  This is why we are surrounded by symbols and drama and entrancing stories.  We need to be entranced and called back—regularly.  Jesus said to the church at Ephesus through John in Rev. 2:4, “You have forsaken your first love.”  What are the Baal’s in our lives?  What makes us spiritual adulterers who forsake our first love?  For some, addictions.  For some, neglecting our relationship with God and others.  Only you know what stands between you and God, you and your spouse, you and your family, you and your co-workers, you and your friends.  Know this, there is cause and effect; judgments do come when we forsake God and God’s ways…And yet, the best news is that God is always at work in all of our lives, supplying power, working for our redemption, wooing us back.  We do not have to be Gomer; God has shown us a better way.  Let us live into the image of God, revealed best in the person of Jesus, and shown also to us today in the Old Testament exemplar Hosea.  May it be so, Amen.    

    

Discussion Skills

Discussion Skills

Summer is a great time to mix things up a little bit.  Not only are we sitting around the table during a more informal and intimate type of worship (while eating some really good food), but toward the end of the hour, we have also begun discussing what the sermon brought up for you.  Such sharing increases our knowledge of not only the text but of one another.  We have different reactions to a given Bible story or sermon because we connect them with our own unique experience and understanding of the world. As we continue this practice of discussion in the coming weeks, let’s listen deeply to one another without judgment.  Here are some great discussion guidelines from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching:        

  • Respect others’ rights to hold opinions and beliefs that differ from your own. When you disagree, challenge or criticize the idea, not the person.
  • Listen carefully to what others are saying even when you disagree with what is being said. Comments that you make (asking for clarification, sharing critiques, expanding on a point, etc.) should reflect that you have paid attention to the speaker’s comments.
  • Be courteous. Don’t interrupt or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language.
  • Support your statements. Use evidence and provide a rationale for your points.
  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the discussion.  If you have much to say, try to hold back a bit; if you are hesitant to speak, look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Recognize that we are all still learning. Be willing to change your perspective, and make space for others to do the same.

These sample guidelines are helpful for all places where we engage in discussion—not just in church.  If you want more information, go to http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines where I found the above bulleted points.  I look forward to lots of stimulating discussion!

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Sandi

Something like Karma

Amos 8:1-12

8This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

Sermon: Something like Karma

“In an op-ed piece in the November 30, 2012 issue of The New York Times, entitled ‘The Monster of Monticello,’ Paul Finkelman writes about Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy on race. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson affirmed the ‘self-evident truth’ that all men are ‘created equal.’

Yet even as he wrote that, he owned 175 slaves. On top of that, while many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the Revolutionary War, Jefferson did not. He remained what Finkelman calls ‘the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.’

1820’s heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise shocked Jefferson. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to ‘perpetrate’ an ‘act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.’

Yet Finkelman concludes, ‘If there was ‘treason against the hopes of the world,’ it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all” (Doug Bratt, Old Testament Lectionary, Center for Excellence in Preaching, www.calvinseminary.edu).

I am often amazed at how we, as human beings, are able to compartmentalize so well.  Many of us proclaim words that look attractive, but deep down, we often lack real integration of word and practice or integration of symbol of substance.  Curiously, while Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence and proclaimed that all men are created equal, he continued to own slaves—and the African American people, and other previous-enslaved ethnic groups, continue to suffer from the awful legacy of slavery; the legacy lasts for generations and spawns costly social ills lasting long into the future in slavery’s aftermath.

This opening sermon illustration about Thomas Jefferson gets to the heart of Amos’ message in Chapter 8.  Chapter 8 records Amos’ fourth of five prophetic visions.  In this vision, Amos indicts Israel even as the nation’s outside, its surface looks as good as a ripe bowl of summer fruit.  Amos indicts Israel, namely for its fraudulent business practices highlighted in chapter 8, which hurt the poor and reap long-term implications for all of the society.  Amos proclaims God’s judgement upon Israel—judgements which are actually the fleshing out of those implications.  But today, we are going to look very closely at what God’s judgement means in our lives, because it may not be what you think it is.  In fact, I posit that God’s judgement during our earthly lives ends up looking something like karma, which is a concept found in eastern religions. 

You all know what karma is?  Probably so: What goes around comes around.  I’ve heard it argued that karma is not a Christian concept because for the Christian, karma is superseded by grace, and ultimately, eternally that is true.  But as we live our lives, the universal principal of cause and long-lasting effect is taught throughout our Judeo-Christian scriptures.  In life, we reap what we sow in our daily lives, and sin’s legacy can stretch far into the future.

