Thursday, September 15, 2016

Governed by Rules or Principles?

Since we're a Track 2 parish that reads an Old Testament lesson that is linked thematically with the Gospel lesson, I find it easy to preach on that theme without appealing explicitly to the OT text. This week, however, Amos sticks out. Maybe it's because I'm teaching a Sunday-morning class on Lamentations and its shocking, heart-breaking portrayal of what happens when God's prophets are ignored, but I can't let Amos 8:4-7 go by without spending some time letting the prophet speak directly to me.

Amos was an advocate for the poor. He called out the wealthy and powerful for their predatory practices: "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land..." But it's his take on the religious observances of those poor-tramplers that gets my attention. Revealing their true motives, he writes that they say, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?" He goes on to clarify that they aren't just interested in getting back to business once the festivals are over. They're eager because their trading is an opportunity for defrauding those who cannot defend themselves: "We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." This is the kind of damning criticism that belongs in a Cohen brothers' movie--a picture of humanity so dark it's hard to comprehend.

Basically, Amos paints a picture of religious observance that has lost all ties to the religion it supposedly represents. Here are traders who rightly suspend their practices during the sabbath and during the new moon festivals but who jump at the chance to begin them again so that they can cheat their fellow Israelites. Why bother? Why insist on the dignity of keeping religious rules if they're only forestalling your unholy behavior?

The rules governing sabbath observance have to do, of course, with creation. All of the effort it takes to prepare for a day with absolutely no work is a way of instilling into a person their identity as created by God, who rested on the seventh day. But it's more than that. It's also a way of preserving the integrity of every human being. Even the slaves were not to work on the sabbath. Those who had the luxury of fine living were forced to recognize that those who worked for them also got a day of rest--their household help was suspended on the sabbath. This was a unifying, equalizing practice. Those who would observe it but immediately return to the practice of cheating the poor aren't just missing the point; they're essentially rejecting the purpose behind it in the first place.

The Chick-fil-A practice of being closed on Sunday only honors God if its employees are paid enough to take a day off--a living wage that enables a day of rest. Clergy who encourage congregations to come to church on Sunday can only honor God if they also practice weekly worship apart from the Sunday-morning performance for which they are paid. Those of us who make a pledge to a church are only honoring God if we allow the poor to infiltrate our hearts, and the congregations that accept that money are only honoring God if they understand that money is not for themselves but for the needs of the world. Anyone who claims to follow Christ is only honoring God if that discipleship has as much to do with the life of Christ--a life spent among tax collectors and sinners--as it does with maintaining the habits of a religion.

The rules of life and the rules of our religion are helpful only insofar as they point us back to the principles that really matter. What are the principles for which Jesus died? Are those the principles that undergird our lives, or are we missing the mark. WWAS? What would Amos say?

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