The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 18, 2018
Scripture: Amos 5:21-24
All Hands on Deck
We know what we’ve done, and what we continue to do, wrong. We don’t acknowledge, let alone accept, responsibility for our lives. We are not who we were created to be. This refusal has grieved all of creation and we are drowning in the waters of our own denial, refusal and indifference.
We found a “way out” of the sorry situation we have gotten ourselves into a few weeks ago: Noah and his Ark. I’ve been teasing out some this scriptural story for the last two weeks. Noah is the first human in the bible to be fully responsive to God, and in the story of the Flood God provides “humanity” a reprieve from the destruction that “inhumanity” has brought on the earth. Noah and his family got on board, and so did we last week. Safe from the rising water, at least for he time being, we listened. We reminded ourselves of what we ought to be “doing.”
Fully understanding who we’ve become and why, we heard again what we must do to still the roiling waters and begin to drain the ocean of neglect before it covers our heads. We were reminded by none other than the prophet Micah just last week what we already know: We must do Justice, love kindness and mercy, and walk humbly with God and one another.
We’re on board this boat, our Ark of deliverance through Easter this year. And this morning the call goes up: All hands on deck! (Mary told me last week that she’s going to have to start brining her Dramamine if we intend on staying in this boat! Just one more week after today …)
Pray with me …
The prophetic words we hear this morning are going to sound powerfully familiar to all who were here last week and to all who can recite from memory Micah 6:8. We have heard what pleases and doesn’t please God, the Love-Harmony-Unity, that creates and keeps creation, from Micah. Listen now for the Word of God from the fifth chapter of Amos.
Read Amos 5:21-24 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It wasn’t lost on me this week, as I read and studied these verses again, that the imagery of rolling waters and ever-flowing streams may not be received so well, since rising water is what we’re trying to get rid of. But this water imagery is cleansing, like the soft rain after a deluge that gently washes away the silt and sediment of destructive floods. Again, imagery that many of us can relate to quite literally this past month. So, we’ll let these waters roll and flow.
I have always paired Micah 6:8 with Amos 5:24 in my mind. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God and Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream. I can’t hear one without hearing the other. Both are uncompromising in their insistence that we not only already know what to do but that we absolutely, positively must do it … or die.
By this point in Amos’ prophecy, about halfway through his book, it is clear that he expects that Israel will be destroyed. As we stand “all hands on deck” we have agreed that destruction is here, all around us. Amos makes no bones about the fact that this destruction is the will of God. We’ve suggested otherwise. The flood, the devastation, the catastrophic ruin that threatens to “blot out” the earth and all that’s in it comes not from beyond creation, directed by a “vengeful God,” but from within us, directed by our refusal to acknowledge our problems. But whether we image it as divine or human, the rejection and destruction is complete.
Genesis images this in, among other ways, a flood that covers the face of the earth. Amos images it by listing the seven aspects of Israel’s worship, all of which are rejected. Beginning with the three great yearly festivals, or feasts, moving to the solemn assemblies that are Israel’s worship gatherings, and then onto the burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, and finally the songs and melodies, the vocal and instrumental music offered up. Every last aspect of Israel’s worship has been rejected. Total destruction. Why? Well, we know already.
The answer to that question in Amos comes from verse twenty-four. In order for anything we do here in this place of worship for one brief hour a week to mean anything at all, it must inform and reflect our life on every other day, in every other hour of the week. Justice must roll on and righteousness must flow through our whole life. And it’s not. It’s not enough to talk the talk here. We must walk the walk when we leave here. They weren’t in ancient Israel. And that brings us to our time, these days, our world. How are we doing with justice and righteousness, with mercy and humility? Well …
I know there is no small measure of bias and partiality, though I prefer to call it deep love, of this community and each and every one of you. But, I do believe that in your personal, more private lives, those parts of your life beyond this hour or two, beyond this room or the building next door, beyond this brief time we spend together each week, I do believe you are faithfully seeking for justice “to roll” and righteousness “to flow.”
I know that’s not a message we’ve heard often in the churches of our childhood and of our youth, and into our young, middle, and older adult hood, but as we’ve affirmed every single Sunday so far this Lent, with this week and next Sunday to go, “the goodness of God at the heart of humanity is planted more deeply than all that is wrong.” I’m certain that each one of you, as you examine your own personal lives, would decide you could do and should be doing more, that’s the humble walk that is required of us. But one of the greatest gifts of a parish minster is the breadth and depth of life that we experience through the individuals in our congregations. From mentoring to volunteering to service hours, to extra time in your own career choices, you do more in your individual lives and with your families. It’s part of being Presbyterian, whether you associate your denomination with your work or not.
