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Who Is Going to Take the Lead?

Scripture: Amos 7:7-17

Yesterday, I joined Bill, Smitty, Janise, Karen, and John on a 21 mile bike excursion on the Baltimore-Annapolis trail.

It was fun. It was hot. And my legs are not praising God this morning. The rest of me is - but my legs are not happy.

Here’s the thing that we did every time we stopped to rest, have a drink of water, or just catch our breath - Smitty or Janise would ask, “Who is going to take the lead?”

Who is going to take the lead?

Who will set the pace?

Who will guide us to where we need to be?

Who will take the lead?

Now, take a breath, because this morning as I preach, I am going to invite us to let God take the lead in the midst of what has been another long and difficult week in this world, in this nation, and in our lives.

The prophet Amos let God take the lead.

When a prophet arrives on the scene, though they may be charismatic and colorful, the prophet, one who speaks and interprets God’s will, really points those who hear them back to God. Ideally, the prophet’s words are both their own and not their own. The prophet’s message is often harsh and beautiful, cunning and clear, telling individuals, peoples, even nations that their actions and ways have angered God. And God is moving swiftly to act in pursuit of justice.

While the prophet often has a message of judgment for the people and their broken ways, a prophet can also represent mercy. If we can hear the prophet’s words, we have an opportunity to re-adjust, to change, to transform, to reorient ourselves and get back behind the leader.

When the prophet Amos, a native of the southern Hebraic kingdom of Judah, arrives in the northern kingdom of Israel, his ministry then is not about himself - his brilliance or his oratory. His words ultimately point to God and what God thinks about Israel and about the political and social reality of this time and place.

What are some of those things that the people have done?

God calls out Israel and their neighboring nations for war crimes, for murder, for targeting women and children without recourse. God slams Israel for mistreating the poor and living without integrity. God convicts Israel for worshipping other gods, other idols, for making God’s sanctuary into a profane place. Israel is off track. Israel is not letting God lead them anymore.

The vision God gives Amos is that of a plumb line, a building or carpentry tool used to measure and guide how straight things are. (see sanctuary.) Are you building a wall or a house that will fall over with the gentlest of nudges? Or are you building something that will stand the test of time? The plumb line seems to represent God’s judgment, to show that the people of Israel, including the King, are no longer measuring up to the life-giving way of the Torah, of God’s instruction.

Amos proclaims bluntly to Israel, “Your land is going to be destroyed. Your high and holy places will be abandoned and ruined. I will find a new people. And this king Jeroboam, he will die by the sword he uses against his own people.”

The high priest Amaziah is one of those in Jeroboam’s presidential cabinet, and he lets the king know that Amos is up to no good. Amos is standing in the way of Jeroboam’s great and glorious reign. Amos must be dealt with. Silenced.

Every person in leadership and power has people in their corner, ready to back them up. And that can be a good thing. We all need people in our corner, to stand with us when times are tough - except when the person or force in the opposite corner is God. Do you hear me?

Ultimately, Amaziah and Amos clash. It is an example of two paths, the way of status quo and the way of God.

But Amos doesn’t need to show his credentials or prove his worth. God called him. God told him to speak. He’d rather be home tending to his herds - he’d rather be home working on his sycamore trees. But God gave him a message - and God, not Amos, is the mover and shaker in this story.

Amos chooses to let God lead rather than seek to curry the favor of King Jeroboam, some short term power who will be here one day and gone the next, nor the favor of some high priest who seems more invested in the status quo than the care of his people, nor does he seek the power of this earth, wealth, or any other idol which promises more than it can ever deliver. Amos lets God take the lead.

And the people of Israel, including ol’ King Jeroboam, will have to decide - do they follow their God, a God of Justice and Mercy, or face the consequences?

I wonder if Amos spoke a word to us today - this same vision - do you think we as a nation right now, in the face of mass shootings, racism, inequality, grief, and division, measure up to God’s plumb line? Are we off moving in some other direction? Or are we letting God lead?

Yesterday, the white gunman who shot and killed over 20 people, including children, wrote a rant that was filled with anti-immigrant hate. The gunman claimed that his country was being invaded. That same anti-immigrant message has manifested in the halls of power, in policies that are making it frightening for some of our neighbors to step outside their front doors, to seek medical treatment, to pick up their kids from school, or to get legal help for fear that they could be separated from those they love. Refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are Christian, are coming to our border out of fear of violence are being treated like prisoners in overcrowded cells, called all sorts of names, and made miserable in attempt to dissuade them from seeking refuge in a violent world. There is even a rumor that this country’s long history of welcoming those whose lives have been uprooted by dictators, war, famine, and religious persecution is coming to an end. Friends and colleagues of mine would not be able to serve God and serve our church and their community if the doors of this nation were not open to those whose lives have been shattered by violence and oppression. These actions, policies, and messages are linked. Somebody is choosing to follow that lead.

Whose lead will we follow?

If Amos came to our church this morning and called us out for being mis-aligned, far too infatuated with the way things are and what we are already doing, too afraid to be bold and clear in our faith, who would we decide to take the lead? 

A study that came out this week indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBTQ youth in our community who become homeless come from religious homes. Many of those come from Christian homes and churches who have chosen to follow a way that thinks kicking your child out to teach them a lesson is better than loving them and accepting them for who they are. Some of those youth are so distraught that they try to hurt themselves. Our choices even as a church can save lives, if we have the courage to let God lead.

If Amos came to your homes, your workplaces, the organizations where you spend your energy and work to steward with your gifts, how would they line up with God’s plumb line? Are there times when you feel drawn off track, willing to sacrifice a little bit of your integrity to make an extra buck? Or are you letting God lead even there?

Theologian La Ling Elizabeth Ngan of Baylor University reminds us that as we look at the troubling words of Amos and struggle with the grim portents and visions of what the future can be when we stray from God’s way, we also pay attention to our own place in the structures and powers of this world. For example, you can envision the prophet Amos as a poor shepherd. He was someone on the bottom of society who was called by God to go and preach to the King of Israel. But, she says, you can also see Amos as an influential businessman, trading in sheep and lumber, who was well aware of the intricate international trade markets of his region. And from that place of privilege and influence, he answered God’s call to remind the people to return to God.

The reminder is that wherever we are - we have an opportunity to respond.

We can let someone else lead - and I think we see how too often that costs us and our neighbors so much - or we can take the prophet’s words as an act of God’s compassion. And let God take the lead.

(posted 8/5/19)

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