August 26, 2015
This sermon was preached during the Feast of Beginnings held Aug. 26, 2015, in Perkins Chapel. Download the Order of Worship.
In case you haven’t noticed, we like to celebrate the beginnings of things around here. Last Thursday, on Orientation Day, we celebrated the new students who began their formal theological education at Perkins. On Sunday afternoon, a University Convocation began the academic year for undergraduates with a procession through Dallas Hall and around the official seal of Southern Methodist University, which includes the words of Jesus: “The Truth Will Set You Free.” This afternoon, University faculty will mark the beginning of the academic year with a ceremony for presenting regalia to our newly tenured professors, whose permanent academic careers are now securely in place so they can pursue the truth that will set us free.
We like beginnings so much around here that even when we end things we tend to call them beginnings. I guess it is in our DNA as believers and as academics. We have a ritual in the university for celebrating the end of the academic year and the culmination of the students’ pursuits of their degrees. But we call the ceremony “Commencement,” as if it were a beginning. We have a ritual in the church for renouncing all forms of evil and ending all forms of injustice, followed by the pouring or sprinkling or splashing of water. We call it baptism and use it to celebrate the end of our bondage to sin and death. But we consider it the beginning of a new life and we use metaphors like being “born again” to describe it. We celebrate the new life that begins when one enters into all of the promises of God’s grace.
In endings we find beginnings. In death, we even find resurrection.
And sometimes, in the places of greatest despair, we find the means to get things started.
Consider, for example, the book of Amos. If there is a work in the scriptures with a consistently harsher tone, with a relentlessly grimmer message, I cannot think of one. If a believer reads Amos from beginning to end, no matter how sturdy or how sanctified that believer might be, the reader will close the book feeling rather depressed. There are verses that lower the boom of judgment on just about everyone.
Oh, there is a rather rosy resolution in the final five verses of the final chapter of Amos, which may have been added by an editor to modify the mortifications of the text. But, for most of its nine chapters, this is a book that offers unhappy endings to just about everybody. Amos offers condemnations that can point a finger at every politician, every priest, every professor, and every practitioner of the faith. If you keep a Bible on your bedside table for a devotional reading before you turn off the light at night, keep your marker on the twenty-third Psalm or the fourth chapter of Philippians. Save Amos until you have had a strong cup of coffee in the morning.
But it is worth taking another look at the several verses Professor Levison read for us from the seventh chapter. We should not be confused by their placement. The words could appear almost any where in the book, because they have no significant connection to what precedes them or what follows.1
Chapters seven and eight contain a series of visions, reported in the first person. But the verses we heard this morning from chapter seven are in the third person.2
Not only that, but their content differs.
These verses are not in the form of a vision that provokes a proclamation. These verses are in the form of two dialogues. The first is between Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, and Jeroboam II, King of Israel. The second is between Amaziah and Amos.
Built into both is a sign about making a new start. In fact, these verses can offer a superb start to an academic year, or a church year, or a journey into theological education on a path toward faithful leadership in some form of lay or ordained Christian ministry.
Set aside, if you will, all of the questions about how these dialogues fit into the history of Israel as a people or the biography of Amos as a person. You can work on that in a study group. Save for your next Old Testament class the technical curiosities about whether Amos was using the present tense to say “I am not a professional prophet” or the past tense to say “I was not a prophet until God called me to be one.” Just focus on the dialogues: first, the one between Amaziah the priest and Jeroboam the King; second, the one between Amaziah the priest and Amos the prophet.
And keep in mind that these were private conversations. Who knows for sure the tone of voice that the prophet and the priest used in speaking to each other? Indeed, who will ever know for sure what the priest and the king actually said to each other?
What really matters is the form of the dialogues in the seventh chapter of Amos. What really matters is to notice—at the start of our academic year, at the start of the church’s program year, at the start of our theological education to prepare for faithful leadership in Christian ministry—that ministry includes a public encounter with the powers of the world.
King Jeroboam II was the highest political officer in the country. Amaziah was the highest religious advisor to the king and the priest in charge of the supreme sacred shrine in the religious scene in Israel.
And these dialogues put Amos the prophet in the midst of all that public, political, priestly power.
In the course of fulfilling my duties as dean, I get to travel to a variety of churches either as a guest speaker for an adult class or simply to observe what is happening in real communities of faith. During the past year, in particular, my wife and I made a deliberate attempt to attend many congregations of different sizes in different settings.
Styles of worship, quality of music, and content of preaching were varied, to be sure. But what struck us as generally consistent was the feeling that most churches tend to function as non-prophet organizations: not “non-profit” with an f, but “non-prophet” with a ph. The liturgies (whether contemporary or classical), the prayers (whether prepared in advance or petitioned extemporaneously), the music (whether backed by an organ or by electronically amplified guitars and drums), and the sermons (whether delivered from notes while standing in a pulpit, or without notes while pacing on a platform) seemed to be limited to the spheres of private piety and personal practice.
