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Sunday, July 22, 2018

My Mother Is the Stone that Gave Birth to the World

Stones, as you know and I know, are silent; stones keep their peace. Restrained and taciturn. The Rock is ever quiet, age upon age in perpetual silence, until the time comes for her to give birth. Then she will scream; she will gasp and pant in pain. Restrained no longer, the stone screams out and gives birth to the world.

Rain, and dew, and ice – oceans spring forth from her womb. A world of light and life. And what is more, she gave birth to me and to you. Yes. In her womb we have our life, we move, we have our being. We are her offspring. Or have you forgotten?

My mother is the stone that gave birth to the world. What is born of flesh is flesh. What is born of spirit is spirit. I am flesh and spirit and stone – like my mother.

Deuteronomy 32:18, Job 38:8, 28 – 29, Isaiah 42: 14, Acts 17:26 - 28

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Amos Says, “Screw Your Sacrifices”

It was a time of peace and prosperity. It was a time of luxury, even, of affluence and delight. The statesmanship of King Jeroboam II had “made Israel great again,” had brought back the glory and opulence of the rule of Solomon. King Jeroboam II had waged aggressive military campaigns to “recover territory from the Pass of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah” (2 Kings 14:25). He’d forced Damascus and Hamath to return to their promises of allegiance to Judah and to Israel (2 Kings 14: 28). “By our own strength,” he boasted, “we captured Karnaim” (Amos 6:13).

And with the expanded borders and this peace secured through superior firepower came an economic boom. The people of Israel were buying both summer and winter houses, fine ivory houses and splendid mansions (Amos 3:15). They lived in comfortable confidence on the hills of Samaria (6:1). They slept on carved ivory beds and plush divans. They dined on stall-fattened veal, drank wine by the bowlful, oiled their skin with fine oils, and relaxed to soothing melodies played on the lyre (6: 4 – 5).

“We are rich,” they proclaimed, “and we are strong.” And they believed that this was of God. And why wouldn’t they have thought this was true? After all, “Blessings are on the head of the upright…” (Proverbs 10:6). Yes?  And “the wealth of the rich is their stronghold, while poverty is the undoing of the weak” (Proverbs 10: 15). Their wealth was a strong wall around them (Proverbs 18: 11). They remembered that “In the house of the upright there is no lack of treasure…” (Proverbs 15:6).

The people of Israel went to the city of Bethel - to the “house of God’ – to worship. They brought sacrifices and offerings each morning. They brought their tithes every third day (Amos 4:4). They made oblations and burnt offerings, they attended solemn assemblies and exuberant festivals (Amos 5: 21 – 22).  All was well in Israel, or so it seemed.

Amos came from nowhere, from obscurity – without pedigree or college degree – to challenge and condemn the houses and people of power in Israel. Amos was a migrant worker, moving between tending sheep (1:1) and cattle (7:14) in the high hill country of Tekoa where the shepherds eked out a subsistence existence on the stony slopes of the limestone hills, and tending the sycamore-fig trees of the low Jordan valley (7:14). He was not a trained prophet or a member of the brotherhood of prophets (7:14). He spoke by intuition and inspiration (and maybe those are the same thing). He saw visions of Israel and her impending doom.

It was true, of course, that King Jereboam II ruled in a time of peace and economic prosperity, just as it was true that the people of Israel made a show of their faith at the temple in Bethel. But this was all veneer. Beneath this beautiful and laudable exterior the Virgin Israel was a dead woman, a rotting corpse (Amos 5: 1 – 2).

