Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thanks be to God?

Matthew 5:1-11

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Amos 5:21-24

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.

This is the word of the Lord

Thanks be to God

Thanks be to God? Really? Were we reading the same passage? What’s all this “I hate, I despise” stuff? I thought we worshipped the God of love? Thanks be to God?I’m not sure I am grateful for this word. Give me more of that first one, where Jesus tells me I’m going to be happy later because I’m poor now...

At the seminary, we would read this passage and say that nobody is safe from this text. If you can see yourself in this text, it will convict you. For some reason though, I find myself drawn to it.

Maybe I’m tired of a culture who confuses God with Santa Claus, “Be a good boy or girl and you’ll get what you want.” Maybe I’m angry at the injustices in the world and it’s nice to see that God gets mad too. With all the lovey-peacey fluff floating around maybe I’m drawn to this passage because it’s about a God I haven’t heard as much about: a God of fire and wrath, the Lion of Judah, rather than the lamb. After all, this passage is talking about other people right? This one isn’t about me.

When I decided on this text, I thought it opened with “I hate, I loath your false worship.” That’s what I wanted it to say. I wanted to rail against the people who were just going through the motions and didn’t really mean what they were saying or doing. I even had a children’s sermon about how important it is to mean it when you say you’re sorry, or it doesn’t count.

But it doesn’t say that.

I wanted this text to look at the world and see all the same things I saw wrong with our culture. I wanted it to condemn the people who put our nation in a war with which I didn’t agree and sent other people’s brothers and sisters and daughters and sons to fight it for them. I wanted it to attack the people who’s emphasis of profit over safety dumped oil into our water. I want the prophet Amos to shake his fist at the people who created this economic crisis that threatens the jobs of an entire generation.

But it doesn’t do that.

I want to take this text and reword it so that it agrees with me, and then I get to have that Wrath of God in my hand, to throw at anyone that I think unworthy. I want this text to be a locker-room pep-talk that gets me back in the game so I can score the winning point.

But I don’t get to do that.

I get to read this text and let it lay me bare the same way it would have laid the rulers of Israel bare. I don’t like it. But this text is not one of comfort to a suffering people, it’s one of Judgement on a people who think they are immune from suffering because they do everything right. And I don’t like it. I don’t want our heavenly Father to be angry with me. I want to do something to fix it, find a way to soften that anger, or at least blame someone else so God won’t be angry with me. I don’t want to have a place in this text. But this text has a place for me whether I like it or not. Right next to everyone else who has tried to put their words in God’s mouth over the centuries. The text grabs us when we think we can bribe God into doing what we want and says: “But even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them... I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

Let me stop there, and we can reassure ourselves that God still loves us, even when God is angry with us. That’s one thing that never changes. But we can’t just look for a happy-fun god in the Bible, because we spend a lot of time deserving God’s anger. We can’t duck out of this mess we’ve made with a few well placed sacrifices, or a few perfectly orchestrated songs. We can’t buy God off with a one time deal, or a limited time offer. We can’t have a party in God’s honor and expect God to be pleased enough to forget all the times we get it wrong. That’s not what God’s about. God created us, and God knows that we’re better than this mess we’ve made of the world. But we’re not going to earn it with offerings of material goods or with songs. We’re not going to win God over by giving back a portion of what God gives to us. God isn’t impressed by our wealth or cleverness or our own insight. The more time we spend trying to impress God, the more we hear “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” God wants to see us make a change in our world.

And So God says to Amos, “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

I remember when I was nine or ten, we had a huge series of thunderstorms, and a flash flood warning was issued for Morganton, where I grew up. We had these woods behind our house, and all the water from the storms flowed down to the bottom of the hill, and filled up what was a ditch in drier weather. I could hear the water dripping down onto the brim of my hat, filtering down from the tops of the pine trees to reach the bed of leaves that made up the forest floor. My father and I went exploring this brand new river, hiking deep into the woods seeing where it led, where it came from. The water was rushing in from all sides, all converging at the bottom of these two hills that formed the gully that was now a streambed. It pooled up in some places, several feet across, but only a few inches deep, and the leaves in those sections floated out to the edges, settling in a ring around the pools. In other places it was deep enough to fill up your rain boots if you made the mistake of stepping into it, and it was always moving, finding new places to fill as the rains continued to filter through the pine trees. The movement was strong enough that it pulled limbs and dead trees that were too big for a nine-year-old to move with it, collecting in narrower places to form its own dams, moving what seemed to me to be immovable, only to let it settle in a new place, changing the landscape of the woods. That memory, and the image of a storm-fed river changing everything about the landscape it touches is what comes to my mind when Amos writes “Let Justice roll down like waters.”

