I. Who Do You Worship?
If you attend worship each week, do you go to worship God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? This may sound like a ridiculous question, but it’s likely a question Amos would ask us if he were to stand before us today, as we’ll soon find out. And besides, the faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really catching on. Why, just the other day a person in Ames, Iowa, was making a toasted cheese sandwich, and lo and behold what should she find but the Flying Spaghetti Monster right there on her bread. Impressive, huh?
Here’s something else that will impress you about the noodle-god’s existence – something more scientific: According to the Pastafarian Bible (followers are called Pastafarians) the original worshippers of this Flying Spaghetti Monster were pirates. Yes, pirates. According to the Pastafarians, pirates weren’t the dirty, peg-legged outcasts and thieves you’ve been led to believe they were. Those rumors were spread by jealous Christians and Hare Krishnas who sought to undermine the True Faith. No, the real pirates were peace-loving explorers of good will who distributed candy to small children. They were “fun-loving buccaneers from history.” Some were even divine beings! Since 1820, however, these happy followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster have been on the decline. Over the same period that these followers have been decreasing, global warming has been increasing. Coincidence? I think not!
II. Yahweh and the Astral Deities
I say all this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s a serious point to be made about the prophet Amos and his 8th Century Israelite audience. There is a serious point for you and me, too. Amos levels a number of accusations at his audience. Chief among them is the fact that during one of the wealthiest times in Israelite history, God’s “chosen people” had not extended so much as a finger to help the poor. God wasn’t expecting those who were well off to give handouts, yet the God who had once liberated all of Israel from slavery in Egypt was expecting Israel to offer the poor a hand up. Instead, Israel was doing exactly the opposite. In fact, they were acting little different than Pharaoh. Israel was exploiting the poor, establishing barriers to their getting ahead, and figuratively “crushing their heads into the dirt.” Then they were blaming the poor for their station in life. According to Amos, God was madder than a hornet!
III. Cows of Bashan
Some of you are going through the whole book of Amos chapter by chapter during this series, so even though our focus this week is Amos 5, I’ll comment briefly on Amos 4 first. It sets up Amos 5 well. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Amos addresses the women of Israel:
1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” 2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. 3 Through breaches in the wall you shall leave, each one straight ahead; and you shall be flung out into Harmon, says the Lord.
Obviously, Amos’ words aren’t very flattering. But they’re not as nasty as they may seem. We grimace at the comparison Amos makes between women and cows. That’s because in our world, comparing a person to a cow is a cruel way of saying the person is overweight. But in Amos’ day, comparison with a cow of Bashan was considered a compliment. The cows of Bashan were widely known to be the finest in the land of Israel (coming from the present-day Golan Heights). They were exceedingly well bred to yield the choicest cuts of meat. They ate the most tender grass and drank the purest water. Cows of Bashan were like the Certified Black Anguses or the Wagyu cows that produce Kobe beef. To refer to a woman as a “cow of Bashan” was to say she was “well bred.” She was part of Israel’s upper crust.
What Amos has to say about these “well bred” women is rather incendiary, of course. Yet the fact that Amos even addresses women at all is unusual, given that women are rarely addressed in Israelite prophesy. In their patriarchal society, if a woman objected to the injustice going on around her, she could have thrown up her hands concluding, “What can I so? It’s a man’s world after all.” Yet Amos seems to think that there is plenty that a woman can do, and that women are just as culpable as men when it comes to systemic injustice. Like the men of Israel, the women have become accustomed to a certain standard of life – a standard they no longer feel gratitude for so much as entitlement to. They are feeling so entitled, in fact, that they care little about the lowest rungs of society upon whose backs their luxuries are being provided.
What kind of people do you suppose would exploit the most vulnerable in order to have the best the land has to offer? Were they “godless heathen” who worship no god but themselves? Actually, in Chapter 5 Amos makes the surprising accusation that all of them are worshipping the gods Sakkuth and Kaiwan. These are astral deities. Star gods. They are the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!
IV. The Unfaithfully Faithful
Curiously, Amos is probably making these accusations while standing on the steps of one of the most important temples dedicated to Yahweh in all of Israel. Namely, the temple in Bethel. This temple was kind of like the Israelite equivalent of Washington, DC’s National Cathedral. The audience Amos was addressing was almost certainly made up of 100% Yahweh-worshippers – and not just any Yahweh worshippers, but leaders in Israel who would have been worshipping at the “National Cathedral.” Accusing such people of worshipping astral deities would have practically caused a riot. These leaders were no apostates. Nor were they religious slackers. In fact, they were far more fervent followers of Yahweh than political leaders tend to be in our day – by several orders of magnitude.
We know something about their piety through what is said about it in the book of Amos. They honor the Sabbath, for instance. Do you remember the Blue Laws we used to have in the United States? Where do you suppose they came from?
Amos’ audience also worships regularly. Apparently they put a lot of work and pride into worship. They employ the best choir leaders, musicians, and priests. Their liturgical pageantry is second to none. Amos’ audience also keeps the major festivals prescribed in the Torah – the Passover Festival (a celebration of the Exodus), the Festival of Harvest (celebrating the first fruits of harvest), and the Festival of Ingathering (celebrating the end of harvest season). These were all key celebrations in the Jewish faith – like Christmas and Easter are in the Christian calendar.
Amos’ audience also made all the sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the Torah, of which there were five primary ones. Since this is the least familiar aspect of Israelite religion to those in our day, let me describe these briefly:
1) The Burnt Offering (Lev 1; 6:8-13). This could be a bull, sheep, or goat, or a dove or pigeon if you were poor. This was the most extravagant sacrifice because the whole animal was devoted to Yahweh and consumed in the fire.
