Saturday, July 25, 2009

OK maybe I do like rodeos

I started out with the premise "well, I'm just not a rodeo type of person" which would be completely understandable if you saw what I wore to the rodeo, while everyone else had tight jeans and western shirts, the hats, the sequins, ETC.
But it's a local event, a big one, and I felt obligated to have this cultural experience - so I went, anyway, and found myself enjoying it a lot. There was a great show of respect for the Nez Perce Native Americans who started us off ceremoniously. Solemnity regarding how these people were fought against, and dispersed, and treated badly - and then how so many of these folks turned around to be patriotic americans and to join our own armed forces. Actually, last week I was at a Native American event called Tamkaliks and got a deeper view into that -- into their warrior pride, and the honoring of not only physical wounds but the psychological wound of war. Last week there was an amazing dance competition, and I'm currently missing another one that's taking place up at the rodeo grounds.

I loved the horsemanship most of all. A drill team of six horses performed, and at the end they stood still at the ends and center of the arena, while a couple DOZEN more horses (ridden by rodeo queens and princesses from all over) galloped a serpentine around each one of them as if they were posts.

There were also a couple other wonderful horse moments -- after a round of steer wrestling (um I think I won't explain that) the one horse was running loose, and the cowboy had successfully wrestled his steer and let it go -- that riderless horse caught sight of the steer and herded it singlehandedly out of the arena (depriving the rodeo princesses of their herding duties!)

Those ladies are amazing riders.

Okay, but you know what, I DO have some objections to some of the rougher sports.
Evidence in case you don't believe it: that stallion has a flank strap around his rear quarters, as you can plainly see, not *on* but *close to* his you-know-whats, a remarkably sensitive area, and that's why he bucks. I BET THAT YOU would buck too. After the cowboy gets off, someone rides up to catch the stallion and grab a quick-release on the incriminating strap, and he stops bucking. Regarding this practice... definite ethical qualms. That's just not NICE, people!

Wild Cow Milking - though - I consider a little fairer, especially since all but two cows fairly beat her would-be-milkers. Ropes and horses notwithstanding, and even though it was two cowboys to each cow, those cows would drag the cowboys, chase them, jump over them... all but saying out loud "you want my WHAT?"

Also the clowning was first-rate. And I'm picky. My sister was in a circus which had wonderful clowns. Last rodeo I went to the clowns were eh. Punny, silly, not actually funny. But here, the one clown, plus audience volunteers, had us all in stitches!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Vacation Bible? School

When I moved into the manse here I explored one of my extra rooms and found a stash of mysterious objects. Brightly colored things that seemed like soft styrofoam, in funny shapes - incomplete shapes - pieces of shapes. Bagged in sets of twenty each, packaged in more foam (as if they weren't soft enough?), accompanied by "foam glue" and special markers. I was befuddled.
You see, my church never *did* Vacation Bible School. We went camping, yes, and put on musicals, but never had summer-camp-at-church. We missed out on the whole phenomenon of VBS crafts, a subject that is still foreign to me, but now I've done some research and found out what I was missing. A crucial part of VBS is, apparently, gluing small pieces of pre-cut foam together to make a predetermined craft shape, which then you bring home and give as a token of affection to your adoring parents who can't think of a blessed thing to DO with these crafts, so they accumulate on the counter until the child has forgotten to be proud of them or concerned with them.
To help make VBS more cohesive, the geniuses (genii?) at the Oriental Trading Company have developed more than a summer's full of themed VBS packages. For example, you can have a "safari" theme, where you bring home tiger and lion crafts which remind you of the Bible because Samson and David used to kill lions, and those stories were in the Bible somewhere. Or maybe the connection was that lions and tigers are brave just like Jesus was brave? Something of the sort - I forget.
In all seriousness OTC carries a "crocodile" VBS theme, although they can't decide whether it's an alligator or crocodile, and it comes with such catchy slogans as "looking out for God's Love" (eyes poking out of the swamp), "hungry for God's word" (toothy grin), and "basking in His Glory." So if your kids remember these slogans, perhaps THIS activity:

will pack some punch.
But I wouldn't be surprised if a few of your kids come home at the end of the day a little confused about what they were supposed to be learning. Odds are the "gator snacks" (reconfigured gummi candies) will be the most memorable.

Some of you have probably never heard of such activities, and are scandalized. Some of you probably just finished your own crocodile-themed VBS and have reasons why it was great. Be it all how it may, I really do question the need for such an industry of disposable entertainment under the banner of raising up children well-schooled in the Bible. The Word of God ought to be attractive enough without the murky filter of swamp water making it "fun."

