by Rev. Doug Gray
During a practice session for the Green Bay Packers, things were not going well for Vince Lombardi’s team. Lombardi singled out one big guard for his failure to “put out.” It was a hot, muggy day when the coach called his guard aside and leveled his awesome vocal guns on him, as only Lombardi could. “Son, you are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. As a matter of fact, it’s all over for you today, go take a shower.” The big guard dropped his head and walked into the dressing room. We might think, “Man, that is harsh!” And maybe it is. When we read something like the messages God gives Amos and James, our first inclination is to think, “Man, that is harsh.” They make us feel uncomfortable, and in our time, we often just ignore the things that make us uncomfortable. Yet, if we stay in the tension, that uncomfortable place, God can teach us. Today, I want to suggest three ways God can take our discomfort with these passages and rearrange our lives.
First, God’s house—God’s rules. Have you ever heard the fateful words, “As long as you live in this house…” or “As long as long as you live under this roof…”? Have you ever said them? I have a friend who heard those words, and so she left. But that’s kind of hard to do with God—because God’s “house”…is the whole universe! God made it, and God set the “house rules.” How do we know what God wants? One way is by exploring the universe and history as we they come to us and trying to understand how God works through them. Another way is by reading God’s Word, which throughout the generations, throughout the centuries, has spoken truth to those who read it. We don’t have to like how the universe runs, but it’s still going to run that way…God’s house—God’s rules.
Second, justice matters to God. Justice is a cool word, but not onemost of us clearly understand. What is justice to God? So as many of you know, Cynthia and I have three children, and Morgan is 10 years older than Caleb. When Morgan was in high school, she had the chance to travel to Europe for a couple of weeks, and Hannah desperately wanted to go. “It’s not fair!” Hannah said. “I haven’t even been out of the country!” To which Cynthia replied, “Fare is what you pay to ride a bus.” By which Cynthia meant among other things, “Yep, it’s not fair. But ‘fair’ is not as important as ‘right.’” The idea of “making things right” seems to be hugely important to God. In fact, God seems to stick up for the bullied, to defend the defenseless, and to help the helpless. God seems to delight in accomplishing amazing things with people no one expects. Ancient Egypt was a superpower with awesome military and governmental might, but when the Egyptians enslave and oppress the Hebrew slaves, and they call out to God—God comes to free them! The story of the Exodus is God stepping in on the side of slaves. Whenever God’s people are oppressed and desperate for rescue, and they turn away from what they want, turning towards what God wants—God does amazing things! Starting in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God talks about taking care of the widow and the orphan, talks about caring for the stranger in your midst, because you once were strangers in Egypt. Jesus told a story about the importance giving food to the hungry, drinks to the thirsty, invitations to the stranger, clothes to the naked, caring for the sick and visiting people in prison. Mysteriously, when we do those things, Jesus said we were doing them to Him. God cares—and God loves it when we care. In a world that is often not fair, God wants things to be right, for everyone to know they are loved. God cares about justice.
Third, God gives us opportunities to change. Sometimes that happens through circumstances. The former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Mike Holmgren looks back at a heartbreaking moment, when he was cut from the New York Jets as backup quarterback to Joe Namath, that directed him to a bigger plan. “I had committed my life to Jesus Christ when I was 11, but in my pursuit to make a name for myself in football, I left God next to my dust-covered Bible. But after getting cut from the Jets, I pulled out my Bible and found comfort in a verse I had memorized in Sunday school: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). I asked Jesus Christ to take control again. My priorities in life are faith, family, and football—in that order.” Holmgren had the wisdom to take the opportunity to change. In addition to changing circumstances, throughout history, God has sent people to speak the uncomfortable truth to self-focused power. That’s what God asks Amos to do in a time when the wealthy are getting wealthier, and the poor and being ground down into the dirt. The message sounds harsh! It’s a wake-up call! The few are so comfortable that they can’t hear the alarm bells going off! The God who cares for the poor, who listens to the prayers of the lost and the lonely, who welcomes strangers and frees slaves—God is going to take care of them. This means that God wants to be part of our politics, but not as a Republican or Democrat. Jim Wallis, in his book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, writes, “God’s politics are therefore never partisan or ideological. But they challenge everything about our politics. God’s politics remind us of the people our politics always neglect—the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenge narrow, national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics remind us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics plead with us to resolve the inevitable conflicts among us, as much as is possible, without the terrible cost and consequences of war. God’s politics always remind us of the ancient prophetic prescription to ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live,’ and challenge all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.”  Again, this is not Democrat or Republican, not the standard evangelical or liberal Christian. This is about being passionate for God and letting God’s Word and God’s Spirit work in us. When we are on the wrong side of God’s idea of justice, the hammer can fall anytime. We had better turn around quick! Fortunately, God gives us opportunities to change.
Forty-five minutes after dressing down that big guard, when Lombardi walked into the dressing room, he saw the guard sitting in front of his locker still wearing his uniform. His head was bowed and he was sobbing quietly. Vince Lombardi, ever the changeable but always the compassionate warrior, did something of an about-face that was also typical of him. He walked over to his football player and put his arm around his shoulders. “Son,” he said, “I told you the truth. You are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. However, in all fairness to you, I should have finished the story. Inside of you, son, there is a great football player, and I’m going to stick by your side until the great football player inside of you has a chance to come out and assert himself.” With these words, Jerry Kramer straightened up and felt a great deal better. As a matter of fact, he felt so much better he went on to become one of the all-time greats in football and was voted the all-time guard for the first 50 years of professional football. What God wants most is for each of us to see that there is a great person—a great follower of Jesus Christ—inside us. If we are failing, if we are not on the right side of justice—God will tell us the truth, and we may not want to hear it. But the question we should be asking ourselves as we listen to the prophets is the same question Lombardi hoped the guard would be asking, “But is he right?” And in that uncomfortable place God can teach us justice. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will see the face of Christ on a sister or brother. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will find God is sticking by our sides until the greatness of Christ in us has the chance to come out and assert itself. Please God, may it be so.
1 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), p. xv. The scripture to which Wallis refers is Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”