Sunday, November 10, 2013

Justice for All: Sermon on Amos 1 and 5

Scripture can be found here...

Imagine a person, called by God, coming to upstate New York from Long Island to preach God’s word to us.

Now imagine a person from Alabama coming here to do the same. Or from Brazil. South Africa. The Philippines.

We might be open to that. We might be grateful. Or, our reactions might fall on a spectrum with “puzzled” at one end and “indignant” on the other.

For your consideration: the 8th century BCE prophet Amos, a native of the kingdom of Judah, sent by God to preach to the kingdom of Israel. A quick history review: About two generations after David, the monarchy and kingdom the people had longed for split in two, resulting in a divided kingdom: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Amos has been uprooted by God from his modest living as a shepherd (or a landscaper—on the whole, we can say that Amos worked outdoors) to bring his prophet’s voice to a land not his own.

And now, before we go any further: What is a prophet? Despite popular opinion, prophets are not about mystically foretelling tomorrow’s or next month’s or next year’s headlines. Prophets are not sent to give us the Lotto numbers. Prophets are sent to give us the God’s eye view of what is happening today, right now. And, it stands to reason, that a prophet might offer some insight, based on where we are now, as to where we are headed. That’s where the future comes in. Here’s a saying to remember: prophecy is not “foretelling,” it’s “forth-telling.” Prophets are called by God to forthrightly tell the truth.

And, oh my, Amos sounds cranky. The sins of the kings fall into two broad categories: wrong worship (either the wrong gods or the wrong place) and justice (really, the lack of it.)

We have just a few snippets to work with. Amos’ first words are:

The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem… ~Amos 1:2a

Here we are told why this prophet from the south is empowered to speak the truth to the north: Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is the location of God’s temple. It is God’s home. In Amos’s day, it is regarded by those in the south as the only legitimate place of worship.

As you can imagine, this is extremely awkward for the northern kingdom—that the only legitimate place of worship is in the southern kingdom. Imagine if we had to go to Atlanta for church. Naturally, the kings of Israel respond by building shrines up north, because of their anxiety that pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the south might stir up the feelings of the people against this whole divided monarchy thing, and the kings can’t have that.

Amos is speaking for God, from God’s recognized authentic home on earth. And, Amos says, God’s voice roars from the divine home base in Jerusalem.  Cranky prophet. But really, at this point, cranky God.

God is roaring about worship and justice (or, more to the point, worship and injustice). God’s people are really good at worship. They have festivals and solemn assemblies. They make burnt offerings and grain offerings and offerings of well-being to God (in their not-quite-legitimate northern shrines). They sing! They play the harp! Add an organ and a handbell choir, and we could all agree—they’re good to go!

But God wants none of it. Rather than a rolling melody, God wants justice to roll down. Rather than a flowing chant, God wants righteousness to flow.

So what is justice?

As 21st century Americans, we have our own notions of justice. We begin to learn and discern what justice is at a very young age, before we even know the word. For some of us, it comes in the voice of our mother, or our Sunday school teacher, telling us “Share with one another. It’s the right thing to do.” And into the file it goes, waiting for a word to describe it. Then we are taught to pledge our allegiance, our loyalty, to the flag. And the final lines hold a promise about the nation behind the flag: “liberty and justice for all.” Into the file it goes.

Our ideas evolve into adulthood, and if we have any education in civics or government, our sense of its meaning probably includes something like this: Justice means that people are held responsible for their actions. Those who are guilty are appropriately punished. Those who are innocent are appropriately set free to live their lives in peace. And the determination of guilt and innocence are made in a court of law, free from bias of any kind. And, and this is important, in the system of justice under which we live, people are considered “innocent until proven guilty” beyond a reasonable doubt.

But our notions of justice find themselves shaped by things other than childhood lessons in fairness and civics. A local paper starts publishing stories of arrests. And there are their photographs, these people whom our system tells us should be considered innocent until the court system proves otherwise.

