Are You Sure You Called for a Prophet?
Speaker: The Rev. Suzanne Wagner
May 16, 2021
Sermon, Sunday, May 16, 2021
Rev. Suzanne Wagner
Maya Lin: Maya Lin is an American designer and sculptor born to Chinese emigrant parents. She came on the design scene when she was an undergrad at Yale with her winning design for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. While she is an architect, she is best known for her historical memorials.
Lin also designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama. A description of the memorial reads, “The memorial is a fountain in the form of an asymmetric inverted stone cone. A film of water flows over the base of the cone, which contains the names of 41 martyrs killed in the civil rights movement. It is possible to touch the smooth film of water and to alter it temporarily, which quickly returns to smoothness. As such, the memorial represents the aspirations of the civil rights movement to end legal racial segregation. The names included in the memorial belong to those who were killed between 1954 and 1968. Those dates were chosen because in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unlawful and 1968 is the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”[i]
Lin's design is based on the calming and healing effect that water can have. It was inspired by a passage from King's "I Have a Dream" speech "...we are not satisfied, "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream..." Probably many of you have seen this memorial in Montgomery when you’ve taken the Civil Rights Trip with Ginger. I have not yet seen the memorial myself and I hope to some day. Lin’s work is extraordinary and the quote is so important to the movement.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we know, held radical positions and certainly during the 50’s and 60’s his understanding of racial equality and justice was that all people black and white were equal and as such, black people deserved a fair chance, fair wages, and an opportunity to live decently, respectfully, and safely. In his speeches, Dr. King often referred to the Prophets, and Biblical metaphorical language was peppered throughout his speeches and in this particular speech, ‘I Have a Dream’. He quoted the KJV twice:
I have a dream (King said) that one day ‘Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.[ii]’ This quote taken out of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, andNo, No, we are not satisfied until ‘… justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[iii]’ from our passage today in Amos.
The Book of the Prophet Amos is one of the earliest books of prophecy recorded around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, and marks a turning point in the history of religious worship in Israel. There is little hope and comfort in Amos - in fact, there is rant and rave in the voice of God especially in this particular oracle. God is not happy. God wants something different than what Israel was giving.
God speaks through the prophet Amos:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
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.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
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.
Let’s unpack all this. Amos is hopping mad! He speaks for God, telling us what the day of the Lord, or Yahweh, or God, is like. So, we can intuit that God is hopping mad also. That day, is not pretty. It’s when, sometime in the future, God will intervene and call for an accounting of what’s happening. Some might call that judgment day, but I know we don’t like to think about those things. We like things to be Hallmark cheery and bright. But this day will not be sunny and bright, it will be threatening like someone was terrified and running to get away from a lion only to be met by a very large bear on the path. Yikes! Or worse, you go into your quiet, clean and comfortable home, your personal sanctuary and lean up against the wall only to be bitten by a gnarly snake that was slithering out of the corner. That’s a surprise!
If that isn’t bad enough, then Amos tells the people how much God despises their worship and solemn assemblies, that God will absolutely not accept their sacrifices. God is so done with them! The rage in the words is palpable. God pleads, just take me away from their noisy songs and that incessant twanging of their harps. God wants nothing of that! All of their worship is rejected! What an affront? We work so hard at our worship, don’t we? We love our worship, don’t we? We miss our worship as we knew it pre-pandemic, don’t we? If we love it then, why does God reject it so? Why does the day of the Lord have to look like this? Can’t God just have a look-see and a check off the good, the accomplishments of a gathered people? We’re trying so hard, aren’t we? Certainly an accounting of what we have done would be pleasing to God.
But no, it is not. In fact, it is an anathema to God. Why then does that day have to be so threatening? The answer, of course, to this question is found in the last sentence of this passage. The only healing waters that will assuage God’s anger are justice and righteousness. Justice and righteousness are prerequisites for worship and that is what is acceptable. All that matters to God are justice - the determination and establishment of who is in the right and who is in the wrong, what is fair and equitable - and righteousness - the quality of life lived in service for others. Amos got it right as much as the people didn’t want to hear it, as much as the people didn’t want God to be angry with them.
