Back in 1934, William Foxwell Albright, dean of American archaeologists, dug up ancient Bethel, a village about twelve miles north of Jerusalem. He found a thriving Middle Bronze Age city, with a sanctuary made of stone. In the late Bronze Age, the place was destroyed by fire -- perhaps caught up in the upheaval in the days of Joshua. But by the late 8th century, Bethel had recovered and was thriving. Albright found a palace, luxurious trinkets, signs of wealth. Now we know that just twenty years later the Assyrian juggernaut demolished Bethel. But in those days, when Amos left Tekoa and stood up to preach in Bethel, the economy was booming. Worship attendance was up, the number of sacrifices on the altars was on the upswing. Happy days are here again!
One hot, parched day Amos, not a priest, just a guy, strolled into town -- his home was Tekoa, far to the south. God had interrupted his life, God had erupted into his life. And so he invaded the complacent security of these upwardly mobile citizens of Bethel, the piety of those devout who patted selves on back. Albright's excavations found what we know from 2 Kings, just a decade later, the Assyrian war-machine demolished Bethel, all the money and religiosity left fluttering in the wind like so many burnt leaves.
Amos, like all prophets, is an archaeologist of sorts. He digs into our souls. And we, like the citizens of Bethel, are a superficial people. We live right up on the surface of things; we can't see very deep; we dare not look very deep. That's one reason we avoid the Bible. As Martin Luther put it, reading the Bible is like undergoing surgery. There's something inside us that will kill us -- but it's painful to have it removed. The prophet's task is the same as what R. G. Collingwood said of the artist: "The artist tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts." Amos begs for their displeasure by speaking the truth, God's own words: "I hate the noise of your worship, your songs. Instead, let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an everÂflowing stream." Evidently God is not much impressed by mere talk, by melodious hymns, by eloquent prayers. What God wants to hear is the constant flow of justice and righteousness.
What do you mean by justice? In America, we think that justice is when the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished. But in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, means that the neediest in society are cared for. A just society takes care of those who are needy. An unjust society does not, does not want to take care of those who are in need. Let justice roll down like an everÂflowing stream!
Now we say, Hey, we do good now and then! No doubt when Amos spoke, the fine citizens of Bethel said, "Oh, come back in the Spring, during rainy season. We do good sometimes!" Like us: why, at Christmas and Thanksgiving we give away a turkey, a toy, an old jacket. 'Tis the season!' We forget that the hungry are hungry in August. Children are children in April. Families get cold in February. We subscribe to what John Wesley called "the doctrine of the devil" we do good when we feel like it. Amos was a herdsman, expert at nosing out watering holes. The Israelite landscape has countless ravines, but very few rivers. Most of the ravines are the beds of what is called a wadi. When heavy rains come, the wadi flows. But in the dryer seasons, the wadi bed is bone dry. Amos knew well what it meant to lead his herd toward a ravine, and peek in to find out; is there any water? Is this a stream? Or another dry one? Another wadi?
Let justice flow down like an everÂflowing stream -- not like a wadi! Let justice, and righteousness, be constant, like the air we breathe. Once a newsman stuck a microphone in the face of Mother Teresa and asked her, "Mother, why are you so holy?" Her answer was wonderful: "You ask as if holiness were weird, or abnormal. To be holy is to be normal. To be anything else is to be abnormal." Like an everÂflowing stream.
Now, I know what you are thinking. This whole business of our deeds. We're saved by grace, right? I always wonder how God feels about this getting saved business. I have a colleague, a minister in a denomination I shall leave unnamed. To him, the Church exists exclusively to save souls. He always asks me, "How was Church Sunday? How many souls were saved?" It's easy for him; at the end of the service, you just count the number who come up to the front. My answer to "How many souls were saved?" is always this; "Only time will tell."
Is God really up in heaven, charting your life, waiting eagerly for that one moment when you say the words, pray the prayer, "Yes Lord, I'm a sinner, I repent, I believe" -- and then bells ring and you are dispensed an admission ticket into heaven? My colleague said, "No, it must be heartfelt." But the Bible says next to nothing about feelings and emotions. Christ came, not so we could feel different, but so we could be different.
Too much Christianity is a shallow exercise in feeling good. People visit a Church, and decide to go again because "I felt good there." Polls ask if we believe in God: a dizzying 98% say Yes. My question then is, Why is the world so fouled up? Sad truth is for most of us our faith is just pasted on. The real high gods are money, please, success, the next big deal. Faith gets tacked on to help us feel better in the midst of what we're up to, or we hope to coÂ-opt God so we can get a boost toward what we're after, or we desperately need some sedative to allay our fear of death. But our spending, dressing, driving, play and conversation are strangely untouched by God.