Our church is trying to re-focus VBS. We renamed it, as if that would help, but we also chose our own non-commercial theme, a little more Biblical: "the Light of the World." We'll still be doing crafts, but they will be focused on the useful tradition of candle-making, and foam glue will not be implicated. Our Sunday School Superintendent is working on her own original tunes for them to sing. Stay tuned to see how it actually goes... attendance has been low in the past few years, perhaps because the local children know this church doesn't give out gator snacks. We'll see!

Friday, July 17, 2009

went to Boise

Boise, Idaho, pronounced boy-see not boyzee. Population 200,000. Two hundred miles away from Lostine. A convenient airport.
I had to drop Luke off at the airport so he could fly to a conference after a weekend (plus) of festivities with me. We had a fun time driving out. We visited an Oregon Trail tourist trap on the way too, and saw how tiny their wagons were. On the road he (city boy) commented on things like cows and fields. I (identifying myself at least temporarily as country girl) commented on novelties such as "street lights!" and "multiple lane highways!"
Also, I drove 75 mph legally in Idaho. That is noteworthy, if not fuel-efficient.
In Boise I also parked in a parking garage for the first time in forever, which is an exciting city experience, but only paid $2.50 for it, which is a different kind of exciting. In this mental arena of urban/vs/rural experience, my mind was blowing all kinds of gaskets, as I used to consider my college town of Binghamton, NY to be a tiny podunkville nothing (area population 250,000), but yet arriving in Boise I was overwhelmed by the urbanness of it all.

bicycle-friendly, in fact, bike-infested
many attractive young men, some on bikes
foodie food available (can I say mint-arugula-mushroom pizza??)
walkable fun downtown area with live music, hippies drumming, and a sprinkler for kids
good locally brewed beer

100 degrees
six lanes of traffic going a single direction

eh, that's all I can think of for now. I'm glad I went!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon - Obadiah

Continuing with our summer series on the Minor Prophets we have come to the most minor of all minor prophets, Obadiah. His tiny book is only twenty-one verses long. So we are going to read an ENTIRE book of the Bible today! And really that is the only difference between minor prophets and Major prophets. Back when books were made of collections of scrolls, all twelve of the minor prophets could fit one scroll together, but each of the major prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, from whom we heard in the first reading had his own scroll. In our teenage years, Cassie and I were in a youth group performance of “the Bible in fifteen minutes” and we illustrated the difference between minor prophets and major prophets. Since I was the older sister I got to be a major prophet, with a long speech to give, and she was the minor prophet, who came up and said – three words – do you remember your line? – Repent or die. Minor prophets get to the point.
Now as you may have been able to guess from the theme presented so far in the service, Obadiah wrote from exile in Babylon. The people of Israel were not in exile for very long – fifty to sixty years – so only one or two generations of Israelites experienced it – BUT it remained one of the most important historical events in the formation of their religious identity. Most of the Old Testament books of the Bible were written, or at least compiled, or re-copied during these few years while they were in exile.
Why was it such an important time? If they hadn’t taken their religion as seriously when they were in Israel, why were they suddenly so religious when they got to Babylon? Well, there’s probably a few reasons.
For one, they had suffered some serious hurts which needed healing. They’d been betrayed by their neighbors, and especially by Edom. Edom was a nation to the south-east of Israel who was supposedly friendly to Israel, but when the Babylonians came to plunder them, they stood by and allegedly even joined with the Babylonians. And why did Edom do this to Israel? The Bible traces it all back to the brotherly relationship between Jacob and Esau. If you remember the story, Jacob and Esau were brothers who fought bitterly, and cheated one another, and ran from each other, and eventually made up. There is the same kind of fierce love-hate relationship (and sometimes a hate-hate relationship) between Israel (the nation – descended from Jacob) and Edom (the neighboring nation – descended from Esau). And the Israelite nation was badly hurt by their brother nation. So when they were in exile, in the wake of this betrayal and pain, many people turned to God for an explanation - “how could this happen?” or at least for some comfort.
And two – they had been betrayed by God. Back in those days, when there was no separation of church and state, gods were supposed to be protectors. If one nation beat another nation in battle, it was proof that the winner’s god was bigger and stronger than the losers’ god. The people of Israel believed that they served the One High God. So how then could they explain the fact that this god had not defended them against their attackers? When they were in exile, they turned to God demanding an answer for this.
Then – three - their self-identity was under question. They weren’t the only exiles in Babylon – those Babylonians traipsed all around the Middle East conquering and capturing. So the Israelites were stuck in a place where they were a minority and they had to say who they were. So they spent some time writing and copying the history and the law of their ancestors, as a kind of constitution that explained who they were as a people.
And there’s one last point – one more reason why exile was an important time for the Israelites – they were suffering from a plain and simple case of homesickness. It hurts to be far from home, from the place your ancestors lived in, and from the land that used to be yours. In the midst of their sorrow they called out to God for consolation.
We might not know what it’s like to be exiled to a foreign land. But we know what it is like to turn to God and call out saying “hey! this situation is all wrong! God, I want you to make it right again!”
With that frame of mind let’s read the book of Obadiah, with a few notes as we go. If you have your Bible with you you might like to read along… verse one.

