Scripture: Amos 1:1–2 and 5:11–23
Last summer, my son Ethan and I went on a 12-day backpacking trip to Philmont Scout camp in New Mexico. Philmont provides plenty of support, in terms of food and water. But there are some days on the trek, where water is scarce. There are “dry camps,” which require that you bring water with you because it is not available at the camp. Along the way, you have to make sure you fill up your water bottles and bladders at the last possible point. You don’t want to carry heavy water longer than you need to; but you also don’t want to be without water for cooking and drinking.
One of the days on our trek, we planned carefully where we would fill up on water on the way to a dry camp. We had three options. The first was a small stream bed, but it was pretty muddy, buggy, and would have required us to carry heavy water up a steep trail, so we passed it up. The second option was listed on the map as a water spigot. Perfect! Until we got to it and it didn’t work. No water. But we still had the third option: a spot along the way with a creek that ran through it. Now, it said on the map that it was a wadi—dry part of the year but flowing much of the year. Perfect. It was early enough in the season…surely there was still water! You see where this is going, don’t you? Sure enough, the creek bed was as dry as a bone.
Thankfully, we had some gracious Scouts and leaders from our crew who were willing to drop their packs, run down the trail to the first source, fill up everyone’s water, and send us on the way. But it was a reminder to all of us how important water is, and how we can’t take for granted that it will always be there.
The prophet Amos tells a similar story of dryness: “[The Lord] utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.” It sets the tone for the rest of the book; God is angry enough that his voice brings a withering dryness. It is not a surprise that Amos begins with this metaphor of withering dryness. Amos was a shepherd, meaning he knew how important it was to make sure a flock of sheep would have water to drink, and lush grass that had been watered. When he writes that “The pastures of the shepherds wither,” he understands what a tragedy that was. Meanwhile, the book also calls Amos “dresser of sycamores,” which meant he was also an expert in horticulture of the day. So it is not a surprise that he talks about Carmel drying up; the area around Mt. Carmel was known for its lush and productive surroundings. It would be like saying that “the breadbasket of Kansas had dried up” or “the lushness of Napa Valley had withered.” Amos sets the tone here that something is wrong, that God is mad, and even the lush and verdant places have become withered and dry.
And why is God mad? In a word, injustice. Throughout the book of Amos, and really the whole Bible, this condemnation of injustice pops up whenever the people of God fail to care for the vulnerable in their midst. The widows and orphans. The poor. The stranger. All throughout the Torah, the law, there are commands to care for neighbor, but all throughout the prophets, the people are being scolded because they have failed to do so. And God is angry.
Look again for this theme in Amos…
• “You trample on the poor…” God is angry with their hoarding, ignoring the poor and vulnerable in their midst, and taking more than they need.
• “Establish justice at the gate” God is angry with their lack of hospitality to the stranger, left at the border of the town with no way to survive.
• “I hate your festivals.” God is angry with their hypocrisy, singing songs of praise and holding worship services in their fine places of worship, while members of their own community are left out in the cold.
Amos begins and continues his poetic prophecy with this image of dryness and hot anger, blistering and withering the people of God because they have forgotten God’s economy and turned their backs on those in need.
One more word about the background of Amos. As recently as last week, God’s people were united under Solomon in a United Kingdom under God. But remember how God said that the monarchy would turn into a mess? After Solomon, it does just that. The Kingdom divided into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, with separate kings, separate places of worship, and separate political structures. Amos is a shepherd and horticulturalist in Tekoa, which was in the Southern Kingdom, but it says that he preached to those in the Northern Kingdom. The picture that I take from the book is that this blue-collar, salt of the earth, Southern Kingdom shepherd finally had it “up to here” with the nose-in-the-air, arrogant, rich elites of the Northern Kingdom, so he grabbed him a walking stick and made his way up to their fine halls of worship and laid down some “country wisdom.” He told them how far they had strayed from God’s teachings. He blasted them for forgetting God’s economy.
Biblical scholar Robert Williamson gives us a helpful reminder here. A couple of weeks ago, I ordained you all as prophets, and I believe that is the way of Christ. But Williamson reminds us that when we read the Old Testament prophets, it is really dangerous to identify ourselves with their prophetic truth. Because more than likely, we are part of the problem. The prophet is not us…but is talking to us. Preaching to us. Reminding us that we need to get back to God’s plan.
In other words, we need to listen for that knock at the door, because it’s probably Amos, tromping in out of the countryside, tracking mud into our living rooms! He is preaching to you and me:
- He is reminding us of the injustice of our nation, which has seen the divide between rich and poor do nothing but grow in the last forty years. The poor and middle class have had a shrinking share of the wealth of the country, while the rich keep getting richer.
- Amos is preaching to us about our inconsistency. Studies show that moderates and progressives—who often spend their time talking about helping the poor—are actually statistically no more likely to volunteer to actually do it, or in some studies less likely than conservatives!
- And Amos is preaching to me about our hypocrisy. It is easy for me to read Amos about animal sacrifices and festivals and say, “good thing he’s talking about the Old Testament and not me.” But Williamson suggests that Amos wouldn’t let Christians off so easy. His translation is that God would cry out “I hate, I despise your worship. When you perform a baptism or hold communion while there are those hungry and homeless in your community, it makes me sick.”
