11-12-17                 Let Justice Flow

Let’s say I’m a really smart guy.  I know for some of you that’s a real stretch, but I’m telling the story here so let’s just pretend.

And let’s say my mom raised me to be a hard worker and my dad sent me to the best schools—which he could do because he was really rich.  And after all that hard, smarts enhancing work, let’s say I got lucky and ended up working right here in Mt Vernon.

Now imagine we are a few years into the future.  The changes in the climate that have been burning up the west and drowning the south and melting the far north have come to our part of the country.  It’s late August and Wisconsin in in the worst drought ever recorded—not a drop of rain since April, after a winter with almost  no snow.

And it’s hot.  We’ve already had 20 days at or near 100 and the last 4 days have reached 105.  It was 90 at 8 a.m. this morning and we’re expecting 107 by noon.  The demand for air conditioning is putting a terrible strain on the electrical grid.  There have already been sporadic power outages.

Now I’m a really smart guy, remember.  And I was thinking just this morning that if the power were to go out here we would not be able to get water.  No electricity, no well pump, no water.  And I thought, because I am smart, you know, and resourceful and entrepreneurial, that maybe I should put some water aside just in case.

So here we are on Sunday morning, 10 a.m.  The temperature has already hit 98.  There are nearly a hundred of us here because the whole town has come to pray for rain.  We have 6 big fans running and they just barely keep up with the corporate sweating going on.  

I’ve just started my sermon—when the power goes out.  The fans stop turning.  The air seems to die.  It feels like the temperature spikes up another 10 degrees.  Someone checks their smart phone and discovers the grid is down over all of southern Wisconsin; and because of some glitch in the system no one prepared for, there is no water flowing anywhere.  It’s going to take at least a week to get the power back on.

Someone else in the congregation wails, “My goodness, what do we do now!”  And a child cries out, “Mama, I’m thirsty!”

You, understandably, are all a bit anxious.  This is serious.  In this heat you can’t live long without water.

And I raise my hands and say, “Don’t worry, folks.  I’ve got this under control.  I figured there was a chance the power would go out this morning so I thought ahead (I’m really smart, remember) and I did the hard work of collecting a whole gallon of water right here in my jug.  So don’t worry about me.  I can keep right on preaching as long as my water holds out.  I’ll be fine.”

And from the back row there Tom waves his hand and says, “Hey Brad, don’t you think you should share that?”  

And I say, “No, I don’t.  Look, I’m the only guy here who was smart enough and diligent enough to prepare for this.  It’s my water.  I’ve earned it.  Why would I share?  How can I deliver the Word of God to you if I don’t have water?  I can’t help you if I don’t take care of myself first”.

Then Mary over here says, “But Brad, you’re the pastor.  You’re supposed to share”.  And I say “O alright.  I’ll share.”  So I pour out half of my water—half, mind you; 50% of all the water in this place and I give it to you.  “Here” I say, “take the pitcher and these glasses and pass it around.  I know there’s not enough glasses here for everybody, but hey—if I’m going to share, you can share, too”.

And then I come back to the pulpit and pour myself a tall glass of cold water.  Or better yet, I just take a swig from the jug.  That way you won’t be tempted to come drink my water.

And then I flash you one of those cheesy big smiles really smart people put on when they know just how clever they really are.  “Hey, folks”, I say, “It isn’t as bad as you think.  You see, I was really clever this morning.  I don’t have just 1 jug water.  I have  2!  Because I worked twice as hard, we have twice as much water as we thought.

“You’re getting thirsty, aren’t you? 

Now this is a really valuable resource.   This water is worth something.  So I’ll tell you what.  I can’t give this away.  That wouldn’t be right.   But I will sell it to you.

“One easy payment of $10.00 will get you your own glass of water.  Supplies are limited, so hurry on up.  So bring your glass and your money and I’ll pour you out a little of my living water.  

And to sweeten the deal, for every glass I sell I will put $1.00—10% of everything I earn, into the offering plate.  That’s good for you; it’s good for me; it’s good for the church.  My rich Daddy used to call that a win-win-win.  Everybody gets what they need.  Everybody’s happy.”