The vision of Obadiah.
Thus says the Lord GOD concerning Edom:
We have heard a report from the LORD,
and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against it for battle!”
I will surely make you least among the nations;
you shall be utterly despised.
Your proud heart has deceived you,
you that live in the clefts of the rock,
whose dwelling is in the heights.
You say in your heart,
“Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,
says the LORD.

Obadiah has preached against the pride of Edom, the neighbor who betrayed them. Now he goes on to describe the payback – the robber is going to be robbed. Verse five.

If thieves came to you,
if plunderers by night
--how you have been destroyed!--
would they not steal only what they wanted?
If grape-gatherers came to you,
would they not leave gleanings?
How Esau has been pillaged,
his treasures searched out!
All your allies have deceived you,
they have driven you to the border;
your confederates have prevailed against you;
those who ate your bread have set a trap for you--
there is no understanding of it.
On that day, says the LORD,
I will destroy the wise out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau.
Your warriors shall be shattered, O Teman,
so that everyone from Mount Esau will be cut off.

So we have retribution here. It sounds a lot like an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or perhaps even stricter than that. Obadiah goes on to list all the crimes of Edom. Verse ten:

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob,
shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aside,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.
But you should not have gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
on the day of distress.
13 You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster
on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
on the day of his calamity.
14 You should not have stood at the crossings
to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
on the day of distress.

Now Obadiah has listed the whole case against Edom. So now he expands into a more general scheme – now addressing the whole world and Israel’s special status before God.
Verse fifteen.

15 For the day of the LORD is near against all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.
16 For as you have drunk on my holy mountain,
all the nations around you shall drink;
they shall drink and gulp down,
and shall be as though they had never been.
17 But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of those who dispossessed them.
18 The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;
for the LORD has spoken.

Finally Obadiah speaks of the restoration of Israel, in a long list of place names. These are the territories that have been taken away in the fight against Babylon, which will be given BACK to Israel, plus a little extra- because incidentally they’re going to rule Edom as well. The final words begin in verse nineteen:

19 Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau,
and those of the Shephelah the land of the Philistines;
they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria,
and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.
20 The exiles of the Israelites who are in Halah
shall possess Phoenicia as far as Zarephath;
and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad
shall possess the towns of the Negeb.
21 Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion
to rule Mount Esau;
and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s.

the end – that is the prophet Obadiah for you.

You know what? I don’t like it.
Now I KNOW what it says in 2 Timothy – All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

And I KNOW that Jesus said nothing will be taken out of Scripture until all things have been fulfilled. That makes me think – okay – this is in the Bible for a reason.

But seriously? I understand, Obadiah, that you’re in exile, and you’re miserable. Feelings are hurt, betrayed, homesick, questioning, angry, bitter. Why couldn’t Obadiah get a vision from God with some prophetic consolation like “the lion will lie down with the lamb” or “every valley will be exalted” or “there will be no more sickness or pain or warfare or suffering in God’s holy city”?

Why, Obadiah, did you give us a whole book about an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth? About how Edom hurt you and now God is going to hurt Edom?

Just to zero in a little bit on the problem, think back to the beautiful psalm we began the service with – by the waters of babylon we sat down and wept – it’s psalm 137, does anyone want to find it in their Bible please? It’s such a beautiful, aching song about the sorrow of being in exile. And then God gives them consolation. Does someone have psalm 137 open? Can you read the last verses – 7 to 9?

