Monday, December 11, 2017

“Let Justice Roll” - November 26, 2017

Text: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

This fall, as we have followed the Narrative Lectionary, we have had a brief tour through the Old Testament, beginning with creation and including Jacob and the ladder to heaven, God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, and God giving the people manna from heaven.   We looked at the call of the prophet Samuel and the call of King David.  In our focus on stewardship we looked at David’s prayer acknowledging God as the source of all we have as well as Psalm 103, a great Psalm of Thanksgiving.

Before we begin Advent next Sunday, we wind up this excursion the Old Testament with the prophet Amos.  You have got to love Amos.  He is an equal opportunity prophet in that he points out wrongdoing wherever he sees it.  He goes after pretty well everybody.  Amos is willing to speak God’s truth whatever the consequences.  He does not hold back and he does not mince words.  He just let’s ‘er rip.

Now, there is some biographical information about Amos that is worth knowing.  In the first place, he is not what you would call a professional prophet.  He is not a priest, he is not seminary trained, he was not a member of the school of the prophets (which was a thing.)  He describes himself as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore figs.  So he is not a professional prophet, certainly not a court prophet who would be an advisor to the king, but a shepherd and farmer who is called by God to proclaim the truth.  The second important piece of information we know about Amos is that he is from the southern kingdom of Judah but he prophesies in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

So, imagine an untrained lay preacher from Mexico, who comes along and points out the corruption and hypocrisy of our society and tells us that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  That’s Amos.  He is a disturbing outside voice.

Amos is the earliest of the prophets whose name is attached to a book of the Bible.  He is an older contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.  Amos begins his book by pointing out the sins of Israel’s neighbors.  “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…”  he says, and proceeds to point out the faults and the evil of Damascus. It’s like, “here is this list of wrongdoing, three big things, no wait, there is even more, it’s even worse than I had realized.”  He continues with condemnation for each of Israel’s neighbors. 

Now, Israelites hearing this prophecy might want to cheer Amos on as he points out the transgression of Israel’s neighbors.  “Way to go, Amos, let those Moabites have it!”  But that would be a mistake, because he saves the better part of his condemnation for Israel.

Amos wrote at a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel.  The economy was good and after years and years of near-constant conflict, Israel was not at war and not under the thumb of a regional power.  But a closer look revealed trouble.  There was widespread neglect of God’s laws, and a rising inequality in the nation – an increasing disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor.  There was a neglect of justice and a lack of concern for those in need.  All of which make Amos sound very contemporary.

We might want to applaud Amos for his truth-telling and his willingness to speak truth to power.  I mean, this is what a prophet is supposed to do, right?  But here is the thing: no one escaped his words of judgment.  No one escapes his words of judgment.  One Old Testament scholar put it this way: “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” 

Just to hear Amos’ words, it can sound almost shocking.  A lot of us have a favorite verse of scripture, right?  John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world.”  Last week, our scripture was from Philippians – “The peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  There are those verses that especially speak to us.

Well, how about this for a memory verse: “I hate your worship.  I am sick of your songs.”  This is Amos’ message.  Hear his words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings and offerings of well-being,
   I will not accept them;
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
  I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  
Wow.  Pretty strong stuff.  What are we to take from this? 

There have been those who argue that this is an indictment of ritual and formalism in worship, that worship can become formulaic and cold, a kind of going through the motions.  Well, that may be true, but that can be true regardless of worship style – worship can become kind of going through the motions whether it is highly liturgical or very informal.  But that is really missing the point.  That is not what Amos is saying. 

The point is not that what’s wrong with worship.  The point is what’s wrong with worshippers

The problem is offering worship to God and then going out and living as though our words of praise and worship are meaningless.  The problem is saying very pious words but then going out and failing to love our neighbor.  The problem is claiming to worship a God of love and justice and then acting in hateful and corrupt ways.

The issue is integrity.  We can sing beautiful hymns, we can bring sacrificial offerings, we can erect impressive cathedrals, we can have a big, growing, happening congregation.  And it’s not that these things are unimportant.  The point is that without compassion, without a love for neighbor, without regard for what is right, then all of these things are empty. 

Integrity means to be whole, to be undivided.  It means that what we proclaim on Sunday, we try to live out through the week.  It means that we don’t try to put on a false piety on Sunday just as it means that we don’t try to hide our faith throughout the week.  It means we are who we are, and that who we are is a people committed to love and justice and righteousness.

Israel’s claim to be God’s people and its commitment to follow God’s law was belied by the reality of its national life.  A fabulously wealthy elite was living the good life while many were barely subsisting.  Corruption was rampant – corruption on the part of the very people who loved to bring their offerings to the temple and be seen as upright and religious. 

