A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 18, 2022

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


Is your halo getting a little snug?
That is what my mother would ask me when I was getting a little too big for my britches, Is your halo getting a little snug? This question was brought out when I was behaving with some kind of remarkable lack of humility.

As an only child and grandchild for 12 years in a close knit family it was easy to feel spectacularly special. And the fact that I remember this saying clearly should give you some indication of just how often I needed a course correction.

I can still feel the sting of being called out for my arrogance. And truthfully there have been many times past my childhood when my mother should have marched up to me and asked the question again.

Being called out when you are well aware you are in the wrong hurts. But being called out when you are thinking you are good enough or being pretty darn good maybe even spectacularly good, that leaves a mark.

And often that was and is the job of the prophets. To leave a mark. To speak in such a way that gets people’s attention. Prophets go far beyond my mother’s gentle corrective question and they can throw gut punches. But prophets in their attempts to land words that alarm us are not trying to harm God’s people, they are trying to gather God’s people back to the life giving ways that God wants us to live.

Writer Rachel Held Evans said, “Prophecy is where the dreams of God and the dreams of God’s people meet and the resulting poetry has shaped the rhetoric and lives of the faithful for generations, from John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr.”

Today we hear from the prophet Amos. And the picture of life in Israel as Amos sees is grim. The people’s dreams are clearly not meeting with God’s dream for them.
Amos is speaking to an Israel that is not being held in captivity in Egypt or wandering around in the wilderness. He is speaking to an Israel that is experiencing peace and prosperity in the time of King Jeroboam II.

The words that God calls Amos to speak are aimed squarely at the prosperous Israelites who seem to have forgotten the goodness and mercy of God. They have become a people willing to build up a community on the backs of others without remorse. They are doing this while making a big fuss about carrying on the rituals that were meant to praise God and reflect on God’s goodness. I suspect that maybe they felt mightt good about how they were behaving.

The people Amos is speaking to use one set of weights for weighing the grain brought to them and it’s underweight so as to pay less to the poor farmers. And then they use another set for weighing out what they are selling to those poor and it’s heavy, cheating those same people out of needed goods. In excavations of shops in this region 2 sets of weights have been found, a light set and a heavy set all marked the same*. Amos wasn’t making this up. The prosperous were buying slaves and taking away the possessions of the poor to settle debts, even the shoes of a man’s feet. And they tossed in chaff into the wheat that they were selling back to the poor so that not only did they profit from their rigged scales they are selling them inferior wheat.

The rich people of Israel are acting without any of the mercy they have receive. They were not respecting the sacredness of life with God, respecting the dignity of all God’s people. Except they thought they were. They had forgotten that God’s dream for his people is life, abundant life for all creation. The life giving way of God has no room for 2 sets of scales and doctored wheat. The life giving way of God lifts up those in need through the hands of those that can help them. The life giving way of God allows for rest for all not just those who can afford to rest. Amos came swinging because he saw just how apart the people of Israel had gotten from God.

Looking at today’s Gospel to see what Jesus has to say about this, is confusing as best. I read it through five times and ended up thinking I was just dumb. Then I read commentaries on this passage only to find that it has confounded many smart people for many years. There are so many ways to try to sort through the story of the deceitful servant. Is Jesus praising him? It’s hard for me to know. What is clear to me is that Jesus states in the simplest of terms that our commitment to our wealth cannot be greater than our commitment to God. That’s what Amos was trying to tell God’s people so many years before Jesus came.

If our wealth is being bolstered by anything that is apart from God’s life living ways, like 2 sets of weights, it’s time to course correct.

And if I tell the truth to myself. If I had to place myself in the life of the people Amos is speaking to, I think I know where I’d fall. If Amos saw me I think he’d tell me my halo wasn’t just snug it was cutting of blood supply. Do I have 2 sets of weights. No. Do I look away from places and people I know are in need. Yes. Are all the purchases I make within God’s dream for me or the people who make and sell what I buy? No. Do I expect to be able to buy a $3 t-shirt. Yes. Could I make changes in how I save, and spend and invest my money? Yes. Would my bank account register tell you what I value most in this world? Yes. Would I be proud of the findings? Probably not.

I am not for one minute saying that wealth is evil. Not at all. But, I do believe that we would be wise to look where Amos’ words, where the words of the prophets leave a mark on each of our own lives. And then ask God how what we do with the many gifts we have been given can meet God’s dream for this life.

Rachel Held Evans also said this about the prophets…
The prophets believe—stubbornly, relentlessly—that God is in the business of making all things new, of setting all things right. And so they sing that song loud and long into the night. For some it rings as a warning, for others, a freedom song. For all, it is a call to action, an appeal to align our hopes, ambitions, choices, and plans with the hopes, ambitions, choices, and plans of God.

What does it look like to meet the prophet’s calls to action? What does it look like to align our hopes, choices and plans with the hopes, ambitions, choices and plans of God? For each of us this will probably look incredibly different. I wish that God made figuring this out easier.

Amos predicted doom for Israel and that did happen. But God did not withdraw mercy or love from Israel or God’s people. Here we are still receiving the mercy of God, even as we know we need some course correcting. And each day we are given the chance to extend that mercy in this world, that love and mercy which endures far longer than any earthly treasure we can amass.

In thinking about people who uniquely answered a call that seems aligned with God’s dream, I remembered the story of the 9 Nanas. It’s an older story that came out more than 10 years ago, but I noticed for some reason it’s circulating again. It seems that nine women in Western Tennessee had for more than 35 years been meeting before dawn to deliver homemade pound cakes to brighten people’s days. They had been talking over playing cards once and decided they wanted to do something kind of like their grandmother did. Their grandmother who would read about a death or some kind of bad fortune in her community and bake and send over a pound cake just so those people knew someone saw them. Talk about seeing the dignity of folks. But it was more than pound cakes.

They would drive around their community and assess needs, like who didn’t have any lights on at night and might need help with the electricity bill. They’d eavesdrop at the beauty parlor and hear about how someone might be struggling. The women each saved money by laundering their husband’s shirts at home rather than paying for the dry cleaners. They saved up about $400 a month. Then the Nanas would anonymously send out a care package which included a donation, a special pound cake, and a note which often said, “Somebody loves you.” They did not tell a soul, not even tell their husbands what they were doing. I’m pretty sure Amos would have liked these women.

Clearly the 9 Nanas were found out because I’m telling you about them today. Once their husbands found out (because one sat down with his wife to have her account for all the cash withdrawals he had discovered) they joined in the efforts. I searched around to see if they were still active and the last of their efforts I can find are from 2015. They were fairly old when this story hit. I wonder if they’ve retired.

And I wonder about the many other magnificent souls, known and unknown, who have heard the cries of the prophets are out there doing the work that brings the dream of God into our very midst.