By Joanna Shenk
A few weeks ago I was in northern Indiana for a Shenk family reunion with Eric and the kids. It was the first time I had seen some of my extended Shenk family in a couple years. We had a lot of fun playing games in intergenerational groups, like kickball, super big boggle and ultimate frisbee.
One thing that I love about my Shenk family is our storytelling. My grandpa Shenk (who is passed on) and his four children constantly tell stories about us when we’re together. It could be stories of when I was a kid and the funny things I’d do. Or stories about my uncles and aunt when they were kids. Or stories about ancestors further back. Whatever the conversation, it often ends with the recollection of a family story.
This kind of storytelling instilled in me a strong sense of identity when I was young and carries through today. I know who my family is and what they value and I know what it means to carry on that identity. Through the work of differentiation I am also able to decide how I want to carry on that legacy in a way that’s authentic to my journey.
Stories shape us, for better and for worse, especially the ones we hear repetitively. I remember talking with David Solnit about this a couple years ago. He’s the Bay Area artist that helped our congregation create banners last summer and has collaborated with Meg and others in creating beautiful street murals in San Francisco. He told me in his experience as an artist and organizer, it is stories that move people. Facts and figures, no matter how compelling, do not move and shape people the way stories do. “Those who tell the most powerful story,” he said, “are the ones who win.”
So what are the stories your families told you? What are the stories that shape us? What are the stories we tell ourselves?
As a congregation within the Christian tradition, the stories in the Bible are a primary narrative. Technically. For various reasons we might feel disconnected from these stories though. These narratives come to us out of a rich, complex and troubled history. I’m sure as a collective and as individuals we have a wide spectrum of experiences with the Bible. Maybe like the mouse in the children’s story today, we were convinced at some point that it’s a boring book or an irrelevant book.
But wait, all these weird characters keep jumping out… like a talking snake and a talking donkey and a burning bush and a huge flood and angels and food falling from the sky and someone walking on water and poor people creating a movement to change the world.
One conclusion I’ve come to in recent years is that the bible is anything but irrelevant today. In this time and in this place, we need to know it as a Christian community, in all it’s complexity and with all it’s absurd characters. We need to be able to interpret scripture in way that cuts against the grain of Christian hegemony. In other words, rather than putting the book on a shelf and walking away from it (because it has been and is being used in such problematic ways), we need to reclaim it and be rooted in its revolutionary truth as a Christian community.
This, of course, is as much about our own transformation as it is about the transformation of the world in which we live. As we learned during our capitalism bible study this spring, we are thoroughly formed by the stories of our competitive, profit-at-any-cost society. The need for Jubilee, the economic redistribution of Jesus’ movement, is felt acutely in the Bay Area, as we live in the midst of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
In the text I chose from the lectionary today, this same type of reality is being addressed. In a nutshell Amos, the prophet, is declaring God’s judgement on the king because he has been stealing from the poorest people to create wealth and security for the richest people.
Earlier in the book of Amos God gives him these words about the king and his ilk (Amos 5:10-12), “They abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies (taxes) of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but your shall not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
God is clearly very mad about this behavior and the primary sin is glaring economic disparity upheld by the king. But interestingly, in the verses just prior to the ones Matt read where Amos declares even more judgement on the king, Amos actually sticks up for those who are being judged and begs God to forgive them (Amos 7:1-6). In these instances God relents. I think this part of the story helps to complexify the prophet vs. bad people trope. The prophet was not only out to preach hellfire and brimstone. In two cases the prophet actually convinced God against judgement, which would have been God destroying the land with locusts or showering it with fire.
And then we get to the plumb-line and wall metaphor (Amos 7:7-8), which biblical scholars admit is hard to understand. “Plumb-line” is their best guess at the meaning although the word is closer to something like “tin.” It’s a phrase that would have made sense to the writer, who wrote it a few thousand years ago, but it doesn’t easily translate today. This is another good thing to remember when studying the bible, we can’t expect that everything will make sense to us. But that amount of mystery must not keep us from assuming nothing can make sense. It’s a tension that invites humility and curiosity.
So what scholars have discerned about the plumb-line and wall is that it’s about the king and his people not having integrity. They are like a poorly built wall that will fall due to their injustice. After Amos declares this, the king’s priest goes and tells the king that Amos is conspiring against him.
This would be similar to what some of the religious leaders were saying about Jesus. When Jesus was denouncing the treatment of poor people, he was seen as a threat. People in positions of power were afraid that he would gain a following and then overthrow their rule. That’s why sometimes Jesus instructed people NOT to share about his miracles or the stories he told. He wanted to stay under the radar so he wouldn’t be immediately killed.
In the case of Amos, the priest had a very clear message for him. He said, “Get out of here. This is the king’s land and you are not welcome. Go be a prophet somewhere else” Amos would not be deterred though (7:14-15), and said, “Hey, it’s not like being a prophet is my profession. I’m a herdsman and a tree-tender from nowheresville. I wouldn’t be doing this if God hadn’t asked me.”
