Money, Money, Money – 06.13.2021

[Amos 5:8-15 and Amos 6:1-7]

          If I was the devil, and I wanted to stop God’s people from doing something good – I wouldn’t give them an obstacle. I wouldn’t make the job harder or the work grueling. I wouldn’t try to make their life difficult. No, because the people of God have a nasty habit of overcoming every single difficulty that’s in front of them. As this last year has shown, when there are obstacles they get creative. They find ways to worship on facebook, deliver communion into people’s homes, and reached out with love to the entire community in brand new creative ways. No, if I want to stop God’s people – difficulty is not the way. Instead, if I wanted to stop God’s people from doing something good – I’d make them comfortable. I would shower them with riches and pleasures and make their life as easy as possible. That’s how you bring the work of God grinding to a halt. Comfort and convenience are far more effective than a pandemic or any other obstacle I could come up with.

          Did you know that the national poverty rate is a little over 10%, but in Michigan the state average hovers around 15.6%? Dramatically higher poverty rates in the state of Michigan. But of course, my first thought was – but not us! Flushing is the different than the rest of the state, I’m sure our numbers are better. Flushing has a poverty rate of 15.6% – exactly the same as the state average. Of the 8,000 people in the city of Flushing, over of one thousand of them live in poverty. That comes out to roughly 1 in 6 people. It gets worse if you split it up by gender or age. Women in Flushing are twice as likely to live in poverty, 20% compared to 10% of men, and children three times as much. I don’t know if I’ve said it much from the pulpit, although I’ve said it a lot to the leadership of this church – poverty, whether we want it or not, is going to be one of our biggest mission fields in the next few years. And we know where it’s coming from – right? We are a small suburb of a big city in decline. Flint has a 40% poverty rate, and as we watch the negative affects creep up Pierson road into our town – it will be up to the churches, and community leaders and each of us to push back. To keep people out of poverty, to elevate those in poverty, and to bring prosperity back to Genesee County. And it can be done. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, small town near the big city – and that city hit bottom, and then dug a little deeper. But Detroit has come a long ways since then. It’s not exactly perfect nowadays, but the important thing is that the rise is possible.

          Alright, now by this point you might be wondering – what on earth am I talking about? Why am I going on about poverty and the devil? Well – today is the start of a brand new sermon series called Minority Report. For the rest of June we are going to jump into a part of the bible almost nobody ever looks at – the minor prophets. When I was growing up in the church, I never read those books. If you look in your bible, the minor prophets are all those tiny little books at the end of the Old Testament with the weird names for titles. Like Obadiah, Zedekiah, Zechariah, Habbakuk, Now, I should clarify. They are called minor prophets, because the books are short. Not because they are less important. When you get to the prophets, you’ve got your major prophets and your minor prophets. Major prophets, are called major, because they are long winded. Right? These are the famous guys everybody’s heard of. Like Ezekiel, or Isaiah or Jeremiah – who I was named after – those are the major prophets, because their books are super long, they talk a LOT, it’s a very appropriate namesake for me. But the minor prophets wrote short books, and so a lot of church folk sort of skip over them. We don’t spend a lot of time reading the minor prophets. But when I became a pastor, I gave myself a goal – I gotta read all the weird parts of the bible, I need to look closer so that I would be able to teach it if somebody had a question. And you guys, when I started getting into the minor prophets – I had no idea how much amazing stuff was in there. The minor prophets are these tiny books that are chalk full of practical advice on how to make society better. Today we are going to dive into the book of Amos, and what we’re going to see is that Amos has a lot to say about money, luxury and how to help the poor in society.

          Now before we get into the text, let me set the stage a little bit, paint a little bit of that backdrop for the text. Amos is one of the very first prophets. Like 800 years before Jesus, when this guy named Jeroboam was king. Israel at the time was split into two kingdoms, in the North it was Israel, and in the south it was Judah, but during this time both kingdoms experienced prosperity. Things were good, trade was booming, people were experiencing higher levels of living and luxury. Problem was with wealth and luxury came the collapse of a moral life. People became lazy, they stopped helping each other and started spending all their time focused on their own comfort. If you were wealthy, as most people were, you were living your best life. But if you were poor, too bad for you. People were selfish, obsessed with their own comfort and luxury – and this is the setting where Amos shows up. We know Amos was a shepherd, but we don’t know if he was rich or poor – we don’t get too much of his backstory. But when he shows up, remember prophets are the mouthpiece of God, so when Amos shows up – God has some words for the 1%. Let’s take a look.

