Sunday, September 24, 2000

Can Promise Emerge from a Land of Plenty?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 5:21-25, Romans 2:12-16

A Look into the Library

I wonder: is our 'God' too small? Have we fully appreciated the divine compassion for the needy, God's protective preference for the poor?

Walk for a moment back to the heart of life, that for which your soul yearns. A church bell rings. A village green beckons.Across the street you can see a library, an old house converted to stacks of books. Today the library hums with the quietconversation of the saints their watch keeping, to hear the night of weeping become the morn of song. Today we return booksthat are overdue, with the current fine of 8 cents per day per book. 40 years ago, in this town, the chief civicfundraiser, which built a hospital and a ballpark and too, this little library, was an annual book sale. Every autumn, onone October day when the weather was still warm, the school let out at noon, the businesses closed at noon, and the townswarmed to the library and adjacent lots and buildings to buy each other's books. I see The Hobbit, Harriet the Spy, TomSawyer, A Wrinkle in Time. The adults bought each other's dog-eared volumes, and skimmed along reading by way of eachother's underlined paragraphs. Someone else had cut the trail. Why not follow?

In the library, out in the center of the room, you can see a large dictionary on a revolving stand. Let's walk over, andpick up the magnifying glass, and browse for a minute. (Glasses?) Is…Sex…Juniper, junk, Jupiter…ah, JUSTICE: "the principleof moral rightness, equity".

The Prophet Remembers the Poor

Our spiritual library, a collection of 66 volumes, is the Bible. And in the older room, back in the second stack, justaround the corner from Law, we find a collection of prophets, starting in 750 BC with Amos.

Amos was an unlearned shepherd boy from Tekoa, a small town in the north. I wonder if Tekoa had a library, and I wonder ifAmos was a regular there. Maybe. Amos looked at the plenty of his people, and found it a mile wide and an inch deep. Hewas gardener, specializing in the trimming of Sycamore trees, and of course he had his sheep. He had time to think. Iwonder what he would think of our last decade: a tripled stock market, a booming economy, new internet commerce, expandingportfolios. I wonder what he would thing of our last decade: curiosities about worship modes, tunes for singing,alternative settings.

At a party last spring we met a couple who have a daughter and son-in-law in California. The parents cannot fathom their children! The young couple are dual professionals in San Francisco, frenetically busy and successfully prosperous.Their net worth already - and they are not yet 30 - is more than $1M. But they are anxious to retire soon, and they feelcompetitively and comparatively poor, when they measure against their coworkers. Somehow they sense that they are missingthe bus. What is it that truly gnaws at them? Is it concern for security? Or is, down in the caverns of the soul,rather the sense of broken promises, sleeping at the bottom of our opulent rivers of life?

Jon Voight wakes up sweating at the end of Deliverance, because he sees a hand emerging from underwater. The hand ofpromise, promise broken past and promise kept future, is going to emerge, sometime, in our history.

To a similarly opulent and religious people Amos, alone, hearing God's word spoke God's word:

I set a plumb line in their midst. What is plumb, what is true, will last, and what is not, will not.

Take away from me the noise of your church music
To the melody of your instruments I will not listen
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness as an ever flowing stream

Intimacy with the God of Amos and Jesus is not to be established or maintained through hymnody, a word hard for a singingMethodist like me to hear. There is chumminess, a coziness to our God talk and song that ignores God's sovereignty, andGod's claim on human obedience. In age of flat religion, churches without sanctuaries, worship spaces without height -just here is Amos with a high word, justice.

After all, God had established a covenant. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. For the people of faith, life may have meaning as it is an expression of the emerging promise, the will of God, especially tested by the way a people treats those whoare voiceless, shoeless, clueless. The unnoticed. We become so caught up in our own life project that we risk forgettingthe least, the last, the lost. Until, at last, we are brought up short. There is a day reserved for the bringing upshort of those long on religion and plenty - me and you. Are we living in hope that the Day of God, the day of justice, the day of righteousness will come to an end so that cheating and exploitation can resume (Heschel)? Is this what lurksbehind our current openness - listen to the autumn's political debates - to gambling, to building local economies 90 minutes east and 90 minutes west, on games of chance and the fecklessness of our citizenry? I thought I read something in our Book of Discipline about the corrupting influence of gambling. The divine delight arises from justice. Thedivine desire is prior to whatever may currently have become legal. What is legal is not simply and only what is rightand just.

