A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Amos

“but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

That was Amos’ response when he was told to take his message elsewhere. God hadn’t chosen him to to be a traveling prophet to take his message on the road. He was not from a school of prophets. He was not a priest, serving in the temple. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees and God had raised him up to deliver a specific message to a specific people and that was what he was going to do.

Amos gave his prophecies about 750 before the birth of Christ. So it would be natural to think that while this ancient work gives us historical insights it could hardly be applicable in our day. But that assumption would be a mistake. Not only because it is the Word of God and therefore living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, but because his message is one we need to hear TODAY.

Here is some background. The threat of the Assyrian Empire had begun to wane and so Israel was experiencing a relatively stable government and a time of prosperity. It is not unlike what the United States experienced at the fall of the Iron Curtain. But do you remember the motto of the 80’s that came from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good.” Israel could have had the same motto.

Israel interpreted this time of prosperity as God’s approval and fully expected God to judge the nations around them. But Amos was there to tell them that judgment was going to begin with them. Why? Because the government was oppressive and Israel’s religion was full of compromise and heresy. Now I know it’s a real stretch to think of the government treating people unfairly (like using the IRS to punish political enemies) or the church being full of compromise and heresy (like changing the definition of marriage) but use your sanctified imaginations and hang in there with me. Amos prophecies revolve around 5 themes. Let’s see how relevant they are for us today.

His first them was that since God is Creator of the Universe, His ethics are universal and all people will be judged in light of them. This concept while true is like a foreign language to the average guy on the street today that has been raised in radical relativism.

People correctly bemoan how fractured and divided we are as a society but they fail to see that it is our own relativism that has caused it. If there are no absolutes and every man’s truth only has to be true for him, then what is it that will bring us together? As our lawmakers stray further and further from law based on the law of God then it further divides us because we end up with law rooted in politics.

The Church needs to be a strong voice in our society that God’s laws are true for all people because He is the maker of all people. It is our common submission to God’s laws that will bring us together. We may not be able to agree in fine points of politics but “Thou shalt do no murder”has worked for the last 3,000 years to keep societies out of chaos. With elections around the corner we need to participate in them and vote for people who will support righteous laws.

Amos’ second theme was that while the people were looking for peace and prosperity God was looking for justice and righteousness. Evidently some televangelist had time traveled and snuck into Israel with the prosperity gospel because that was their mindset.  But God was not judging them on the size of their bank accounts, He was judging them on how they treated others especially the least among them.

This is a common theme throughout the Scriptures and we see it particularly in Gods’ concern for the widow and orphan. But Israel was failing miserably. In fact in chapter two Amos said that they were selling the poor into slavery because of their indebtedness for something as paltry as a pair of sandals.

Now I understand the challenge here. The difficulty in caring for the poor is that their needs seem so overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we end up doing nothing. But may I offer some practical steps.

The first thing is to say your prayers and seek God’s wisdom and direction. Emotional reactions can cause as much damage as they do good so you need a plan. Second, once you have a direction then be faithful to it. You are not trying to change the world. You are simply called to serve those in need around you. The results are up to God.

We have seen this in our parish. We did not set out to have a ministry to Burmese refugees but today we have a Burmese daughter church. It all started with sponsoring one family. Again it didn’t change the world but it did change that family’s world.

Well the husband had a cousin and she had a relative that wanted to join them. We thought “why not?” Then she had a nephew and he had a friend and before we knew it there were about 150 Burmese that we were ministering to. Of course there has been challenges and they have gone through their own squabbles but it is God’s work and we were right to be involved. Amos would tell us that what God is looking for in St. Patrick’s is not the size of our budget but whom are we serving in His Name.

Amos’ third theme was that compromised religion is disgusting to God. This is what God had him prophesy; “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me you burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them….take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The reference to justice rolling down like water was because the religious leaders of his day were also involved in the oppression of others. Try to imagine in our day that a wealthy religious institution would kick people out of their churches, sue congregations for their property and take away all of their resources. Since such an institution would be disgusting to God you would want to take great care to distance yourself from it.

