A Cautionary Tale

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
July 15, 2018
Scripture: Amos 7:7-15
Sermon: “A Cautionary Tale”

We stayed in a Lutheran Church in D.C. that had bunkbeds and shower facilities. We were there from Wednesday evening until Sunday just after lunch. We attended services that morning which as 3 Kings Day! Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday we in the church celebrate the coming of the wisemen, magi, kings from a foreign land. The morning was complete with a breakfast of homemade tamales, huevos, papas, and fruit. There was also a craft time for the children, and the children at heart where we made star wands, pictures, and crowns to be worn and waved during the “King’s” procession at the beginning of the service in the sanctuary.

The pastor was just beginning her sermon when to my left I saw a woman, who I knew worked at the church, backing down the aisle in front of a man with a backpack all the while saying “something” to the woman. He walked clear to the front and up the two or three steps to the pulpit where the pastor, to this point had not stopped speaking nor acknowledged him. She stopped, stepped down from the pulpit and the two women now joined by two men invited the man to sit with the choir, which he did… for about three seconds.

He stood up again and went straight to the pulpit, stepped up, pulled his backpack off his back, laid it on the pulpit, unzipped it, and reached inside, all the while the four persons from the church, gently encouraging him to move along. When he reached in the backpack, I began to get more anxious, I noticed just behind me, where there were tables set up in the sanctuary for the children, adults were already moving the children out the back door and to safety. The man pulled a bible out of his pack, held it up, and said, “I’ve got a word! I’ve got something to say!”

Sometimes when we have a word… we have to step up, stand up, and speak up! Sometimes when we have something to say… we have to step up, stand up, and speak up! There are times in our lives, in our experience, we simply cannot remain silent! I’ve Got a Word! I’ve Got something to Say!

In our story this morning… we encounter Amos… Amos has a word to say! But, Amos is not one to claim prophet easily… ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock,” He doesn’t strike me as one of those in your face street preacher prophets… you know the yelling ones who shake the bible at you and get you attention?

Amos, I would suppose, oozes humility, and I would say it is not a manufactured humility. Some, who would manipulate their audience, show a feigned humility… in order to draw you in. Amos, shares his words and then shares his humility… it’s different. Granted his words are pointed… so pointed that his detractors accuse him of “conspiring against the king!” But, Amos has something to say!

Have you ever had a word? Have you ever had something to say? That you thought just needed to be said? Right now? Did You? Or did you pause? I don’t know about you, but I am a pauser. Some say it is an internal processor. You know that difference in personality: one who processes information by talking, the other processing information by pondering, wondering. Or perhaps different language… when that word comes… that… something to say comes… before just blurting it out… think twice. I like the philosophy, though there is no clear citation as to who first uttered it that I can find… but… when one thinks twice, or pauses, or ponders…

When we have a word. When we have something to say. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Will it improve upon the silence? Those questions are not always easily answered, but certainly worthy of being asked of oneself. What a world we would live in…

What a country we would live in… what a state we would live in… what a city we would live in… what a church we would be a part of… if we all practiced asking ourselves those four things before we uttered a word. Amos in the bible story wanted to speak his mind. I hear often of those who have the public ear, “That is what I like about them… they speak their mind!”
My struggle with that is, is speaking one’s mind always a good thing? Really?

I don’t know about you, but there are a good number of times when I have thoughts that are just better left as words in my mind than words to cross my lips. Just because something is on one’s mind… is not a good reason to say it. Amos had a word, had something to say, just before his plumb-line vision.

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Amos had a word… in a land where justice was at risk if not gone, the poor were afflicted. Caught in a system of oppression from which there is little hope of escape, the poor and oppressed were sold into slavery. Amos had a word!

…the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And 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; the 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.’

Accusatory? Testifying? Witnessing? Fear?

These words from Amos come in the midst of a long series in the book attributed to him in the Hebrew Scriptures… a litany of “Thus says the Lord” and “This is what the Lord has shown me!”

Amos has something to say! God is setting a plumb-line to show the nation what is right and good and fair. You should be the plumb-line… I hear in Amos voice… but you have failed.

And unfortunately, too often, today I see the plumb-line of God… or at least should be… distorted and colluding its power and privilege with the powerful and privileged at the expense of the poor and oppressed, the excluded and discriminated against, the attacked and hated…

Sometimes speaking one’s mind is an appropriate way to speak truth to be kind is necessary… and improves upon the silence… or what is already being said. Sometimes speaking one’s mind is inappropriate, untrue, unkind, unnecessary, and only impoverishes and assaults the silences. It is difficult work to know when to speak… It is difficult work to know when to keep silent… There is good in silence just like there is bad…

I remember my preaching professor Dr. Eugene Lowry speaking of the value of a good pregnant pause… silence can be your friend. Wait, they told us in training for leading small groups… silence is your friend. We have created a culture and society where we are unsure what to do with silence… It makes us uncomfortable… and comfortable… At the same time.

“Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation” – says the Sufi Poet Rumi… Elijah on the mountaintop heard the voice of God in “the sound of sheer silence.” “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt.” ~ Maurice Switzer. “And then there are times… After the pause… After the ponder… After the thinking twice… You have to say it… When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something!” ~ John Lewis

The Prophet’s words, Amos Words, for we in the Christian tradition… Jesus words make things happen. They heal, they silence, they challenge, they comfort, they disturb., they cause consternation and conflict. They create holy chaos!….

In our tradition, if we come to church expecting the good news to always bring peace, comfort, serenity, and tranquility…. We are seeking the wrong prophet… the wrong Jesus! It has been said the ministry of the faith, the task of the preacher, the place of the church is to “Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable.”

I believe the church has lost its voice because I believe we have stopped listening for the voice of the spirit and are instead listening to the voice of fear and scarcity. The church has given up its voice of conscience and justice and has been seduced by power and status in the world. Refusing to be critiqued and critical of power. The church, has silenced itself and has become comfortable rather than prophetic! The church has become an instigator of division and separateness, a promoter of us vs them, and an agent of who are the chosen and who are on the outside.

Silence…. and words…. bring about both of these. It is difficult work to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way and to know the time to speak, and a time to keep silent. But too often silence is complicated with the oppressor rather than in instrument of justice.

It is difficult work to listen to a word, to someone with something to say and know whether it is true, kind, necessary, and improving on the silence. It lives in a constant state of discernment.
But it is important work… crucial work to the mission and ministry of the church… of this church if we are to participate in the kindom, the beloved community, around us… in our neighborhood… in our country and world.

The man who stood in the pulpit with the bible raised and “A Word” “Something to Say” … I was never clear exactly what he said… I think it had something time to do with biblical inerrancy and perhaps their welcoming stance or the female pastor. As three of the church members gently guided him out of the pulpit, down the steps, and then back down the aisle, and out the door he had entered. As he was leaving the pastor stepped back in the pulpit and addressed the man as he was leaving,

“Yes, but here at Luther Place we take the scriptures seriously, not literally.” I was most impressed and moved at how non-anxious, gentle, and intentional they were about caring for him, keeping the children safe, and helping him out of the building. It is difficult work… this work of Jesus to which we are called… to help silence that which is not true, kind, necessary, and improving on the silence…. and to speak the “Word” or “Something to Say” when it needs to be said.

It is about balance… But when it is the words of Jesus… when it is the silence of God… when it is true, kind, necessary, improving on the silence… It will be heard with authority… Oh, yes, there will be those who may say, “You are conspiring against the king” Conspiring against the Empire. Conspiring against the president. You should support what they are doing, they know what they are doing, you don’t have all the details.

There will be pushback when you speak. “Thus says the lord.” Consequences maybe dire consequences… You’ll hear the push back in the silence or the words of the Spirit… Not unlike Amos days… today, this very moment… justice in our land is at risk, the poor are afflicted, caught in a system of oppression from which there is little hope of escape, a slavery of sorts… caught up and snatched up and placed in cages and separated from their families…. Today in this very moment.

The world, the nation, needs to hear again these words from Amos, “I have set a plumb-line in your midst…” Rabbi Dennis S. Ross in his book All Politics Is Religious talks of “Preaching to the Choir” not in a negative sense, but in a positive sense. “…we have to preach to the choir because the choir isn’t being heard! This choir has to stand up and get really, really loud. The choir has to Sing!”1

There are those who may say I am just preaching to the choir. It is true… I am. But do you know why I am preaching to the choir? Because these truths, these visions this dream needs to be shared. I preach to the choir to encourage all of us to be the prophetic voice of Justice, Kindness, and Humility. It is not just my job, it is the church’s calling, mission, vision, and dream we should all be speaking this truth to power and this truth to the world who needs to know we are still here. The ones with vision, the dreamers who believe the beloved community is still possible! I ’m Preaching to the Choir… Because we need to sing! Amen?

And fear not the word also says I believe we will also see righteousness and justice happening for those who have not forgotten the Way of Justice and Compassion will rise up and will resist the corrupting of the Way. Good, Right, Just, Compassionate things will… are… happening.

When we find the courage and calling to speak. Never Give Up! Think on these things. Be. Then act.

May it be so! May it be soon!

1Ross, R.D. (2012). All Politics is Religious, Speaking Faith to Media, Policy Makers, and Community. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths.