(This is my sermon from Sunday, November 8, 2020 in response to the reading from Amos 5:18-24. You can find the recording of the full service on the church website – www.ststephenlc.org)
Aesop, the ancient master storyteller and teacher of fables once told this tale – One fine day two crabs came out of their home to take a stroll on the sand. “Child,” said the mother, “You are walking very ungracefully. You should accustom yourself, to walking straight forward without twisting from side to side.”
“Pray, mother,” said the young one, “Do but set the example yourself, and I will follow you.”
The moral of the story – Example is the best precept.
Another way of saying this is that congruency is the key. And what is congruency? It’s practicing what you preach.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase, “Do as I say, and not as I do.” This phrase is all about being incongruent.
Matthew Jones wrote an article in June 2018 for Inc magazine on congruency in the workplace. Here’s a portion of what he wrote – “When you were a child, what did you think of the person who told you to do what they say and not what they do. Perhaps you still respected and admired them. But as a grown adult who is less than pleased with authority breathing down your neck, when you see a leader preaching one thing and then practicing something different, you lose respect.
“You start zoning out. And you stop valuing that person’s opinion. Because you know that on some fundamental level, they’re full of it. It creates a culture of hypocrisy that threatens the very fabric of your company. It shows employees that honesty, transparency, and congruence don’t really matter. It sets the precedent that employees can take shortcuts. That they can do whatever they want so long as they don’t get caught. No one wants to work for a boss who gives lip service to aspirations and then doesn’t follow up with meaningful action.”
What Mr. Jones writes doesn’t just apply to corporate situations. It applies anywhere. Maybe especially so when it comes to matters of faith.
This isn’t really a radical notion though. Throughout Scripture we hear plenty of verse from prophets and Apostles, martyrs and patriarchs, and Jesus himself gives this very same message. Maybe the most famous of which is in Luke 6:46 where Jesus asks this question – “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I tell you?” Jesus cares are congruency. Our Gospel passage today is all about that. And so is our first reading from Amos.
A prophet’s job is to represent God to the people. To share the Word of God with the people. And often that word is not something the people want to hear. Often that word exposes our incongruencies between what we claim we believe and how we live it. Scripture can come down on us like a hammer. The idea being that it reminds us that we are broken, that the idea of being self-sufficient when it comes to our faith is lacking. Words of judgement in Scripture drive us to God because we have nowhere else to go.
Amos was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Throughout his prophetic career, he would bring words of condemnation to the surrounding nations and tribes around Israel. The powers that be in the Northern kingdom liked that. But then Amos brought words of condemnation on the northern kingdom itself.
The Lutheran Study Bible summarizes Amos’ message this way: “Even though the people of the northern kingdom lived in a time that was relatively peaceful and prosperous, they used their wealth for personal comforts, not to help others. Unfair business practices and oppressive taxes that squeezed the poor were common.
The Study Bible concludes its introduction of Amos this way: “The message of Amos is a challenge to people and nations caught up in the pursuit of material wealth and comfort. Societies driven by consumerism can lose sight of faithful stewardship of wealth and the just distribution of goods. Amos reminded the people that true faithfulness is trusting in God alone and treating the neighbor with justice.”
Charles Aaron, Jr, an associate Professor at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas offered this commentary on today’s reading from Amos: “The concepts of justice and righteousness go together. Justice refers to fairness, attention to the needs of the poor, an end to oppression, a legal system that protects the rights of all people. Righteousness connotes healthy relationships, a sense of commonality, a recognition of God as the one who has formed the people into a community, a respect for the bonds among the people. The image of justice rolling down like waters calls for justice to happen immediately, like a sudden deluge. The poor and marginalized should not have to wait for justice. Justice must happen now, with the urgency of a storm. The ever-flowing stream calls for a steady supply. The community should sustain justice. Justice should remain available just as a stream provides a reliable source of water.”
