November 10, 2013
Audio version of this sermon not available.
Read manuscript here.
Guest Preacher: Becky Bonham
GodStory: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
“Let justice flow like a mighty river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These words, plucked from the book of Amos, are powerful, compelling words. They paint a majestic picture of justice and righteousness as powerful forces at work in our world. They inspire rich images of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. They are the rallying cry for a World Made Right.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a rallying cry implies a battle of sorts. And fighting injustice is no small skirmish. It’s a full-on war against the powers in our world that seek to oppress, exploit and degrade. Systemic injustice runs rampant in our world. Hunger, poverty and slavery abound. Children, women and men are used and abused in the pursuit of money, material possessions and power. Even the earth itself – God’s good creation – suffers at the hands of injustice.
The great battle for justice wasn’t so hard for me to imagine as a child. There was one time when my parents took me to the Smithsonian Museum and as we were walking along the Mall in Washington DC, we came upon a group of demonstrators. They were from the middle east and I’ve long since forgotten the details of their stories. But what I remembered so vividly were the poster-sized photographs they had on display of people from their home country – pictures of men and women with the scars of torture all over their bodies – people who had been mutilated by their government.
Seized with compassion, my imagination jumped into overdrive as I began plotting a way to stop this injustice. The plan read like a spy novel. I’m pretty sure it involved me sneaking into a suitcase on a plane bound for that distant country and being somehow delivered into the company of the torturers. Perhaps I’d take a moment to show them the error of their ways before rescuing all the people that had been tortured and imprisoned.
There was another time when a man we knew had his world turned upside down when his wife chose to leave their marriage. I remember thinking, if only I could just talk to her, I could convince her to go back – and they would live happily ever after.
As a child, I was filled with imagination for what the world could be like, and with hopefulness that it could actually happen. I saw the suffering of those around me and responded with compassion and – if not real action – at least a deep desire for action that could not be satisfied by my 11 year old self.
→ I wonder if this resonates with any of you? Was there a time when you felt that deep sense of possibility that you could change the world?
The Challenges of Justice
Thirty years later, I find myself wondering what happened to that passionate optimism (that I could help change the world). Reality has taken its toll. People who sneak into suitcases to confront torturers are quite likely to be tortured themselves. Justice is risky, dangerous even. And trained adults – let alone a little kid – tend to have very little success rationalizing with those who have chosen to hold their power over others. Justice is not a quick fix. As I grew up – as I am growing up still – my understanding of the world has grown increasingly complex. What was once so black and white, so clear-cut and straightforward, has now taken on the full spectrum of gray. Justice is complex, and the messyness of this world constantly overwhelms my attempts to get a handle on any given situation.
And sometimes that sense of overwhelming-ness can translate into a blind spot – we cease to look those problems in the eye anymore. It’s too overwhelming, it’s too painful, too emotionally-draining.
In time, that withdrawal from the suffering that exists all around us can turn to ambivalence and apathy. And after that? Well, it gets ugly.
And “ugly” is where we re-enter the GodStory today, in the book of Amos.
The Israelites: Comfortable, ‘Religious,’ Hypocrites
Enter the wealthy, comfortable and contented Israelites of the 8th century BC, who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel. By all accounts they were living the good life: great prosperity, beautiful homes and lush vineyards. By all appearances, they were devout: their worship was regular, ordered and beautiful.
But God called Amos – an ordinary famer, an outsider from the south – to be a prophet, to speak into the Israelite’s lives. God called Amos to turn appearances upside down and inside out, to reveal the truth of the matter as only Yahweh could truly do: these beautiful lives were built on a foundation of injustice.
The earlier part of Amos chapter 5 gives us a clearer picture of just what’s going on in Israel: the citizens are collectively described as those who hate justice and truth-telling. They’re burdening the poor with harsh taxes, they’re oppressing the innocent and taking bribes that award unfair advantage to their wealthy friends. Some are trying to remain neutral by keeping silent, but Amos sees no difference and lumps them in with the rest as agents of injustice.
These people, who had once felt the sting of oppression as slaves in Egypt, had now become the oppressors.
These Israelites, whom God had especially called to be a blessing to the nations, were using their wealth and privilege to take advantage of the most vulnerable from among their own people.
And worst of all, these oppressors sought to procure God’s approval by outward acts of worship. On the Sabbath, they celebrated, prayed, sacrificed and sang – all in Yahweh’s name. They read the liturgy and sang the doxology, but all their pious worship never left the temple – and their daily lives were stained with injustice. They had attempted to draw a neat line between sacred and secular, between worship and work, but it was in vain.
