• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

The Way to Life is through Truth

Summer 2022, separate summer sermons, mostly from Lectionary, preached July 10, 2022, at the 930am worship


Context

Today, we are reading one whole chapter from the Prophet Amos. Amos was a farmer from Judah who went north into Israel to speak a hard truthto them, in hopes of helping them avoid what God had shown him would be the consequences of the way they were doing life together.


Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord from…


Prayer


Scripture Amos 7:1-17

7:1 This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: God was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the later crops were coming up. 2 When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? It is so small!”


3 So the Lord relented. “This will not happen,” the Lord said.


4 This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great seas and consumed the lands. 5 Then I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How could Jacob survive? It is so small!”


6 So the Lord relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign Lord said.


7 This is what God showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in God’s hand. 8 And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”


“A plumb line,” I replied.


Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.


9 “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed, and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my might, I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”


10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The nation cannot bear all his words. 11 For this is what Amos is saying:


“‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’”


12 Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you fortune teller! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. 13 Don’t prophesy (here) anymore at Bethel because this is the king’s sanctuary and (this is) the temple of the kingdom.”


14 Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I was (just) a shepherd, and I also took care of (some) sycamore (and) fig trees. 15 But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, preach to my people Israel.’ 16 Well then, hear the word of the Lord.


You say, “‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the descendants of Isaac(?)’


17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: “‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will die in war. Your land will be measured and divvied up, you yourself will die in a foreign country, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’”


Sermon The Way to Life is through Truth

It's so hard to tell the truth. That sentence sounded silly to me when I first wrote it the other day, and still sounds a bit silly as I say it to you. Shouldn’t it be easy to tell the truth? Isn’t ‘telling the truth’ what we raise our children to do? I used to say to our boys, “If you make a mistake, you might get in this much trouble (fingers apart a few inches), but if you make a mistake and lie about, it's this much (arms wide apart).” Isn’t telling the truth what most of us believe our favorite news sources do? Isn’t truth what we expect from our groups and our friends? Isn’t telling the truth what most of us believe WE do… in our marriages and families, in our workplaces and schools? Isn’t truth what we expect from our leaders? How can I say telling the truth is hard when we act like telling the truth is natural and easy?


Amos was just a guy from the south, from Judah. He was an independent business person, a shepherd, tree farmer. Amos wasn’t an economist, but he was attuned to the way the economy worked quite well for some and didn’t work very well at all for others. He wasn’t a politician, but he was attuned to the way people in power wrote laws and collected taxes to maintain their power and wealth even at the demise of their people. Amos wasn’t a preacher, but he was raised near the stories of God and could see the hypocrisy between the way the Scriptures command us all to live in holy community and the ways religious leaders of those scriptures were picking and choosing texts, misinterpreting them, and selling out to political practices in conflict with God’s mercy and justice.


Amos goes north from his southern home and dares to start speaking these truths to the people of Israel. Once upon a time, Judah and Israel were one nation, all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had split many years ago thanks to the bad leadership of Kings David and Solomon. To Amos, they were still family, one people, one community of God. So he went to speak truth. But its so hard to tell the truth when others hear it only as judgment.


In the Feasting on the Word commentary series, Will Willimon, a bishop in the Methodist church and professor at Duke Divinity, says this:


“most of us just want to be left alone, left to our own devices to live our lives as we please, immune from judgments upon our lives that are not exclusively self-derived; but the God of Israel and the church will not leave us alone. God comes to us sometimes through the words of a prophet like Amos, loving us enough to tell us the truth about ourselves.”


Many in Israel were so loyal to their side, they believed anyone from the other side wasn’t capable of speaking truth. But Amos' words did begin to stick with some. Amos, speaking for God, in earlier chapters, was saying truths like,


“For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They are selling the innocent for silver and trading the needs of others for a better pair of shoes for themselves. Then they walk on the heads of the poor as if they are just dust of the ground… There are some who oppress the innocent by taking bribes and depriving the poor of justice in the courts… God hates, despises your religious festivals... Even though you bring God your… offerings, God will not accept them… God won’t listen to the noise of your prayers!… (What does God want? God wants) justice to roll like a river, and righteousness to flow like a never-failing stream!”


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King loved this line of Amos and used it often himself.


Amos was speaking confrontational truths to his brothers and sisters in Israel. He was saying these truths near the synagogues and temples, the courthouses and jails, in the marketplaces, outside the leaders’ homes, and in the wealthy neighborhoods. But it's so hard to tell the truth. At one point, Amos says, “There are those who hate… and detest the one who tells the truth…”


Amaziah was a religious professional and an advisor to the king of Israel. One commentary calls him a “powerful political priest” who had “ingratiated himself with the royal court” and who spoke “pleasing words to powerful people, soothing their consciences and telling them what they want to hear.”


Amaziah tells the king of Israel, Jeroboam, “a Judean called Amos is saying bad things about you all over Israel. He is dividing the country. He is saying things like our kingdom will fall and threatening the people they will lose their way of life.” Then Amaziah goes after Amos, saying, “Get out of our country, you charlatan! Why don’t you go back where you came from? We are God’s people. This is God’s county, and we follow our King.”


Its so hard to tell the truth. Truth causes fear in some people, and therefore resistance. Truth gets inside us and won’t leave us alone. Truth challenges our assumptions and makes us rethink our priorities. Truth makes us uncomfortable. Truth makes us change. Truth shows us things we didn’t want to see and tried not to see, but now cannot unsee. Truth means we have to do something different.


Will Willimon also says this about this passage of Amos:


“… leaders have the responsibility to face the fear and to tell the truth, to say, ‘You are in denial because you are fearful that you don’t have the resources to face the truth … and do something about it.’ A leader must put an organization in pain that it has been avoiding at all costs. The leader tells the truth out of faith...”


[i]In the late 1950s, Rev. Billy Graham was packing out stadiums for his crusades, and becoming a religious advisor to Presidents. At that same time, Rev. Martin Luther King was preaching to 30,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on the sins of racism and segregation. Graham invited King to speak at one of his crusades, and King accepted. They talked about “setting an example of Christian love” and preaching a community that “transcends race or color.”


Then, Graham led a crusade in Texas and invited Gov. Price Daniel, a staunch segregationist, to introduce him. King wrote to Graham and encouraged him to uninvite the Governor, or at least make it clear Graham did not agree with the Governor on this “burning moral issue.” But Graham had the Governor introduce him anyway and said nothing to differentiate himself from the Governor. Graham’s staff replied to King, and said Graham never engages in politics. (Then why did the governor introduce him?). Graham’s staff also advised King to be neutral on political issues like segregation and racism and to love the Governor in Christ.


When King was arrested for sitting at an all-white counter, Graham said, “no matter what (the) law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it.” When King was arrested in Birmingham for leading a march, Graham urged King to “put the brakes on” in a New York Times column. Rev. King wrote notes in the margins of those newspapers, which became seeds for his famous “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.”


King wrote, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership… I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis … would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents.” Graham lived to the age of 99 and counseled many Presidents. King was assainated at the age of 39.


It's so hard to tell the truth.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.


Charge

A plumb line is a simple tool – a weight on a string. With gravity, it gives us a true measure of straight. God’s plumb line is truth. The way to life is through truth. May our lives, our churches, our country stand straight beside God’s plumb line of truth.


Benediction

Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.

[i] The Graham/King story was taken much from a 2021 PBS article called “The Tale of Two Preachers” by Kristin Butler, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/billy-graham-tale-two-preachers/

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