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! Yeah… it’s pretty unpleasant, huh? Yet all scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

I don’t know about that. I could agree that all scripture is inspired, but it seems pretty plain that some scripture is more useful than others. I think that “comfort, comfort my people – tell her that her warfare is ended” IS a little more useful than dashing children on a rock. I think some of these exiled Israelites were a little obsessed with vengeance. How are we supposed to read these passages in Scripture where it seems the people cannot get over their obsession with paying people back?
Now I know there is a lot of diversity among folks here at the church, so I’m not going to try to tell all of you exactly how you should read scripture. But I want to give some general principles that everyone SHOULD hold on to. One is that Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Jesus tells us how to interpret all the laws and prophecies with a few general teachings. He shows us how to go beyond the letter of the law. “You have heard it said, do not murder.” Jesus says, all right, that’s good. Not murdering is good. But you know what’s better? Not to be angry. Not to even think about murder. Not to even let the tiniest bit of desire to kill someone into your soul. Here’s another one: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ All right, that’s fair. But do you know what’s better than fair? “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus shows us how seriously he takes Scripture, and he gives us a key to understanding it. His key is the double commandment to love – one, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and the other, to love your neighbor as yourself. When we are faced with a difficult passage we should try to use this commandment to unlock it.
Another principle is to try to find the deeper meaning. All scripture is inspired by God, but it is spoken to humans, in the language that they can understand. The deep truths that God is trying to convey to us are more profound than we can adequately put into words. But there was a big question there, that Obadiah was asking God, and we know that God answered it. If I had to guess at the deeper meaning God was imparting to Obadiah, there are a few themes that I’d consider. One is the question - “what should we do?” and the answer “let God do the payback.” The Israelites themselves are NOT told to punish their neighbor, but to wait and to leave it in God’s hands. This still leaves some violence in the picture, but it takes it out of our hands. Which I think is a great idea because we humans tend to mis-use violence when we think God told us to do it. But here the Israelites are told to wait for “the Day of the LORD” to come.
Another deeper meaning is “God sees what happened.” When someone – or a whole nation – has been deeply, deeply hurt, they need someone to tell them “I saw that.” “that wasn’t right.” “You didn’t deserve it.” They need to hear that someone is looking out for justice. The Israelites in this case really needed to know that God hadn’t left the scene and abandoned them. This was a hard lesson at that point, because they had assumed like everyone else around that a war was proof of whose god was stronger, and it seemed from the outcome of THIS war that they didn’t even have a god helping them at all. And this is still a hard question to ask – “Where was God when these horrible things happened to me?” Why didn’t God give me the help I wanted?
I think this whole story about exile is a kind of difficult one for us. When we have sinned, we know what to do. There’s a nice transaction sequence we’re used to: If you do something wrong, you feel sorry, you repent, you apologize, you ask forgiveness, you receive grace from God. We’ve known that since we were children. But what do you do when you have been sinned AGAINST? When your brother has turned against you and driven you from home, and now you’re stuck in Babylon thinking about how good life used to be before everyone (including God) turned on you and made your life miserable. What do you do when you’re stuck in Babylon and you can’t get home?
We’ve been to Babylon. Some of us have lived in foreign countries, where everything looks different, and all the food tastes different, you might not even speak the language, and everything all around you just keeps reminding you that you don’t belong there. While we might be traveling for fun, there are always those who are forced to travel to find work, or because their family has rejected them, or because they’ve lost their home. Imagine what it feels like to be homesick in a strange place, trying to live there, and knowing that the home you used to have is in ruins behind you – that even if you go back, it will not be the home you remembered.
Or some of us know what it’s like to feel homesick without even leaving our home. This can happen when you grieve for someone who has died, or you miss the family that has moved away. There is PLENTY of that kind of Babylon in our congregation these days. There is more than enough grief and sorrow here. We know about Babylon.
And there’s another kind of exile – that we all share, in our common humanity – the sense that we don’t belong to this world at all. From our imperfect bodies to our limited minds – we know, deep down inside, that we are spiritual beings having this temporary, painful physical experience we call life. Life is all we know but we know there is more.
So what do you do when you are in exile, when you’re stuck in Babylon and you can’t get back home? What do you do?
First thing you can do is set the vengeance aside. If you’ve been sinned against – if you’ve been horribly hurt – TELL that to God and know that God is just and will not leave it unaddressed. But leave the leveling to God. You might be able to use Jesus’ advanced peacemaking technique of “turn the other cheek,” but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, you can at least do what Obadiah did, and say “wait for the Day of the LORD.”
But then the next thing you do, while you’re waiting, is you cry out to God. Whether you are angry, or sad, or just plain confused, you cry out to God. So much of our Bible was written by exiles, and they testify that you CAN talk to God in all these ways. You can yell at God in the privacy of your own home, or you could even write it down on a piece of paper and slip that paper in your Bible, right next to all the other angry and sad and upset writers. And God gave them consolation, in their time, something we can still hold on to today.
We can hold onto the fact that God is always present, even when we can’t see where or how. Even when it doesn’t make sense, God is with us, and is always just and loving and good.
We can hold on to the fact that God promises to make everything right in the future; that the kingdom of heaven will COME to us, bringing righteousness to this earth, and indeed that it already has begun to come within and among us. (children – church is our family)
We can also hold on to heaven, knowing that beyond this life we have a home, a place where we will be forever with Christ and with our loved ones. The Israelites called it Zion. John called it the New Jerusalem. You might think of the old image of golden streets, or you might have a spiritual image of being with Christ. We are going to close by singing a journey song. Know that we have a destination and a goal. We may be in a foreign land but we are traveling home.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sermon - shorter edgier form of the uberlong version