No, what concerns me, and what should concern all of us as we stand “all hands on deck” watching the flood waters rise and knowing we can’t stay on this boat forever, is our public, corporate life, the life we live together as part of metropolitan district, a state, a nation, and one country among hundreds in the world. As individuals we know what is good and what the Lord requires. As groups – Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative, even Presbyterian, Baptist, or Catholic – we don’t fair so well.
I read only one comic strip every morning as Katie and I wake up with a cup or two of coffee. It’s Charlie Brown, Peanuts. I trust you all know how religious, or at least spiritual, Charles Schulz could be with his little group of friends. I have an old paperback book on my study shelves titles “The Gospel According to the Peanuts.” One of the panels somewhere in that book has Linus standing alone proclaiming (and I edit this for inclusion): “I love (humankind) … It’s people I can’t stand!!”
We’ve heard that voiced in a many ways, and there’s truth in it. The self-centered and tribal natures within us are methodically taking control of our corporate lives, even if we as individuals profess to “know better.” From almost every front in our public lives we’re hearing words designed, quite intentionally I believe, to keep us scared and feeling like there isn’t enough of anything for us. To make us believe that “justice for all” will ultimately mean “less justice for me,” or my group. Fear and scarcity are powerful factors in keeping us second guessing what we know we are supposed to be doing – taking care of the one another especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Biblically speaking these are the poor, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the foreigner. No less true today. Even, and perhaps especially in our lives of faith, social activism for these groups and others who are powerless is put second to the work of taking care of ourselves and our own salvation first and foremost, if not only. God will do the rest, we’re told. That’s in total opposition to what Amos and Micah and the other prophets demand. Even our understanding of justice has been individualized to make us feel better.
The picture that this word, “justice,” brings to the fore in our western minds is that of a woman, blindfolded, holding a set of balances before her. As such, “justice” is for us, initially and far too often finally, a static concept, a noun, that describes the attempt to achieve fairness and equality, symbolized by Lady Justice’s “balance.” The image that Amos – and Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Hosea, and all the other Old Testament prophets calls to mind is entirely different. Justice is a churning, cleansing stream. Far from static, justice is in motion. In other words, it’s not enough to provide the possibility of justice for all, we must ensure everyone has justice.
To “let justice roll down” means we can’t be satisfied with simply allowing justice for all, we must advocate and procure justice for all. To support, and to provide help, not just to offer it. And further, it meant to do all this for the “least of these,” for the helpless, for the powerless, not for ourselves.
In an article in The Atlantic entitled The Last Temptation that I found through Ed Staats (though I’m not sure he even knew that until just now), Michael Gerson, a syndicated columnist and former aide and speech writer to George W. Bush, notes that lacking any deep social thought from their churches, people of faith are finding their convictions through worldly political movements and not in their understanding of the Kingdom of God. He’s writing about modern Evangelicals, but I find much to be the same in mainline Protestantism. And because of our lack of social vision, conviction and activism, more and more people are fining better things to do with their Sundays. And the waters are rising in our world.
When Amos or any of the prophets speak of justice, they don’t enter the into the realm world’s theoretical, philosophical or legal notions. And neither should we for reasons of political correctness or in an effort not to offend anyone. Not where justice and righteousness are concerned. Justice is not a political preference it is a faithful imperative. We cannot wait for the world to figure it out. We already know what to do. We must enter the places in the city where the poor live and look into the eyes of the welfare mothers, the lonely orphans and the hungry beggars. We must go into the countryside and seek out the young couple about to lose the family farm. We must walk the halls of the nursing homes in our communities where deserted lives reach out to be touched.
When we can do that, when we can use our imaginations and our energies in advocacy, in working to remove the discriminations built into our economic and legal systems, and find new and more effective ways to take up the cause of other too powerless to do it for themselves, and when we can do that in the public sphere, not in our private sanctuaries, then justice will begin to roll through the land like waters, and righteousness like ever flowing streams.
All hands on deck, fellow travelers. You have heard it said by prophet and Pastor. This is the only way the flood will subside. All hands on deck. Next week we will find dry ground once again and we’ll make ready to disembark on Easter morning. The final preparation for our new life, our resurrected life is close at hand. All hands on deck.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 18, 2018