THE RECONCILIATION OF ALL THINGS
A Sermon Preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
on the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C), July 21, 2013
Amos 8:1-12 | Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28 | Luke 10:38-42
By Reed Carlson
· In Göttingen, Germany, there is a fountain located in the main square.
· It’s called the Gänseliesel.
· A little girl holding a goose in one hand and a basket of goslings in the other.
· First time I walked through this square, the Gänseliesel had been decorated with flowers and streamers
· a young woman in academic robes was kissing the goose girl.
· This is a tradition in Göttingen dated back to the turn of the century.
· When a doctoral candidate finishes her final exams, her friends and family parade her through the streets in a wagon.
· They sing and dance and they take her to the goose girl.
· As with many traditions in Germany, there is usually a lot of beer involved.
· This tradition became something of an institution for me as I lived there.
· There was another institution in Göttingen
· One which I am less proud to say that I have also walked past many times.
· On the main street, in front of an old church, a man in his late 30s would often sit begging for change.
· He would sit because he couldn’t stand. His legs were gone above both knees. His right arm was also missing at the elbow.
· He would sit precariously balanced on an old dirty cushion, with his bare skin exposed in all sorts of weather: whether it was raining or snowing or freezing.
· He wouldn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. His disability did all the explaining for him.
· Now I, like you, have seen many people asking for money in the streets
· and I, like you, have seen many people with disabilities.
· I don’t know why this particular man should stick out in my mind.
· But I can tell you how I began to react after seeing this man regularly—perhaps twice a month.
· He made me angry.
· It was an emotion that took me a few times to recognize but eventually it was undeniable.
· Somehow, seeing this man, in this situation, made me furious
· First, I was angry that such a thing could happen in this world at all.
· Such an accident, or a disease, or a birth defect was even possible
· Why should one person have to endure something like that?
· Second, I was angry that this person was in this situation at all.
· Why wasn’t someone looking out for him?
· He had already endured so much
· Before coming to Germany, I had had this picture of Europe.
· social programs, public consciousness and civic responsibility.
· Somewhere in my romantically progressive heart I had come to expect that in a modern, socially compassionate country like Germany, such things would not be possible.
· But third—and this is the point that I think really made me the most furious—I was ashamed of myself.
· I was ashamed that I walked past him more often than not without a word, a coin, or even a glance.
· I was ashamed that nothing I could do would restore him to the kind of humanity I though he deserved.
· Perhaps most disheartening, I was angry that my outrage alone did this man no good whatsoever, and only succeeded in distancing me even further from this real human being who I had chosen to objectify in my own insecurity.
· Now, I can’t say that I completely understand why I reacted in this way
· and for that reason, it’s a bit of a risk for me to talk about it
· but I wanted bring it up with you this morning because it’s related to our texts.
· This morning, we’re reading a text about another furious man.
· Amos, the prophet.
· If you were in church last week, you were introduced to Amos, a farmer or a shepherd, whom God had called away on a special mission.
· Amos came from Judah, and during his time, his country was small and insignificant.
· God had called him to prophecy against Israel, which at that time was quite wealthy and enjoying a time of expansion.
· In this text, Amos is primarily angry about one thing. He names it in verse 4: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, you that bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
· You see, Amos is calling out those who are in power.
· The merchants are so eager to make their money that they even want to sell when they’re not supposed to: on Sabbaths and during festivals (that’s what the New Moon part means).
· What’s more, they cheat.
· Archaeologists of the ancient near east have found round stones with royal seals buried in the sand.
· These stones were called Ephahs and they were used to measure goods or gold in a time before coins.
· Some of these Ephahs, and you can see these today in many museums, they have a hollowed out portion in the back where they could be filled depending if the owner wanted to make it heavier or lighter.
· In verse 6, Amos accuses these merchants of “selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
· In the Torah, Israelite landowners were commanded not to completely harvest everything from the land.
· Rather, they were supposed to leave some of the wheat for the poor to come and pick up—if you know the story of Ruth and Boaz, you see how this law was supposed to play out.
· But here in Amos, we discover that many merchants were leaving nothing for those who needed it.
· In response to this righteous outrage, Amos announces what God is going to do.
· He sees a vision of a basket of fruit and God pronounces an “end” to Israel.
· This vision is a bitter irony, which puns on the Hebrew word for “summer fruit,” Xˆyá∂q and the word for “end,” Xéq.
· The end that God has in mind for Israel is a special kind of ruin. You see, Israel had a special connection to God, a connection that was maintained through worship.
· The holiness of Israel’s shrines, the precise practices of its rituals, the strict observance of its festivals—all of these were meticulously maintained because they were part of their relationship with God.
· But as Amos tells us, it is exactly this relationship that is ended, as a result of those who “trample the needy” and “bring ruin to the poor.”