As opposed to some people at that time who were professional prophets, Amos was making the point that he wasn’t in this for himself (or his family’s reputation). He was merely following what he believed to be his calling, no matter the cost. And he stayed true to this calling.
There are a number of parallels we could draw between Amos’ context and the context we’re living in today. But since I think those are fairly obvious, I want to focus on the fact that Amos isn’t an aberration in the text.
From the beginning of our scriptures to the end, there are people and communities constantly calling the people of God to a communal faithfulness. This is the overarching message of our sacred text. It is story after story about the choice that human communities have to choose well-being and liberation. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. In either case, the Divine Presence in these text is always on the side of the powerless and always seeking for their liberation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many problematic stories of vengeance and violence, but held within the context of the biblical writers, God was always on the side of the underdog.
One big pitfall of American Christianity is that many Christians have been taught to see themselves (ourselves) as the Hebrew people in the biblical stories or as a the disciples, when really our/their part in the story would be as members of the opulent empire oppressing nomadic and poor people.
That’s why intentional bible study is so important. Given the history of Christianity’s entanglement with empires, we can’t come to the text assuming we know how to understand it.
A few years ago I was at a gathering called “the festival of radical discipleship” co-facilitated by mentors of mine, Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, who will preach here in two weeks. Ched shared a lyrical litany he had written about the radical disciples and communities throughout the biblical text, as he claimed it as a manual for resistance and liberation.
“This Way,” he begins, “was birthed when Creator scattered humans from centripetal Babel in centrifugal liberation, and continued when Abram and Sarai bailed out of Ur and Moses and Myriam busted out of Egypt, and when Jordan’s waters rose up and Jericho’s walls came tumbling down. Though often beat down and always marginalized, this vision of truth-telling and reconciliation-dreaming was remembered when Elijah read the riot act to Ahab, and Isaiah sang a lovesong lament to the vineyard, and Jeremiah bought a field in the bear market of occupation, and Ezekiel saw the wheel within the wheel, way up in the middle of the air.
It was this tradition that animated John the Baptist to go feral, troubling Herod’s business as usual and then troubling Jordan’s waters to re-birth a certain Nazarene upon whom the old Spirit of the Movement came to rest like a condor. He rebooted the old movement afresh, accompanied only by clueless fishermen and faithful women of ill repute, by demoniacs liberated from imperial possession and peasants armed only with palm branches.
Jesus faced down the mammon system with loaves and fishes in the wilderness, remembering the old catechism of manna; redirected our attention away from Temples and toward wildflowers and birds; raised up street beggars and brought down fat-cats to co-inhabit the Jubilee common ground his Mama had sung to him about as a baby.
The Nazarene’s movement ground to a halt on a Roman cross, on which the imperial bill for the cost of discipleship came due; only to be rebooted again at an empty tomb from which the stone of impediment had been rolled away.
This strange lacuna spawned a Pentecost insurrection of multicultural restoration and economic redistribution, a strange unleashing of tongues and pocketbooks that spilled out of a safe house attic into the streets in a popular theater of protest and proclamation just a few blocks from where Jesus had been lynched.
These shenanigans of course earned official backlash, which only spawned a smackdown of restorative payback, in which the murderous chief head of security charged with strangling this inconvenient movement in its crib broke down in the middle lane of the Damascus Road, struck blind with visions of his victims. This chief prosecutor ended up defecting to the movement he sought to destroy, such that he had to be smuggled out of town in a basket like baby Moses, the hunter become the hunted.
This unlikely turnabout spawned little ecclesial communities of nonconformity, bread breaking and discipleship to Jesus throughout the empire, which we know about only through the tattered fragments of correspondence and liturgy and catechism that survive in what we call the Second Testament, today every bit as misunderstood and abused as the First.”
These are our stories. This is a history of resistance and communal discipleship that has been preserved to inspire our own faithfulness. These are stories to sober and challenge us, since we don’t always get to identify with the good guys. These stories illuminate who we can be and who we are becoming as we follow in the way of Rabbi Jesus.
These are the stories that radicalized our Anabaptist foremothers and forefathers as they, mostly from the European peasant class, read the Bible for the first time. Along these lines, I think it would be really cool (maybe even revolutionary) to have a First Mennonite bible study group. Maybe it’s a discipleship group this coming year or a group that meets on Sunday mornings. I know the youth group had a great time rewriting scripture stories for the capitalism bible study this year. Perhaps an intergenerational group could continue that work? A couple of the youth suggested we do the whole bible!
May our study of scripture strengthen us for our callings in this time and in this place. May we be surprised and curious about the wisdom and mystery they contain. As with the Call to Worship we read today, may we come to see these texts as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.