Today’s sermon at the Church for All People
In 1969, a new job was created. This person best equipped for this job was presumably a middle age, wealthy, powerful, Caucasian male who controlled everything in the world. That person became known as The Man.
The Man is the government; The Man is the institution. The Man is any person in a position of authority who keeps us from doing what we want to do and from being who God created us to be.
Tina Turner sang about working for The Man every night and day.
The Man is keeping me down.
But while this description of The Man was first used in 1969, The Man has been around much longer. The Man can describe anyone in a position of authority who tries to control the people under him for his own gain.
The Man prevented women from having a right to vote until less than a hundred years ago.
The Man identified people bound in slavery as 3/5 of a human being.
The Man spoke of the divine rights of kings who controlled people without any accountability. No one was allowed to question the king, because the king claimed to be working on God’s behalf, even when the king exploited his people.
But this isn’t only a matter of recent history. The Man can be found in the pages of the Bible.
The Man was found in the voice of religious leaders who asked Jesus “why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners… what are you doing healing on the Sabbath?’
In the Old Testament, The Man was often found in unfaithful kings who placed their own egos and desires over being faithful to God; kings who put their own power, their own prestige, and their own position above that of serving God or caring for the people.
And it was to The Man, that God sent prophets to speak truth to power.
Over the last two months we have heard the voices of many prophets.
The first prophet we heard from was Nathan, who came to King David sharing a story of oppression. When David asked who was responsible for these actions, Nathan responded by saying: “you are The Man.”
We heard from Elijah and Elisha; Habakkuk and Jeremiah, people who stood against the powers and principalities of their worlds and called for change.
Today’s scripture comes from the story of Amos. Amos is not one of the better known people in the Bible. The book of Amos is small and can get lost among the other books that are referred to as the “minor prophets”. But there is nothing minor about Amos. Amos is significant in a number of ways.
The first thing significant about Amos was that he was the first of the recorded prophets. Almost 800 years before Jesus, Amos was called by God to go and speak truth to The Man. Amos was the first person God used in this way to confront the powers of his world, including the kings and nations of Israel and Judah.
This is a whole new thing God is doing. In the early part of the Hebrew Scriptures, God raised up kings, people like David and Solomon to lead the people. The kings had gone so far astray that God is rising up people to call the kings and the nations back to righteousness and justice.
Second, it is interesting who God chooses to be the first prophet. In the first verse of this book, we hear that Amos was “among the shepherds”, in chapter 7 Amos himself says, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
So God is doing a whole new thing, calling prophets to return people to faithfulness. Instead of using a person of power, God calls a shepherd and a tree trimmer, a person who today we would describe as someone who cares for animals and does landscaping. God uses a landscaper to deliver a message of justice and righteousness.
The third thing interesting about Amos is the sin that he was called to address.
Many times, when we read the Bible, the sins talked about seem distant from our world. In the book of Leviticus, the people are instructed not to eat bats. If eating bats is a sin, that is one sin I have completely victory over. I have never been tempted to eat a bat. There are many sins I am guilty of, eating bats is not one of them.
Last week we heard the story of Elijah taking on Jezebel and the priests of Baal. There was a contest where the priests of Baal called fire down from the sky and nothing happened while Elijah called on God who turned a water-soaked altar in to a bonfire.
But as powerful as that story is, it is somewhat distant from our world. I have never met anyone who worships Baal. I’ve never seen a bumper sticker, or t-shirt, or piece of jewelry for a Baal follower.
But listen to the sin that Amos addresses. Amos says to the people of Israel: you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
These are the sins that Amos calls people to repent from, with the hope that if they will “hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate” that God will be gracious to them.
The sin of their time is not some distant sin. It is not worshiping a foreign god we know nothing about. It is a sin that is very close to our world: the sin that the poor are trampled, that the rich are taking from the poor, the righteous are afflicted, and the needy pushed aside.
This is a sin that didn’t end in ancient Israel. And, because that sin hasn’t come to an end, neither has God’s work ended in calling prophets.
We might think of prophets as a category of people like Nathan and Elijah and Habakkuk and Jeremiah whose names are in the Bible. But God’s work in the world did not end with the sealing of scripture. God has continued to call prophets, especially prophets who speak against the trampling of the poor, afflicting the righteous and pushing aside the needy.
