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Sunday Week 15 Year B

Print Version July 13th, 1997

Jefferson stands there, enormous in bronze, in his memorial in DC: caught in mid-stride, stepping boldly forward, eyes gazing into an horizon of promise. I gazed up at him with throngs of fellow tourists in his classical temple of Enlightenment virtues, chiselled round with words of hope and freedom — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Near his feet, I watched him in the gathering dusk and let myself be moved by the spirit of the place, by his spirit, stirring, optimistic, eager for an unbroken future of promise, free from the bonds of past authorities, old allegiances, with a destiny to fashion — a bold experiment in political freedom, individual liberty, and the good life for all.
A mile down the Mall, in the fallen night, another giant — this one shaped from stone — waited to hold an altogether more ambiguous court. A mile or so, and fourscore and seven years, separate Lincoln from Jefferson. But the gulf of the spirit is broader by far. Lincoln sits like Jehovah of old on his seat of judgement, a face ambiguous as any gods’. Is that a frown? A smile? Is that massive head overlooking his nation benignly or to condemn? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice?
What is certain is the challenge they hold and the silence they bring to the masses who mill at his feet. Between Jefferson and Lincoln something beautiful has been born and has died. A grand experiment in liberty, borne on the backs of slaves. A new land of the imagination stolen from the dreams of it’s native peoples. Lincoln sits at one end of the American promise, bathed in the blood of brother against brother, kith against kin, judging a nation, challenging a people to acknowledge the death of a dream, and to begin it’s birth all over again.
A hundred-odd years later, Lincoln still sits there in ambiguity — sign of an end of dreams, sign of a new beginning. What of now? What of today? America was born in a battle against oppression, against colonialism, against pretensions to global power, against interfering across the seas, against the sway of the strong over the weak. America won that battle and with it the mantle of power and the capacity to become all that she was born not to be. How different is she now? How well does the dream live in American hearts? With welfare in ruins, the stranger unwelcome in the land, with the right to bear arms killing cruelly on every street corner, with international power wielded lightly with a heavy hand. Add your own tests. How well is America doing? What’s the judgement from Lincoln’s throne?
Amaziah, the king’s priest, wants none of those questions asked. Amos the unwilling peasant prophet is deported for speaking in the wrong place: “Don’t prophesy here — in the king’s sanctuary, in the royal temple.” But these are the very places he speaks to — to political power and religious piety in holy alliance against the ideals of a nation. Listen to the words of Adonai, from the lips of a greasy, uppity socialist from south of the border.
“You sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for the price of a pair of sandals — you trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” “I despise your festivals, your burnt offerings. Get away from me with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your worship. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amaziah is right to throw Amos and his God out of Israel. Israel had never been more prosperous, more influential as a nation, more hopeful for the future, never been more able to do what it wanted. Israel was discovering its destiny, at last making its way in the world.
So Amos, don’t come here with your words of doom and gloom. You’re out of synch with the signs of the times. Why focus on the little difficulties we have, on the economic inequities that are inevitable in a growing nation. We are doing what we can. We want just what you want. Give us time and we’ll work things out. But right now other things are more important. We’ve got to safeguard jobs, we’ve got to attend to national security, we’ve got to pay our way, we’ve got to make our mark, fulfil our God-given destiny. And look! our liturgy’s never been better! Give us time, Amos, give us time.
Amos and his God gave them twenty five years. Twenty five years before the prosperity crumbled, the nation collapsed, and the rich and famous were taken away in chains to be strangers in a strange land.
Did Amos watch from his village south of the border? Did he smile as his borrowed words came to pass, or is that sadness on his lips?
And as Amos looks from across the border upon this nation, as Lincoln looks from this nation’s heart, is that a smile we see on their ambiguous faces or sadness? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice? Can we hear their silent challenge? Can we let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?

Entry Filed under: Berkeley,Homilies


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