Let it Be

A Sermon for the 22ndSunday after Pentecost

Proper 27 – Year A – 9 November 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector


Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the LORD:
Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
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 everflowing stream.

                                                                                                            – Amos 5:18-24

The Collect

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All of us want things to turn out well in the end. As children we loved to hear the closing words of a bedtime story, “and they lived happily ever after.” As young people we longed for acceptance by our peers, a fat letter in the mail signaling that our college choice has welcomed us to matriculate, a championship trophy at the close of a season, and the person of our dreams to say “Yes!” to our proposal. As adults we desire good health and happiness for our children, and that their dreams for success would come true. As seniors we hope for comfort and security, and pray that our financial resources will be sufficient until life’s end. And in one form or another, all of us long for God to redeem and save us at the last.

The people of Israel were no different. Their aspirations are as human as ours. They longed for ultimate victory and vindication of their way of life, their beliefs and ideals. The problem was that what they hoped for was about to bring on a tragic fate instead of satisfaction. Israel’s sense of direction was terribly off-course. They had forgotten to consult the moral compass they had been given, the divine instruction of the Torah, and they were headed for disaster. And they had no idea that they were about to fall into an abyss.

To Israel’s officials and leaders everything was fine; there were no complaints from them. It was a time of prosperity for the “haves” – the people with wealth and clout. However, it was an awful time for the “have-nots.” While the elite and powerful increased their portfolios and filled their coffers, they did so on the backs of the poor. With the help of corrupt judges, the rich robbed the helpless poor in court. Rather than protecting and defending the helpless poor (which the Torah commanded), the government oppressed them with taxes that drove them further into poverty. The wealthy enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, heaping luxuries on themselves, and sharing none of it with those in need. Meanwhile, in the temples and holy places of Israel, the “haves” proudly patted themselves on the back. They petitioned God in prayer and religious ceremony to continue giving them their unjust social advantage. Selfishness and indifference were rampant; religious belief was having little or no impact on their sinful behavior.

That’s where the prophet Amos enters the picture. He hears the people of Israel praying for the Day of the LORD, longing that at the last, God would come to embrace them. Their expectation was that that final day would bring them joy and fulfillment. They were that sure (and full) of themselves, and totally blind to their destructive behavior – acts that hurt others, robbed the poor, and exploited their edge over the less privileged. Amos, who was a shepherd from Judah, the southern kingdom, was called to become a spokesman for the LORD in neighboring Israel. He delivered God’s word, saying, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light.”

This was supposed to be a wake-up call, a message to the misguided. Amos’ mission was to re-introduce a morally lost people to their standards of morality. The hope was that they would change their ways and become a faithful people. Otherwise, they were headed for a date with disaster, because their eyes were closed to the danger at their door – the mounting threat of the Assyrian Empire to the north. Through Amos God was giving Israel a chance to reform and live, but it was not to be.

Outward appearances of abundance fed the appetite of self-deception. It looked as though God was favoring the ruling status quo. But on closer inspection, it was clear to Amos that the social inequities were the result of greed, corruption, and oppressive thievery. The prophet declared that the self-congratulatory, religious manipulators in charge of the nation were doomed. Amos told them that, from God’s perspective, in the final analysis, it is substance, not form that counts.

Then we hear a torrent of judgments against Israel’s bogus ways of worship. Amos gives voice to God’s displeasure, as he says;

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.

That is God’s absolute “NO” to Israel’s religious practices. The verbs are all negative, beginning with “hate” and “despise” as condemnatory reactions of God to religious practices that have no moral consequences. The LORD “takes no delight” in their vain liturgies, refuses to acknowledge their offerings and sacrifices, turns a deaf ear to the ceremonial music. This is an across-the-board rejection. But it is not religion per se that is denied, it is religion that asks nothing of its practitioners, except lip service.

Annie Dillard is an American writer famous for her powers of observation in nature and human behavior. In 1974 she became a contemporary Thoreau with her prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Shortly thereafter she published a set of essays about human nature and religious expression entitled, Holy the Firm. There she trained her sights on forms that faith takes. She said:

The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.[1]

Ms. Dillard’s assessment – like that of the prophet Amos – is designed to make us think, to step back from our modus operandi in church, and to examine whether our worship is just words read well, or a medium through which authentic faith is nurtured. Faith that is real is faith that has moral consequences. If there are none, then we would do well to re-consult our faith’s expectations.