All of that great. It’s right on target. I can’t disagree with a single thing that I read out to you. And yet, I’m struck by something. Without congruency – practicing what we preach – it might as well be empty words.
One thing seems pretty clear to me right now – that the US is a mission field. Not the type of mission field in which we go and cajole and coerce people into some kind of forced conversion. No, there’s a real opportunity here to not just proclaim the Good News of Jesus, but to actually live it out – to be congruent. People are desperate for that. They are desperate for a congruent church. One where the God of love and justice is proclaimed and they experience those very things. A church that is an ever-flowing stream that provides a reliable source of water in justice, hope, and more. This is why we gather and are sent out. To drink in this life-giving water and then to scatter it far and wide like a firefighter’s hose that has an endless supply of life-giving water – with justice and righteousness infused right into it, and into our community, in our neighborhoods, in our institutions, our families, in our policies, and in the world.
For far too long we have been presented with a civic and cultural Jesus that has been created in our own image, likeness, and beliefs, instead of the Jesus that Scripture presents. The Jesus of Scripture is far more challenging to our ways of living, being, and thinking in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history than we care to consider. Too often this civic and cultural Jesus has been manipulated for political, economic, and other reasons in an effort to assert power over people – not set people free. For far too long we claim to follow Jesus, but then hear a co-opted message – a message that skews Jesus’ call to love our neighbor and our enemies into a message where all we care about it taking care of ourselves and rationalizing why it’s ok to not love anyone we don’t want to. We hear a message that abuses love and peace as a way of being and living and relating with one another into a destructive message endorsed by our civic and cultural Jesus where the ends justify the means. It’s a conflicted Jesus. An incongruent Jesus.
And when we think of today’s passage in Amos, and we hear such strong words of judgement proclaimed by the prophet, are we listening? God speaks through Amos and declares – “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. I do not accept your offerings. Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen.”
Ouch. Those words sting. This is God speaking. Speaking to Israel. Telling the nation that its incongruency is insulting to God. Saying the right words and going through the motions, but then turning its back on God in how it lives and mistreats the poor and marginalized is a huge insult to God. And it will end for Israel as Amos foretold – with Assyria conquering Israel.
I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not strong enough to be that consistent. I’m just a broken man. So, when I hear the end of this passage from Amos, it gives me hope.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Water is life giving. It is refreshing. And it’s out of my control.
Have you ever spilled water from a cup on the kitchen table? The water just flows all over. It takes the path of least resistance and spreads out far and wide. It’s amazing how much water is really in a cup once it flows from a spill. My best efforts to try and control the spilling out are worthless.
That’s what I think of when I hear “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” God’s ways are congruent, while mine are not. They flow out naturally, while mine are forced.
And when I hear, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” I don’t think of a gentle slow flowing calm shallow stream. I think of a waterfall. A deluge of water that never ends. Powerful and unable to be controlled. This is God’s justice. This is what righteousness is about. While I might be able to manipulate a gentle, slow flowing calm and shallow stream. There is no way I can do anything to affect a waterfall. It doesn’t matter how hard I try. God’s love is like that. God’s justice is to. So is righteousness. They will flow, no matter how incongruent we are. No matter how we try to manipulate God.
God’s ways don’t rely on us. They flow regardless of how we get in the way, like a mighty waterfall rolling down, like an ever-flowing stream of water that will not quit.
God’s vision is bold. It is not subject to human limitations and boundaries and control. But it is transformative. It touches our hearts – softening them to be able to love our neighbor and our enemies because they bear the image of God. God wipes our eyes so that we can see God’s justice in action. God opens our ears to hear the stories of those in poverty, marginalized, and oppressed. To hear their names. To hear their worth and value. To hear how we are just like them and to hear our footsteps as we walk with them. To know that we are standing in God’s stream together. And God sends us out to live out the faith that we have been given. We won’t always be congruent. But then again, it’s not relying on us. Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.