NOVEMBER 9, 2008 Amos 5:18–24
SERMON REFLECTIONS FOR THIS COMING SUNDAY
Children are not stupid. They notice things.
As a kid we worshipped as a family most Sundays and after Sunday school was over and worship let out and we skipped coffee hour, all of us would pile into our family’s green ’72 Chevy station wagon and observe people. The time spent between backing out of our parking spot and leaving the parking lot was often quite informative.
One Sunday, the pastor preached about grace and forgiveness and then we observed through the car windows of neighboring cars heated arguments, contorted faces and wild pointing of fingers. If the window was rolled down we learned of disagreements over where one family was to have brunch or whether another should immediately go home in order to make kick off or instead visit visit a neighbor.
Another Sunday, the pastor preached on the first being last and the last being first and it must have taken twenty minutes for our car to get out of the parking lot because everyone seemed to want to get home. Our car would start backing up and someone else’s would move more quickly. I remind you that this was New York, and church or no church, such aggravation pushed people dangerously close to sharing their feelings in both word and deed with their neighboring motorists.
Children aren’t stupid: they notice these things. They notice when there is a disconnect between what is heard in worship and heard in Sunday school and what they see Christians doing in the world. The greater the disconnect, the greater and deeper the lesson is learned.
Such powers of observation, of course, are not limited to children. We adults are known to have the ability to see, to observe, to note disconnects and incongruities when we take the time to open our eyes to see such things.
Listen again to the prophet Amos:
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.
Amos speaks for God in words of condemnation for the disconnect between worship and life in how the people of God went about the course of their daily activities. Specifically, the prophet condemns their lack of justice. Just a few verses earlier he has reminded the people of their sins – their hypocrisy: How they trample the poor, over burden them with taxes of food, take brides for injustice and push the needy from the gate.
Carla came to me one Sunday after church with a look of concern. “I’ve just been offered a promotion,” she said. “That’s wonderful,” I told her. “Congratulations!” “”I’m not taking it, “she said quietly. Even though it meant more money, better benefits, and a step up the corporate ladder she was going to turn it down. “Why?” I asked. “What’s the problem?” She began to tell me how in this position she would have to compromise her faith – deny people help that she knew that they needed and make it more difficult for them to receive the care that they deserved. The disconnect for her, between her faith and her life, between Sunday and what took place outside of the doors of the sanctuary was vivid, stark, and would not be compromised for profit, personal gain, or career. I don’t know how easy or difficult the decision was for her, but she had made up her mind. The justice that flowed from the righteousness of her faith won the day.
Could God ever hate our worship? Despise our singing? Not accept our praise and our prayers and our gifts?
Amos suggests that God pays attention to how well we connect our act of worship with how we worship God in the living out of our life. That God especially pays attention to how well justice flows from the righteousness given to us in our Baptism.
Someone pointed out the three ladies in the front row, the first row of pews, dressed up for church and chatting amiably amongst themselves in the minutes before the prelude began. The three ladies sat in the front pew of First Baptist as they had nearly all of their adult lives. They were in their seventies now and decades before they had fought to integrate the railroad near Atlanta. These women, these church ladies, these women of the south, had gone to the tracks one day and lay down in front of a locomotive and refused to move. Could you imagine these three young ladies, housewives, neighbors to some, friends to many, in their Sunday best laying down on dirty tracks in front of a diesel locomotive? They were arrested, of course, but the point was made. There would be no disconnect for them between their Sunday morning worship and the rest of their week. God’s justice would not dwell alone as words that they heard Sunday mornings in worship or Wednesday evenings in Bible study, but there on the tracks in front of a segregated train as well.
Our worship should inform and be informed by our living out our Baptismal calling in the world and one of the foundational themes that should be taught, lifted up, nurtured and encouraged is that of justice. In worship we encounter and are encountered by the crucified and risen Lord, yet Jesus warns us that we shall encounter him also out in the world as one on the margins, as one in need. As one thirsty and in need of a drink. As one hungry and in need of food. As one naked and in need of clothes. As one in prison who we visit.
The images from Amos are startling. The righteous being sold for silver; the needy being sold for a pair of sandals; the heads of the poor being trampled into the dust of the earth - all the while those who considered themselves righteous feast on good food and drink good wine and push the poor out of the way at the gate.
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.
The disconnect in far too many Christians between the righteousness that they have received and the justice that they live out in the world is glaring. Shameful. Obvious. And people notice such things. Children and adults alike who look to us as witnesses to what God has accomplished in Christ Jesus for the sake of the world – they are watching. If they watch us carefully, what will they see? Will they despise our worship and hate our praise because it comes to God empty and shallow? Or will they take hold of God’s justice flowing through our lives, through our congregation, and join their voices in praise and prayer to the Glory of God?