Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 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.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 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.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” These are words shared by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was a rare type of communication from Dr. King. He notes in the beginning of the letter that he hardly takes time responding to everyone who thought he was doing something wrong. He wrote, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.” But, he said that he believed the colleagues who had written a particular critique were doing so in good faith, so he decided to respond to them.
His colleagues found a particular round of civil rights demonstrations in the city of Birmingham to be “disruptive.” It should be stated that all the clergy members who had written the critique to which he was responding were white men. They prized a city that was orderly and quiet. It is interesting to know that they didn’t write letters to the Klan to tell them to stop blowing up Black churches or to racist shop owners to tell them to stop humiliating Black customers. They wrote a letter to the people being humiliated and attacked and said they shouldn’t be so disruptive. They should negotiate instead.
The Black citizens of Birmingham had negotiated. A lot. And, white citizens of the city largely chose to ignore them or break promises made. It is not easy to argue in good faith with people who benefit so profoundly from the status quo. Dr. King and his civil rights coworkers knew the only way forward was to be disruptive... to push hard enough and demonstrate their power that the most powerful people in the city had to finally come to the table. Dr. King and other civil rights organizers knew that tension from disruptive protests was necessary and useful. So, they deployed it strategically. And, it brought the people who had been able to avoid real conversation to the table.
I talk about this letter because when Dr. King was talking about the power of disruption to get the attention of powerful people, he names some specific figures from the Bible. One of them was the prophet Amos. In fact, he quoted part of today’s reading: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The biblical prophets were often interested in disruption, usually because they saw a nation failing in its obligations to God. And, Amos was certain that the Northern Kingdom of Israel, also called Samaria, was failing in its obligations to God. So, he showed up to try and disrupt it.
The prophecies that you and I know as the book of Amos likely would have been shared sometime between 760 and 750 BCE. These prophecies were before those of Micah, which we read a few weeks ago. Amos was a shepherd called by God to prophesy from the Southern Kingdom, called Judah. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, were in the Southern Kingdom. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried – they were all in the Northern Kingdom. Amos would eventually confront the priest at Bethel, Amaziah. Importantly, while Assyria was still a looming threat, the Northern Kingdom had not yet been taken over. But, Amos thought they might at any time, and if they did attack, the attack should be considered vengeance from God.
Amos, like the books Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, did not just address the threat of Assyria. Amos also offered up a critique of the culture that had developed in a way the prophet believed angered God. According to Amos, what had so angered God was the increasing wealth of the elite of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. That wealth was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people. Amos, like Isaiah, understood that faith in God was not just about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, argues that the nation, as a whole, was required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on a different passage of Amos, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.”
I looked back over my notes and read some more this week, but I’m still not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. While I wasn’t able to find a lot of specifics on the systems, I was able to find some clear descriptions of the impact of these systems.
In his commentary on Amos, Walter Brueggemann outlined the impacts. Some people would lose land, homes, and family. The wealthy might end up with two homes. Some people could not find enough to eat, and would starve, all the while the wealthy would through fancy parties for their friends where there was more than enough food. Amos, and other prophets, argued strongly that this is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. A nation that was aligned with God would not have these disparities.
So, what kind of tension did Amos want to incite in order to push Israel to change? Amos concentrated on the tension that comes when some make sure to observe religious rituals but don’t opt to live out the love and justice that is the foundation of those rituals. Starting in verse 18, Amos warns people that God’s intervention in the world will be more dramatic and disruptive than they imagine. The ones who have gathered up wealth at the expense of their neighbors will not be greeted with sweetness. And, the rituals they uphold and gatherings they attend will not save them because, without justice, the rituals are simply noise and play-acting.
We shouldn’t read Amos saying that ritual, as a concept, is bad. What Amos is saying is that we should never believe our call to worship is greater than our call to care for one another. Ritual without love meaningless motions. Songs without justice are merely sounds. What God wants most and first is justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. All of our worship and sacrifice should flow from this, the source of our covenant with God.
Assyria may not be at our door, but we certainly have far too many systems in place that continue to benefit the wealthy while taking from the poor. Pretty regularly, I get calls here at church from people who are looking for a place to stay and can’t find one. They sometimes even have some funding, but no landlords will take it because it involves extra paperwork. Corporations are hiding price gouging under the cover of inflation, making it ever harder for people to pay for food. Lay-offs abound across multiple industries, often because laying off workers is the quickest way to make it look like you’ve either saved or made a bunch of extra money. Amos reminds us that systems where people are pushed out of homes and can’t afford food go against God. May we feel the tension of these times, and be moved by it. May we be called to disrupt systems that harm our neighbors. And, may we, inspired by the righteous waters of our baptisms, be refreshed by streams of justice we work with God let loose in this time and this place.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elaine James: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-amos-77-15-4
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Gregory Mobley’s introduction to Amos in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: https://fee.org/articles/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.