God, through Amos, does not mince words about just what he thinks of the Israelites’ worship. There is rage in this passage that is neither easy nor comfortable to hear, but hear it we must, because it comes from the very heart of God, who loves justice. God will not speak timidly when God’s children are being oppressed.
The problem is that in all of the Israelites’ religious posturing, they’ve lost God in the mix. The noise of their own self-righteousness and self-interest has made them deaf to the heartbeat of God, and their religion has lost its substance. They’ve lost sight of their calling to be a blessing to the nations – and how can they do that until they learn to treat each other right? They’re trying to treat God right without treating God’s people right, and Amos is there as God’s witness to declare that the two cannot be separated.
This was no small thing. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, accused Amos of treason and tried to have him killed. The prophet’s words were a threat to the status quo – in the 8th century BC and even now, here, in this place. But any who desire to worship God well, every day of the week, need prophets who will speak into our cultures of religiosity and challenge us again and again to return to our calling to bless those around us. Eugene Peterson writes,
“The biblical prophets continue to be the most powerful and effective voices ever heard on this earth for keeping religion honest, humble and compassionate. Prophets sniff out injustice, especially injustice that is dressed up in religious garb. They sniff it out a mile away. Prophets see through hypocrisy, especially hypocrisy that assumes a religious pose.”
→ I wonder how Amos might be speaking to us today, calling you and I toward greater honesty, humility and compassion?
The Good News: God Loves Justice
It is true that religiosity and hypocrisy are a part of each of our stories as “spectacularly flawed people.” But our hope and salvation is in finding ourselves within the GodStory, and focusing our gaze on its Hero – God himself, who is always tipping the scales toward grace. This passage too has something to tell us about God. What does this moment of anger tell us about God’s character?
This one took me a little time to process. Until finally, a friend of mine challenged me to consider God’s response here within the microcosm of my own family. So, I imagined I’d caught one of my older kids, whom I love, somehow abusing the youngest, whom I also love. The older one is using his power and status – not to help, not to serve – but to take advantage of the smallest, the weakest. I could feel the anger, followed by disappointment and grief – I raised him to be better than this!
I wouldn’t mince words about my anger or disappointment. Warnings would be issued. But, my primary concern would be to double-up on my efforts to teach them how to treat each other, so that this didn’t happen again.
And throughout it all, my love for all of my children would be unwavering.
The bad news is that I have been that older sibling. I suspect we all have, at one time or another. We are all implicated in the power games, the selfish advantage-taking.
But thanks be to God, the Good News is this: In Amos Chapter 5, God emerges as an involved parent, committed to the wellbeing as well as the righteous upbringing of his children, whom he loves. The Hero of our story is One who loves justice, rescues the oppressed, and will not rest until his own people are transformed into lovers of justice themselves.
And so, the Israelites’ story doesn’t end with condemnation – and neither does ours – for God didn’t send Amos without a remedy for religiosity and hypocrisy. “Seek good and not evil,” Amos says, and you will re-discover God with you. “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” and you just might re-discover his grace, too.
The heartbeat of God is for justice. Because God loves his creation, God loves justice and cares, deeply, about how we treat each other. This is a recurring theme throughout the whole of Scripture. Consider:
• The birth of Israel as a nation chosen to be a blessing to other nations
• The giving of the Law, which revolved around the right treatment of people (especially widows, orphans, resident aliens), the right treatment of animals, and even the land
• The arrival of Christ, who lived out God’s justice with perfect compassion and holiness, and finally,
• The birth of the church, called to enact God’s justice on the earth.
→ Are you getting a sense of just how much God cares about justice, how central it is to what God is doing in our world?
Once again: God is revealing his character as one who loves justice, rescues the oppressed, and will not rest until his own people are transformed into lovers of justice themselves.
Becoming Lovers of Justice: Lament
So, how do we go from worshipping a God who loves justice, to being transformed into lovers of justice ourselves? How do we cultivate a lifestyle characterised by justice? Amos’ words are deceptively simple: seek good, hate evil. My friend Stacey Gleddiesmith suggests that a good place to start is lament. She writes,
Lament can wake the comfortable church to the reality of a suffering world, encouraging the church to align itself with Christ alongside the marginalized and those who suffer poverty, sickness, and injustice. Lament is an encouragement to action, because through it we call upon the justice and person of God, and are thus drawn into alignment with the kingdom of God..
