The Embrace

July 11, 2021
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13

Today is July 11, 7/11. 7-Eleven has a tradition of giving everyone free Slurpees to celebrate the day they call their birthday. I don’t often go to 7-Eleven – even for free Slurpees. But last Sunday night, Eric got stung by a bee and looked like he needed some Benadryl. So I ventured to one of the 7Elevens in our neighborhood. As I approached the store I could hear a commotion. I saw some teens laughing inside, near the door. But when I opened the door I realized that it wasn’t the teenagers causing a ruckus, it was a woman shouting and yelling accusations at anyone who came near. I gingerly stepped in the door, skirting the point of tension, and peeked around for the medicines aisle. As I chose between several different allergy meds the woman’s volume increased and she came toward me, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are evil.” I tried to take it all in but she turned and was off to accuse — or perhaps prophesy — to someone else.

As I walked to the car I thought, “Reason number 36 why I don’t like to go to 7-Eleven.”

Prophets can be kind of confusing. Plucked out of historical, religious, geographical and literary context it can be hard to know what to make of the biblical prophets, not to mention their troubling messages. (Thanks to LeAnne we at least know what a plumb line is)

If all we had from Amos was this passage that we heard today we might think Amos was an annoying but probably, innocuous, sheepherder, as he describes himself. Amos may not be a “professional” prophet, may not be theologically trained like some but he is more than a simple sheep herder. He rages about injustice for ten years – during the time of II Kings and II Chronicles if you want to cross reference him with other parts of the bible. The book of Amos, only nine chapters long, is a collection of his most fiery sermons and visions — hurled directly at his homeland of Judah, the southern kingdom – but mostly aimed at the northern kingdom of Israel.

Amos begins by observing the injustices of the neighboring areas and notes that they are not living in the way YHWH would want. Of course the people of Damascus, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab are not followers of YHWH — so it might be expected that they live cruel lives of desecration, slavery and war.

But then Amos let’s loose on Judah and Israel, that are supposed to, are expected to, follow YHWH’s law. Amos calls out the many ways that these devoutly religious people, chosen by God, live disobedient, hypocritical, conniving, idolatrous, sexually deviant, greedy, self-righteous lives that do not honor YHWH and all that YHWH has done for them. Amos keeps up his negative messages and visions year after year, without a kind word or a glimmer of hope that the people can change.

Finally the priest Amaziah can’t take it anymore. Who does this Amos think he is, with his relentless negativity and very explicit critiques. Amaziah the priest, who one might think would be attuned to a message from a prophet, writes to King Jereboam that Amos is a pain in the butt. Actually he goes further than that. He says that Amos is plotting against the king and telling people that Jereboam will die violently and the people will be exiled. “And furthermore,” says Amaziah the priest to Amos, “just get out of here. Go to your own territory of Judah. Here in Israel, we are a royal sanctuary, a national temple. And you are not welcome.”

Amos responds with his standard excuse that he is not one of those trained prophets. He is just a lowly sheep herder who has to pick his own figs to eat. And when God told him to prophesy he had to respond. “And by the way Amaziah, God also says this:

‘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 on unclean soil,
    and Israel will go into exile far from its own land.’”

Whoa! No wonder Amaziah wants Amos out of there.

I read recently in the Washington Post about some of the independent, untrained, self-proclaimed “prophets” of our time, who were part of the stampede into the Capitol on January 6. Are they the modern version of “I am just a sheep herder”? Why should we trust some prophets and not others? How do we know which prophets to trust and which ones to be wary of?

We might start by noting that “true prophets,” in the biblical mold, are not generally liked by people in power; they are usually in conflict with people in power. Exhibit one is Amos who we have just heard is despised by Amaziah. Or Jeremiah who gets thrown in a muddy well by the authorities because of his unwelcome messages. (Jeremiah 38) Or Jesus who is almost thrown off a cliff. (Luke 4) Of course there was King David who had at his disposal the prophet Nathan and Nathan, though he was close to David, still called David out on his rape of Bathsheba. (II Samuel 12) Seems like we should at least pay attention to prophets who are giving hard messages to people in power. (We might also ponder whether we are the ones with power and what uncomfortable messages we might be receiving from “untrained prophets.”)