If you take the time to read through the book of Amos, it is amazing that he even lived to write the whole book, so pointed are his words.  He could not have been popular with anyone in power.  It is a hard book to read.  But then, the best-known words from this prophet, and what we hear as words of hope are found in chapter 5 verse 24: “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Water is a good metaphor for what Amos was trying to convey because water was a very precious resource in that part of the world back then, even as it is now.  There were wadis – small creeks – that were dry for much of the year, but there would be flash flooding when it finally rained.

That is not the way justice was supposed to be – not once in a while, not an occasional outpouring that interrupted the norm of corruption and oppression and favor for the rich at the expense of the poor.  God’s justice is to be the way the world works.  Not a dry creek bed that occasionally flows, but a mighty river, an ever-flowing stream.  “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Our church is part of a community organizing group called AMOS.  AMOS is an acronym for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, but of course it is one of those purposeful acronyms because as an organization that works for justice, you could do a lot worse than taking the name of this Hebrew prophet who had such a strong call for justice.

Most churches do a pretty good job with mercy, and our church certainly does.  When people are hungry we provide food.  When people need housing we work through Good Neighbors to help make housing available.  We support and participate with Habitat for Humanity.  We go on mission trips.  We are generous in providing help.  That is mercy.  Justice goes a step further by asking, “Why are there so many hungry people?”  “Why is it that a person can work hard and still not be able to afford a decent place to live?”  So in AMOS, our efforts as an organization are hopefully in the tradition of this prophet who called for a world that was just and equitable for all people.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the message of Amos as well as anybody.  Hid message was that our faith and Christian commitment cannot be separate from concern for our neighbor.  Our faith commitment demands a social commitment.  Love for God requires love for neighbor, and if we show no love for neighbor, then our claim of love for God is empty.

Now, there is something interesting about Amos’ words.  Amos is not asking us to go out and design a water delivery system.  He doesn’t say, go construct a canal, build some culverts, run a new pipeline, and get that water to flow.  We are not asked to build a river of justice.

The river is already here, he says.  Our job is simply to let it flow.  We are not the source of justice or righteousness.  God is the ultimate source.  What we are called to do is clear out those things that are damming up the flow, restricting the waters.  “Let justice flow.”   

In other words, we are not responsible for everything.  The river can take care of itself and given half a chance it can wash away any obstacle.  We are simply called to work on those things that keep justice from flowing.  Stuff that has gotten in the stream by accident, things we have put in the way on purpose.  There are those things that may benefit a few folks, even while there are people dying of thirst downstream.  Our job is to do what needs to be done to let justice roll.

We have seen it time and again through history.  In the colonial period, many Baptists, along with others, were persecuted – the notion of religious freedom even for minority faiths was considered crazy, even blasphemous.  But there came a time, following the Revolutionary War, when that view was washed away by the waters of justice.  And that same kind of “sudden change” that comes after decades or even centuries of waiting keeps on happening.  

Women getting the right to vote.  The Civil Rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act.  The Berlin Wall coming down.  Fifteen years ago, it was would have been hard to imagine that attitudes would change and laws would change to give LGBTQ persons the rights and opportunities they have today.  In recent days, there have been revelations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse made against one public figure after another – from Hollywood to the Iowa Legislature to newsrooms to Washington DC to Senate campaigns.  Stuff that has gone on for years, apparently with little to stop it, is suddenly, it seems, not going to be tolerated any more.

Eventually justice will roll.  Martin Luther King Jr was fond of quoting Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

The point is, it is not up to us to have to do everything – justice and righteousness is God’s work – but we are called to let it flow, to clear away the impediments to justice and righteousness.

I cited several historical movements toward justice.  There is a long way to go, still, on most of these issues, and plenty of other concerns to be addressed, especially in the matter of the separation between haves and have-nots, which was a major issue for Amos.  But here is the thing: in each and every one of those changes that brought greater justice and freedom and equality, there were religious folks who stood in the way - who said that infidels (as they defined infidels – and that included Baptists) should not have religious freedom, or we should protect women by not bothering them with the vote, or that the Bible supports the separation of the races, if not slavery.  Even in recent days, there has been the spectacle of so-called religious leaders minimizing sexual harassment and abuse and standing with perpetrators.  Some of the same people who have always preached about family values.

In each and every case, the issue is power and control and not wanting to give it up.  Amos didn’t really care who was perverting justice or abusing the poor or preying on the weak: he called them on it.  He spoke the truth, even to power.

I have to say, I am not entirely comfortable saying all of this, because I recognize that Amos would have something to say to me.   (This is where the “if you like Amos, you don’t understand him” part comes in.)  It is easy for all of us to be in favor of justice and righteousness until there is a chance it might cost me personally.

If you had to put it in a nutshell, Amos’ question for our day might be: “Do you love your comfortable way of life and your desire for power and control more than you love Jesus? 

The prophet’s words are as timely today as they were in Amos’ time.  “Let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Amen.

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