Four Pages: Us
For many years across the mid-twentieth century cartoonist Walt Kelly provided humor, satire, political wit, and social commentary through his popular cartoon strip called “Pogo.” Pogo Possum led a cast of animal characters who lived in the Okefenokee Swamp somewhere in the southern United States. But of all the thousands of strips Mr. Kelly produced over the years, his most famous by far came in 1970 around the time of one of the first Earth Day celebrations. In the strip, Pogo and another character are walking through a forest trying to savor the forest’s beauty but finding it hard to walk. The final frame of the strip shows why: the forest floor is littered with garbage: old refrigerators, broken tricycles, soiled mattresses. And then Pogo utters what soon became a famous line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
We have met the enemy and he is us. If ever we are able to speak this line in real life, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Generally speaking we resist being cast in a bad light. We are, each one of us, far better at self-promotion than self-flagellation; far better at celebrating our alleged successes than talking about our true failures. As we will think about this morning, this is true all across the span of our lives but when it becomes true at also the core of our very faith as followers of God through Christ Jesus the Lord, the stakes become perilously higher.
It’s something ancient Israel knew a bit about, too. By the time a peasant shepherd from Tekoa named Amos embarked on a second career as a public spokesperson for God, the people of Israel found themselves neatly cocooned inside a web of self-deception and lies. The Israelites had long ago learned how to shield themselves from the truth about themselves, and no hick shepherd from the outback with poorly tailored clothes, bad teeth, and the scent of mutton clinging to him was going to upset their tidy little world.
Even so, here came Amos striding into the heart of Israel and he began with a bang. “Yahweh ROARS from Zion,” Amos himself fairly screamed, “and he THUNDERS from Jerusalem!” And the people of Israel held their breath. “Lord have mercy, what is this going to be all about?” they were all thinking to themselves. And so Amos begins. “For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath, says Yahweh!” Suddenly, the people listening to Amos relaxed a little, let out a little of the air they’d been holding in their lungs. Yeah, Damascus. Rotten Syrians! We’ve thought for years it was time they got what was coming to them! Yay, God! Go, Amos. Preach it, brother!”
And so Amos did. On and on he went. Whoa to Damascus! Yay, God. Whoa to Gaza! Yay, God. Go, Amos! Whoa to Tyre. Whoa to Edom. Whoa to Ammon. Whoa to Moab. Yay, God! Yay, God! Go, Amos. Preach it, brother!
Then, “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath!” Well, now, Amos, you’re getting a little closer to home here. Still got some relatives over there in the southern half of our once-unified country. But, you know, those leaders of Judah. Can’t trust ‘em. So, um, OK, one more time: Yay, God!”
But then a pause. A pregnant pause in the sermon. A chance for Amos to draw breath, to look at his listeners and stare directly into their eyes. And then finally: “For three sins of Israel even for four I will not turn back my wrath!” Every face in the crowd before him glared the same message at Amos: “You hick! You rube! You backwoods, uneducated, untutored, unmannered bag of wind, you! Shut up! You may not lump us with Moab and Edom and all the rest. We are the people of the Lord, the chosen nation, a shining covenantal city on a hill. We’ve got a Temple, we’ve got priests, we sacrifice for our sins. So pack it in, Amos. Go back to your sheep. Preach to them for all the good it will do you or them. Get out of town. Now.”
But Amos would not stop. “This is just your problem, O Israel” he fairly screamed. “For the longest time now every time a prophet or a priest spoke the truth, you roughed them up, got them drunk, chalked up their words to alcohol-induced booziness. Meanwhile you treat the poor among us like chattel. You buy and sell the destitute like commodities on the open market. God gave you every chance, won so many victories for you, and in return you ignored just about every command he ever gave you. No, my people, you are done. We are done. There will be no escaping the wrath of God. Not this time. We have met the enemy, and he is us, O Israel!”