Then, when worship had ended, my wife and I would return to our car and leave the church parking lot while listening to radio reports about catastrophic climate changes, the suffering of Syrian refugees, an incident that raised questions on whether black lives matter, a Supreme Court decision, or a bunch of politicians’ platitudes about all of the above.
We wondered what in the world we had been doing in the previous hour, in a church that was functioning as a non-prophet organization—disengaged from the realities of the age.
And we wondered why anybody wonders why the church seems to be shrinking, when the church seems so uninterested in what is happening in the world or so unwilling to engage the world with a word and works of condemnation or comfort.
When Amos arrived in Bethel, his presence was enough to prompt the priest to have a dialogue with the King. Whether Amaziah the priest misrepresented what Amos the prophet had said is something for you to ponder in the library one day. The vital issue is that the priest Amaziah thought the presence of the prophet Amos was worth noticing at the top tier of political and priestly power in the land.
Several years ago, a United Methodist Bishop spoke to a clergy gathering here at Perkins School of Theology on the topic of leadership. In the questioning period after the Bishop’s lecture, someone asked whether the Episcopal leaders of The United Methodist Church had some guidance to offer on the subject of immigration, or on ministries with undocumented persons, or on prophetic messages that ministers could deliver to political leaders in our state and nation about immigration.
In response, the Bishop referred to a meeting that two United Methodist Bishops had with the governor of the state. They asked the governor to drop the demagoguery about sealing the border, to focus on the mission of caring for the sojourners in our midst, and to raise the rhetoric of hope for educational and economic opportunity, as well as for citizenship, for all who find themselves in this land.
According to the Bishop, the governor replied, “There are two of you in my office. When you can bring twenty thousand to my door, I will listen.”
I am still waiting for those two Bishops to organize twenty thousand or so United Methodist ministers in this land to mobilize two hundred thousand Methodists who will knock on the doors of every governor in the nation. I am still waiting for faithful leaders of the Church to take seriously the matter of ministry in the public arena. Amos did it. Amaziah recognized it. And the King did not have the capacity to ignore it.
The limits of a “non-prophet organization” are not only that the world can ignore us but also that the world can go on suffering without the word of hope, the promise of peace, and the serenity of salvation that we have been summoned to offer.
In the dialogue between Amaziah and Amos, the priest Amaziah took the position that the principalities and powers of the world—vested in Jeroboam the King—prevented Amos from preaching at the sanctuary in Bethel. Amaziah did not accuse Amos of being a false prophet or preaching bad doctrine. Amaziah simply said Amos was addressing social and political matters, rather than theological ones.3 Amaziah said Amos could preach somewhere else, but not at the pinnacle of power, not in the sanctuary at Bethel.4
Preachers are often advised to take their public messages elsewhere.
Prophets do not accept that advice.
On January 16, 1991, the President of the United States was in the White House consulting with military and diplomatic advisors about the decision to launch Desert Storm against the regime in Iraq. The President also called a number of religious leaders for advice. They included the evangelical figure Bill Bright, Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Edmond L. Browning, who had publicly opposed the initiative to go to war.
The President also called Billy Graham, who was invited to come to the White House the next day, and who was the only religious leader to receive such an invitation. The first family and Mr. Graham had dinner together. They prayed together. And then, together, they watched the television coverage of the bombs dropping on Iraq.5
The discussion in the White House that night was private. After it was over, some American religious leaders said that Mr. Graham had made a terrible mistake, by limiting his presence to personal pastoral care for the President who made the decision. Instead, the critic said, Mr. Graham could have gone to the White House and could have spoken like a prophet to the President. Mr. Graham could have said, “As an evangelist. I have preached in places all over the world. Let me assemble a team of Christians from many nations and try to launch an interfaith dialogue with the people of Iraq.”
No one will ever know what could have happened if Mr. Graham had chosen to be Amos rather than Amaziah. Would there have been that first Gulf War? Would there have been the second one? Would the forces known as I-S or ISIS be scarring that same landscape today? No one will ever know.
And no one will ever know how different the world might be if we prepare for faithful leadership in forms of Christian ministry that engage public issues transcend the limits of a non-prophet organization.
No one will know—unless we lift the Bible from the bedside table, have some strong coffee, and decide that we are called to be both priests and prophets in the public sphere as well as to the private spirit.
At least it is a place to begin.
1Donald E. Gowan, “The Book of Amos,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press) volume VII, page 404.
2Ibid., page 410.
3Shalom M. Paul, A Commentary on the Book of Amos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), page 240.
4Gowan, loc. cit.
5Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (New York: Center Street, 2007), pages 301-303.