Critics Welcome? Amos 6:1a, 3-7

I was back at Northwest UMC this week for a sermon in a series called “From Tablet to Table.” The table metaphor for community reminded me of sitting at the kids’ table when my large extended family gathered for holiday feasts. Kids sat at card tables in the kitchen or living room while the adults got to fly first class in the dining room. I remember the first time I got invited to move up to the big table. I was scared to death I would screw up and spill my milk or break some rule of dining etiquette that I didn’t even know existed and get sent back down to the minors.

Who do we confine to the kids’ table when it comes to the faith community or other groups we belong to? People who are different? Certainly people who irritate us or just plain make us mad. The unspoken rule at many family gatherings is that there are two topics that are taboo – politics and religion–because those emotionally charged issues can start a family feud. That’s really unfortunate because those two subjects are so central and important to how we order our lives as individuals and as a society that we really need to have meaningful dialogue about them. Amos of course breaks both rules. He stops preaching and goes to meddling as soon as he opens his mouth to warn Israel about their sinful, unjust lifestyle.

I began my sermon by repeating a story I used two weeks ago at another church (see post from July 12, 2015). It was the one about a preacher being a real “pane.” The prophet Amos certainly qualifies as one who delivers painful words that afflict the comfortable. The prophets remind me of teachers and professors I had over the years that were demanding and critical–the ones who kept putting on my report cards in grade school that I “didn’t work up to my potential.” Or the homiletics professor who dared to flunk me on the first sermon I preached in class! They were not candidates for my favorite teacher of the year award. My knee jerk reaction to their criticism was anger and looking at the course catalogue to see if I could drop the course. Fortunately in most cases that was not an option, and with the benefit of many years of life experience I know now that those teachers were the ones from whom I learned the most because they challenged me with the truth.

My wife and I were eating at a super market recently that offers free food on Friday nights to entice shoppers into the store. As we were moving down the buffet line we saw one of the servers refilling a large salad bowl with his bare hands – no gloves, no tongs. Diana made a comment to him that he really shouldn’t be doing that with his hands. He reacted very defensively, as we often do when we know we are in the wrong, and his words as he dramatically dumped the entire bowl of spinach salad into the trash we very telling. He said, “Lady, this is free food. Either accept it graciously or refuse it graciously.” I was angry at his response; so the irony of what he said didn’t strike me until later. He talked about graciousness, but the way he accepted her criticism was anything but gracious.

Do we welcome and encourage dissent at our table and accept honest criticism with grace and gratitude, or are we more like the people who say, “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts?”

Here’s the context for Amos’ criticism of Israel. Amos was the first of the classic Hebrew prophets. He doesn’t get top billing in our Bible because the creators of the canon apparently gave more weight to quantity than quality. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all are much longer; so they are traditionally known as the Major Prophets, and Amos, Hosea, Jonah and others sit at the kids’ table as the Minor Prophets. But chronologically Amos was the first to voice concerns about the direction that his people were going. He lived in the first half of the 8th century BCE during the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II (788-747 BCE). This was the golden age of Israel, the height of territorial expansion and prosperity never again reached. My NRSV introduction to Amos contains a sentence describing the socio-economic situation that I had to read several times because I thought I was reading a current event headline. “Through manipulations of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small farmers and robbed them of their inheritance and liberty.” Amos understood that situation all too well because he was a small farmer and herder from a little village in Judah.

This was the period after Israel had split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north, sometimes referred to as Samaria, and Judah in the south where Jerusalem was. Amos is from Judah, but he feels compelled by God to travel to Israel and warn them about their decadent opulence and immorality, their abuse of the Lord’s table. In one of the most famous lines he tells them God says, “I hate I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies… I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5: 2).

To paraphrase the text from chapter 6, if Amos were at our table today, he would probably be saying something like this:

“1Alas for those who are at ease in Dublin,
and for those who feel secure on Mad River Mountain,
4 Alas for those who lie on sleep number beds,
and lounge on their recliners,
6 who drink wine from fine crystal,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils from Bath and Body Works,
but are not grieved over the ruin of America!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Those are hard words to hear. How do you suppose Amos was received at the table? Not well. He tells us in chapter 7 about the reaction of Amaziah, chief priest of the royal sanctuary at Bethel. Amaziah says, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Notice that it is not God’s sanctuary, or God’s kingdom, but the king’s. That one sentence tells us all we need to know about what was rotten in Israel. Their priorities were 180 degrees out of whack. Amaziah doesn’t want to hear that so he says to Amos, “Shut up and go home – back down to kids’ table where we don’t have to deal with you.”

