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.

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