The words of Amos ring clear in our own ears today.
But Amos is not finished. His book is filled with harsh words of judgment to God’s people—then and now. But there is another word that he brings to the conversation. You may have noticed that I stopped reading in Chapter 5, vs. 23, right before what are perhaps his most famous words in vs. 24:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Here is Amos’s antidote to the dryness of a society that has forgotten the needs of the people. Mishpat and Tzadiyqah. Justice and Righteousness. In the Hebrew Scriptures, these are two twin pillars of the faith. Right relationship with God and with one another. These are the pillars of God’s economy: how we are to live with one another and care for one another. Throughout the Torah—Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy—are these “if-then” statements: IF you live by these twin pillars, THEN it will go well with you; if you do not, your building will crash in on itself. These are the life principles, the community principles, the faith principles upon which the Old Testament law was based. Upon which the prophets stood to proclaim why everything was falling down around them. Upon which the prophetic ministry of Jesus was based. Here, Amos tromps in out of the sheep meadows, and reminds the people who thought that they were too rich and powerful to need anything that Mishpat and Tzadiyqah are necessary for all of us. Without building on the rock that is Mishpat and Tzadiyqah, any house will eventually fall.
And notice the poetic language that Amos uses. In contrast to the hot, dry, withered land which failed to produce, he calls Mishpat and Tzadiyqah to overflow like never-ending water. The sheep-herder imagines a bubbling brook that sustains the flock. The sycamore-horticulturalist imagines a groundwater spring that never stops nourishing the roots. This is not a wadi. Not a sad little overflow stream that runs dry in the parched season. Not a pathetic little dotted line on the map that said it would have water that is as dry as a bone when you actually need it. Mishpat and Tzadiyqah are an ever-flowing stream. Day in and day out. Year in and year out. In rainy seasons and in dry, these are the principles that will never fail to sustain God’s people. These are the things that matter! Angry, fist-shaking Amos becomes poetic, lyricist Amos as he beautifully invites the people to care for one another. To live out of God’s economy of sharing, not hoarding. To trust that the God who gives us all everything that we need, gives us enough to go around.
And Amos the Shepherd-Poet speaks to us, as well. Invites us to drink from the ever-flowing brook that is Mishpat and Tzadiyqah. Justice and Righteousness. Scholar Amy Robertson suggests that if we live in this way, then it will go well with us, also. If we make sure that everyone thrives, we will thrive. We belong to each other. She goes as far as to say that we should be selfish! Amos is telling us that there is a level of self-preservation in this way of life: Hoarding kills us all. Justice and Righteousness preserves us all. Live according to these principles, and it will go well with you.
I think of the words of Roger Williams. I am standing here in this room, named for Roger Williams, a founding father of our country, and one-time Baptist, who tried to live out of this Mishpat and Tzadiyqah. While others felt like the indigenous Americans were a threat and should be controlled, it was Roger Williams who tried to build relationship and mutual respect with them. When others felt like religion should be mandated from those in power, it was Roger Williams who proclaimed religious liberty for those of every faith, not just the majority faith. He lived out of this ever-flowing stream of Mishpat and Tzadiyqah. He once wrote, “the greatest crime is not developing your potential. When you do what you do best, you are helping not only yourself, but the world.” Hoarding kills us all. Justice and Righteousness preserves us all.
In other words, use your gifts and your power and your privilege to care for others, and when you do, it benefits you and them. How many of us know the experience of helping someone else, only to realize that we are the ones most blessed by the encounter? As we turn toward the needs of others, our deepest needs are met and our souls are quenched by the ever-flowing and verdant love of God. It’s the message we have heard in these last weeks from folks like Anne today and Laura a couple of weeks ago. Pay attention to the fact that these are our worship chair and vice chair, leaders unlike the failed worship leaders of Amos’s day. They have reminded us to care for the needs of others because they understand that the life of worship feeds the life of service and the life of service feeds the life of worship. This is Mishpat and Tzadiyqah, in an ever-flowing stream.
I began with a story from Philmont this summer of dry camps and dry streams and the withering that comes from that. But on that same trip, we came upon another dry camp, or at least what we thought was a dry camp. We were prepared to be super careful with the water that we had, because there was no water supply for a couple of days. But as we approached the camp, our ranger guide exclaimed, “it’s a water buffalo!” Now, lest you think that we somehow wandered into the tropics of Asia, a water buffalo is Philmont’s name for a big tank of water that is parked right by a campsite. This was a new site, and so this water buffalo wasn’t on the map, and the ranger didn’t even know about it. But needless to say, it was a happy find, knowing that we would have all of the water that we needed that night and the next day! And so, we told everyone that we saw…other crews, other rangers, several days later we were telling people about the water buffalo at Heck Meadow.
It is the same with Mishpat and Tzadiyqah. When we get a taste of God’s Justice and Righteousness, we want to tell everyone we know. It nourishes us and sustains us and washes us clean of the grit of our lives. This is God’s economy. This is how God wants us to live with one another. This is a secret worth sharing. May God’s Mishpat and Tzadiyqah flow like rivers through our lives, and our families, and our church today!