By the Rev. James B. Craven III
[Listen to this sermon here, or on Spotify or TuneIn, or scroll down to read the text.]
In the name of one God-Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
In 2009 we were in Israel, on a pilgrimage organized by the National Cathedral.
We were in the Judean hills, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, near where 2700
years ago was the small village of Tekoa. There was nothing to be seen there, or so we
thought. You could have been twenty feet away and have missed it entirely, but when
we looked closely there was the entrance of a small cave. You had to get down on your
hands and knees to get past the entrance, and inside it was all black from hundreds of
years of soot from candle light. When our eyes were adjusted to the dark we could
make out a crude small altar. And over the altar, in Greek, was the word Amos, with the
outline of a Christian cross. Traditionally, and with things 2700 years old there is little
but tradition to rely on, it was the cave of the prophet Amos. The thought that Amos
may well have slept, cooked, ate and prayed there was mind boggling then and now.
Except for Hosea, a prophet of the same vintage as Amos, Jesus quoted no prophet
more than Amos, who may have been the most political of the prophets. Amos
comforted the afflicted, but he really afflicted the comfortable. Amos is a short book,
easily and quickly read, but be forewarned, you may get hooked. And Amos was
quoted not only by Jesus, but also by Paul, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther,
Philips Brooks, and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were greatly impacted by Amos’
Amos embraced the marginalized, as Christ did, and in what we heard this
morning, he denounced the society of the day for mistreating them. He denounced
Israel for its over reliance on military might, for grave injustice in social and economic
affairs, for gross immorality, and false piety. For “buying the poor for silver and the
needy for a pair of sandals and the sweepings of wheat.”
Amos rejected the title preacher, but what a preacher he was. “I am not a prophet
nor the son of a prophet, but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos’
preaching career was short. He preached one sermon at Bethel and was run out of
town, truly. Then again we read and are awed by that one sermon 2700 years later.
Preaching is not easy. Someone said once that an hour or two of preparation
should produce a minute of a sermon. Bob Johnson and I used to go to the College of
Preachers regularly. The College was founded in 1929 at the National Cathedral and
sadly closed in 2008. It was a wonderful institution. Maybe 25 or so clergy from all over
the country would gather there for a week of lectures, sharing stories and experiences
with each other, preparing and giving sermons, and sometimes just staying up half the
night. Barbara Brown Taylor and Donald Coggin, the Archbishop of Caterbury, were
regulars at the College. Bob Johnson and I were just about the only clergy from this
diocese who went regularly and we often wondered why others didn’t join us. It was
A constant at the College was the timeless admonition of Francis of Assisi,
whose dates were 1181 or 1182 to 1226, almost 800 years ago. Francis, a deacon,
founded the Franciscans, the Order of Friars Minor. His sermons are still published and
read today. Two things Francis said were mainstays at the College of Preachers:
The preacher must first draw from secret prayer.
What he would later pour out in holy sermons.
He must first grow hot within before he speaks.
Words that are themselves cold.
Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
And the current Bishop of Rome, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, took as his papal
Sara and I moved to Croasdaile four weeks ago and we hope to be all unpacked
by Christmas, this year. In the packing and sorting before the move, I purposely threw
out thirty odd years of sermons, for two reasons. One, I don’t want to be tempted to
recycle them. And second, some of my earlier efforts make me cringe, and remind me
of something I learned from Tom Fraser, the 8th Bishop of North Carolina. He was the
bishop when I began the great trek of the ordination process, an experience about as
much fun as the sort of IRS audit the top echelon of the FBI just went through. I know
whereof I speak too, as I was in that process close to 20 years, maybe a record.
Tom Fraser was an interesting man who taught me much, and now that he is
gone from us I appreciate him increasingly. I used to wonder why he went to seminary
instead of to the Harvard Business School. He told me once “Religious people give me
the creeps.” He used to call me occasionally asking me to come over to what we called
Fort Fraser, out by North Hills in Raleigh, where the diocesan headquarters were then.
