Thursday, January 18, 2001

A Famine of the Word?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Amos 8:7-12
1. An Introduction

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (2 Kings 1:8, Matt. 4:4)

Not by bread, alone, but by the word…

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Frank McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

Not by bread alone…

The ancients knew this. Amos fiercely predicts that all manner of calamity will befall his 8th century BC countrymen. He saves the most horrific for last. There will come a time, he forecasts, given your wayward habits, given that so many so often are living a lie (this is sin, living a lie), when there will be no word. After which, as Jesus so often said, it is too late. Famine was the great scourge of antiquity, feared as today we fear nuclear holocaust. Said Amos, there is something worse. A holocaust of the word. When there is no word, no truth, no communication, no consort, no connection.

Are we living in such a time? Today? Has a famine of the word befallen us? A fit question for the memory of Martin Luther King, is it not?

2. A Time of Famine Today?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? A few hours spent viewing Jerry Springer or Bill O Reilly or Friends or the Shopping Channel might make you think so.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? The great hopes with which television writing began, in the 1950’s, have given way to waste, a beautifully bedazzling--wasteland. And yet, there are exceptions, children of Rod Serling still found in the magic box. Here a little there a little, even on TV…You enter a new dimension, not of sight or of sound, but of mind and imagination.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Look out at the internet, a sprawling universe of chat, governed by e-mail. E-mail: immediate, global, indelible, irretrievable, reactive. The medium of choice today. Does it play to our penchant for control and our slothful introversion? Like aerial bombardment, it puts a distance between aggressor and victim. I guess I fear I will come to love it, even though it brings out less than the best in me…And yet there are exceptions. A carefully composed, thoughtful letter, kind and honest, only sent over the waves after three editings. A joyful e-note from Europe or Texas or Iraq.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? I found cleaning out my wallet the other day that the Brighton library card and the divinity school card were both still there, unused in the recent past. The human being, to be human, needs space and time for being. Otherwise we become human doings, not human beings. For this reason God made winter. For this reason, of the making of books there is no end.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Listen to our political discourse. We were led to war on the argument that prudence dictated immediate action. So we could act preemptively--though this was not our custom, unilaterally—though this was not our desire, imperially—though this was not our heritage, unforeseeably--though this was not our preference. So, an ostensibly Christian country could be led to prosecute a post-Christian war--because of the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Where are they? It is not fatal, for the government, nor for the vast majority across our congregation, county and country who have supported the war, if they are not found. We can survive that, as readily as we can their discovery. People know about mistakes, and thus about contrition, compunction, apology, learning. The discovered atrocities within Iraq provide some cover and justification. But it needs saying, doesn’t it? From the highest offices, doesn’t it? Or are we beyond telling the truth? Just how broad and lasting is the word famine? Are we still in the era of questioning the meaning of words like “is” and “sex” and “good”? I thought we voted that out of office. Los mismos perros con collares differentes.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Listen to our church talk about gays. Why has this issue swallowed all others? I believe this issue is the identified patient in our dysfunctional family rhetoric. The perennially ill person in a family distracts (and protects) others from talking to one another, or about other things. A pastor learns to let the identified patient be, and to talk to the others, the so-called healthy family members. What (or whom) does his illness help others avoid? This issue helps liberals avoid other issues like evangelism, abortion, and stewardship. This issue helps conservatives avoid other issues like war, justice, and money. Really, homosexuality is the perfect scapegoat, both for liberals and for conservatives. It helps us in our daily preference of the anxiety of the known over the fear of the unknown. All you need is a willingness to let go of the truth.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us? Someone should write a diary of our daily talk, like V Klemperer did in Germany from 1933—1945. What would such a diary record? What is the character of our daily conversation, to the extent we have time for it? How well do we listen? How carefully do we remember? How insightfully do we respond? How lovingly do we visit? Do we visit?

Turn down the television for a moment and see if, by speaking in an honest and vulnerable way, you may come closer to your family and to God. Turn away from the computer for a minute, and say something risky. Make it a responsible risk, covered in kindness and love, but make it. I know: “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth—and remove all doubt”. I know: I never regretted the things I did not say as much as the things I said badly. I know: omit needless words. Still, we have this day and this week on this green earth, to feed one another the word of life. Try and say what is on the heart, and try and tell the truth. And have faith and have courage: falsehood finally has no defense, and truth needs none!

3. Listening for A Prophetic Word Today

Amos spoke 800 years before the birth of Christ. He mourned the bitter loss of an only son, before that phrase would trigger theological reflection, as it does for us. He foretold a darkness at noon before that phrase titled an account of Stalin’s purge. He spoke of songs becoming laments before the poetry subsequent to 9/11. He comes before Jesus the Christ. Amos’s prophecy about a famine of the word may fit most or some of our current experience. I wager it fits more than we care readily to admit. But this is not the last word! The word famine is not the last word now!

We trust our life and future to Jesus Christ! It is his word, finally, that carries us, and his role as Prophet that means most for us. In him, the voice of the prophet continues, even in a word famine, to speak to us. His word lives as spirit right now right here among us.

