This Election Day has been a bursting of the balloon of enthusiasm for many. There was optimism in the air. As often has happened in the past, there was talk of a “new majority” a-brewing. Never before have people been so keen to vote. Never before have so many taken to the streets to demand police reform. Never before have youth and women been so stirred to action. Never before have we seen and repented of the injustice of a system where the have-nots die like flies because they don’t have equal access to health care or the vital equipment needed for their schooling. So, it was thought, white supremacy, systemic racism, autocracy, and the willful lies of a corrupt political system would all be soon undone in a great sweep of a blue wave.
But it didn’t happen.
Where is the Lord of righteousness? Where is the right arm of justice?
Two of our lessons for this Sunday hit the mark.
An alternative first lesson for this 23rd Sunday after Pentecost is Amos 5:18-24.
Amos was born in the 8th century BCE, and in Judah. But he directed his words to the northern kingdom of Israel. This famous prophet of punishment for the hypocrisy that shows itself in social injustice blows the whistle on the way Israelites looked forward to the Day of the Lord. They believed it would be a decisive clash when the enemies of both Judah and Israel would be clobbered by God.
Amos warns them that the Day will be one of judgment, but the chosen people of God had a long list of sins that will also be punished. Among these indictments are that “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
In our reading Amos delivers an ironic judgment on undeserved and misplaced optimism. When the Day of the Lord comes, he says, it will be like this: You might feel relieved that you can get away from a lion, but then you will be eaten by a bear. You might breathe a sigh of relief as you find safe shelter in your own home, but then you will lean your hand against the wall and be bitten by a poisonous snake.
Amos then gets even more radical. In an oracle from God he indicts the people’s very life of piety and their worship. Their worship, without social justice, is just noise to God. The Lord is saying, instead of a faith on cruise control “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I take away at least two crucial lessons from Amos. The first is that it is always poisonous to faith and to one’s own character to think in terms of “us and them.” When we get over zealous in pointing out the mote in the eye of another, we will miss the beam in our own eye. We begin to repent only of the sins we see in others, and not of our own sins. This goes also for political parties and for political movements. Among the many important points that Robert D. Putnam makes in his recent book, The Upswing, is that the Progressive Movement of the first half of the 20th century greatly improved our society with such things as laws for better working conditions, the minimum wage, a progressive income tax, Social Security, and women’s suffrage. But the great sin of most of the reformers behind such advances was the failure to be inclusive enough in their thinking. The reformers, for many long decades, pointed the finger at scapegoats: the Germans and Irish drank too much. They even held to racist ideas that kept blacks and immigrants “in their places” because they were “lazy and inferior.” Putnam wisely suggests that reform dare not try to move too fast, but it can never compromise with the solid truth that none of us will have a healthy society unless all people are included in that promise.
So, no matter how righteous we believe our cause, we all have sins to atone for. When we are talking sins, we must speak of ourselves and our own political parties and movements as being the foremost of sinners.
The second lesson Amos teaches us is that all our faith and all our worship must be anchored in enduring righteousness. And a corollary to that idea is that we can never stand righteous without striving for social justice. We Lutherans love to interpret Paul in Romans as saying that righteousness is not something we do, but something God gives. That is only half true. It is something God gives; but unless it is also something we do, then it is no true righteousness. The Book of James must be read along with Romans. We can’t say we have accepted the gift of God’s righteousness if we have no regard for the vulnerable and the “other.” And we can’t say we are righteous if we are charitable toward the poor and the hungry while we ignore the gnawing, systemic injustices that produce infinitely more poor and hungry people than we can ever care for.
One more corollary of Amos’ idea about social justice as worthy worship is captured in that notion that justice should be an “ever flowing stream.” Stamina in our righteous action is what it’s all about. And that brings us to the Gospel for this Sunday.
In the Gospel lesson (Matthew 25:1-13) for this day, Jesus adds his warning to that of Amos. “Don’t be like the foolish young maidens who are waiting for the best part of the wedding ritual to unfold as the groom comes to collect his bride to take her to their new home. Those foolish maidens aren’t prepared for the long wait. They don’t bring oil for their torches as they stand outside the bride’s home.
Don’t be foolish. Be prepared for the long haul!
We thought this election would be a break-through triumph, and that America would live up to its promise of being a beacon of democracy, goodness, mercy, and inclusive justice for the world. But the Bridegroom hasn’t arrived…yet. The Great Party has not started…yet.
The great gift of righteousness comes to us Christians as we join in the foretaste of the Great Party in the Eucharist. Even that seems just out of reach today as the Covid-19, in all of its horrid reality, keeps many of us physically apart. But if the Bible teaches us anything it is that the physical, while important, isn’t the essential thing. We still can be socially and spiritually together. We can believe in the foretaste. We can use our prayers and our Bible study to stay spiritually close to God. We can use Zoom and Facebook and Facetime to encourage each other.
But we must be like the wise maidens who brought oil for their torches. We must gird up our loins, set our faces like flint, organize for the long haul of politics, and endure.
We will get through this post-election letdown as we exercise the stamina of righteousness that God gives us through the Spirit of Christ.
Where is the God of righteousness? In our endurance!
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