Text Amos 5:18-24
Good and Gracious God, thank you for giving us this day, for waking us up this morning and bringing us here together to partake in your word and meal. We ask that this day you give us comfort and clarity of vision. Open our ears to hear your voice and obey your will; open our hearts that true justice and wisdom may abound; and open our hands that violent resolution of conflict may cease, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
“My thoughts and prayers are with you…”
We’ve heard and seen or perhaps even uttered these words, and given recent events perhaps too often.
“Sending thoughts and prayers to the people of Sutherland Springs…
While many may view this phrase as a simple platitude in order to convey a sense of compassion and solidarity, perhaps there is a larger reason as to why we choose to use this phrase, to utter these words after tragedy has struck?
After the events this week and in this past year, the cries for justice go along with uttering of the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” We seek justice for the 26 people killed in Sutherland Springs, the 59 people murdered and the 527 injured in Las Vegas.
We seek justice for the loved one that has just been diagnosed with cancer, or for the ones that grieve the sudden passing of their beloved.
We seek comfort, we seek justice, and for many we convey this justice with the simple words sent through the phrase, “my thoughts and prayers are with you.”
In both our first reading and our Gospel text, the people expect salvation, they expect that the Day of the Lord is coming, and that it is coming soon. They expect, hope, that with this coming of the Lord, justice and righteousness will come as well.
But in our first reading, Amos reverses these expectations.
Israel was expecting the Day of the Lord to be a glorious future in which Israel’s enemies would be vanquished, justice would be served. But Amos cuts into this hope with a sharp question: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” That “day” will not be the kind of day for which you had hoped. That day will not be one hoped for, not a day of deliverance but disaster, not a day of light and brightness, but darkness and gloom. For the Israelites’ there is to be no hope, no life, no justice, no gospel.
Beginning in verse 21 of our reading in Amos, God now speaks directly through the prophet and it becomes clear very quickly that the relationship between God and the Israelites is already severely severed. In highly charged emotional language, God declares that God “hates” and “rejects” every aspect of Israelite ritual. God holds his nose, shuts her eyes, and plugs his ears!! The issue is the disjunction between worship and life. Worship and life must be of one piece, not separated or compartmentalized.
The issue that results in this disjunction is the absence of justice and righteousness; and without Israel’s commitment to these things, there can be no relationship to begin with.
Amos’s words, as offensive as they might be, ring with some truth, unless you practice justice on behalf of those who have been victims of injustice, your worship is wasted! God hates, despises the Israelites’ worship rituals. God will take no delight, will not smell, will hold God’s nose at all the worship rituals.
In verse 22, God continues I will not “look upon” your offerings. Given the use of sacrifices as a means through which God bestowed forgiveness for the ancient Israelites, what we might hear today is that even though you properly celebrate the Eucharist, I will no longer consider it means of grace for you.
God continues, they should “take away” their music. Think about the music created here, through our fine choirs and our magnificent organ; God will not listen, God has plugged his hears and is singing over the music, perhaps just like a small child…. (plug hears, lalalalala).
The message that is being conveyed through Amos is one of social justice. For if there is no social justice, there is no acceptable worship to God. God will not tolerate comfortable worship and social and political isolation. God will not tolerate a full church and a vacuum of justice. For if injustice isn’t addressed, then God doesn’t want praises and prayers.
The spheres of justice and righteousness are not solely God’s concern. Rather, “the divine righteousness desires to continue its operation in human righteousness, and one’s fate depends on whether one submits to this will or denies it. God has established justice and through our work, our response, this justice becomes God’s ongoing, life-giving presence in the world, or it can pile up in a flood of destructive judgment.
For Amos, and the other prophets, the word pair “justice and righteousness” are not “behavioral goals, but rather primarily gifts from God which Israel can allow to flourish, can support, or can obstruct, indeed overthrow.”
So, what about our thoughts and prayers, are they, too, to be tossed out?
Prayer is not inaction. Prayer can certainly change us. Neuroscientific research has found that prayer can radically reshape the human brain, leading to increased focus and peace. In the 1990s, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studied the brain scans of 150 people from different religions and found that those who engaged deeply in prayer for 12 minutes a day over a couple of months had activated frontal lobes and quiet parietal lobes…resulting in more focus, less anxiety, and feelings of increased connectedness to other people.
So, how do we integrate our worship life and our daily life to bring about justice and righteousness?
Since prayer aids in clear, calm, and empathetic thinking, prayer can be helpful in leading us toward better policy solutions.
Prayer is a direct line to God; God, who cares about the world and is intimately involved in the lives of all peoples. God bends down to listen and inclines his ear to hear each prayer of every person, the Spirit intercedes for us when we have no words, God knows the intricacies of our hearts. God can move nations’ leaders, all people, including us to pursue righteousness and justice on behalf of those who face injustices and oppression.
Great social change, including the abolitionist and civil rights movements of the past two centuries, found a lifeline in God, a God who could break the slaves’ chains, bring slaveholders to account, change the hearts and minds of Southern business-owners and politicians, and daily sustain those leaders who put their lives on the line for freedom for the oppressed.
Justice and righteousness are gifts of God, and they are Israel’s, and our, hoped-for salvation.
Prayer is not a means to an end, a ritualistic comfort in the midst of more important work, it is an end in itself, an active wrestling and pleading with God to bring justice and peace to all the nations and their inhabitants. Prayer. Is. Action.
Prayer and worship changes us; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Prayer changes us in ways that invites, beckons, pulls us, compels us to act with justice and righteousness, to bring forth this life-giving justice and righteousness that is our hoped-for salvation.
Through our worship practices; our sacraments, our prayers, our music, we are invited to partake in the grace that is so freely given to us, that we might be infused with gift of the Spirit, that the Spirit might work in us to bring about change. That our worship might become more than something we ought to do and something that we do as a response to the gifts of grace, justice, and righteousness. That this worship, in which we come together in communion with God, with the saints of all time and place, with each other, might feed us, nourish us, strengthen us, equip us, and compel us to go out into the world to work towards justice and righteousness, that it might roll down like waters and flow like and ever-flowing stream.