Rev. Teri Peterson
water flows downhill
Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
10 November 2013, NL 4-10, stewardship commitment
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
And he said:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
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 to the remnant of Joseph.
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.
As soon as I realized that this Amos reading was going to come up on Stewardship Commitment Sunday, I began dreaming of a skit. Unfortunately, in my mind the skit has only two lines, and therefore is not very good. But the two lines are amazing! So picture it with me—Amos shouts at the top of his lungs, on behalf of God: “I hate your festivals and I don’t care about your perfect services. I’m not interested in your burnt offerings, I won’t accept your grain offerings…” and then a member of the Stewardship ministry team would pop up in their seats and interrupt with “but we always accept cash!”
It’s been hard to imagine how to tie together the prophet thundering about people whose actions in the Temple don’t match their actions outside the Temple, leading to the rejection of their worship and their offerings, with a plea for all of you to prayerfully consider your financial and time-commitment pledge to the ministry of this church in the coming year. After all, we are a church with a surprisingly high level of involvement already. So high, in fact, that we are also experiencing a high rate of burnout. One of the phrases I hear around here is “we do a lot with a little.” Which is true—God has done amazing things through us, even though we do not have the same level of resources to offer that other churches might. God can work with any offering, right?
Amos seems to be saying that “can” and “will” are not necessarily the same thing. Yes, God can work with any offering to do amazing things. Whether or not God will work with an offering is a different question. It seems to matter whether the people worship and give offerings because they think they’re supposed to, because they think they’re sacrificing something that belongs to them, because they want to ensure a ticket to heaven…or because it’s important to their relationship with God and others in the community.
Amos spoke to a kingdom on the brink—a wealthy community that could not see the disaster looming, just a few years before their kingdom would be destroyed and the people taken into exile. Like any community, not everyone was wealthy. Not everyone had access to the same resources, the same schools or hospitals or services. Some were growing fat while others starved. Some sat around all day—Amos calls them fat cows, actually, in a previous chapter—while others worked their fingers to the bone just to feed their children. The wealth disparity was unacceptably large. And Amos brought the word of the Lord right into the comfortable living rooms, spas, and board rooms of the day. Naturally, everyone agreed with him—something must be done, justice is important, we should donate for a soup kitchen. Justice, as a concept, is great. We can all get on board.
When Amos started asking people to act differently, to give of themselves, to change their ways…that’s when things started to go downhill. Because while the concept of justice is amazing, the actual doing of justice requires something of us. It requires us to look at the world and ourselves in a different way. It requires us to leave those comfy living rooms and not just text a $10 donation to the Red Cross but to ask hard questions about why people are hungry or homeless or susceptible to extreme weather or facing situations of daily violence, and then to take action to change the system that creates those situations. Why are there people burning out in our community? Why are people feeling bullied in our schools, churches, and workplaces? Why do we care more for some than for others? How do we respond when faced with someone’s story? What does justice look like when we think about how we talk about, or to, one another? When we think about the difference between “us” who sit in the pew and “them” who sleep downstairs on Wednesday evening?
God’s justice is demanding. God’s call to do justice will not allow us to simply sit back and send a check once a quarter. God’s call asks for much more than that, something more fundamental. After all, the Israelites fulfilled their religious duties—they showed up for mandated festivals, they sang songs, they gave all the right offerings. They figured that doing their Sunday duty meant they could do whatever they wanted the rest of the week—almost like a bribe. If they paid their dues, then God would look the other way while they trampled on the poor, ignored those in need, and worked their way to the top without any regard for the consequences. If they were members in good standing, it didn’t matter how they treated one another or how they used their influence in the community.
The reading for today ends with “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Throughout the Bible, justice usually refers to a reversal that creates parity. It involves both lifting up and pulling down, simultaneously. It requires us to let go of a bit, so others can have enough. Because the abundance God promises is just that—enough for everyone. As the preacher William Sloane Coffin said, “It is one thing to stand with the prophets of old and call for justice to roll down like the mighty waters, it is quite another to design the irrigation system.” While we might prefer to think of justice in a criminal justice sense, or in a fairness sense, or (more realistically) as revenge, God’s justice is almost always talked about as economic, and almost always about having enough, not a ton. This is one of the reasons giving is such an important spiritual practice—because really: God has given us everything we have, and in gratitude we pay it forward. We offer our money and our time back to the work God is doing. But make no mistake: it will cost more than we probably want to give. God has big plans and big vision, and we can see in Amos that those plans will not be thwarted simply because the Israelites offered the bare minimum, or even what seemed like a nice amount. God wants relationship, wants justice, wants the kingdom to be visible, even in our days, and our participation is required, even if it’s not comfortable.
Which sounds, honestly, like a recipe for burnout. And while the prophets were invested in reminding people that God expects better, no one wants to see people or communities drown in shame over not being able to do more. We may need to assess what exactly is being done and whether it furthers God’s kingdom of justice and peace, but the actual activity level is not always the question.
Rigteousness, on the other hand, is a more complicated word. Our culture has twisted it into self-righteousness, but the word actually means “to be in right relationship with.” So Amos begs that we step into the ever flowing stream of right relationship—with God and one another. Right relationship means that every word is infused with God’s grace, that we are trustworthy, that betrayal and gossip are rare. Right relationship means we care for one another regardless of what we will get out of it, or who the person might be. Right relationship means we spend time with God and with each other, listening more than justifying. Right relationship means talking directly to one another when we have a disagreement, and refusing to listen to unhelpful rumor. Right relationship means that we treat every single person as a beloved child of God. Because you know what? That’s what each of us is—beloved. To be in right relationship with one another means that we all know that love from each other and from God. This relationship can’t exist alongside injustice, because justice is ultimately also about treating one another as beloved. In fact, all the acts of justice and words of truth are pointless if we do not love as God loves. Paul says we are nothing but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, no matter what we say or do, if the reason behind everything is anything other than love—anything other than a right relationship with God and our neighbor.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Notice that those are things that happen on their own, as long as we don’t stop them. Only when we build a dam does the water stop flowing downhill. God’s justice and righteousness, God’s love and peace, God’s grace—they are the way things are, a law of nature…so what are the dams we need to dismantle?
As long as we continue to add stones to the dam, our offerings and worship will not be so different from those of Amos’s people. Our songs, our prayers, our giving—these are designed to increase justice and righteousness, not to stop it. They are supposed to offer us a new way of living, a way that looks like God’s kingdom. They are disciplines—things we practice because we are disciples. We don’t always get it right any more than Jesus’ disciples did. But that is no reason to stop practicing! So we lift our voices, we sit closer together, we pray and we listen, we put our checks in the offering plate or set up our recurring online-bill-pay—not because we think that makes God love us more, not because we consider it the ticket to being a better person or punch on our hell-escape card, not because coming to church makes us Christians, but because they are part of our discipline, our practice as following in God’s way. That practice extends to every aspect of life—in every place where God has given us something, we are called to offer it back: money, time, energy, blessings, relationships, hope, love. If this hour in this room is the only place we practice, we will surely find Amos’s words ringing in our ears as we close the doors. If this hour in this room is the time we gather courage to start taking stones out of the dam on the river of righteousness, we just might find that the kingdom of God is at hand.
May it be so. Amen.