Sermon - 22nd September 2013
Scripture - Amos 8:1-12
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
In a theology college, not too far away from where we are, it was the custom of one of the tutors to ask his new batch of students to travel into the city centre and to think about where they might find God in the life of the city. The tutor didn’t really know his students yet, and the students didn’t know what to expect from their tutor: so they were very much on their own with their ideas.
When the class next met, they shared their thoughts with the tutor. One student produced a list of places of worship that he had discovered while walking around the city centre. He said:
There are lots of worship places in Manchester. I found God in the candlelit quiet of the Hidden Gem Catholic Church near the Town Hall; and I found God in the classical Georgian interior of Saint Anne’s Church in St Anne’s Square; and I felt a deep spirituality in the modern and simple interior of Cross Street Unitarian Church; and of course I found God in the grandeur and scale of Manchester Cathedral. But by that time I’d walked all over the city and I had no time to explore further.
When the next student was asked to share her thoughts, she immediately felt a cold sense of panic and wondered if she had completely misunderstood the task. She explained that she had spent most of her time sitting in various squares and open places in the city centre and had been watching the people of the city getting on with their lives. She’d visited none of the church buildings, but she said:
I found God in how a city works. I watched people going to their jobs in the shops, offices and services that a city like Manchester sustains, and I found God in the work they do as well as in their opportunity to work and earn a living. I looked across to the university buildings and the library, and I found God in the teaching and learning and self-expression which feed people’s minds and shape their careers in those places. I looked at the theatres, and I found God in the gifts of imagination and creativity which the performing arts bring to expression through drama, music and dance. I watched paramedics load someone into an ambulance and drive off to hospital, and I found God in the way they cared for the people for whom their skills might mean life or death. I looked at the civic buildings and got a sense of the pride which the city has in its history: a history of social justice, of public service, of scientific discovery, of industrial progress, and I found God in the energy of a community which held to its values, celebrated its achievements, and took pride in its independent thinking. And then I looked at a beggar huddled in a doorway, and found God looking back at me saying, ‘There is still so much to do’.
We all have the capacity to be both of those two students, depending on so many of the variables in our lives. Sometimes, we will lock God inside our churches, inside our creeds and worship services, and we will seek God only in those places. At other times, we will let loose our spiritual senses and recognise God in everything which invades our experiences. Perhaps part of our lifelong journey of faith includes finding the courage to let loose those spiritual senses and embrace new experiences of God. Perhaps our second student had instinctively understood exactly what the tutor was asking of her.
If you could travel back to the time of Amos, whose prophetic message we heard in our reading today, and if you asked someone in Jerusalem city centre where you might find God, you would have got the answer, “Over there, in the Temple. Big building, you can’t miss it.” But if you had asked Amos where to find God, he would have told you that God is to be experienced in justice; and the more you speak out against, and do something about, injustice, the closer you are bringing God’s kingdom to reality.
Remarkably, this is the voice of someone living nearly eight-hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth was telling the Temple authorities in Jerusalem to reform their practices and was executed because he spoke with prophetic power about God’s kingdom.
In fact, three of Judaism’s most radical prophets lived in the same century - the 700s BC. Their words are in our bibles because the Jewish tradition embraced their prophecies as tough teachings, but teachings which contained challenging truths; teachings which came out of a noble and respected tradition within Judaism of prophetic preaching, and which therefore deserved a place in their holy scriptures.
And so we today have the privilege to hear the voice of Amos, who said justice is at the heart of God’s values and is the way towards God’s kingdom; and we can call upon the teachings of Hosea, who proclaimed that love is the defining characteristic of God’s relationship with humanity; and we can go and meet Micah, who put forward a vision of universal peace as a hallmark of the kingdom yet to come.
Listen to those prophets in the 8th century BC expressing God in terms of justice, love and peace, and you hear the best of an authentic Judaism which a preacher from Nazareth will connect with, and will build upon as a reforming movement, several centuries later.
Come forward another two millenia, and what does justice look like today? Doesn’t it strike you how contemporary Amos’s words are in our present world?
Amos heard the grain-sellers among his people wanting the holy days to be over so that they can sell their grain. In our day, don’t we see boundaries around retail selling being pushed further and further back? And is such a consumerist approach always in the *customer’s* best interests? What does it do to employees’ rights and welfare among those who work in retail? Do we really think zero hours contracts are always in the employees’ best interests? Or is it all more likely to be focused on maximising the retailer’s income?
Amos observed merchants overcharging, using false measures, fixing scales, selling worthless wheat at a high price, and cheating customers. In our day, I sometimes find it difficult to switch on the television without landing on a consumer rights programme of some kind, which is exposing rogue traders, fraudulent businesses, or corrupt sales agents. And it’s virtually impossible to envisage the true extent of the mis-selling of some banking products - effectively worthless wheat sold at a high price.
Amos condemned those in his own community who find someone poor who can’t pay his debts and decide to buy him as a slave. In our day, unregulated debt is increasingly being seen as a corrupting influence which has the power to enslave people into a spiral of poverty. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has woken up to the dangers of high-interest lending, such as pay-day loans, becoming unmanageable millstones around the necks of some people. And whether it’s debt to a loan company which is outwardly legal, or debt to a gang who got you into the country illegally and who now own your every working hour, it’s slavery by any other name.
Amos warned those in power against trampling on the poor and needy. In our day, I don’t think I am alone in seeing aspects of public policy which have a disproportionate impact on the poorest in our all-in-it-together society. Do we really support the promotion of a belief that there is a class of undeserving poor in our society who need to be punished by being made poorer?
There are aspects of our society today which are as far removed from any vision of justice, love and peace as were those destructive features of Amos’s society about which he preached. Perhaps our challenge is to pay heed to a prophetic voice which is still telling us that our choices in our world can tend *towards* justice, or can tend *away* from it. The message from our own faith tradition, stretching back to Amos and beyond, is that our choices matter and should reflect our values and our principles.
Perhaps our vision of where God is leading us *can* rely on how and when we go to God, locked inside a church or a temple, confined to the beliefs and patterns of worship, but, in many respects, separated from our everyday lives. Or perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the divine when God comes to us in the people of our city, and the lives they live, and the places they go - everything, in fact, which gives value and identity to who they are. It’s another choice: a choice about whether or not we will let loose our spiritual senses and embrace new experiences of God.
Amos, of course, would simply say, ‘Use your spiritual senses to pursue justice: that is how you will find what you seek, and you will share in fulfilling God’s vision for the world’. Jesus said much the same: his model of social justice defended the poor and the marginalised at every opportunity.
Justice as the pathway towards God’s vision for the world is a powerful idea; it has certainly stood the test of time; it’s hard to engage with Jesus and his gospel and avoid its principles. And yet it remains a challenge for us today as we make today’s choices in today’s world - choices which can tend *towards* justice, or can tend *away* from it.