The land of Israel was prosperous under the reign of Jeroboam II. People were proud of their splendid nation. The cities were elegant. The palaces were mighty. Resources were plentiful. The summer and winter palaces of the wealthy were adorned in ivory and decked out with the best furniture. The wealthy wore costly perfume. Wine flowed like a river and they feasted as much as they liked. When they weren’t eating, they strolled through their peaceful, well-kept vineyards. In this time of wealth and prosperity, everything seemed …perfect.
Except it wasn’t perfect. For underneath this gilded age festered oppression, injustice, poverty, slavery, and corruption. For all their possessions and power, the wealthy had forgotten what it means to be followers of God. The rich got richer while the poor got poorer. God says that the people “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). The powerful are accused of pushing aside the needy (Amos 5:11-12). It is said that on the Sabbath day of rest, when all are required to abstain from working, some get antsy for the day to end so that they can get back to their work of cheating and swindling the poor. Sometimes, the needy are simply sold into slavery. And the rulers, who should be arbitrating against such travesties, simply take their bribes and look the other way (Amos 5:11).
Israel’s prosperity creates among its people a profound sense of entitlement and apathy. As prosperity increases, so does injustice. The so-called “blessings” of the wealthy turn out to be a curse upon the nation. And the so-called “blessed” completely forget about their God and their neighbors.
It is into this crooked society that the prophet Amos steps. As we find out in today’s reading, Amos was no career prophet like Samuel, Elijah, or Isaiah. He was a shepherd and a pruner of sycamore trees. But he saw the corruption all around him and knew God was calling him to speak out against it. The book of Amos is short but powerful. Amos levels such a brutal critique against Israel that, 2700 years later, it can still offend the sensibilities of a modern reader. Amos doesn’t mince words. He sees all that is wrong with Israel, and he calls it out.
In today’s reading, God gives Amos a vision. In that vision, God is holding a plumb line. A plumb line is a little weight at the end of a string that assists in the building of perfectly straight, vertical walls. You actually walked by one on your way into worship this morning. It is a simple, ancient tool; we still use them today. The people who constructed the Tower of Pisa, for instance, evidently did not have one and apparently—God proclaims—neither did Israel. So God provides one for them. God says, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by” (Amos 7:8). God uses God’s metaphorical plumb line to see if the people of Israel are morally straight and upright. It becomes almost immediately apparent to God that the people of Israel are actually quite crooked. And so God threatens God’s wrath.
I hate talking about God’s wrath. I hate hearing sermons about it. I hate preaching sermons about it. And I think that’s because we, the church in particular, have misunderstood and misused God’s wrath for far too long.
The book of Amos teaches us that God’s wrath is always in defense of the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, and the broken. God never uses God’s wrath to make the powerful more powerful. God uses it to help the weak. The church has misunderstood God’s wrath for so long, believing it to be a tool the powerful can use to gain more power. The wealthy Catholic Church of the Middle Ages threatened God’s wrath on people in order to add more power to their already immense authority over the impoverished people of Europe. Members of the KKK believed they were bringing down God’s wrath upon disenfranchised black people. Pastors urge women to stay in abusive marriages so as not to bring down God’s wrath in a divorce. And then those same pastors stand up in pulpits and threaten God’s wrath on their congregations as a way of shifting the focus off of their own adulterous and abusive behavior. All of these people use the excuse of God’s wrath to terrorize others with their own power.
But here’s the thing—God’s wrath is not an act of terrorism. God’s wrath is an act of justice. God’s wrath is for the sake of the weak, the enslaved, and the abused, and it is against the strong, the slave owners, and the abusers. It may sound strange to say, but God’s wrath is ultimately born out of God’s love. God loves humanity so deeply that God’s wrath burns anytime any of God’s beloved children are abused, neglected, or oppressed.
Another reason I don’t like hearing about God’s wrath is that I find it too threatening. God’s wrath demands that those in power change their behavior and, quite frankly, I don’t want to change!
In today’s reading, Amos’ vision is interrupted by an encounter with the high priest Amaziah. We don’t really know much about Amaziah, except that he was the high priest of Bethel, the major center of worship in Israel. Amaziah represented the religious establishment; he was like the Pope, the Presiding Bishop, or the lead pastor. Amaziah was the top of the religious elite, and I bet he lived well.
Then, Amos, this out-of-towner from Judah wanders up to Israel and starts calling out all that is wrong with Israel. And of course Amaziah doesn’t like it! I mean, how would you like it if some kid from Albany walked into your church and started telling you how to live your life?
It’s like Amos walks right up to Amaziah, jabs a finger in his chest and says, you, Amaziah, you are the problem here! One commentator says that: “For Amos, religious piety is rendered meaningless by a lack of justice.” God says it like this: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Amos tells Amaziah that all his religious extravagance, all his sacrifices, all his incense, all his fancy words, all his sermons, all his prayers—every single act of worship he commits is rendered null and void by the fact that the wealthy abuse the poor and the priests don’t do a thing about it. Worship in the church is meaningless without justice in society.
Amos shakes up Amaziah’s comfortable life and tells him to take a good look at the messed up world around him. It’s no wonder Amaziah orders Amos to get lost. “Go back to your own country and be a prophet there!” Amaziah yells at Amos. And Amos replies, “You’ve got it all wrong, Father. I’m not a prophet at all. I’m a farmer. I’m just here to tell the truth—and the truth is, Israel is crooked; and Israel needs to straighten up!”
When I read this story, I want so badly to identify with Amos. I want to think I’m right. I want to think God is on my side. I want to think that I’m on the side of the weak, rather than the powerful. I want to think God has called me to criticize everyone else, rather than myself.
But the fact of the matter is that I’m not Amos. I’m Amaziah. We, especially in the church, don’t want to be told that we’re wrong or that we need to change or that our actions are directly harming the poor and the downtrodden. We just want to have our worship service so we can go home and eat lunch.
But here are some statistics for you. A single mother with four children, making only $9,000 a year, is still wealthier than half of the world’s population. 1% of the world’s population accounts for almost half of the world’s wealth. If you make more than $10,000 a year, you are wealthier than 70% of the world’s population. If you make more than $100,000, you are more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population. Roughly 1/10th of the world lives in extreme poverty, which is defined as making less than $1.90 per day. To put that in perspective: if you made $1.90 per day, and you worked every single day of the year with no days off for rest, you would be making less than $700 a year. Almost 700,000 people in the world live like that.
That means that every single one of us sitting in this sanctuary, globally speaking, is wealthy. Extravagantly wealthy. Now, I’m not saying that any of us are at fault for making the money we make. The fact of the matter is that we were born into a system. No single one of us is responsible for the grossly unjust global distribution of wealth. But while we have no control over the systems into which we’re born, we do have control over how we respond to them. Do we, like Amos, publicly speak out about the injustices of poverty, oppression, and abuse? Do we do everything in our power to help the poor? Or do we, like Amaziah, sit in our churches, act like everything is just fine, and get angry at the people who try to tell us the system is broken?
Look at the back of the church. Just as it did during Amos’ time, a plumb line hangs in our midst as well. The world is broken and there are people out there who desperately need our help. Are we Amos? Or are we Amaziah?
The good news for us today, friends, is that God’s wrath is nothing compared to God’s mercy. There are fountains of forgiveness overflowing for we who continue to defend systems of oppression, poverty, and abuse. But do not let that mercy make you sleepy. Just as God has shown us mercy, so God calls us to show mercy to others, most especially the weak, the poor, the abused, and the broken.
A plumb line hangs in our midst.
How will we measure up?