Lectionary: Proper 11C / Ordinary 16C / Pentecost +9

by Matthew B. Harper

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52 or 82
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Amos is one of the most relevant books of the Minor Prophets, and one of the least known. Sequestered at the tail end of our Old Testament, these books sit seldom used. Called “minor” only because they pale in length compared to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (doesn’t everything). These are not minor words from God. Some of our great treasures, like words to “do justice and love mercy,” or the timeless tale of Jonah and the fish, come from these books. It is from Amos that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King quoted when he cried for “justice to roll on like a river.”

Amos was a prophet writing at a time when things were good. That feels precious and rare. Too often God’s prophets are speaking in the midst of pain and turmoil. Amos speaks in an exceptionally peaceful and prosperous time in Israel’s history, so we can imagine these words will joyously pat us on our backs.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Israel is doing well, but in their affluence they have become self-indulgent and proud. Instead of remaining faithful to God and continually giving thanks for the joy and peace they have, they seem to have forgotten God. They no longer take the time to praise and worship, to give thanks, and to remember the source of all the blessings they are receiving. They have forgotten their God and ignored their ministry.

Sound like anybody you know?

Luke’s gospel develops the same theme with the story of Mary and Martha. One works hard to be a hospitable host, while the other one simply sits at the feet of Christ. Which is the better of the two? And if it is better to simply worship, then how are the dishes going to get done?

Israel is being chastised by Amos, and warned, that this time of prosperity will be taken away. God has remained faithful, but the people of God have left their first love. They have gotten rich, and now love their money more than God. Instead of prosperity becoming a source of fruitfulness, it has only left them like an overly ripe grape on the vine, ready to be plucked.

The human history of our relationship with God is always one of neglect and forgetfulness, not from God but from us. When times are tough we know how to cry out and be comforted; we know how to make promises and receive covenants. But once things turn around, once we prosper… not so much. It is then that we fail, forget, and lose faith.

Looking at the world today I see this pattern continuing. The most prosperous countries are the first to forget God. The richest people in our society seem the most absent from our churches. It is those who are still struggling, who know they can’t make it another day without grace, who keep the faith.

For prisoners this cycle plays out every time the front gate opens. I have found that in the revolving door of crime one of the greatest predictors of success is simply if the released prisoner finds a church.

The most devout prisoner, once released, will face untold challenges. Perhaps the greatest of these is simply their own prosperity. Once things are going well, they forget how deeply they need God. Without that knowledge grounding them, it isn’t long before far too many find their way back inside.

In America we are enduring a particularly ugly election cycle. As I listen to the rhetoric I hear people fighting about the rich, and only asking how they can get a bigger piece of the pie. How sharp the words of Amos should resonate, reminding us to care for one another, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and, yes, minister to the prisoner.

Perhaps if we could remember that then we could begin to heal our country; and address the issues of poverty, racial inequality, and economic disparity.

Because ultimately it isn’t about being Mary OR Martha. Somehow we must be both. The cares of the world must be attended to. Someone has to wash the dishes. But we must do so with an attitude and awareness of God’s loving and transforming Grace. As Paul tells the Colossians, we must be “established and firm” in our faith. This is about thanksgiving for God’s commitment to us, and it is about honoring our commitment to God.

That should transform how we live, how we talk, and even how we vote. It should dictate what we fight for, and what we march to demonstrate.

May you see untold prosperity in your life, and in the midst of it may you always keep the faith.

Amen

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