Amos 5:4-7; 10-15
I wonder if it would be OK to read two extra verses for the OT lesson. The lectionary begins at 5:6. If we start at 5:4, we get additional occurrences of the word, "seek" in the reading that help explain v. 6 and v. 14:
"For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel..." (5:4)
"Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire..." (5:6)
"Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts will be with you..." (5:14).
About Bethel: "Not one stone will be left standing on another."
What about that "do not seek Bethel..." in 5:4? What is the alternative to seeking God? In the Harper Collins Study Bible, Gene M. Tucker writes, "Seeking the Lord is contrasted with making pilgrimages to the famous religious centers at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba, which are destined for exile and destruction" (p 1362). Ouch. Even religious activity can be beside the point and disconnected from seeking the Lord.
In 1981, I sat in the Riverside Church and listened to the Rev. Will Campbell preach. He is a white Baptist preacher who had been active in the Civil Rights movement. (Brother to a Dragonfly is his autobiography and memoir of some of that time.) I don't remember the text Will was preaching; it might have been this week's gospel (Mark 10:17-31). I was 19 years old and passionately interested in changing the world for the better. I took a bus and the subway every week from my dorm room in Brooklyn to the Riverside Church because William Sloane Coffin's preaching indicated to me that these people were interested in changing the world for the better too.
This is what I remember of Will Campbell's sermon that Sunday. He looked out on that Upper West Side congregation dressed so well and sitting in the gothic cathedral that Rockefeller money built, and he said, "You have invited me here today to talk to you about ending racism, but I think what you actually want me to tell you is how you can end racism and keep all of this. [He gestured to the sanctuary and everything around him.] I am afraid I don't have an answer for you."
I remember nothing else of the sermon. Did the preacher get out of that corner he had painted himself into? Within the allotted time for the sermon, did he leave us with hope for "incremental change," or something? I don't remember, but I have never forgotten that lone comment from the sermon. It seemed to me that he was saying, "You all want something you can't have: justice not rolling down like waters, but justice practiced 'in moderation.'"
"Seek me and live."
I love it that these words are in the mouth of God in v. 4. It reminds me of the picture of God in Is. 65:1 ("I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, 'Here I am, here I am,' to a nation that did not call on my name.") God sounds like a child playing "Hide and Seek" who is bored sitting alone and wants to be found. Sadly, the other kids aren't interested. The difference, of course, is that the stakes for this game are way higher: "Seek me and live." Read: there's death where you've chosen to roam.
"There's death where you've chosen to roam."
Almost exactly a year ago, my Old Testament colleague Fred Gaiser preached a sermon on Is. 5:1-7, titled, "Love Song for the Vineyard." It remains one of my favorite sermons of all time, an example of prophetic preaching accomplished standing under the word and with tears in one's eyes, rather than any eagerness to see one's addressees incinerated, which often seems to be the way of present-day pulpit prophets. If you're feeling called to preach the law this week (and the texts could well inspire a bold statement of the law), watch Fred's way with law and gospel here.