· Their temple, instead of being a holy, dedicated place of worship, will be littered with ritually impure bodies.
· Their songs of praise will be transformed into songs of mourning.
· Their “feasts” our readings says but a better translation might be their “festivals”—times of joy and celebration—will instead become times of sadness.
· You see what Amos is illustrating that when Israel sins, all of it’s relationships are interrupted.
· Israel’s relationship with itself—with the poor in particular—that is interrupted.
· It’s relationship even with the land—verse 8 explains how the ground trembles—that is interrupted.
· And finally Israel’s relationship with God, through the temple, through their festivals and sacrifices, that too is obliterated.
· When we read about prophets like this in the Bible, we often end up asking ourselves, who am I in this story?
· Some of us might identify most with those poor or those needy folks who are being taken advantage. And you might not be wrong.
· Others of us, if we were completely honest, we might see ourselves in those merchants who are part of two meticulous systems:
· one that values religious practices and the other which systematically oppresses the poor. You might not be wrong either.
· Finally, there may even be one or two of us, who see in Amos, someone we would strive to be.
· An advocate or an activist, a truth-teller in the best sense of the word. And if that’s you, I want to encourage that. I don’t think you’re wrong either.
· However, this morning I would like to suggest a fourth option.
· Our position in this story is instead after it.
· You see it’s possible to look at this story and see it as a past that has led us to our present and to our future.
· In verses 11-12, we might a scribe who came across this passage much later in Israel’s history.
· This scribe remembered a time when prophets still roamed this earth. When he thought of his own day, he described an era when there was a famine in the land—a famine of the word of God.
· It’s remarkable that of all the consequences in this passage, of all the destruction and pain, the famine of the word of God should be given the final and most emphatic point.
· To be honest, I have felt like this many times. The anger I felt when walking past that man in Göttingen—that was one of those times.
· But thankfully, this is not where the book of Amos ends. And for Christians, this is not where the story ends either.
· Our epistle reading this morning contains one of my favorite theological phrases in the whole Bible.
· It’s verse 19-20 and I’ll read it now: “For in the Son all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through the Son, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven...”
· “The Reconciliation of all things.”
· What does that mean?
· Well, it’s what we as Christians hope for. It’s what we anticipate. It’s what we believe Jesus began with the cross and his resurrection.
· It means that these ruptured relationships that Amos saw in his time, that we can see in our time, which make us feel so furious and yet powerless—these relationships will be reconciled.
· That injustice we see in our world, and the anger it creates—reconciliation will come.
· Preachers are often tempted to liken Old Testament prophets like Amos to heroes of the modern era like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.
· We might point out how they stood up for the poor or the oppressed, how they had the courage to say the uncomfortable things that those in power didn’t want to hear.
· And in a congregation like St. Matthew’s which is so involved in so many social issues
· like the Blue House, like Project Home, Loaves and Fishes, Keystone Communities, and St. Barnabas Apartments—this kind of sermon would preach here really well.
· But to this I have to offer one corrective. King and Gandhi organized protests and sit ins, they inspired thousands and even millions to take action, to organize, to revolutionize society.
· But Amos? He’s just angry. He points out Israel’s sin. And then explains how God is going to revolutionize society (and how nobody is going to like it).
· Amos was no social activist. He was a social conscience—who had bad news about the future.
· One might say that this is the message of the Epistle as well. God is going to reconcile all things. We are not going to reconcile ourselves to God.
· And so if you’ve heard me wrong this morning, you might think I’m saying that when you see injustice in the world, don’t fret about it, just sit back and relax, God is going to take care of it eventually.
· But this is not what I’m saying.
· Fighting injustice, standing up for the disadvantaged, working to create positive change in society—these are the works we are called to do, and they are the proper channels for our compassion and our righteous outrage.
· But let’s take a lesson from Mary in our gospel reading, who was at peace at the feet of Jesus, even though there was much that needed to be done.
· Let’s stay oriented around this simple, repeated truth from the Bible:
· our deeds are not the extent of God’s work in this world.
· Neither the depths of human sin, nor the heights of our accomplishments determine the boundaries of what is possible.
· Ultimately, it is still God’s work in the world.
· So when I respond to the needs of others around me—when I vote, when I volunteer, when I raise my voice—I do not pray asking for God’s help.
· I pray that God would allow me to help in the work that was already begun with Jesus.
· This may seem like a simple semantic platitude, but in those moments, when we are confronted by our own failures, to love, to serve, and care for one another—
· we can remember that it is God’s justice that will be done in this world, that it is God’s power that will make it happen, and that the cross is so much greater than my mistakes, than your mistakes, than all the failures of human history.
· And so even in the midst of our moments of defeat, discouragement, and anger we can celebrate that in the Son all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through the Son, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.