Amos’ fourth theme is that while Israel may think that their covenant with God ensures them special protection, that same covenant also holds them to a higher standard and a stricter judgment. “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, an the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Israel had become arrogant. We can see the depth of their spiritual arrogance and blindness in the priest Amaziah’s response to Amos. In essence he said,“Tell someone who cares. After all, this is the kings special place.” They thought that they could treat people badly, act immorally and look down their noses on the heathen because after all they were God’s covenant people. God through Amos told them differently.

This theme is also a great warning to the Church. We have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand we are to believe, as we just heard from St. Paul, that we have been called before the foundation of the world to be God’s children. But on the other hand, as St. Paul said elsewhere, we are to work out our salvation in FEAR AND TREMBLING.

We must not become complacent or lax by thinking that our standing with God exempts us from the call to be holy or to act justly. We are on a journey and must remember that Scripture also says that it is he who perseveres to the end that will be saved.

I believe that it is particularly important that those of us who are so proud of our Anglican heritage should exercise caution. It is possible to be very religious and still miss the kingdom. It is possible to get so caught up in the liturgy that we miss the Lord of the liturgy. Recall Jesus’ sobering words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

God does not judge us based on our pedigree. There is a vast difference between spiritual assurance that gives us peace and spiritual pride that makes us blind to our need to repent and to change.

Amos’ last theme was that while a terrible destruction will fall on unrepentant Israel, there will yet be a remnant that will be preserved and they will see a day of glorious restoration. This prophecy of course came to be. Assyria reemerged as a superpower and in 722 the kingdom of Israel was destroyed but a remnant remained.

This idea of a remnant preserved by God is not a theme that is peculiar to Amos. Lot’s family surviving Sodom and Gomorrah was the story of a remnant being saved in the midst of a disaster. The family of Noah after the flood is one as well. The few prophets in Elijah’s day who did not bend the knee to Baal, and those who returned from the exile were the remnant. Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and more speak of it.

In the New Covenant it is the true Church that is the remnant that God has and will preserve. God says to the remnant, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you up and you shall be built.” 31:3,4. Jesus echoes this prophecy when He said, “ I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

 Emperors have outlawed the Church, dictators and despots have banished the Church, atheist regimes and false religions have tried to eradicate the Church and secularist have told us that we will disappear because we are no longer relevant. Yet Jesus remains true to His promises and we are still here and the remnant will remain until the end of time. The Revelation to St. John speaks of the remnant and they are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.  This light will never be put out. You want to be sure that you are part of that remnant.

One final thought about our friend Amos and applying his message today. It was not an easy job for him to deliver such sobering news. Again he was not a professional cleric, he was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Yet God used him to speak some hard reality to both the government of Jeroboam and the religion of Amaziah.

I believe that it continues to be the Church’s call to speak prophetically to society and especially to those in political and religious power. We are to call for justice and righteousness and to not mince our words. The lesson of John the Baptist is that it will not always go well with us if we do, but standing up for the truth is not only the right thing, it is the loving thing to do. Without the light of the truth, people will continue to live in darkness.

Political correctness tells Christians to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves but God calls us to be bold and to be salt and light. If we will not be salt and light then who will? When the apostles were ordered by the authorities to remain silent they asked the rhetorical question,“Who should we obey, God or man?” 

I encourage you to look around at your circles of influence and consider where God may be calling you to speak prophetically. Speak the truth in love but speak the truth. It may involve uncomfortable topics like abortion or the plight of the poor or telling someone the truth about Islam, but if God is calling you to do it, then be obedient. You may not feel worthy. You may feel untrained or ill-equipped. You may even think to yourself, “but I’m just a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” To which God will say, “Perfect, then you’re just the one that I was looking for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Faithfulness

The-Importance-of-Faithfulness

Text  Ezekiel 2:1-7 Mark 6:1-6

When we moved here to plant a church part of my responsibilities included meeting with the Bishop every month. He gathered other church planters and priests who were over missions to help our churches grow to the place where they became self-supporting and no longer needed aide from the Diocese. While he continually told us not to focus on numbers, his first question each month was inevitably how many we had in worship last Sunday.

