After our wonderful All Saints service last week, I have been a bit hesitant to focus on our reading from the Book of Amos. On first read, Amos’ statements from God, which say God despises our festivals and takes no delight in our assemblies, and God will not accept our burnt offerings, makes one wonder if our gathering together on Sunday mornings is really worth our time, or is there something else God wants from us. The answer to our question is found in the final line of our passage, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The prophet writes during the time of King Jeraboam, when the Davidic Kingdom is once again at a geographic height and enjoys great prosperity. Amos also writes at a time when Israel’s devotion was at an all-time low and the Laws of God were not being followed. Corruption and greed ruled throughout the aristocracy, Israel’s economy became focused on the needs of foreign consumers while subsistence farmers went hungry. This is why God raised a prophet who worked the dirt of the land, to tell God’s rulers that ritual and sacrifice are empty unless offered with a heart of compassion and justice.
Amos’ cry this morning is not far from Christ’s basic message to love our neighbor. A message that consistently challenged the Temple aristocracy who grew rich and fat from the offering s and sacrifices of their people, while most starved and suffered at that hands of Roman rule. What is the point, the prophet demands, to humbly come before God, to offer sacrifice from your abundance, while those who serve you go hungry and die.
To this, I suspect, the kings and the nobles replied, “but look Lord, look at the great and powerful nation we have become. Look Lord, look at the wealth we have amassed in your name.” On one hand the success of Israel and Judah is to be lauded, but then Amos would add, not at the price of compassion and divine justice.
As I read this morning’s passage from Amos, I couldn’t help but reflect on my recent trip to San Francisco. As many of you already know, Maureen and I had a great time. San Francisco is indeed a wonderful and dramatic city with scenic vistas from its steep hills overlooking the bay. San Francisco is also a city of great wealth and great success. It is a city where many desire to live and work. It is also a city that suffers from its own success. Like New York and other major urban centers around the world, San Francisco has become one of the most expensive cities to live. As Maureen and prepared for our trip, NPR was running stories about their upcoming election and its referendum on housing.
Like many major cities, San Francisco is a community of competing values. Those who wish to preserve the city’s quality of life and scenic beauty have pushed for building ordinances limiting the height of housing units along the bay area. Preserving the beauty and quality of life in the area means putting more pressure on the demand for housing in the area forcing housing costs to continue skyrocketing. To provide an example of how expensive housing is in San Francisco, the ten by ten foot room our daughter Chelsea rents in a local hostel costs over $1400/month. The cost of housing is so high families with average incomes now find themselves being pushed to live further and further away from the city. The issue facing San Francisco was personalized when our tour guide discussed having recently moved out of one of the city’s neighborhoods after living there for twenty years because her building had been bought out and her rent was raised beyond what she could afford.
The city’s housing problems don’t stop with our tour guide. In fact she was lucky, she has found a new apartment she can afford. However, to understand the depth of the city’s affordable housing crisis one only needs to read travel blogs and the despair of tourists over the presence of the homeless loitering near hotels.
The homeless population is everywhere in San Francisco, from the Tenderloin neighborhood to the piers. On the four nights we stayed in the city, it was not unusual for four or five of the homeless to be seen camping out on the sidewalks of the few blocks between our cable car stop and he hotel. During the day, we would see many of the homeless sleeping in the park near the bay.
I realized how desperate many are as I watched one person reach into the garbage and pull out the scraps of food and the remains of a soda someone left behind just moments before. I also saw how great poorly they are treated when a store owner demanded a police officer remove the two bags of belongings that had temporarily left in front while a friend pleaded with the officer not to take them.
Jesus once said, “ foxes have holes, and birds have trees, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I wonder what he and Amos would have to say today as the competing values of success and the needs of others conflict.
San Francisco is not the only city overwhelmed with the homeless. In recent years our homeless population has been increasing. The most recent studies indicate homelessness has increased 9% since 2007 with approximately 1.5 million people in America having no permanent home due to unemployment, lack of affordable housing, or psychiatric illness. On any given night, forty percent of those who are homeless, or approximately 600,000 people are forced to sleep on the streets or in the parks. Due to increased demand and decreased funding, the safety net of shelters and churches just cannot provide for all who seek shelter pushing municipalities to seek creative ways to keep the homeless from gathering in their parks and neighborhoods.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, ninety year old Chef Arnold, has been arrested for serving the same Wednesday evening meal he has been serving the homeless for twenty-three years on public beaches. Why? Because a new city ordinance now requires portable toilets be made available when feeding the homeless. One city official defended the law by stating “ We want them to be in a sanitary matter. We want them to have facilities before and after.”
Chef Arnold, who founded the non-profit called “Love Thy Neighbor” says he has no choice but to be arrested because he will not give up the beach.
I wonder what Amos would say to us today as the economic tide has lifted many out of the recession while others have continued to sink towards the economic bottom. . .as the needs of property owners and tourists conflict with the needs of those without.
As I have reflected on today’s Gospel, I realize we are again faced with a parable, a metaphor about the reign of God. I have never been sure what the lamps and oils represent. Now I wonder if the oil represents compassion, and those who met the bridegroom were able to maintain a sense of compassion despite the demands the long wait for the bridegroom placed on them. I don’t think anyone knows for sure and nor will we ever know until the reign of God is complete.
What I am thankful for today, is that I don’t have to know or understand the precise meaning of the oil or the lamps, I don’t have to have the answers, and I don’t have to solve all the complex problems of injustice we face today. I only have to do my best, to put the needs of others first, to maintain a heart of compassion, and to be willing to wash in the stream of justice/the river of life as I wait and work patiently for the reign of God.