by Daniel Harrell
We gather together to worship the Lord this day as we imagine the Pilgrims of old may have worshipped—albeit without buckles. I read this week how the hats worn by the Pilgrims resembled more our modern day cowboy hats. A note for next year. In true Pilgrim tradition, at least as we pretend it, my sermon will be noticeably longer and appropriately dour; my text derived from a stern minor key prophet, putting the grim into Pilgrim you might say. I know the Vikings and Lions kick off at 11:30. But you should have thought about that before coming to church.
All we know of the first Thanksgiving comes to us as a post-it note written by an assistant to Pilgrim leader William Bradford, eventual governor of Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims, you’ll remember from first grade, initially fled to Holland to escape religious intolerance in England. Unfortunately tolerance was not all it was cracked up to be. The Dutch accommodated the Pilgrims’ religious practices, but they also accommodated everything else. This was especially problematic for Pilgrim teenagers who grew used to Dutch permissiveness and found their spiritual edge progressively dulled—their faces glued to their iPhones in church. Fearing a total loss of the fervor they fled England to preserve, the Pilgrims again packed their bags, loaded up the Mayflower and sailed for the new world in search of an environment over which they could exert more control.
Unfortunately, the Massachusetts coast proved hardly controllable. That first, furious New England winter ushered much of the colony to an early, if not welcome, appointment with St. Peter. Despite near elimination, a remnant survived and gave thanks to God for his goodness. As roast turkey (along with duck, goose, swan, venison and lobster) was passed around the table at Plymouth Colony in 1621, Governor Bradford solemnly intoned: “Lord, we prayed for daily bread with every thrust of spade and planted seed. We begged for deliverance from ills. Our weakened colony survived. Thy will was done.” That the Pilgrims’ bountiful harvest that first year came at such a bounty of human misery and still was construed to be the will of God stretches the boundaries of modern reason. Many can’t help but wonder: couldn’t they have been just as thankful in Holland?
Surely yes, but as experience teaches, the survival of hardship tends to elicit thankfulness in ways that ease and prosperity don’t. Pastors readily visit and pray for parishioners who suffer—whether due to disease, or a lost job, or a troubled child who has just flunked out of school. People in such distress welcome every prayer. However, we pastors regularly fail to visit or pray for that parishioner who just scored a huge increase in their investment portfolio, or just received a big promotion at work, or whose child has been accepted at prestigious college—even though genuine peril lurks everywhere success seduces. Adversity clarifies our values in ways that abundance only compromises them.
Throughout history, a persecuted and afflicted church always finds itself more reliant on God than a church enjoying privilege. Still, that the Pilgrims actually chose the hard path seems foolhardy. Adversity may come, but why go looking for it? Today, as families and friends surround loaded down tables to trip out on tryptophan, we will once again give thanks that we eat turkey instead of live there.
On a day devoted to plenteousness, a sermon on the downside of abundance is a downer indeed. The prophet Amos, as grim as they get, foretells of famine, which is hard to experience in our embarrassingly bountiful land. I learned this week that there are more grocery stores in Minneapolis than anywhere else in America. Our problem is rarely one of having too little, but of having so much. This was ancient Israel’s problem too. God had been good to his people. Compared to their neighbors, Israel lived the lush life both in terms of prosperity and power. But as in so many Biblical instances, their blessing became burdensome. Their abundance obscured what mattered most. Any thankfulness failed to translate into thoughtfulness toward others, especially toward the poor and the powerless.
It wasn’t that God’s people failed to say thanks; they gathered together and prayed their prayers with clockwork devotion. But it was all lip service. The Lord showered grace on his people only to have them pray platitudes back—nice words to cover over their self-indulgence, self-righteousness, indifference and outright abuse of others less fortunate. For seven whole chapters in Amos, the Lord lambasted Israel for their duplicity. Time and again the prophet forecast a blizzard of doom. Yet despite his grim Pilgrim preaching, the people’s hearts did not soften, their consciences did not twinge, their lips did not repent and their behavior did not change. Nevertheless the Lord loved his people and was ever-poised to show mercy. God described himself as “he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and remembers not thy sins.” But here in chapter eight, the mood dramatically shifted. The long-suffering Lord had suffered long enough. God pulled out a cornucopia of ripe fruit and declared His chosen people ripe for ruin. Thus saith the Lord: “The end is upon my people. I will pass by them no more.” The time is ripe. I will no longer pretend everything is OK.
Amos goes on to list God’s grievances—to us a list of somewhat pedestrian crimes—it’s unsettling that God gets so mad. Israel’s sins aren’t big and bodacious transgressions, but the kinds of things you get used to, the cost of doing business you might say, especially as we settle into holiday shopping season. We greedily push and shove for bargains and call it Black Friday (or Thanksgiving if you’re going shopping today). We let retailers have their way with us for the sake of a strong GDP. We allow ourselves to panic over such phrases as “while supplies last,” sweat over “must have gadgets,” and worry over depriving our children. In Amos it was called “making the ephah small, the shekel great, and falsifying the balances”—a markup on electronics in North Minneapolis, a little more credit on the card that we’ll pay off after the new year, a run up on prices before Christmas, only to find their true worth the day after.
I remember an article some time back by an ad-man named Michael Prewitt—also a Presbyterian—who wrote of the struggle he felt between keeping his job as an advertising executive and keeping his faith as a Christian. Not an easy thing to do, he confessed, in a business which eagerly glamorizes and subliminally promotes materialism, self-centeredness, hedonism and shallowness for profit. Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he insinuated how many professing Christians keep the balance by separating their work world (profane, natural and unchristian) from their faith world (holy, supernatural and Christian). However Bonhoeffer, whose merging of faith and work cost him his earthly life when he opposed the Nazi German regime, insisted that “There are not two but only one reality, and that is the reality of God, which has become manifest in Christ in the reality of the world.” Likewise committed to this single reality, Michael Prewitt strives to abide by a set criteria for good advertising, what he calls “the win-win proposition of an ongoing, honest and legitimate relationship of commercial exchange and the sustenance of society through a network of such relationships.” His commitment may not cost him his earthly life, but it’s probably cost him a few earthly accounts and job promotions.
Tragically for the Israelites in Amos, their worship bore no bearing on their marketplace ethics. Faith and work stayed separate. They “bought the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings off the floor with the wheat.” Earlier in Amos, there’s mention of selling the poor for a pair of sandals. The justice system was rigged such that poor people who lost civil or criminal court cases, such as stealing sandals out of necessity, would be fined unduly and then, unable to pay the unfair fine, would be sold into slavery. The purchasers who profited at the expense of the poor could buy them as slaves at low prices with the very money the poor had paid them to purchase overpriced merchandise.
Therefore the Lord swears “by the excellency (or the pride) of Jacob”—which could mean either by Yahweh’s own majesty or against Israel’s arrogance—that he will never forget what they have done. God suffers no amnesia when it comes to injustice, economic of otherwise. That God will execute his just vengeance against all who persist in evil enables us to have pity on our enemies now. Assured of evil’s ultimate defeat, we can genuinely say, “God have mercy on you,” and truly mean it. But what about when the enemies turn out to be God’s own chosen people; what about when the perpetrator is us?
As Amos famously declared in an earlier chapter, “Let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” And then here: “Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it shall be cast out and drowned, as by the flood of Egypt.” The water that feeds becomes the water that floods. Moreover, “I will turn your feasts into mourning and your songs to lamentation.” And then to amp up the severity, Amos tacks on stock Judgment Day imagery: The “sun will go down at noon, and will darken the earth in the clear day.” Israel’s religious, political and social status quo would be swept away by a marauding Assyrian army. The chosen people’s fraudulent religious celebrations would become funereal, as if grieving the loss of an only child. “‘Behold, the days come,’ saith the Lord GOD, ‘that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the LORD.’”
