A sermon preached by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Proper 23 (28); Oct 14, 2018
Amos 5.6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90.12-17; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31
Amos is the prophet famous for the declaration: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. I cannot read these words from the prophet without hearing MLK’s voice quoting them in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
King, like Amos before him, was calling for nothing short of revolutionary change – the cleansing action of mighty waters, sweeping away of the debris and detritus of centuries of injustice and its resulting oppression and poverty.
In the larger context, Amos’ condemnation of injustice and disregard for the poor was not directed only at the king and ruling classes of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos also criticized what worship and cultic activity had become: hollow and self-serving gestures. The sanctuary itself had become the ends in itself with little connection to a life lived in faith and obedience to the One True God, the God of the Covenant.
Just a little farther in the same chapter as our lectionary portion, Amos decried this emptiness of ritual:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5.21-24)
Your worship does not please me when injustice and unrighteousness run rampant.
Through the prophet, God declares that justice and righteousness are what truly matter, that one’s faith and worship must inform one’s actions in the world. Sanctuaries had become impotent places – all show and no substance, offering life in the name of God with no connection to the life demanded in God beyond the sanctuary.
Amos’ criticism is a harsh and necessary word for the church today. We might call it a criticism against cheap grace: all the feel-good benefits without any involvement or engagement in community, with no recognition of the sacrifice or true cost of discipleship. Cheap grace obscures, even denies, the cost of faithful living. Beginning around the 19th century, some segments of the Christian community asserted that one need only make a profession of faith to be ‘saved’ as if personal ‘salvation’ were the sole goal of the Christian life – an assurance of one’s place in the afterlife.
The cousin to cheap grace is the prosperity gospel: make a profession of faith, believe the correct doctrine, worship and pray correctly, and one will be blessed – rewarded – with an easy life of health and wealth. Faith, therefore, has nothing to do with behavior at the communal or societal level; it becomes a private matter alone, with no relational implications. The prosperity gospel defends the status quo and excuses disenfranchisement and income disparity as a matter of one’s lack of faith that results in the withholding of divine blessing.
Israel’s rulers and ruling class went through the motions of faith and worship, believing they were divinely ordained to their wealth, position, and power. They worshipped without living the implications of covenantal relationship.
I hear strong echoes reverberating as concerns the church today. As the chapter opens, Amos is lamenting over Israel as one already dead, calling Israel a fallen maiden, forsaken, never to rise again.
How often have we heard from church pundits and the wider culture that the church is dead or dying? Denominations across the spectrum seem to be hemorrhaging members. An increasing number of people in society identify as “spiritual but not religious” or “none”. I can’t tell you how often I have heard that the church has nothing relevant to offer people in the 21st century, that what we do is merely superstition and empty ritual for the sake of feeling good about ourselves or supporting the status quo and subjugation of women and men of color by the white church and of white women within the white church.
I hate to admit it, but the public face of Christianity certainly supports their claim. There are many denominations and individual congregations committed to discipleship in Christ – committed to the Love Ethic of Jesus in their own congregations, local communities, and the nation. But those voices are drowned out by expressions of Christianity that worship health and wealth, that defend status and power as granted by God, that declare there is only one correct way to believe and worship.
It’s time for that revolutionary change in the church. It’s time for the cleansing waters of baptism to become a torrent that sweeps away the debris in the institution, the debris that thwarts the will of God, that attempts to fence and limit the love and mercy of God, that turns God’s justice to wormwood. God’s justice and mercy are not an intrinsic right reserved solely for able-bodied, white, heterosexual, landed, corporate moguls. God’s love is not reserved for those who believe a certain doctrinal formula. Serving in Congress, owning two houses and a boat, heading a multi-million-dollar corporation with a six-figure annual salary are not signs of divine favor. Mostly it comes down to the accident of one’s birth that enables a person to be on the path where she or he can avail themselves of opportunities along the way.
One’s personal faith may open a way within oneself to see and respond to God calls upon their life, to move toward their passion … and for many, because of the accident of their birth, that way is blocked.
Injustices in society often impede or outright prevent some folks from fulfilling who God has called them to be – people born into poverty, people who identify outside the hetero-normative narrative, people pushed to the margins because of the color of their skin or their country of origin. Sin is that which thwarts the will of God. The institutionalized racism and inequalities in our society – and yes, in our churches – thwart God’s will for humanity. I remind you that the biblical witness from Genesis through Revelation is the love of God for all creation and God’s deepest desire for the flourishing of humans and non-humans – that is, promoting the integrity, stability, and beauty of self and one another in obedience to the loving Creator. My flourishing cannot be at the expense of or cause suffering to any other part of God’s creation. If any part of creation suffers, the fulfillment of flourishing is thwarted. Flourishing, as God desires it, can only be communal – it is the fruition of the Dominion of God.
Yes. We need a revolutionary change in the church and in the communities and cultures within which the church resides. The church cannot be an apologist for things as they are just because they have always been that way. Jesus, and the prophets before him, call for nothing less than a revolutionary change of heart leading to a change of conduct.
The rich person in our gospel text today went away grieving, knowing that the fullness of life in God would not be his. The rich person was unwilling to give up – to relinquish – those things that kept him from experiencing that revolutionary change of heart.
We, who call ourselves followers of Jesus – the One whom we proclaim to be the Incarnation of Love – must be willing to relinquish that which inhibits our revolutionary change of heart. We must cultivate the courage and strength to speak out against the systems, structures, ideas, and behaviors that prevent the flourishing of God’s creatures and all of creation – mass incarceration, disenfranchisement of citizens’ rights to vote, full participation of women and LGBTQ folks in some denominations.
If you think about it, this is self-serving because my flourishing is dependent upon your flourishing – but that is the way of mutuality.
Yes, let us worship our God. May our worship not be empty and our rituals not be false. May they feed us, teach us, embolden us, and strengthen us to be the rolling waters of justice and ever-flowing streams of righteousness that bring cleansing and healing and new life to church and society. May our worship equip us to be instruments for the mutual flourishing of all creation and the resuscitation of the church.
Blessed be God forever.