Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, "When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balance that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?" The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: "Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and every one mourn who dwells in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?" (RSV)
(What follows is a monologue in which the prophet Amos shares his personal story as well as his agony and his in being called to proclaim a message to the people of Israel. The proclaimer may wish to wear some type of garb to distinguish himself/herself from the person known to the audience as the "regular" preacher, and may find it meaningful to walk around in front of the congregation as the message is delivered.)
FINDING HOPE IN DESPAIR
My name is Amos and I'm looking forward to sharing with you what I learned some years ago when I had a remarkable experience as a prophet. Many people have asked me what impact this period in my life had on me and others, and I'm eager to share my perspective on it. I have a feeling that you may profit from what I have to say in ways you might not expect.
In those days, I was a nurseryman from Tekoa, a small village south of Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah when Uzziah was King. It was the 8th Century BC My life was a quiet and simple one for many years as I tended the fig trees for which I was responsible. I enjoyed my life and I took pride in my work, caring for the juicy figs that were so popular in my area.
But one day, as I was resting against a tree in my orchard, I felt that God was calling me to do something greater, even rather outrageous. I believed that he was asking me to go to the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel where Jereboam II was king. It was not entirely clear to me what it was I was expected to do there, but I sensed some urgency about this and I trusted that God would reveal what I was to do.
You can imagine that the whole thing sounded a bit crazy to me at first, especially when I told others what I felt called to do. "You, Amos," they said? "What do you know about the politics and religious life of the Northern Kingdom? You don't even know much about those things right here in the Southern Kingdom." "Don't be deceived, man," some told me. "This is delusion. You'll not only get yourself in trouble up there, but you may end up losing your life."
I thought about what everyone said a great deal, but finally I knew I had to go. I packed up and headed for Bethel. It took me about a week, and I didn't tell too many people along the way what I was doing because I felt they might not understand. Coming from a small village, I was surprised when I got there. The city was substantial with many buildings constructed of stone. The temple was not as grand as the one in Jerusalem, but it was appropriate for a capital city. People in the streets were dressed well, and there was a lot of activity. You could tell that people were fairly well off. There was plenty of food and water, not to mention wine and fruit. Meat was sold in the market, along with vegetables and breads.
As I visited with people in a friendly way, I got some invitations to join them for lunch in their homes. Some of them were quite extravagant. They had well-made furniture, they set their tables lavishly and they had servants to wait on them. There did seem to be something wrong about the whole setting, however. People were pretty self-centered. Their main interest seemed to be in improving their status among their business and social acquaintances. When they talked about others, it was usually in a condescending way, in order to help you appreciate how much better off than others they were.
Their religious life was rather superficial. They went to the temple on special occasions to make sacrifices or to pray, but otherwise this didn't seem to have much impact on their lives. When you learned about the ethics of their business practices or the way they treated people, you really wondered what their religion meant to them.
At that time, I began to have clearer feelings about why God had wanted me to come there. I can't explain exactly why I felt this way, but one day I felt compelled to go up to the temple and express publicly my concerns about some of the practices that I had observed. As I begin to speak, it was as if somebody else was speaking through me because the words just flowed, and they took on power as I spoke. I told them that
You build mansions, but those not being enough, you build vacation homes;
You adorn your furniture with ivory and precious metals;
You recline on couches, and tell the servants, "bring me a drink;"
You love to eat leg of lamb and prime cuts of beef;
You plant lush vineyards and relish the grapes and the wine they produce;
You brag how much you give for temple offerings;
You use the only finest of cosmetics and swill wine in huge goblets!
You know how it is when hard words hit you? When the Law gets preached to you?
Sometimes it just makes you angry and you want to walk out. But these words seemed to hit a note, to pluck a chord they recognized. A crowd started to gather, and they were listening. And then, suddenly, as if from beyond me, these words started to overwhelm both the people and me:
But you don't care about the poor;
And you deny justice to the oppressed;
You can't wait for the Sabbath to end so you can sell the floor sweepings with the
You skimp on what you give for the price and you use dishonest scales;
When people are at their last penny, you send them away as if they were nobodies!
Finally, the priest of the temple, Amaziah, himself, came out and told me to stop. "Get out of here," he said. "Don't use any of your professional preacher tactics around here, because these are good people, and you've gone too far."
I told Amaziah, "I'm not a professional preacher at all. I'm a nobody that God chose to use. You tell me to stop preaching? This is what I tell you: "Your wife will become a prostitute, and yours sons and daughters will die by the sword. Your country will be chopped up and you will die in a pagan land!"
I thought to myself, "Amos, you've lost it!" I was sure they were going to kill me. But gradually a sense of peace overcame me and I realized that I was about to say what I had come to say. And so I said it, with a voice that no longer trembled:
God hates your religious feasts; he can't stand your solemn assemblies;
Away with all your singing and praying.
Let justice roll on like a river; and righteousness like a never failing stream!
I could see that some eyes were bloodshot and some people had clenched their fists. Yet I came to understand that there is a judgement that speaks louder than words. It is one thing to criticize someone. It is one thing to concern yourself with certain immoralities and improprieties. It is quite another thing, however, to discover that you are dealing with something that is at God's very heart. And that seems to be a passionate concern for those who cannot speak for themselves. I came to learn in my preaching that God loves all people, but when he sees you turning on those whom he loves but cannot defend themselves, he gets very angry. And this anger, I learned, comes from his heart of love. And this love speaks so powerfully that the people that day had to hear it-just as you do.
From that point on, the words flowed less painfully. There was joy in what I felt compelled to say. I knew there were serious times ahead. In looking back, I didn't understand everything that would be involved, captivity by a pagan nation, enslavement for years on foreign soil. However, that God loved this people, wanted them as his own, was sure. Sometimes he would shake them, even in the presence of other nations. But his intent was to restore them, to build them with his love as they used to be-as they ought to be. And as I shared these words, I wept inside and out. It was overpowering to me to understand that no matter how much we fail God, he will never fail and desert us.
Now these many years later, back among my sycamore trees, I remember how God used me in this remarkable way. And the lessons he inspired me to preach are with me to this day. I wonder if I can share them with you, and if you can also learn to appreciate them with me.
First, I learned that God has a long and surprising history of using average people to share his will with others. I am just a tree-pruner, but I was given a chance to tell people what God wants more than anything else in their lives. He wants to use you in some surprising way as well.
Second, I learned that God loves everyone, and is very concerned that you share that love with others. If there are people in your community of belief who are being shunned or disregarded, or if there are outsiders who need an advocate, no matter their shortcomings or sins, you are called to care for them just as surely as God cares for you.
Thirdly, I learned that unlike us, God does not categorize sin. Sin is sin. It's a willful desire to set aside God's own loving ways in order to achieve something that is in our own best interest. God challenges it and prepares us to hear his even more important message. Also, God does not compartmentalize love. Love is an extravagant kindness that seeks to embrace everyone and anyone, the rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy; the strong, the weak; the native, the foreigner; the gay, the straight; the brilliant, the simple. All are God's children.
When we divide up these children, make some acceptable and some not, we are compartmentalizing God's love, and justice cannot flow like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I'm Amos, and my name in Hebrew mans "burden." My burden has been to help people find God's hope in the midst of their personal despair. And it is your burden as well. In the midst of all that we do to restrict God's love to the people around us, God's love affirms even us, challenging us to change and to bring hope where none now exists.
There is someone today who is waiting for you to pass on that affirmation.