Justice is Just Us

Amos 5:21-24

Matthew 5:43-49

 

            If we start off by looking at this Amos text, we see a pretty angry God. “21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” God, through the prophet of Amos, is telling the people of Israel that everything they do to worship God means nothing. The solemn assemblies, offerings, and music are how the Israelites worship God. That’s basically God telling us here and now that every time we sit in church and offer our tithes and sing our hymns and take part in a prayer of confession that it is all for nothing. But why is God saying this to Israel? Why are the Israelites’ worship services all for nothing?

God is angry at the Israelites because of the way that they act ouside of worship. Look at Amos 5, verses 11-13: “11 Truly because you crush the weak, and because you tax their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won’t live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you won’t drink their wine. 12 I know how many are your crimes, and how numerous are your sins – afflicting the righteous, taking money on the side, turning away the poor who seek help. 13 Therefore, the one who is wise will keep silent in that time; it is an evil time.” God hates their worship because that’s all the Israelites are doing when it comes to honoring God.

The Israelites are going to their temples and offering their sacrifices and singing theirs songs and they are assuming that if they do just that, then everything will be perfectly fine between them and God. But then, leaving the temple, the Israelites would go out and waste their resources, take bribes, tax such basic things as food, and turn away the poor when they were seeking help. And at the end of this list is perhaps the worst thing of all: when a person saw someone else doing this, they would stay silent, even though they knew better. Amos 5:21-24 is God telling the people of Israel, “I hate the fact that you think you can just ignore all the problems in the world and that they’ll go away. Just because you bring me a sacrifice or say you’re sorry, the poor don’t go away. Just because you sing songs to Me and tell the priests about the bad things you’ve done, doesn’t fix the fact that you are wasting resources while people are starving. I hate that you won’t listen to me. I hate that you do not enact My word. I am yelling at you right now because I love you so much and you’re just doing it so, so wrong!”

And Amos wasn’t the only one to tell this message in the Old Testament. All in all, there were 48 prophets that said basically the same thing. That means that no matter how much the people of Israel were messing things up, God kept sending prophets over and over again to tell them what was wrong. God loved the world so much, that despite the warning of the coming of the Kingdom, God just sent more prophets. Instead of destroying humanity, God sent prophet after prophet to try and change the people of Israel with words and divine messages instead of destruction and carnage. Many prophets delivered a message of tough love, but that was only an effort from God to set the world straight. God never fully intended to destroy the world and all of creation. But humanity was messing up so badly that something had to be done!

So where are we now? It has been thousands of years since the last of the Jewish prophets came to deliver the Word of God. What has become of our society? Is our society without corruption? Do we have a civilization that never ignores the poor? Do we have an economy that does not systematically keep certain populations at a certain level so the top-earners can make more money? Do we go out of our way to help the poor?

You know what I’m going to say here, right? I’m going to say we’re failing. Hard. Everything the prophets saw was wrong with the society that they were living in is still systemic and widespread in our society. If you were to picture the idea of progress as a ruler, and put our society on that ruler, then I would say we’ve progressed maybe an inch since the prophets delivered their messages. And that’s probably being generous. If you scan the whole world, it’s easy to see what I’m talking about. Look at the Middle East. The conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis are countless. There’s violent civil war in Syria. Protests in Egypt are getting ugly. If we move over to Russia, we see LGBT activists being mercilessly beaten by police and protestors because it is against the law to be homosexual or spread the “homosexual agenda.” The world is an ugly, ugly place. And things here aren’t that much better when we really look at things.

Just the other week, the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial was handed down. In this case, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all second-degree murder and manslaughter charges after he admitted to following and killing the teenager Trayvon Martin, who was armed with Skittles and an iced tea, because he thought the African American teenager seemed threatening in his neighborhood. He called the police, as any good neighborhood watchman should do, and even after the police said they were on the way and for him to stay in his car, he continued following the teen. It’s a little suspect, who started the altercation, but an altercation started and George Zimmerman, who had a legal conceal and carry license, shot Trayvon and killed him. And, under the letter of the law, the now famous “Stand Your Ground Law,” George Zimmerman did nothing wrong. By the letter of the law, he was totally within his legal rights.

I’m not going to get into the racial undertones here. Instead, I’m going to get into what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. If we look at the whole thing, before we get to the part that we read today, we see Jesus redefining the Jewish Law, “38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Jesus is outlining the message of what the Law of the Old Testament is actually supposed to do. It sets up the basic rules so that we, as people, can go further, so that we have a jumping off point to get to an actual point of justice. It used to be said to make sure whatever transgression is put upon you to return it equally, but really, we should be forgiving completely. If someone needs something from you, give more than the most basic thing you can: help completely. Go the extra mile every time. Do not refuse to be good to anyone. Ever.

And in the part of the Sermon on the Mount that was read today, He says, “43 You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors have the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers or sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are tall orders. Love your enemy. I’m not sure that we always grasp what this means. Love those that you hate and that hate you. It’s easy to love those you love, but Jesus isn’t saying to do the easy thing. Jesus is calling us to be as perfect as God in our love. That is a tall order indeed.

Now go back to the Zimmerman/Martin case. Did you get some pretty high emotions when that verdict came down? Did you get upset that justice was not upheld? Were you relieved that justice was upheld? There was a wide-range of emotions about this case from all across the spectrum. But we should never have seen this case, if we actually are trying to follow the words and actions of Jesus. This case, concerning a man carrying a weapon and being afraid that someone in his neighborhood was up to no good, never should have been in the world, if the world had actually listened to Christ.

If the world had genuinely listened to Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, then there wouldn’t be a need to carry a weapon. If the world had listened to Christ fully and wholly, we wouldn’t have laws or legal systems dealing with weapons and murder. If the world had taken the words of Jesus to heart, we wouldn’t even have standing military forces. There would be no division of nations. There would be no upper and middle class. There would be no racist tendencies buried in the best of us. We would love our neighbors as we love ourselves – our neighbors being everyone in the world. When we look at ourselves in the context of Jesus’ words, then we have to face the undeniable truth that we have failed. We do not love each other with the perfect love of God. We do not go that extra mile every time. We do not give our cloak when we give our jacket. We do not do as Jesus did or as Jesus wanted us to do. We do not.

My preaching professor always tells her classes that every sermon should have hope or grace in it. I had a hard time finding that hope or grace with this message, but I saw that hope when I saw something my friend wrote on Facebook the other night. I don’t know if this friend is Christian or not, because I don’t think we’ve ever had that conversation. But I do know that the Spirit was moving in what he posted as his status. He wrote, “We know everything. And we are miserable. And we still get up and think that it will change. And one day… it will.” The only thing I would change would be to add, “It will change, if we keep working.” In Chapter 6 of Matthew, again still in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough today.”

Jesus is calling us into action with hope. If we use the Sermon on the Mount as an example of how to act in the world, and we truly follow the message here, then we have God with us. Jesus is telling us to worry about today so that we can focus on the kingdom of God. Being righteous is what’s important, not the other things we put at the forefront of our lives. If we love our neighbors, turn the other cheek, give our cloaks with our coats, continue to go that extra mile, and take it day by day, we’re going to find ourselves in a much better place in the future. The hope is that our small actions, the ones that show true understanding of Christ’s words, are the ones that will bring God’s kingdom into the world. Justice is just us, living Christ’s Word into the world. Focus on those small things that make the tiny differences and get up and think things will change… Because with that hope, they will. Things will change.

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