The Narrative Lectionary Text: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
“Howdy, y’all. I’m a farmer from Alabama. The Lord told me to come here today all you Yanks to give y’all a message. He says, ‘I hate your worship services. I despise everything about them–your music, your offerings, your prayers. They make me sick. If you don’t start getting Justice flowin’ and righteousness goin’, then it’s lights out for you.’ I guess that’s it. By the way, the name’s Amos.”
How would you feel if that really happened right now? Would you be a little uncomfortable? Um, yes.
That’s pretty much what the whole book of Amos is like.
I have to be honest.
I’ve been wrestling with this text all week, and let me tell you, it makes me uncomfortable on just about every level. This week we move into a new kind of literature in the Bible as we move out of the history books and into the prophets.
Before we go any further into this difficult message, I think it is important to stop and make sure we really understand what a prophet is.
In our culture, when we hear the word prophet, we tend to think of a person who has a crystal ball and can see into the future. That’s not what a prophet is in the Bible.
Think of it this way.
Imagine that you have a friend or a family member who is caught in an addictive behavior. Maybe they are addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or are cheating on their spouse, or are spiraling into credit card debt. Whatever it is, think seriously about that person right now. If that person continues doing what they are currently doing, do you think you can predict the outcome? Most likely. Addiction almost always ends in some form of self-destruction.
Now, what would you say to that person if you were given the chance to tell them the whole truth, without any fear on your part? You would probably tell them three things. First, you would remind them that they are a special person, they are loved, and they are worthy of a better life than what they currently experience. Second, you would tell them about the consequences they will face–the immanent destruction–that will happen if they continue on the path they are on. Third, you will remind them that there is always a way out. There is always grace and a second, or third, or fourth chance.
That is exactly what a prophet was sent to do. A prophet was sent by God to deliver a message like that. God’s people were continually getting caught up in destructive patterns that would lead them into dangerous consequences. The prophets were sent to remind them who they were–God’s chosen people–warn them apart the devastating consequences of their behavior, and offer them a message of hope if they would only repent.
Let’s go back and get some context for a moment.
Remember last week we saw that things fell apart after Solomon was king. The nation divided into two Kingdoms. The Kingdom to the North was called Israel and the Kingdom to the South was called Judah. These kingdoms never got along. Much like our own North/South rivalry in the United States.
They were rolling in the money. They were able to bring tons of big offerings to God.
If it were today, they would be the church with the really beautiful building, an amazing music program, all kinds of cool ministries for kids and youth. It would be every pastor’s dream.
Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom. He was called by God to go to the Northern Kingdom to deliver this message.
In our text today, we hear God say some pretty harsh things.
Look at this passage in Amos 5:21-23.
They are doing all the right things. They are obeying the law and worshipping God the way he told them to worship. Look at the things highlighted in red. They are observing the festivals, bringing offerings, and making beautiful music.
Then this southern farmer walks into their worship service and says, “God hates this. God hates everything you’re doing.”
Here’s the big question. Why?
What is God’s problem? Doesn’t God want people to worship him? Isn’t that what the church is supposed to do?
Look at verse 24.
There is that great big but right there. Oh, did I just say that? This is a contrasting word. What God really wants is justice and righteousness. Let justice roll down like a mighty water, and righteousness flow like an ever-flowing stream.
The real question for us is this.
What is justice?
This week I did an experiment.
I sent out a short survey using SurveyMonkey. I emailed it to families in our Youth Ministry, i posted it on our Facebook page, I blogged about it. I asked three questions. One, what is worship. Two, What is Justice. Three, do worship and Justice have any connection. Over forty people responded to the survey, which I thought was pretty good.
Survey Monkey has a cool feature that takes all the written responses and makes a little word cloud out of it. The more often a word is used the bigger it gets. This let’s you get a quick feel for key words.
Look at the word cloud for Worship.
Connect, gather, learn, life, love. Those are great words.
Look at the word cloud for justice.
consequences, Fair. Then look at the left. Doing.
This was a fascinating and rewarding experience for me to read through these, and I thank those of you who did.
Most people thought of justice as “getting what is deserved.” This usually has the sense of criminals getting punished. Isn’t that what we think of when we hear the term Justice System?
