You can read the scripture for July 10, 2016 here.
‘Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.”’
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.
Not a prophet?
If I had been at Amaziah’s side, I think that’s what I would have said to Amos, an Amos in denial, an Amos who claims he knows neither what he is doing, nor even who he is.
Nonetheless, Amos fascinates me. He fascinates me not just because he’s mistaken, but because I think Amos holds up a mirror to us: here, in our church, today.
Why is he mistaken? What’s this old tale got to do with us? Today I want to answer these questions with three more questions: Who is a prophet? What does a prophet do? Why have prophets in the first place? And I ask these questions especially mindful of the violence that has beset this wonderful country in recent days.
So, firstly, who is a prophet?
Our first reading from Scripture this morning is rather ironic: the very man who tells Amaziah of the fate that will befall him and Israel just a few lines later denies he is even a prophet. Or does he? Amos protests, ‘I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees’. These professions, noble as they are, don’t sound terribly prophetic to me. But if we look more closely at the Hebrew, Amos denies not that he is a prophet at all, but denies that he is a nabi – a professional class of prophet, hundreds of whom would have circulated around the royal courts at the time of Amaziah. Amos does not deny he is capable of being an oracle of God, but rather he denies that prophecy is his day job.
Amos’s denial that he is a gifted or professional prophet resonates strongly with the other speakers in our readings this morning.
Secondly, the Psalmist complains to the Lord, ‘How long will you judge unjustly, and show favour to the wicked?’ He implores God, ‘Rescue the weak and the poor, deliver them from the power of the wicked’. The Psalmist, like Amos, claims to be powerless: he turns to the one in authority, throws up his hands, and says, ‘This is not my lot: what are you – the mighty guy – going to do about it?’
Thirdly, we might think of St Paul as the formidable apostle to the Gentiles, the man who single handedly founded church communities right across the Mediterranean. But let us not forget, brothers and sisters: this is the same Paul who boasts to the Galatians of ‘how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it’. Paul, for much of his life, is the very antithesis of how we understand a prophet!
Fourthly, the Samaritan in our parable this morning is, frankly, the very last person whom we would expect to hold up as a prophet. The Samaritan should have taken the place of the Levite, or the priest. The Samaritan shouldn’t have given the man a second thought, or a backwards glance. But it is precisely the person whom we presume will walk by on the other side who, in fact, comes to the man in his hour of need.
Who, then, is a prophet? Having glimpsed at these four portraits – Job, Psalmist, Paul and Samaritan – I think the true prophet is the person whom we least expect to be a prophet. Not the clever one, or the happy one; not the boastful one, or the important one. The prophet is not the one whom we might see on a billboard in Times Square; the prophet is the one we see in the mirror: you, me. The true prophets are us: the ones who think they have no special gifts to offer this church, no special knowledge to share.
Why is this so? Because when we say to God, ‘I am no prophet’, we simultaneously acknowledge our weakness, our humility, and our faults to God: and that’s exactly what God wants. He doesn’t want a cocky Amaziah; he doesn’t want a glib Psalmist, and he definitely doesn’t want a haughty priest. God’s prophets are you and I, because we are his children and he calls us as we are. So it was with Amos, so it is with us, brothers and sisters. Think you haven’t got what it takes? Think again.
Secondly, what does a prophet do?
Amos denies he is a professional prophet, but we should note what else Amos does: he listens to God; he stays attentive, and – unlike Amaziah – Amos does not doubt that God will stand by both him and Israel.
Likewise, the Psalmist complains, yes; but he complains because he trusts, and because he does not give up on God. So trusting and so tenacious is he, that the Psalmist becomes a mouthpiece of God: he reminds us that we are all ‘children of the Most High’, and that it is we – powerless though we think we are – we who are called to ‘save the weak and the orphan’, and to ‘defend the humble and needy’.
Paul also makes clear the work of the prophet: he tells us to bear ‘fruit… in every good work as you grow in the knowledge of God… endure everything with patience… joyfully giving thanks to the Father’. This fruit cannot be achieved in isolation: as Paul says to his congregation in Corinth, ‘What then, brothers and sisters? Let all things be done for building up’.
And, of course, this ‘building up’ is shown most powerfully in the actions of the Good Samaritan. What does he do? You don’t need me to tell you the story again, but I think the most important line in that whole parable is when the lawyer himself – the man who tries to trick Jesus – identifies the Samaritan as ‘the one who showed him mercy’. The Levite is too obsessed with caste convention; the priest with ritual purity: they are both fundamentally inward looking. The Samaritan, by contrast, looks at the man in need, and does not dither, he does not think, he does not question: he acts.
So, prophets stay attentive to the voice of God; they trust others; they seek to bear fruit in their midst; and they show mercy. I’ve only been in this parish for two weeks, but already I’ve been blown away by the extraordinary work that goes on behind the scenes here every single day: the daily serving and celebration of the Eucharist; the altar guild and flower guild beautifying the sanctuary; lectors; volunteers for the Food Pantry; tutors for Ascension Tutoring; ushers; musicians glorifying God with their music – and I haven’t even heard your choir!
You do much already; but if there’s one thing that distinguishes an American from an Englishman, it’s your shameless, unabashed drive to do more. What do you think that ‘more’ might look like? What role can you play in the ‘building up’ of this community, already blessed with many wonderful gifts? I will leave those questions with you.
Thirdly, why have prophets at all?
I started by mentioning the violence that we have seen in America this past week.
It would be all too easy to look around and ask what the words of Amos, or what the actions of the Samaritan can teach us amidst such upsetting scenes. In actual fact, these readings speak ever more powerfully to us in light of these tragic events, and I hold up two phrases from our Gospel reading in particular.
The first phrase has to do with why the Samaritan becomes ‘good’. Why is he a prophet? Why does he act? Our answer lies in the lawyer’s confession to Jesus: the Samaritan was the only one in the parable to be ‘moved with pity’, moved with pity.
The first thing we should note about this phrase, ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplanchnisthē) in Greek, is that it is in the passive sense of the verb. Unlike the Levite and the priest, who go or turn away – both active verbs – only the Samaritan allows himself to be moved by another, to be open to God’s mercy.
The second thing to note is that the same Greek verb only appears four other times in the New Testament. In three of those, when Jesus is moved with pity (or we can say, ‘compassion’), this is quickly followed by action: he feeds the hungry, he heals the sick, he raises the dead. The fourth time occurs when the Father of the Prodigal Son sees his child return home: he is moved with compassion, and embraces him once more. To be moved with compassion, then, is not to be powerless, or to remain frozen to the spot: it is a prophetic call to action.
And herein is the second phrase I want to highlight to you this morning. When the lawyer admits to Jesus that the Samaritan is ‘moved with pity’, Jesus’s next command is crystal clear: ‘go and do likewise’. In a world that has become all too accustomed to injustice, we as members of ‘the Jesus movement’ must never become inoculated against this stinging call. Unless we allow ourselves ‘to be moved with compassion’, unless we ‘go and do likewise’, we risk becoming just another Amaziah.
You already do much in this community: from feeding the homeless to screening films on difficult issues, these are all excellent and powerful means of change. But as a visitor to your wonderful parish and this blessed country, and as a young(ish), a little idealistic and, yes, probably naïve seminarian, let me say to you now: do not cease to be moved with pity, do not cease to go and do likewise. Then, like Amos, though you may think what you do is not prophetic, you will indeed be prophets of the Almighty,
to whom be the glory, now and forever. Amen.