Billy Sunday, the famous revival preacher, once said "The best thing that could happen to a man would be to get saved at a revival meeting, and then walk out and get run over by a truck." But that would be to miss out on the adventure of a lifetime, the sheer pleasure of being like a river of justice and righteousness. When I read the Gospels I am struck over and over by the utterly mundane, gritty practicality of what Jesus said and did. He seemed uninterested in whether you muttered formulas, or got your doctrine straight, or how you feel. But he was keenly focused on how you treat others, how you spend your money, or your attitudes toward life.
We do need to be saved from a pointless life, from our exhaustion, from our self-Ârighteousness, from our cynicism, from our hypocrisy. We need to be saved for being the love of God walking about and doing good. Amos erupts into our comfortable lives with these words: I hate, I despise your feasts, and your songs. Instead, let justice roll down like an everÂflowing stream -- yes, even in 1996. I know compassion is out of style nowadays. But compassion is always in, in heaven; compassion is always the style for God's people.
We need exemplars, heroes, people who are doing it, as our models. Jesus was so deft at compassion. He touched lepers, ate with the outcasts, drank with Samaritans, washed his disciples' feet. Then you have the stunning simplicity and creativity of St. Francis of Assisi. One day Francis journeyed to the village of Gubbio. When he arrived, the city gates were bolted shut, the citizens armed with knives and fierce looks. Turns out there was a wolf that had been terrorizing the village, this wolf had actually eaten several of the citizens of Gubbio. When a posse would venture up into the hills, the wolf would hide, or manage to devour one of his predators. Francis said "I must pay a visit to my brother the wolf." The citizens of Gubbio offered him weapons, but he climbed up into the hills unarmed, the citizens atop the city wall, witnessing what they were sure would be the end of him. Sure enough, the wolf appeared, snarling, drooling, baring his fangs. Just as he approached Francis, the saint pulled out a cross from his pocket. The wolf sat down. Francis spoke, "Brother wolf, I hear that you have been a great sinner, that you have terrorized this village and have even eaten its inhabitants. This is a great sin against God! If you repent, you may be forgiven." The wolf stared down toward the ground. Francis continued: "But I think I know why you've eaten the citizens of Gubbio. It's because there's no food up in these hills. You're really just hungry." The wolf looked up. Francis said, "I'll make you a deal. If you confess your sin, and if you promise not to terrorize these people any longer, I will get them to feed you every day." Francis reached down and the wolf offered his paw in return. At first the citizens of Gubbio were suspicious, on their guard. But after a time they began to trust the wolf. Brother wolf came in and out of their homes at his leisure. He was like a pet to them. Two years later, when he died, the citizens of Gubbio wept for days. The miracle of this story is not that the wolf became tame. Rather, the miracle is that the citizens of Gubbio became tame.
Once Mother Teresa was invited to a hunger conference in Bombay. She lost her way, and arrived late at the appointed place. On the steps outside, she noticed a man, dying of hunger. Instead of going in, she took him, and fed him. Inside, they were talking about so much food supply in so many years, statistics here, statistics there -- while a real person was dying on the steps outside. That's how we do it, one at a time, not just talking, but feeding, touching. In our Church library we have a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. There is this great moment when a wealthy woman from America finds Mother Teresa, whips out her checkbook, and says, "I want to write you a check to support your work." Mother Teresa looks up, shakes her head and says "No money." "What?" "No money." "You won't take my money? I have a lot of money, this money can help you." "No money." "No money! Well then, what can I do?" Mother Teresa smiled that inimitable smile, took her by the hand, and said, "Come and see." She led this woman deep into the barrios of Calcutta, searching, until finally she came upon a small, grimy child. Mother Teresa said, "Take care of her." and so the woman took a cloth, and bathed the little girl, took a spoon and fed her. And she reported later that her life was changed. Come and see. Touch someone. When Mother Teresa first came to the United States, she made a great speech in New York, in which she said, "You don't have to go to Calcutta to share in my work. Calcutta is wherever you are. Wherever you are, there are people who hurt, who need love. Find them. Love them. For in loving them, you love Jesus."
Maybe this is the answer to a generation of skeptics for whom Christianity seems like so much nonsense. They need to see faith in action, in the flesh, taking on legs. As G.K. Chesterton put it, the problem is not that Christianity had been tried and found wanting. The problem is, it has hardly ever been tried. We have to try.
In the words of another Teresa, Teresa of Avila, from the l6th century: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now."