Texts:  Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Ephesians 4:14-16

Intro. to Amos: Amos is the oldest of four prophetic books–Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah–that originated in the 8th century BCE.   He was not, he says, a person who had the usual credentials to be a prophet—he was a mere southern boy from Tekoa, a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, who was sent north to the kingdom of Israel, which had Samaria as its capital city, during a time of great economic prosperity and relative peace, to declare a word of judgment and doom.  Amaziah, a priest of the northern kingdom and confidant of the king, Jeroboam, tries to send Amos packing back home, because his message is unwelcome.

The prophecy of Amos is dire.  And we should be careful:  too many have used passages such as this to justify the Holocaust,  arguing that Jews had fallen so far away from their traditions that they deserved God’s judgment delivered via Adolf Hitler, much as the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital city, Samaria, would fall into the hands of the Assyrian kings Shalmaneser V and Sargon II in 722/21 BCE.

More apt would be to hear this prophecy as a word to us in our own time, prompting  honest  self-examination, and honesty about the nature of our civic and economic life as well.  The message is that in response to deceit and hypocrisy God’s judgment comes in the form of divine silence, a famine, if you will, of inspiration and hope.

Intro. to Ps. 52: The Psalm appointed to accompany this passage from Amos is equally dire.  It offers an indictment of the deceitful and dishonest ways in which the powerful…in this case Saul’s chief shepherd, Doeg, who was seen by David as a conniving political climber with no moral compass–  would go to any lengths to advance their own standing.  It puts a clear distinction between the “mighty one” and the righteous.

Intro. to Ephesians 4: Finally, I chose the reading from Ephesians to offset these words of judgment written to offer guidance to the young churches and to individual Christians about their comportment in the world and before God.

May the word of God dwell in us richly as we receive it and live it.  Amen.

I want to think with you a bit this morning about honesty and dishonesty.   Amos  and the Psalmist mince no words in their condemnation of those who say one thing and do another, of those who are dishonest in their treatment of others, especially the poor.

Serendipitously, this morning I saw an article on the Washington Post home page that posed the question:  “Does doing good make us bad?”    Following the link led me to a more specific statement:  “Why going green won’t make you better or save you money”.   The essential point was that human beings seem to have a moral balance sheet hidden away in our unconscious mind that if we do something good, we feel that we have “moral license” to do something less than good, or even slightly shady.

At one point in the article, they cite “University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar” who did a study that showed “…that people who bought [environmentally] green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products.”   Advertising people play on our human culpability:  they make us think we are buying something good (say an energy efficient washer), knowing that we will increase the number of loads of laundry that we do.  And we all know people who are dieting, they say, who will order a diet coke to go with their BigMac at McDonalds, or who go to the gym in the morning, but then try to get the parking place closest to their destination and will take the elevator instead of the stairs.

Duplicity seems hard wired into us.  Certainly, we all lie and tell fibs.  Sometimes it is just for ease of social interactions that we avoid the truth.  How are you? someone asks, and we know that they don’t really want to know.  We say, “Fine”, even when it may seem as if the world is sliding away beneath our feet.  Your spouse asks you:  “Do I look fat in this outfit?”  and if you know what’s good for you, you will not say “yes.”  Those are the little white lies that serve as social lubricants.

For indeed there can be hurt and harm in truth telling.  You and I know people who seem to take great pleasure in being “brutally honest.”   And it sometimes feels as if they get more satisfaction out of the brutality than the honesty.  William Blake once wrote: “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”  [from “Auguries of Innocence”, Poems from the Pickering Manuscript]

Or take tactless people who say whatever comes to mind.  It’s not that what they say was meant to hurt; often, what their tactlessness reveals is an inability to place themselves in the shoes of the other and think how they might hear the tactless statement. Tactlessness is more a matter of a lack of empathy, or thinking how to speak the truth in love, if it needs to be said at all.    I always tell brides and grooms in the premarital counseling that I do that in marriage one of the wisest aphorisms to remember always is this one:  “Think all you say” –that is, your words should be reflected upon before they are uttered, to consider the other person with respect and dignity–and the second half of the aphorism is this:  “but do not say all you think.”