There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are varieties working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good. To one is given through the spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge through the same spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by the same spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

The other cold day I sat at the streetlight noticing the temperature. –2 degrees Fahrenheit. Here is a strange reality. There are great gulfs crossed between gas to liquid and liquid to solid. But those gulfs are numerically unheralded. They are not known by great numbers like 100 degrees or 0 degrees. No, they are found out on the arithmetical periphery, in forgotten minor numbers like 32 and 212. Celsius is so much more orderly. But Fahrenheit is peripheral like prophecy and lopsided like life. You find the word spoken in forgotten places. With Amos, in a little hamlet of Tekoa. With Jesus, up on the lakeshore. With Wesley, in coal mines. With King, in the black church. Voices, peripheral but clear…

Ellen Goodman still trying to make sense of the 70’s… Alistair McCloud naming male loss…Isaiah Berlin prospecting for peace… David Brooks reshaping the meaning of conservatism…Alexander Solzenitzn admitting that truth is elusive… Vaclev Havel hoping for freedom…Bill Ritter pondering suicide… Paul Farmer, healing the Haitian sick…

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. This is what Amos did, however unsuccessfully, for his people.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. This is what Lynn and Mark Baker have done, here and there, for the poor in Tegucigalpa. Mark wrote recently, “If people are not secure in God’s love, their alienation from God will lead them to live in ways that harm others.” (151)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. Reinhold Niebuhr did so over a long life time of restrained, earnest engagement with life. I carry this paragraph of Niebuhr’s in my wallet: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” (Sifton 349)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. So said Abraham Heschel, while he and Niebuhr, as older men, walked their dogs together on Riverside Drive. Wouldn’t you have loved to overhear their banter? Listen to his voice: “The demand in biblical religion is to be alert, and to be open to what is happening…Awe enables us to sense in the small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple.” (Sifton, 332)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. During WW II Paul Tillich took the subway downtown once a week to speak over Radio Free Europe, to speak to his German relatives. Listen to his radio voice: “…the Jewish question is the question of our own existence or non-existence as Christians and as human beings. It is the question of our redemption or our judgment…this crime means blood guilt for generations for those who are doing it and those who are tolerating it…taking place with ever growing cruelty in Poland…hundreds of thousands of innocent people are being hauled away to mass death and you are standing by!.” Listen to his radio voice regarding the National Socialists: “They know all about tragedy, for their creed educates for tragic heroism, it educates for death, but this is all Nazism knows, whereas democracy, socialism, Christianity all have something that stands beyond tragedy, a hope for the human race.” (Sifton 265). Do I detect here an insight and a probing characterization of some trends in our own country and in our own time? I believe I do.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony. The generations deep hurt of people of color in these United States finally found full voice in the well tempered homiletics of Martin Luther King. In Christ, the divine voice has taken full throated residence in the heart of hurt. A voice to be heard needs loving connection with an addressable community. The prophet does not stand above or apart from his people. He abides, dwells, tabernacles among them.

Spirit tells us though that our calling is not to remember and recite, but to live and speak!

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “The great stumbling block is the white moderate more devoted to order than justice”. Our job is to be alert to the weighty matters of justice and mercy and love—of jobs and money and life.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. Our job is to find that something.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Our job is build that nation.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “let freedom ring” Our job is to make it ring, in our time, in the face of the fear of this time.

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “I just want to do God’s will (and) we as a people will get to the promised land”. Our job is to get walking.

4. Honoring Prophetic Speech

Up then and let us wait for the Word, waiting without idols, waiting without substitutes. And as we wait, let us honor the prophetic speech of Amos, of Jesus, of Wesley, of King. And let us act so in particular.

Let us prize the days in winter, the gifts of winter snow days, to read, to read ourselves, to read to our grandchildren, to invest in the joy and the spiritual grace of reflection that comes from reading. A literate person today is not one who can read, but one who does read. Let us protect and preserve the possibility of a divine Word, heard as spoken, by listening with intense glee, come Sunday. People have such remarkable, and shabby reasons not to worship. Not you, not we. Listen to the word of God.

Let us then speak ourselves, as we have spirit. At least in prayer. By visiting with one another (and that more than a broadcast e-mail). By writing down our views: in a journal, for a letter, as a letter to the editor. Numbers 11:29: “Would that all God’s people were prophets”.

Let us together assemble the spiritual gifts: the poetic spirituality of Ralph Cushman, the political engagement of Francis McConnell, the pastoral love of Earl Ledden, the homiletical energy of Ralph Ward, the administrative genius of Joe Yeakel, the cross-cultural insight of Hae Jong Kim and the joyful presence of Violet Fisher!

Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Great and Loving God, who is nearer than breathing, and closer than hands and feet, help us to draw near to you in sincerity and truth. Like the ancient prophet Amos, we confess that we are people who go astray. Individually and corporately, our speech has failed to be the truthful and redemptive gift it was intended to be. All too often we have criticized rather than encouraged, and we have cursed instead of blessed. We have been cowardly quiet when we should have spoken and we have been unthinkingly outspoken when we should have held our peace. Forgive us O Lord if our words have been tainted with racial slurs and sexual innuendos, if they have been tainted with anger, and if they have been diluted with untruths. Cleanse both our tongues and our hearts, and help us to communicate with godliness, purity, and power. Help us, O God of compassion to be all things to all people. Help us, in times of sorrow and difficulty, to be supportive and sympathetic. Give us the words to say in difficult situations; and if we cannot find the right words, give us grace simply to stand by with the warmth of our presence. Help us in times of happiness of others, to be equally supportive, which is often a more difficult task. You know, O Lord, how easily we begrudge others their success, and how jealous we can become of their honor. May we rejoice with those who rejoice as well as weep with those who weep. Give us guidance to know how to be of most help; when to be firm and when to give in; when to speak out and when to listen; when to encourage and when to reprimand.

We pray for those who have been chosen to represent the people in the halls of government, whose laws affect the life and welfare of all of us, whose decisions can make war or peace, injustice or justice. As we pray for our own country and the world, we pray for a great spiritual revival and wave of reverence and commitment to you and your ways. Where our sacrifices, or witness or service may aid your healing work, put us to the task. Speed the day when your kingdom is manifest in peace and prosperity, in mercy and justice, in faithfulness and obedience. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

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