We all want justice when someone hurts us. Don’t we?
But I wonder if that is the full picture of justice, or what God really means when he says, “let justice roll down like a mighty water.”
The real answer to the Justice question is found in Amos.
Look back in Amos chapter 5, just a few verses before our text for the day. Amos says in verse 10, When you see the words “in the gate” that means the place of law and justice in the city.
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
There it is.
It doesn’t get any clearer or more uncomfortable for us. God’s idea of justice is the proper treatment of the poor and the needy. He’s not talking about rich people in rich churches giving handouts to poor people. He is speaking to the justice system of the Kingdom. He’s talking politics. He’s telling them that a system that works to keep the poor, poor, and allows the rich and powerful to become more rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor, is an injust and unrighteous system.
Verse 15 says,
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
When the church supports a system like that, or quietly stands aside and lets a system like that happen without standing up against it, then the worship services become meaningless and God hates it.
This is where we start squirming in our seat.
Pastor Mark handed me an article this week that I think speaks directly to this issue.
It was printed in the L Magazine. This is the magazine for Leaders in the ELCA. It was written by a man named Timothy Nonn and is titled “Why I Left the Church.” He talks about how the church used to be involved in social justice, like during the civil rights movement. But now, it seems that most churches aren’t willing to stand up against, what he calls the American Empire of greed and power.”
I know these are inflammatory words to many people, and I know this is a complex issue. I just want to read one part of his personal story. This is what gripped me.
“My personal transformation from believing in Jesus to following Jesus began during the Sanctuary Movement. One day I found myself standing alone in the hot Arizona desert at the U.S.-Mexico border. I was waiting for a large group of Mayans from a village in the highlands of Guatemala. The genocide in Guatemala (which was supported by our government under the guise of fighting communism) had forced thousands of refugees to flee to safety in Mexico and the United States. The Mayan villagers were being guided on the last leg of their trek through Mexico by a coworker. She would soon entrust them into my care; and I would guide them to several cars waiting several miles away.
I was afraid. If we were caught, I might spend some time in jail, but the Mayans would be deported to an uncertain fate in Guatemala. I kept glancing around the desert landscape and up at the sky, expecting any moment to see a Border Patrol truck or aircraft bearing down on me. For some reason, maybe just to distract myself, I decided to place one foot on the Mexican side of the border and the other foot on the U.S. side. Once I had done so, I experienced an unexpected epiphany. I realized that the border was completely meaningless. It was only an arbitrary and abstract construction of our mistrust of the stranger. Nothing – neither political nor religious borders – divides us from one another, except our fear. As Elie Wiesel said, “No human being is illegal.” It felt liberating to know that we are one humanity.”
Nonn goes on to remind us that Jesus was a nonviolent revolutionary who stood up against the injustice of the oppressive political systems of his day–both religious and political.
In our gospel lesson we see Jesus doing just this.
As a pompous religious festival was going on inside the temple, Jesus stood just outside of it and made a radical claim. Inside the temple they were pouring water down the temple steps as a ritualistic symbol that God’s life was flowing from the temple. Jesus stood outside the temple and said, “If you are thirsty, come to me. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
I would like to go back to the survey again.
One participant of the survey especially caught my attention. This was an anonymous survey, so I have no idea who wrote this.
My last question on the survey was whether worship and justice were connected. Listen to what this person said.
“Yes. When we start seeing the divine, the sacred in everyone. We stop looking at others as “THOSE” people. We become a community, we share in each others suffering and joy. We humbly serve God and one another. In doing so we bring honor to God.”
I believe that Grace is a community that truly seeks justice and worship.
This month we are focusing our attention on serving. We have our 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown. 500 volunteers for Feed My Starving Children, 400 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, 300 Coats for our homeless youth in Anoka through Hope for Youth, 200 mittens for children at Sand Creek Elementary, and 100 volunteers for Family Promise over the week of Thanksgiving.
This is a good start.
May we be a church that seeks justice in the gate, and has the courage to listen to those that society has silence. And may we learn how to seek righteousness for them, in Jesus’ name. This is our worship.