Let’s talk about prophets. Not profits, but prophets. Our readings speak of Amos and we are also celebrating the feast day of St. Benedict, a prophetic voice that still speaks to us after 15 centuries. Both men lived in very different times and spoke different messages, and both of them were willing to go where God sent them, to pay whatever personal price was involved.
Amos lived about 750 years before Jesus. He was the first prophet whose words were written down and collected into a book that was preserved for us in the Bible. Our passage for this morning contains almost all the biographical information that we have on Amos himself. As he tells the priest Amaziah, he was a shepherd and tended sycamore trees when God called him to become a prophet. This distinguishes him from the “professional” prophets (we would say “psychics” today) employed by kings to discern God’s will for them.
God called Amos to declare that the worship which took place in the northern kingdom of Israel was unacceptable. The people of the south felt that true worship could only happen in the Temple at Jerusalem, so they would have approved of Amos’ message. Amos, however, is not concerned with the Temple liturgy at all: his criticism is not about where or how the northern Israelites worship God. Rather, his concern is that their offering of sacrifices is displeasing to God because of their lack of following through with acts of justice. God himself says, I reject your worship because your justice stinks. Note that God never says, I reject your acts of justice because your liturgy stinks…something for us to think about.
We don’t know what ultimately happened to Amos after his confrontation with the King; it seems he continued to preach despite any opposition he faced. And, ultimately, his predictions were proven correct. Within about 30 years after Amos spoke the words that we read today, the northern kingdom of Israel was destoyed by the Assyrian Empire. The people were forcibly relocated and disappeared from history, becoming the “lost tribes of Israel.” Although he was despised and ridiculed in his own time, Amos set a new standard for prophecy in ancient Israel. He was the first to have his words written down, collected and published. Many more prophets followed this example. Today, more than 2500 years later, we are still inspired and challenged by the words of Amos and these other prophets whose words we now recognize as scripture.
This ability to envision a better world which God desires is what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, calls “The Prophetic Imagination.” In a book by that name, Brueggeman contends that the task of the prophet is actually twofold: to critique the current situation as it runs counter to God’s ideal, and then to energize the community toward change.
This is challenging, to say the least. For example, it is considered unrealistic to proclaim peace in a world of violence. It is thought to be impractical to seek simplicity in a world of materialism. It is believed to be nonviable to strive for true community in a world of individualism. But Brueggeman contends that “We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and coopted . . . that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.”[Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 44]
“The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. . . . It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”(p. 45)
It is that sort of prophetic imagination that allowed a holy man in the 6th century CE to look for a practical way to encounter God in a world he saw as on the wrong path. Benedict of Norcia, tired of the extreme penances and harsh deprivations of other groups of monks and spiritual seekers, came to the conclusion that God is the unifying factor in everything. All creation, all things exist because the Creator will them into being, and therefore, all creation is to be treated, as he says in his Rule, “with the same respect as we treat the chalice and tabernacle on the altar.” Of course, Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica, were ridiculed by those who were of a more institutional frame of mind. They were called lax. Their way of finding spirituality in cleaning one’s house, or making one’s bed in the morning, or maintaining a tidy garden were laughed at by the “serious” monks and nuns of the period. Benedict’s insisted that finding God required going into the Silence, rejecting the popular view that God could be found only by incessant prayers of words upon words. Amos, John and Benedict were all seen as unpopular and impractical, but each of them had imagination. And it is that same imagination that we need to allow ourselves to experience so we, too, can join these prophets who urge us to perceive a new reality, to dream the dream of God. All of them remind us to imagine our world the way God imagines it and to consider how very different things would look in our homes, our places of work, our community and certainly our church.
As we look back at Amos and Benedict, it may appear at first glance that they failed. Amos was most likely banished from the northern kingdom and had to return to his sheep and sycamore trees in the south. Benedict died an obscure death in an obscure spiritual community of brothers at Monte Cassino.
But from the perspective of God and the benefit of history, we can declare these men very successful. We are still weighing their lives and their words generations upon generations after their death. Their words and visions continue to be remembered hundreds and hundreds of years later, while political powers they challenged have faded into oblivion. Their actions and choices are still an inspiration and a challenge to millions of people around the world while the kingdoms that ridiculed and/or sanctioned them no longer exist. What they imagined could be is still in the process of becoming a reality.
Let us therefore strive to imagine and envision the future that God has for each one of us and for our world. It is improbable that any of us will live long enough to see the fulfillment of our visions and imaginings, but we can trust that God’s Reign will ultimately triumph, that the visions imagined through God’s Spirit will one day come true. The change we want to see in our world needs to be brought to life within our own hearts and lives first. And it is that hope, that vision, that imagination which allow us to stubbornly and faithfully, with tears and laughter, weeping and rejoicing, inch our way forward.