The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
November 9, 2008
Amos 5: 18-24 ~ Matthew 25: 1-13
Last Tuesday was not a great day for the Republican Party. Last Tuesday was not a great day for the Democratic Party. Last Tuesday was a great day for all the United States of America. It was a great day for all her people, no matter how they voted, because on Tuesday we took a giant, collective step forward towards being the Beloved Community of our founders’ dreams. A black candidate for President was judged not, as King put it, “on the color of his skin but on the content of his character.” We have come a long way. The most moving image of all to me on Tuesday night was of Jesse Jackson standing in the crowd in Grant Park, tears streaming down his face. We have come a long way. And we have a long way to go.
We have a long way to go, on so many fronts, in order to fulfill the potential of our great project of democracy – racial justice, to be sure. Economic justice – so many poor people in our wealthy country, so many without health care, their lives literally worth less money than the rest of ours, or we would spend money to keep them healthy too, to keep them alive. There is not yet equality between men and women, between foreign- and native-born, between straight and gay, for American Indians. We torture people. Our understandings of justice have evolved enormously from those of the brilliant men who founded our country, and they will evolve still. If Barack Hussein Obama Sr. had come to the U.S. from Africa a century earlier he would have been in chains. Our knowledge of justice must evolve and we must continue to push that growth, that evolution, even – or especially – when it causes discomfort, or we will be tethered to outdated notions of justice, and so be condemned to making legislation out of our prejudices and calling it progress. Our country has been right since its founding to make justice its goal and its standard for judgment. Defining the criteria for justice, though, remains our challenge.
Our passage this morning from the Prophet Amos describes our mandate not as residents of this or any other country but as people of faith. It is to do justice for the poor and vulnerable. Amos writes in the voice of God a diatribe against the people. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about it – just the opposite. God excoriates the people. It is a “roar of outrage.” (Sharp) Israel seems to take delight in the thought of the day of the Lord. They seem to think that the day of judgment means their enemies will endure terrible suffering and that they, if anything, can look forward to lots of affirmation. Amos writes that they are deceiving themselves, expecting one thing (like resting your hand on a wall) and finding another (your hand is bitten by a snake that’s there). Every nation will be held accountable for its sin and that means Israel too. Israel is in for a very big surprise; convinced that it is special, it has become self-righteous (a delusion into which many nations have fallen at the height of their power). Accountability to citizens and to nations, concern for the welfare of all, respect for the law, worshipping the wrong God – these things are the concern of other nations. God is incensed. Israel does not show compassion to the poor, and that makes all their worship hypocrisy. It is not possible to worship God with integrity and not work tirelessly for the poor, not just offering them charity but striving for justice, changing the structures that have kept them poor, even if such change will compromise your own economic privilege. Without acts of justice for the poor and vulnerable, any community’s worship of God is obscene. The words “I take no delight in” literally translate as “I don’t like the smell of” – the people’s burnt offerings on the altar, incense, sacrifices. God despises – despises – all the festivals, all the solemn worship – loud or quiet, they get it all wrong. Despicable also are the songs of praise that rise from the assembly. “Why? Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshipping God.” (Sharp) What, then, could they be worshipping? Their own self-righteousness? Our passage concludes with the well-known verse, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” We love this verse, because we want justice to roll and righteousness to overflow. We all want justice, but we want our own version. We often use this verse as a call to action and a warm affirmation for a more loving future (it is thus used in the hymn that will follow this sermon). But Amos puts these words in the mouth of a God so appalled at human hypocrisy that they are a warning: watch out! God’s justice is going to come rolling down, and it is going to sweep you hypocrites away.
Sadly, these verses have long been interpreted by Christians as God’s disapproval of ancient Jewish “legalism” or idolatry of ritual. It quickly verges on anti-Judaism, an especially important thing to remember on this 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. This is not what Amos, the devout Jew, means. He is railing against the loss in his community of the essential connection between worship and justice. He might rail against many Christian congregations today – our liturgiolatry (I just made up that word) – our precious preoccupation with how we do worship and not why, our finding our prayer to be sufficient without any faithful response that carries us out of the pews and into the world. Liturgy and justice are each empty unless paired with one another – we worship and so we act, we act and so we worship. The problem isn’t ritual, it’s ritual that is empty, empty of compassion, empty of commitment in the most practical of terms.
Integration is the theme of our reading from Amos – integrating theology and action, what we say we believe and what we manifest with our lives. Integration is also a theme in our text from Matthew – integrating what we say we believe and what we manifest with our lives. The parable of the young ladies and their lamps is about enduring to the end, keeping on going until the Kingdom of God is manifested among us, especially when it seems a long, long way away. It’s easy to get distracted, to doze off. We integrate what we believe with what we can see by living right now as if God were truly all in all. Live it – live the compassion, live the hope, live the justice. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Live as if Christ dwelt among us again until he comes.
No matter what would have been our next administration, this remains our task, our calling. We who proclaim that God is God bring justice to the poor and vulnerable. I fear that this is only going to get harder to do. Some economists and investors right here in Princeton predict that our national economic woes won’t be resolved for years. The numbers of the poor may grow, and the resources with which those of us who are not poor can be helpful may shrink. Perhaps you know the satirical publication The Onion. Their mid-week headline blared “Black Man Given Worst Job in Country.” It’s going to be a hard time to do what he has to do. It’s going to be a hard time to do what we have to do – to work for justice for the poor and vulnerable. It’s going to be hard to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. It’s going to be hard to be the people God calls us to be, to live as if Christ dwelt among us again until he comes.
Many such struggles are hard, and they are long. I was prompted this last week, in hearing Obama’s acceptance speech, to remember the 1994 inaugural address of Nelson Mandela, the first black man to be democratically elected the leader of his country. He said these words to every South African – black, white, colored, South Asian, rich, poor, so many, many poor: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
When I saw on TV, Jesse Jackson’s tears I started to cry myself. Was he watching Barack Obama on that stage and remembering how powerful we are if we don’t let our spirits be broken? Was he remembering how many people got Obama and us all here, and paid for it dearly, but never let their spirits be broken? Was he thinking, “We are powerful beyond measure.” “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” One of the Early Church Fathers, Irenaeus, said “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” We have a long way to go as a country, a globalized world, and as individual people of faith. It is hard to endure to the end, and so thank God for big milestones along the way, reminders that we can overcome our prejudices. I find myself thanking God this week that I can just be part of all of this, and that I, as a person of faith, have such responsibility toward justice for the poor and vulnerable. I am thankful to be a citizen of a very imperfect country that does strive for justice. I am thankful to believe that our end rests in God, to know that Christ is with us now, in all our days. I thank God for the tears of every person who’s made it possible for me to stand here, for any of us to get where we stand. The way forward will be challenging on every front – so many issues of justice to work for – but this week let us be thankful, let us be thankful, let us be thankful for it all.
Carolyn Sharp, “Amos 5: 18-27”, workingpreacher.org, Nov. 9, 2008.