Amos came up from Judah to Israel to make an announcement, for the prophets seldom engaged in debate or argument. They did not entreat or exhort; they announced; “Thus says the LORD” (Gowan 343). He began his announcement by listing the sins and offense of Israel’s neighbors, the war crimes of the surrounding countries. The Aramean city-state of Damascus had cruelly threshed the region of Gilead, completely suppressing it. Gaza, a Philistine city, had sold an entire population into slavery, as had Tyre, a wealthy Phoenician trade port, in spite of a covenant of brotherhood. Edom was condemned for pursuing his brother with a sword – a reference to the familial heritage between Israel and Edom going back to the book of Genesis (Genesis 25: 23, 3:1). Ammon had “disemboweled the pregnant women of Gilead” in order to expand their borders. And Moab had desecrated the grave and the bones of a king (Amos 1: 3 – 2: 3). Amos continued by condemning the southern, brother nation of Israel, Judah despising Yahweh’s law and for failing to keep his commandments (Amos 2: 4 – 5).

This rapid fire denunciation of Israel’s neighbors may have rallied the people in Bethel to excitement. “Yes. This Amos fellow really tells it like it is.” But before their schadenfreude glee could be fully realized Amos turned his gaze on Israel and launched into a most uncivil criticism.

Israel had sold the upright for silver,
                sold the poor for a pair of sandals,
                crushed the heads of the weak and powerless into the dust of the earth,
                thrust the rights of the poor aside (2: 6 -7)
                They had crammed their palaces full with violence (3:10)
                and exploited the weak and the poor (4:1)

They had despised the man teaching justice at the city gates just as they had loathed anyone speaking the truth (5:10). They’d trampled on the poor man and taxed his wheat in order to build their own storehouses and to plant their own pleasant vineyards (5:11).

Yes. They slept on carved ivory beds and plush divans, and dined on stall-fattened veal. Yes. They drank wine by the bowlful, and oiled their skin with fine oils – but for the ruin of Joseph, for the ruination of the poor and the low – they cared nothing (6:6). They were swindlers and cheats, generating their fortunes by force and by fraud, tampering with scales and exploiting loopholes in the law so that they could buy up the poor as slaves to further increase their gains (8: 5 – 6).

This is why Amos called them “fat cows of Bashan” (4:1) and Virgin corpses (5: 1 – 2): in their mistreatment of the poorest of the people they had forgotten Yahweh, God Sabaoth, the Lord of the Angel Armies.

“But,” they objected, “we bring our tithes and offerings to the temple. We make the ritual observances. We sing the hymns and recite the prayers.”

“Screw your sacrifices,” Amos answered speaking for God. “I hate, I abhor your festivals and assemblies. Your sacrifices do not please me, and spare me the execrable din of your incessant chanting. Your piety is worthless without justice” (5: 21 – 23).

“Let justice flow like water.
Let righteousness flow like a never failing stream! (5:24)
This is what I want.”

“Who can ascend to the mountain of Yahweh,” the psalmist asked. “Who shall stand in his holy place?  Only the clean of hand and the pure of heart. Only the one not set on vanities. Only the one who does not lie and deceive (Psalm 24).

“So go ahead and go to the sanctuary, to the temple in Bethel” Amos said, speaking for God. “Go ahead and go to Bethel and sin, sin all the more. Take your sacrifices, and your tithes, burn your offerings if it makes you happy. But I’ll have none of it” (Amos 4: 4 – 5).

Now this was all too much for the Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. It was uncivil. It was rude. It was treasonous. So he sent a message to King Jeroboam II: “the man Amos is conspiring against you in the heart of the House of Israel. The country cannot tolerate his speeches. He threatens you with a sword, and says that Israel will be taken away into captivity” (7: 10 -11).

And to Amos Amaziah said, “Get out of here you so-called seer. Go back to Judah where you belong. Prophesy there, if you like, but never come back to speak in Bethel. This is a sanctuary, a national temple” (7: 12 – 13).

There’s little arc in this brief narrative nestled in among the words and visions of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa. There’s no introduction and no conclusion; it’s all second act and no denouement. We do not know what happened to Amos. Did he return home to tend the sheep and pluck the figs having proclaimed his message of imminent doom? Was he arrested and put to death by the religious and political forces he’d offended in Samaria and Bethel? We do not know.

