Let Justice Roll Down

Rev. Scott Summerville

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.

Amos 5:21-24

Yesterday morning I performed at a burial service for a family that lives out of the area. I had no previous connection to this family. All I knew was an eighty-six year old man named Tony had died, and I was to meet his family at the graveside.

Ten family members and friends gathered beside the grave. His daughter brought his ashes to be buried alongside his wife in the town where he had spent his childhood. The ashes in a simple black box were placed on the grass ,and a photograph of Tony was set against the gravestone. There was Tony, with a striking smile and bright eyes.

His daughter read this obituary. He was born the son of Italian immigrants and grew up on a vegetable farm near Armonk. He was a craftsman, a union carpenter. The five homes he lived in as an adult were all built according to his own plans and with his own hands. He was a very innovative and creative man.

The last house he built was one of the most energy-efficient homes of its type in the country; it was written up in the New York Times.

He was an avid birdwatcher. In lieu of flowers the family asked that funds be contributed to a conservation organization concerned with birds.

The ceremony was brief. It is unlikely that I will ever see these people again, but it was a meaningful encounter. There, in the space of five minutes, the story of a life was told.

We human beings make sense of the world by telling stories. We make sense of ourselves by sorting through the hundreds and thousands of miscellaneous events that make up our lives. We sift through all those countless events, like a child walking along the beach and picking out favorite stones. We select a tiny percentage of all the moments that make up our lifetime, and we weave those moments into our life story.

I learned ten things yesterday about Tony; ten things about a man who lived eighty-six years. It is amazing that seeing one photograph and learning ten things about Tony, I felt that I had come to know him. His story grabbed me, it touched me.

There are so many stories being told this week. The election of a new president and all the history that surrounds this election has touched something in the core of our nation. The presidential race was a contest between two individuals with striking and remarkable stories. After a long and rancorous campaign, on election night it was gratifying to hear gracious words and mutual respect expressed both by the victor and the defeated. Both men chose to speak not only of the moment, but of the history of the moment, and the way this election represents a new and unique chapter of a nation’s story.

The congressman from Georgia and legendary civil rights leader, John Lewis, was asked on election night whether 40 or 50 years ago, in the thick of the struggle for civil rights, did he ever think he would live to see the day when the United States would elect an African-American president?

He spoke with tears flowing on his face and a look of dazed bewilderment and said [parpaphrase], “At that time, it never crossed my mind that I would live to see this day. In that day all we wanted was to be able to sit at the lunch counter. All we wanted was to be able to ride the bus seated alongside a white person. All we wanted was to be able to take a taxi ride in the same car with a white person; all we wanted was to get rid of those signs that said ‘colored restroom’ and ‘white restroom’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountain and ‘white’ drinking fountain.”

There are things that you can’t entirely understand unless you live them directly. I was born in this country and my parents and their parents were born in this country. I do not believe I can understand what it is to be an immigrant or the child of immigrant. And as a white person who has never experienced prejudice, I can only partially understand what John Lewis was experiencing on Tuesday night or what other African-Americans and what other persons of color were experiencing on Tuesday night. I cannot entirely grasp how these events impact of their life stories, but I know this impact must be so profound.

I read of a woman who said that after the election she was concerned that her children would not appreciate the historic significance of what has happened. What a paradox that is. Those who struggled for civil rights from the days of the abolitionist movement in the 1700’s and in the 1800’s – those who gave their lives seeking to defeat slavery in the Civil War – those who were heroes of centuries of struggle: Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth and Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks, and Viola Liuzzo, and Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis – they lived for the day and in many cases died for the day when a person of any color could be elected president of the United States, and it would be no big deal.

There are millions of families this week where the elders have been talking to the children and grandchildren and telling them their stories, telling of the ways that racism and segregation affected their lives and their communities and how that was part of their life story, and telling how the story of the events of this week are writing a new chapter to that story. An awful lot of tears have been shed this week, so many healing tears, so many painful memories released in stories and tears.

To repeat what others have said: the very fact that the new president of the United States is referred to as a black president is itself a reflection of how we still racialize one another in this society. It is just as accurate to say that Barak Obama is a white president. And it would be quite adequate and just as accurate to say that he is simply the new president. In time I hope – I trust – that he will simply be the president, but at this moment history makes him more than that. Our story as a nation makes him more than that.

The reading today from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the words of the prophet Amos, is a passage that is deeply connected to the antislavery and civil rights movements of the United States. This passage was one of the favorite passages of Martin Luther King Jr.

Before I comment on that fact, let me clarify something: Last Sunday I referred to Martin Luther in my sermon. Apparently this caused a bit of confusion among some of the young people. And maybe not just among some of the young people. When young people hear “Martin Luther,” they narturally think “Martin Luther King Jr.”
So some people thought I was talking about Martin Luther King Jr., when I was talking about Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was a German monk and teacher of the Bible who lived in the 1500’s, roughly around the time of Columbus. He personally challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and the Pope; in doing so he played a very large part in starting the Protestant Reformation. More than 400 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was named after Martin Luther. I hope that clarifies the record.

So, as I was saying, the words read today from the book of the Prophet, Amos, were very important to Martin Luther King Jr., and these words played a significant role in the civil rights movement. King frequently quoted these words:

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.

He quoted those words to religious people who refused to join in the civil rights cause. He quoted those words to people who went to church and synagogue every week, who faithfully practiced their religious liturgies, who said their proper prayers, who worshiped the God of love and justice, but who would not lift their voices or risk their security on behalf of their brothers and sisters who were oppressed by segregation and racism.

Amos the Prophet was originally speaking the word of God to his fellow Jews, who observed all the proper festivals and made all the proper offerings at the altar of God, and then went out and oppressed the poor. Through the prophet Amos the God of Israel declared that justice and righteousness mean more than conducting a good worship service or saying beautiful prayers. That was a hard message for the Jews of his day to hear.

For many Americans it was a hard message to hear when Martin Luther King Jr. challenged them to move out of the safety of their sanctuaries and confront injustice in society. It is still a hard message for us to hear, because there is injustice in every age, and it is always safer and more convenient to ignore it, and to hide from it in the house of God. But our Bible does not give us that hiding place.

The Hebrew prophets declared: do not use religion and worship as a substitute for justice and truth. Instead, worship the God of justice and take strength from worship to do the things that are hard to do and face things we would rather not face.

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 everflowing stream.

Preaching from this biblical text places me in a potentially awkward situation. As soon as I finish speaking today, the choir is going to sing, and in fact I am a member of the choir!

“Take away from me the noise of your songs!” Oh dear. Should we cancel the anthem?

No. We will sing!

We will sing not only for our own pleasure and not only for the comfort it brings; we shall sing to praise the God of justice and righteousness.

We will sing, knowing that we stand under the judgment of God.
God wants from us a heart that loves justice.

God desires our songs of praise, as long as we who sing are committed to living lives of justice and mercy.

So be it.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

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