Not a pretty picture. Not a pleasant message. But honesty compels us to admit that we get it. We understand this. We know why Israel just didn’t want to hear it. We all know a little something about resisting messages of judgment, of calling us up short, of calling us to repent and try to do things better next time in our lives. Even today we don’t mind it in the least if we hear other people or other nations criticized. Of course Pakistan has problems and causes problems. Of course Iran and Iraq and Syria and Sudan and China and North Korea are problem nations, some of the forming a veritable axis of evil, as we have termed them.
Yet at the same time, how dare anyone criticize my country? We don’t have anything to apologize for, do we? Save the critiques for others and leave us alone. As a nation, we have to believe in ourselves and so we don’t want to hear messages that undercut our optimism as a people.
Of course, that’s just on the national level. But even in the church we find it far easier to see the sins and the mistakes of others than to see what maybe needs addressing in our own midst. We can see clear as day what’s wrong with the Catholics (what with all those sex scandals) and what’s wrong with the Episcopalians and Methodists (what with all their liberal ways). And within the “culture wars” as it has been called for the last twenty or so years we can see what’s wrong with secular people, with even fellow Christians whose politics and economic ideas and views on guns differ from our own.
But what about when the camera swivels onto us? Do we always do it right? Do we always live for God the way we know we should? Do our church communities always do all that we can to minister to the poor, the homeless, the marginalized? And if we sense that just maybe we don’t, do we always just accept it when someone points out our deficiencies? Or do our defense mechanisms click into place such that we as good as tell the person pointing out our shortcomings to hush up about it already? We none of us—myself included of course—like to hear the word of judgment, the word that suggests to us that maybe we’ve got some things to address as followers of God.
We none of us like to sense that there may be as many problems in here as “out there” in the wider world or the wider church. Israel sure didn’t want to hear it. There appears to be nothing good or hopeful in a sermon like the one Amos had to preach. And yet, tucked somewhere very near the heart of even a message as harsh as the one delivered by Amos there actually is a whole lot of grace.
Because sometimes it’s a grace to be told the truth. Sometimes it’s a grace to receive the correct spiritual diagnosis. A friend of mine who is a doctor says that the last thing in the world you ever want to become is what doctors call “an interesting case.” To not know what’s wrong with you when there clearly is something wrong is agonizing. But if a diagnosis is finally made—and most especially of course when, as is often true, the diagnosis leads to a treatment that will make you well again—well then the diagnosis is good news after all. Now the doctors know what to do.
It’s the same spiritually. The proper diagnosis, even if it has to come through harsh words of judgment such as fill up so much of the Book of Amos, points the way forward to a better day. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, the sheltering word of the gospel is received best by those who first hear the word that blew the roof off from over their heads in the first place. Israel needed to know how bad off they really were if they were ever going to be hungry for the rescue that God will ultimately promise to them before the Book of Amos finishes. Because God tells Israel through Amos, “Listen to these words! Admit what you’ve done! Take a new look at the poor and stop abusing them. Return to your better selves. Return to me, my children, because I do still love you, I do still want the best for you, and someday I myself will make sure that the word of judgment will not be the last word.”
There will be a brand new day at some point, God tells them. But the path toward that better day leads through a whole lot of sorrow and repentance. But it’s the grace that comes when judgment is spoken that kicks off that journey back toward wholeness. It’s not pleasant. It’s no pastor’s favorite sermon to preach. It’s no one’s favorite sermon to listen to.
As Fred Craddock once noted, there are two kinds of preaching that are difficult to hear: bad preaching and good preaching. Because even good preaching has to tell us to get over ourselves, to get over our delusions of self-help forms of salvation, as though we can make things right with God on our own. The cross of Jesus stands at the center of the whole biblical story and it spells out a giant NO to anyone who thinks that sin is just someone else’s problem. The path to salvation leads through the cross, through the waters of baptism, and only then by grace can we see the whole truth and live into the patterns of God’s kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Israel had to hear a hard message. But Amos ended his book with a vision of God’s tenderly re-building his people and infusing them with a kind of joy they could scarcely imagine. Ultimately, of course, that is what happened when God the Son finally took all this judgment on himself and let the sheer weight of it literally kill him at a place named after a skull, a dead-head, a place named after death itself. But through that final descent of judgment—itself a kind of grace for those with eyes to see—there began a whole new world.