Paul Promises the Reliability of Conscience

In Jesus Christ, according to the Apostle Paul, we are given a lasting, everflowing stream of connection to the divinejustice. This is good news, though sometimes it may not feel so. Paul names the invasion of Christ, just here, with the word conscience. He asserts that we all have a conscience, religious and unreligious both. And he makes hisassertion "according to my good news". It is the same voice, inner voice, intimate inner voice, on which the prophet Amos relied, to which Paul directs us today. This, for Paul, is the best of good news. The voice of the prophet, nowagain then again, emerges in the promise of Jesus Christ, an ever flowing stream.

Perhaps conscience is relegated to the back pew, to the periphery, to the subway walls and tenement halls, to the still listening young. Still, conscience lives.

A while ago, I asked a college junior, one of my best students, what he was doing after graduation. He thought for awhile and then said, " I would like to volunteer for a year, but my parents want me to get a job or study more." I listened and nodded and thought: Go Parents. Yes: job, study. One for our side. Driving home, though, like Amos amongthe sycamores and sheep, I had a little forced time to think. As I thought, I became truly ashamed. Paul described the life of the conscience, and my student voiced his conscience. I want to volunteer. I want to give to others. I want toseek the right. I want to work for justice. I want promise to emerge in this land of plenty and I feel the promise of God on my still open, young heart. Yes, I had implied with a wink and a nod, sure. But let's face it. Your parents areright.

Are they? Are we? Was I?

The voice of prophetic promise lives, but it is muted, left on the sidelines, given over to the young, ignored.

Paul of Tarsus, Paul of the letter to Philemon, Paul of Romans 13, Paul of the ongoing collection for the poor, Paul ofRomans 14 and the strong and weak - the Apostle asserts the ever flowing righteousness embedded in your conscience. You have a conscience both to accuse and to excuse, and so do I. Is this good news? "Disturbance of the soul, restlessmurmuring, cavil, and protest: such may be signposts to the peace of God which passes all understanding."(Barth). God sets upon us all the same just expectation and the same emerging promise. Just consult your conscience. Let yourconscience be your guide.

The Promise of Justice Today

One looks back over the past lucrative decade in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, and one wonders.

What if, along this opulent river, our mantra had been not "economy, stupid" but "theonomy, dear". Not the law of thehousehold but the divine law?

What if, over ten years, our nation had been harnessed to the explosive dream of liberty and justice, for all?

What if our personal lives, across America, had been forged like steel in a white heat of compunction, reverence,self-discipline, frugality and generosity?

What if, in this ten year season of gain (a tripled stock market, a world-wide webbed economy, and rocketing portfoliosall around), we had been led by a vision of a great dream, of justice and liberty, for all?

We get the leadership we deserve. But what if we had seen the river of wealth across this land as a great surge towardjustice?

What if, in this smooth season, the harsh voice of Amos had been heard?

What if we had not settled, this last decade, for liberty and charity for all?

What if, in our time of ease, we had affirmed demanding leaders, strongly compassionate leaders, of the stature ofWashington and Lincoln and Roosevelt? If Roosevelt made a river in the desert of the '30's, what would he have been able to do with the 90's? If Lincoln brought the waters of union in the dust of the civil war, what could he have donewith the complacent opulence of the 90's? If Washington could forge a nation in the cold ice of Valley Forge, what could he have done with the sunny, steaming fantastic wealth of Silicon Valley?

A great watershed of prosperity has cascaded down upon this country. I recognize that not all of us have been drenched.For some it has been a sprinkle in time. But what as a nation have we made of it?

At the time of our greatest success and excess, we have frittered away precious time and precious money on personalpleasure, and our leaders, in high office and elsewhere, have cut the trail.

What if we had not studied the dictionary definitions of "is" and "sex", our focus so present tense and so personallypleasurable, and instead had looked into the J column, standing in the poor library of our heart of hearts, and grappled with mishpat and dikaiosune, justice and righteousness?

