Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 13, 2003
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Amos 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13)
"God chose us in Christ before the world began."
During the time of the church year that we call "Ordinary Time" the church leads us week by week into what Jesus' mission -- and therefore ours -- is all about. The big feasts are behind us -- Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, with all their high energy and trappings -- and now it's down to the hard slogging of every-day life, trying to live out the Covenant in the daily routines, with no fanfare.
Last week we were introduced to Jesus' role as prophet. As a witness. And we heard him confront the difficult realization that prophets aren't honored among the people they are closest to, their own people.
And then today we are given this odd little passage from the book of Amos. We get no context. We don't know who these two people, Amos and Amaziah, are. What's going on here, what's this all about?
Frankly, when I first saw this passage, I felt 'there's not much fruit to be gained here.' But after reading up on Amos and the situation he was confronting, it turns out that there could be a lot of food for our prayer and reflection. Precisely for the situation in which we find ourselves as Christians in our contemporary world.
Amos lived in about 700 B.C. The Israelites had just won a significant victory over the Arameans (that's contemporary Syria more or less). They were on top of the world, secure. The two sections, Israel and Judah, had patched their differences up and were at peace. And Amos is called by the Lord to reveal to the people how smug and arrogant they had become.
They had forgotten the covenant. They forgot who they were and how they had gotten there.
Amos has the Lord say things like this: "they spurned the law of the Lord and did not keep his statutes;" "the lies which their fathers followed have led them astray;" "they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pari of sandals;" "they trample down the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth and force the lowly out of the way;" "son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name;" "they lie down beside any altar, upon garments taken in pledge, and they drink in the house of their god the wine of those who have been fined."
The Covenant with the Lord is not some comfortable individual arrangement, it involves the brotherhood and sisterhood of a people. It involves social justice. One writer says, "A nation can have a true covenant relationship with God only when the people deal justly with one another."
Amos comes into this picture of prosperity and holds up a mirror which reveals its soft underbelly. It is built on spiritual amnesia, on the falsehood of empire-building. Empires become arrogant, believing in their omnipotence. Through Amos God calls them to where it all really comes from:
"It was I who destroyed the Amorites before them, who were as tall as the cedars and as strong as the oaks. I destroyed their fruit above and their roots beneath. It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, and who led you through the desert for forty years, to occupy the land of the Amorites; I who raised up prophets among your sons. . .
but you commanded the prophets not to prophesy. . . . Behold I will crush you to the ground."
What is this Amos? In our contemporary terms he's a whistle blower. The 'official' prophet, Amaziah, is the court flunky, paid to mouth the party line of the king. Amos is proclaiming "Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land." He sees the shadow of the much larger Assyrians coming, and Amaziah accuses him of "conspiring" against the king. He says, "The country cannot endure all his words."
Amos is not of the court. He's an ordinary guy like you and me. He's poor. The sycamore trees he tends are the fruit of the poor, not the juicy treats of the rich. He doesn't want to have to speak up, but the Lord will not let him go.
He says he is not one of the 'bands of prophets." Who are they? In our terms they were the spin-doctors of the court, going out across the countryside to make sure the people knew the official line, but interested only in their fees.
What is going on here is not simply some odd religious not being listened to. This is a struggle between those who are maintaining a facade, a hollow shell, and an individual called by God to name an unpleasant fact of what's really going on.
Does it sound familiar now?
We don't want to hear that our 'success' in Iraq might be tainted. Maybe we were deceived, maybe our leaders miscalculated, maybe there were questions they should have attended top and didn't.
There were -- and are -- whistle blowers, but they are discredited by the chorus of official cheerleaders. The ambassador in Greece who resigned in protest as the war fever was being ratcheted up. Ambassador Joseph Wilson who said nine months ago that key intelligence was fraudulent. The Army chief of staff, General Shinseki, who had the temerity to say that it would take 200,000 troops -- they had to quickly push him to the margins, which they did.
Just as the church did with the whistle blowers who warned of the sexual misconduct situation over 10 years ago.
We hear rumblings among the people: what are we really about here? Have we become the messiahs who are going to straighten out all the countries we label evil?
In today's Gospel Jesus sends out his apostles to witness to the Good News. They are to go unencumbered, to travel light. That's what all that stuff about not having a walking stick and such is getting at. They are to be free, poor, not to get caught up in themselves. And they are warned against getting co-opted. When people receive you and take you into their homes you can get to feeling comfortable and miss the fact that they aren't listening to your message. The witness is to keep interior distance: they just might not want to hear, at which point you move on. Prophets don't automatically get listened to.
In Ephesians Paul reveals to us the only foundation to be trusted: to be in Christ. Scholars tell us that in this one epistle he uses the phrase "in Christ" thirty times! In his later years, after reflecting on this mystery for years Paul comes to the insight of what it's all really about. It's God's work, God is in charge. In Baptism we were singled out to be inserted into a people. A people with a different message than the world wants to hear.
To become an empire is to move into a spiritually dangerous position. Empires easily fall into arrogance. We are the sole super-power. There is no one left that is strong enough to challenge the empire. We can do anything they decide to do. We don't need to listen to anybody, we can do it all by themselves.
It can be so easy to get caught up in the cheerleading, to get co-opted by the official message and lose our voice.
Are we losing our center? Spending our resources on sophisticated and super-costly weapons while we curtail social programs, while more and more jobs are being lost, state governments are at survival; while education is being cut and millions of our people cannot afford basic health-care?
We are being cautioned that it is unpatriotic to raise such questions on behalf of the Covenant with the poor. It is not unpatriotic; not to be true to the questioning in our spirits is to fail in our patriotic responsibility as citizens.
We belong to a Covenant people which is called to proclaim a different message. A message based on a modest sense of who we are in the scheme of things, not on arrogance; on serious responsibility for the power that is ours, not unaccountable use of might; on interdependence with others, not on going it alone; on truth and not deception; on life out of death, not the rah! rah! Of success.
It is a message the world and its leaders want to stifle. Let us pray that we may have the mutual support and courage to proclaim it in season and out, no matter how unpopular it may sit with the principalities and dominations.