I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's the week of September 7. The text is Amos 5:11-24.
When I was in high school, I was in the band.
And one of the things our band did every year,
for a reason that I’m still not entirely sure of,
was to go and play at Disneyland over Spring Break.
I guess there was some kind of program for this sort of thing --
Disneyland was peppered with these gazebos
where various highschool groups would play,
and the park visitors would gather around and listen for a little while
and eat their lunches and then be on their way.
It was all part of the atmosphere.
Well, one of the things that happens when you’re a visiting high school band at Disneyland
is that you have to get from place to place rather discreetly.
They can’t just have 150 high schoolers in uniform unmaking their way through the streets of the park.
So to achieve this, the park staff would sometimes take us “backstage.”
Now, “backstage,” was a whole different story.
A staff member would led us to a unnoticeable gate discreetly marked “cast only.”
As our band filed through, the scene changed rather quickly.
The tinkle of carnival music faded away
and we found ourselves in a concrete alley lined with dumpsters.
It smelled of garbage.
I once caught a glimpse of the guy who played Mickey Mouse,
still in costume and leaning against one wall,
holding his giant head under his arm and smoking a cigarette.
He had a haggard, five o’clock shadow and bags under his eyes.
Suddenly I wondered how much the guy got paid.
America is no stranger to illusions.
We are usually quite happy to accept our place in line at the “happiest place on earth,”
without a thought to what might actually be going on behind the curtain, offstage,
where the guy who plays Mickey Mouse nurses his nicotine addiction
or Cinderella stows a flask in her hoop skirt.
As long as it’s clean, and everyone’s smiling
and the lines aren’t too long at the restroom we’ll be happy.
No need to look to carefully at what’s underneath.
No need to ask what all this is built on.
It turns out that the temple in Northern Israel in Amos’ day
wasn’t so different from my experience at Disneyland.
The prophet Amos was writing at a time when Israel was flourishing.
The economy was growing by leaps and bounds,
and the people were prospering!
At least...some of them were.
There was law and order,
worship attendance at the temple, the house of Bethel, was higher than it ever had been.
After all, the ceremonies there were beautiful and resplendent,
with burnt offerings and grain offerings brought in in elaborate processions,
music for 100 harps and 50 trumpets written especially for the occasion.
It was such a sight to behold.
The nation was prosperous and thriving.
That is, until you went backstage.
For Israel’s prosperity, as Amos pointed out,
was built on the backs of the poor, who had no grain to eat.
And the gate, the place where court cases were heard and deals were reached,
was not a place of fairness or compassion, but a place of corruption,
where bribes were offered and taken,
and where the voices of the poor were ignored.
Amos the prophet was an outsider:
a rancher and a farmer who came to the city to, as one commentator put it,
“shatter this veneer of prosperity and religiosity.”*
And shatter it he did.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The prophet Amos is the voice that shatters the illusion.
Whose sharp words bring us back to the truth
that this is not the happiest place on earth.
That the elaborate processions,
the clamor of bells and the sound of the harp,
the short lines at the restrooms
and the friendliness of the staff
when we have trampled on the poor.
He begins this chapter with a funeral dirge:
a lamentation for Israel, who, he believes, is already dead.**
Those people at the temple who love worship but not justice --
that is nothing but death dressed up in its Sunday best.
The pages of history are filled with good people
who took part in evil things.
In an article in the Times this week called, “The Good, Racist People,”
Ta-Nehisi Coates invokes the story of Levittown,
the first planned community in the United States built after World War II,
where black people were not allowed to purchase homes.
William Levitt, the builder of Levittown,
justified this decision to sell only to white families
by saying it was necessary to maintain the value of the properties.
“As a Jew,” he said,
“I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice.
But the plain fact is that most whites prefer to not to live in mixed communities.
This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change.
I hope it will.”
In 2009, the population of Levittown was 95% white.
Blacks made up .07% of the population.
I imagine that William Levitt was a good person.
I imagine he was lovely to talk to at parties,
that he kept is lawn mowed, helped his kids with their homework,
and gave to charitable organizations.
He also made a series of decisions that kept blacks from securing homes.
I’m sure the Israelites who attended worship at the temple were good people.
I’m sure they thought of themselves as upstanding citizens.
They paid their taxes, were kind to people less fortunate to them,
gave to charity.
But they failed to see some crucial connections between the words they said in worship each week
and the part they played in making the poor poorer.
“In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous
and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.”
But evil belongs to good people too.
We may not condone racism or poverty or violence,
we might not think it’s okay -- we might think it’s terrible!
But, well, we don’t want our property to decrease in value, do we?
Speaking from from a hotel in Atlanta in 1965,
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said,
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition
was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people,
but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
Amos asks the people.
You really believe that God is coming to reward you?
You are the very enemies that God is coming to vanquish!***
I know that most of us in this room are far from the 1%.
Many of us have prioritized our passions over our pension plans,
and live modest life styles given our North American context.
But I have to believe that, as citizens in such a wealthy and powerful nation,
the words of the prophet Amos
must be for us, too.
Because we are good people.
And it is perhaps us good people
of whom much more is demanded.
Our nation is trampling the poor.
The old saying goes,
“if you’re not with us, then you’re against us.”
But perhaps in the case of systemic injustice,
we should instead say,
“If we are not against it, then we are with it.”
Last week we read the first letter of John, who wrote,
“Let us love not in word and speech,
but in truth and action.”
The prophet Amos is all about truth.
The prophet Amos is all about looking behind the curtain.
Seeing just what it is that happening backstage.
We don’t have to look far
to see those people whose backs this country has built its wealth upon.
We keep our ghettos poor
and our prisons full.
We keep our schools underfunded
and our police well armed.
And halfway around the world
people with brown skin work for cheap
so we can have cheap stuff and throw it away.
Going backstage really sucks.
Seeing the world as it is does not feel good.
Sometimes a strong word of truth is needed, though,
to shatter our illusions.
I am the way and the truth and the life.
Maybe Jesus’ kind of truth shatters illusions too.
Maybe Jesus’ kind of truth shows the world for what it really is.
A tangle and a mess.
And so maybe part of being faithful people
is allowing Jesus to lead us gently backstage
and shatter our illusions.
We do not live in the happiest place on earth.
We live in a world that is thirsty for justice.
A world that is thirsty for the waters of God’s justice
to roll down and flood this dry, parched land.
We are all good people.
But being good seems to mean accepting the illusion as we’ve inherited it,
when God is instead calling us to shatter that illusion to pieces.
What might happen if we give up on being good
and pick up a hammer?
What might happen when we take a good hard look at what all of this is built on?
*Denis Olsen, for the Working Preacher
** Denis Olsen, for the Working Preacher
***Terence E. Fretheim, for the Working Preacher