Year A, Proper 27
November 9, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Why do you want the day of the Lord?”
Amos is the first of the great prophets of old. He lived in the Southern kingdom of Judah in the first half of the 8th century BCE. It was a peaceful time, mostly, prosperous, too. As is often the case, that prosperity gross inequalities between wealthy urban elites and the poor developed. The age of the jubilee, the forgiveness of debt every 50 years was over. It hadn’t lasted long. And through the manipulation of previously forbidden credit and debt, wealthy landowners amassed capital by taking (read foreclosing on) the holdings of small landowners and farmers. (Sound familiar?) The political situation was also contentious as factions fought over leadership. Should they follow the corrupt heirs of David’s line (favored by the wealthy) or someone they hoped would act like David, with (mostly) ethical, able leadership? O humanity! Some things change. Some things never do.
Amos lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. To the north was Israel. The nation had split into two kingdoms, ten tribes formed Israel, and the other two tribes formed Judah. The North was wealthy compared to Judah, and Amos, a small-scale farmer/herder in a rural Judean village heaped scathing critique on the corrupt opulence and immorality of the elites of Israel in their ivory beds anointing themselves with the finest oils, who, in his words, “trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth.” He also points out another cardinal sin of the elites, their smug piety and self-satisfaction that the Day of the Lord they would receive divine reward upon the earthly rewards they were already drawing upon.
So that is the stage set for our reading here today. Amos saw not only the injustice of the world he inhabited, the deviation from the moral path laid by God, but also the unrighteousness of a people not doing right by their neighbor. And these are all good Jews, God-worshipping, sacrifice-giving, church-going folks. That is not enough, says Amos. It is a clanging gong, a banging symbol, God hates our festivals, takes no delight in our solemn assemblies. God won’t accept our sacrifices, or hear the words of our songs or melody of our harps. What God wants is for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Kind of a funny thing to preach to in the midst of a solemn assembly such as this, where we offer sacrifice and praise to God, book-ended, as it is by harps and melodious songs. Kind of scary as we live in the Northern Kingdom of our age, 5% of the world’s population consuming 25% of its resources, dominating the international community with the imperial twins of military and financial might. It makes me really think. It makes me want to really ask, “what are we doing here?”
Well, what are we doing here? Not in a cosmic sense, not “why are we here?” But rather, “why are we here?” Right now, why are we sitting here in this beautiful room, all facing in towards one direction, all doing this together. What are we doing? What is the point? _____
Worship. Encountering Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of Eucharist. Giving thanks. Doing penance. Seeking forgiveness. Asking for healing. Seeking solace AND strength, pardon AND renewal. For some of us it is fun, beautiful, familiar. Maybe it is the only place you get to sing or spend a morning with friends away from the rest of your crazy life. Maybe it is the one place you can really remember someone. Maybe it is the only place you can really cry in the presence of others. Maybe this is the most light-filled, wholesome moment you have each week in a life lived in the shadows. For some of us it is simply the quietest hour of our week, there is deep quiet at the High Mass and at 8:00 and there are those who say that we cannot hear the still small voice of God over the din of our noisy worlds, inside and out. These and others are fine reasons for gathering here as we do. But joining Amos we must ask, why does it matter?
This is the moral hazard Amos is decrying. The wealthy, the successful, the healthy and educated praising God from the good fortune this life has given us. Amos is calling attention to those Jesus would later call the “first,” as in the first will be last and the last will be first, those who make a show of long faces during fasts, announce loudly their generosity, and pray on street corners for all to see. No, for Amos the Day of the Lord is a great accounting, a reversal of fortune when everything is turned upside down. What seems light becomes darkness and what seems dark becomes light, what seemed safe becomes dangerous and the now precarious become secure. The first will be last, the last will be first because God wants justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And yet we are here. Almost as poignant as Ash Wednesday where the text tells us to pray in private and not make a display of our piety on the one day per year at Christians are visible for their faith by the smudge on their foreheads. Does God despise our festivals? Does God hate our solemn assemblies? Why are we here?