David LaMotte, a songwriter and peacemaker, recently gave a talk about the myth of the hero as a vehicle of change. “As a culture,” says LaMotte, “We tend to believe that what changes things is heroes, dramatic people doing dramatic things in dramatic moments.” But while heroes certainly exist, LaMotte says that big changes come out of movements, lots of regular people making small changes over time, rather than one larger than life person making one larger than life action in one larger than life moment. Those larger than life moments deserve a festival, like a fourth of July party, with fireworks commemorating a day when about 34 people signed a letter that started a nation. But this didn’t happen over night. Neither did a group of slaves taken out of Egypt become a nation just by crossing the red sea. It took 40 years of learning to live with one another in the wilderness, under a new set of laws to morph them into the people of God.. Likewise our nation didn’t just wake up one morning tired of being English, and we wouldn’t have a constitution, the document that sets us apart from other nations that came before, for another eleven years after we decided we were through with English rule.

Thousands of small changes. Thousands of tiny water droplets, filtering through the pines, creating the flood that changes the landscape. And once the rains stop, we’re still not done. because though Justice has rolled down like waters, we still have righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Always moving, always changing, like the Linville river, gradually cutting into the rocks to form a magnificent gorge, or to cut into the mountain itself to form the famous caverns. Thousands of years, thousands of water droplets, and an ever flowing stream providing life to the valley below.

Or like the Jordan river, which once dried up so the people of Israel could cross into the promised land, and eventually, thousands of drops of water later, baptized Jesus and began his earthly ministry. A ministry that proclaimed that this world would be turned upside down, and the poor would have a kingdom, and that mourners will be comforted, and that those whom the world has walked over would receive the world. An ever flowing stream, filled with living water, that would fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s not a pool that we can go to when it’s convenient for us. A River that cuts through the landscape, changing everything around it, and the central point of life around it. It’s a continuous movement, not a singular moment. When we see the ever flowing stream, we know that God’s path is through the waters. It is not our place to skip across the stream like thrown stones, barely getting wet. If we want to bring change to this world, because we know we can be better than it is right now, we have to swim deeply.

If we buy into the myth that change comes from dramatic people doing dramatic things at dramatic moments, all we have to do is wait for the moment, and then be ready to act. Wait for the Day of the Lord, and then proclaim the good news. Wait for God to prove Godself, then decide to act. Wait for the two roads to diverge in the yellow wood, and then take the road less travelled. Wait for the Day of the Lord, and then take part in the establishment of the kingdom. But we’re not waiting for the day of the Lord anymore. The dramatic action has happened. Christ has been crucified, and Christ is risen. The day of the Lord has come. Now we live in the age of the Spirit, and it’s not dramatic Damascus road moments that change the world for the better. It’s not festivals or offerings or benefit concerts. It’s the mission of Paul, traveling throughout Europe telling the gospel even when nobody will listen. It’s the growing awareness that the poor aren’t different from us, so we help them not because it’s a tax deduction, but because it’s what needs to be done. It’s a movement, a movement of the Spirit within us and through us that makes us uncomfortable with what Amos has to say to us, and forces us to make the small changes, the thousands of water droplets, filtering through the pines, that effect real change in the world. Very few of us are tasked with making the decisive moments that move history forward. And even those who are called to those dramatic acts are charged with making all the small changes that lead up to the larger than life moment. But we’re not here to wait for the day of the Lord. We’re here to filter through the pines, and change the landscape around us, piece by piece. We’re called to work on behalf of the Kingdom of God in the age of the Spirit. Let’s get to work.

In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, Amen.

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