Last week, the news media reported an event that has been nicknamed “Sermongate.” Evidently, a video has become very popular on the internet because it shows side by side comparisons of identical sermons being preached by two separate preachers on two separate occasions. The two preachers belong to the same denomination and, consequently, they are trying to downplay the significance of the event. The event remains, however, a clear instance of plagiarism. The sermon was preached to a particular congregation; a second preacher saw the sermon online and repeated it to his own congregation.
I can attest to the effort required to prepare an original homily on a weekly basis. In Catholicism, we use a three-year cycle of readings; the same Scripture readings reappear every three years. Thus far, I have prepared twelve cycles of homilies on the readings in the Sunday Lectionary. It is a challenge to do so, but a challenge that is necessary to meet. The second congregation mentioned above, the one that heard the plagiarized sermon, thought they were getting their preacher’s perspective on the Scriptures. Instead, they were getting someone else’s hand-me-downs; they deserved better than what they received.
Today’s first reading is yet another illustration of the difference between original preaching and oratorical hand-me-downs.
The prophet Amos was sent by God to Bethel to preach repentance to the King and his subjects. Originally, Bethel was a shrine built by Jacob the patriarch in response to a dream. (Gn. 28:18) While on a journey to find an appropriate wife, Jacob dreamt that he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven. He built an altar on the spot and called it Bethel, which means “the house of God.” Eventually, the location became a major shrine and the residence of the king of Israel.
During the reign of king Jeroboam, God accused the kingdom of Israel of having been seduced by wealth and power. Amos was sent to call them back to trust in God alone. Amos’ prophecies about sin and its consequences were not well received in the king’s court. Today’s first reading contains the denunciation of Amos by the chief religious leader of the king’s court. He said, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.” (Am. 7:12-13) Amos answered calmly that he wasn’t a professional prophet (like his accuser) but that he had been called by God for a particular task.
The professional prophets employed by the royal court were obliged to placate the king by proclaiming prophecies that supported the king and his decisions; they preached the hand-me-down messages of what might be called “status quo” religion. Amos, on the other hand, owed no allegiance to the king; Amos felt obliged only to repeat God’s judgment on the faithlessness of the kingdom of Israel. The difference between Amos and the court prophets was the difference between original preaching and oratorical hand-me-downs: Amos preached what God wanted to say while the court prophets preached what the king wanted to hear.
In the ministry of Amos the unlikely prophet, we see a good illustration of the difference between religion that serves God and religion that serves one’s self-interests. When Amos challenged the status quo of the royal court by preaching repentance, the court prophets reacted by condemning Amos and forcing him to leave the city. When Amos was threatened by the religious leaders at Bethel, he remained calm and reiterated God’s words. The king and the court prophets took Amos’ preaching as a personal insult; they internalized Amos’ criticism in the way that the plagiarizing preacher internalized the demands of leading a congregation. Amos, by comparison, refused to take their rejection as an insult; he had internalized God’s will.
Faithful religion attends to God’s will rather than to the opinions of others. Like Amos, we can have certainty that we are serving God rather than self; this certainty can be seen in the way we respond to difficult situations. It’s easy to internalize burdensome experiences like criticism, pressure, or conflict. When we do so, we give those difficult experiences undue influence over our free will. There is a better option to internalizing experiences that exert a self-destructive influence on our minds and hearts. Those who internalize God’s will find true freedom.
When you’re criticized or insulted or mistreated, when life is challenging, don’t take it personally; take it faithfully. The prophet Amos provides an excellent example of how to deal faithfully with significant challenges. Amos didn’t take the disapproval of the royal court personally; he remained steadfast in his determination to fulfill God’s will. Amos remained calm and repeated God’s words; he remained faithful.