Sunday, June 26, 2016

Remember This

Beware, I will crush you into the ground as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong man shall not retain his strength; The warrior shall not save his life, nor the bowman stand his ground; The swift of foot shall not escape, nor the horseman save his life. And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD. Amos 2:13-16

A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”  Matthew 8:19-22

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

It's still the same old story
The fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by
As Time Goes By by Herman Hupfield (1931)  

Frankly, I needed some background because the small book of the prophet Amos only appears in the Lectionary every three years.  A quick detour into the Introductory notes helps set the stage for the ground covered in the first reading.  The New American Bible introduces the book with the following passages:

Amos was a sheepbreeder of Tekoa in Judah, who delivered his oracles in the Northern Kingdom during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 B.C.). He prophesied in Israel at the great cult center of Bethel, from which he was finally expelled by the priest in charge of this royal sanctuary (7:10–17). The poetry of Amos, who denounces the hollow prosperity of the Northern Kingdom, is filled with imagery and language taken from his own pastoral background. The book is an anthology of his oracles and was compiled either by the prophet or by some of his disciples.

The prophecy begins with a sweeping indictment of Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, and Edom; but the forthright herdsman saves his climactic denunciation for Israel, whose injustice and idolatry are sins against the light granted to her. Israel could indeed expect the day of the Lord, but it would be a day of darkness and not light.

This is where our reading today picks up.  Amos’s audience would applaud his condemnation of foreign kingdoms in the foregoing seven oracles, especially of Judah. But now he adds an eighth, unexpected oracle—against Israel itself. This is the real “punch line” of this whole section, to which the preceding oracles serve mainly as introduction.

Amos, it seems, is treading the same waters as the other prophets and the historical books.  He also is calling Israel to task for following its sinful ways and not the ways of the Lord.  Sinning?  Going on among the children of God?  Sinning?  Going on among the people of Virginia?  Kind of reminds me of that scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault is going to close down Rick’s CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain when he finds backroom gambling.

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
[aloud] Everybody out at once!

Casablanca is a modern allegorical movie but the characters could have been plucked from the pages of any number of biblical books.  Rick Blaine is the reluctant disciple – trying to remain neutral yet clearly tilting toward social justice as the movie goes on. Ironically, he also operates out of the desert trying get people their freedom – if not from personal sin than the moral sin epitomized by the belligerent German army. Ultimately, Rick does everything possible to change the situation for Victor Lazlo and Ilsa Lund.

Amos and Isaiah and Jonah and all the Hebrew prophets are the moral compass who were early models calling for the Rick Blaine’s of the world to change. Rick is the embodiment of the ears which finally heard the message and changed from a position of selfishness -- his neutrality in war and in love -- to clearly take sides for humanity’s sake – and NOT HIS OWN.

Which brings us to the Gospel from St. Matthew.  Even with Jesus right in front of the characters in this story, they still fight their own self-interest when the Lord calls them. Jesus continues to pull them away from what holds them back. If we cannot relate to the ancient stories like these, then maybe we can relate to Rick and how he overcame his self-proclaimed neutrality as time went by to tackle the larger task. 

Stay tuned for how Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker are just 21st century iterations of Amos, Jonah and Rick Blaine.

Living in the current era, we confront the same kinds of decision points: whether to ignore the human misery all around us or to take a stand and oppose this system in whatever way is open to you to effect change. 

Can we open our ears to the calling of Amos and Jesus? Follow me and this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The world will always welcome lovers of humanity as time goes by.

Da-dy-da-dy-da-dum, da-dy-da-dee-da-dum...

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