Occupy Samaria

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam on December 4, 2011.

“We wait for new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is at home”    2 Peter 3:13

Almost 3000 years ago a farmer, a man who lived near Samaria, some distance north of Jerusalem, went into the big city  and was shocked by what he saw. Maybe he’d never been in a city before,  but it had never occurred to him that some were rich and some were poor, and certainly he had never seen a society in which the rich didn’t seem to care that others, at their doorstep, were hungry. Today we might say, it blew his mind.  Today he might have started a movement to occupy Wall Street. It made him mad. It enraged him, and he went through the streets shouting, proclaiming doom for this sick society.

It’s hard to tell from the records we have  whether anyone paid much attention. Obviously someone did write his words down  and we can still read them because it’s there in the Bible  in the Book of the Prophet Amos. “Hear this,” he said,  “ you fat cows on your beds of ivory who sell the poor for a bushel of wheat, who can’t wait for the end of the Sabbath so you can go back to selling with your crooked weights, who crush the poor, who oppress the needy.”  He said it was time for a change and he summed it up by saying, “Let justice roll down like the waters  and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Now, the strange and interesting thing about this is that no one had done it before. Certainly no one before had made  the same connection between religion and justice that Amos made.  Religion before that time had been mostly about fear and favors, a way to get the gods on your side to heal disease and save the crops  and get children and defeat enemies and all that sort of thing. But Amos had another idea. It seemed to him that the God of Israel was different; that this God had a bigger purpose  than just doing a few favors  for people who made the right offering. The story he had learned  had to do with a God who had found the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt  and set them free.

You could, of course, see that as evidence that this God favored his chosen people the way Egyptian gods served Egyptians and Canaanite gods served Canaanites and so on but Amos didn’t see it that way. It seemed to him that the issue  was not favoritism but justice,  that God had acted to free people who were enslaved and therefore that God was likely  to act the same way again.  If now it was the Hebrews who were unjust  then Amos was sure that  God would be as ruthless with them  as ever God had been with Egypt.

This was not a popular point of view.  The chief priest sent him a message telling him to go prophesy somewhere else.  But Amos, who lived 800 years before Christ,  was not forgotten.  There were other prophets who made the same point,  in various ways and it made a permanent difference  in Judaism. Centuries later, in the Roman Empire, Judaism attracted a lot of attention  because it had not only a faith in one invisible God but a belief that that faith had consequences,  that faith required action.  And they had a set of commandments  that held up a unique ethical standard for human behavior.

There were Jewish communities scattered all over the Roman Empire and Judaism attracted a lot of interest, but not a lot of converts because it was hard to be Jewish. It marked you off;  it required a separation between its converts and society that most people weren’t unwilling to make.  If you were Jewish,  you couldn’t work on the Sabbath; you couldn’t eat certain kinds of food  and so no one could become a Jew  and still live any kind of normal life.  But then came Jesus and Paul,  also speaking about justice but now calling everyone to respond in faith  and to be concerned more for action in society than for any particular  diet or separation.  The challenge now was to live IN the world, to change the world from within and the followers of Jesus  spoke about Jesus as BEING God’s righteousness.
Now Jesus’ followers  were every bit as dissatisfied with the world as Amos ever was.  In this morning’s epistle  we find the author looking forward  to a time when the heavens and earth  will be melted down and replaced with a whole new universe  and did you notice how he puts it? “where righteousness will be at home.” Wouldn’t that be a change:  a world where righteousness is at home, where it’s normal to act with justice?

Can you keep your integrity  and be comfortable in this world of ours? I don’t think it’s easy. Can you bring up children in this community  and be confident that they will never be challenged to hurt themselves or others, can you be confident that you yourself can set an example  for them of people who take their standards from a higher authority than the people next door? Do we live in a world where righteousness is at home? I don’t think so.

