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Sunday's Sermon: The Best of Times; The Worst of Times

It was the best of times. The nation was at peace. The economy was booming. The stores were closed on the Sabbath to incentivize worship attendance, and it worked! Houses of worship were filled to overflowing.

No, it was the worst of times. In the sanctuaries they extolled a God who blessed the faithful but made no demands upon them. At home, on those long Sabbath afternoons, businessmen wiled away the hours hatching get rich quick schemes. Dishonest weights and measures, mixing in some chaff with the wheat, and making high interest loans to people most in need and least able to repay were their favorite tricks of the trade. Another day, another dollar; a sucker is born every minute, you see.

Or do we? Prophets are sometimes called seers in the Bible. A seer is a person endowed by God with a kind of moral and ethical X-ray vision with which they could peer deeper into the body politic. The prophets could tell that Israel’s beauty was only skin deep. Like whitewashed headstones decorated with flowers, things looked good on the surface, but society was rotting from within.

Amos saw it everywhere he looked. Ordinary sights and sounds became object lessons in the people’s lawlessness and the divine judgment building up against them. In last week’s scripture reading, Amos saw a plumb bob dangling on a construction site. Amos gasped. It’s all going to come crashing down! God laid a good foundation for us with

Abraham and Moses, but we’ve built these last few stories as lopsided as the leaning tower of Pisa. One fine summer day a neighbor dropped off a basket of summer fruit. Peaches, perhaps? Figs? No, plums! Get it; plumb line? Plums? At any rate, Amos took one look at that ripened fruit, and he knew. The time was ripe for God to punish Israel.

Inspired by Amos, I Googled the terms consumer fraud and predatory lending this week, and I found that, just like ancient Israel, when you scratch the surface of our strong economy, you’ll find that there’s no small amount of corruption festering under the surface. This week, the Arizona Attorney General accused three former executives of an Arizona-based company of giving false information to insurance companies in order to gain approval for their highly addictive medication Subsys, which contains Fentenyl. The company has already admitted in federal court to bribing physicians to prescribe the drug. I read another article which reported that military personnel are often the targets of unscrupulous lenders because they don’t make a whole lot of money and have precious little experience managing it. One anecdote in the article: a sailor convinced by a car dealership to take out a car loan for twice the value of the vehicle at an interest rate of 20%. Now, Congress passed the Military Lending Act of 2006 that caps interest on most consumer loans to members of the armed forces, but last year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau stopped checking lenders for compliance with that law.

We’ve learned to be philosophical, cynical even, about such rummaging around in other people’s cookie jars. “The customer is always wronged,” said one wag. To the extent that we think much about problems like drug addiction and debt, we think to view them through the prism of individual moral failings. “Just say no.” “Caveat emptor; let the buyer beware.” But if Amos were here, I have a feeling he’d see the opioid crisis or consumer debt as a feature, not a bug, of a system designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few by exploiting any vulnerability in the mass of ordinary people: poor health, youth and inexperience, etc.

And Amos, unlike the rest of us, won’t simply shake his head and shrug about it. “Indeed,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, “the sorts of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us, a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence. To us, an episode; to them a catastrophe, a threat to the world. Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysterical. But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to abysmal indifference to evil that the prophet bewails?”

Moses was the great lawgiver in ancient Israel; the prophets—Amos included—were like prosecuting attorneys. They indicted the Israelite people for their lawbreaking. To complete this courtroom metaphor, what role does the Lord God play? The judge, of course. But Amos is bold not only to accuse Israel of crimes, but also to announce that the verdict against the congregation is already in: earthquakes, eclipses, floods. In earlier chapters, Amos mentions drought, famine, and epidemics as further manifestations of divine wrath. It’s the sort of stuff that we’ve learned to shrug off. We modern-day people can account for these natural disasters without reference to the divine will. The phrase “acts of God” is pure metaphor these days, is it not?

But understanding the forces of nature hasn’t stopped natural disasters. Lately, they’ve been piling up. Over the past 30 years, NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index, a kind of Dow Jones Average of droughts, floods, heat waves, and hurricanes, has nearly doubled. And while past performance does not guarantee future returns, it seems that the long bull market of bad weather shows no signs of abating. The naturalistic explanation is that burning fossil fuels is changing the climate. I don’t doubt that explanation for a minute. But if Amos were here today, he might draw our attention to another factor: over the same period of time, the top one percent of the U.S. population increased its total net worth by $21 trillion, while the bottom 50 percent saw its net worth decrease by $900 billion. Could extremes in weather and wealth inequality be related? What if injustice not only disrupts interpersonal and social relationships but the rhythms and cycles of nature as well?

The scripture passage closes with an even more ominous warning than wacky weather. Amos foresees a famine coming, not in terms of crop failures or food shortages, but of God’s Word. “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

"Fine," says the Lord. "If you will not listen to me, then I will not give you anything to listen to. If you are deaf to the cry of the widow cheated out of her life savings by some con artist, or the desperation of a single mom who needs reliable transportation and not the lemon the salesman sold her, or young adults buried under a mountain of student loan debt, then I shall smite you with… the silent treatment. You may not notice it at first, says the Lord, your prayers going to voice mail, your finest pulpit oratory and sacred music praised only by human voices. The noise of the traders on the stock market floors and the roars of the crowds in the stadiums will drown it out. But eventually, the sound of my silence will rise above the din. The silence will be deafening."

In light of Amos’s furious indictment and grim reading out of God’s verdict, I want to ask you to do two things this Sunday: first, make an honest living. “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet” means don’t take questionable deductions on your taxes; don’t bill for sham goods and services provided; don’t put your personal expenses on the corporate account. How you make your money is just as important as what you do with your money. Christian stewardship starts long before you make a pledge to the church. It begins with your own God-given sense of honesty and fair play and a God-given reverence for your clients, customers, co-workers, and students as creatures bearing the image of God.

Second: Think big picture. “Thou shalt not steal,” and “thou shalt not covet” are meant to be heard and obeyed in board rooms and in the halls of Congress as well as in the hearts of faithful individuals. You are citizens; some of you are shareholders; we all have neighbors. Use whatever connections you have to nudge whatever institutions you’re plugged into toward the flourishing of all people, especially the most vulnerable. The well-being of the whole creation and our continuing sense of God’s presence among us may well depend on it. In this way you’ll live out your vision statement. You really will be Disciples Making a Difference.

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