Vicar's Sermon - 10th July
In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes a young boy realises that far from having been sold an invisibly fine new suit, the Emperor is stark naked and is leading a procession through the town in nothing looking an absolute fool. He points this out, the Emperor is humiliated and we all chuckle at the foolishness of those in power and applaud the insight of the poorest, the outwardly most insignificant members of our communities. In real life however it takes courage to be a whistle-blower: to be the person who speaks truth to power. In real life, the forces of the state may well have come down hard on the head of the boy, the corridors of power united against him to save their blushes and the child ‘removed’ from the scene, never to see the light of day again. Just ask Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning how easy it is to uncover Truth.
Today we are re-introduced to the prophet Amos. A reluctant prophet: the best sort really for there are some who find their MoJo in being professional rabble rousers, hunting out stories of intrigue and mischief simply to beat those in power. But not so Amos. Amos tells his opponents ‘I am no prophet, or a prophet’s son. I’m just a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees’ – given half a chance Amos would much prefer his old life ‘BUT the Lord took me and said to me “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” We might imagine that there came a moment in Amos’ life, in his contemplation of the state of the nation of Israel when he simply could not keep silent: he just had to speak against the injustice that he saw within her…and so his prophetic ministry begins.
His is a lone voice. He has no leverage within the court of the King of Israel. His message is one of judgement. The ‘plumb line’ metaphor that begins our reading makes clear that Israel’s national life is less than True, it has strayed from God’s ways and the result will be the collapse of the state itself. Unable to stand firm, to hold to higher values than greed and the oppression of the poor Amos foresees the nation falling captive to powers far greater than itself – going into exile.
Just look at the opposition he receives. Amaziah it would appear is a priest who has the King’s ear. Amaziah recognises that if Amos’ words take root in the heart and minds of the people then the game will be up for Jeroboam and his cronies so he threatens Amos. ‘Go, prophesy elsewhere’. To Amaziah Amos is an enemy of the state for he challenges the status quo. And then we hear some truly frightening words. For Amaziah says ‘never again prophesy in Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ What’s so wrong with this sentence? Well do you not see? Amaziah lets the cat out of the bag, the state has captured ‘religion’ for its own purposes. The ‘king’s sanctuary’, the ‘temple of the kingdom’ carry all the show of true faith, true obedience to God but they have been robbed of their power – they have become tools in the King’s arsenal for anointing his own decisions.
Twentieth century European history tells us what this looks like. It is the blessing of the guns of the First World War and the raising of the Nazi flag in German Lutheran churches. Once the state, or the monarch, (or for that matter ‘the church’) takes on the powers of ‘Divine Right’ we are in dangerous territory. Those who challenge this ‘right of kings’ tend to come to a sticky end. But some do, some do speak out. Some follow the way set before us by the prophets: Janani Luwum (for example) challenged Idi Amin. Oscar Romero spoke out on behalf of the poor of El Salvador. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw through the lies of National Socialism. And it was Bonhoeffer who famously outlined a way for the church of God to act as he saw the violence of National Socialism against the Jews before the 2nd World War: In a lecture he suggested that the church had an obligation to fight political injustice. It must fight evil in three stages he suggested: The first is to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second is to help the victims of injustice, whether they are church members or not. Ultimately, however, the church is called “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the machinery of injustice. The common denominator between Janani Luwum, Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of course is that they were all killed, murdered, assassinated for refusing to bow to state power.
So where does Amos find his strength? On what does he base his prophecy? How does he frame his judgements? All of the prophets speak from a knowledge of Israel’s history and all of them have a firm grasp of the meaning of the covenant made between Israel and God that was articulated in the nation’s founding documents – the Ten Commandments or the Law. Amos isn’t just being annoying for the sake of it: he points Israel back to the best in her history. His ministry echoes a deep scepticism that is found within scripture towards those in power. This week’s readings for Morning Prayer in the Church of England have been touching on this: the prophet Samuel, you may remember, did his utmost to prevent Israel becoming a monarchy like the other nations. Why? Because Israel had only one King: God Himself. Because he foresaw the possible abuse of the power a King might wield and because he saw that there would grow in the people a tendency to relinquish their own responsibility towards God and pass the buck upwards to their leaders.
In speaking of judgment Amos points us all towards that word ‘responsibility’. Recent weeks have brought the nation’s politics to the point of collapse: we are quite simply ‘Lost’, unable to go back with not a clue, no plan as to how to go forward. For this mess we are all responsible, not just our leaders, not just the ‘Westminster elite’ however we understand that phrase. We have all become disengaged from involvement in our common life, unwilling to raise our voices and to contribute to the debate (whichever side we might favour) as to how we should live.
By speaking of judgment Amos stands in a tradition of faith particular to Judaism and Christianity that says that we carry a responsibility for creating the world in which we live. Far from accepting the world as it is Amos was prepared to dedicate his life to a world that might be. So Israel knew full well from its captivity in Egypt that far from trickling down, wealth tends to accumulate in the hands of the few. It therefore built into its law the care of the widow and the orphan. It built into its law checks and balances to foster the common wealth of all. It built into its law a restraint on consumerism and a care for the environment. It built into its law a respect and an obligation towards ‘the stranger and the alien’. These things all need champions. They need people to stand for them precisely because they are so easily cast aside, so easily abandoned.
In the week that has seen the publication of the Chilcott report we have been made all too aware that it is truly hard to say ‘No’ to power. From top to bottom it seems that there were few prepared to stand against the prevailing mood. In the cabinet. In the Security services. In the army. In the judiciary. Every part of our state has been held up for judgement: few have come out well from the scrutiny. Where were the Amos’ prepared to stick their heads above the parapets, prepared to challenge, to question, to risk rejection but prepared to stand for something different.
Well, we know where we were. We were here. Not engaged enough. Abdicating our responsibility to others and look where it has left us. Thank God this service celebrates God’s forgiveness for unfortunately I suspect Amos would have hard words for us too.