Sermon for Reformation Sunday Oct. 28th, 2012, on Amos 2:6-8, 5:12-15, 21-24 and Matt. 25:31-40
Amos 2:6-8, 5:12-15, 21-24
2:6 Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
5: 12 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.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
5:14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
5:21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 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.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The Connection between Money, Politics, and Love
The First Issue of the Protestant Reformation
I was horrified when I learned about the things that were going on within the church before the Protestant Reformation. It was all about money. Some leaders in the church were preying upon the religious sentiments of naive people in the quest for more money. In those days the church was conducting a medieval version of a capital campaign to raise money to build St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
Here’s how it worked. They sent preachers around to spread the word that if people put money into the collection, they could buy an
“indulgence” from the pope, by which their deceased loved ones could get out of purgatory. This is classic economic exploitation. Of course people, even desperately poor people, put money in the collection. Who could let grandma stay there in purgatory one more minute?
Well this abuse horrified a young monk, a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany, named Martin Luther. He wanted a debate about it – as all good professors would. So, on October 31, 1517 he nailed his list of 95 statements we know as the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church, and waited for the counter-arguments.
Luther’s 95 Theses
Luther was a clever professor-monk. He at least pretended to believe that the Pope was ignorant of the abuse conducted in his name, and that he too would have been horrified if he knew what was being preached. Listen to Luther’s Thesis #50.
“Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”
On this Reformation Sunday, we remember well the issue that got the Protestant Reformation started; economic exploitation.
A World with Little Love Lost
How would you like to have been one of those poor peasants back then? We would never wish that world on anyone we loved. In fact, we would wish the opposite for them.
If you love someone, what kind of world do you wish for them? You would want people you loved to grow up in a world in which they had a decent chance to live decently; a world in which no one was abusing them or taking advantage of them. You would want it to be the case that if they worked hard and were responsible, they would reap the rewards of their efforts and live a normal, happy life. That is what you want for those you love.
Our Love-in-Action Story
Today, the subject is a love story. It’s the story of a God who loves the people he made. When we were young, we thought of love as a feeling; the feeling of closeness and affection we have towards family, and close friends. But adults know that love must mean so much more than feelings. Love is a catalyst; it produces action. In the same way that love for her child compels a mother, not just to feelings of affection, but to tend and nurture that child 24/7 for years, so all loving includes looking out for the practical wellbeing of the beloved.
This is why it is so incredibly great to know God in the way that we know God. Here’s why; ask yourself the question: who did the gods of the ancient world love? They loved only themselves. They wanted humans to honor them, bow to them, offer them sacrifices to feed them; it was all about satisfying the love-needs of the god. Marduk, Baal, Molech, they were all that way.
But our story is a love story about a God who loves, not himself, but us! Not just theoretically or emotionally, but practically, as a mother loves her children.
The Way of the World and the Moses-Alternative
In the ancient world, most people were peasants, many were slaves in bondage to a very small royal family and a small class of land-owning gentry. Most people had no chance to live a decent life.
But consider our story: Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, not just with ten commandments, but with all of Torah (which we call, “the law”). Torah was a whole new re-design for common life. In Torah, all the 12 tribes of Israel were on the same level. There was no royal tribe, no servant tribes; all of them were equal before the law.
Each tribe, according to Torah, was given land, and each Israelite had the opportunity to work hard, be diligent, responsible, and productive. That design is part of the love story we tell. God, who created every person equally in his image, provided conditions by which all of their needs could be met. There was equality of opportunity. That is what love means in practice.
Opportunity and Outcomes
But equality of opportunity is not the only way love looks in practice. It cannot stop there, because even if everyone is equal before the law, with an equal amount of land and opportunity, there are severe inequalities that every community experiences.
Some people are born strong and healthy; others are born with physically, mentally or psychologically challenging conditions. Accidents happen. War or diseases can take away a family’s breadwinner. The book of Ruth is the story of a family who, through no fault of their own, experienced both famine and the deaths of all the male breadwinners. Equality of opportunity alone does not produce good outcomes for any of these kinds of problems. What does love do about that?
The Torah of Moses included provisions for people like Ruth and Naomi. Gleaning laws meant that they would have sources of food in every harvested field. The Sabbath year laws meant that debts were forgiven, so a permanent poor class would never develop.
The Jubilee every 50 years meant that land would return to its original owner, restoring the possibility of every family to begin again, as productive citizens.
Tithe laws set aside funds to help the poor and the needy, typically called “the widow, the orphan and the resident-alien.” This is how Torah works-out love in action. So this is a love story. Love in action is economic, and it is political because it involves the well being of the entire community.
The Dark Side of us
But we humans have a dark side. The ones with the advantage quite often take advantage. It happened in Israel. Israel became a monarchy with a royal class, the rich acquired the land of the poor and turned them into debt-slaves. Large estates gobbled up peasant farms. Corruption in the law courts, cheating in business transactions, oppression of workers – it all became common (there are no new ideas).
This is what Amos said that God was so upset about. Instead of being a community based on love-in-action, Amos said the Lord was angry with them because:
“… they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; …so that my holy name is profaned;” (Amos 2:6–7)
And the truth was that since God was not like the other gods of the pagan world, loving himself only, wanting religious ritual just to satisfy his own ego needs, he didn’t even want any religious practice from people who were exploiting the poor people whom he loved. Amos quotes the Lord as saying,
“21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 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. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21–24 )
Love in Action = Justice
God loves us so much that he wants our good; our practical good, our economic wellbeing. You cannot love someone and put up with their neglect, abuse or exploitation. These words of Amos have become famous:
“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
What is justice? It does not only mean equality of opportunity, it means addressing grossly unequal outcomes on behalf of those who are hurting. We are called to be a community that promotes both disciplined responsibility and productivity, and that shows practical, meaningful love to people in need.
Does this have economic and political implications? Sure it does. Love always does. Love cannot wish a world of suffering, exploitation or deprivation on anyone. Love looks at the facts, and responds.
The Love Story Conclusion
Our love story, like every serious love story, has a powerful conclusion. The Lord Jesus asks us to think of it as a world-wide moment of
reflection. It comes at the end, when the Son of Man comes in his glory. Everyone gathers before him, rich and poor, able-bodied and challenged, caucasians and all others, all of the people he made in his image and whom he loves.
He has a question that everyone must answer. Like all of the pagan gods, he asks, “What have you done for me?” But unlike any of the other gods, he counts, as correct answers, only the practical love that they have shown to others. To the righteous who have shown this kind of love-in-action to others, he says,
“35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matt. 25)
This leaves them confused. They ask,
“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’”
But it’s not meant to be tricky nor a surprise at all. He answers,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
A moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that the only possible world that a God of love would wish upon the people he made is one in which they all show practical love to each other.
Of course he would want them to live in a world of justice, with equal opportunity, but he knows that every community experiences tragedy; every community knows pain, and every community of humans like us, with our dark sides, knows plenty of man-made inequality and evil. And so a God of Love would, of course, also want a community that addressed outcomes, so that, justice could,
“roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
All that rolling, overflowing, streaming water is bound to make a pretty wet world. Well, maybe that is exactly the world that the community of the baptized prefers. A world in which the waters of grace, of mercy, of redemption that we were born from, are the waters of love and justice that we lavishly splash around, until everyone is soaking in them.