Prophets speak the hardest truth no one wants to hear. A seminary professor of mine at Andover Newton always said, ‘be glad your daddy wasn’t a prophet.’[iv] It wasn’t easy for him and it wouldn’t have been easy for his family either. Another professor, Professor Steven Tull, Hebrew Bible Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary notes, “The passage from Amos cited by Dr. King powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice. Without right living, our prayers and hymns are just noise. He continues, ‘And lest we think that this is Amos’ view, or just the Old Testament’s view, the New Testament also proclaims this truth…… Without justice, right worship is impossible.” But Tull also notes, “… I am also persuaded that right living is impossible without right worship–or at least, very, very difficult!”[v]
Works Vs. Faith: It seems to me to be a theological chicken and the egg. What comes first, right worship or right living. Chicken? Or egg? I grew up as a Missouri Synod Lutheran and went to a Lutheran grade school and high school where religion classes and chapel were the weekly and daily norm. I remember, even as early as elementary school, a discussion by the pastor of works vs. faith. It was confusing and scary for a 10 year-old, and really shouldn’t have troubled the mind. But it did. Is it just ok to have faith and by extension, worship and church attendance, in order to make God happy or, do I need to do some good things to make God happy? I just didn’t understand, I couldn’t understand that as a child, so I decided to have faith and do good works, and in that way all my bases were covered. But of course, I grew up and understand that, and this passage in Amos much differently now. You cannot separate the two. Right living and right worship go hand in hand. Your right living stems out of your worship and faith, and your faith motivates you to live righteously, or in other words, just to do the right thing.
The Congregation: You, as a congregation, have taken great strides in lobbying and advocating for racial justice and equality. You have a Prison and Re-Entry Ministry, Refugee Resettlement, Environmental, Peace, Affirmation, and Justice Ministry Teams, you have Pastoral Care Ministries and Immigration and Sanctuary Ministry. You might say: we’re there, hey our ministries certainly undergird our worship, proof is in the pudding. Proof is in the Steeple and the Landmark newsletters. You can read about everything we do and are involved in right there in black and white. And that is good. Good on’ya!
However, this passage shouldn’t validate what you have done. If that was its purpose, then Amos wasn’t doing a very good job and we wouldn’t need it. We could just throw out and ignore this book in the Bible. Rather than have this passage confirm what you’ve done, how might this passage move you to a different place? How might it shake you up so that worship and service are intricately bound together? Not one against the other but blended beautifully so that it is seamless? So that all of the fine ministries here are an integration of faith, spirituality, worship, music, practice and of one another? Not separate entities with separate interests but holistic in nature and breadth. You know justice to one person means a whole something different to another person whatever the given topic. How might effective conversations happen that lift up all parties? It takes a whole heck of a lot of work but it is achievable. I know, I ask lots of questions. Blame it on my naïveté and my newness to this beloved community.
Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
MLK grave and waters: The Martin Luther King Jr. gravesite in Atlanta has evolved over time. Currently, his tomb, and that of Coretta, his wife, are located in the MLK National Historical Park. The tomb itself is surrounded by water, which, I believe is significant. Water represents life, in fact water is essential to life. It is healing. What we don’t see though around the tomb is a small reflecting pool. It is not like the still waters as the shepherd reminds us, nor stagnant or brackish water. Rather, around the tomb is moving water, it is continually in motion. At the top of the memorial are fountains of water that cascade down four ledges each repeating a line of this verse, ‘let just roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ culminating in the pool surrounding the tomb.
The waters that Amos spoke of, the waters that Jesus spoke of, are living waters. Water that gives life to and for all. Water that is just and honorable. It is a water source for all God’s diverse people, a stream that never dries up, a cup that is continually filled with this life-giving beverage, a cup that we are encouraged to drink from often. May we heed the words of Amos, and then hear them in a new way. May our worship and our service be reflective of the life-giving hope that we are called to live.
The names of 41 people are inscribed on the granite fountain as martyrs who were killed in the civil rights movement.[1
[ii] Isaiah 40:4-5, also from Hansen, Drew D. ‘the Dream:Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, Harper Collins, 2003.
[iii] Amos 5:24, ibid.
[iv] Mobley, Rev. Dr. Gregory. Andover Newton Theological School, @1997, assorted classes.
[v] Tull, Steven. Hebrew Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, ‘Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Prophet?’ From www.steventull.net, January 16, 2017.
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