Written as my final project for our Alternative Context class, January, 2005
Text: Amos 5:10-20.
I have to apologize for this sermon. It is not the sermon that I wanted to give, it is not even the sermon that I wanted to give to replace the first one. I am sure that Amos, Amos the herdsman and trimmer of sycamore trees, would have just as soon kept quiet, would just as soon have stayed home and not gone up north to preach justice, as he says at the beginning of this passage, people will hate the one who reproves them and abhor the one who speaks the truth. Yes, I am sure that Amos wished he didn't have to say what needed to be said, just as I wish that on returning from Appalachia I could preach a nice, happy sermon. I would tell you stories of the beauty of the land, of the trees and the mountains.
I would tell you about the music and culture, how it has been handed from parent to child since people came to the hollers. And I would tell you about the tight bonds of family, generation after generation.
But most of all, I would want to tell you about all the amazing people that we met: Miss Eula who has given her whole life to making sure that the people of Mud Creek and the surrounding counties had the medical care that they could not afford. Tom Currie, a Presbyterian minister and Columbia D.min who in addition to serving two churches, raises goats for the Heifer Project. Our tour guide Kim at the Trus-Joist factory who has worked 12 hours shifts seven days a week for years in order to put her twin daughters through the University of Kentucky. Or Betty, the principal that we all wish we could have had, working at the David School to give teens one more chance.
I would tell you about the work of Appalbanc and Kentucky Mountain Housing doing their best to give people a fair economic chance, and of the people with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth leading grassroots political action. Even the people of Appalshop who are working to preserve the culture and heritage of the mountains for future generations. There are so many more stories that could be told of good people working themselves to exhaustion to help and protect those who need it.
Yes, I wish that I could preach that sermon, a sermon that would lift you up, make you feel good. I am sure that Amos would have loved to have carried that kind of message in his day.
But Amos didn't have that choice, the sins of the rich and powerful were just too great, they took the hard work of the poor and exploited it to build their own homes, and they corrupted the courts so that the oppressed had no where to turn when they had been wronged. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
And I don't think that I have a choice, because the same things are happening in Appalachia.
There is poverty in Appalachia. Poverty as deep and profound as your will see anywhere in the world. There is sickness in Appalachia, some of the highest rates of cancer in the United States, and their own particular disease: Black Lung, that takes the breath away from strong men, striking them down long before their time.
It isn't the poverty, in and of itself that is the problem, that made me want to emulate Amos , there is poverty right here in Atlanta, there is poverty everywhere and it hasn't led me to the despair that I felt in Appalachia.
It isn't the sickness either, I've lost friends to cancer, I've lost friends to AIDS, but I hadn't felt the fear and hopelessness that I felt in Appalachia.
No, what affected me so deeply on this trip is that in Appalachia, more than anywhere I have ever been, it is clear that these problems are the direct result of human action. Everywhere I looked, at all the problems that the people face, I could point to human beings. Human beings that are, at best, indifferent to the health and welfare of the people, and at worst actively malicious.
There is great wealth to be had in the mountains of Kentucky. There is coal, there is timber, arable land and plenty of water. There is no reason that someone who is willing to work should not be able to support themselves and their families.
But for more than a hundred years that wealth has flowed out of the mountains, flowed out of the land and into the pockets of coal companies. What has remained is a scarred land, poisoned water, and broken, diseased bodies.
Coal companies literally tear down entire mountains, and do as little as they can possibly get away with to restore them. Their casual disregard for property lines and other regulations leads to destruction of the water supply and subsidence that destroy family homes. And time and time again the courts decide on their side.
The companies use bankruptcy and other legal tricks to avoid paying health and retirement benefits and monies owed to landowners whose property they have destroyed.
So instead of my nice happy sermon about the beauty of the land and the strength of the people, something along the lines of "I lift my eyes to the hills..." I was driven to Amos. I would cry out to you against those who trample on the poor, those who subvert justice. I would stand up here full of righteous anger and call down the wrath of God upon them. Those faceless, nameless sinners, who oppress the children of God and defile God's creation. It would have been great, I could have really brought it.
But no, it couldn't be that simple. You see, I met some of them. No longer were they nameless and faceless. They were church goers, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Methodist. There was Paul the high wall miner, and there was T.T. who made his millions in coal and then sold out in the seventies.
And I wondered how it was that the ministers of those churches could have them as members of their churches, how can you preach the gospel, preach against injustice and for the poor with the very oppressors sitting in your pews?
And I realized that maybe Amos had it easy. Amos didn't have to worry about paying the mortgage, or paying the staff or the electric bill. Amos didn't have to worry about his membership numbers, or whether he was still going to be working there in six months.
And then I understood what Amos meant when he said that the prudent will keep silent. The safe, prudent course, would be to keep quiet, stay away from those touchy parts of the gospel, or if you had to preach about the poor and the oppressed make it clear that you were talking about those people in Africa or India, and never, ever hint that you meant the people just a few miles down the highway. The people who have been impoverished, whose health has been destroyed by the industry of your parishioners.
That's the way to get a bigger building, and to stay in the church long enough to collect your pension. And, hey, don't those people to have a refuge in the church? Don't they deserve a place where they can rest and recharge?
Amos says no, no they don't. Amos says that when they come to the church looking for refuge it should be like running into a cave to get away from a lion and running smack into a bear. Or when they try to lean on the church for rest, it should bite them like a snake. For them there should be no light, no rest in the church. We must ride them constantly until they see the error of their ways. But down that road lies an empty sanctuary and unemployment.
So what are we to do? Many of us here want to serve a church of our own someday, and while it probably won't be something as obvious as the coal industry, there will be something that people in our congregation do that we should speak out against. How do we walk the line between being caring pastorally for our members, providing them rest and shelter and calling out against them in a prophetic manner? The line between preserving our jobs, preserving that particular church, and watching the members and the money move to the church down the street that will tell them what they want to hear? Which is truly the prudent way to go?
The answer is this:
I don't know.
So I guess that I owe you an apology. I can't give you the feel good sermon that I wanted to. I can't just tell you about all the wonderful people of Appalachia. And I can't give you the hellfire and damnation pulpit pounding sermon that I wanted to. I can't just tell you about the evils of coal mining and leave it at that. And I can't give you the answer to the question that rises up in the shadow land between those two sermons.
No, all I can do is lay that question at your feet and leave you to wrestle with it as I have been for the last couple of weeks.
And for that, I am sorry.