We forget the 10% of our people who have been left behind, at the very time when our resources could have allowed usstunningly to defeat poverty.

In southern Madison County today there are very few dentists because there are very few teeth.

In our weaker schools, there are very few excellent teachers because there are very few ordered, safe, disciplined,respectful classes.

In our pulpits, there are very few true voices, because in our pews we are sated with comfort, and no longer hunger andthirst for misphat, dikaiosune, justice.

Promise can emerge in a land of plenty, when none are left behind, no not one.

This August, I backed out of the driveway and nearly hit a finely dressed, six foot, gray haired, distinguishedgentleman. He carried a nice brown sweater, carefully folded over his arm. He had no idea where he was, lost in the forest of Alzheimer's disease, sure his wife was just around the corner, though he had been walking alone for threehours.

Promise can emerge in plenty, when justice prevails.

Suppose, for a moment, we had all the best qualities of our presidential candidates and none of their weaknesses. Nader'sutopian idealism, without any tendency to anarchy. Gore's sincere populism, without the repugnant mendacity, the moral relativism of his boss. Bush's lone star and high hat optimism, without regressive tax policy. Buchanan's openness tolife, without the disdain for others who maintain, with St. Augustine, a respectful agnosticism about such ultimate issues. We need the best of all these men, and others. But that misses the point! That misses the main truth! If wehad all this, it wouldn't add up to 10% of the promise that is smoldering in our well being, the promise that is seething in our prosperity, the promise that is about to emerge from our plenty.

Let justice roll down like waters…

Our 'God', as J. B. Phillips said, has become too small. No. We missed our chance in the 1990's. We will have to startover. And starting over is hard. Ask anybody who took a new job this week, or who went to AA for the first time, or who moved from one pulpit to another this summer. We will have to start over, and look again at the soul library definitionof justice.

North Star

In August we stood one night on the western edge of our country, at the San Francisco Bay. It is a beautiful, even amajestic set of vistas. We happened to be standing in Oakland, looking out at the summer sky, admiring, among other stars, Polaris, the North and promise star. We had finished a delicious dinner with a dear friend, who herself has had to start all over this year. It is hard to start over. To pack and unpack. To unsettle and settle. To leave the comfort of dozens of friends and, like a freshman in college or a camper in July, to walk to the dining hall alone.

When it comes to justice, when it comes to the poor, we as country will need to start over. That is hard.

With a slight summer wind wrapping us together, we walked to the statue of Jack London and in the starlight read these words, a fitting tribute to the promise latent in any new start:

I would rather be ashes than dust.

Sunday, September 17, 2000

Can We Live With Promise?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Romans 12:3-13


Have we truly opened ourselves, and opened our common life, to the promises of God?

We were raised in the heart of a modest village, poor in things and rich in soul, forty years ago and just before the end of the Christian era. That village was arranged, and nicely so, around a commons, a town square. You can walk today, undisturbed because the town is empty, across the length of the common ground at the heart of the village. On Thursdays the high school band plays, 2 of 3 flutes keeping the right time, and a tired band director, still gay in a town that does not admit the existence of the category, and a loud drum. Sit for a minute on the bench, read a paper. Watch the light spill through the fountain. Have a cup of coffee. We have time. It's Sunday! Your mind wanders, as during a meandering sermon.

Here our children made their first dollars, selling bracelets at the Saturday market. Here 150 years ago Colgate was founded by 13 men with 13 dollars. Here in 1861 men from Sherburne and Earlville mustered and marched to the Utica train. Some came home four years later. Here Andy Rooney waited in 1941 to take a bus to New York and WWII. He did come home, changed. Hear the town gathered and later went to church to pray on November 22, 1963. Here we spent our wedding night.

The botched development of suburban America has left out town squares, and more generally any commons at all, other than the road and the mall, our witness to the gods of motion and consumption. We have fled for the hills, and the comfort and isolation of curbless streets. The town square has been eclipsed and repressed, almost everywhere, except behind the faces and masks of our daily selves. There, inside, lurks a love of the commons, and a hunger to live the free promise of God. I am trying to describe the topography of your souls, folks. A church bell here, a town square there - they represent the best of your emerging salvation, you wild children of the dream! Watch for the return of the repressed.