Or we go to the gym, where, while we’re on the elliptical or the treadmill, there is a television on which we can see a stories unfolding about tragic abductions and sensational murder trials.

Eventually we realize that when we talk about “justice,” what we really mean is “crime and punishment.” Justice used to mean “fairness,” and now it means “retribution.”

Here’s what the bible has to say about justice.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  ~Deuteronomy 10:17-18

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. 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.  ~Amos 5:11-12

I did a search—it’s easy to do on the internet, just go to Bible Gateway[i] or Oremus Bible Browser[ii]. Out of 124 Hebrew Scriptures passages where the word “justice” is found, fewer than ten were using it in terms of punishment for crimes committed. Passage after passage about fairness, about caring for the most vulnerable in society—widows, orphans, and strangers—which is to say, immigrants, aliens.

God’s idea of justice is much closer to what we learned as little children, our first lessons on sharing with one another, than with anything held out to us as justice by popular culture. The justice God seeks is much closer to what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his speech at the March on Washington, when he used Amos’s words and called for “justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The cranky God who roars through Amos’s words is issuing a challenge. Amos has been sent to confront a nation whose values as proclaimed in worship are far, far removed from its values as lived out. Their worship, even in the wrong locations, is beautiful. Their treatment of society’s most vulnerable is ugly.

It is so easy to look away. It got cold this week, and on Friday night I snuggled down in front of a warm fire to watch Great Performances on PBS. Also on Friday I said a little prayer that God would let me see when someone was in need, and, boy, did that prayer get answered quickly. On Saturday morning as I got in my car I heard the voice of a man singing—he sounded kind of like the lead singer in “Cake,” actually. When I finally looked around, there he was—one of those folks who looks like he’s in his 70’s but probably is only 40; hard living ages you. White wispy hair blowing in the wind, a little unsteady on his feet, clutching a pillow to his chest as he walked down the street at 7:30 in the morning. I strongly suspect he spent the night in a place not so warm and cozy.  

It’s easy to be overwhelmed in moments like this. How can we help to heal all the ills of the world? Can we take in every homeless person? Can we feed every hungry one? Can we figure out a solution for those whose problems are rooted in mental illness, or addiction? Pulling our coats around us, and getting in the car, and driving away, seems to be our best option in the face of the impossibility, the enormity of the task. On Saturday morning, that’s what I did.

Here’s what Amos has to say.

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious…  ~Amos 5:14-15

Seek good. (Which, I’m pretty sure, is another way of saying, “Seek God.”) Love good. Love God.

When we have a big, ginormous problem—and let’s face it, that’s what this is, the suffering of so many people, the injustice of so much of that suffering—the only way to tackle it is in tiny little bite-sized increments. The writer Anne Lamott, giving advice to others seeking to be writers, helps them tackle what seems to be the enormous challenge of writing every day by focusing on small, bite-sized pieces of their work. She tells them to keep a one-inch square picture frame on their writing desk. And then she tells them, to simply write enough every day to fill that one-inch frame. That’s it.

We are all people of faith here. Here’s my version of the one-inch picture frame challenge: Pray one tiny prayer each day for some person, some aspect of this big, ginormous problem of justice for all God’s people. Seek the good, seek God—for the suffering. For the oppressed. For the hungry. For the cold.  When we open up the equivalent of a one-inch square in our hearts, I truly believe God fills those little pockets with hope and inspiration and infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Or, collect your three-cents-a-meal. That’s another one-inch approach. Or, take part in the SNAP challenge, and see what it is to have a food budget of $34.50/ week.[iii] Enter into the struggles of others, in a tiny little one-inch kind of way.

Imagine a person coming from, not just another region, not just another state, not just another country, but another time, in every meaningful sense, another world, to preach God’s word to us. Imagine that, at the heart of that word, is a plea: seek God/ seek good. Love good/ love God. Imagine it in the voice of your mother or father, or your Sunday school teacher or favorite coach. Share. It’s the right thing to do. Share with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[iii] The average Food Stamp benefit for residents of New York; it’s the second highest benefit in the country.

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