True prophets speak a difficult truth. Amos names all the immoral things that the governments and even followers of YHWH are participating in: taking bribes, persecuting the righteous, defrauding and stealing from poor people. I don’t know if Reverend William Barber and his colleague Liz Theoharis would call themselves prophets but their Poor People’s Campaign certainly names the ways that the US government is immoral, unjust and making life hard for, if not impossible for, poor people in this country. The Poor People’s Moral Budget (2018) and the Campaign’s fact finding sheets (2020) sound eerily similar to the accusations that Amos lobs at leaders in his day.

True prophets speak on behalf of justice and especially justice for other people. Amos keeps on with his difficult message, year after year, not paying attention to what it might cost him. Maybe there is a reason he has to pick his own figs and has only a few sheep to herd. Perhaps he has been sidelined for his persistent criticisms of how Israel and Judah are living. Prophets are often better at looking out for other people than they are at looking out for themselves. They will put their own bodies on the line to get their message out and they are willing to suffer on behalf of other people.

That’s one of the things that was so powerful about the Fast for Freedom last month. Most of the fasters were directly affected by the injustices of the immigration system. They made sacrifices to come to DC from Arizona, California, New York, Colorado, Minnesota. For the sake of their people they gave up food, their weakened bodies delivering the message to members of congress – we need citizenship for 11 million people undocumented people in this country. Prophetic witness is paradoxical, a weak body strengthens the spirit  – and the message.

True prophets hold out a vision of something better to come. While they speak the truth about the horrors of injustice, they also speak an imaginative, poetic justice that is possible, that is in direct contrast to the injustice in the present. And it is this prophetic vision that gives those who struggle the drive to keep on keeping on in the midst of real tribulation. Isaiah gives us the “peaceable kingdom” – the lamb and the lion laying down together. (Isaiah 11) Joel envisions a time when the Spirit of God will be poured out on all people, no matter their age or gender or position in society. (Joel 2) Jesus, over and over again, describes the reign of God – already mysteriously present among us. Amos gives us the image of justice running like a river and righteousness flowing like a never-ending stream. (Amos 5) Amos’ vision of God using a plumb line to find what needs to be destroyed terrifies the priest Amaziah but eventually Amos turns that into a vision of what has been leveled being rebuilt into something sturdy and strong.

So what does any of this have to do with 7-Eleven? I am not saying that the woman at 7-Eleven who looked me in the eye was a prophet, calling out evil power. I am thinking of 7-Eleven as a place that often represents where injustice is present in our neighborhoods, where poor people, people having mental health crises, have to shop because there are no full service grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Profit is made off the backs of people who need to buy diapers or Tylenol or other necessities at inflated prices.

And — convenience stores can be a place where people with not much and people with too much meet at the coffee machine or the beer fridge. On July 11 it is a place where, for a few hours, everyone – no matter their gender or age or place in society, everyone gets a free Slurpee, even if it is really small. For just one day, there is a glimpse of what justice could look like.

Except that it is no longer how it works. 7-Eleven has changed their birthday celebrations, blame it on Covid. Free Slurpees means crowds around the Slurpee machines so now only Loyalty Rewards customers get a free Slurpee – with their coupon- that can be used any day in the month of July.

So if 7-Eleven can’t give us a short-term vision of justice, I guess we go back to the enduring, beautiful vision of the Psalmist, when

justice and peace will embrace,
when faithfulness and love will greet each other,
when fidelity will sprout from the earth
and justice will lean down from heaven.
Justice will march before YHWH,
and peace will prepare the way for God’s steps.

Let’s live into this prophetic vision, embracing it with commitment and imagination.