Friday, 12 November 2021

Indifference to Injustice

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14 November 2021 

Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24
Romans 12.14-21
Imagine with me for a moment 
that you’ve been invited to address the next cabinet meeting in Downing Street, 
and you’ve got ten minutes to say whatever you think they need to hear. 

What would you want to say? 
Maybe you’d want to tell them what a wonderful job they’ve all been doing? 
Maybe you’d want to congratulate them on delivering BREXIT? 

Well, maybe… 

But maybe you’d want to praise the furlough scheme, 
that kept so many people out of poverty through the pandemic; 
or maybe you’d want to congratulate them on the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, 
that has pioneered a Housing First approach to tackling homelessness, 
proving that if you give people somewhere safe to sleep, 
it becomes so much easier to address the issues 
of addiction or poor mental health 
that were keeping them trapped on the streets.

Or maybe you might want to point to the climate crisis, 
mixing praise for the achievements of COP26 
with an urgency that more needs to be done 
in order to avoid suffering on a global scale.

But perhaps you might want to take a moment 
to speak about the rising level of inequality in our country, 
with the gap between the poor and the rich growing wider with each year. 

Or you might choose to highlight the recent accusations of corruption 
and remind them that public leadership is also public service, 
to be exercised in the interest of the common good and not the privileged few.

What would be on your list, I wonder?

Well, welcome to the world of the prophet Amos, 
whose little book we find buried near the tail end of the Hebrew Bible. 

In it we find his message to the ruling elite of Northern Israel, 
and despite being written some 2,700 years ago, 
I think it has much to say to us and the world we live in.

Amos had a relatively short active period as a prophet, 
just about five years, in the mid eighth century BCE. 

The situation in Israel, at that point, 
was that the united nation achieved under David and his son Solomon 
had fractured into two, 
the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. 

In a situation that sounds familiar 
to those who follow the arguments for Scottish independence, 
the Northern Kingdom was resistant to being ruled 
by an elite based in the southern capital city of Jerusalem. 

So the nation had split, 
with a northern monarchy based in the northern city of Samaria. 

The king of the North at the time of Amos was called Jeroboam II, 
and under his leadership the kingdom had prospered. 

The devolution from Jerusalem had gone well, 
they had been successful in battle, 
had enjoyed a long period of peace within their borders, 
and had experienced a revival of artistic and commercial development. 

As Harold MacMillan might have put it, 
they had never had it so good! 

Amos, meanwhile, was what the northerners might have called a ‘soft southerner’, 
from a family of shepherds and sycamore fig farmers in the town of Tekoa, 
which near Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem. 

As such, he was an outsider to the world of the prophets. 
He wasn’t the son of a prophet, he wasn’t educated as a religious leader, 
but he was burning with a sense of injustice 
and a belief that the world could be a better place.

Amos would probably have had a hard enough job getting a fair hearing 
had he just walked up the road to Jerusalem to deliver his message, 
but his calling to deliver a message of judgment 
to the ruling elite of the Northern Kingdom 
was, shall we say, a tough assignment.

But the fact that he’s not part of the ‘old boys network’ 
of ancient Israelite prophets 
isn’t something he sees as a disadvantage. 

Rather, he claims that his outsider status, his rural background, 
gives his message a special authenticity. 
Because he sees himself as representing God’s desire 
to ‘break in’ to the established patterns of society in Israel, 
to speak new words that had not been heard before.

So, with his strange southern accent, and his lowly social status, 
Amos arrived in the North to subvert expectations of what a prophet should be. 

And this was something which, from his point of view, was all to the good
- it just added ‘punch’ to his message. 

Sometimes you need a new and different voice 
to challenge the ossified assumptions of the elite.

As a prophet, Amos was building on the ministry 
of those who had gone before. 

And we meet him about a century on from the time of Elijah, 
who we were looking at last week. 

You may remember that Elijah’s big thing was challenging religious syncretism, 
the tendency to adopt a pick ‘n’ mix approach to religious belief and ideology. 