I still hear the refrain that serving a church is not about the numbers and yet every year I have to fill out a parochial report for the Anglican Church in North America. I report on our average Sunday attendance, how many baptisms, funerals and weddings we officiated, how much money we gathered and how much we sent to the diocese. When we gather at Diocesan Synod every year the number of votes we get depends on the size of our church. But remember, it’s not about numbers.

My point here is not to be cynical. I understand that keeping track of the numbers is important because there is a business side to the Church. My point is to demonstrate how easy it is to focus primarily on the fruit or outcome of ministry while our lessons today point us in a different direction.

Let’s look first at Ezekiel. How would you like to have had his job? “Son of man, I send you to…a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…the people are also impudent and stubborn…do not be afraid of their words though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions.” For the first 25 chapters of his book he warns Israel, calling them to repentance. They ignore his prophecies and are invaded. As a result God’s temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity into Babylon. If you were only evaluating Ezekiel’s ministry by how fruitful it was then you would be forced to give him a pretty low score indeed.

Next let’s look at the Gospel and the snap shot we have of our Lord’s ministry in the Galilee region. He was so ineffective in His teaching ministry among them that the text says that He was unable to do mighty works there because of the level of their unbelief. What’s more He began His ministry with 12 Apostles but ended with only 11 after one committed suicide. Again if you were only evaluating Jesus ministry by its fruitfulness you would conclude that He and Ezekiel are tied for last place.

So what are we to take from this? What I hear in these passages, and in many other places in the Scriptures like them is that it’s not about fruitfulness it’s about faithfulness. I don’t mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that it should not be our focus. From the perspective of fruitfulness things look badly for them but from the perspective of faithfulness both Ezekiel and Jesus were absolutely successful in their ministries. They did exactly what the Father called them to do in spite of tremendous resistance. So it’s not about fruitfulness, it’s about faithfulness.

If it is that simple, that we are called to faithfulness, then we must ask why this virtue seems to be so difficult to attain? After all Ezekiel was speaking to an entire nation that failed to be faithful and Jesus the text said, marveled at the level of unbelief among His people. How about today? Today we see entire denominations one after the other abandoning the Word of God.  How does this happen? St. Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians 2 when he speaks of an unholy trinity, called the world, the flesh and the devil.

Here is how the world assaults our faithfulness. A fallen world has lost its connection with its Creator and so we try to reconcile this problem by desperately seeking favor from one another. And how do we get acceptance? We get it through conformity.

Remember the tremendous power it had over you as a teenager? We would do almost anything to fit in. Or if you were a rebel you would do almost anything to fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in. Rebels would go goth to be unique that is just like all the other unique goth kids. Our parents tried to get us to resist that power with the classic speech, “And if everyone else was jumping off the cliff would you jump with them? We would reply “Of course not!” but in our hearts we knew that we might. The need to be accepted and the fear of rejection are just that strong.

And so even though God had called Israel to be a unique people they chose to fit in with the cultures around them by imitating them. Recall this was their argument for rejecting the LORD as their King and calling on Saul and that started them on a long path of unfaithfulness. The call of the world to conform is powerful. But the Scripture says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It is pretty obvious how the flesh makes us unfaithful. It is so very very easy to chose pleasure over sacrifice, self gratification over service, self promotion over humility. And you could write a book today about how folks are being driven by their feelings. Folks are not only offended by anything and everything it almost seems that are seeking new ways to be offended. You can’t ask for a skinny late because that is weight shaming and you also can’t call it a no fat late because that would get you accused of fataphobia. In the end what makes the flesh an enemy of true religion is because the flesh makes it all about me while true religion makes it about loving God and my neighbor.

And we must not overlook the devil. You don’t want to get too spooky about it but we have an enemy and he is real and he wants you to be anything but faithful. If he can sow doubt, or make you feel discouraged or get your feelers hurt, he will do it. He will do whatever he can to make you quit. Remember in the parable of the seeds the birds of the air that stole the seed was the evil one stealing the word of God from the heart. The solution is to shoe the birds away with the power of His Name. It is why we pray “deliver us from evil” every day.  And work to grasp the word of God to allow it to take root. You have an enemy but he is not in charge.