Let’s look at what was going on in Amos’ time, specifically in chapter 8.  Amos’ fourth vision begins with what seems like a lovely basket of ripe fruit.  Now the symbolism of this fruit runs deep.  In the original Hebrew language, there is a pun.  The term for “summer fruit” is qayits, while the term for “end” is qets.  In the Norther Kingdom’s dialect, the two words would have sounded quite similar; hence the pun, they play on words.  Amos is juxtaposing a pleasant image of fruit with and ending of unspeakable disaster.  A fruit basket is an attractive image; no wonder bowls of fruit are frequently the subject of still-life paintings.  But the meaning of this image is superficial only.  While the current milieu in the North Kingdom looks good on the outside, the heart of the matter is anything but: Amos warns of upcoming disaster.  Now why did things look good on Israel’s outside?

Modern-day archaeology confirms that Jeroboam II’s reign was the most prosperous that Israel had ever known.  “By the late 8th century BC, the territory of Israel was the most densely settled in the entire Levant, with a population of about 350,000.  This prosperity was built on trade in olive oil, wine, and possibly horses, with Egypt and especially Assyria providing the markets.  According to Amos, the triumphs of the king had engendered a haughty spirit of boastful overconfidence at home.  Oppression and exploitation of the poor by the mighty, luxury in palaces of unheard-of-splendor, and a craving for amusement were some of the internal fruits of these external triumphs” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeroboam_II).  Amos rails against the materialism and selfishness of the Israelite elite of the day and says, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…”  And then he proclaims upcoming disaster.      We learned last week that Israel was worshipping God alright.  They were attending temple, giving their offerings, making their sacrifices on the Sabbath.  They were wholeheartedly singing the songs at temple like we sing them at church.  Yet something was rotten like a past-ripe banana.  Outward looks, you know, can be deceiving.  While they looked like they were worshipping at the temple, they were thinking about how to make money.  (Oh, yes, how our minds often wander in church!  What are we thinking about right now?  I remember times in my teens when my body was raging with hormones—shameful thoughts during church!)  And Amos says that the worshippers were saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain?  And when will the sabbath be over so that we may offer wheat for sale?”  See, the merchants were impatient for the holy days to pass so they could resume their fraudulent business and make themselves richer.  And how did they make themselves richer?  On the backs of the poor.  Amos writes, they “practice deceit with false balances buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the sweepings of the wheat,” which were empty hulls.  It’s like in my twenties when I used to go shopping at the Italian Market in Philly.  There were beautiful grapes there displayed, and I would ask for a pound.  The merchant would fill a paper bag in the back with un-displayed grapes, but all were rotten except one bunch on the top.  Empty hulls!  I had been swindled!  I wondered if the merchant was a church-going man, shiny as a ripe apple one the outside but rotten to the core even as he went through all the religious motions.  The biblical canon condemns such hypocrisy.   

Amos proclaims a time of what seems like God’s retribution when the people did not measure up to God’s plumb line, that measure of morality we talked about last week.  Amos warns, “The dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place…Shall not the land tremble on this account and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt…”  And God says, “On that day, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.  I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation…I will send a famine on the land…”

I hope you can connect this ancient text to the issues of today.  Huge profits continue to be made through “economic and environmental exploitation. Corporate fraud, exploitation of the poor, and ecological disruption are all consequences of the drive to maximize profit at any cost.  [And what is worst of all is that p]eople who live on the margins often suffer disproportionately from environmental abuse” (Blake Couey, Commentary on Amos 8:1-12, www.workingpreacher.org).  And all we have to do is think of the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the elevated levels of lead in that water.  Families there, families that are minorities, are suffering medical ailments all because it was cheaper to pump in water from the polluted Flint River rather than Lake Huron.  I wonder how adequately insured these families are, and if they are being treated.  Ultimately the costs of treatment and reparation come back to society anyway, and the cost—both monetary and to human life and health—becomes greater later than doing the right thing in the first place, even if the right thing costs more initially.  We all pay for our abuses in some way; there is cause and effect, and that’s something like karma.

