A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Text: Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Last week, as we sat in this sanctuary celebrating the saints – past, present, and future – who have blessed our lives and the life of the church universal, a lone gunman stood at the door of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and indiscriminately mowed down the congregation. While reaching for the light of lives lived in loving and faithful service to God, we are once more plunged into the darkness, darkness which seems to become daily existence for us. We even begin to wonder if the end of the world may really be at hand.
Hatred and violence surround us – whether it is gun violence, sexual violence, the violence of hate speech and incivility, the violence of poverty and economic inequity, the violence of war with its threat of nuclear destruction, or the violence of people uprooted from the familiarity of home and forced to live in camps or on the run. Sadly, this list seems only to scratch the surface of what we are confronted with on a regular basis.
I said last week that these are times both tough and tender. Today’s texts touch on each. Let’s first turn to the tough and then see how we might tend to the tender. Amos was a prophet, one of the first recorded in biblical tradition. One important thing to note about Amos is that he was an unlikely prophet. He was an outsider to the established prophetic tradition. He was a shepherd and fig farmer from Tekoa, a village ten miles outside Jerusalem. Amos himself said, “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet,” (Amos 7:14), distancing himself from the established school of professional prophet. He sees them as having discredited themselves by flattering national vanities and ignoring the misdeeds of prominent leaders. Does that have familiar ring at all? Could we use some more prophets like Amos today, who might speak truth to power with unencumbered candor.
Amos traveled from Judah in the south to the northern kingdom of Israel to confront Jeroboam II and his court with the word of God, a word he claimed came directly to him. Amos brought his prophetic word to a court and to a people who were experiencing relative peace and prosperity under the long and stable rule of Jeroboam. I imagine, like many living in relative peace and prosperity in this country would be today, Jeroboam and the people of the northern kingdom were not eager to hear what Amos had to say.
You say you “desire the day of the Holy One.” Well, folks, you’d better beware what you long for. The day of the Holy One is more likely to bring darkness than light, to bring judgment than blessing on your comfortable lifestyle. Then Amos let’s God speak for God’s self, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” That does not exactly sound like good news. What is Amos up to, challenging these good people with such harsh claims for the Holy One?
Carolyn Sharp writes of the religious ritual of Amos’s time that, ideally, “Through these powerful rituals, a chastened and renewed Israel may approach the Holy One. But,” she warns, “the God of Amos thunders that these observances are despicable. Neither does God find acceptable the daily and weekly offerings that sanctify Israel’s living as a holy people. Even songs of praise offend God. Why?“ she asks, “Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshiping God.” She concludes, “Israel has always known that ritual observance and compassion for the powerless should not be separated. The Holiness Code is quite clear about this (see Leviticus 19). God has formed Israel to be both holy and merciful. What God condemns, then, is ritualism without heart” (Carolyn R. Sharp, “Commentary on Amos 5:18-24, November 9, 2008,” workingpreacher.org).
Tough words for tough times, surely for our tough times. Eileen called me last Sunday night just because she wanted a word from her pastor on a day when such a devastating act of evil had been done in a church at worship. What could I say to her? What can I say to you? What I can tell myself? How can we carry ourselves, profess good news, hold hope in such at time? There are no easy answers nor will any glib claims to thought and prayer assuage the grief or allay the despair.
The hollow claims that it is too soon to talk about, no to DO something, about responsible gun control as the blood of the faithful dries on the pews and floors of a congregation’s sacred space is absurd. The notion that an armed pastor and people will somehow insure safety and security is beyond absurd. This is a kind of religion without heart, certainly outside the heart of God. It is this religion without mercy, without justice that God, through the prophet, condemns.
As another prophet of our times, Martin Luther King tried to teach us, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So, it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” (Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches).
In other news, this week, amidst the unfolding darkness of spreading allegations of sexual harassment and abuse among prominent figures, it was reported that Alabama State auditor Jim Ziegler cited the Bible to defend U.S. Senate candidate and former judge, Roy Moore, accused of sexual advances on girls. Ziegler said, “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” suggesting that Moore acted in a divine tradition if he in fact made sexual advances toward a 14-year-old girl. Most Christians tried to distance themselves from this obscene observation. But Ziegler was dismissive about the fuss. “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Maybe just a little bit unusual” (foxnews.com, 11/11/2017).
These are just a couple of the most recent examples of how tough these times are, especially for people of faith. In the midst of our struggle and despair, how do we keep from bringing down God’s righteous wrath on our religious rituals, our festivals and solemn assemblies, our way of life? Sharp again writes, “The famous line, ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ is not a rousing call to believers to do good deeds.” She says, “It is a roar of outrage. Because of the hypocrisy of the community of faith, God’s own justice will roll down like floodwaters, and God’s own righteousness like a perpetual torrent! ‘Ever-flowing stream’ is far too gentle an image for the meaning of the Hebrew here. Amos’s point is this,” she concludes, “because God’s people have not shown justice to the poor, God has no choice but to unleash God’s own justice and righteousness as punishment” (Sharp, op cit.).
The challenge of our tough times is to immerse ourselves in God’s torrent of desire that justice and righteousness be our way of life at the same time we bow our heads in thought and prayer, in the same ceremonies in which we praise God and celebrate God’s good gifts to us all. For, “ritual observance and compassion for the powerless” must not be separated.
At the same time, we must tend to the tender. Paul, who did plenty of prophetic roaring of his own when the occasion called for it, apparently had a soft spot for this little community of new Christians gathered in Thessalonica. Maybe it was because they were so new to the faith that they still practiced their ritual with heart. Their deep concern for those of their number who had died touched something in Paul. He did not want them to despair as darkness descended on their days. “…we do not want you to be uninformed, beloved, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he writes. This is the line that jumped out at me as I reflected on Eileen’s question and on this week’s Bible study. I don’t want to find any of us, myself included, grieving without hope. Yes, times are tough, days are dark, loss is real, death touches us all. How do we keep ourselves from falling into a never-ending spiral of darkness and despair?
Here is our good news. We can grieve, as we must, but we can find ourselves grieving with hope. “For Christ, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet Christ in the air; and so we will be with the Holy One forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
As with last week’s words from Revelation, Paul is not concerned here with the details of apocalyptic rhetoric. He’s not writing to detail some remarkable rapture that will rescue the righteousness and damn the rest to brimstone and hellfire. He’s writing to a struggling community out of love and concern that they be able to grieve with hope. “…encourage one another with these words,” he urges. In her commentary on this letter, Linda McKinnish Bridges writes, “Paul’s words are intended to create a space for comfort for his grieving friends, not a millennial event chart for eager sky watchers (Linda McKinnish Bridges, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Thessalonians, p. 119).
These are tough and tender times. Daily we are confronted with the need for justice and righteousness. Daily we are confronted with the need for compassion and care. We separate these at our peril for these are qualities that characterize the God we serve, the Christ we follow, and the Spirit that moves us along. Grieve, as we must, while still holding hope for a faith that trusts the prophetic word that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that;” that “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Grieving with hope let us live on until we find our home in the light of Love. Amen.