Common ground, and the town square commons, comes from a deep English tradition, centuries old, biblical and fierce in its old love of freedom, a tradition that protected the rights of the many by providing common space. On the commons, as in baptism and eucharist, all are equal and all are precious and all are free. See - an older couple, buying apples. See - three boys on scooters. See - teenagers, holding hands, gazing down, growing and beautiful. See - there you are! - speaking with another, as I to Thou. The town square is common ground, space glorious space, open to life and love and the other. Yes, a few have already guessed the next move…

The architectural form of common ground is the church. The literal and metaphorical space of the church is quintessentially the location of precious love and precious freedom. Salvation is about space. In my Father's house there are many rooms. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions. There is a wideness to divine mercy, as wide as the sea. The church is the space opened by the invasion of what the prophets called hesed, covenant love, hesed, common love, hesed,

A Covenant Love

In the eighth century before Christ, as the kingdoms of Ephraim and Judah collapsed under the weight of external attack, the divine voice was heard first through Amos and then through Hosea.

Hosea understood his own personal life as an incarnation of God's redeeming love. Do we have the courage to see our pain and glory in the same light? For Hosea, the ministry was the message. Do we hear the words our deeds utter? In Hosea, redemption comes with a price. Do we dare to pay the price of promise?

Hosea took a wife named Gomer. What a name. Gomer became a prostitute, not only leaving and cuckolding her husband, but bearing children to him who were not his. He named the first Jezreel, a reminder of blood. The second he named, "Not pitied". The third he named "Not my people". But though Gomer broke the very marrow of the bone of promise, Hosea, bitter and angry though he was, continued painstakingly to pursue her, in a life, like yours, laden with love and anger. Hosea kept the covenant promise even though Gomer had not only broken it, but had abused, misused and dishonored the same promise. Isn't that astounding? Hosea, in the teeth of rejection, continued tenderly to love a harlot.

This is why. Hosea understood his ministry and life as a personal incarnation of the God's redeeming love. Did God promise to love? So would Hosea. Did God keep the covenant promise? So would Hosea. Did God persevere in love, in the face of human rejection? So would Hosea. Did God continue to love, though his beloved loved others actively and with a willingness to hurt? So would Hosea.

Hosea the prophet deplored his nation's harlotry, even as he persevered in steadfast love. He kept faith with the promise of a better day. He kept faith with the promise of a better day. Do we?

Years ago, our church was daily cared for by a retired woman, quite a successful business woman in her own right, who served as our housekeeper, and by hook and crook kept the church clean, overseeing the sextons, hectoring the pastors, scowling at the children. She especially watched the younger boys. They knew better than to unpack the daycare toys on Sunday and pull out the soccer ball for use on the newly waxed fellowship floor. Iva would be on the lookout. Iva would tend and care, pursue and love, even in the face of their rejection. One Sunday, the boys got loose. They found the ball and began to play, wisely posting a lookout at the door. One of the boys, the youngest, was the new kid on the block, son of a recently arrived assistant pastor. Suddenly, Iva was spotted. The boys ran for their lives, like Bobby Knight leaving Bloomington. The new kid stood in the middle of the floor, holding the ball, and wondering about the mass exodus. "Ben", I said, "what happened to him?" "Oh, Dad", said Ben, a wise man of eight years of age, "it was awful". "Awful?" "When Iva came, it was awful". "What happened to him?" "All I can say Dad was that he was, he was….Ivatized."

Relentless pursuit, persevering love, the daily reception of the covenant promise-this is the gospel of Hosea.

One Spirit, One Body

In Jesus Christ, a new day has dawned, the better day has come. Not "might come". Not "could come". Not "should come if we would do better". Not "has a chance to come". In Christ, there is a new creation. Now. Promised and delivered. Present. Hic et nunc.

The promises of God, which find their yes in Christ, make of us one body, with many members, guided by one spirit, of many gifts.

St. Paul exhorts us to love one another, genuinely. It is remarkable how easy it can be in life and faith to forget the main point. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. We are human when we receive and give love.

