Shut Up and Dribble? No Way!
5th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 10C)
This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword." Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, `Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'" And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom." Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' "Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, `Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.' Therefore thus says the Lord: `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 in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'"
1 God takes his stand in the council of heaven; *
he gives judgment in the midst of the gods:
2 "How long will you judge unjustly, *
and show favor to the wicked?
3 Save the weak and the orphan; *
defend the humble and needy;
4 Rescue the weak and the poor; *
deliver them from the power of the wicked.
5 They do not know, neither do they understand;
they go about in darkness; *
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 Now I say to you, 'You are gods, *
and all of you children of the Most High;
7 Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, *
and fall like any prince.'"
8 Arise, O God, and rule the earth, *
for you shall take all nations for your own.
Last February, NBA superstar and media mogul LeBron James sat down with fellow basketball superstar Kevin Durant for an interview with ESPN’s Cari Champion. They were asked to speak about various topics, including what it’s like to be black and a famous public figure in the US. James spoke about an incident in which his Los Angeles home was vandalized with racist slurs in 2017. And he spoke critically about the leadership of our current President.
None of this was all that surprising or new. James and Durant have both been critical of the administration in the past. But this caught the attention of Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Ingraham rebuked James comments on her show The Ingraham Angle, calling them “ignorant” and “barely intelligible”. She closed her segment with these now infamous words: “Keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”
Obviously this stirred a pretty big media firestorm. Many defended James and criticized Ingraham for her condescending and thinly-veiled racist remarks. But that’s not what I want to focus on this morning. Instead I want us to dwell on the notion of a spokesperson for a politician in power who tries to use her platform to shut down criticism of the government. [REPEAT]
That’s what we encounter in this reading from the book of the prophet Amos. Amos receives a vision about the corruption and injustice of King Jeroboam’s government in Israel. He is confronted by Amaziah, one of the professional prophets of the king’s courts. He tries to push Amos out and shut him down from speaking the truth because he and the king don’t like it. They don’t want Amos to rile up the people against their unjust kind or spread fear of the coming Assyrian army. But Amos will not be quieted. He must speak the word of the LORD wherever the LORD tells him to.
Another layer of complexity comes from Amos’ citizenship and political identity. At this time in biblical history, the twelve tribes of Israel, chosen by God to bless the world around them, are a disunified mess. They have split into two different kingdoms, the ten northern tribes, called Israel, and the two southern tribes called Judah. Amos is from Judah, but the LORD calls him to preach to Israel in the north.
The northern and southern kingdoms had a tense relationship. They had fought wars against one another that left a bitter rivalry. And their religious practices differed. Even though they both worshipped the LORD God of Israel, they did so differently. In Judah, all worship was centralized in Jerusalem, in the temple built under King Solomon. But in the north, they built other shrines for sacrificial worship and they did not always follow the instructions we receive in the Law about worship, governance, or ethics. It may be hard to imagine now but many wars and conflicts have been fought over religious disagreements that we might today just call different denominations.
So Amaziah accuses Amos of being a foreign conspirator and threat to national security. Amaziah tells King Jeroboam, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, `Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'"
So Amaziah, as a public spokesman for the King of Israel, blasts Amos: And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
Surely, Amaziah didn’t come to tell this to Amos in a private meeting. He gathered the people in the public square of Bethel, Israel’s largest city, to insult and taunt Amos. He doesn’t belong here. He’s not from here. He should go home and bother his own people. It’s the ancient equivalent of going on your cable news show and telling Amos to “shut up and dribble,” “shut up and go home,”
But Amos claps back. He is not a professional prophet. He’s not on any King’s payroll (the King Of Judah did not send him). He’s not preaching because he wants to or because he has some ulterior motive. He preaches because the LORD commanded him to speak the word of God and to speak it specifically to the northern kingdom: Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' Amos is just a shepherd and a farmer but God took him from that quiet peasant life and thrust him into this religious and political controversy that he didn’t ask to be a part of. Amaziah would have sounded more clever if he told him to “shut up and take care of your sheep.”
Amaziah’s tactic is a simple one that has been repeated by people in power countless times: Accuse your critic of being unqualified, uninformed, and unimportant.
But it doesn’t matter to God that Amos is a shepherd. God can give him the words to say. It doesn’t matter to God that Amos is in another country from his own. God is the God of all nations. Our Psalm says in verse 8 Arise, O God, and rule the earth, * for you shall take all nations for your own (82:8).
So what was going on in Israel that was so important for Amos to speak up? What was Israel doing wrong? Why did God send this poor shepherd to become a traveling prophet and preacher? And, perhaps most importantly for us, how do we know when we need to speak up? What are the things that God cares about enough to disrupt the political and religious status quo? Here are some examples from Amos’ prophecies earlier in the book:
“They [Israel] have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals. They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way. Father and son have intercourse with the same young woman, degrading my holy name. They stretch out beside every altar on garments taken in loan; in the house of their god they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. … I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youth to be nazirites. Isn’t this so, people of Israel? Says the LORD. But you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You won’t prophesy’” (Amos 2:6b-8, 11-12).
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on Mount Samaria, who cheat the weak, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring drinks, so we can get drunk!’ … Come to Bethel -- and commit a crime; multiply crimes at Gilgal. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tenth-part gifts every three days. Offer a thanksgiving sacrifice of leavened bread, and publicize your gifts to the LORD; for so you love to do, people of Israel! Says the LORD God” (Amos 4:1, 4-5).
“The LORD proclaims to the house of Israel: Seek me and live. But don’t seek Bethel, don’t enter into Gilgal, or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilgal will go into exile, and Bethel will come to nothing. Seek the LORD and live, or else God might rush like a fire against the house of Joseph. The fire will burn up Bethel, with no one to put it out” (Amos 5:4-6).
“They hate the one who judges at the city gate, and they reject the one who speaks the truth. Truly, because you crush the weak, and because you tax their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won’t live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you won’t drink their wine. I know how many are your crimes, and how numerous are your sins -- afflicting the righteous, taking money on the side, turning away the poor who seek help” (Amos 5:10-12).
The LORD said, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food— I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
SUMMARY: Afflicting the poor, sexual exploitation, pious hedonism, superstition, religious pride and bragging, exploitative fines and taxes, rejecting fair judges, bribery and corruption, refusing to help the poor and needy, systematic injustice in society (with faux blessing from religious leaders)
These are the kinds of things that God rejects in human societies. God does not want to see the rich hurting and exploiting the poor, does not want to see the powerful smothering the joy and potential of the weak, and does not want to see religious leaders excuse away or “bless” these injustices. And in case you didn’t notice, these same injustices continue to be a problem in our own country and around the world today.
The wealth gap in the USA is larger than it has been since slavery was legal. Healthcare is so unaffordable that medical bills (and uninsured time off from work) are the number one cause of bankruptcy in America. Poor and needy immigrants and long-term residents of our country are being detained in inhumane, torturous conditions because they don’t have the right paperwork. This country has the highest prison population in the world, and disproportionately arrests, prosecutes, and punishes people of color.
But God is setting a plumb line in the midst of the people. God will measure us against something straight, just, and true. And God will find us lacking. We can be part of the godly resistance to injustice, or we can sit idly by, passively supporting the corruptions that Amos condemned.
May God give us the grace and the courage to speak truth as Amos spoke the truth, and to lead our people as he led his. Amen.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant full interview: https://youtu.be/HtNWc1AIU20
Laura Ingraham clip: https://youtu.be/AlHuaOIvRLY