Elijah had used his prophetic ministry to call people back to the worship of God, 
and away from their worship of the Baal gods. 

His famous stand-off with the prophets of Baal 
on Mount Carmel in the Northern Kingdom, 
where they competed with each other to summon fire from heaven, 
is a staple of Sunday School stories, 
although the bloody self-mutilation of the Baal prophets 
and their eventual mass murder at Elijah’s hand 
is often rather glossed over.

But anyway, Amos takes prophecy into a different direction. 

He’s not so concerned about the purity of people’s worship, 
and is far more concerned about the effects of people’s religious belief 
on the poor and the disadvantaged.

Because whilst one segment of society in the Northern Kingdom 
had never had it so good, 
there were other swathes of northerners 
who were getting poorer by the minute. 

Income inequality is nothing new, 
and a working class shepherd-farmer from Tekoa 
had come to tell the religious and social elite of the North 
that their religious purity means nothing to God, 
if it is accompanied by corruption 
and oppression of the poor and vulnerable.

In fact, the message is harsher than that: 
the message of Amos is that unless there is a dramatic shift in society, 
unless justice rolls down across the nation 
to bring release and relief to those who suffer in poverty and subjugation, 
then the status quo will not be allowed to continue, 
and the wealthy and the powerful will be laid low 
for their indifference to the needs of others.

And here we have to consider two questions, which are interrelated. 

One is a question of judgment; 
what does it mean to say that people are ‘under God’s judgment’? 
And the other is a question of geography. 
So let’s start with that one.

In chapter 1 of the book of Amos, we hear the beginning of Amos’s message. 
He says, ‘The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem; 
the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.’

This whole South/North divide is not something we can ignore 
if we’re going to understand what’s going on here. 

The Lord roars from Zion and speaks for Jerusalem, from the south; 
and those who hear that message 
are the people of the Carmel mountains in the North, 
where Elijah had had his fiery competition with the prophets of Baal.

And Amos is the deliverer of that word:
he is a hot blast from the south, sent to scorch the north, 
to blow away their hypocrisy and collusion with injustice.

However, we also need to understand that this text, 
like all of the books in the Old Testament, 
only comes down to us because it was preserved in the south.

Within a generation of Amos’s ministry, 
the Assyrians had invaded the Northern Kingdom and laid waste to it. 
The only remnant that survived of the original twelve tribes of Israel 
was the lone tribe of Judah, in the South, with Jerusalem as its capital. 

So a text like this, which offers a reason 
why the North deserved what had come upon them, 
would have been a popular text in the south 
which, for a while at least, escaped the heat of invasion and judgment. 

But it also would have functioned as a warning to the Southern Kingdom, 
cautioning them by proxy 
that if they were as unfaithful to the Lord as Amos accused the North of being, 
they too could fall under the judgment of God.

And here we come to the second issue, 
that of what it means to speak of God’s judgment. 

Many people struggle with the image of God as a figure of judgment, 
whilst others seem to glory in it. 

For some of us, the idea that God visits violence and punishment 
on those who displease or disobey 
is contrary to our understanding of the nature of God, 
but others take comfort in the idea 
that God is the one who will right all wrongs, 
punish the wicked, and redeem the innocent. 

It’s a complex issue, and it all rather depends on your view of God, 
and of God’s agency in the world.

If you believe that God is an omnipotent being, 
imposing their will on the earth by divine diktat 
and backing it up with coercion and force, 
then yes God’s judgment is fierce and fiery. 

Certainly, there were many in the ancient world who had this view of God, 
and we meet it in numerous places in the scriptures.

But there is a counter-testimony to be heard here too, 
and it hinges on an alternative way of understanding God. 

The ancient Hebrew tradition simply used four letters to denote the name of God, 
a combination which was, to the best of our knowledge, unpronounceable. 

So when in our Bibles we meet find references to God 
as ‘The LORD’ with the word ‘LORD’ in lower capital letters, 
this is where in the Hebrew we would just meet the letters YHWH. 

