“Let Justice Roll Down”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 14, 2018
University Baptist Church
The prophet Amos could have been writing today.
It seems that each day we get a new thing that needs to be addressed in today’s sermon. Here’s what has happened since Monday.
First it was the rollback of TPS (Temporary Protection Status) for El Salvador, ripping families apart here in the US and crippling the poor country apart. Money sent back from the US accounts for 20% of the Salvadoran economy. They do not have the infrastructure, the jobs nor the capacity to absorb the more than 200,000 Salvadorans living in the US (and paying taxes here) who face deportation, even if they have spouses or children who are US citizens. The rejection of TPS does nothing but punish people and countries. It does not serve our national interest and it is certainly not Christian.
Then there were the Golden Globes and wonderful speeches, especially by Oprah. The fact that one great speech could have people salivating over you as a potential presidential candidate shows us just how hungry we are for some reversal of this current nightmare of leadership. Some of my colleagues mused that they were going to polish their weekend sermons with the hope that if they hit it out of the park, they too might be drafted to run for president. I harbor no such delusions.
Today’s Star Tribune talks about a shortage of workers in Minnesota, especially for low-wage jobs—a niche once filled by immigrants. Might these companies choose to relocate out of Minnesota? What if DACA recipients lose their protection? What if the purported 11 million people are deported who do not have proper documentation? Who will fill their place in the workforce?
Then came the president’s comment on Thursday that Haiti, El Salvador, and most of Africa are countries likened to “latrines.”
If that weren’t enough, a supposed missile was on its way to Hawaii. While it was a false alarm, the current flexing of muscles between the goofy presidents of the US and North Korea make us think it could be real.
All of these distract us from the deregulation that is making the world dirtier while lining the pockets of even more billionaires.
Amos warned us about this. You can see it through his writings.
Amos wrote words of criticism to the people of Israel:
“The word of God came to Amos, a shepherd. “Hear this word of lamentation, O house of Israel: Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up.
Amos spoke these words when everything seemed to be going great. At least that’s what it seemed like on the surface. There was peace in the land. There was financial security. There was a sense of purpose. The people were prosperous. All was right with the world, or so it seemed.
Amos said that there was something seething under the surface. He called it idolatry, this thought that security meant that we did not need to give any critical thinking about our very lives.
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so YHWH, the God of hosts, will be with you. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that YHWH, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”
“Wake up. Seek me and live, says God. I’m talking to you, the one who turns justice to wormwood, and brings righteousness to the ground! I am God. I made the Pleiades and Orion. I turn deep darkness into the morning, and darken the day into night.” Amos was their wake-up call. And he was pretty much ignored.
“They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth…Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
Amos starts out with a criticism of the national policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Then he wails at the religious institutions that prop it all up. I hate, I despise your feasts…take away from me the smell of your burnt offerings. Silence your musicians. Here’s what I really want: Justice to flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
That’s Amos’s mission statement. It was one of Martin Luther King’s favorite quotes “Let justice roll down like a mighty water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream(5:24).” We can almost hear the cadence of his voice as we repeat those words, sing them, imagine them. But look earlier in the chapter. Amos criticizes the people for their empty worship that is devoid of justice—or that lulls people into a delusion that their liturgical righteousness is somehow divorced from their social righteousness. I think about this when we hear only the end King’s 1963 speech. We can resonate with the “I have a dream” portion, but start to squirm when we consider the first half of the speech where King lays down an indictment of the US policy and practice toward minority folks. King says that the country had written a bad check on nation’s moral account. Here’s an excerpt from the speech:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
The prophet Amos railed against the righteous people who claimed that God was on their side because they participated in worship services. In today’s scripture, Amos challenged the people to engage in a more worthy type of worship. He says the worship he would like is the one where “justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Intervarsity Press, 2003), Glen Stassen and David Gushee state that the Bible has 1,060 uses of the two Hebrew and two Greek words for justice. In contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear 90 times. They say, “There really is no theme more central to biblical faith than the matter of justice.” They devote an entire chapter to detailing the forty occasions in which Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his time over their injustice. If we are truly followers of Jesus, we must be about reversing injustice and letting justice roll down like waters.