Now, somewhere in the telling of this tale, you likely started thinking that I was not a very good person—certainly not a good pastor.

 You’re thinking, “What kind of monster would do that?”  You’re thinking I am devious, mean, manipulative, and money-hungry; scheming, cunning, slick, unscrupulous, disingenuous and foxy; or maybe just nasty, selfish and greedy.

But am I.  I mean, it was my foresight and my work that made any water available, wasn’t it?Shouldn’t I be rewarded for that.  Why should someone who isn’t as smart as me get something for nothing,  What kind of lesson would that teach our children? 

Look, kindness and generosity are ok as far as they go.  But it is possible, don’t you think, to carry it too far.  What kind of a world would we have if everybody had everything they needed whether they worked for it or not?

There’s a scene in the Charles Dickens book, A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is dealing with three businessmen on some corn he has to sell.  They turned down his offer the day before, thinking the price was too high.  They come back the next day asking if he has changed his mind.

“Yes, I have changed my mind”,  Scrooge says. “The price has gone up”.

“Gone up?” one of the buyers exclaims.  “But that's impossible!”

“If you want my corn, gentlemen, you'll meet the price I quoted yesterday... plus five percent interest for the delay”.

Mr. Pemberton, one of the buyers says,  “ If we have to meet your price, our bread will be more expensive. The poor will suffer”.

“Then buy someone else's corn” is Scrooge’s reply”. 

“Doggone it, Scrooge, that's not fair!” Pemberton complains.

To which Scrooge replies, “No, but it's business”.

Who’s to say he’s not right?

Well,  Amos the prophet, for one.  Amos worked and preached in Israel about 750 years before the time of Jesus.  His was a time when the gap between the rich and the poor was likely even worse than it is today, if that’s possible.  In his day the rich weren’t simply smart businessmen.  They were ruthless, greedy and vicious.  They didn’t simply outsmart the poor.  They used their economic power to beat them into the ground and steal what little they had.
This is how Amos described them.  Listen closely, because some of this might sound familiar:

They buy and sell upstanding people.
    People for them are only things—ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
    They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
    shove the luckless into the ditch.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
    is piled up at the shrine of their god,
While they sit around drinking wine
    they’ve conned from their victims.

That was Israel and Israel’s powerful elite, as Amos saw them.

 
Now you may be thinking that the this horrendous gap between the wealthy of a society and everybody else is simply an economic issue, or maybe a political issue.  And it is both.  But if you read Amos at all closely you will conclude that this also a deeply spiritual issue.

Which means, of course, that this economic discussion belongs out there in the world, but it also belongs, indeed it starts, here in the church.

Amos is clear—how we conduct our business matters a lot to God.

Now I’m not saying, and please hear this—I am not saying every business transaction is based in greed and every business person is vile and wicked.  I’ve been in enough business deals myself to know better than that.

What Amos was complaining about—and what I think we need to be more aware of, is the economic system itself.   Because built into the system—the way we do things, are the methods that give great advantages to the wealthy and well connected and place great costs on the poor and working people.  

The system itself, you see—Israel’s in the 8th century BC and ours today, is designed to reward the very few with way, way more than they could ever use while it deprives millions at the bottom of what they need to survive.

Most ways of doing business are not evil.  Not every way of organizing a society is evil.  But some are.  Some of our ways are.

Amos is saying that we need to learn to tell the difference.  And in our business dealings we need to place ourselves squarely on the side of fairness, equity and compassion.  The wealthy and powerful especially have an obligation to consider what is best for all, not solely what is most enriching to them.

And that’s the real point of the book of Amos.  He’s not out just to condemn the greedy rich in Israel, though he sure does that.  What he wants more than that is to clue us in on what matters most to God.  That’s what we’re looking for.

What matters most he describes this way:

             Do you know what I want? (God says)
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

“Let justice roll down like waters”, God pleads,
 “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amen. 

