Selling the Poor & Looking for God
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
Sometimes people come to me as a priest, telling me that they are having trouble finding God in their life. One of the best pathways I have for them is to start spending time around the poor. Help out in our church’s Loving Spoonfuls Meal Ministry. Try spending time with and listening to marginalized people. Either way, you’ll soon discover God is up to far more than you thought. And you’ll likely start to get fired up about the broken systems of this world… and your sense of God’s demands upon your life and ours.
That's the direction I want to take with Christian Mythbusters this week. I want to push against this idea that religion is about your own happy relationship with God and suggest that Biblical religion has a whole lot more to do with your relationship with your neighbor.
One of my favorite biblical figures who makes this argument is Amos. If you don’t know who Amos is, let me start off by being clear that you probably won’t like him. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I agree with Amos whole heartedly when he shakes his angry prophetic finger at other people… just not when I find myself on the receiving end.
But more than that… After all, Amos wasn’t a local. He wasn’t from Israel. He was what would today be called an “outside agitator.” Amos was a sheepherder from the southern nation of Judah who found his way north to Israel to tell them all the things they were doing wrong.
He is also not a religious figure, someone who is properly trained and schooled. Think of it this way: Amos is like a blue-collar agricultural worker from another country, somewhere like Mexico perhaps, who has traveled north to give that northern country a message about their corruption.
Now you can see why Amos wasn’t very popular.
When Amos talks about the corruption of the nation, maybe some people, people like you and me, might feel like we have heard this schtick before. We’ve heard people lament the decline of our country, the moral decay that is festering all around us. We’ve heard that message for over thirty years: about the erosion of family values, the increasing liberality with sexual relationships, the loss of God in the public square.
But listen, beloved of God, because that is not the complaint that Amos levies against his northern neighbors. Instead, Amos points to the marketplace, to those who, in his words, trample on the needy, those who bring the poor to ruin. He tells us that those who control the market in his time can’t wait for religious observances to end so that they can return to fleecing people, who are putting their fingers on the scales so that more wealth flows to the wealthy at the expense of those who are struggling to make ends meet.
Now you may be thinking, “I don’t know what eighth-century Israel looked like, but that sounds a lot like our own contemporary situation.”
Amos talks about those who are willing to sell the poor for a pair of sandals and my mind immediately goes to how we will look the other way for a pair of inexpensive shoes, no matter the labor practices that created them. But there are all kinds of ways the concerns of the poor, in our own time, are pushed to the side for convenience and affordability.
And it’s legal. It’s the way the system is designed, everyone assures people like Amos. But Amos isn’t interested in whether or not the current system is legal. Amos wants to know whether or not it is moral…. And Amos has more than a hunch that no, the system is not moral. Rather, the system is one that uses religion to distract the masses while people with no power are ground up by injustice, oppression, and systems in which there is no fighting chance for a better life. And, at times, even today, religion is twisted into just that: something to distract you by getting you to look only at your own salvation, your personal relationship with Jesus… and you get so focused on that you miss that your neighbor is drowning right next to you.
Jesus told us that all of the law and the prophets, all of the words of people as diverse as Amos and Moses, can a be summed up in the precepts of “Love of God” and “Love of neighbor.” And, as my daughter taught me when she finished her Vacation Bible School just a few weeks ago, “A neighbor, Daddy,” she said, “Is not just someone who lives near you.”
“Did you know, Daddy,” she said “A neighbor is anyone in need?”
This means that those who are being crushed today by unjust systems, whether they be broken systems of immigration or broken systems that support misogyny and heterosexism, or just broken systems that will grind up the poor to make someone else’s lifea little better… those who are crushed by these systems are your neighbor. They are your responsibility. They are my responsibility.
And if you run to and fro looking for God in your life while you are ignoring your neighbor crushed by the systems of this world… you simply will not find God, Amos says.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.