A clergy friend mused: “If your church isn’t working for social justice, you are not attending church. You are merely being entertained.”
Amos’ critique was that amidst their wealth, the people did not care for the poor. They seemed to have succumbed to the just us temptation. We remember that the prophet Micah asked what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Justice, not just us.
If justice is to truly roll down, we can’t wait for our leaders to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It needs to be demanded by the oppressed and their allies.
That means we have our work cut out for us. We need to call out racism when we see it. We need to call out sexism when we see it. We need to call out homoprejudice when we see it. We need to show that justice is not about just us. It’s about all of God’s people. It’s about seeing with new eyes.
A year ago, hundreds of thousands marched across the country, mostly women, after the inauguration. That’s a good start. People have taken knees to protest police brutality. People have begun a new Poor People’s Campaign. People are motivated to protect voting rights, even as the polls are purged in Florida, Ohio, Alabama and several other states. Here are a few excerpts from their platform:
- We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in the nation from personal issues like prayer in school, abortion, sexuality, gun rights, property rights to systemic injustices like how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, children, workers, immigrants and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.
- We recognize the need to organize at the state and local level—many of the most regressive policies are being passed at the state level, and these policies will have long and lasting effect, past even executive orders. The movement is not from above but below.
- We uphold the need to do a season of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience as a way to break through the tweets and shift the moral narrative. We are demonstrating the power of people coming together across issues and geography and putting our bodies on the line to the issues that are affecting us all.
More information is available on www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.
Many of us are working toward a faithful agenda to be a part of Minnesota’s politics in the coming election cycle. That’s a good start. Let Justice roll down.
The second part of Amos 5:24 says “Let righteousness flow like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice and righteousness are closely linked and compliment each other. This means morality and ethics and right living. Let righteousness, our moral integrity never be compromised. Don’t go down to the lowest common denominator. Don’t demonize enemies. Hold them accountable and hold their actions as warnings of how our collective moral compass is mis-aligned. When we all live with justice and righteousness, it’s like a river of paradise, an ever-flowing stream that begets mercy, compassion and love—not violence, hatred and terror. Love, said Martin Luther King, Gandhi and implied Jesus is stronger than hate. Even if hate is tastier, it burns hot and it burns us out. We need a sustaining heat source. And that source is love. That’s what Amos was talking about. That’s what King was talking about. That’s what we’re about.
My friends, the church is about justice. It’s not about just us. It’s not about an exclusive club. It’s about a commitment to a lifestyle that will set you and others free. Let’s hear Amos’ words anew. Let’s remember Dr. King’s words, too. But let’s not just remember them to roll them out once a year. Let’s remember that when we are connected to a plan for a just world, then we are doing worship right.
Last Sunday, over 1,000 people of faith gathered at the Basilica to affirm that all people regardless of their immigration status or religion deserve respect and dignity. The service included leaders from the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities. They all affirmed the need to be governed and ruled by a higher law of love and respect. That’s our moral mandate in such a time as this.
We end our services with the words “Now the service begins.” This means that we have heard, prayed, even sung about the message of the Gospel which seeks to reverse the ways of the world or at least our priorities. Our work begins, our service begins as we enter the world.
So, let justice roll down like a mighty water.
Let righteousness flow like an ever-flowing stream.
Let us seek the tired the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Let us live in peace.
Let us live in courage.
Let us shine our light so that those who have lost hope might once again dream that peace is possible.
Let those who are told they come from inferior countries celebrate their dignity.
Let us create safe spaces, sanctuaries for people to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
Let us cash the check of justice from the promissory note of this great country.
Let us revers out tendency to think only of ourselves, for we are all one people—the rich, the poor; the black, the white; the native born, the immigrant.
Let us imagine and work together for a world where those once cast aside will be truly free at last.
Let us believe we shall overcome someday.