Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Roll Down Justice - Make Me An Instrument of Peace: Re-Cognition" 3/1/17 - Ash Wednesday

3-1-17 Ash Wednesday Sermon 

   As a child I remember hearing, primarily from Catholic friends, that during Lent we were supposed to “give something up” as a way of connecting with God, of reminding ourselves of all that God provides for us. 
So, at various times in my youth I’d give up soft drinks, or I’d give up chocolate, or some other thing. 
And while the “giving up” seemed like a good thing, I have to admit it never had its desired effect. 
Giving up chocolate or Pepsi never, not even once, made me feel closer to God. In fact, it made me just a little bit perturbed with God because I couldn’t see how my eating or not eating a Hershey bar and washing it down with a cola was going to have any effect at all on my relationship with God. If God didn’t like Pepsi and chocolate, then why did God create them?
   Later in my spiritual life I was introduced to the idea, not of giving something up during Lent, but of taking on some new thing, like a spiritual discipline, or exercise, or something positive or healthy. And again, I tried several different approaches and honestly, I did find that they worked much better to help me connect with God than did abstaining from the Pepsi and chocolate that had obliterated my complexion as a teenager, but still, they often seemed, like a store-bought chocolate Easter rabbit, a bit hollow. To borrow a phrase from Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren, it seemed to be “an adventure in missing the point.”
   The late theologian Marcus Borg correctly suggested that, “Death is one of the primary themes of Lent. 
Each of us will die. None of us gets out of here alive.” 

Indeed, the liturgy surrounding the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, reminds us that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.”  
And of course, these words echo the traditional words found in the funeral liturgy, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” So, inherent in thinking about Lent is thinking about death, which may be why so many people, and 
so many non-liturgical churches, ignore Ash Wednesday all together. We don’t want to think about dying. 
There’s too much death in the news every day, we don’t want to come to church and hear about death too. 
We come to church to be comforted, some suggest. 
Boy, have THEY gone to the wrong place, at least if you listen to what the prophet Amos has to say.

   In the verses immediately preceding our passage tonight, Amos is blasting the people of Israel for their desire for the “Day of the Lord” to come as soon as possible. The Day of the Lord, contrary to what they believe awaits them, is supposed to be a day of destruction for all the earth, including the people of Israel who think they’re doing all the right things, 
saying the right words, following the correct rituals. 
This isn’t about form, Amos warns, this is about function. It’s not about what they say, it’s about what they do. They believe that their ritual offerings and sacrifices can save them. “No,” replies the God of Amos, and then turns on the cult with what one commentator calls “ferocious anger.”
   “I hate, I despise your festivals” Amos has God saying. This is one of the best-known and least understood passages in all of the prophetic writings in Scripture. Often misused by Christians to suggest some sort of “works righteousness,” this idea falsely pits the idea of a prophetic faith practice or ethics, against Israel’s legalistic ritual practice that misunderstands God’s call for justice in all of our faith practices.
   The "festivals and solemn assemblies" of Israel's worship describe basic formational truths about who God has been to Israel, and they are commanded by God to observe these in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The festival of Passover, for example, commemorates God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the annual retelling of the story, Israel teaches new generations about the joy of God's redemption. The story is a source of blessed memory that offers hope to believers in current troubles. 

The festival of Tabernacles celebrates the communal resilience that Israel showed in its forty-years of wandering through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Having once survived on manna and miraculous water from a rock, Israel is reminded that reliance on God and hospitality to the travelers and aliens in their midst are essential for its ongoing spiritual journey. 
Other festivals celebrate the offering of the first fruits of the harvest and mature grain to God, showing Israel's gratitude for God's abundant gifts. 
Another festival crucially important to the Israelite cultural imagination is the Day of Atonement. 
This annual fast emphasizes awareness of sin in the Israelite community, promoting self-denial as an expression of the community's earnest desire to "be clean before the LORD" (Leviticus 16:30). 
It was through these powerful rituals, they believed, a humbled and renewed Israel could approach God. 
   But the God of Amos thunders that these observances are despicable. Neither does God find acceptable the daily and weekly offerings that sanctify Israel's living as a holy people. Even songs of praise offend God. Why? Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshiping God. Put another way, regardless of what they say or what sacrifices they make, if they stand in the way of God’s justice, then their songs and praises are nothing more than useless, meaningless hypocrisy and are despised by God.
   Israel cannot prosper through ritual offerings, feasts, and fasts alone. 

Israel must "seek God and live,” and the God whom they seek is an uncompromising God of justice, not humankind’s idea of a retribution based justice, but God’s restorative justice. The famous line in this passage, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" is not merely a rousing call to believers to do good deeds. It is a roar of outrage. Because of the hypocrisy of the community of faith, God's own justice will roll down like floodwaters, and God's own righteousness like a perpetual torrent! Even "ever-flowing stream" is far too gentle an image for the meaning of the Hebrew here. Amos's point is this: because God's people have not shown justice to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the aliens, the travelers, the refugees, 
God has no choice but to unleash God's own justice and righteousness. 
And for those who offer their hollow excuses and meaningless rituals, God’s justice will feel like punishment.
   Israel has always known that ritual observance and compassion for the powerless should not be separated. The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 is quite clear about this. God has formed Israel to be both holy and merciful as God is holy and merciful. Many believers though, are quick to latch on to how some other group is not “holy” according to this Code, while ignoring their own lack of mercy which is just as important to God. It’s what Jesus meant when he talked about not trying to remove the speck in our neighbor’s eye while we have a plank in our own. What God condemns, then, is ritualism without heart. 