Spiritually, the best thing for the minister about vacation, is the chance to go to worship and sit in the pew and pray and sing, and fish around for money for the collection. In a smaller church, with a weaker choir and a minimal staff - but right there is the promise of a space for real life. Worship is the single most humanizing moment and hour in the week. We are bathed again in our own humanity.

Listen for the way Paul invariably calls his people to live in the promise of God. Spacious is God's grace: we are members of one body. Spacious is God's grace: we are indebted to one Spirit. Spacious is God's grace: we are set free to be free, and inspired by love to love. Spacious is God's grace: spacious is God's grace.

An Open Life

Beloved, if God has so loved us, then we also should love one another. If God has granted us such space, such running room, then we too should be spacious in our open living with others.

There is a clean wind blowing through our lives. Let us drive with the top down and enjoy it! There is a loving presence promised us. Let us open the front door and greet it! All the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ! Let us live the promise.

Asbury First is one of the few, perhaps one of the last county-wide town squares in our region. People come here, drawn by the precious love and precious freedom of the commons here. Since 1995 this church has grown by 20%. People are turning out to walk the village park, and to enjoy the space of God. There is a longing, lodged in our subconscious selves, for genuine community. We grope and hunt for spaces in which freely to love, to live the promise. In our time, let us expand the circle of love, rebuild the village green, and make wide the portals of heaven! Someone did so for us. It is the least we can do.

Someone gave us a weightless freedom. We have learned to float, like a beginner swimmer. We are space walkers, like Mr. Lu from Webster walking in outer space, hand in hand with an enemy.

It may take time. Vaclav Havel, 40 years a dissident, 30 years a playwright, 20 years an activist, 10 years in prison, still lived the promise. Now he is the freely elected president of a free Checkoslovakia. "Hope gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless…Without hope it is impossible to live with dignity and meaning."

As Lincoln said, "(Before Gettysburg) I felt my own weakness and lack of power knew that if the country was to be saved, it was because he willed it. When I went down from my room I felt that there could be no doubt of the issue. The burden seemed to have trolled off my shoulders, my intense anxiety was relieved and in its place came a great sense of trust, and that was why I did not doubt the result at Gettysburg".

I wonder. Can we live, truly live, with the spacious, mighty promise of God? Can we conform our own lives and our church life to such spacious hope? Can we welcome the hurting and touch the hurt with the hand of Christ? Spiritual and actual space for such welcoming are at the heart of our ministry.

North Star

I was witness, once to such promissory and spacious welcome. I remember one autumn, when a young man from our community went north to St. Lawrence College. Somehow it happened as the cold fell, he fell ill. He contracted meningitis, was misdiagnosed, and died. Eddie was a football player, a musician, and had been our patrol leader. He was a model for the younger kids. His dad was not a church goer. Like many, he had serious and creditable objections to organized religion. But I remember one night, let us imagine it a bright harvest moon night, with the North Star gleaming, seeing him walk toward the back porch and knock at our door. In he came, smoking a pipe. And there at the kitchen table, on a crisp starlit autumn night, I overheard a conversation that ultimately landed me in the ministry. At midlife I realize in hindsight that this simple promissory conversation, overheard from the next room, more than any other, convinced me of the priority of ministry, the place where we talk about love and death.

The two men sat at the table and smoked pipes in silence, a silence thunderous with the heart shout anger of loss, with the cry of the heart in the face of inexplicable tragedy, with the heavy emptiness of loss.

I wanted to tell about the faithful people here, who year in and year out generously, happily support the work of Christ here. One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe. One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras. One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. This is real stewardship! I wanted to tell the stories of holy people here today. How would I limit the list to fit the 22 minute sermon?

What do you say to a man who has lost his son?

"Would you like some pie, Ed?"
"Pie is good."
More silence and more and more.
"Coffee and pie - good on a cool night."
"How about some cheese?"
"Cheese is good."
More silence and more and more.
"Another slice Ed?"
"Another slice is good."
More silence and more and more.
Now the pipes again, and spoons rattling in the coffee cups.
"How is it Ed?"
"Ah, you know…"
More silence. The silence of two men talking about death and love.
"I guess I'll have a little more pie Marcia."
"Pie is good. And this is good pie."

