The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio recording.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
In the words of the prophet Amos, the end has come for the people of Israel. “The songs of the temple shall become wailings; the dead bodies will be many, cast out from every place.” If those words aren’t challenging enough, Amos goes on to say that there will be a famine in the land—not a famine of bread or water—but a famine on hearing the words of the Lord. Amos is saying that the people of Israel will be utterly cut off from God—hard words, tough words, plain spoken words. No one would characterize Amos as being known for nuance. He had a tough message to deliver—unlike the angels who get to say things like “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.”
The prophets often were called to speak truth to power. Frederick Buechner has described prophets as spokespersons for God, not fortunetellers. That it was their vocation to do nothing less than to have the audacity to stand up and speak on behalf of the Lord God, creator of the universe. Buechner also quips that there is no evidence to suggest that any prophet invited home for supper was ever invited twice. Hard words and I think we have a human tendency to read a passage like that or hear it and render it a rant and then move on, looking for more comfortable words. And Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, has said that a preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Well, it’s sort of an affliction kind of day, but never ever without hope.
What I’d like to explore with you this morning is: What was Amos trying to say—what was he trying to say to the people in his time; what’s he saying to us today, now? The book of Amos is an anthology of oracles and contains within it is Amos’s critique of the practices of the powerful in the north and their oppression of the poor and the needy and those on the margins. We heard in the Scripture this morning that he talks about some of the socio-economic injustices, false weights and measures. The whole book characterizes the avarice and exploitation of those least set up to defend themselves, those on the margins. And he calls the people to account, to repent. Amos was one of the first prophets to be lifted up as putting a bright light of national conscience on a nation. And I think that it doesn’t take much imagination for any of us to put a bright light on some of the social injustices in our day, in our time. And the power and the poignancy of Amos’s words beg the questions for us: What is our culpability and what is our capability? In what ways are we complicit in some of the social injustices in our time and what’s our capacity? What is our will to help change those things, to help bring about the kingdom of God in our time?
We can look around the world and see questionable labor practices, questionable lending practices, Ponzi schemes, those who make scam phone calls to prey on the elderly. I can’t imagine that any of that is pleasing in God’s sight. Perhaps bringing it a little closer to home, I, like anyone, enjoys a bargain. But how often do we step back and think about the labor practices that were employed for the manufacture of the clothes we wear or the harvesting of the food that we eat? And lest we think that these are just Old Testament, Hebrew Scripture rantings and ravings, remember what Jesus said about the poor and the needy. Jesus spoke five times more about economic and money issues than he did about prayer, harkening back to Deuteronomy and particularly the fifteenth chapter where we are commanded to do something about the poor and the needy. The eleventh verse talks about there will always be poor among us and we are commanded—not asked, commanded—to offer open hands to the poor and the needy in our midst.
Well, how do we know what is ours to do? How do we know what we are called to do? How do we know that we are living in God’s will? I think that one of the most alive and powerful ways that God continues to speak to us is through Holy Scripture. That was one of the most damning things that Amos said in that prophecy that the people would no longer hear the word of the Lord. Holy Scripture, the Bible, is a living word intended for us to wrestle with the hard things, to learn and to grow and to deepen our faith, our understanding, our purpose, our call. In speaking about the Bible, theologian Brian Blount says, “Nothing that is living is ever last. A living word is always a beginning word.”
Beginning in September, this Cathedral community is going to invite all of you to join together in a rigorous Bible study. Some of you may be familiar with it; it’s been around for twenty-five years. It’s Disciple Bible Study. And it’s designed not just to inform but to transform, to help us be better disciples, followers of Christ in life, in mission. And many of you have told me, “You know, I’ve always wanted to read the Bible cover to cover, but I’ve never quite managed to get that done.” Well, you have an opportunity. One of the courses of Disciples Bible Study is designed to, in the fall, take you through Hebrew Scriptures and in the spring, to go through the New Testament—in small groups of about twelve, having an introductory videotape of a biblical scholar lending expertise on the passage with which you are about to wrestle, and study manuals. And then together, as community, to listen for what God is saying to you, to us, to all of us as community. For those of you who can’t commit a year for various reasons, there are other courses that are going to be offered; six-to-eight-week courses where you can delve more deeply into some of the books of the Bible, the formative books of the Bible, such as Genesis, Psalms, Romans.
Have you ever asked the question: What’s God’s purpose in my life? Whom is God calling me to be? How do I know if I’m living into the will of God, using the gifts God has given me? Lift up the word; listen for the living word of God in your life. If you would like to explore some of those questions there’s information about Disciple Bible Study at the congregation table. Look for the purple banners in the back. Knowing that some of you are visiting and some of you follow us online, look for Bible studies in your own places of worship and communities. What I can tell you is that your life will changed; be prepared to be transformed. The living word will do that.
Some of you may have seen recently the story about the couple from Union, Iowa—population 394—who recently received an award at the White House. They were the 5,000th Point of Light. They had traveled to Tanzania on a mission trip. They were there to help rebuild an HIV/AIDS hospital. And in the process, the living word of the Lord caused their heart to tear. And it didn’t just cause them to experience the starvation, and the need, and the poor in Tanzania. It sent them home with a challenge to make a difference. They started a nonprofit called Outreach, Inc. And in the years since its inception they have sent more than 233 million meals to starving children in fifteen countries including the United States—food, safe water, medicine, education—helping to bring about the kingdom of God in our time.
Be prayerful about entering this time of biblical study, in reading, in meditating, and acting on the word of the Lord. What have you got to lose? Maybe a little bit of time but in the process you might just gain a fulfillment, a meaning in your life that is transformative; and, I think along the way, maybe transforming the lives of others. And I suspect that even Amos would join the angels and the heavenly hosts in rejoicing. Amen.