          [read v.8-10]. We jump in and Amos is reminding Israel of something very important. God is awesome. God created the stars, he is the one who turns the darkness into morning and draws water out of the ocean and provides rain for the crops. Everything we have, every breath we draw, every morning we awake – comes from God. God is awesome. [read v.10-13]. What really caught my eye when I was reading this last week is how practical Amos is being. He’s not talking vaguely about darkness or general sins. He is pointing out specific, social structures that are causing problems. You steal from the poor with taxes, you rip them off with unfair rent, you take bribes, and you deny poor people justice in the courts. And God is really mad about it. You know, back in December I got a call from someone who needed help with rent. It was a guy calling, and both he and his spouse had been put on furlough. Because of the pandemic, they didn’t get fired – but the places where they worked said, “sorry, you can have your job back when we reopen.” I think he had three kids. He worked at Olive Garden. And rent for this family was about $1,000 a month. He called in December, and said “We haven’t paid since June.” We were okay in March, April, May – but we ran out of savings, and with no income – we have no options.” And I was talking to him on the phone, and I said, “wow, man – I’m so sorry. You haven’t paid rent in 6 months, you must owe like 6, maybe $7,000?” And he responded, “Oh, no… we owe $13,000, because the late fees are almost as much as the rent itself.” Pandemic law says they can’t get evicted, so these rental companies are just racking up the fees and the fines – and when that law goes away, they will expect to be paid. You steal from the poor with taxes, you rip them off with unfair rent, you deny them justice in the courts. It’s very expensive to be a poor person in America.

Basically, the message I’m getting from Amos today is that God cares a LOT about how they treat the poorest in their society. Then to finish up Amos calls the people to something better. [read v.13-15]. Do what is good, run from evil. And not just in vague, sort of general ways. He says specifically, “turn your courts into true halls of justice.” We should be advocating for the poor in our society. And when we are working to help those on the margins, or the lowest in our society, those who are struggling we get this awesome promise from the text. It says, if you do this stuff, taking care of people, “the Lord God of HEAVEN’S ARMIES (yeah, that guy) will be your helper.” When we are working to help the poor, to take care of the lowest in society – God is on our side.

          Amos lays out the project in front of us – take care of poor people and here’s how – and then in the next chapter he lights a fire under our butts. Chapter 6, [read v.1-2]. What sorrow awaits you who lounge in luxury! And then he lists cities – look what happened to those guys, look what happened over there. You’re not better than them, and they got destroyed. [read v.3]. Now this is super important. For those of us who live in luxury, who are comfortable with the way things are in the world – we want to ignore the problem. It is so EASY to easy to point at the good and just… don’t look at the bad. That’s the definition of privilege – when the current system works for you, you don’t have to look at the bad. You just sort of [use hand as a blinder]. At my house, we have a pretty strict no food in the living room policy. I mean, we tried… let’s grab our pizza and sit down and watch a movie together… but experience taught us well, and now we know better. Because no matter how careful we are, dinner time with toddlers results in food on the floor. And when that spill happens, there’s a choice every parent makes: clean it up or leave it? The breadstick is under the couch now. I can fix it, or I can just look the other way. Most of the breadsticks are still on my plate. It’s only the one that fell. Most of the pizza sauce is NOT on the carpet. 99% of the situation is still perfect, and I don’t really feel like getting up, grabbing the carpet cleaning and scrubbing right now? I’m enjoying my movie. But let my moldly breadsticks and sticky carpet give you a fair warning – luxury and comfort teach us how to ignore the problems of the world. But when we ignore a problem it grows, Like Amos said, [read v.3].

          He keeps going, [read v.4-7]. Suddenly your parties will end. Here’s what I found so unsettling about all that. Everything I just read? Sounds an awful lot like an American vacation. Lounging on couches, eating tender meat, singing trivial songs (I mean, have you listened to popular radio?), drinking wine by the bowl full (or as we call it in the modern world – a “wine tour”), and wearing perfume. Jim Gaffigan, the comedian, does this whole routine about how vacation for us Americans is usually just going somewhere new and eating food. Camping Amusement parks, visit a historic site – whatever we’re doing it looks like this: We’ll go get some food, see the thing we’re on vacation to see, they’ve probably got a snack bar, and then we’ll go get something to eat afterwards. When Amos describes the wealthy living in luxury and ignoring the problems of the poor – I could almost copy those verses word for word in a scrapbook from my last vacation. Do you see why I’m uncomfortable?

          Now, I want to be careful here. I am not here this morning to make you feel guilty for going on vacation. I’m not even here to condemn wealthy people or make anybody feel shame for enjoying good things. That’s not my goal, that’s not my point, and that’s not what Amos is doing either. The point of all this is that luxury can distract us from our mission. You work hard, you earn, you save – and you want to enjoy the good things that come from that, that’s a wonderful thing. Vacation, rest, the sabbath – those are amazing God blessed activities. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. The message is not “nice things are bad” – the message is that we have work to do. There are people on the margins, people who are hurting and we need to be helping them in practical, concrete ways. I don’t want anyone to feel guilty this morning. All I want is for us to get back on mission. Luxury, comfort, or even just money in general – can be very distracting from the work we need to do as God’s people. God cares a LOT about how a society treats the poor, and luxury can be a distraction from that work.