That is, when the church is all about the church and what we do, and our sacred cows and how we’ve always done things, without opening ourselves to the idea that “how we’ve always done things” has kept an awful lot of God’s children on the outside, looking in. But more personally, God condemns the idea of calling oneself a follower, a believer, when the life one lives testifies to the contrary. That is what we are called to repent from, to turn away from. 
   When a church places a high premium, for example, on the preached word it may be prone to idolize a charismatic preacher. When a congregation is blind to its own affluence, its own privilege, it can develop a sense of entitlement when it comes to how it “does ministry,” such as writing checks instead of getting their hands dirty, or by taking the attitude that they hire people to do ministry for them. 
Some churches revel in how a certain type of worship experience “makes them feel,” or “feeds them,” idolizing appearance over substance or their own selfish desires over the selflessness of the Gospel. 
   So in Lent, we’re called to examine not only our own personal “stuff,” but our institutional “stuff” as well. 
We’re called to consider what are the temptations of our own church that might be offensive to God’s idea of justice. Amos 5 offers us a wonderful opportunity to consider the relationship between worship and justice. How do we connect our hope for the coming future in Christ, our worship practices, and our ministry with the poor? What does it say about us if we’re only “sometime” Christians, “almost” Christians, or Christian-in-name-only? What does it suggest about us if we’re only fair-weather-followers or only serve others when and how it’s convenient for us, regardless of the needs? 
Amos invites us to offer our lives and our ministries, individual and congregational, as radical incarnational testimony both at the altar and in the public square. 
Lent dares us to take that invitation seriously!
   The death imagery of Ash Wednesday is not intended to bury us in morbidity. Rather, it serves as the resurrection call of new life that is symbolized not only in the ritual of the ashes, but also in the sacrament of baptism. In both, we are called to die to our old self and to be born anew as new creatures in body of Christ. The baptismal liturgy calls us to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness in any and all forms in which we find it, even when we find it in our own personal faith practice. 
   If our faith, if our belief, if our worship is all about trying to get to heaven, and to hell with everyone and everything else, then Amos’ words should worry us to no end. 
That is the subject of God’s righteous anger, that is the empty, hollow, ritualistic hypocrisy that God’s justice, when it rolls down like waters, a flash flood of God’s restorative justice, will crush under the waves of an ever-flowing torrent.
   The waters of baptism serve as our symbol of those crashing waves of justice. When we are washed in those waters, the image is one of death and resurrection, of sinking below the surface into a watery grave, only to be lifted back out to new life, to new love, to new mercy, in the arms of the God who is love, and whose love is justice. Our new life comes, not in saying the right words, praying the right prayer, or going through the right motions. New life, resurrection on the other side of any and all of our deaths, comes in discarding the routine in favor of the just and the righteous.
It comes in repenting of our desire for the safe and comfortable and in turning toward justice for those who cannot stand up to the powers that would deny them justice.
   The season of Lent begins, on Ash Wednesday, with a call to repentance, a call to “turn around.” 
The idea of repentance is more than the oversimplified idea of saying, “I’m sorry,” or asking for forgiveness. 
It is that and so much more. Even more broadly understood than mere “turning around,” it embraces the idea of “turning our mind, changing our mind, to go in a new way, to take our life in a new direction” - most specifically, toward God and God’s call for justice. 
   This year in Lent, we will be challenged to turn from our apathy, turn from our routine, turn from simply “going through the motions” in both our life and our worship. 
Instead, as we journey toward God throughout these forty days, we will pray to be active instruments of God’s peace, emboldened bearers of God’s justice, grace-filled agents of change in the world. We begin the journey toward renewing our baptismal identity as beloved children of God called to be the hands and feet of Christ by “re-cognizing”– that is, turning and tuning our minds and hearts toward the world and its peoples.
   What might God’s justice look like in the world today? Where are the places where God might be calling us to set aside our empty rituals, to turn away from our old way of being, to stand up against those who would profit at the expense of those who have no voice? The song, “Dust and Ashes,” that we sang before has a new verse regarding the oppression of indigenous peoples that was commissioned from the author, Brian Wren, for an Act of Repentance ritual at the UMC General Conference. 
That new verse, which I’ll invite you to sing in few moments, says:
Dust and ashes strew our past  -
trails of torture, tears and plunder.
Holy Spirit, come,
walk with us tomorrow.
Cleanse and knit together
wounds that sin has torn asunder.
Take us by the hand and lead us,
lead us through the desert sands,
bring us living water,
Holy Spirit, come.
   It is Jesus who promises us living water. 
It is Jesus, who reveals to us the true loving nature of God, but who also reveals that God’s justice is for all or for none. What does God’s justice for all look like in the world today? 
Well, in keeping with the theme of water, it might very well look like what’s going on with the Dakota Access Pipeline right now, where indigenous people who have been treated unjustly ever since white Europeans invaded this country, are once again being forced to fight for their right to clean water, and for their own right to protect their ancestral burial grounds, against forces much more powerful and monied than they will ever be. That is just one current, ongoing fight for justice.
   Throughout this series we will examine how we might change systems of oppression, like what is playing out in the Dakotas and in so many other ways and places... but it all begins with a change, a “re-cognition” within each of us. Through the living water of baptism we claim that all are worthy of God’s love and protection, and we cleanse ourselves of the dust of death brought by sin and emerge in new life. 
And in doing this we ask God to, as the song says, “cleanse and knit together wounds that sin has torn asunder. Take us by the hand and lead us, lead us through the desert sands, bring us living water, Holy Spirit, come.” That is our prayer. Amen.

In response to God’s word for us tonight, let us sing together: 
Dust and ashes strew our past  -
trails of torture, tears and plunder.
Holy Spirit, come,
walk with us tomorrow.
Cleanse and knit together
wounds that sin has torn asunder.
Take us by the hand and lead us,
lead us through the desert sands,
bring us living water,
Holy Spirit, come.

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