Texts: Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Nobody else likes Amos, but I sure do. I love the way that Amos pulls no punches when calling out people’s bad behavior. He is a good, old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher proclaiming the wrath of God. “Woe to you who sell the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals,” he writes (8.6). Or this gem: “Hear this, you fat cows… you who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The LORD GOD has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you when they will take you away with… fishhooks [in your noses].” (4.1-2) The wrath of God makes us uneasy; we’d much rather hear about the love of God. And that is why I love Amos: because he brings us face to face with the uncomfortable truth that God’s love and God’s wrath are the same thing.
So God shows Amos a plumb line and basically says, “I’m done ignoring the problems in Israel; the time has come for me to fix it, to stabilize this house that I have built and bring it back to plumb.” We might read these words as foreshadowing God’s punishment of Israel with war and exile, but that’s not how Amos sees it. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, God is trying to fix what is wrong intervening now to keep things from collapsing entirely later.
If you’ve ever had to fix a wall that is out of plumb you know that, if it’s bad enough, pretty much the only solution is to tear everything out and start over. That is what God is talking about doing in Amos. God’s treatment of Israel is no more punishment than taking the sledge hammer to the wall is punishing the wall for being out of plumb. Amos imagines God’s wrath not as punishment but as a labor of love, a way of protecting those who cannot protect themselves. To the rich and the comfortable, this is a dire threat to their way of life; but to the needy and the oppressed, to those who are crushed under mountains of debt and unfair business practices and a punitive and unfair justice system, this is a word of hope.
Throughout the Bible, God consistently chooses to identify with the poor, the underdog, the unwanted, the oppressed. God chooses to make the covenant with the sly and conniving Jacob rather than his older brother, Esau; God chooses the timid Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery rather than his older brother, Aaron; God chooses the scrawny David to be king over his seven older brothers; God chooses to be present with puny Israel rather than mighty Egypt or Assyria. God chooses to bless and protect the widow and the orphan rather than the rich or strong; God chooses to be born as a peasant carpenter rather than a warrior-king.
Because God chooses to identify with the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, how we treat the weakest among us is a measure of how we treat God. God does not hate the strong or desire to punish them, but because God loves the weak, when the strong take advantage of them, God’s wrath is upon them. If somebody were to threaten your children, wouldn’t they earn your wrath? What is different about God’s wrath is that it is not just out of love for the weak, it is also out of love for the strong. God loves oppressor and oppressed; but the oppressor does not need God’s protection.
The exploitation of the weak angers God because it denies the humanity of the weak; it is an attack against people made in the image of God. But so is oppression by the strong. God created us to be in community with one another, to love and care for each other; when the strong oppress and exploit the weak, they not only deny the humanity of the weak, they deny who God has created them to be; they deny their own humanity.
Amos brings this message of judgement to Israel out of God’s love and concern for those being oppressed, but also out of God’s love and concern for those who are oppressing them. God can see the structural instability that will eventually cause the whole building to collapse, and God will no longer pass it by. Amos’ message to Israel is that the time has come for God to fix things, to put the wall back in plumb, and that God will do this with or without them.
Oddly enough, this is the same song Paul is singing in Ephesians; although while Amos leans heavy on the stick Paul clearly favors the carrot. Nevertheless, the message of both the prophet and the apostle boil down to a common theme: God is going to accomplish the salvation of all creation—gathering everything in heaven and on earth into Christ—with or without us. According to Paul, this “mystery of God’s will” is made known to us in that God has, through Christ, included the Gentile Christians—that’s us—in the inheritance of salvation. God didn’t do this because we earned it, or because God felt sorry for us, or even really so that we may help tell people about God’s goodness; as Paul sees it, our very existence is testimony in itself to God’s plan to bring all creation into plumb, as it were. God gives us this inheritance simply because God wanted to—and if God wants us to share in Christ’s eternal life, who’s going to tell God “no?”
As we read these words from Amos and Paul and Mark, it is easy to see the parallels between the injustices of their time and our own. We, too, can see the prisoners being sold for silver and the immigrants for a pair of sandals or a handful of votes. We, too, can see the way the privileged trample on the rights of people of color, of women, of LGBTQ people made in God’s own image.
As we read these words, we may feel God calling us to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, boldly proclaiming God’s truth to the powerful who oppress and abuse the weak and the vulnerable. We may feel filled with the wrath that comes from seeing the people whom God loves treated as less than human. If we do, then we are in good company, and we should go out secure in the knowledge that God’s kingdom is coming, with or without us.
However, we should go out knowing that it was not wrath that fueled Amos and John. It was not wrath that brought Jesus to the cross or sent the twelve apostles out to exorcise demons and cure the sick. Wrath can be a great motivator for us to get out and get active, but it cannot sustain us in the long haul. It is not wrath that has fueled the long struggles for civil rights, for equal treatment under the law, for criminal justice reform and the welcome of immigrants. Wrath can get us moving, but if we subsist only on wrath, it will gnaw at us until there is nothing left.
Only love can sustain us through the long, arduous journey towards justice. Only the care and concern for our neighbors and their safety, their wellbeing, their full inclusion in society that is born of love fill us with resolve and keep us going. Only the love of those who oppose God’s justice will allow us to hear them and their concerns, and find a way forward that is beneficial to all rather than creating a new class of oppressed. Only the love of God revealed in Christ—the love that includes us all as children of one Heavenly Parent and makes us all siblings—can help us achieve reconciliation and unity. That love may at times inspire anger, but it is not the anger of hatred or fear, but the wrath of those who yearn to protect the ones they love. Even if we are not called to be prophets like Amos, we are each called in our baptism to love the world with that same fierce and sometimes wrathful love of God.
At this table, we are fed with that love. In the shadow of this cross, we see what that love looks like: love fearlessly forges ahead, heedless of the power of hate to injure or silence or kill it, trusting only in God and God’s promise to gather up all things in God’s reign of justice and peace. Here we eat love of Christ, and it sustains us for the long pilgrimage to righteousness. As we taste the love of God made flesh, it reminds us that, regardless of what things look like out there, God’s reign is coming, with or without us. While some may fear the wrath of God, we welcome it, because we know that God’s wrath is God’s love in action; it is the sledgehammer that knocks down what is broken so that God may rebuild it plumb.