In an open space, with the welcome of an open door, with a sense of promise drawing one and guiding the other, two men didn't talk about love and death. There was a long and smokey silence and then a rustle of chairs, and a prayer.

O Lord support us all the day long of this troublous life
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed
And the fever of life is over
And our work is done

Then in thy mercy
Grant us a safe rest, a happy lodging and peace at the last.

Sunday, September 10, 2000

Do You Hear the Promise?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Together in Ministry Sunday

Text: Amos 4:1-2, 2Corinthians 1:15-22

1. Spire and Pulpit: Baptist Church

The bells are tolling this morning, singing out from the spire of a little church on a little street in a little town. In the town in which we were raised, during the bucolic years of the New Frontier, the beat and cadence of life were set by the Baptist church bells. Hourly they rang, and on Sunday they pealed out the call to faith like a rural minaret, a country shofar, the invitation to the living to hear something of the meaning of life. I noticed that they are repairing the roof and steeple again this year. For a church born in 1793, you expect some repairs. Colgate graduates like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Adam Clayton Powell worshipped in the worn pews, sitting before a simple and stern old regular Baptist pulpit. Like Rochester, Hamilton is a Baptist town, its deep structures still fixed according to the original, pilgrim design, and beginning with a place for a word fitly spoken.

1. Spire and Pulpit: Love of Words

This is a little town that is steadily filled with a kind of twilight breeze. The Baptist church bells there ring every hour, sonorous and stately. It is a quiet place, forgotten except for its college. Most of the farms around it have grown up to brush again. There is not a lot of activity in the park, or on the main street. But it is a place where words matter. Growing up, our mailman was a Colgate graduate. So was the barber. Some of the farmers who lead and funded the church were, too. There is a gentle hum of words fitly spoken up and down the little lanes of Hamilton, and the day ends at twilight with a sense of rest and deep gratitude, especially for what has been heard and for what has been said. In that village twilight, the magic of language so enthralls its citizens that they are its permanent captives, listening for a word of promise, trusting in a word of promise, walking toward the promise star, Polaris.

1. Spire and Pulpit: Still Small Voice

For all our vaunted material and visible power, the march of armies, the conquest of lands, the construction of cities, the stewardship of industry, the care of crops, the oversight of houses of worship, there is a still small voice, whispering at the edge of time and space, and speaking silently from the stars above, whose mute promise silences all else. How powerful is a word of promise! The prophets regretted promises broken. The apostles acclaimed a promise kept. Our souls stand or fall by words of promise. Today, this week, listen for promise!

2. A Famine of the Word: Promises Unkept

Our Holy Scripture, truer to life than is our own experience, enshrines divine promise. Our promises fail sometimes, or fail in part much of the time. It is the mighty theme of the God who keeps God's promises that is carried in the pages of the Bible. The Prophets of old, like Hosea and Amos, who were hurt by broken human promises, held out a longing - no, a yearning - for the Kept Promise of God.

This our condition: life amid fractured promises. Recently a church group planned over a fortnight in advance to gather for a serious, probing discussion of punctuality at the beginning and ending of meetings. The meeting began at 6:30 A. M. I woke up to see the clock at 6:40, and arrived at 7:00 A. M. In other words, I showed up late to a meeting about punctuality! That's like carrying a banana split into weight watchers, or going drunk to AA! But this is our condition, life amid punctured promises.

How did Shakespeare put it?

Men were deceivers ever
One foot in sea
And one on shore
To one thing constant never

2. A Famine of the Word: Amos Speaks

Eight hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Amos confronted Israel with broken promises. I have been in Rochester 5 years, and in these years, our nation has come more and more to resemble the Israel Amos rebuked. Amos asked his countryfolk to peek courageously underneath the comfortable quilt of prosperity, and see their impending doom. You have forgotten the poor. You are personally immoral. You trust too much in your military might. And your religion is a shallow as a mother in law's love. Said Amos. To Israel.

