Justice Transformed by Mercy

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, November 6, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

“ . . . let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

There are probably people who think Martin Luther King said that, and he did, more than once, but Amos said it first. Amos was a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees, a country man living a simple country life over seven centuries before the birth of Christ. But Amos went to the city one day and he was appalled at what he saw. Here were people driving big cars, chauffeured limousines, shopping for stuff they didn’t need, and walking right by homeless men and women lying on the sidewalks. Here were people with computers and iPhones and central heating and cooling who would go the market and buy choice steaks and exotic fruits and pay taxes to a government that would bomb people on the other side of the world and ignore the needs of people next door. Amos was appalled. He called them out: He said, “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; so that God’s holy name is profaned; He might have read the same headlines we read and watched the same television and asked how it could be that politicians and corporate executives would hide their money in overseas tax shelters while people are homeless and why they would try to cut taxes on the wealthy while cutting back health care for women and children.

What would Amos say to us? He’d say what he said to his own day: “Sweep it away; honor God . . . . . . let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos was first of the so-called “canonical prophets,” the first prophet whose words were written down. His people had worshiped God for centuries, but they had known God as a God of power, a God who could make a way through the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army and thunder down from Sinai: a God of overwhelming power, a God on their side against their enemies, but not a God to worry about much from day to day. Amos had a different picture of God. Amos portrayed a God who cared first for the weak and the poor, whose power had purpose and whose purpose was to use that power for those in need: the widow and orphan, the refugee and the immigrant, those with no friends in Jerusalem or Washington or city hall. Amos thundered about a God who had no interest in power politics or personal piety, no interest in prayer breakfasts or national greatness, but a deep concern for the hungry and homeless, the weak and the helpless, the sorrowful and poor. Amos, I think, would look at the churches of America and ask, “What are you doing when you promote a so-called personal relationship with God and have no relationship with those who need your help?”

The religion of too many Americans is a false religion that centers on feeling good and cares nothing for my neighbor. What kind of world have we made when 20% of the world consumes 80% of the world’s goods, when the rich hide their wealth in tax shelters while Africans flee from land parched by drought and Syrians flee from bombs and poisoned gas and children in Central America flee from armed gangs and our concern is to build a wall and keep them out? What kind of world have we made? Who is there to speak like Amos to those in power and warn them of a judgment that will sweep them away? Amos warned of a day of judgment. Amos had a vision of God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand and the wall would not stand. Amos would tell us, Your guns will not save you when that day comes. Moses had given the people the Law, the Decalog, the Ten Commandments: worship God, honor your parents, deal honestly with each other, but it was all too easy to see a narrow vision: say your prayers, behave yourself, take care of personal relationships with family and friends. Amos had a larger vision: a social vision, a concern for the weak and the helpless, a concern for a society that left too many out and he applied that vision to his world and he saw no hope, only death and destruction, death and destruction for a people who could not see beyond themselves, who talked about national greatness while having no vision of national justice.

The world of Amos was very small. He never traveled more than a few miles from home. He never imagined a world of human beings so powerful that they could destroy themselves in a dozen ways, but the same words still work: love justice, hate evil, care for those in need. Jesus came with the same message: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the word Jesus used: “righteousness.” Not justice; righteousness. Actually, the words get used almost interchangeably in translation: justice; righteousness. Two words, maybe, for the same thing. But maybe not. The word “justice” actually never comes up in the New Testament and seldom in the Old Testament. The same Hebrew word can be translated either way but the English words have a different feel. But I think “justice” is a rather impersonal word. Justice is given, meted out. It has to do with laws and judgment. But righteousness is a human quality; it’s a lifestyle. It can be negative; if someone is self-righteous, that’s not popular. But righteous and righteousness are common words in the New Testament and they are rooted in the nature of God. God is righteous and it’s a way of acting toward others. It’s not judgmental like “justice” but merciful and transforming. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness . . .” So start there: seek righteousness, seek for the kingdom, the nation, concerned not for national greatness but human fulfillment: justice transformed by mercy, love conquering hatred, fear overwhelmed by love.

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