          The good news this morning is that God brings justice to the poor. And the even better news is that he does that THROUGH you. If you let it, your life has the ability to become a weapon of God against the demonic forces of poverty in the world. And I know the phrase “demonic forces” makes people cringe because it’s one of those weird religious-y judgment words – but I use it on purpose. Poverty is a concrete problem in this world that we can do something about. It messes with people’s health, stress levels, relationships, decision making and even morality. If you have lived in poverty, or you are currently struggling to get by financially – I need you to understand, God loves you, God fights for you and justice is coming. And for those of us above the poverty line – we get to be a part of that. The church, the people of God, we get front row seats to what God is doing in the world. We get to be a part of God’s redemption, of bringing light into the darkness. We are the right hand of God standing up for the oppressed. We throw down oppressors, we rewrite the lines that cut people out. God brings justice to the poor, and if you are a follower of Jesus – he will do that through you. When we give our lives to Jesus, and we say, “God I’m going to follow your way” – that’s not just good news for me and my soul. It’s good news for my neighbors too. Because God has just received one more finger on the hand that crushes oppression, one more tool in the toolbelt that dismantles injustice, one more soldier in the army of God. Together, we will push back against the darkness. God brings justice to the poor, and he does it through us.

          Coming out of Amos, I see two applications. First, CARE about the poor. Looking at God getting all mad at those people and their luxury. God clearly measures the glory of a nation against the way they treat those on the margins and on the bottom. The way we treat the poor as a country is a measure of how great our country is. And too many of us, in our comfort, in our luxury, we look away. We pretend like we don’t see it, or we act like there’s nothing we can do, or it’s not our fault so we don’t have to do anything about it. Caring is the first challenge, and it actually is a challenge – because it’s so much easier to not care. To ignore or deny or distract. But clearly God cares about the poor. So we must care about the poor.

          The second part is really easy. If you truly care about the poor, do something about it. Amos calls his people to action. He says, “Do what is good and run from evil.” He says, “hate evil and love what is good; turn your courts into true halls of justice.” The first challenge is to care about the poor, and the second challenge is to actually do something about it. And this not abstract advice – be fair in taxes, work to create fair housing and rental agreements. Man that story of the guy who’s family owed $13,000, it’s just so unfair. Maintain justice in the court system – housing, rental, taxes – these are systems we can work on. Now, I want to be careful. I’m not up here to talk politics and promises. I will never, ever tell you how to vote. Voting has its place – but I don’t want to know what your politician is going to do for the poor. I want to know what YOU are going to do. Voting is an important part of society, but I don’t want people to think that’s all they need to do. What are you doing in your life to care for the poor and help people who are oppressed? It can be as simple as babysitting kids for the single mom who needs to go to work, or buying groceries for the elderly neighbors who don’t have enough and aren’t physically able to work.

You know, the Flushing Christian Outreach Center, has been working with a program called Bridges Out of Poverty. Amazing program, partnering with people to help them lift themselves out of poverty. And the director of FCOC, Terry Bigalow, she had this class she wanted to introduce. It’s a curriculum called Getting Ahead. It’s sort of like Dave Ramsey’s stuff, but specifically designed for those in poverty. We were working together last year to get funding. They didn’t have enough room over at the Thrive center, and so I told her – I’ll get you a room. And the pandemic put stuff on pause, and so they postponed. And a couple months ago, we were at a meeting, and they announced they were looking at next year – 2022. And I called her up after the meeting. I said, we can’t wait that long. We need to be working to fight poverty, like yesterday. I told her, “I’m excited for FCOC to do their thing when they can, but would you be offended my church tried to put something together before that? I want to see if my church can roll out this program, get this class started in the fall of 2021.” And if you know Terry, she’s so great, she said if you get it started, anything you need – we’ll help you out. And I asked her, “where do I start?” She said, “you need teachers.” Okay. I’ll go find teachers. And so here I am, standing in front of you holding the book of Amos, looking for teachers. Looking for people who care about the poor and want to put that into action.

          If I was the devil, and I wanted to stop God’s people from doing something good – I wouldn’t give them an obstacle. No, I would give them luxury. God brings justice to the poor, would you like to be a part of that incredible work? Then let me leave you with this – May you appreciate the good things God have given you, but do not let luxury become a distraction from your mission. May you love the poor, as our Father in heaven loves the poor. And may you take that love and turn it into practical, concrete transformation of the world. Amen.

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