A sermon preached by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Prop 27 (32), Nov 12, 2017
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
And we wait. We wait for God’s justice to roll down upon every living creature, for righteousness to flow over the earth and swallow malice, hate, and evil.
We wait … and wait … and wait.
Amos’ words are directed to Israel, especially Israel’s elite, who offer empty worship. Amos calls out the hypocrisy of offering songs and sacrifices to the God of Israel while practicing idolatry and failing to uphold and defend justice.
Paraphrasing Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals that are mere lip service; they are devoid of integrity. Your worship does not lead to righteous behavior and just action in the world. I take no delight in your assemblies and songs for they lack meaning and do not lead to true adoration and right relationship in the world. You offer only empty words.”
Our worship in the twenty-fist century is no less tied to our actions in the world than it was in the eighth century BCE. Amos’ words still caution us to practice what we preach, what we sing, what we pray, what we hear at Table.
To borrow a phrase from the epistles, faith without works is dead … it can also be said that worship without works is empty worship. Our actions in the world are a response to our faith and worship. At the same time, it is because of our worship that we can go out into the world, fortified to be a force and power of love. Even as we struggle against all odds, wondering where this justice and righteousness are, we continue because we are continually fed.
Our worship feeds us to do the work God calls us to do. Our worship prepares us to follow the love ethic of Jesus. Our worship sustains us for the long haul.
Worship prepares us for action and for waiting.
And worship alone is insufficient. Corporate worship must be accompanied with daily personal spiritual disciplines.
Five wedding attendants asked to borrow oil after their lamps went out while waiting. They were not prepared to have to wait so long. The other five would not or could not share … it sounds harsh, and antithetical to the gospel law of doing for the least of these. Let’s reframe our understanding of the story. Perhaps it is an allegory about being prepared to wait – and wait a long time. Just like five of the wedding attendants whose lamps went out while waiting and could not borrow oil, we cannot borrow someone else’s relationship with God when our own lamp runs dry while we are waiting for justice to roll down and righteousness to flow. We cannot borrow understanding of God or faith in God or relationship with God from anyone else. We cannot use someone else’s spiritual nourishment, fortitude, or sustenance when we become spiritually dry and depleted as we work and wait.
Worship, prayer, and study work together, building and fortifying different aspects of our souls and spiritual lives: they work together to both spur us to action and to strengthen us for the action we are called to do. Our work in the world is our response to our corporate worship and prayer life as much as it is dependent upon our worship and prayer.
Empty worship, at the very best, is disingenuous and most likely leaning into the idolatrous. Working for the Jesus love ethic without spiritual replenishment and fulfillment will simply become soul crushing. The task seems enormous and the fruits of our labor are often not readily evident. Without replenishing our own souls, we are likely to become spiritually exhausted, spiral into hopeless, or even be overcome by cynicism. I have a lot of cynicism of late.
One the one hand, to share the light of Christ in the world, we must replenish our own lamps with oil. On the other hand, refilling our lamps through the acts of corporate worship and prayer and then not sharing that light with the world … well, that’s hiding your lamp under bushel basket. And we all know what the children’s hymn says about that, don’t we.
A rich prayer life and regular worship do not guarantee smooth sailing in this life. There will be any number of times in our lives when we will feel our worship and prayer lives are lacking, or even more distressful, we will feel abandoned, alone, depressed, or in what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul”. Our lamps will have gone out, and prayer feels empty, unfulfilling, or fleeting. No, we cannot borrow someone else’s prayer life the same way we can borrow a cup of sugar or a little oil. Nor should we shun worship or turn to false idols to fill the void or “fix” our distress or even deny them. Maybe prayer during this time is simply sitting where we are and saying, “Okay God, I’m here; I showed up.” You showed up! Good for you!
We also rely on others’ prayers during our dark times. We still show up to worship, sharing our dry times with the body of Christ who will hold us in prayer, surround us with love, and share the light of their lamps as we find our way back to our own. We need not fear the dark, as uncomfortable or frightening as it may seem. If each of us nurtures our own spiritual lives, then when the darkness does descend, we can sit in the knowledge and trust that as the light once shone, so it will shine again. And when our lamps are fully filled with oil and burning brightly, we light the way for others when their lamps go out. That is what we do in community; that is what we do for one another.
I’d like to change the parable to read that the five attendants who still had oil each partnered with one who did not. Together, they all found their way to the banquet.
Amos calls out empty worship, devoid of practical application. Jesus tells us to be ready to wait an unexpected length of time. These are two sides of the same coin. Worship and prayer prepare and sustain us while we continue the work of Jesus’ love today, tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade – it is a long haul. Worship and prayer builds our trust in the One Who Was, and Is, and Is To Be. Worship and prayer nurtures relationship with the One whose promises are sure and steadfast, the One who has already brought about the dominion of Love … even if not yet fully realized here on earth. Our relationship with God and trust in God feed our resilience as we resist and persist against the forces that would thwart the Love of God.
Waiting and working in love seem impossible at times. But so did Resurrection. The Resurrection is our assurance of God’s love and God’s work in this world. The ultimate triumph of God over hate, violence, and death is the best oil we can use to refill our lamps. We are reminded of this each week here at Table.
Thanks be to God. Amen.