Sometimes, in some translations, extra vowels are added to make it pronounceable, 
and so we get the words Yahweh and Jehovah from. 

But this is to rather lose the point. 

You may remember from our sermon a few weeks ago with Moses on the Mountain, 
that we heard God give God’s name as simply ‘I AM’. 

There is a deep truth here 
that God cannot be adequately named using human language. 
God simply is.

And so rather than thinking of God as a dictatorial character, 
seeking to impose their will on the world, 
we are invited to think of God as something utterly other to us, 
as the source of all that is good in the world, 
as the origin of the eternal qualities of love, justice, and righteousness, 
that are the essential qualities for the flourishing of all life on earth, 
whether human or otherwise.

If this is our view of God, 
then the language of judgment can be heard rather differently.

Instead of being punishment for disobedience to an arbitrary deity’s will, 
it is rather the consequences that occur 
whenever humans put themselves ahead of others, 
abusing the poor or the planet.

Just as scientists issue their prophetic warnings to humanity 
that the continued release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere 
will result in suffering on a global scale, 
so with all those who are entrusted 
with a message of prophetic judgment.

To speak of God’s judgment isn’t to say, ‘God’s gonna get you’. 
It is rather to say that those whose choices are in opposition 
to love, justice, and righteousness 
are sowing the seeds of their own destruction; 
because ultimately those essential qualities for flourishing 
will be found to be eternal.

So, when Amos proclaims God’s judgment against the Northern Kingdom 
for their oppression of the poor, 
and tells them that no amount of fine musical worship 
or fragrant offerings will save them, 
he is telling them that their behaviour is ultimately self-destructive. 

No empire that builds itself on a system of oppression will last for ever, 
because oppression is not eternal. 
Justice is eternal, righteousness is eternal, 
and those who seek to be right with God 
without enacting justice are deceiving themselves, 
and the truth is not in them.

So how do we hear Amos’s message, 
as it echoes down the millennia to us?

Northern Israel fell to the Assyrians, 
and then in due course the Southern kingdom fell to the Babylonians, 
but the message of Amos was preserved, 
warning future generations of the dangers of hypocritical religion 
and its indifference to injustice.

His message surfaces in the teaching of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, 
which we heard read earlier, 
as he paraphrased the teaching of Jesus to care for the poor, 
to live peacefully with all, and to overcome evil with good.

This is a timeless message, 
because the values of love, justice, and righteousness are themselves timeless. 
They are the essential qualities for human flourishing.

And our faith, our religious practice, at its best, 
enables us to live out these values in the world. 

This is why, as a church, we take action on issues of justice both locally and globally. 
It’s why we welcome refugees, it’s why we care about the climate crisis, 
it’s why we work with others on issues such as homelessness, 
good employment practice, inclusion, and peace-making.

This is why some of us will be going to the Quaker Meeting House this afternoon 
to talk about how Bloomsbury, and other churches across the West End, 
can begin the journey towards becoming carbon neutral by 2030. 

Because unless we do these things, our faith is meaningless, 
and our inaction on injustice stands under judgment.

Through the person of Jesus, we encounter God in humanity. 

And Jesus, like Amos, was a working class outsider 
from the region of Bethlehem in Judea. 
And like Amos, Jesus too exposed the hypocrisy of religion 
that ignored the plight of the poor and perpetuated injustice. 

So as the people of God, as the body of Christ, 
we are called to be those in our time 
who hold fast to the eternal qualities of justice and righteousness; 
who take seriously what it means for us to love our neighbour, 
who work for the flourishing of all, 
rejecting populist ideologies of oppression, exclusion, and indifference.

And today, on Remembrance Sunday, 
we especially remember that we are called to be those 
who speak out for peace, 
in opposition to those narratives of nationalism 
that can so easily lead us back into conflict with others.

Let us never seek to overcome evil with evil.

Rather, let us overcome evil with good.

This is the message of Amos, it is the example of Christ, and it is our calling.

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