Sunday, January 2, 2022

Promises of Hope: Thinking Theologically at Grace & Glory

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my goals as your pastor has been to help each of you grow in your ability to think theologically. It’s something I do. It’s something each of you do. It’s a way of being where you make decisions about stuff in your lives that draws on your beliefs. Beliefs that are often so deeply embedded within us that we are not even aware of them. That are almost second nature for us.

Today, we’re going to do something a little bit different. There’s an issue we’ve been talking about on council - related to the pond on our property. As you may or may not know, earlier this year, we leased a couple of acres of the property we own east of here to three newly-emigrated refugee families, who are operating under the name of Kachin Farm. They are mentored by Green Earth Gardens, which is an arm of Catholic Charities. The lease gives them use of this small parcel of land for vegetable farming, in exchange for providing 10% of their production to our food pantry. It’s a win-win situation. We help new immigrants build a better life for themselves. And our pantry members get fresh produce.

One of the questions Kachin Farms has been asking is whether the pond can sustain an irrigation system. As you can imagine, this would increase and stabilize the production of their gardens. They’ve consulted with the USDA, who have determined that our pond has “lost it’s integrity.” Meaning there’s a crack in the clay bottom of the pond that is allowing water to drain out. Reducing the amount of water in the pond. The proposal is that the pond be dredged out and that the clay bottom be replaced. With this improvement, the USDA folks think then that it could sustain irrigation.

There’s concern on our council about whether this will work. If it does, great. But, if it doesn’t, what might the long-term effect be. There’s also some question around whether the pond really can sustain an irrigation system. There are a few more concerns, but these two are primary.

So, to help us think theologically about this issue, today we’re going to dig into our text from Amos. And hopefully hear how it might speak to us in a way that helps us think theologically and, perhaps even, to reframe the conversation a bit.

We begin in Amos, chapter 1. 

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

And he said:

The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
    and the top of Carmel dries up.

What do we know about Amos? Well, from these two short verses we know that he is from Tekoa - a small down just outside of Jerusalem. In other words, he’s from the southern kingdom of Judah. These verses also give us a time frame - probably around 750 BCE. We also know that he is a sheep breeder. The NRSV translation calls him a shepherd, but, a better translation of the Hebrew is that of sheep breeder. He’s a man of means - probably pretty middle class. Invested in the economic system. And, yet, as we will soon hear, also preaching against it. And the people he’s preaching to? Those in the north. So he’s a southern prophet preaching to the northern tribes. 

Verse 2 gives us a little prologue of what we are about to hear. God is angry. Roaring like a lion out of Jerusalem. God is not to be found - as God was last week - in the silence. The effect of this is that the pastures and the summit of Mt. Carmel in the north have dried up. This area was known as a rich agricultural area, full of vineyards. Like our present-day Napa Valley. It’s now dried up, an effect of God’s anger. Amos is giving us a prelude of what is to come - like the older brother warning us when we get home from school that Mom is mad. But why is God mad?

Let’s read on in chapter 5. 

Seek good and not evil,
    that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
    just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

The opening verses of this passage seem straightforward. Do good and not evil. But is this really what Amos is saying. To just be a “good” person. If we go back just a few verses, we read that, perhaps, it’s not that simple. In these previous verses, it appears that there’s a perversion of justice. That people are controlling the food supply in a way that’s making them rich. And impoverishing others. It takes us back to the manna story, where even though there was enough for everyone there were those who hoarded. It’s contrary to the economy of God that is laid out in Deuteronomy. Where there is to be economic distribution so that both the rich and the poor are both living well enough. It may be that some have more than others, but everybody has enough. And no one has ridiculous amounts. But, the problem is that the people with access are hoarding it. And God does not like this.

So, in verse 14, when we read the directive to seek good, it’s not about being nice to other people, but it’s about ensuring economic justice for everyone. This is why God is angry. Because doing economic justice is important to God. It’s where God’s heart is. And where God wants our heart to be, too. Amos is talking to people here - like you and I - who think they’re doing the right thing, but who just quite get it. The message here is that if we don’t get it then the day of God’s return - the day of the Lord - will not be a good day. This is a sharp, painful message. For the people of Amos’ time. For us, too.

We conclude our reading.

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

It might sound as though God hates our worship. Our festival services. Our sacraments. Our rituals. I wonder though if what God hates is hollow worship. Worship that is disconnected from doing justice. Because, when there is justice, there will be water overflowing and the land will produce. And the whole community will prosper. It’s a great system. Built by God. Where generosity begets generosity. And abundance creates even more abundance. For everyone. 

So, what might this mean for us and the pond and our farmers? Clearly, we are called to properly steward this land that we hold in trust from God. Yet, what we hear Amos telling us - what we hear God telling us - is that we should always side on that of economic justice. Ensuring that everyone has enough to thrive. How might this understanding inform our decision?

You and I have been freed by God in grace - freed from the burden of our sin through the power  of Christ on the cross. Freed to love our neighbor. Freed to ensure that every one of our neighbors is thriving. As we worship today, know that this call of the prophet Amos is not a call to stop worshiping, but a call to do worship and to do justice. And, especially, to do justice abundantly. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Preached November 14, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect
Pentecost 25
Readings: Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24; John 7:37-38

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