Fresco paying tribute to George Floyd, Brussels, Belgium - 04 Jun 2020Reveille United Methodist Church

Trinity Sunday – June 7, 2020

Amos 5: 21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 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. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

There is a temptation, in a sermon like this one, preached on a day like today, for a white pastor like me from a mainline Protestant denomination like ours, to a white congregation like Reveille to follow a very well-trod path. This path typically begins with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then makes a left-turn somewhere around a quote from the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul speaks of how in Christ there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The path continues towards a vague statement of Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbors, and how this commandment is inextricably linked to his commandment to love God, all before the white preacher reassures the white congregation that hearing all of these non-specific entreaties on love and unity are all the gospel requires of us, and as such, that everything is going to be all right.

I should know. I am sure at some point I have preached this sermon.

And yet, that path is a circular path, a road to nowhere, and this kind of response is exactly what got those fiery Old Testament prophets so riled up that, emboldened by God, they spoke truth to power. It is why the Epistle of James proclaimed to the early church “that faith without works is dead.” 

Preaching is a call to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” and today is not a day for us to be comfortable. Today is a day to be afflicted, a holy affliction. Today is a day to be angry, for the events of the last week and a half, especially the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, are exactly the things that afflict the very heart of the God we claim to love, obey, and follow. Now is not the time for a dead faith. It is a time of faith expressed in tangible works of dismantling the oppressive structures of racism and white supremacy in our land. For white people are the ones who have constructed this terrible machine, and as such, we are the ones who are uniquely called, commissioned, qualified and required by God to dismantle it as well.

Only then can we truly be the light Christ calls us to be, illuminating the dark places in the long shadow of America’s original sin. It is a journey of many, many individual steps, yet it is possible, for we are not alone in this endeavor. For into these dark shadows, we still follow the light of the world, the One in whom all things are possible.

In today’s text, the prophet Amos is using God’s words as he says to God’s people, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 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. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Hear these words and see how they are speaking to the church today. Throughout so much of Christian history, we have confused “going to church” and by this, I mean “attending worship,” with being the church, Christ’s movement on earth. Here is what I mean: when we reduce the church to merely attending worship, it is far too easy for the service to become a show and for our critique of worship to be based mainly, if not entirely, about how if makes us feel. We talk about how we seek worship that “feeds us” or “speaks to us,” as though we were the audience instead of being the worshipping community who unites prayer, song, creed, sacrament, and proclamation into a sacrifice of praise to an audience of one, the One being God.

And yet, as the prophet Amos reminds us, faith and faithfulness are even more than this.

Today’s text is brutal in its unvarnished honesty. Like bright red paint poured upon a stark white canvas, it assaults us in such a way that we cannot deny that it is there. In this prophetic passage, God cries out for justice, cries out for righteousness, cries out the like the plaintive wail of the myriad voices of the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten throughout human existence, from the day that the blood of Abel cried out from the ground after his murder at the hand of his brother Cain to a city street in Minneapolis when George Floyd cried out for help, for breath, and finally, for his mother.

In today’s text, though the words of the prophet Amos, God says to all who will hear “How dare you?” How dare you ignore my mandates for justice and righteousness and then worship me as though you were my faithful servants! How dare you ignore my commandments while singing psalms about how my word “is a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path.” How dare you assume that the sum total of your faithfulness begins with the prelude and ends with the benediction!  Keep your music! Keep your burnt offerings! Silence your songs! Cancel all your festivals! We simply cannot praise God loudly enough to compensate for our silence in the face of injustice and oppression in our midst.

When we were baptized, confirmed, or as we joined this church, using the words in our hymnal, we renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, we rejected the evil powers of this world, we repented of [our] sin. We accepted the freedom and power God gives [us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And only then did we dare to confess Jesus Christ as our savior and put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as [our] Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

In so doing, we made promises, important promises, holy promises, the kind of promises the our God uses to bring God’s kingdom to bear, even in this broken, sinful, unjust world. Throughout history, God has raised up prophets from within the covenant community to remind  the community of promises made by God, promises made by the community of faith, yet as we know all too well today, promises left unfulfilled.

In a previous pastoral appointment, I baptized a man a little younger than me named Arin who was not raised in the faith and who came to Christianity through his wife. About a year after his baptism, Arin told a story at a men’s prayer meeting early one morning about how his life had changed after his baptism. He told us that his beloved dog had died and he had very conclusive evidence that the neighbor boys, two teenagers had poisoned it.

He told us that he was standing in his driveway one day, looking across the street at those young men, and that he could feel his heart beating faster, that he could feel his face turning flushed and his internal temperature rising. He felt himself ready to unleash physical harm on those boys.

And then, he remembered. As if hearing the voice of God, he remembered having this clear thought that said “Now you said you wanted to be a Christian. You said you wanted to follow Christ. This is not how they are supposed act. In other words, he remembered that he was baptized. He remembered that he had personally and publicly promised to be a Christian and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth. He remembered that claiming to love God while hating his neighbor were incompatible, and then he remembered to begin that long difficult walk towards forgiveness.