Famine and war regularly arrive as a matched set of disaster, but here, God imposes no shortage of food; only a failure of communication. However to interpret the loss of words as less significant than the loss of bread would be to grievously miss the point. A starving Jesus refused bread from Satan in the desert, insisting, “Man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” God’s word is power, through which all things were made and all things are redeemed. “In the beginning was the word, the word was with God and the word was God.” The word of the Lord is utterance and act. It is act and actuality. God speaks and the world comes into being. God speaks and the word becomes flesh. God speaks and the flesh becomes salvation. God speaks and the dead are raised and given new life.
Without God’s word, God’s people were done for. They would seek but not find. They would hunger and thirst for righteousness without a crumb to eat or one drop to drink. The “fair virgins and young men,” the beautiful people previously satisfied and free from want, would perish for thirst, would fall, never to rise up again. Though chosen by grace, grace isn’t really grace if you never live like you’ve received it. Abuse of God’s grace would serve its own punishment—just as the self-indulgent abuse of bread (both the eating and the spending kind) still punishes—whether through obesity and heart disease or through financial ruin and global recession. For seven chapters Amos warned them. But as with so many emergency sirens that cascade down city streets on any given day, the people no longer paid attention. Quiet was the only recourse remaining.
Among my many quirks is the need I have for noise in order to sleep at night. I’ve got the rain app that allows for a variety of precipitation patter—rain in the forest, rain on a tent, summer rain, springtime rain, city rain, Southern rain. I’ve grown so dependent on the steady noise to sleep. It works so well I can sleep through every other noise: screaming sirens, screaming children, smoke detectors and fire alarms. None of it wakes me up. But let an ear bud fall from my ears or my battery die? I’ll bolt upright in bed and be wide awake for hours. It’s like rambunctious kids on a sleepover suddenly growing quiet upstairs. Or a friend you’re annoyed by hearing from everyday suddenly stops calling. Without the noise you know something is wrong. Nothing screams so loud as silence.
Most mentions of God’s silence in Scripture evoke concerns over evil or unanswered prayer. In the Old Testament, the prophets shake angry fists at God demanding to know why the Lord is so quiet about all the violence and wickedness he sees in the world. In each case it turned out that God wasn’t so much quiet as unconventional. His watercourse of justice flowed differently from how humans thought it ought. The same with unanswered prayer. We too often treat prayer more as transaction than as submission. Whatever the disciples understood Jesus to mean by “ask and ye shall receive,” they did not understand him to mean “ask and ye’ll get whatever ye want.” Even Jesus didn’t get whatever he wanted. That God will always do if we ask does not mean that God will always do as we ask.
However here, God’s silence is not about the problem of evil or unanswered prayer. Amos calls it a famine of hearing, implying that the real problem had to do with our own refusal to be quiet, our own resistance to hearing what God has to say. In Hebrew, the verb to hear is intimately connected to the verb to obey. Pilgrims understood how being quiet enough to listen was always linked to obedience such that to disobey was the equivalent of never hearing in the first place. For most early Congregationalists, once established on shore, faith quietly worked it self out in small communities and churches where people lived alongside one another for generations, bearing one another’s burdens and learning to tolerate each other’s peculiarities. As Harriet Beecher Stowe described it, “Love was understood, once for all, to be the basis on which the church’s common life was built. And after that, the less said the better.”
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do what it says,” Jesus taught. Likewise, James famous echoes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so receive yourselves. Do what it says.” If the power has gone off in your own life and the quiet has woken you up, the right response would be to hear and obey. At times people will complain of feeling distant from God; how they’re not reading their Bibles or praying or coming to church anymore. My solution is often, well, then read your Bible and pray and come back to church—back into relationship with God and each other with forbearance, mercy and love.
Granted, you may do all of that and still feel like the power’s off. It may still sound awfully quiet. But just as the blessing can become the curse, God redeems curses into blessings too. The silence of God that condemns is the silence that saves. God’s silence is the sound of salvation—nowhere more awful than the silence endured by Jesus from the cross, nowhere more glorious than the silence of resurrection, that empty hole in the ground from whence Jesus rose without a sound, an emptiness that is the very fullness of God that fills up everything. Thankfully, God always has the last word.