I never knew what he wanted to talk about, but being in the ordination process, when he
called, I went. And then there were times when, driving back to Durham, I still didn’t
know what he wanted to talk about. He was given to monologues. I never had to worry
about holding up my end of the conversation. I also remember the time we talked about
his atrocious driving record. His driver’s license was very much in jeopardy and I was
given the task of making sure that he didn’t lose it. He genuinely loved being described
as “often wrong but never in doubt.”
He had a dear and wonderful suffragan bishop, Moultrie Moore. Once he
complained to me that “All Moultrie wants to do is visit the sick and those in prison.” I
asked if those things weren’t something we all should do, lay people, deacons, priests,
and bishops. He said “I suppose” and then said “I was just testing you.” Sure he was.
Our exchanges were different, and interesting.
When my dear friend Lex Matthews died in December 1985 I was at a funeral
home making the arrangements, as I was the executor. Bishop Fraser called my office,
learned where I was and reached me in the casket selection room at Hall Wynn. I will
never forget it. “Craven, we’re going to go first class on this, first class all the way, do
you understand me?” I asked him, “Bishop, do you want the bill sent to your home or
office?” His response “Craven, you’re as bad as Mathews,” whom he dearly loved.
I probably would have been ordained by Bishop Fraser except that he truly put all
ordinations on hold so he wouldn’t have to ordain women. No feminist he. When he
retired, the real Tom Fraser came to the fore. He became a chaplain at Duke Hospital.
By all accounts he loved that role, was loved by all concerned, and excelled in it.
Before long he was pretty sick himself, and was obviously dying. In one of my last
conversations with him, he said “I am not well, not by a long shot, but I have been
healed.” Wow! Now do you understand, if you didn’t before, why we offer the rite of
Once Bishop Fraser talked about preaching. He told me that when he was newly
ordained, he liked to trot out in his sermons all the neat things he had learned in
seminary. I was guilty of the same, which is why I recently chucked 30 or so years of
sermons. Those early ones were the ones that made me cringe. The bishop asked
me if had read or seen Arthur Miller’s great play Death of a Salesman. Sure. Well, he
said, that play explains and illustrates your sermon audience, in Willie Loman. Think of
the guy who is struggling with the mortgage, whose marriage may be on the rocks,
whose teenage son is stoned much of the time, whose teenage daughter fears she may
be pregnant, who isn’t meeting his sales quota and is drinking too much, who hits the
road every Monday morning in a car with 220,000 miles on it that may or may not make
it another week, and who spends the week peddling his wares, with nothing but a smile
and a shoeshine, and then drags home on Friday night for a weekend dealing with all
the problems at home so he can get up Monday morning and do it all over again. Now,
he told me, that poor guy could care less about all the neat things you learned in
seminary. He was right of course, and that has stayed with me, though I am not always
faithful to it.
I hope there is no one here with all the problems and burdens of Willie Loman in
Death of a Salesman, but I know there are those here in this parish church who check
one or more of those boxes. Our task is to be the hands and feet and the loving arms of
Christ in the here and now, in the time of this mortal life. Tell these folks you know of
that they are loved and important, and be so open that you will know something of what
others are going through. And remember that next week or month, the shoe may be on
the other foot. This ministry of reaching out, caring, confronting, and loving is for all of
us here. And it is part and parcel of that healing of which Tom Fraser so meaningfully
spoke at the end of his life. What does it all come down to, if not healing and love? And
in our love, we are God’s agents in healing.
Some of you know this prayer, but others may not have taken part in the healing
rite of the liturgy. In the zillions of times I have used it over the years, and have had it
said over me too, as recently as last Sunday, I never fail to be moved by it:
I lay my hands upon you in the Name of our
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold
you and fill you with his grace, that you may always know the
healing power of his love. And I anoint you with oil in
the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I never knew Arthur Miller, nor alas his wife Marilyn Monroe, and Amos never
came up in any of my conversations with Tom Fraser, but I suspect both may have
been moved by Amos, the first in a brilliant succession of writing prophets whose words
have left their indelible stamp on our thought even today about God and humankind.
Finally, I can never forget that small cave near the site of the ancient village of
Tekoa that my heart tells me was the cave of Amos.
Thanks be to God.