Amos went home, but he wasn’t exactly quiet. He wrote down his prophesies so we can still benefit from them 3000 years later if are willing to listen. You can’t silence the word of God by ignoring it. When Jesus was entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the authorities told him to silence his crowd of supporters, and he said, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

Welcoming words of criticism is not easy or natural. When we go to a party or a dinner or church, most of us gravitate toward people we know and enjoy. We don’t usually seek out people who are different from us and certainly not people who irritate us or just plain make us mad. So if we are to have honest dialogue and benefit from criticism and diversity we have to intentionally invite people to the table who can bring those gifts.
I was fortunate to be part of two such intentionally diverse communities in my life. They didn’t help me as much as I wish they had since welcoming criticism graciously is still very hard for me. The first model of what communication scholars call cooperative critical inquiry that I was privileged to be a part of from 1989-2007 is the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio.

The ICO is an organization housed at The Ohio State University whose mission is to promote and teach interprofessional collaboration to students and practitioners in the helping professions. The model for accomplishing that goal is offer graduate level interdisciplinary courses in collaboration, ethics, and community organization that include students and faculty from a wide range of professions: law, medicine, nursing, allied health, education, social work, and theology. It also includes sponsoring continuing education conferences for practicing professionals in all those fields on a range of topics from Aids to Urban Sprawl and Smart Growth.
The content of those courses and conferences is important, but more significant is the fact that they are vehicles for bringing all of those individuals together around tables where they can share ideas and concerns and get to know each other in ways that would not otherwise happen. Misinformation and stereotypes about what other professions do and what they can bring to the table to help solve complex problems that are too much for any given profession to address alone are shared and lines of communication are opened.

Even further back in my past, when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State in the 1960’s, I lived in a rooming house sponsored by the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry. There were two houses actually, one for men and one for women, but they were not ordinary rooming houses. They were intentional living communities of about 20 residents each, and in order to live there you had to make two commitments. The first was to participate in a house meeting every Sunday evening facilitated by two pastors trained in group dynamics and conflict management. The agenda each week was to simply air any grievances and talk about any issues that were affecting life in the house so we could manage them before they became bigger issues.

The second commitment had to do with roommates. We changed roommates every quarter, and the process for doing that was to have each person submit a list of 2 or 3 people that he was having the most trouble relating to for whatever reason; and roommates for the next quarter were chosen from that list. It was an intentional way of effectively addressing problems and expanding our ability to relate to a variety of other people. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was better than the way we usually deal with conflict by ignoring it until it gets too big to deal with.

People who live together and socialize get to know each other as people with common dreams, fears and problems. It’s probably too much to hope that the Trumps and McCains and Boehners and McConnels could all move into the White House and learn to live together, but it is true that part of the partisan problem in Washington is created by the fact that representatives and senators no longer live in the DC area with their families the way they did a generation or two ago. It is so easy to fly back home on weekends that many of them do that now, and the consequence is they do not socialize with each other across the aisle as they once did. Stereotypes and ideologies therefore are all they know about each other, and we see the results of that unfortunate situation which prevents dialogue and compromise to address critical problems.

Sharing dissenting opinions is a way of bringing hidden or taken-for-granted assumptions about life out into the open where they can be examined. We all tend to automatically do things the way we’ve always done them, and we assume that’s just the way it should be. But we change and life changes, and it’s good to bring those assumptions into awareness so they can be evaluated and either kept or changed. Prophets break open old ideas and prejudices that hold us back and limit our ability to learn and grow.

Prophets never win popularity contests. Galileo and Copernicus were thrown out of the church for proposing new and radical ideas about how the universe is put together. But they were right, and the old assumptions were wrong. We often feel like critics are judging us personally and have trouble separating our identity and worth from our behavior and ideas. God does not send Amos to Israel to judge or condemn but to warn the people that the consequences of their current behavior are going to lead to destruction. Those words are not easy to hear, especially for those who are comfortable and benefiting from the way things are.

We are facing major problems in our nation and world today that are not easy or simply solved. Climate change, fixing health care and social security, saving our education system, stopping the insanity of gun violence, dealing with immigration—all of those problems are going to require sacrifice on the part of us who have so the have nots are given a fair and just opportunity to live better lives. We don’t want to hear about sacrifices; so we keep kicking the can down the road and those chickens are going to come home to roost probably sooner than later. That’s what Amos was trying to tell Israel. They didn’t listen. Do we?

Genuine criticism is a gift to be embraced, not rejected, not just tolerated, but welcomed and invited to the table. It is a way to learn and grow and be challenged by different perspectives and experiences. And if it is shunned or ignored by sending the critic back to kids’ table, the consequences can be tragic.

The rest of the Amos story illustrates that point. 30-40 years after Amos tried to warn Israel of the consequences of their unjust lifestyle, in 711 BCE, the armies of King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Israel, conquered them and the Exile of God’s once proud people begins. Judah lasted 136 years longer, but they didn’t listen to the prophets either; and in 586 BCE Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the nation of Israel has never been the same again.

When God’s prophets speak uncomfortable words of truth, it pays to listen.

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