Sermon - Brad Brookins

Bible Study

Scripture Reading for 11-12-17

Selections from the prophet  Amos  (The Message)

 

The assigned reading for this week is Amos 1: 1-2 and 5: 14-15; 21-24. But that is way too small a sampling of this remarkable work. 

 

The prophet Amos was driven by issues of injustice—particularly economic injustice, the exploitation and abuse of the poor by the rich and the gross disparity in wealth between the haves and the have nots.  That is to say, this book is a work of intense political and social criticism.  It is abundantly clear whose side Amos is on, and whose side he believes God is on, in this conflict.

 

People who believe political questions are off limits in church likely have not spent much time with Amos.  This book is unabashedly political.  Not in a partisan Republican/Democrat sense but in a policy sense—how a society structures itself and who benefits most from the workings of the political and social system.

 

It turns out, according to Amos, that God really cares—I mean really cares, about who wins and who loses in life; especially when those on the losing end are there because of the greed of the powerful who the game the political system to insure the rich keep getting richer and the poor stay poor.  In this regard, some people will say,  Amos has a thing or two to say about our political and social system today.

 

But don’t take my word for it…

 

Amos has two main themes.  First is the list of the crimes committed by the powerful against the powerless.  And second is the promise—repeated over and over an manifold ways, of divine judgment against and punishment of these crimes.  The text given below (taken from The Message) excerpts much, but not all, of that first theme—the crimes of the powerful.  Here’s the assignment. This will not be real easy work, but it will be very enlightening—which is what the Bible is supposed to do for us:

 

1.  Read through the text and underline (or better, list) the specific crimes of which the powerful are being accused by God.

 

2. Make a list of current day situations that reflect, or mirror exactly, the crimes about which God, through Amos, is complaining.

 

3. Consider this quote from the text:     

                                                                     

                Do you know what I want (God says)?

I want justice—oceans of it.

I want fairness—rivers of it.

    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

 

 What is justice?

 

4. Discuss this quote from philosopher and social critic, Dr. Cornel West:

 

                                  “Justice is what love looks like in public”.

 

5. Why do you think God cares so much about justice for the poor?

 

 

 

Selections from the prophet Amos  (The Message)

 

The Message of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa, that he received on behalf of Israel. It came to him in visions during the time that Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam II, son of Joash, was king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

 

The Message:

God roars from Zion,

    shouts from Jerusalem!

The thunderclap voice withers the pastures tended by shepherds,

    shrivels Mount Carmel’s proud peak.

 

 God’s Message:

“Because of the three great sins of Israel

    —make that four—I’m not putting up with them any longer.

They buy and sell upstanding people.

    People for them are only things—ways of making money.

They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.

    They’d sell their own grandmother!

They grind the penniless into the dirt,

    shove the luckless into the ditch.

Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor

    is piled up at the shrine of their god,

While they sit around drinking wine

    they’ve conned from their victims.

 

Do you know what I want? (God says)

    I want justice—oceans of it.

I want fairness—rivers of it.

    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

 

Woe to you who turn justice to vinegar

    and stomp righteousness into the mud…

    Because you run roughshod over the poor

    and take the bread right out of their mouths,

You’re never going to move into

    the luxury homes you have built.

You’re never going to drink wine

    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted…

You bully right-living people,

    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

 

Seek good and not evil…

Hate evil and love good,

    then work it out in the public square.

 

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.

    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.

I want nothing to do with your religion projects,

    your pretentious slogans and goals.

I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,

    your public relations and image making.

I’ve had all I can take of your noisy music.

    When was the last time you sang to me?

 

Do you know what I want? (God says)

    I want justice—oceans of it.

I want fairness—rivers of it.

    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

 

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!

    Catastrophe is just around the corner!

Woe to those who live in luxury

    and expect everyone else to serve them!

Woe to those who live only for today,

    indifferent to the fate of others!

Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,

    who think life is a party held just for them!

Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain!

    those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles!

They could not care less

    about their country going to ruin.

 

Do you know what I want? (God says)

    I want justice—oceans of it.

I want fairness—rivers of it.

    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

Sermon 11/12/2017 - Brad Brookins
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