2) Grain Offering (Lev 2; 6:14-23). This was a simple offering of flour or unleavened baked goods, mixed with oil. A handful was mixed with incense and burned. The rest went to the priests.
3) Sacrifice of Well-Being/Fellowship Offering (Lev 3; 7:11-35). This was the sacrifice most frequently associated with the great Israelite feasts. You brought an animal and offered only its innards as a burnt offering (fat, kidneys, and part of the liver). The rest of the animal was divided between the priests and the offerer and eaten.
4) Sin Offering/Purification Offering (Lev 4:1 – 5:13; 6:24-30). This sacrificial offering was associated with repentance for sin. The kind of offering and quantity varied according to your level of leadership and wealth in the community. Like the Sacrifice of Well-Being, most of the animal was consumed by people, not the fire, only for this kind of offering those who consumed it were the priests.
5) Guilt Offering (Lev 5:14 – 6:7; 7:1-10). This was like the sin offering, only it was for guilt incurred not through direct defiance of God’s commands, but through less direct means. For instance, you would offer a guilt offering if you unintentionally desecrated something sacred, such as entering a house of worship while on your monthly cycle.
I don’t mean to turn all this into a lesson on Israelite religious practices. I mention these to indicate that the problem that Amos says God has with the people of Israel is not that they are slacking off in their religious obligations, attending football games on Sunday when they should be in worship. Nor are they atheists. These are all “good, church-going folks,” so-to-speak. Yet Amos accuses these same folks of worshipping the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster even though they were clearly worshipping Yahweh! Here is what Yahweh has to say to Israel according to Amos:
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn [worship] assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; 27 therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
The message here is that if you are not letting “justice roll down like a water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (i.e., a stream that doesn’t’ dry up when the weather gets hot, like most streams do in the desert)” you may as well be worshipping an astral deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other god but the True God.
Ouch. How would you feel if God looked over your faith sensibilities and practices and said that you may as well be a Hare Krishna (No disrespect intended for worshippers of Lord Krishna!)? Or what if someone examined your theology and said it made about as much sense as claiming that Global Warming was the direct result in the decrease in pirates?
More importantly, in our day and age when there are so many parallels to 8th Century Israel with respect to economics and to our self-perception as being a nation full of “believers,” how do we truly “let justice roll” and “righteousness” flow as God would have it?
V. Simba’s Auto Center
My best guess is that the answer lies in a story I’ve told before. I’ve told the story of Simba’s Auto Shop at Darkwood Brew and in morning worship at Countryside Community Church. And I can guarantee that I’ll be telling the story over and over again until all you have to hear is “Simba’s” to remember the whole story and its point. I’ll be telling it because I think it reveals an important key to the future of Christian faith in North America and beyond, and something that will become a hallmark of Convergence Christianity in particular.
Simba’s was an auto shop located on Mercer Island, WA, where I grew up. In doing research for this blog post, I’ve discovered that Simba’s is no longer on Mercer Island, but they are alive and doing very well in Redmond, WA, where they are rated 5 out of 5 stars on Yelp.com. Simba’s was (and is) owned and operated by two Muslim brothers for whom fixing automobiles is a key part of their “sweet spot” or calling in life. They get the job done right the first time and charge a fair price for their labor. The brothers have had a reputation since the 70s for never recommending work that doesn’t need to be done, and treating people so well that you almost want your car to be sick just to experience the vibe of the place. I was just reading a recent review on Yelp.com where a customer was gushing over how he took his car to Simba’s for a simple oil change and that they had not only done that but cleaned his car and fixed a brake problem he’d been having without additional charge just because they thought it needed to be done!
Many years ago, a friend of mine asked one of the brothers what motivated them to do so well and be so honest. His response gets to the essence of what it means to let justice and righteousness roll constantly. He said simply, “We treat every automobile as if Muhammad himself will be driving away in it.”
I have seen a similar combination of passion, joy, justice, and art reflected in many others whose professions aren’t typically considered spiritual, but whose vocations take them on a deeply spiritual path. A stockbroker I know, for instance, takes a similar attitude, only treating each client whose portfolio he manages as if Jesus himself is the investor. His conviction not only inspires him to work tirelessly to maximize his clients’ investments, but also to take into account the ethics of the companies in which he invests (“Would Jesus want me investing in X, Y, or Z?”). He is also politically active, working to promote justice, particularly for the poor, in the very economic system in which he does business. (“Would Jesus want money being made on the backs of the poor?”)
The Muslim auto mechanics and Christian stockbroker both follow a different set of creeds. What is clear, however, is that for each of these professionals, doing what brings them personally alive in this world has become a channel for loving their God and loving their neighbor as themselves.
Does the fact that a Muslim or a Christian can exemplify what God wants of us mean that faith and creeds don’t matter? Not at all. What it means is that neither of these individuals needs a creed to validate that what they are doing is of God. Rather, they are each responding to an inner sense of love, joy, humility, and service to which any authentic creed or religious doctrine point. Their creed is written not on paper but in flesh and blood, in oil pans and carburetors, in investment portfolios and voting ballots. If you ask me, that’s the best kind of creed there is.
Imagine if each of us who call ourselves Christian were to find our “sweet spot” in life and treat the recipients of our labors as if they are Jesus himself? For that matter, imagine what would happen if the people of every faith in were to treat the recipients of their labors with the same amount of dignity, respect, and diligence as the founder of whatever religion they happen to follow?
My guess is that if even a fraction of us actually did this, and Amos were to stand in the center of your own town square or on the steps of your church, synagogue, temple, or mosque to proclaim God’s word, he would not be saying that we may as well be worshiping the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rather he would be quoting the One who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”