Even so, of course, we all struggle to live into that world as disciples. We really don’t always do it right and so the whole of the Christian life ends up being an ongoing process of dying and rising with Christ. Again and again we come to the Lord’s table as baptized believers and we take the bread and drink the cup not because it’s just a nice little reminder ceremony of what Jesus did. No, the sacrament is our admission that we keep needing fresh infusions of Jesus as we again and again beat back what the Apostle Paul called our old selves so as to let the new self being recreated in the image of Christ Jesus the Lord to emerge and shine and just take over our very lives.
Years ago I was a young, just-out-of-seminary preacher in my first congregation, which was in a fairly small town in an overall rural area. It did not take me long to come to love the congregation and to love preaching to them. But in the course of my preaching some people eventually picked up on certain themes that came up now and again, one of which was the need for racial reconciliation in our lives, to capture the big picture of the worldwide church even if on the ground level of our own congregation we had a highly homogenous group of white people.
But here and there I’d pick up some critical comments, particularly from people who were not sure they were all that racist to begin with and were not sure how big a deal it was even if they were. One older couple in particular struggled with this, especially since one of their granddaughters had become involved with an African-American fellow student at her Christian college. Grandpa and Grandma didn’t like that relationship one bit and they were not about to let some wet-behind-the-ears new preacher tell them this was a problem.
A year or so passed and one Sunday after church this couple wanted to talk with me. “We’ve sure been thinking and praying a lot, pastor” they told me, “and we’ve come to see that we’ve been wrong. We really were very racist after all—more than we knew, to tell you the truth. What we’re saying is, we were wrong. And we’re praying hard to let God change us and be more accepting of folks—of all folks.”
No one likes to hear the message of “We have met the enemy and he is us,” but it is a word of grace after all. The truth will set you free, Jesus once said. He maybe on that occasion failed to mention that before the truth sets you free, it usually makes you angry. But if by a further grace of God you can move past the resistance, the anger, the denial, then newness comes. Bit by bit our old self—that still has its kicks—dies a little more. Amos looked and sounded like a hick and a rube and a detestable preacher to most who first heard him. But for those who looked again, for those who somehow heard the very voice of God whistling out between Amos’s crooked and brown teeth, there was finally also a message of hope.
Years ago the well-known preacher William Willimon related a story in one of his own sermons. A relative of Willimon’s died and so Will and his wife decided they had best attend the funeral. The service took place somewhere in the Deep South in some off-brand Baptist church out in the middle of nowhere. At the appointed time in the service the pastor got up to preach, and he preached about several things but as he brought the sermon in for a landing, his tone changed and he became relentless. “Now I am here to tell you today, my friends, that I don’t know what has become of Joe’s soul. I know he did many things in his life that were wrong and as you know, his attendance here at church was pretty sparse. But you see, it’s too late for Joe. It’s too late for Joe. It’s too late for Joe. But it’s not too late for you! Repent now, hear the Word of the Gospel, turn to the Lord who offers you life abundant. Turn to him. Turn to him before it’s too late!”
Well, Will Willimon could not believe it and so on the car ride back home he said to his wife, “That was one of the most manipulative, inappropriate, insensitive displays I’ve ever seen! To use the death of someone and to exploit it to wag a finger in the faces of other people while the grieving family is sitting right there in the front pew . . . Well, I just can’t believe it.”
Willimon’s wife nodded as he talked and then said. “I know, I know. I completely agree. And you know, the worst thing about it all is that every word he said was true.”
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