The Rev. Elsa A. Peters
15 July 2012
The United Churches of Olympia
Amos has seen a lot. He’s seen locusts eating green plants and fire that consumed the earth. These are not normal visions for any old shepherd. Amos is a tender of sycamore trees. He never meant to be a prophet. This wasn’t part of the plan, but lo and behold, Amos is seeing things. Each time, he narrates these bizarre events with the same introduction: This is what the Lord showed me.1 But Amos doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with what he sees. He barely takes notice and instead focuses his attention on God, pleading: I beg you, Stop!
God relents, but not entirely. Terrible things won’t come to pass but God has not given up on Amos’ ability to see. God needs someone to tell all of the people of Israel that this isn’t going to cut it. Justice must roll down like water. It must flow like an ever-flowing stream, but they can’t see it. God needs a prophet to point them in that new direction.2 God needs someone, anyone to start seeing things. So, God leans against that wall to ask a shepherd: Amos, What do you see? Perhaps it would be easier if God just told Amos exactly what the future hold or even what God holds in her hand, but that’s not what happens. God asks a shepherd, someone who knows more about sycamore trees than doing justice: What do you see?
What do you see? It’s a question that we ask curious children and those that we hope to empower. It’s a question we ask when we don’t know the answer. It’s a question we ask when we want to understand. Because we feel like something could change. Because we’re not so sure that things have to be this way. Because everything that we thought was important doesn’t matter as much as it once did.3 It’s the question we ask when we’re ready to imagine what could be. Oh, let’s be honest. It’s the question that we are asking in the church. It’s the very question that the church is tripping over because we got so caught up in trying to understand what in the world a plumb line is that we totally forgot how it relates to our vision. Friends, don’t worry about the plumb line. Nobody knows exactly what it is. Oh, it has something to do with measuring the wall but it’s not about the tool or the wall. The power of the plumb line, when it’s in God’s hand, is that it looks toward new construction.4
Amaziah isn’t too pleased about that. Amid these visions of locusts and fire and plumb lines, we get a story of a guy that doesn’t want to see anything. He likes things as they are. So, he has got the shades drawn. He’s not looking outside. He just plain refuses. Because of this Amaziah reminds me of a story that Diana Butler Bass shares in the conclusion of one of her books:
A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country; lakes and mountains and green fields and rivers. But the shades of the bus are all pulled down. They do not have the slightest idea of what lies beyond the windows of the bus. And all of their journey is spent squabbling over who will have the seat of honor in the bus, who will be applauded, who will be well considered. And so they remain till the journey’s end.5
That pretty much sums up Amaziah. So, he does what we do when we don’t want change. Amaziah tries to get rid of the one that is talking the loudest — that would be our poor tender of sycamore trees, Amos. In doing so, Amaziah makes two assumptions. First, he thinks that the king and his priests have authority over what prophets say and do. Second, he thinks that Amos is a professional prophet who can easily get a job elsewhere.6 He’s wrong on both counts but that doesn’t stop him from telling Amos that he’s a greedy pig who should go back where we came from.7 Obviously, Amaziah is not seeing things. The question is: are we? Are we allowing ourselves to imagine what could be? Are we encouraging each other with all the divine wisdom we can muster to really look? Are we pulling up the shades and looking out into those lakes and mountains to imagine that more could be for ourselves, for the church and for the world?
So, let’s do it. Let’s start seeing things. Because God wants us to look. God is asking us to pay attention. God is inviting us to see. It might be right in front of our noses, but we are getting lost in the translation rather than encouraging each other with that wonderful divine question: What do you see? Because you might see something different than I see. You might see a possibility that I can’t imagine. And you might see something that none of us have ever thought of before. And suddenly someone is saying: Did you see that? No, really. Did you see that? Look! And we all bend our heads to try to see it. Maybe we all see the same thing. Maybe we all see something different but it’s not long before someone nudges you in the ribs and asks that divine question because they really want to know: What do you see?
This is what is happening in the church right now. Like Amos, we’ve seen a lot. We have seen the doom and destruction of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and the ongoing Protestant struggle over homosexuality.8 We have survived only to be smacked in the face with the news that the mainline (that is is both Presbyterians and UCCs) is declining. And we’re terrified of change. We’re not sure what will happen to the future of our beloved church so it’s tempting to behave like Amaziah. It’s so tempting to dig our heels in and insist that this is just the way it is, but that’s not what we’re doing. Instead, we’ve huddled together so that we can’t help nudging each other in the ribs, and asking: What do you see? Maybe we will see a plumb line. Or maybe we will all set our sights on a hippopotamus. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that divine question. Because we are huddled together nudging each other in the ribs asking that wonderful divine question: What do you see?
This is how I learned to be the church. No one told me that this is how you do it. No one ever said that there was only one way to understand our faith. And part of me wanted that. Part of my little 8 year old self wanted to be told that this is how it is. I wandered into that sanctuary after my mother died because I wanted some good, solid answers. But that’s not what happened. Instead, that church family turned to me during the passing of the peace and in coffee hour to say: What do you see? They didn’t tell me what I should see or even that everything would be OK. Instead, they huddled together with me wrapping their arms around me, saying: Tell me, what do you see? And if someone has ever nudged you in the ribs and asked you that question, you know that it changes everything. Because you no longer you feel like you have to have that one answer to all of your questions. You no longer believe that this is just the way it is. With that one divine question, so lovingly asked, you’re able to see that your faith really can change the world. That ever since God leaned against that wall beside Amos, God has never stopped asking us: What do you see? And you’re no longer scared of this question but excited about what you might see.
So, let’s do it. Let’s start seeing things. I always swore that I would never be one of those preachers that always talked about seminary in her sermons. But, in seminary, this is what we did. We asked each other that divine question whenever we opened the Bible or stood on street corners preaching justice for restaurant workers. And it was exciting. When you are surrounded by a group of people that really do believe that their faith is going to change the world, it is so exciting.
And by God’s plumb line, I don’t want that to ever stop. I always want to be surrounded by a group of people that really believes that their faith can change the world whether we are working for marriage equality, sitting in a session meeting, breaking ground for Camp Quixote’s settlement or baptizing a newborn. Let’s start seeing things. Let’s get so excited about what it means to live out our faith that we can’t help but nudge each other in the ribs to say, Did you see that? No, really. Did you see that? Look
1 Amos 7:1, 4, 7, CEB.
2 Elna K. Solvang, “Commentary on First Reading: Amos 7:7-15,” Working Preacher, 2009, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/12/2009 (Accessed 4 July 2012).
3 Douglas T. King, “Homiletical Perspective: Amos 7:7-15” in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Kindle Edition, 2008.
4 Stephen Edmondson, “Theological Perspective: Amos 7:7-15” in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Kindle Edition, 2008.
5 Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation (Herndon, VA: Alban, 2004), 102.
6 Karen Sipio, “Exegetical Perspective: Amos 7:7-15” in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Kindle Edition, 2008.
7 David G. Garber, “Commentary on First Reading: Amos 7:7-15,” Working Preacher, 2012, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/15/2012 (Accessed 4 July 2012).
8 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 77-79.