One of the things I love about how the United Methodist thinks about the world, and how we call each other to act is this: we believe in no personal holiness without social holiness, and we proclaim no gospel that redeems sinners without also dismantling sinful social structures that oppress people. In other words, this present moment does not call us to be something fundamentally different than who we intrinsically are as United Methodists. What this present moment in history does do is to faithfully live into the promises we have already made, promises that, in our church, we renew each and every time someone, anyone, joins our fold.

There will always be a temptation to simply regard the issues of systematic racism and white supremacy as someone else’s problem, or to deem them purely political issues while telling ourselves that politics has no place in the church. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it ignores the grand sweep of the scriptural witness and the life and ministry of prophets in our own Bible who spoke truth to governments and who called God’s covenant people to remember who they are and are commanded by God to be and what they are commanded by God to do.

Furthermore, to assume that our religion has no place in our politics denies the truth of the death of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God, an innocent man who welcomed children and outcasts, who spoke truth to power while also feeding the hungry and healing the sick, who taught love of God, love of neighbor, mercy, and forgiveness, until he was lynched by the government of Rome. If Jesus had died a purely religious death, he would have been stoned to death. Yet because he was crucified, we know he died a political death. He was sentenced by political people and he was killed for political reasons. This is why. We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, appointed by Tiberius Caesar. 

The great matter before us, the evil twins of racism and white supremacy also transcends politics. It is a theological issue, theological because it runs so counter to God’s will for humankind, so counter to God’s words, so counter to the life and witness of the one crucified and risen for the sake of this world, and for you, and for me, and for the church. And so, as people of faith, it is incumbent upon us to act. There simply is no other faithful path for us to take.

We can no longer remain silent. As the prophetAmos reminds us, we cannot worship a God of justice and while simultaneously being indifferent to it. We cannot call for peaceful protests and condemn violence and destruction while remaining silent in these days when peaceful protesters are tear-gassed, including in our nation’s capital, including here, in our own city. We cannot claim to be a people of holy scripture while allowing our Bible to be reduced to being a mere amulet in the hands of political oppression.

If we do these things, and if we stand by in silence, if we fail to steel our nerves and stand in unity with our African-American brothers and sisters, and if we continue to retreat into those dark yet comfortable shadows of America’s original sin, we will shroud ourselves, as Christians and as the church, behind the stained glass of hypocrisy with which Jesus’ movement on earth is so regularly charged, all to the detriment of this present generation, and generations yet unborn.

I said there would be no quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet give me just one, a well-known quote, but a difficult one, once we peer behind his elegant prose and see what he is really demanding of us. In April of 1963, from the Birmingham City Jail, King wrote a response to a document titled “A Call for Unity,” signed by eight local clergymen, including two Methodist bishops. In it he says “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to be a Christian, means (among other things), that our lives, our fortunes, and our fate are inexorably linked to the lives of others. This is why, in Matthew 25, Jesus of Nazareth proclaims that whatever we do to those in need, we have done, or not done, to him. It is why in our Lord’s Prayer, our forgiveness from God is so tightly wound with our forgiveness of others. It is why Jesus “greatest two commandments” are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is why Peter Storey, the great Methodist bishop in South Africa during apartheid says “When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he nailed us to one another.”

It is why injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, the kind of justice cried out for by God through the prophet Amos. It is the faithfulness that is greater than even our worship because it reveals the way we know, and the way we love and follow the One whom we worship. It is the way of the Kingdom of God.

So then, as the crowds implored John the Baptist when he called them to repentance, “What are we to do?” In a link in the description for this video is a dynamic list of many things white people can do to work for racial justice. (1) Each is a small, doable, single step. There are things to read, things to do, and people from whom to learn. Not everything will speak to every one of us, but at the same time, just because something seems difficult or uncomfortable does not mean it is not the right thing to do. Often, the discomfort we feel is actually God shaping us, stretching us, giving us holy “growing pains,” molding us like the clay on the potter’s wheel in the book of Jeremiah, chapter eighteen.

Another thing that we can all do is join on at 6:00 p.m on the evening of June 7 in a Zoom discussion with our partner churches Love Center of Unity and Koinonia Christian Church where we can learn how to better be the church together and how we can better our witness to the world. The link for this meeting is in our weekly email or you can find it by emailing the Rev. Kelley Lane.

Yet what we cannot do is nothing, not if we are going to call ourselves disciples of the crucified redeemer. Doing nothing is not a faithful option. Each of us has a part to play, and indifference is but one of the many false luxuries of privilege, that is until we remember that we are all tied to that single garment of destiny, that we are all in this together.

Today in our liturgical calendar is called Trinity Sunday, which is always the Sunday following Pentecost. It is the Sunday when we celebrate the three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a reminder that even God, by God’s very nature exists in community, the God who calls each of us, and calls the church, to do the same.

The journey to racial justice is a long and difficult climb, but it can and must happen, for the God in whom all things are possible has called and commanded us, sojourns with us through it all, until the day comes when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It may seem like a dream, but it is God’s dream, and as such, it cannot fail. This is the God who is calling us to live into promises we have already made, promises to stand against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, knowing all the while that God of the oppressed is with us, come what may.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.