Our reading from the Old Testament may sound very harsh to us. Amos is prophesying the destruction of Israel with pretty tough language!
He begins by attributing God as saying:
“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel”
I imagine most of you are familiar with plumb lines. In construction they help us be sure our vertical construction is “right." Amos conveys that God is going to make things “right” among the people. It is appropriate to use a construction metaphor, as he’s talking about building the kingdom of God. But all of the destruction that follows rather than construction is a shock to the system.
Amos prophesied at a time when King Jeraboam and Israel were experiencing massive prosperity. It was at least a forty year reign. They were living lavishly but had lost their ethical compass (or you could say plumb line) as a nation. They were not taking care of the needy. They were taking advantage of others.
Earlier, in Amos 2:6-8 he recites:
They sell honorable people for silver
and poor people for a pair of sandals.
7 They trample helpless people in the dust
and shove the oppressed out of the way.
Both father and son sleep with the same woman,
corrupting my holy name.
8 At their religious festivals,
they lounge in clothing their debtors put up as security.
In the house of their gods,*
they drink wine bought with unjust fines.
Amos is speaking to that community, that audience.
Amos is concerned with social justice - and he connects it with the righteousness of God (God’s judgment of the people). God is offended. (Rightly so.)
The story is aptly paired with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus also connects the quality of our interpersonal relationships with the ability to inherit eternal life. The lawyer asks Jesus this question: How do we inherit eternal life?
In Jesus’ usual form he answers a question with a question: What does scripture tell us? Of course the lawyer knows Jewish law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is satisfied. But the lawyer is not. Instead he asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan: When a man is attacked, robbed, and left for dead along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, it is a Samaritan traveler (and none of the other local citizens) who comes to his rescue. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that Life in the Kingdom of God requires mercy. We learn what Jesus means by "loving your neighbor as yourself.” To love your neighbor is not only to feel mercy and compassion for others, but show mercy and compassion through our actions.
The pivotal point of the story is that the merciful neighbor is one the audience doesn’t anticipate. The Jewish lawyer and audience don’t expect a Samaritan to be the hero of the story. The Samaritan and Jewish communities lived alongside one another with much enmity. The parable is not just about extending kindness, but about extending the scope of our community.
Jesus was helping the lawyer identify that Samaritans were also Israelites. It is a story about expansive identity…
What is your identity?
The Newspapers and media are constantly telling us we are a divided nation. And the state of our leading nations doesn’t look too different from the time of Amos. This is why the scriptures speak to us through time. We are struggling with the same human impulses that people did thousands of years ago. How can there be so much for some - and so little for others with disregard? And the question remains: Are we children of God? Or are we primarily US citizens, Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans or Democrats; White, Hispanic, Black, Christian?
What is your deepest identity?
What is the call we have to identify with one another?
Jesus saw the whole human race as part of one body. This is the piece that Jesus was so good at drawing upon. Unlike Amos and many other prophets that prophesy destruction and pain, Jesus looks deep into our humanity and draws out the best of us. He does not say, “and now you shall suffer.” Instead he says “and now, to really be human, to really be fully human, you shall be merciful. That is your identity.”
When we listen to the news and hear such painful reports around the world, the pain and compassion that stirs in us is part of that true identity. We cry, “Mercy.”
Last week Jackie Allerton shared with me a very sweet story that Safira’s favorite new song is the Sanctus: This three year old doesn’t sing it perfectly. But she tries: Holy Holy Holy Lord. God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory. Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.
To be a Good Samaritan is to be one that comes in the name of the Lord…… And more than our good deeds as citizens: It is about expanding the circle of our identity wider. (Little Safira is absorbing this)
The restoration of Israel has become a metaphor for the restoration of the World. When Christians study the Bible, Israel means us. We are all of us in every nation the chosen people: the beloved children of God.
When we expand our sense of community, our solutions for society’s ills will expand because they must.
In society right now a very conservative fundamentalist Christian community is growing. They do not believe in the separation of Church and State. While we may agree with them that our lives in God form our deepest identity, we find ourselves in disagreement over tenets of the faith. Do you ever feel, like “if they would just listen” they would understand us? Do you ever feel like the Fundamentalist Christians give Christianity a bad name? Perhaps they think they hold the Truth with a big T? Do you think dialogue would help?
Even closer to us than fundamentalists are Black Episcopalians. They are trying to open up dialogue with us and most of us aren’t really participating. If we won’t enter into dialogue even with other Episcopalians - what are we truly saying about our identity? I know many of us believe we are not racist; that it is a non-issue because our Presiding Bishop is Black. He is saying it is an issue. Part of our body is saying it is an issue. And we are suffering. Do we think it doesn’t really impact us like the Pharisee and the levite? Can we really just ignore the suffering set in front of us?
We do not have power as individuals to change all of the suffering in the world, but we do have power to open our hearts to those we previously thought were different from ourselves. To see our shared belovedness. There is a power in a collective community that at its foundation is love and redemption. (And we might not yet completely understand it…like Safira’s Holy Holy Holy)…but, it is there deep in our hearts.
We also have the power to stay in difficult conversations and listen whether it is with our crazy uncle, a neighbor, or someone in our faith community. It’s about expanding our hearts. In doing so, we know God better. And knowing God is what it means to gain eternal life.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.