A mark of human consciousness, a if not the distinguishing fact about humanity is that we seek to make meaning of the world. In so many ways we ask and answer the question “Why?” Why are we here? Why are we the way we are? Why is the world as it is? Why is it easy for some and so hard for others? Why am I going to die? Why?
What religion as a whole, and worship in particular does, is put us in a posture to encounter these big questions, to open us to new understandings, to show that our own knowledge and explanations are not sufficient, that there is always much, much more to our lives and our world than we can ever ask or imagine.
In our Anglican form of Christianity, worship, the liturgical gathering of a community is central to our shared life in God. One of the primary ways we as humans delve into the big why questions is to tell stories. Stories don’t answer the questions, but they put us in context with others, with the joy and suffering and questions we share, and in learning that we truly are not alone in this universe, we are able to make even just a little bit of meaning out of our own experience.
Our spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people, tell a story like this. For Israel, the key story is the Exodus story. Their enslavement, liberation and journey to the Promised land. Bondage and liberation. Exile and return. The Covenant God handed to Moses. The story reveals the meaning of life to the people of God: no matter what happens, how far you stray, how dark the night seems, God is active, God is with you, God is faithful.
We inherit that story, and God revealed to us its fulfillment in our common story: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our story is that God offered a new covenant in entering history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who brings us from darkness into light, from death into life. We were lost and now are found. The first will be last, the last will be first in the fullness of time. That is the story. And that story, the greatest story, it happens here. It is not just told, not just remembered, but happens. Right here. Right now. We are in the midst of it right this very moment, for in our worship we are called into the eternal and actual life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our worship, our liturgy in some mysterious way makes Christ’s story our story, makes Christ’s life our life.
We encounter this story in part in the stories themselves, in the Liturgy of the Word with hearing scripture, teaching and contextualizing the Word of God in the sermon, recitation of the historic creed and offering of prayers together. Then we move together to the Liturgy of the Table, the blessed sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ offered in the Eucharist.
It is all a mystery, but somehow, when we enter the Eucharist, things change. You can feel it, right? I can’t describe it, but something changes. “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your
Son.’ Sound familiar? “For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”
It is not some spell. It is not magic. Things don’t change in the world because some words are uttered or hands are waved, but gathered here together, facing in one direction, our attention and intention focused on that 12’x12’ square on the altar where by some mystery God in God’s self eternally and actually enters our presence as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the bread an wine that we share… That changes everything. Well, it can.
The Eucharist is a proclamation of a wider reality of God’s love for the world. It is a proclamation of Emmanuel, the real presence of God in this world with us, a God who came 2000 years ago in a backwater province of the Roman Empire and is really, really present for us in this very moment; is really, really present in the world that God continues to love so, so much. It is the proclamation of this, and by our presence and participation in this ritual reenactment through which meaning we cannot express in words or paint or wood or sound is expressed. The common activity of eating at a table together when ritually joined become, as one theologian writes, “acts through which we ourselves live into the story we have told.”
This sacramental theology is a bit more developed than what was present in 750 BCE when Amos was all riled up, but Amos’ critique is still just as valid: that is not enough. Drawing close to God, encountering Christ in the bread and wine, gaining strength and renewal, that is not enough. What is enough is that through “the innumerable benefits procured” in the Mass, we “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Entering through those big red doors to gather around the Lord’s table and participate in the mystery of the sacrament is one half of the equation. The second, what consecrates the activity of this Mass is what you do when you again cross the threshold of this Holy place. That is the heart of a sacramental life and why we gather as we do, that all of our life is aimed, focused, willing to be used for God’s purpose and not our own. In celebrating the sacraments, we encounter and express our understanding of our relationship with God and each other, and in living a sacramental life we are “the living out that relationship in the church and in the world.” Encountering Christ in church is the means; becoming Christ in the world is the end we seek.
Frank Weston, the Bishop of Zanzibar gave the concluding address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress in London in 1923. In it the Right Reverend captures the essence of not only Anglo-Catholicism, but of liturgical Christianity, of living a sacramental life, of the answer to Amos’ caution. We’ll conclude with Bishop Weston’s charge:
“But I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
Now there is something to aspire to.