We reap, what to Amos looked like God’s judgement, when we make a quick buck off mother earth.  Consider these current issues:  The EPA has recently rolled back Obama-era coal plant regulations which by some estimations (including the EPA’s own) will result in the deaths of an extra 300-1500 people each year by 2030, because of the increase in air pollution.  Not only that, but pollution in the environment causes mercury accumulation in the food chain—not just lung ailments.  Sure, the rollbacks improve the short-term economy for some, but look at the long-term effects.  Mercury in high concentrations is a powerful neurotoxin that can lead to lower IQ and impaired motor skills in children.  Why is our current government not consistently encouraging investment in clean technologies like wind?  If fossil-fuel burning continues as it does not, CO2 levels will rise to a level that could not return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future.  There have never been CO2 levels this high in our atmosphere since measurements began.    Wildfires rage in Alaska, where it has hit 90 degrees for the first time. There indeed are devastating, karmic consequences for systemic sin, and the prophets warn us about this. One thing I want to underscore before I finish today is that as you read Amos and other passages in the Bible, you may come away with the notion that God is punitive and that God’s justice is retributive.  I would remind you that human beings wrote the Bible—human beings with dualistic minds, and who only know justice as retributive, punitive, or getting even.  Instead, know that there is a trajectory in the Bible.  In many OT passages, God indeed looks punitive and retributive, because we often see in God what we see in ourselves, but the in the big picture, if you stay within the biblical cannon through the Gospels and through Paul, you will come to understand that God’s justice is more about restoration—about setting people back on the course God had intended for them from the beginning.  God’s primary interest is getting all of us back to the unspoiled Garden of Eden.  That’s what the Jesus story is all about—restoration.  Richard Rohr says that we “gradually let God ‘grow up.’  God does not change as much as human knowledge of God evolves” (Richard Rohr’s Meditations, Justice in the Scriptures, Sunday, July 7, 2019).  Yes, the prophets tell us that bad things happen—that Israel will experience God’s devastating judgements—when people don’t address the root of the problem—greed and oppression of the ones in the margins.  Slavery, we find, has long-lasting social implications; making a quick buck with cheap energy will poison us in the long run; disrespecting the planet will make us sick and die, and the first to suffer will be the poor, the ones on the margins, the ones God cares preferentially for, the ones who can’t afford a home in a cooler place with better drinking water.  Sometimes things look good as a bowl of ripe summer fruit on the surface, but rottenness festers just below, and that rottenness spreads and ultimately becomes costly for all of society.  It’s something like karma.

I want to end today by telling you a story of St. Roseline, whose picture in on the front of today’s bulletin.  I took this picture of her statue when we were in Gassin’s little church.  Gassin is a little beautiful village in the mountains above San Tropez, France.  Our guide told us Roseline was born in 1263 and is the special saint of that region.  A local winery that produces the area’s iconic Rose wine even bears her name.  According to local legend, Roseline would take food from her family’s larder and hide it in her basket, and then distribute it to the village’s peasants, who were poor and hungry during a time of famine.  She was caught by her father, a Marquis, the Lord of Les Arcs, who sternly disapproved of her doing that.  One day, he demanded to know what she had in her basket.  She dutifully and no doubt nervously opened her basket for him to see, and it was full of roses—not food.  Legend says that angels transformed the food into flowers to protect her from her father’s anger.  Now to become a Catholic saint, an individual must not only be full of good works but also to have miracles associated with his or her life.  This was not the only good work and miracle with which she was associated—she was known for her piety, charitable works, and other miracles, including casting out demons.  She became a nun and went on to become prioress of her abbey.  And what this legend tells me is that God is so very concerned with the poor that God will underscore this at critical junctures oppressed and cheated at the hands of the elite.  God so desperately wants all of humanity restored to the people God created us to be.  God wants hearts in us like the heart that was in St. Roseline.  God wants right living and for us to make good choices.  The future is malleable—it is not set, prophecies don’t all come true because we can make godly choices to live in love, and to treat the poor with justice—both in our individual lives and in our shaping of larger systems.  And that love and justice will return to in time, and work miracles to protect the ones caring for them.  No wonder so much of our Old Testament is written by prophets like Amos who shake up the status quo and warn what will happen if the poor are us; the generations will bear this out; and that is something like karma.  Amen.

The Priest and the Prophet

by Rev. Sandi Anthony, preached Sunday, July 14, 2019

Amos 7:7-17

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.

Minor Prophets with Major Messages

Dear CCOV Family and Friends,

I hope all of you are enjoying your summers so far, wherever you might be.  If you are still in the Valley, don’t forget that worship continues in Hayden Hall at 10 AM.  More relaxed and informal, our summer services involve eating and fellowshipping together, singing a cappella, and a more interactive teaching/preaching style.  In the coming weeks I will be preaching out of Amos and Hosea, minor Old Testament prophets who have major things to teach us about God’s justice and righteousness.  This week we will explore Amos 7:7-17, and on Sunday, July 21, Amos 8:1-12.  You will hear that the prophetic voice is imaginative and calls us out of our comfort zones by not upholding the status quo.  In fact, the prophetic voice may even conflict with the priestly or pastoral voice at times, and you learn how to measure such voices by “God’s plumb line,” which is the Divine standard of morality.  Biblical prophets are primarily forth-tellers concerned with justice in a society, not so much of the foretellers as we might think.  You will hear how Amos’ vision informs our Christian response to the crisis at the border today.  I look forward to seeing you in church!

Peace,

Pastor Sandi