But the words and visions of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, were recorded and preserved as the earliest part of the prophetic tradition (though he himself declined that title.) Maybe he isn’t quoted as often as the prophet Isaiah. Maybe he isn’t as famous as the anti-prophet Jonah. But his indictments and challenges stand: religious ritual is not enough and displays of worship are grotesque parodies of faith without a commitment to justice and righteousness. His warning that a people held enthralled by military might and economic prosperity while exploiting and abusing the poor and powerless are despised by God should cause us to tremble – even if his announcements and threats were not addressed specifically to us. His instruction to “seek good and not evil so that you may survive” (5:14) is just as relevant to the USA in the 21st century AD as it was to Israel in the 8th century BC. 

“Hate evil, love good,
and let justice reign at the city gates” (5:15).

This is, and not our nationalistic displays of empty worship is what God wants. How we treat the poor, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the minority, and the powerless is a better signifier of our faith than our grand churches and worship services. We may claim to be a Christian nation, founded in the values of the word of God, but if we do not protect and serve the poor, it is a lie. Our wealth and power are not indicators of God’s unequivocal blessing.

“Hate evil, love good,
and let Justice reign at the city gates.”
This is what God wants.

Gowan, Donald E. “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN. Abingdon Pres. 1996.  

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Proverbial Trump

"Like a madman hurling firebrands,
arrows and death,
so is anyone who lies to a companion
and then says, 'aren't I amusing?'"
Proverbs 26: 18 - 19 (New Jerusalem Bible)

Thursday, July 5, 2018

If America Was Ever Righteous

“The United States of America was great once,” she said, “and righteous too. We’re going to make it great again.”

“Righteous,” I repeated back to her to be sure I understood.

“Oh yes. Righteous.” She grinned beneath her red MAGA cap.

“Righteous? Just like the prophet Isaiah said, right?” I pushed.

“Oh yes, brother. Amen. Just like the prophet said.”

“Well,” I said carefully. “If America was ever righteous… as Isaiah said… I’m not sure you’d want to put those bloody rags back on.”

She frowned beneath that red cap of hers. Ever hearing, never understanding. Seeing, but not perceiving. Let the wind blow it all away.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ezekiel Goes to Washington

The hairless man was mute – and both of these were by choice. But only because he had no other choice but to obey the Voice of Heaven. When the clouds break and thunder shatters the earth, the Son of Man is quick to respond.

He carried under one arm a cinder block – certainly a strange sight in the nation’s capital, strange enough that secret service agents guarding the White House noticed him long before he set it down on the sidewalk outside the gate and began to draw upon it with a stick of charcoal he carried in his pocket.

The depilated man quickly and silently sketched the D.C. skyline on the block. Then, from another pocket, he withdrew a handful of green plastic soldiers. These he arranged in a semicircle in front of the cinder block panorama. With the charcoal he wrote one the sidewalk in large, bold letters: DAY ONE and lay down on his left side next to his display.

These antics were filmed by passersby with their cell phones – at least until the secret service vultures swooped down to arrest and haul the silent man away. “Was he mentally ill,” you ask, “or prophetic?” Who can say?  And don’t even ask about the lunch he carried with him...

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jesus, Be Civil

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – closing the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven so that no one can enter!

“Jesus, be civil.”

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – travelling the globe to make converts who are twice as fit for hell as yourselves!

“Jesus! Be civil.”

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – blind guides! Blind fools!


Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! –scrupulous in your tithes, but stingy in justice and mercy, straining out gnats, but swallowing camels whole!

“Jesus, Jesus!”

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – You’re clean on the outside of the cup, but inside it’s full of the wine of corruption, the wine of extortion and intemperance.

“Jesus, be civil.”

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – You are white washed tombs and marble sepulchers, handsome on the exterior but full of death.

“Jesus, for the last time…

Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! – honoring your tradition of faith and building monuments to your founding fathers. You say, “Make the nation great again,” while murdering the prophets! You are children of those who have always killed the prophets, and you are continuing their work.

“Jesus! Jesus!”

Serpents! Brood of Vipers! How can you escape condemnation?

“Goddammit, Jesus!”

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