So if the world, the flesh and the devil are working overtime to keep us from being faithful what can we do to develop the virtue of faithfulness so that like Ezekiel and Jesus we can remain strong even in the face of great opposition? Allow me to suggest four things.

First is courage. The Lord told Ezekiel not to afraid of his opponents or of their words. I haven’t stopped to count it to be sure but I have read several times that “be not afraid” or some version thereof occurs 365 time in the Bible. Courage is not a total absence of fear but it is a commitment to not be controlled by fear. Fearful people will desert you in the battle but courageous people keep standing and when all else is done they remain standing. One way to develop courage is to hang out with courageous people. That is one reason godly fellowship is so important.

Second is clarity. Both Ezekiel and Jesus had pinpoint clarity about what they were called to do and that is why they did not cave when they faced opposition. When I was being interviewed by a diocesan committee to determine if they were going to send me go to seminary a woman asked Beth that if they allowed me to go if she wanted to take courses also to keep up with me spiritually. Beth said, “Absolutely not! I believe Ray is called to the priesthood but I am called to Social Work and I am not about to let his calling interfere with my calling.” I’m convinced that is why they accepted me and sent me to seminary. And it is also her clarity of calling that has had her last in her job for over 30 years when the burnout rate is about 3. If you are not clear about who you are in the Lord and what He has called you to do then ask, seek, knock and you will receive what you ask for. I believe that He loves answering that prayer.

I also encourage you, as you are clarifying your vision, to have the kingdom of God central. Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is not a religious motto that is a life committment.

When everything was hitting the fan for the Episcopal Church Beth and I had dinner with a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him, “Your Grace, how do I step into the pulpit this Sunday? What do I tell my people? He said, “You tell them to keep working for the kingdom and don’t get the church confused with the kingdom.” That could be taken wrongly but I immediately knew what he meant. I love Anglicanism and believe it to be the most authentic expression of Christianity that I have experienced but the truth is if the Anglican Communion disappeared tomorrow Jesus would still be on the throne and His kingdom would not be shaken.

Courage, Clarity and the third is Consistency. Notice the last line of the Gospel. Jesus had just been rejected for His teachings by His own people and the text says, “And he went about among the villages teaching.”Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”  It should be obvious that you can’t be faithful if you don’t show up! This Christian journey is a marathon and not a sprint, or as Eugene Peterson described it in the title of one of his books, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

 Most of you don’t realize it but Chris Morris who tapes our sermons and puts them on the web is neither a 9 o’clock nor 11 o’clock parishioner. His family’s principal service is the Wednesday night Mass and yet Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he comes here and records us to serve you and others. He has never asked for a dime. He is consistent and faithful and that has resulted in fruitfulness. I have had responses to a sermon from Africa and Australia which never could have happened without Chris. Shout out to Chris and his consistency.

Lastly Continuity. If you will realize that the Lord is building something in your life brick by brick, or as Corrie Ten Boom put it, sowing your life into a beautiful tapestry, then you will be faithful to see it to the end. You will not see your life as filled with random events and a series of coincidences. If you will faithfully walk with the Lord you will often discover why He allowed some things to transpire and realize that previous experiences prepared you for what you are facing today.

David chose 5 smooth stones and was able to put one in between Goliath’s eyes because he had done it time and time again as a shepherd killing lions and bears. And to show you David’s hutzpah he chose the 5 stones because Goliath had a brother and three sons. Shepherding sheep and developing a relationship with the Lord during those lonely years prepared him to shepherd Israel and be a king who was a man after God’s own heart. So look for continuity in your own life. It will build your faith as you see the Lord fulfilling His plans for you. This in turn will result in you being faithful to Him.

So it’s not about fruitfulness, it about faithfulness. Again, that does not mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that is ultimately not our responsibility. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” When it comes to the kingdom we do not measure success the way the American Dream measures success. It’s not about numbers and it is not about how large your house or bank accounts are or what kind of car you drive. When it comes to the kingdom there is one measure of success, one prize that we should keep our eyes on. That is when you enter His presence and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”