Amos prophesied that all manner of ill would befall the seemingly prosperous folks doing business in Jerusalem in the time of Jereoboam. He asserted that their prosperity was chimerical, and fleeting, and about to end. He forecast all manner of doom for his people. The God of covenant keeps his promises, he preached. Beware.

To the women:

Hear this you cows of Bashan
Who are in the mountains of Samaria
Who oppress the poor
Who crush the needy
Who say to their husbands
'Bring that we may drink'

The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that
Behold the days are coming upon you
When they shall take you away with hooks
Even the last of you with fish hooks

To the men:

Woe to you who are at ease in Zion
The notable men of the first of the Nations
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory
And Stretch themselves upon their couches
And eat lambs from the flock
And calves from the midst of the stall
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
And like David invent for themselves instruments of music
Who drink wine in bowls
And anoint themselves with the finest oil…


But at the end of his mighty litany of trouble - all of which eventually befell his people, though they prospered and ignored him in his lifetime - Amos predicts that a penultimate tragedy, unspeakable in its horror, will also befall Israel.

For Amos and for Israel and, though we laugh at it, for us, this is the worst of tragedies. Amos predicts a time when, for a time, there will be no promissory speech, no word of life. When the silence of God will be empty and void. Worse than slavery, worse than slaughter, worse than the bitterest of physical suffering - hear Amos's foreboding of life without promise:

Behold the days are coming says the Lord God
When I will send a famine on the land
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water
But of hearing the words of the Lord.

A life without a word of promise, words too of promise, is a life of dust and ashes, it is a living death.

10 years ago this summer, my closest cousin, Chuck was killed in a tragic work accident, leaving three preschool children and a traumatized widow. For a long time, then and after, all the words of prophecy and promise from faith and funeral and family went unheard, at least for me. His inexplicably random and tragically horrible death left a part of my heart cold and ear turned deaf. So it is with a famine of the word.

3. The Joyful Message Hearing Promise

To be healthy and happy, to be saved, to be set free, to hope for heaven, we need promises that are kept. 90% of this message is a simple reminder: God keeps God's promises. 10% is a not so simple reminder: we are most fully human when we try, though we are sure in part to fail, nonetheless to keep our own promises too

How are we ever going to do this?

Not alone we are not.

But there is One in whom Promise lives.

3. The Joyful Message Pauline Promise

Our Holy Scripture, truer to life than is our own experience, enshrines divine promise. Our promises fail sometimes, or fail in part much of the time. It is the mighty theme of the God who keeps God's promises that is carried in the pages of the Bible. Then in the Joyful Testament, we are told of Jesus Christ. Do you remember how Paul put it? "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preach among you, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. "For all the promises of God find their Yes in him." (2 Corinthians 1.) We will listen again this fall to Paul. Jesus Christ is the Kept Promise of God. On him we cast our gaze, toward him we set our sights, by him we mark our progress, to him we walk by faith.

Jesus Christ is alive and busy in our world and your life. He may though have other interests than your current passions. See: he is nursing the weakest of newborn children. Look: he prays at the soup kitchen table of the poor. Watch: you will find him among the quiet giving people of the church. Listen: He speaks through the Holy Scripture and through the word rightly handled. But he does not coerce, he does not force, he does not rape. He speaks a word of promise.

Do you hear the promise?

3. The Joyful Message Promise Lives

His voice still rings out, now and then, in prophetic utterance.

It is the memory of biblical prophecy that causes many in our time to rue the lack of truthfulness on the part of those entrusted with the highest and most powerful offices in the land. We feel the fear of the word famine. But the voice of truth, the spirit of Jesus Christ, will not be stilled! Sometimes you have to listen closely, but it is there!

Recall two years ago, this week, a prophetic voice, in the tradition of Amos, was heard: "I fear the President has undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty". Over Labor Day, a Connecticut Senator and a Democrat had listened to his family, and alone went to the well of the Senate on September 3 1998 to make a powerful speech, recalling the prophetic utterance and the need for truth telling. I think I read somewhere that he is now a candidate for the Vice Presidency!