The author of the letter known as Ephesians, who may or may not have been the Apostle Paul, suggests that the best guideline is to speak the truth gently, in love, and in order to build up the best in others, not to bash them over the head, or bludgeon them with truth.

This interpersonal stuff however may seem like small potatoes in the scheme of things. It is NOT small potatoes when children are schooled to lie about the internal dysfunction in their families—be it abusive behaviors, addictions, or other destructive violations of trust.   It may be, however, that  engaging in perpetual telling of fibs and white lies, believing them to be necessary social lubricants, eventually begins to erode not only the one who tells them, but the relationships themselves.   The strength of our common life in families, neighborhoods, cities, state and nation is reflected in whether relationships can be honest and can handle truthtelling, in the way that Ephesians suggests, or not.

I had a lot of fun looking at my Bartlett’s quotations and on-line at the subject of honesty and dishonesty.  One fellow [Austin O’Malley] wrote “those who think it permissible to tell white lies soon grow color-blind.”

Perhaps that is why so much of our world these days seems to echo the critique leveled by old Amos and by the psalmist.  And if that feels uncomfortable, perhaps the truth is that we lie most often to ourselves about ourselves.   Our sense of entitlement is often based on an unwillingness to face an important truth:  you and I are enormously privileged and rich people.  Tim Wise, whom I quoted last week and who spoke at the Poverty Forum dinner of the Community Action Council’s annual dinner, says that “a whole lot of us were born on third base, yet think we hit a triple.”  Yup.  I think that’s the kind of self-deceit that Amos and the Psalmist were pointing out.

There are larger issues, too, of our societal practices:  a free market economy means to many that there should be no truth in advertising, or regulations to control how mortgages and loans are sold.  We witness the hidden action of an enormously rich company like BP securing the release of the Lockerbie bomber based on the testimony of one doctor who says the man has only 3 months to live, so that BP can secure an oil contract with Libya.  We see people in both political parties utilizing half-truths and innuendo to advance themselves.  Fox news calls itself “fair and balanced” but it is no more fair and balanced than the Dailey Show with Jon Stewart.

Last week we read the passage from Amos about the plumb line, as a line of measurement against which the prophet said God was measuring the morality of God’s people.  This week, the vision is of fruit so ripe that it is rotten.

Sometimes I think we have emphasized God’s mercy so much that we have forgotten that before mercy can be granted, a judgment must be made.   Amos and the Psalmist offer a different perspective:  they speak for a God who loves Israel enough to call Israel to account.   Good parents will have standards and expectations of their children.  When failure happens, and it does…for each of us, the important thing is the acknowledgement of the failure, and knowing that we all stand in need of mercy.

Will Willimon, now a bishop in the United Methodist Church, wrote in a commentary that “one way you can tell the difference between a true and living God and a dead and fake god is that a false god will never tell you anything that will make you angry and uncomfortable.”  [Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 248]

Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor, wrote in The Christian Century, this week, that he has on his wall a antique carpenter’s level, which he uses to remind him to try to keep his own vision of his life level with God’s vision.  He might just as well have hung up a plumb-line, to remind himself of the need for trying to keep one’s life aligned with God’s hopes for human beings.

A good summer exercise might be to see how honest we can be in the coming week, to make note of times when we are less than honest and for what reasons.   We might also chart the public and civic dishonesties we see, in a little journal that you could call your plumb-line.

Christians are called to lead a life worthy of God’s calling.  We can be truth tellers if we do so with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.  And we must be those who help hold our society accountable to its lies, secrets, duplicity and deceitfulness, but it has to be done with love and empathy for that which we oppose.    If we don’t pay attention to the little and big dishonesty on which so much of our economic and political and social lives depend, then we will indeed fall short of that high calling.  Our call is to speak the truth—not as a weapon—but in love to build up the whole creation, which means to keep growing into the likeness of Christ.

Sermon: Speaking the Truth in Love

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