Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2016

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“Famine of the Word”

Text: Amos 8:1-12

This is a strange equation we find in Amos today. The Lord is so angered at those who have exploited the poor that God promises not only to bring bitterness and mourning, but also withhold the Word—so stingily that it will be, as the passage says, like a famine. A famine “of hearing the words of the Lord.”

How are we supposed to move forward in times when our world has so fallen, that God is withholding the Word as punishment for the abuses of the powerful? Why, when we need guidance the most, would God deprive us this way?

While God remains present, perhaps the Word itself—that is, God’s living teaching, or the spirit of wisdom that leads us toward acting in loving kindness—perhaps the Word itself is withheld from us when we blow it in big ways. When we have arrived as individuals and as a society to the point at which we will buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” there is something that has broken inside of us. We cannot crawl out of that pit trusting our own judgment. No. It is our own judgment that has brought us down in the first place. To return to the Word we must look beyond our own position and our own need for self-justification.

 

Perhaps in these times we cannot find the Word again on all our own, no matter how earnestly we search, because we have to discern it anew based on the testimony of those who we have harmed. Amos tells us the Word will be hidden from those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” That the Word will be denied to those who have committed these atrocities. The trampled, however—might they still have access to God’s word in these times? And if we are striving desperately to draw nearer to God, might we begin by drawing nearer to the trampled? To the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated, and the many who are literally and daily being left for dead on the highways and byways of this nation? Not draw near to them in superficial ways that simply assuage our sense of guilt but in ways that fundamentally shift the balance of power? Draw near to them so that those forces which are responsible for harm can no longer continue to abuse and murder with impunity?

It seems clear that we need this. We know we do. We know there is blood running in the streets of this country and we know that it is probably going to get worse, much worse, before it gets better. But how do we do this? How do we draw near to God’s living word among the poor and the oppressed, the only ones who can point us back toward God in times like these? The opportunities are everywhere if we are serious about listening, even if it means listening past our own fear and unknowing.

One example: this past Thursday at Chaplains on the Harbor, a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County where I work, we held an event called “State of the Streets.” It was the second time we’ve done this. Our initial inspiration came from an event put on by local business owners called “State of the Harbor”—where, for $35, you could come at 7:30 in the goddamn morning and listen in on their plans for economic development. At Chaplains on the Harbor we organize with poor and homeless people who do not have $35 to burn, who can often been found busting their butts at the canneries at 7:30 in the morning when there’s work available, but who are extremely interested in economic development because their lives depend on doing it right. So as an alternative to the “State of the Harbor,” we’ve started hosting these “State of the Streets” events. They’re free, we host them after working hours, we feed everybody who comes, and our featured speakers are the true experts: people who have very little or even nothing to lose under the current economic model, people who are experts on change and innovation because they will die without it. At our Westport “State of the Streets,” these speakers taught the audience not only their struggle to survive, but also their genius, courage, and steadfastness in fighting back.

Our opening “speaker” on Thursday joined us in the time-honored, biblical tradition of sending us a letter from jail. She knew the event was happening and sent her words ahead of time, to be read aloud to everyone there. In the letter she detailed the conditions under which she was currently being held as an inmate at the Grays Harbor County Jail on a minor drug charge. She detailed her experiences of being put into solitary confinement as a response to her seizure disorder, of gross medical neglect, of getting sick from the food, of the steady worsening she observed of her already-compromised mental health, of being denied basic hygiene supplies like soap and toothpaste and being unable to afford the ones for sale at the commissary. These were her closing words: “Please help us change things here. I’m willing to try to make a difference by speaking up, how about you?… I want to change things somehow someway, if able. I don’t have people who can help me, but I can help others.”

What are these words, if not the words of God? And what is her outrageous hope for change if not the hope of God? These terrible, frightening times in which we’re living resonate far too closely to Amos’ description: “The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” and “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place,” and we are feeling it over and over “like the mourning for an only son.” But if we know where to listen for it, if we know who to ask, the Word of God is still being spoken even in the midst of this agony. If we find ourselves wandering “from sea to sea, and from north to east,” running “to and fro” and still cannot find the Word, perhaps it is because we have locked it up and cast it out: in the jails, the detention centers, the refugee camps, the Jungle, the storefronts and squats on the Ave. These are, after all, so often the last places we look for anything—especially moral and political leadership. Especially hope. Especially genius.

Hope is not cheap. It is dangerous. Real hope that the real world might really get better is a terrifying thing to consider, because it forces us to acknowledge just how much needs to change. Just how much we need to change. Hope is a costly orientation toward this world and it will mess you up. It will get you in trouble. It will get you laughed at. It will get you punished. What better teachers can we ask for on enduring all this, for the sake of real hope, than those who are at the forefront of punishment and trouble in our society already? God’s word is alive there, even now. Listen for it.

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About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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