By Bill Mefford
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (v. 10-14)
A classic confrontation between an inspired prophet of God and yet another religious cleric more interested in protecting the institution and the social and political status quo than in truth, justice, or holiness. Amos prophesied in 8th Century BC and so we are talking about things that happened almost three thousand years ago. However, this conflict seems so incredibly familiar because it has been happening throughout all of history and remains as incisive now as it was during Amos’ time.
The primary theme of Amos’ prophesy is that the worship of God by God’s people has become superficial and empty and that is due entirely to their mistreatment of the poor and marginalized. If God’s people want to experience intimacy with God then they must focus on justice and inclusion.
Amos’ message is deeply concerning to Amaziah, a priest in King Jeroboam’s sanctuary in Bethel. He doesn’t want to to hear the doom and gloom of Amos’ prophesy so he does what any religious bureaucrat would do in that situation; he tattles on Amos. He tells the King that Amos, by speaking God’s word of repentance to God’s people, is “conspiring” against the power of the King. Yes, speaking the truth and inviting people to repent often causes power structures that exist for the sake of existing - that serve only their institutional maintenance - to tremble. This is what happens when truth is spoken and people and institutions fail to heed the call for repentance.
And lest we forget, this has happened throughout history. When I read this I think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from the Birmingham jail to liberal pastors who wanted King to “calm down” his work for justice while King insisted that waiting for justice any longer would be a denial of the justice they speak of.
I think of the now decades-long backlash by conservatives in the Catholic Church to the base movements in poor communities that embraced liberation theology. The backlash has resulted in a repressive, fundamentalist takeover of the Catholic Church in their seminaries, agencies, and most especially council of bishops. This movement was somewhat stymied by the election of Pope Francis who painstakingly has been working to bring the church into alignment with Scripture and liberationism, but now the backlash is pushing back with vengeance, and is being led by Steve Bannon of all people.
I also think of the countless times (and I literally mean countless) when denominational statements have been put out regarding various justice issues and denominational “leaders” would literally say something like, “how can we sound justice-oriented without alienating people?” That usually meant mouth the words of Scripture for the purposes of rhetoric, but with no authentic call for action or specific change. They were asking the exact question that Amaziah the palace priest spent his life asking himself - how can I appear godly but without being inhabited by the actual power of God.
And I think of the current struggle to rebirth a new Methodist movement today in light of the fundamentalist takeover of the United Methodist Church by people and groups who use words like “faithfulness” and “holiness,” but they pervert them with the actions of spiritual and ecclesial purging and purification. The struggles between prophet and palace priest in the UMC today are not just between liberal and conservative. They are between those who desire a Methodist movement that exists within the spirit and power of liberation and those who simply want the same old structure, but without the appearance of exclusion.
Here is what I mean. The Western jurisdiction of the UMC wants to provide refuge for LGBTQ clergy who are being purged by the rest of the UMC and this is a good thing! But the Western jurisdiction seems to have zero interest in looking at the arcane and unbiblical vertical and repressive hierarchy which has been one of the primary drivers behind lay exclusion in the church. Again, it is enough to appear just, but neglect the weightier demands of following Jesus - to sacrifice one’s title and own personal fiefdom so that the whole Body can be unleashed into mission and ministry.
Or take a look at the gatherings of selected clergy led by megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton. He has decided who gets to plan out his vision of what the next iteration of Methodism might be. Beyond the secrecy of their meetings and plans lies a deep concern that a privileged clergy caste of political and ecclesial moderates will not see the need for change that liberationists and those of us serving without clergy privilege see and experience. Change, in other words, does not come from the most popular deemed by societal standards, but rather, from the fringes of society.
Somewhere on the road to liberation we have had too many institutions to maintain and too many assets to protect and so we stopped short our journey and settled on being liberal. The struggle for liberation is hard and fraught with many challenges, but liberation will never be realized while we use the same institutional structures, mechanisms, and vertical forms of discernment that were found in the old, worn out wineskins.
It is time for new wineskins!
And Amos knew this, which is seen in response to Amaziah. He responds by saying he is not a prophet and he does not come from a prophetic class. He is a tree farmer. A simple man whom God selected to “prophesy.” For Amos, the prophetic calling is not about a title, but rather, it is a role; a form of participation in the larger life of God’s people.
Oh how we need Amos today. Less titles and more forms of active participation.
Now, if we could only find a dynamic and flexible structure or network that truly valued the prophetic voice. That’s a new birth of Methodism that we can not only all get behind, but that can actually transform the world.