Lament requires that we repeatedly turn our gaze upon the suffering world. In doing so, we attempt to absorb the statistics:
• 25,000 children die every day of hunger or related causes (U.N.)
• Nearly 21 million people in our world – 2 million of them children – are bought and sold for sex
• Nearly half of the world’s population — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. Over a billion of those live in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day)
Closer to home,
• We see the homeless – teen runaways, addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill – consigned to the streets – even now as winter approaches, and we hear neighbourhood communities arguing about what to do with them – NIMBY (or, Not In My BackYard) is the prevailing attitude
• We see retired public servants in danger of losing their hard-earned pensions, as the government puts them on the chopping block to help repair a broken system
• And on an individual level, perhaps we feel more personally the injustice of a neighbour wrongfully terminated, or inwardly cringe at the racist comments of our coworker.
Big and small, we are confronted on a daily basis with the world’s suffering. And although every bone in our bodies may resist this constant self-imposed subjection to the pain of others, it is through this path of lament that we begin to realign our values with God’s values. And so, we don’t just turn off the news or look the other way, but allow ourselves to feel it, to grieve, with those who suffer. This might just be the place where God speaks, and so we turn our ears – and our hearts – to hear.
In order to align our values with God’s, we must call injustice what it is: evil. We must stop talking about ‘unfortunate injustices’ in our world and start praying, start imagining how situations and systems can be redeemed by the power of God. Lament pushes us toward action, because it draws us into the heart of God, who cannot see injustice and remain unmoved by compassion. As our heartbeats become attuned to God’s, that same compassion will begin to flow through us.
Becoming Agents of Justice: Participating With and Listening to the Heart of God
And here is where we sometimes get stuck: the compassion is there, the desire to act is present, but the reality of what it means to pursue justice can stop us in our tracks. Once again, justice is incredibly complex, it can be risky, and it’s not a quick fix.
→ How do we join our compassion and our desire to act with the messy reality of injustice in our world? How do we maintain optimism and hope when we begin to feel very small against the giant backdrop of all that is wrong in our world?
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This is no man-made faucet which we can turn on and off, some human invention out of which we occasionally pour a glass of cold water for the thirsty. It is a mighty river, constantly flowing and refreshing and drenching, and it’s bigger than any one of us or our deeds. Justice is God’s work, and we are called to be participants, co-redeemers. The good news here is that justice is what God is doing in the world. Establishing justice is not about you and me, striving and struggling to constantly be doing more. It’s about becoming a people who listen to the heart of God, and who respond with compassion and generosity to the things God puts on our hearts:
• Justice is about discovering God’s heart for shalom – the all-encompassing wholeness and peace for all of God’s creation
• It’s about recognizing how we might be hindering that shalom – by our abuse or misuse of our power, privilege, money, possessions or status
• Justice is about considering whether a change in our lifestyles can ease the burdens of others’ lives around the world
• Justice is about seeking reconciliation for wrongs made by ourselves or by others on our behalf – on behalf of the government, on behalf of the church.
• Justice is about going beyond charity to challenge injustice at the core – starting with the question “WHY are things the way they are?”
• Justice is about using our power and our privilege, our wallets and our degrees, our voices and our votes to care for those who are powerless and vulnerable, poor and marginalized, voiceless and in need.
As our heartbeats become attuned to God’s, his compassion and generosity will begin to flow through us. Rather than being browbeaten or guilt-tripped into helping others, we’ll catch a vision for just what this kingdom of God is all about. This is what frees you and me to respond in love to God’s invitation for us to join in this kingdom-making, dream-building adventure to which God calls us, saying, Come and See! Imagine with me what this world could be – and will be, when justice flows like a mighty river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
Before I close with a prayer, I’d like to make room for a moment or two of silence, to allow us to listen for the heartbeat of what God is doing in our city and our world. There’s an insert in your bulletin with the six Justice Statements I just mentioned, if you’d like to take a look. Maybe there’s one that stands out, or stirs something in you.
Prayer: For the Courage to Do Justice
open our eyes that we may see the needs of refugees;
open our ears that we may hear people’s cries for justice;
open our hearts that we may assist sojourners near and far.
Show us where love, hope and faith are needed.
Use us as ministers of your healing.
Let us not be afraid
to protect the weak because of the anger of the strong,
or to defend the poor because of the power of the rich.
Sustain us so that in these coming days
we may be able to do some work of peace for you.
We ask these things in your blessed name. Amen
(prayer from: “The Uprooted Ones: Remembering Refugees”)