Equipped for Holy Work

two groups of people setting off colored powder (pink, yellow, and blue) in the air during a festival
Festival in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash

In Amos 8, the semi-continuous lectionary’s Old Testament reading for this week, economic power-brokers in ancient Israel have been caught saying the quiet part out loud: 

“When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? 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” (Amos 8:5-6).

The inner thoughts of these wealthy elites reveal a devastating contempt for religious practices, for the poor of the land, and for God. They disdain sabbaths and festivals, the holidays—holy days—in which they and their workers rest, including refraining from participation in economic transactions. Their eagerness to move past these religious observances is not to prioritize the doing of justice, as in Micah 6:1-8, but rather the opposite: to exploit the ones with whom they do business, cheating them and impoverishing them, all the while further enriching themselves. 

The task falls to Amos, then, to bring God’s word of judgment to powerful people. In the parlance of some homileticians, Amos must preach a “no sermon” rather than a “yes sermon.” Indeed, Amos excels at the “no sermon,” and this particular one is no exception. With powerful poetic imagery he describes how those festival days that so annoy the wheat-sellers will be turned into days of mourning. But even more than that, some of their—and our—core theological assumptions will be turned topsy-turvy. 

We proclaim, and rightly so, that God remembers us in our suffering and accompanies us in our struggles, whether those are everyday difficulties or the greatest depths of anguish. Amos reminds us that God is also with us when we cause suffering; that God sees, hears, remembers, and judges. Likewise, Jesus—Immanuel, God with us—offers us salvation, yes, and also, in his crucified body, is a stark reminder of human capabilities for injustice and cruelty. The resurrected Jesus is also a tortured and executed God-with-us. If we have God with us whenever we need God, we also have God with us whenever we are defying God.

The consequence of the piling on of this defiance, says Amos, will be “a famine…of hearing the words of the LORD” (8:11): “they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it” (8:12). In other words, if no one brings the word of the LORD to the people when they don’t want to hear it, it will not be available for them when they do. They will lose their ability to hear it when they need it the most. 

Amos’ oracle holds a powerful mandate not only for those with economic power, but also for those who preach to them. “But I don’t preach to power-brokers,” you might protest. For some of you, that is true. But for most Working Preachers, the people in your pews do have power. A few hold public office, or are multi-millionaires. Yet you also preach to people who educate children, who set wages for employees, who vote, who provide health care, who influence family and friends on social media, who work in businesses whose choices affect both the economy and the climate. These are positions of some power, each in its own way. And what each of us does with our power matters to God. 

To be sure, the Bible’s words proclaiming God’s judgment can easily be weaponized in the hands of tyrants and abusers, who imagine they are the ones chosen to mete out punishments according to “God’s will,” which they warp to align with their own. Care must always be taken not to participate in the exploitation of anyone, particularly the powerless—indeed, that is the heart of Amos’ message. Even so, because of our care—or caution or cowardice—we are sometimes reluctant to admit that God’s “no” to the powerful—among whom we often find ourselves—is a key part of the biblical tradition. 

By no means do I think anyone should be berated from the pulpit, nor to be made for even one second to think that they are anything other than utterly and completely beloved by God. A “no sermon” need not spiral into “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” On the contrary, a “no sermon” is a reminder that God cares about us, all of us, in our totalities. It is precisely our unconditional belovedness that means God pays attention to what we do, wants us to act with justice, and is grieved by our sin. The biblical witness across the Old and New Testaments is particularly affronted by failures to care for the poor and the marginalized, by apathy toward the suffering of others, and by the human tendency to look for our salvation in power and wealth rather than in God’s mercy. 

God is with us. We have God’s complete and utter attention. God loves us, remembers us, sees us, and hears us—whether we say the quiet part out loud or not. Sometimes we need someone to remind us of that—to tell us what is difficult to hear before we are no longer able to hear it. You, Working Preacher, are called and equipped for this holy work.