Ready? Here goes. These are all the things I WANTED to talk about today. In outline form. Let the controversy ensue.
1) Happy birthday, John Calvin, 500 years old today (and many years dead). We appreciate your honesty and willingness to challenge authority. We also like to remember things and put ourselves back in other people's shoes, especially those who have so heavily influenced us. That's why we're having church out of the 1946 prayer book today.
2) prophet Amos. Let's play Bible-Land and hang out with him in our imaginations. Amos is controversial guy, just like Calvin, and kinda like the other Amos, Tori. (and THAT is a throwaway line, but being a Bible Geek, I thought it was pretty funny when my sister asked "which Amos?") Anyway, this Amos preached about social structural issues, about economic unfairness and extortion, some of which was a crime, some of which was just a little on the greedy side, but all of which ended up heaping cruelty of various sorts on the heads of the poor. A rich class of Israelites bought up a whole bunch of subsistence farmers and put them to work at a great loss on the land they used to own (which is called latifundialization, which is a very fun word to throw around and feel smart). And to add insult to injury they then sat around in luxury houses on ivory couches eating veal from the herds that the subsistence farmers used to use for working.
3) The same things happen today. It's not face-to-face-cruelty but through impersonal systems of trade etc, people get trampled on. In Uganda, coffee is grown by local subsistence farmers, who sell them to Nestle, and they process them, package them, and sell them back at enormous profit. In India Coca-Cola does a similar thing with water, buying up land and water rights, and then filtering, bottling, pricing up, and selling that same water back to the people who used to use it for free. In Iowa there's a food desert, in the midst of great abundance of corn -- the day-to-day balance of food is produced there, trucked out, processed, and trucked back in. Also, Monsanto will sue you if you save seed from their GMO crops. Not to mention loan bundles and credit-default swaps. GET THE POINT? Through the same systems and structures that allow us to prosper and make money, people are inadvertently, indirectly, but cruelly harmed. Oh and bananas -- Dole does the same exact thing buying up the subsistence farms of local folks, just so you can have bananas in the fruit bowl whenever you want them. Chiquita does worse. Veal, bananas, coke, corn, and coffee -- I think I got all the major food groups of oppression there.
4) by speaking of such things the prophet proves that GOD CARES. That religion ought not to be just an issue of whether you are nice to your neighbor, and say your prayers, and don’t curse, and have a reverent attitude throughout your life. You can make it through life being nice to everyone you see face-to-face, but you may be hiding another form of cruelty. Hidden cruelty is still cruel. God holds us accountable.
5) This is related to the 4th of July, which some celebrate as independence day, and others choose to label "anti-colonialism day" in solidarity with the many who are still under some kind of colonial chains. Dole, Chiquita, Nestle, Monsanto may be the modern-day colonizers - DISCUSS AMONGST YOURSELVES!!
6) call to repentance. Back to Amos -- who said wake up people and do justice again.
repentance means turning AWAY from the bad (boycotts? snarky blog entries? calling the big guys out for public disgrace?) and turning TOWARD the good (responsibility, transparency, accountability, justice, and maybe also kitchen gardens as an expression of responsibility and abundance).
7) At the Lord's Table we observe several things.
a) "until Christ comes again" - we know that there is a coming day when these things will be put back to rights. That doesn't mean we don't work at it meanwhile, but that we have this future consolation coming to us. You can discuss that too - am I placating if I call upon this?
b) ABUNDANCE like the feeding of the 5000 or the non-stop heavenly feast or the non-canonical book "stone soup" that says God really HAS given us enough - we just need to share it with others -- share Jesus with others -- share the body of Christ with others, which means to share ourselves with others - break ourselves like bread for others like jesus.
c) Amos, after nine chapters of fury and vitriol, gives a blessing, a promise, and an invocation of abundance. You should read it if you've made it this far in my rantings.

