Message Manuscript for “Removing the Dam Obstacles” Amos 5:18-24
Delivered to Church for the Highlands Rev. Dr. John Henson
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Each Sunday, The New York Times Book Review contains an interview with an author. Its just a one-page article, but is almost always full of interesting content you wouldn’t ordinarily know about a popular author. One of the questions, for example, is, “If you could have three people over for a literary dinner, who would they be?” If I were asked that question about three preachers I would choose, I’m not sure who all I would invite, but the prophet Amos would be one of them. I’m thinking he would say yes, as he probably never gets invited to dinner. He’s not the ideal guest after all. He’s cranky, a bit on the self-righteous side, probably won’t bring a gift for the host, and probably isn’t the best at making small talk with the other guests. If he were to say anything, it would be with fire and brimstone. Amos would certainly not abide by the standard rule of etiquette to avoid any talk of religion or politics at the table. Those are the only two things he wants to talk about. It wouldn’t take long for the other dinner guests to sigh with frustration and discomfort, soon finding reasons to have to leave early. That’s the effect Amos had on people. That’s pretty much what do prophets—afflict the comfortable.
The powerful words and combative style Amos used with Israel were intended not only to condemn the kingdom for injustice; they were to provoke action. Prior to what we’ve heard in Chapter 5, Amos’ words are directed at Israel’s wealth, comfort, and self-sufficiency. Israel was guilty of gross negligence with the needs of the poor, hungry, sick, and oppressed among them and in Judah. It was a nation concerned first and foremost with itself. They were horrible with matters of justice. Where they shined was with their worship, becoming quite good at planning the festivals and at making beautiful music for God. The big problem, though, as Amos so bluntly points out, is that their worship was devoid of justice and righteousness. As the saying goes about drugstore cowboys in Texas, they were “all hat and no cattle.” Amos told them straight up that God hated their hypocrisy in worship and in their festivals. They were to stop with all of it and, instead, let justice and righteousness flow among and through them.
I’m thinking Amos would want us to hear and do the same. Yes, it would be an awkward dinner with him at the table. We would get uncomfortable with his words and tone and would soon look for an exit. His meddling and accusations would be offensive, but wouldn’t they be accurate for us today? “How dare he criticize our worship services and all the events we have for God” we would say. “And who does he think he is telling us to stop them. Doesn’t he know that God desires our worship?” To all of that, Amos would just say what he spoke to Israel, “But, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” It’s not our worship that bothers God; it’s our failure to understand that worship is incomplete until it results in action. In other words, worship isn’t something we do for an hour on Sunday. What real worship does is change the world. It allows God’s justice and righteousness to flow into our setting.
So how do we let justice and righteousness roll instead of damming them up? How can we make sure we are not the dam impediments? We must first understand what God’s justice looks like. As James Baldwin states, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Could it be that there is ignorance about justice today among Bible-believing church people? Maybe those of us who read and seek to follow the Bible have a selective approach to issues of justice. We know what the Bible says about adultery, but what do we know about the injustice of poverty? We quote chapter and verse about not stealing, but what verses do we know about predatory lending and usury? We believe in Jesus the Great Physician but we think universal healthcare is too liberal. We love the parable of the Good Samaritan, but what do we know about God’s words about welcoming and caring for refugees and strangers?
Once we learn what God expects justice and righteousness to be, we can determine what is damming them up. What is preventing their flow into our world and its issues today? When you take a look, you’ll see the unjust standing in the way. Or maybe you’ll see some wealthy folks who control who does and doesn’t get justice. I’m pretty sure you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, and Independents there supporting the dam as well. No doubt you’ll see Russians. We may not see ourselves there as impediments to God’s justice, but what are you and I doing to become channels to where it must flow?
Justice and righteousness flow when we get involved with a justice issue or need. It could be one in the neighborhood, at your school, on social media, or as a part of a larger national or world movement. The next step is yours. Join or create a team, fire off an email or a letter to your representatives or to a newspaper editor when mental health programs are on the budget chopping block. Give money to a cause of justice you believe in. Attend a City Council meeting to learn what’s going on or not going on in our city. Become a volunteer with our tax preparation program, get involved in Interfaith, become an advocate for the working poor, grow vegetables for the hungry, register voters, report unfair housing practices, or get involved with a group here in our city working on racism. Whatever it is, there’s a job for you and me to do.
After leaving church last Sunday, I received a text message from Jinny asking if I had heard about First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs. I had not but soon learned of the tragic event that had just happened as a gunman entered their worship service and began shooting over 400 rounds into the small congregation. Having spent several years starting and pastoring a church just down the road from there, I had been in the church many times and was friends with the pastor at that time. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing. How could someone do that? And how is it that we as a nation and society allow these massacres to continue in allegiance to the Second Amendment? Throughout the week, I have felt powerless as I think about the arsenal of resources lobbyists have to prevent a ban on assault weapons or universal background checks. But then I read Amos and more deeply appreciate his words and tone, “But, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.”
So Amos may not be such a bad dinner guest after all. He may be the one we need to hear from the most.
Audio of this sermon is here