No Time to Be Tepid

A sermon preached July 28, 2013 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Amos 7:7-17

It is good to be home. A week at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in Purdue with 5,000 of my closest friends and then most of a week in Maine, recovering from Triennium while Alden was at a soccer camp.

I had lots of time to sit with this text from Amos while I ate lobster in the rain in Maine.

And I kept thinking about the people hearing Amos’ words when he first spoke them.

They sound so harsh to us, as they fall on our ears a few thousand years later. How much more painful must they have been when they were newly minted, freshly spewed out of the prophet’s mouth?

Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” ’

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?

Who wants this message?

We don’t want our sons and daughters to fall by the sword. We don’t want our homes reduced to piles of ash. We don’t want to die in exile.

Who would accept this message?

But the more I thought about it, I decided there probably were people who welcomed this message.
People who had experienced the injustice of what Israel had become and had, perhaps, seen their sons and daughters already fall by the sword.

People who had been reduced to prostitution—whether literally or metaphorically—in order to get by in a system where people didn’t care for the poor –those people probably welcomed Amos’ words.

Maybe there were people who weren’t personally suffering from the injustice around them, but who watched it all take place on the nightly news and thought to themselves, “this isn’t right. Somebody should do something about it.”

They might have welcomed Amos’ words, thinking “finally! Someone is saying what needs to be said. Now maybe people will listen and something will change!

The people in charge of the unjust system most certainly did not like Amos’ words. They wanted him to go prophesy to someone else, somewhere else.

The priest Amaziah sent a message to King Jeroboam saying, “make him stop! The land is not able to bear his words!”

I love this image. Amos’ words are so weighty, so heavy, the land cannot bear the weight of them. They are spoken and they fall on the ground, sinking down, compacting the soil, bringing the mountains low.

And maybe this is exactly what the people cheering Amos on need. Maybe they need the people who have exalted themselves to be brought back down. Maybe the things that divide have become too great, the distance between them is too much.

This has been a theme in a number of recent books and movies lately. In the Hunger Games, most of the country is reduced to subsistence while one district has all of the privilege.

hunger games
In Dark Knight Rises, last summer’s Batman movie, terrorists are able to get the poor to rise up against the system because they promise them equality and opportunity that is denied to them under the current economy. dark knight
A movie to be released later this summer, Elysium, has this premise: “Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.elysium

Amos’ words may be old, but the story he tells is still being played out.

People divided and polarized by income inequality, by political difference, by religious expression, and by other markers we use to separate ourselves from each other. And I recognize my own place on the top of the mountain that can’t bear the weight of his words. I, who have enough food, who have safe shelter, who have all of the privileges, who have my own cello, not made of trash, I who have it all while my brothers and sisters across the world do not.

And I’ve been thinking of Amos this week and about the way God’s Word can lead to such different reactions among people.

Because you know that while the priest was telling the King to make him stop talking, there were also people who had hastily gathered to create the “plumb line club”, who were protesting at the palace by holding plumb lines, cheering on Amos, and calling on Israel to repent.

Why are we like that? Why do we hear the same word and receive completely different messages?

If you read my blog, you may have seen my post about the kerfuffle at Triennium over the final worship service of the week. It is a week later and I’m still not sure what I think of the whole thing.

It was a polarizing sermon. It made some people stand up and cheer in the aisles. It made other people walk out of the room. And it is a rare experience for me to be in a room while people are having such different, and passionate, reactions—to a sermon.

It was not a sermon I would have preached, but I’m not sure if that admission is an indictment of my lack of courage or is an attempt to claim wisdom.

On the wisdom side of the equation, it has been my experience that difficult words are better said in love. And to love people, you have to know them. I’m not opposed to difficult words. But when a stranger yells something at me, it is not likely to make much impact.

When a loved one pulls me aside and says the same thing, I’m much more likely to hear it and be convicted.

In the “lack of courage” side of the equation, however, I wonder about being lukewarm. This sermon at Triennium was not lukewarm. People found it either to be as refreshing as ice water on a hot day or painfully scalding hot water.  It was not tepid.

Toward the beginning of the Book of Revelations, John records the messages to seven churches. Here’s the one to the church in Laodicea:

Rev 3:14-22 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’

We don’t want to be tepid. We don’t want to be lukewarm. We don’t want to be spat out of God’s mouth because we thought the challenging word of God was for other people and not for ourselves.

The priest Amaziah, who would love some lukewarm preaching, comes to Amos and tells him to lay off, already, with the doom and gloom. And Amos responds with this:

‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Amos doesn’t want to be there with that difficult word any more than Israel wants to hear it. He’d be just as happy tending his flocks and pruning his trees, thank you very much.

But God has given him a word to say, and he has to speak it. And some people will love it. And others will hate it. And he can’t control the reception of the message by the crowds. And he can’t control the interpretation of the message. He just has to speak it.

And he does. And he is not lukewarm. Amos does not shy away from the difficult word.

Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”

But the difficult word is not difficult just for the sake of being difficult. It is also life giving, and it calls us to our better nature.

Because Amos reminds us there are consequences to our lives of consumption while people are starving across town and across the globe. He reminds us of a higher calling of life for and with each other, not just life for our own private benefit.

He reminds us that God has bigger plans for us than we can imagine, but they require us to be bold, so we can be the voice for the voiceless, the champion of the oppressed, and the companion of the just.

Amos reminds us not to be lukewarm.

He reminds us not to be tepid.

Because the world just doesn’t have time for that.

So I will try to remember to be grateful for Amos and his difficult word. And I will try to remember the times people have spoken  God’s challenging word to me in the past, and pray it gives me the courage to do the same in love. Because I don’t want to be tepid. I don’t want to fall into the mistake of thinking the difficult word needs to be preached to other people, and not to me.

And I know you don’t want that either. You trust God is speaking to you, even in the difficult words. And you are a congregation who seeks to be clear and strong in your proclamation of the faith. You know there is room for you to proclaim what it is you believe even as there is space for others to interpret things differently. And you have recognized that just because someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Because God’s word to us is like that. It speaks to us all differently. We can’t control how that happens. We can’t force others to see it the way we do. But we can be bold in our proclamation as we listen for God’s word to us.

Peter Marshall, US Senate Chaplain prayed in 1947:

“Give us clear vision, that we may know where to stand and what to stand for – because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”

May that be our prayer too, giving us the strength to be like Amos, and giving us the humility to recognize when Amos is speaking to us.

May it be so. Amen

And here is the video we saw in worship today about the Landfillharmonic Orchestra:

2 thoughts on “No Time to Be Tepid

  1. Good morning and a wonderful Sunday to you!

    On my Facebook today (rvanherk), I touched on topics which relate a little bit to your blog today. I appreciate your writing and understand the different feelings related to being tiped. The sentence I would like to ask you about is this:
    “And to love people, you have to know them. I’m not opposed to difficult words. But when a stranger yells something at me, it is not likely to make much impact.”

    I understand that we may be more effective, may reach people ‘easier’ if we love them and know them. But it is interesting that you bring up the lack of impact to ‘YOU’ if it comes from a stranger yelling something at you. I feel very strongly that we should listen to all voices. Maybe especially strangers who don’t know me, who may not love me and who are yelling. Being a human being I may fail to listen sometimes, but my attitude and driving force is to listen and learn from all the different voices. I would like to tell people that listening to these voices is important. Please understand that I do not say that we should follow these voices. As we should not follow blindly the voices from people who love us and who know us. Hopefully we can use our interpretation and understanding of all that is said before we take action based on how we understand.

    There is so much more I’d like to write and I will continue to follow your blog.

    Thank you again!



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