Jesus had much to say about what is ultimately important in our faith and our life. His interlinking of the commandments of love – to love God with one’s whole being, and to love the neighbor as oneself, made them interdependent.[2] In short, we can’t have one without the other. Love of God is only as authentic as our love of neighbor. It is clearly not made real by shows of piety, recitation of liturgies, observance of holy days, and in degrees of ceremonial, pomp and circumstance. It is by treating everyone – including people with whom we differ, people that we do not like, people that we regard as adversaries and people that have no love for us – with respect, and fair treatment. Just as God shows no partiality, he said, so should we. That is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets.[3]

For Amos, the reality test of our love of God has two benchmarks: justice and righteousness. Like Jesus’ view of the double command to love, the prophet’s benchmarks go hand-in-hand. Amos states at the end of his oracle, issuing God’s extreme challenge to Israel. Contrasting empty religion with the genuine kind, he said, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Justice is related to equal treatment for all in the courts; righteousness is a personal moral quality – the rightness of our actions according to the Torah, the Law of God. Amos’ metaphor of flowing water links both justice and righteousness to torrents of moral consistency. These benchmarks of true love for God and neighbor cannot be produced in fits and starts, in dry and rainy seasons. They must flow, and flow, without ceasing. Think Niagara Falls. That’s what God expects; that is our moral imperative. We must be just and righteous, period – not when it is convenient, or when we feel like it, or when it doesn’t interfere with our prejudices and preconceptions. It is always, and everywhere, meet and right so to do.

But it is not all up to us. How many times in our liturgies do we say, “I will, with God’s help”? It is important that we do not let those words roll off our tongue without thinking about their meaning. It’s important that we will – that we have the intention to do what we ought to do. However, it is critical that we recognize the truth: that we are limited creatures, and that it will take God’s help to accomplish those ends. It is not as if we have the wherewithal to bring in the promised kingdom of God ourselves. If we did then we would not need the power of God’s grace; we would just do our duty, and all manner of things would be well. Right? The evidence suggests otherwise. The good news is that God’s help is ours for the asking, and it is abundant, and without end.

The conclusion of Amos’ message to the wayward Israelites hangs on the word, “let.” He tells them; Let it be; let God’s help happen. If you try to do this on your own terms, with your own power, you will put yourself in God’s place, and you will be trusting your own ego rather than God. Faith in God’s ability to redeem and save his people means letting God take the lead, and for us humbly to follow.

On August 28, 1963 a modern prophet stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. With thousands of Americans as his witnesses, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech that resounded with the power of an oracle. Its title is simply, but profoundly, “I Have a Dream.” As Dr. King spoke, it was as though the world was about to change, and that God’s standards of love were about to become real in racially segregated America. His remarks deliberately echo those of Amos the prophet. They were words that our nation sorely needed to hear, because even after the evils of slavery, a horrific civil war, and decades of injustice, we were still professing to be a devout nation, but we did not love our neighbor as ourself. To the predominantly African-American crowd, and to the listening world by radio and television, he said these words:

We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can not be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied so long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.[4]

Today, Martin King’s expectant vision has been realized in significant ways. But justice and righteousness have a long way to go to reach the standard set by Amos, and its final rearticulation by Jesus. Equal treatment and respect for all persons is not realized; loving God and neighbor together is not complete. We must march on, and never turn back.

Our task, though, is to realize that, in Dr. King’s words, “we cannot march alone.” He knew that he was a part of something far bigger, far greater, than he. He had no pretensions of changing and rearranging the world. Martin King was a Christian prophet. He understood his limits and who was in charge. He and his colleagues linked arms and marched to the drumbeat of God’s love. By the grace of God, they were called to participate in the wave of change that they did not originate. Empowered with holy courage and perseverance, King and other leaders dove in, and swam with the tsunami of justice and righteousness for all that God’s seismic shift set off. And we are downstream, propelled by the momentum of their work and their sacrifices for the love of God and neighbor.

The Church’s challenge today is to pay attention to the prophets. We will know who the real ones are by their adherence to God’s standards rather than those they invent. Justice and righteousness, like loving God without reservation and being a neighbor to all sorts and conditions of people, are ideals set by God and made possible by God’s help. The God who creates and redeems us is also the God who sustains us as we listen for the call of those who speak the truth. These are God’s advocates; they help us see where God’s transforming love is on the move. The prophets point to the front and issue God’s call for volunteers. As God’s faithful servants, it is our bounden duty, and a reflection of our gratitude for God’s faith in us, to heed them, and go where we are sent. The question is: Shall we?

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977).

[2] In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus ties “neighboring” to love of God in the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”

[3] Matthew 5:45.

[4] See http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm for the entire “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King. Jr.