1 Tim 6:6-19
LET US PRAY,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I meet with a group of boys that live near my teaching parish church, St. James, in Lexington. A couple of weeks ago, the vicar and I decided to play a game with the boys to work on teambuilding and communication. We had the five boys line up at this one spot in the hallway and told them that we would give them five dollars each if all of them could travel from one end of the hallway to the other, using pieces of paper like stepping stones because now, the floor was lava. They could not slide on the paper like snow shoes, and if their foot came off of a piece of paper, I would snatch it up. Naturally it took the boys a while to figure out a working strategy, but eventually they started making their way down the hallway and one of them crossed the line, making it to the other side. Their strategy involved having two people go across at a time; one placing the papers on the floor to walk on, the other picking up papers that had already been used so that I wouldn’t take them away. When the first kid made it across, his partner was left with a choice. Cross the line now, or go back for his friends. He chose to cross the line, taking all the papers with him. So, they lost. They had forgotten their friends on the other side, being content to finish without them.
This is what Amos is talking about in our text for today. Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, is sent by God to prophesy to the kingdom of Israel because they have forgotten their neighbors and were not only content to live without them, but were oppressing them for their own personal gain. God is a God of justice, and as God’s people they should know better. Instead of grieving for their neighbors who have been left behind, they “lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves out on couches. They eat lamb and veal, and sing, and drink wine by the bowl full.” So God sends them into exile.
Amos’ prophetic words speak to us, here, now despite their being written 2,776 years ago. We have heard this same theme in our country not long ago in Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ Letter from Birmingham Jail written in 1963. King writes,
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Dr. King urged us 53 years ago not to forget our friends on the other side, and be content to live without them.
I am convicted by the words of Amos and Dr. King. For the past 400 years our country has been content to live without and even make our living off of our brothers and sisters. Slaves built our houses and grew our crops. After a civil war that ended slavery, half of the country created laws that legally oppressed African Americans and robbed them of their constitutional rights. After the battle for Civil Rights, we declared a War on Drugs that has led to the mass incarceration of the poor and people of color. Black men are dying on our streets every day while we stretch ourselves out on couches, sing songs, drink wine by the bowl full and declare that “All lives matter.” When we see a sports star take a stand for justice by refusing to stand for our anthem, we participate in that same lukewarm acceptance that Dr. King write about. We do not grieve for the brothers and sisters that have been left behind, we are content to live without them.
But maybe that is not right. In Luke chapter 4 Jesus quotes Isaiah saying:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
If this is the goal, the end of the game, maybe it is us, we who have forgotten the plight of our brothers and sisters, and we who were content to live without them, we who made our way across the lava floor on pieces of paper, taking them with us as we crossed the finish line… we have been left behind. This is the scene we are given by Jesus in today’s parable. Lazarus, a poor man, sick broken, battered and dying is welcomed to the bosom of Abraham himself while the Rich Man is condemned to torment. Even in death, the rich man cannot see the point of the game. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to fetch some water for him. Abraham responds, “I’m sorry. I can’t. Lazarus, I mean
I mean Fernando Castille
I mean Sandra Bland,
No, I’m sorry,
Lazarus is at rest here with me. And besides You’re all the way at the other end of the hallway and you took your papers with you.
The Rich man still doesn’t get it. “Send that boy Lazarus to my kin so they he can warn them what it’s like over here on the other side. Abraham says, they have Moses, Amos, and all of the prophets. Let them listen to these. And how many more do we have Church? We have the words of Jesus Christ himself. We have Paul and Timothy and Martin Luther! We have Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, James Cone, Malcom X and Martin Luther King. And yet we still stretch ourselves out on couches, sing songs, drink wine by the bowl full and forget our friends on the other side, content to live without them.
And yet, despite all of this, God keeps God’s promises. God first promised Abraham and all his descendants that he would be their God and that they would be his people forever, period. At the end of Amos chapter 9, God remembers God’s promise:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
And they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
And they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them on their land,
And they shall never again be uprooted
Out of the land that I have given them.
In baptism God has entered us into that same promise. The water that covered our heads to cleanse our hearts cannot be unpoured. That oil cross marked on that baby’s head can not be rubbed off. That seal of the cross of Christ is for forever. The promise made to Abraham and his descendants is made to us. God will be our God, and we will be God’s people.
We confess every Sunday that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We ask God, for the sake of his son, Jesus Christ, to forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s holy name. We hear that God forgives us, and has promised to send us his own spirit that will bear fruit in us. Fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. God will not forget us on the other side of the hallway. God is never content to live without us. Thanks be to God. Amen.