Remember also (to be bipartisan) this summer's Republican Convention when in a great moment of oratory, one leader decried our neglect of poor children, with a rhetorical gem, a golden phrase. "Woe" he said, "to those many who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations" and in a flash a dozen of life came to mind, pleadings with the stone faced administrators of our city schools, appealing for a measure of safety of discipline of respect, and having - almost always in the eyes, and sometimes on the tongue - to hear this comment over the sea of mostly brown and mahogany and chestnut faces: "You know, Rev, these kids…you can't…I mean…they won't…you just can't expect them to behave and learn…OH, NOT YOUR KIDS, REV, but these…" The soft bigotry of low expecations. I only object to the word "soft". There is promise of truth told, by a political leader. I think I read somewhere that he is now a candidate for the Presidency!

4. A Daily Promise: Your Promises

Our lives, when we are at our best, are filled to the brim with promise. We learn to depend on each other, and to trust another's promise. "Will you meet me after the game so we can talk?" Yes. "Can you pick me up after work?" Yes. "Can I tell you something in confidence, just between us?" Sure you can. "Will you marry me?" I will. "For better for worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health?" I do. "Promise me you will tell me when I make a fool of myself". I promise. "If I don't make it through surgery, will you watch out for my kids?" I will try. "What do think, really, is there love and life after death?" I believe it is so. "Promise me you will be faithful." I promise.

4. A Daily Promise: The Promise of a Better World

This summer in Prague, we saw the simple apartment where the Chech president lives. This is Vaclav Havel, 40 years a dissident, 30 years a playwright, 20 years an activist, 10 years in prison, now ill and dying, but through it all, a witness to the promise of a better world. In 1987, long before the wall came down, and after 40 years of failed struggle, he could write: "Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed." Havel, an agnostic, is part of the community of love and hope, a citizen of the North Star.

He reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not a state of mind, but a state of affairs, not spiritual but historical, and not here yet.

For ancient travelers like Hosea and Paul were guided at night by the North Star. There is a venerable tradition, many hundreds of years old, that connects Jesus Christ to the North Star. Our north star. He is the fixed point, the promise on which we base our lives. We live by trusting his promise. I think of Harriet Tubman and of Sojourner Truth and of Frederick Douglass and of countless slaves, running ahead of death toward freedom. They came north to freedom. They followed the North Star as they ran and walked and hid out and prayed. Some slept in houses and barns in our county, as they went north toward Canada.

This year, this fall, we will take another step or two, under the gleaming gaze of the North Star, in whom "it is always Yes."

5. The North Star

Yes it was ten summers ago we were finishing a feast of corn and beef. That was a hot August 1990, and we had part of mind, at 9 pm to go for a swim under the clear later summer sky. We could see Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the great North Star on the latter's tail. We saw Draco the Dragon and Queen Cassiopia in her chair. We saw the milky way, a filmy haze and dusting. The stars gleamed and beckoned. And then the phone rang bringing that hard news, that report, that my cousin Chuck had been killed in a work accident. He and a fellow phone company line man had been electrocuted. Because he was my closest cousin, because of his relative youth, because he left three toddler children, and because real loss means real grief, I bitterly prayed a doubting prayer that night, underneath the North Star.

Later that the week the funeral came, and with it a sermon, brief and good that I dismissed in my anger. "Awful as this is, better days are coming", the preacher promised. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning", the Scripture promised. "In the seed a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free", the choir promised. "We will get through this", the Word promised. I looked over at his widow and kids and cursed and doubted.

Jesus Christ is God's promise kept, by the ministry of the cross and through and struggling out through the real pain of life. Faith gives us power to withstand even when we do not understand, and to press on trusting in the promise: "A better day is coming. Hang on." A part of that day has come, at last. Today.

Today at 3 P. M. by God's grace, I will officiate at the wedding of Chuck's widow, taking vows of promise with a good man, not a replacement but a husband, and 3 teenagers will be bridesmaids and groomsmen. It took ten years, but a part of the promise has been kept. A measure of stability and happiness and joy has returned, a decade late(r).

When you gaze at the North Star tonight, remember the God who keeps God's promises.

As Unamuno wrote, "Warmth Warmth Warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness! It is not the night that kills, it is the frost."

As Paul wrote:

Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.