In the 13th century God called a man we know today as Francis of Assisi. Francis was born in to a family of wealth and comfort, but he gave up all of that and placed himself among the poor and cared for the poor.
When Francis was called by God he heard the voice of Christ say to him, “Repair my church” and through his life Francis did that. He shifted the entire focus of the church so much, that today we often speak of God’s preferential option for the poor.
In the same way, in the 18th century, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, moved from a position of power to poverty. Wesley studied at the University of Oxford. He was an ordained priest in the Church of England. With that, he had position and status. But he stepped out from behind the pulpit and placed himself among the poor. He preached to farmers and coalminers and like Franics, he shifted the focus of the church. Because of Wesley’s focus, today the Methodist church retains its focus on ministry with the poor, on justice for the oppressed, the very things we do here at the Church for All People are a continuation of this Wesleyan heritage.
In the 20th century, Martin Luther King didn’t simply speak of having a dream, but called for economic justice. At the time of his assassination, King was organizing a poor people’s campaign and this was not popular. Talk about having a dream and they give you a Nobel Prize; talk about economic justice and you get assassinated.
That is what happened to Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero served in El Salvador in the late 1970s and identified with the poor and became an advocate for the poor. Like Francis and Wesley and King, he was a prophet. He called on the government and military powers of his country to stop brutalizing their own people. Whenever he preached, radios across El Salvador clicked on among the common people, but those same broadcasts angered people in power. So much so, that one morning in 1980, literally as he was praying over the communion table, he was assassinated.
Serving as a prophet is not a popular or easy thing. Amos words ring true today that “they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” But, it is at the heart of God’s will and call for us to live lives where we give our voice to righteousness and justice.
It is work that Michael Reed has helped us begin to live in to here at Church for All People. A couple of months ago we hosted a forum in this room where state legislators and the media came and heard our stories. And then, a few weeks later, we moved outside these walls and went to the state house. Your presence put a human face to the proposed budget and you made change happen.
As we prepared to go the State House, budget proposals included cutting all funding for food banks, cutting and redistributing money for housing, and reducing Medicaid benefits, including benefits to pregnant mothers. These proposals would have undercut everything we are doing in feeding people, housing people, and celebrating First Birthdays.
What happened after we showed up? All three of those proposals were defeated. Money for food pantries, housing, and Medicaid were secured. Your presence changed the policies of our state. In the words of Amos, justice roll[ed] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This is something to be proud of and we need to be greatly thankful to Michael Reed for starting us on this work.
But the call in Amos to justice and righteousness is not simply about responding to the injustices of the world, but creating an entirely different type of community, where the poor are welcomed at the gates of power, instead of being pushed away.
What if our work towards justice wasn’t simply showing up when someone proposes something that is harmful to our community, but having a continual presence?
What if, instead of fighting for scraps at the bottom of someone else’s table, we were to have a seat at the table?
What if, instead of responding to the injustice of our world, we advocated and created our world? What if our work of justice was to create the kingdom of God, here on the South Side of Columbus, as it is in heaven.
I believe it is possible.
I believe it is possible not out of naïve hope or optimism, but because I believe it is God’s will.
It is God’s will for justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
It is God, working through you, the beloved community, that our world can be transformed.
I believe it is possible, because despite popular opinion, The Man is not in control of our world. The Man does not determine our fate, you do. God, working through you, is much more powerful than The Man.
Last week, Pope Francis, who took his name and his mission from Francis of Assisi, who has called for a church of the poor and for the poor, toured Latin America. As he prepared to leave Bolivia, he shared these words that are appropriate to this message and to our community. Pope Francis said:
“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age.”
To paraphrase the Pope, let me re-phrase these words for our community:
The future of the South Side does not lie in the hands of The Man, it is fundamentally in our hands and our ability to organize. It is our hands that can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. Let us together say from the heart: no family without housing, no unemployed without work, no people without food, no life without health, no neighborhood without safety, no person without dignity, no child without a first birthday, no youth without a future, no senior without a blessed old age, no stranger without acceptance, and no community without your voice.
Let this be our vision, let this be the kingdom of God among us, let us make it happen. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.