Being God’s People (Year C, Proper 11)

“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord GOD.
Amos the Prophet, an engraving by Gustave Doré
Amos the Prophet, an engraving by Gustave Doré

This Sunday’s readings are tough ones.  We begin with God’s anger with Israel, as related by the prophet Amos, and we end with the oft-frustrating gospel story of Mary and MarthaAmos didn’t have an easy job: during the most prosperous times that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had seen since the golden days of David and Solomon, God calls Amos out of the southern kingdom of Judah to preach God’s word in Bethel… and God’s word?  Not a happy one for the Chosen People.

When a nation prospers, the gap between its poorest citizens and its richest citizens tends to spread out.  You’ve probably heard this said about our own economy in the US: The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.  These words are often spoken with a shrug, with empty palms outstretched, as if to say What’r’ya gonna do about it?
In Judah and Israel, God certainly expected God’s people to do something about it.  After all, there are laws and commandments that address this very thing: in God’s Kingdom, those who are rich are full of generosity and loving-kindness, so that they share their wealth with those who are poor.  Because in God’s Kingdom, all people recognize that wealth is a temporary thing arising from the gifts God has given them; in joyful gratitude, these gifts from God are shared, so that nobody has to live in need.  In Israel and Judah of the eighth century BCE, though, this isn’t happening.  The kingdoms of God’s Chosen People do not resemble the Kingdom of God, and God is not happy about it.

So what does God do?  God hires a lawyer: Amos.  In recent scholarship, the concept has developed of a genre of biblical literature called the prophetic lawsuit.  This is a lawsuit between God and God’s people, where God sues the people for breach of contract, or, in biblical terms, Covenant.  God has a pretty good case, too.  In earlier portions of Amos, which are not part of our lectionary, God lays out the crimes and offenses of God’s people:
  • They have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes.
  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.
  • They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.
  • They push the afflicted out of the way.
  • They lay themselves down beside every altar.
  • In the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
  • They store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.
  • They oppress the poor, and they crush the needy.
  • They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
  • They trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.
  • They afflict the righteous, take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
  • They have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.
  • They trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.
Amos 8:9, by Brian Dunnette
Amos 8:9, by Brian Dunnette

Things don’t look so good for the people of God, do they?  How do you defend yourself against these accusations?  The truth of the matter is, these were Good People, just like we think of ourselves.  They worked at their jobs, and they tended to their homes, and they went to the Temple and the synagogue like they’re supposed to.  Just like us, right?  Good Christian People.  In a prosperous and wealthy kingdom, these folks thought, Hey, I’ve been working hard.  I earned this money, right?  So I can use it for a little bit of luxury for my family. or maybe, I’ve been saving up my wages; now we can take that trip to Jerusalem and do some sight-seeing.  How about, Oh, I wish someone would clean up all these beggars from the marketplace.  It’s getting so that there’s nowhere safe to go shopping with my kids around here! That’s just normal, isn’t it?

Well, God says it’s not.  God says that my luxury at the expense of your poverty is a sin, a breach of the Covenant.  God says that turning a blind eye to the sick, the needy, the afflicted is wrong.  God says that not one of us has greater worth than another.  If I were truly attending to God, I would know this.

It isn’t very comfortable to see ourselves in this light, is it?  God’s accusations against Judah and Israel may as well be aimed right at us.  And the punishments God promises to levy, well they’re pretty scary, too!  God threatens earthquake, flood, eclipse.  God promises that our joy will turn to sorrow, and our celebrations will turn to grief.  And worst of all, God proclaims that God will remove Godself from our presence:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
That doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it?  To put it frankly, it sucks.
Thankfully, each one of the prophetic lawsuits in scripture has a happy ending.  In each lawsuit, God promises to renew the Covenant, to rebuild the nation of God’s people, to bring about a time of joy and peace.  We won’t get to hear the happy ending from Amos next Sunday, and there’s a reason for this, and its name is Jesus.  The history of God’s people, as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, is a continuing cycle of establishing a Covenant relationship, enjoying a time of God’s favor, taking God’s favor for granted, ignoring Covenant responsibilities, being warned by the prophets, having God’s favor and protection withdrawn, and re-establishing the Covenant to begin the cycle anew.
But between the eighth century BCE and today, something different happened.  Something broke through, giving us a different sort of Covenant, a different sort of relationship with God.  This something different is the Incarnation, God taking on a human body and living here in our world with us.  In the person of Jesus, God actually lived and experienced both sides of the Covenant between Israel and God.  Through his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus set us free from the punishments revealed by Amos and the other prophets.  And through the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost, God promises to be with us always, never to subject us to a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.  Isn’t that good news?  I think it’s pretty freakin’ awesome!
When God is always with us, we are reminded of our responsibilities to all of God’s people.  We know that we have a duty to the widows and orphans, to the afflicted and the needy, to the poor and the hungry, to the thirsty and the homeless, to those in prisons or sickbeds.  Jesus reminds us of these responsibilities a number of times, telling us to be guided by the two greatest commandments: love God with everything you have; love all persons every bit as much.  Through this loving relationship between us, God, and all of God’s people, a life of loving-kindness and generosity is natural.  We need not fear scarcity, not when Jesus has come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.  Our very identity as people of God leads us to give generously, to share the gifts God has given us, in joyful gratitude.  This is as natural to us as breathing.
Christ in Bethany (Pugin), by Br. Lawrence Lew, OP
Christ in Bethany (Pugin), by Br. Lawrence Lew, OP

In the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus makes this clear.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing”: living in relationship with God and with God’s people.  From that loving relationship, all else flows.  This gospel is not simply about be-ing vs. do-ing, about whether contemplation may be preferable to action.  Rather, Jesus reminds Mary that when her relationship with God comes first, a life of generosity and loving-kindness becomes a state of being.  The do-ing becomes be-ing, because Who We Are is a people of Christ, a joyfully grateful people, a people who live with and uphold the poor, rather than trampling them, a people who keep God’s Law as naturally as we breathe or eat or sleep, a people who know that all of Christ’s brothers and sisters hold the same worth.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.  God’s Kingdom is any place where we fully live into our relationship with God, so that our be-ing and do-ing cannot be distinguished, so that truly, we will be known as the friends of Jesus by our love.