The reading gives us a vision of a different world where righteousness is at home, where you could serve God  and be faithful  and not surprise your neighbors. It’s a message that haunts us still.  It’s a vision that’s changed the world.  It’s made people look at hunger and poverty and unemployment and people in power who don’t seem to care and ask, Does it have to be this way? Could it be better? Could I help make it better?  I think the demonstrations around the country and, indeed, around the world are evidence of a world where righteousness is NOT at home and yet a world in which a vision of righteousness has taken more hold  than it did in Amos’ day or Jesus’ either. There are people who clearly aren’t at home in it, aren’t satisfied with it, and that’s good.  Amos would have been glad to know  that he wasn’t alone any more  in caring about the poor  or about the environment. He was into protesting and demonstrating  himself.

Amos had a vision,  and of course that inspires protest, and I think some at least of the demonstrators in Egypt and Syria and Myanmar and Athens and elsewhere have a vision too: of a world without child labor, of a world in which farmers and workers  can sell their products everywhere and have greater opportunities to share  the world’s wealth. The trouble is that a better opportunity for  a Mexican peasant may take jobs away from someone in Detroit. And the vision of justice for one  may seem like injustice to another. A vision of justice is unsettling  but you can’t leave things as they are, if you have a vision of something better.

The vision of justice is a Biblical vision  and its influence today is evident everywhere. Where isn’t justice on the agenda these days? Why did we get involved in Kosovo?  There’s no oil there, no trade opportunities, nothing really to gain at all –  except justice.  Wasn’t that, in fact, the appeal of communism?  It didn’t work, but the appeal was the vision  of a truly just society where there would be work for all  and fair treatment for all. And there were lots of societies  so unjust and lots of people so unjustly treated that communism made a great appeal.  Communism failed but the vision is still there.   Wasn’t it that same vision  that fueled the civil rights revolution? Justice; justice now.
So that idea Amos had has changed the world  and, on the whole, for the better;  not necessarily for the easier, but for the better. To call for justice is to call for change, for an end of injustice, and injustice exists only because someone  benefits by it; usually someone with power, and reluctant to give up  the advantage they have or maybe simply because comfortable people want the peace and quiet of the status quo. And Christians themselves get torn apart by the vision of justice. Some would rather ignore it and get on with the old-fashioned kind of religion  that concentrated on fears and favors and didn’t worry about justice. And sometimes it’s hard to see  what justice is in a particular situation. Where does justice lie in the sexual issues that seem to be tearing churches apart?

There are no easy answers.  If there were there, would be no problem.  I simply point out that justice often seems to mean one thing  to conservative Christians and another thing to liberal Christians. And I think it would be starting at the wrong end to use this sermon to tell you who’s right and who’s wrong. What I will say is it might help if we all went back  to Amos and Jesus,  to try to see more clearly what the Biblical standard is.  Amos was upset by the way the rich oppressed the poor.  Jesus upset the rich by the way he associated with the  poor and the outcast. But what was the principle behind what they did?  How do we find a principle to apply to the issues that face us?

Christians over the centuries have led all sorts of campaigns for justice and sometimes totally wrong-headed. Christians led the fight against slavery and that was good but many devout Christians opposed abolition.  Christians led the fight for prohibition and that didn’t work out as well.  Christians went on Crusades to free the Holy Land from the Infidel and Christians set up the Inquisition to unite the faithful.   Looking back, with the advantage of hindsight, that wasn’t so smart either.  Christians today are in the lead  on both sides of the abortion issue.  Some perform abortions out of principle and some shoot down those who do. Terrible things have been and are done in the name of Christian justice and it ought to give us pause before we launch our own crusades. Christians have been wrong before and Christians – even I – even you –  might be wrong again.

The word Amos used was tsedek –  and we translate it righteousness but it has to do with meeting a standard and the standard is too easily simplified  into laws.  The standard Amos held up was not laws, but God himself: we should be like God.  God is just, Amos said, therefore we must be just. And those who suffer injustice deserve our help. “I came to help those who need help,”  said Jesus. Surely we need to be concerned more  for those in need than those who are comfortable. But above all we need to keep sight of the vision;  hold up the vision, share the vision of a world where righteousness is at home,  a society more like the kingdom that Jesus came to bring.

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