Thanks be to my collaborators for this one!!! it was fun =)

Sermon - long version

As part of our summer series on the Minor Prophets, which are the last twelve books of the Old Testament, I am going to be reading today from the prophet Amos. Now what is a prophet? A prophet is not necessarily someone who can see into the future. Prophets are not magicians or weathermen. But they are messengers. They are people who have a special connection to God, who can see a vision or hear a message or even just look around them and understand what is happening in a way that other people can’t.
So today let’s go with our imagination to listen to the prophet Amos. We’ll be the Israelites standing around listening to him speak. He’s got a wondeful message for us today. He’s saying that the nations all around are practicing all kinds of wicked behavior and that God is not blind to it! It comes in a poetic form, like a riddle. Listen to Amos’ first oracle, in chapter 1 vs3. THUS SAYS THE LORD:
For three crimes of Damascus,
and for four, I will not take it back;
because they have threshed Gilead
with threshing sledges of iron.
So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.
One thing we need to understand is the riddle form, “For three crimes, and for four, I will not take it back.” It is an example of an old teaching tool. Three things give an example of the general idea, and the fourth zeroes in on the important point. So Amos is using a traditional form and saying a rather traditional thing. He’s not rocking the boat when he says “Damascus! What an evil nation! You invaded our land and killed our people!” When Amos said these things, “I will send a fire on them – this is the word of God!” the people of Israel probably all stood around cheering. Yeah! Down with our enemies!
Amos is doing well. He identifies another villian – the city of Gaza – the people of the Philistines. Philistines are enemies of Israel.
Thus says the LORD:
For three crimes of Gaza,
and for four, I will not take it back;
because they carried into exile entire communities,
to hand them over to Edom.

The people of Israel remember this happening. They remember when the Philistine slave raiders came and took Israelites captive, and sold them in slavery to Edom. The slave trade? Now that is evil. Come on, everybody, let’s boo and hiss. Philistines! God knows what you have done!
Amos is on a roll! He names five more foreign enemies. Tyre! They broke a covenant! (boo, hiss) Edom! They pursued their own brothers with the sword! (boo, hiss!) The Ammonites! They ripped open pregnant women in their warfare! Moab! They burned the bones of their dead and didn’t even give them a proper burial! God will not put up with these crimes! God is sending the proper punishment!
The crowd is loving it. They know they are not powerful enough to take vengeance on these foreign nations, so they love hearing that God is going to do it for them. Now Amos throws a stronger one in. For three crimes of Judah, and for four, I will not take it back. Now at this time Judah and Israel were split into two kingdoms and although Amos himself came from Judah, he went to Israel and that’s where he preached. He is admitting the crimes of his own homeland. Now what is Judah’s crime?
Thus says the Lord: they have rejected the law of the LORD,
and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
after which their ancestors walked.

Well that’s a real zinger. It’s not an objective moral crime, like slavery and murder, but Judah has a different standard because they have a covenant with God. God holds them responsible for an even higher level of conduct. And Judah did not live up to this high standard… they wandered. And so the people of Israel would say – HA! Serves you right! Let’s all wag our fingers at Judah.
But wait. Amos has one more oracle to say. With all the great ones he’s given us so far this must be a real ringer, right? Listen carefully.
For three crimes of Israel,
and for four, I will not take it back,
because they sell the righteous with silver,
and the needy with a pair of sandals--
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.

And to this the people of Israel start looking around and grumbling. What is this guy trying to say? That it’s a crime to make a fair deal? That it’s wrong to buy and sell, and lend and charge interest? Is he trying to say that WE are responsible for someone ELSE’s poverty??
You see – the people of Israel were doing pretty well, economically – or at least there was a solid upper class of people who were doing really well, and they had extra silver to lend, and they considered this must be God’s blessing on them. If we’re prospering, it must be proof that we are righteous, right? And Amos says no.
Now that’s the beginning of the book – Amos’ first prophecy. It’s not a long book, only nine chapters, and it’s worth reading the whole book if you can, but for now I’ll pick out a few important verses to help us understand what was going on in Israel in the 8th century BC. They are noted in your bulletin if you want to look for them later.

