Fortunate Sons and a Faithful Remnant
When I was in 8th grade I discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival. Granted, Creedence had already been around a good thirty years by that point, but eighth grade was when I first heard them. And I loved them. I liked Put Me in Coach, I liked Proud Mary, but absolutely loved the song, Fortunate Son. Fortunate Son had just enough rebellion, just enough disgust and disdain with the status quo, to really appeal to my rebellious adolescent spirit. The lyrics proclaim that the singer is not a Fortunate Son, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate Son, Oh it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son.” Not only is the singer among the unfortunate, he also heaps judgment upon the wealth and injustice of the fortunate: “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don't they help themselves, oh But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes.” The singer is upset, he’s angry at the injustice of some people, the fortunate ones, taking all they can, well beyond what they need or can create, and then refusing to contribute to the well being of all through the paying of their taxes. These fortunate sons take and take and take and when it is their turn to give, their turn to pull their weight, to take responsibility for their actions, they are nowhere to be found.
Amos, the Israelite Prophet of the 7th Century BCE, was decidedly not a Fortunate Son. Amos came from the small village of Tekoa, where he worked with his hands. He was not descended from a line of prophets, he did not grow up in a prophetic school, he was merely a common man, a laborer. Amos simply believed he had heard the word of God, and that he had been called to speak God’s word of judgment to the newly prosperous kingdom of Israel. God’s message to Israel was not good news for the fortunate of their society. Amos was a prophet with precious little good news to share, he was a prophet of doom.
Why? Why was God so upset with Israel? Why is God threatening them with annihilation? Isn’t this the same God of Jesus Christ, the God of grace, and mercy, the God whom John identified as love itself? How can such a bright, sunshiney, loving God be so eager to condemn, to punish, to take from the people their wealth and their security? What could the people have done to provoke the wrath of God?
Amos is not shy about publicly listing the sins of Israel; their actions which have brought about God’s wrath. The people have turned justice to wormwood, and they have righteousness to the ground. They have trampeled on the poor. They have built vineyards and houses and fortunes from the sweat of other men’s brows. They have pushed aside the needy, they have abhored the truth, they have taken bribes. What is worse, they have done so all while claiming God’s blessing. They have deceived themselves so thoroughly that they have come to believe that God has given them the wealth which they have taken from the poor. That they, the fortunate, are God’s chosen people.
Amos comes to remind them of their covenant with the One True God, the God who created the heavens and the earth. This belief in single God, a God not of a certain people, but a God who creates and sustains all of the Universe, was and remains the unique and special gift of Israel to the rest of the world. What made the Israelite belief in a single deity so significant was that it tied faith in God to ethical action in the world, it was and is, an ethical monotheism. The connection between belief in God and ethical action is all over the bible, it is most succinctly stated in the summation of Israel’s law, “To love the LORD your God with all your heart, and mind, and spirit, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” This two loves, that of neighbor and of God, are inseparable; for the God who created and loves you, also creates and loves your neighbor. To love this One God, requires loving what She loves, loving all the creation.
The wealthy of Israel have broken their covenant with God. They have not loved the poor, but exploited them. They have not sought the well being of the needy, but pushed them aside. Like any mother who sees an older son beating and abusing a younger, weaker son, God chooses the side of the oppressed and abused and meets the abuser with wrath. If the people of Israel continue in this oppression, “God will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
The message of Amos to Israel should hit us like a ton of bricks in our present situation. The wealth of our nation came largely from the sweat of other men’s brows: 400 years of slavery, a continued history of exploited immigrant labor, extraction of wealth and natural resources from the third world. Our political leaders have thrown off any semblance of shame and lie routinely and boldly to the nation, its people, and the world. They abhor the truth. The gap between the poor and the obscenely wealthy continues to grow, and there seem to be a never ending supply of preachers scrambling to bless the wealthy to declare their prosperity a sign of God’s favor rather than a sign of their hatred of justice and the poor. If Amos brought a message of doom and destruction to 7th century Israel, what message would he bring to 21st century America?
We may not need to wonder any longer. In the last week the United Nations released a report on climate change which states clearly that without massive and immediate government intervention the consequences of climate change will be severley felt by the year 2040. Coastal cities and communites will be washed away. Famine, drought, and flooding will ravage the globe. Plant and animal species will go extinct at alarming rates. Disastrous weather, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes will increase in frequency and intensity. And all of this will happen, all over the globe, by the time our children are in their twenties. It would seem that God’s wrath is about to be poured out, or at the very least God seems to be leaving us to face the consequences of our sin. The coming disaster has been foretold. The question remains how will we respond?
Although Amos had a lot of bad news to give to Israel in the 7th century, he did hold out just the tiniest speck of hope for the people. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; And so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” In the face of a global enviornmental crisis, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. It makes sense to feel that their is nothing that we alone can do. In fact, that is precisely what the UN report says, volunteerism will not solve this crisis, it will take massive government intervention just to lessen the disaster. As people of faith, people in covenant with God, what should our response be? The new covenant, of which are a part, proclaims that through the power of God’s grace we can be saved, we can be set free to pursue righeousness, to seek good and not evil.
This is precisely where Amos locates hope, in the grace of God, “It may be, that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” God’s grace is what saves. God’s grace is what makes possible newness of life, and transformation. It is in the grace of God that we must put our trust and our hope for salvation.
Does that mean that we are passive, that we keep on living the same way we have been, hoping that God will miracoulsy save us? No. Grace is transformative. It calls us to new life. It makes it possible to seek good over evil. If we are to trust in God’s grace that requires that we begin living as a people transformed, here and now. In the face of the coming disaster, in the face of the consequences of our sin, we must begin bearing witness to God’s saving grace by our actions as the church. We must bear witness with our lives together to God’s saving power by changing our ways. We must seek to care for the creation, to live in greater harmony with nature and our neighbors. How can we as church live more sustainably, how can we limit our pollution, our carbon footprint? We must seek to care for the poor and oppressed who will face the worst of the climate crisis that the wealthy have created. How can we help refugees? How can we work for justice for the poor and exploited? We must seek to tell the truth, even the difficult truth of the coming disaster and our responsibility for it, in love. How can we as church bear witness to the importance of truth telling? How can we help people out of denial and into a new life of covenant responsibility? The Church can be that faithful remnant of which Amos spoke, the seed of a new world of justice, righteousness, and truth. We can bear witness to a more just world, to the world that God is calling us to be. But we will have to choose to do so. This transformation of our selves, our congregation, and our community, will not happen if we don’t work for it. It will require our generosity, our giving of our money, our time, our love, and our compassion, and it will require our trust in the saving grace of God. My prayer is that we may find renewed enthusiasm for the work and ministry of St. Paul’s UCC. We are called to be a light to the nations, to model the kingdom of God for the world, to be a people who seek transformation through the giving of ourselves and our gifts to God and God’s plan for all creation. May it be so. Amen.
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Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast