Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 9, 2016
University Baptist Church
We have reached the final of three sermons focusing on the great words of the Prophet Micah: What does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Two weeks ago, we looked at being humble, or knowing that someone else has more wisdom, more clarity, more holiness than us. Walking humbly is remembering that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and we cannot do it alone.
Loving mercy means being compassionate, even when it is not in your self-interest. All of us could use some mercy from time to time. Especially when we have really stepped out of line. Mercy is the lifeblood of the Christian life. Humility is our head. Mercy is our heart. Justice is our hands and feet.
Justice is the first thing that God says is required of us. Justice is often confused with charity. Charity is what we do out of our abundance. It’s important work. It’s compassionate and merciful. But it’s not justice. The justice piece has to do with leveling the playing field. Doing justice means making society better. It’s about advocacy. Cornell West writes that justice is what love looks like in public.
Charity is vitally important. It’s a measure of a person’s compassion. But it should not be a substitute for justice. Charitable giving is even more problematic. Do people give to charity because of the tax deduction? Would we give without the tax deduction? Do we need a financial incentive in order to do good in the world? We don’t necessarily monetize our time and talent. Imagine if we put a dollar figure on all of the time that people at this church or any church put in toward helping the operation keep afloat or the amount of person-hours we spend lobbying or writing letters, or getting out the vote, or holding a picket sign.
Amos has some pointed words for people who have the form of religion, but not the function. The form of religion is the coming to church. It’s the participating in the rituals and rites of a religious community. It’s important stuff. It helps center us and puts us in a community of support and accountability. But it’s not enough. It needs to mean something. Coming to church ought to motivate us to do something. If it doesn’t then we have done something wrong. Amos said,
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. (Amos 5:21-24)
That means don’t build a dam to hold back the flood of justice. It means give a damn about the state of the poor and excluded. Let the waters flow freely and water us like a garden. You know what happens when you try to hold in water by building too many walls and dams. Water flows where we want it for a while and we can irrigate crops. But floods do happen. And if there is nowhere for the water to go, no wetlands to absorb the flow, then the result is a flood that decimates the good people in its way. It’s like that with race in this country. There has been so much subtle and not so subtle racism: micro aggressions and macro aggressions. The pressure has built up so much that it bulges the walls. We should not be surprised when it overflows.
But there is something we can do about it. This weekend is called Columbus Day. Do we celebrate the start of the conquest of this continent, or do we celebrate the indigenous people who predated most of us? On this holiday, many of us are going to be gathering for a new morality movement at Plymouth Congregational Church. We will in particular choose to proclaim that the religious right, with its focus on issues like abortion, and the anti-homosexual crusade do not speak for all Christians. In the run-up to this election, it’s imperative that we lift up the morality espoused by Micah: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. My old preaching professor James Forbes will join with North Carolina pastor William Barber II to talk about the core of Christianity’s moral power. And that is to do justice. As Barber said in yesterday’s Star Tribune,
“Our moral revival challenges the narrow moralistic position that the preeminent issues today are about prayer in public schools, abortion, and hostility to homosexuality. Instead, we believe that our much larger moral concerns are the stubborn racial divides and economic inequalities that are rending our nation asunder.
We draw our strength from the timeless imperatives in all faiths to love and care for one another. We embrace the Christian teaching, fundamental in all human spirituality, that we will be judged by how our society treats “the least” among us — the poor, those on the margins, women, children, workers, the immigrants and strangers in our midst.
Just as important, we uphold the U.S. Constitution and those lofty principles in the Preamble that require us to create a more perfect union, establish justice, and promote the general welfare. And we zealously embrace the amendments to that Constitution that have expanded freedom and equality to people who were excluded at the founding of our nation.
Our movement’s Higher Ground Moral Declaration is not just about high principles, important as these are. We get specific about policy questions that we will ask of all candidates, and on which we will evaluate them. For example:
Do you endorse full funding and support for early education programs, and reducing costs for college and post-secondary education? Do you support policies that provide affordable housing to anyone who needs it? Do you believe in a robust public investment in infrastructure that will create jobs and build racial equity in our workforce? Do you support targeted worker training programs and economic development programs for poor and minority communities? Do you support the “Fight for $15” and a living minimum wage? Do you believe in the right of workers to collectively bargain, including public employees? Do you support the expansion of Medicaid and universal health care, and the right of women to choose their own healthcare options? Do you support ending race- and partisan-based gerrymandering of voting districts?
All of us in this Moral Revival will do everything in our power to ensure that candidates who respond affirmatively to these questions prevail this November. But our movement will continue regardless. Dr. King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We share that unshakeable faith and know that we and our better angels will prevail, eventually, in improving the lives here on earth of all God’s children."
A group of clergy and others are going to do some door knocking on the north end on Saturday October 29th, under the leadership of the multifaith and multiracial community organizing group ISAIAH. The goal is to make sure people vote, but to also hear what their concerns are. As one person from Isaiah said, “people are so glad to have someone to listen to them. Most of them think no one cares.” Here’s our chance to start a different narrative. If you want to join me, let me know.
We are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. We can’t do that if we are not connected with each other. We need to take seriously Micah’s encouragement to take justice seriously. And yes, we need to take sexual assault seriously. This is not laughing matter.
There are groups of people who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I know that’s how we try to live our lives. I know Phi Beta Chi focuses on these core Christian principles. But it takes work. And sometimes it puts us out of step with our neighbors. But it is so worth it. Baptist Peace Fellowship comrade Greg Jarrell wrote this piece recently about the intentional Christian community in which he lives in Charlotte, NC:
It is a Friday night not long after I have moved to Enderly Park, which is located on Jesus’ side of the tracks. Our living room is filled with teens. We are playing cards, not because we like cards that much, but because we like being together. The cool fall air has brought us in from the porch, but we can still hear the drum line at the high school football game just down the road. The hour is growing late when two of our favorite young men come dashing in. They have been out walking and have heard gunshots near them. In fear, they run to the nearest safe place they know.
They recount the whole experience to us — the proximity of the shots, the sounds of the voices, their dash down the street. We laugh together because their narration is funny, though their subject matter is serious. Humor hedges against terror. But while we laugh, their insides are roiling and ours are too. We all know that this is neither the first time nor the last time we will have this feeling, knowing that a life can vanish at any time and maybe almost did. Our love for one another cannot prevent cruelty from snuffing out a bright light.
We begin to settle back in when we note the drone of a helicopter above. The police are out searching for a suspect. They are being aided by a few cruisers riding down the street. We are grateful to be inside, safe and together.
But then an officer walks onto our porch. I greet him at the door, cautious and respectful, and note that there are three others running down our driveway. There are two more in the front yard to the left. Three near the pecan tree by the street. Two cruisers parked on the side street. At this point it becomes clear that the helicopter is not just close by, it is hovering above our house. We are surrounded.
“We are looking for two black males, one shorter than the other, wearing dark clothes,” I am told. “Two who match that description were seen entering your house a few moments ago.”
This description fits basically every pair of black males on any street at night, which I now know was the point. To live with sun-kissed skin is to always be suspect. The concentration of melanin constitutes the crime. I did not yet know that, but the lesson comes down hard on me, and immediately. In any neighborhood where the disinherited stand, as Howard Thurman says, “with their backs against the wall,” the freedom to move without restriction can be seized at any moment. Worse, life can be snuffed out. It can be ended, in public, on video for the whole world to see, and no one will be held responsible.
I try to explain to the officer: “These children who just entered my house are looking for safety. I know them and can assure you they are not responsible. You are in the wrong place, and the real suspects are getting further away.”
We discuss, insofar as you can have a discussion when the other side is fortified by a dozen armed men and a helicopter droning overhead. The course of action is laid out to us in this way: The victim of an attempted carjacking is one block over in a patrol car. The two young men are to walk out onto our porch, and an officer will drive the victim by our house. Every police car is equipped with a blinding light mounted to the roof. They will stop the car and shine that light onto our boys for the victim to see. He will either positively or negatively identify them.
We are surrounded, we are nervous, and we do not know what to do. We intuit this is risky, but the boys, portraying confidence in themselves, insist that they should do it. Out of options, the rest of us adults choose the only thing left — we will join the lineup as well.
I do not know if allowing those young men to step outside was the right thing to do in that situation. At that moment I did not then perceive that we had a choice. Here is what I do know: I know that when the weight of a system designed to crush people you love is bearing down on your friends, you stand next to them. You become potential suspects, loving accomplices. When you love your neighbor, you stand shoulder to shoulder to stare down the heat of the blinding white gaze. When the spotlight is robbing them of their dignity, turning boys into men far too young, you keep your eyes open and refuse to look away. When you can, you stand in front of those boys, using your body as a shield. You become a party to the crime of demanding full humanity and nothing less. When you still see that light later that night because it has seared your retinas, you sit with the scars. The scales will soon begin to fall off your eyes. You learn that the Damascus Road runs through your neighborhood.
The call comes. These are not the guys. But our legs still tremble. Our relief is tempered by cold reality. It is not hard to see that having a burning, blinding spotlight aimed at them is not new for my friends. I sense that the “hounds of hell,” in Thurman’s phrase, will show up in many forms. They will always be nipping at my neighbors’ heels. Standing next to one another, holding hands and praying, is all we can do sometimes. Sometimes that prayer even works. But the day is coming when it will not be enough.
Here is what I know, years later: for all of us, but especially for those of us who believe we are white, the day has come where our prayers are no longer enough. No, that is not quite correct. That day came long ago. We have been told for decades, even centuries, about the destruction that has been wrought in black communities around our country. Much of this destruction has been entirely legal. Now we live in a day where only obstinance and indifference can explain our ongoing recalcitrance. We have refused to listen, refused to believe. The terror of the gaze of white supremacy continues beating down upon children of God, and now we are seeing it ourselves through cell phone videos, surveillance footage and body cameras. There is no sand left to bury our heads in.
The spotlight is on all of us today. We may risk burning our skin and damaging our eyes, but the call is as clear as it ever has been: Join the lineup. Get in the streets. Raise a ruckus in the boardroom and the council chambers and at your family reunion. Commandeer a pulpit. Take over a highway. Examine your own soul. Stop believing the lie. Raise up your children in Truth.
Neither dispassionate analysis, nor careful moderation, nor silent contentment, nor running away and pretending not to see will suffice any longer. It is time to show up, to stand up, and to put ourselves on the line for justice. Love compels us, and it is only Love given birth in flesh that will finally save us.
My friends, you know what is good. The prophet Micah tells us what we already know in our bones. And what does God require of us, but that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. May that become our lives’ mantra. May we judge ourselves by this criteria. And in so doing, may we be the Good News of God.