Chapter 5 vs 11 tells us that the rich are taking taxes on the grain of the poor people. This is not a governmental tax, for roads or the army; it’s part of a large-scale economic shift. Where Israel had previously been farmed by small-scale subsistence farmers, now folks were consolidating land into fewer, bigger, cash crop producers. Rich people would essentially buy whole swaths of land from subsistence farmers, plow the whole thing for one crop, hire the farmer back on to work, and export the crops at the end of the year. By doing this they became so rich that they were able to make loans at a profit, or to take bribes, and generally to give themselves an unfair advantage. Chapter 8 verse 5 tells us that people were using false balances in the market in order to increase their profits. And they certainly did increase their profits!
The general result of all these practices is told in chapter six verse 4: they live a life of luxury. They relax on couches made of expensive ivory. They sing idle songs. They eat lamb and veal. Now I’m not going on a vegetarian kick when I talk about eating lamb or veal – it’s not about that but it is a very important point to understand. The folks in Israel who used to be subsistence farmers had a traditional way of raising their crops and herds. They knew that agriculture was risky business – you might get rain, or you might not – and so they managed their risks by diversification. Flocks and herds are an important part of this diversification. The ancient writer Chrysippus put it eloquently when he said “the life in a pig is a preservative: it keeps it fresh until you’re ready to eat it.” So you’ve got a little disaster bank on the hoof, wandering around your fields, ready, alive, and edible in case your crops failed. When you needed extra food you would cull the older flock members and eat them. But in abundant years you would keep them around to reproduce as much as possible, because you know you’d need them if a hard year came by.
So imagine you are a former subsistence farmer. You’ve been used to a diversified schedule, but your land was bought up and so now you work on olive trees year-round, and you have no grazing land so you’ve sold off your whole flock. Since you have only the olives, you’re at much greater risk if that year’s crop fails… in fact, let’s imagine that last year’s crop DID fail, and you took out a loan from the landholder. You gave him your sandals as the traditional pledge, and he gave you some silver coins to get through the year, but you will have to pay him back big time at your next harvest.
And now picture your landholder sitting on an imported ivory couch in his big expensive house, and just behind his house he’s got his own little private feedlot. He bought your flock of sheep, and he eats a young one whenever he wants to, and fattens it up ahead of time. You’d probably be enraged, and bitter, and jealous. This is a really pointed symbol of the economic inequality that was going on in Israel at the time.
So what Amos is doing here is pointing out the injustice of a whole economic system. And I think it’s one that is not too far away from many things we have been experiencing these days. Has anyone seen poor people being bought off their land? Land being consolidated for cash crops? Rich absentee landlords? Conspicuous and wasteful consumption? People selling themselves into debt? I think of my experience in Uganda, which is a coffee-growing nation. Ugandans themselves prefer to drink tea, but they can get a good cash price for their coffee beans. So almost every family dedicates a proportion of their land to growing coffee, which is sold for cash. The ironic thing is that when ugandans DO drink coffee, it is always instant Nescafe. The Ugandans grow the coffee beans and sell them to Nestle, who process them, package them, and sell them back at enormous profit. Coca-Cola does a similar thing with water in India, buying up land and water rights, and then filtering, bottling, pricing up, and selling that same water back to the people who used to use it for free.
Similar things happen in America, particularly in Iowa and places that predominantly raise corn. Because of the way the industry and the subsidies are balanced, there are areas where the land produces great quantities of food, but none of it is for local use. When it comes to the day-to-day balance of food, it is produced there, trucked out, processed, and trucked back in. The very farmers and ranchers – who ought to have the closest connection to their food – have little more food security than anyone else. In fact, in some cases, they have almost no food security whatsoever, because they may be planting genetically modified seeds that are copyrighted by Monsanto. They cannot even save their own seeds to replant. This may not be a crime but it is cruel because it is hurting some people.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for everyone to go back to subsistence farming. I know that subsistence farming is not romantic, or easy. However, as we move away from subsistence, the systems we build get larger and more impersonal, and there is a greater risk of abuse. Because of their position and their money, Coca-Cola can cheat their neighbors in a way that one person would not be able to abuse another neighbor.
For example, take a strictly economic look at things: when a loan is an agreement between two people, it all happens face-to-face, and each person has an ethical obligation to be fair. But if a large financial company makes a thousand loans, or a million, no one finds out about the ethical issues until they default and make national news with widespread damage done. It wasn’t that one person directly hurt another person – there was never face-to-face cruelty, and maybe not even a crime, but cruelty nonetheless through the system of trade.

Here’s where the prophet comes in. A lot of people think that the Bible is just about personal ethical behavior. That what matters is if you are nice to your neighbor, and say your prayers, and don’t curse, and have a reverent attitude throughout your life. Those things do matter, but people have been known to go through life WITH a nice and generous attitude toward everyone they see face-to-face, WHILE oppressing and impoverishing a whole class of people whom they do NOT see face-to-face. The people of Israel probably did not think they were doing anything wrong. But the prophet Amos says that God sees this hidden cruelty and that God will hold them all accountable for their actions. The prophet shows up to call people to awareness and then to repentance.

