Apparently, Mr. Biden made a speech yesterday and in it quoted On Eagle’s Wings. I thought about going and trying to find it, but I have a policy of never listening to any speech any politician makes, and I don’t intend to begin now, even to hear something so fantabulous. Twitter, by turns, seemed enthralled and horrified depending not only on the feelings of affection or loathing for Mr. Biden, but also for the song. This seems to me to be peak 2020.
The lections for this morning include another kind of folksy verse that many people know about because it was once quoted by a famous person who, I believe, knew his Bible a tad better than any politician alive today. He used it to great effect long ago, and it became lodged in the emotional center of American life. This, and that verse from Micah 6, about doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God comprise the core of American religiosity, the straining notes of Eagle’s Wings wafting in the background.
Whereas, the Amos bit is quite the text, especially when paired, as it is in the lectionary this morning, with the one about the wise and foolish virgins (or bridesmaids as I like to call them in Sunday School when I’m not up for any lengthy explanation about the facts of life). You remember the one—there are ten of them with their lamps and their oil (this would be as good a moment as any to break out that other ghastly old song, ‘Give me Oil in my Lamp’) waiting around interminably for the bridegroom to show up so they can go into the feast. Five of them bring oil, and five of them forget and wander away to look for some, and when they wander back, the bridegroom has already come and gone and barred the door. When they bang on it, crying out to be let in, he says, “Truly I say to you, I never knew you.” In other words, the usual picture of a tolerant and forward-thinking God, the very one who loves popping in on funerals to hear On Eagle’s Wings just one more time.
Which is what the epistle is about—the bit about the trumpet sounding and everyone who loves Jesus being caught up in the air to meet him, the bridegroom if you will, while everyone else wanders around wondering what all the fuss is about. If you’re in for a full measure of nostalgia, you could go watch a Kirk Cameron movie and sing the You’ve Been Left Behind song as an extra treat. Goodness, gathering it all together in one place, a lot of the music and assumptions of American Christianity seems to be…what would you call it? Due for a tune-up?
Anyway, I recently, for reasons I can’t remember, looked at the whole chapter of Amos, all of the verses leading up to the justice rolling down like water one, and I found them rather discouraging if I’m honest. Here they are:
18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
This darkness might remind you of two other times of darkness—the deep searching three days of darkness that fell over the land of Egypt before the final plague, the death of the first-born son. A darkness so deeply felt that, by the time the light came round again, the people of Egypt were desperate for the people of Israel to go. When they finally did flee, the people of Egypt gave them all their wealth, everything of value, so that the land was truly plundered. The other darkness was for three hours, noon to three, while Jesus hung on the cross. In that case, it seemed that nobody had any oil or anything, but sat still and waited for the sun to shine once more, so they could get back to all the things they cared about. The bridegroom came and they were not interested in what he had to say to them.
Woe to you, says God, who “desire the day of the Lord,” thinking it will make things better, that judgment will be something that benefits you, as if the people being judged are not you, but are some other bad people. Don’t look forward to it. It will be worse than anything you can imagine. I hate, he says, your feasts. Take away from me the “noise of your songs.” That part isn’t so hard to sympathize with, actually, given the catalog of choruses under consideration by me this very morning.
But it’s not just the insipid tunes and mediocre lyrics. It’s that most of us wandering around looking for oil, pointing fingers at each other about the Day of the Lord, do not know and are not terribly curious about the Bridegroom. Were he to appear suddenly, and the trumpet to sound, many of us would be confused and bewildered, muttering about how we loved justice and mercy and walked humbly, wildly humming snatches of Holiness Holiness or even, to bring it more up to date, Reckless Love.
Would anyone be able to see that the Bridegoom himself stood under the mighty flood of his own justice? That the ever-flowing stream was a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, poured out into the cup that so many of us gather to drink together? That he, being the light, gives light freely to all who come, but not if they go away to find the light somewhere else, to trim their wicks and wander around the marketplace and love everything on offer, explaining to all passersby about what great Christians they are, all while the Bridegroom is giving his life outside the city, alienated and alone?
“Make haste, O God, to deliver me,” cries the Psalmist, providing some singable and well-paced lyrical clarity as usual. “I am poor and needy,” he says, with that sickening kind of clarity that the scriptures so often provide. Which, I think, is the best kind of oil to pour into any kind of lamp you might be holding, the best kind of lyric to sing to a God whose property is always to have mercy on those who call on him, who will raise you up on the last day if you come crying to him now.
Go to church, though, no matter what anyone is singing.