As Steve said last week there are two parts to repentance: turning away from evil, and turning toward the good. You have to have both parts, or else you’ll get stuck and never actually get anywhere.
It is hard to see many examples of people turning away from the evil in this world. So much of the world is powered by money and greed. What can WE do – small individual citizens – about the hidden cruelty that is done on a large scale, by rich corporations and impersonal financial systems? We can speak out, we can report the injustice that is hidden, we can open our eyes and find out if the companies we buy from are treating others kindly or cruelly. And if enough of us cooperate we CAN make an impact. But all our efforts do not mean that the people in charge of these systems are necessarily going to change. We cannot force other people to change. In the meantime we take comfort in the prophet’s words – that God will NOT allow these things to last forever. We serve a God who CARES about the systems of our world, and who will make all things right and just. Whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table we proclaim that we live in this waiting time “until Christ comes again.”
But we CAN take our own part in making the world a just place, and I can see some examples of people turning toward the good. I think this current recession has triggered many people to try to take better care of their families and their land. People are planting kitchen gardens and raising small flocks of chickens, not because it is so much cheaper, but because they want to take control of their food security, and there is nothing more secure than a pantry full of food you raised yourself. This is a turning toward the way God wants us to be. It is a statement of responsibility. It is also a statement of abundance – that God really HAS given us enough on this earth, and that if we all do our part, no one will have to go hungry.
When we gather around the table of our Lord in a few minutes, we will also celebrate abundance. We remember when Jesus fed five thousand people. We remember his descriptions that heaven is like a banquet, or a wedding feast, to which everyone is invited, and where no one will go hungry. We are turning toward the way God wants us to be when we share freely and generously.
Let’s finish with the last words of the prophet Amos, who has spent nine chapter denouncing the evil oppression of the rich Israelites, promising punishment from God, spewing fire and brimstone – and then – he shifts gears – and promises God’s favor, restoration of the land, and abundance:

The time is surely coming, says the LORD,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the LORD your God.

May it be so even in our land, and may we turn to God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Amen.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why I Take Ridiculously Long Train Trips

In narrative form.
Similar to my journey towards vegetarianity, my trainriding commitment has grown and changed. The first time I took a ridiculously long train trip there was one simple reason for it:
my bassfriend --
being of unusual size, and great fragility, and quite dear to my heart --
is regularly denied a seat on airplanes, and will not go as checked luggage unless I were to find a Major Hard Case for him (to the tune of $2000 and the size of a closet), and who wants to let such a precious instrument out of their sight anyway? But Amtrak graciously booked a ticket for Mr. Bass Phillips and away we went and moved to California. BTWs train tickets are equal or less in price than plane tickets if booked appropriately early.

So there I was on a train for three days. And I discovered interesting people, and the pleasures of the cafe car, and the amazing scenery that makes up America, and I was entranced. I took it a few more times going back and forth from California to New York. I met friends of the instant-soulmate variety (just add scenery and the romance of brief encounters plus the intensity of nowhere-else-to-go). And I vowed I would take the train forevermore.

I convinced myself trains were way more efficient on the environment -- and they are, moderately. I decided to invest myself in the train system since it's a "greener" system in general -- and it is. And probably most importantly, I convinced myself that I would always meet these instant soulmates on the train.

Last train I was on I met no soulmates. It was disappointing. I'd actually convinced myself that I was likely to randomly meet a young monastic and discover the course of my life from henceforth (no, says God, if you want that you ought to seek it out purposefully).
But I still have reasons for loving the train, and for committing to it, and advocating for it.
For one, I'm a workaholic and trains are mandatory, enforced relaxation. No one can make you feel guilty for taking a nap in the middle of the day. No one can get you by email - heck in most parts of the route they can't even get you by cell phone! Plus there's scenery, scenery, scenery, and you don't have to drive so you can keep your eyes on the forest! Bring a book, maybe, or just bring an open mind and meet some strangers, even if they aren't soulmates. Meet some Amish people (you won't meet THEM on a plane!). Meet people - have you ever conversed with more than the two people on either side of you on a plane? On a train you have your seatmates, at a much more comfortable proximity, and you also have everyone else in the cafe car, and you make many more friends. The attitude of a plane is "I just want to survive this in the most pleasant fashion possible," whereas a train puts you in the mood for a little more relaxation and enjoyment.
And finally since I live on the opposite side of this country from my sisters, brothers, neices, nephews, aunts, uncles, and EVERYONE EXCEPT ZOEY -- I do generally make an Eastward visit every six months or so. It is difficult to schedule this in with a train. So I commit to it. If it was my option I know I'd rarely take the train, and I'd travel several times more each year - each for shorter times, because I could. By my commitment to train travel I limit myself to a few long visits instead of many short ones. I take traveling seriously, I don't dash it off as a red-eye. I take my time and REALIZE that I have crossed this massive country of ours.
annnd i don't have a dramatic conclusion so i'll just step down off my soapbox. Ladies and Gentlemen, I reccommend Amtrak. the end.