Scripture
Amos 5:21-24
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.

Sermon
Today we start our seven week worship series on racial justice,
and preparing for it has been absolutely and utterly overwhelming!
Hard to even know where to start.
There are so many stories—so many statistics—so much history.
But actually, we do know where to start.
We start with Scripture.
That’s what we do.

And our text this morning comes from the book of Amos—
the prophetic word of a prophet from the southern kingdom,
born not far from Jerusalem,
who nonetheless prophesied predominantly to the northern kingdom.
So the voice of an outsider.
His ministry dates to the the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel
and Uzziah, king of Judah,

which means Amos prophesied in what would have been prosperous days
in the life of both Israel and Judah.
Early military expansion by both kings
resulted in years of political stability
and economic prosperity (at least for the ruling class)
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 259).

Assyria’s dominance in the region was imminent,
and so too the destruction and defeat of both kingdoms,
but nothing was suspected at the time.
Amos predicted the downfall of Israel,
not based on a recognizable outside threat,
but on his observations and interpretations
of the kingdom’s priorities and practices.
He spoke into a status quo
that would have not been questioned by those in charge—
into a status quo that was good to and for those in charge,
and it is against such a reality that we need to hear these words again:

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.

Our text unfolds in “three parallel sets of negative statements”.
The first “uses three expressive verbs (hate, despise, take no delight)
followed by two objects (festivals, solemn assemblies).
The second … focuses upon three types of sacrifice
(burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being) that YHWH rejects.
In the third set of parallel lines … YHWH commands
that songs cease and refuses to hear the instrumental music”
(Nogalski, 321).

It’s interesting to consider.
God hates/despises precise those festivals and rituals
specifically spelled out in the Torah—
not only God ordained but God specified—
here’s exactly how you do it!
And when God rejects their songs—
think about it—
the entire book of Psalms is a collection of their songs.

God rejects what God ordained—
what God inspired.
God rejects worship.
God rejects Scripture.

And the rejections build in power and disgust.
But our text does not culminate in negatives,
but in a positive—
not in rejection but in affirmation:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So in somewhat like manner,
throughout this worship series, each sermon will have two titles:
one from a negative perspective—an observation on what is—
and on too many of our choices and actions,
and one from a positive perspective
that names our hope and the heart and truth of God—
the positive given integrity in not rejecting the negative.

Now we need to be clear.
It’s not that God hates worship.
It’s that God hates the hypocrisy of worshippers
who see no connection between who God is
and how they live as followers of God—
who do not see or acknowledge the relevance
of their politics and their business lives.
It’s not even so much that God despises
worship that has not resulted in justice and righteousness,
but those who worship
with no sense of the important of justice and righteousness.
It’s not that worship’s not valued—not important,
it’s that it’s undermined—distorted—perverted.

Our text forces us to revalue our Scripture,
and where once we sang
with the children of Israel of old in petition:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4),

Amos demands that we sing with the children of Israel
in confession:
“In the walls of Jerusalem,
there we sat down and there we wept,
remembering Zion.
In the Temple there,
we hung up our harps.
For there our people
asked us for songs,
and our believers asked for faith, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the Lord’s song
in our unjust land?”

How can we sing of our faith—our faithfulness—
our God,
when our social and economic structures
make of that faith and that God a mockery?

Which brings us to the context in which our faith is practiced
and our worship is celebrated,
and here’s where I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
Do we go back and look at our history of genocide—of slavery—
on how much of the wealth and prosperity of our country and people,
now as then,
was generated by taking from others—
by the labor of slaves and the bodies of slaves?—
how city planning, and the development of mass transportation
intentionally excluded black neighborhoods?—
or how red-lining condemned neighborhoods with black families?
Do I look to the years of the civil rights movement?
There is so much to catalogue in our story that is despicable in its racism.

But I want to refer specifically to more recent tragedies and commentary,
believing these details to be indicative of deepest truth.
Y’all know the name Michael Brown?
Of course you do.
August 9, 2014 he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.
After the killing of Michael Brown,
the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s investigation
of the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court revealed
that their “mission was revenue generation—
extracting money from the black residents of the town,
using methods that were often legally questionable,
sometimes outright unlawful, and certainly morally reprehensible….
Blacks make up 67 percent of the populate of Ferguson
yet constituted 85 percent of vehicle stops,
90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests,
88 percent of cases with the use of force,
92 percent of cases in which arrest warrants were issued,
and 96 percent of the people held at the Ferguson jail for more than two days…. Dubious municipal ordinances were used as excuses
to generate citations, said the report—
again, almost entirely against black residents
for “Manner of Walking” (95 percent), “Failure to Comply” (94 percent),
and “Peace Disturbance” (92 percent).
One hundred percent of police-dog bite victims were black”
(Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin [Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2016] 17).

Freddy Gray?
After the death of Freddy Gray, April 19, 2015,
in our own city and the subsequent riots,
Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed “When Baltimore Burned,”
in the New York Times, April 29, 2015 highlighting
“a failure on our part in the American news media.
We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store
but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools,
joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing —
and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning,
consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead,
more likely to end up in prison than college,
harassed and occasionally killed by the police —
why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar:
Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.
We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race,
but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech given in the last year of his life said,
“a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it America has failed to hear?…
It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society
are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo
than about justice and humanity.”

This week, in an article in Baptist News Global, Bill Leonard,
former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest,
church history professor and one of the keenest observers
and interpreters of history unfolding that I know,
pointed out James “Cone’s poignant critique
of individuals like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr
and other “white theologians” who “have written thousands of books
about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy
between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.”
He is particularly critical of Niebuhr, his erstwhile theological mentor,
who could address the cross “with profound theological imagination,”
and yet “say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy
invalidated the faith of white churches.”

By the way, some two thousand more black men and women
were lynched (that we know about),
than there were people killed
when the World Trade Center towers came down on 9-11.

Also this past week in Baptist News Global, our friend Russ Dean juxtaposed:
“Opioid abuse is a tragedy; crack cocaine use is a crime.
Opioid users are members of society who need to be valued and restored;
crack cocaine addicts are criminals who need to be locked away.
Opioid addiction needs to be treated with compassion and medical intervention;
crack cocaine addiction deserves increased “law and order.”
With the opioid epidemic we seek the peace of the addicted;
with the crack epidemic, an all-out war on drug users.
Opioid use is treated with careful diagnosis;
crack abuse with mandatory sentencing.
Opioid recovery is to be celebrated; recovery from crack cocaine …
well, who cares if anyone recovers from crack?”
Could it be, he wonders, as simple and tragic
as that opioids plague middle class and rich white families,
while most crack cocaine abusers are poor and black?

In 2005, in Missouri, James V. Taylor was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of an amount of crack cocaine
that investigators deemed unweighable
and was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

In 2010, in Las Vegas, Paris Hilton was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of .8 grams of cocaine
and was given a fine and sentenced to community service hours
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

And this is not an anomaly.
This is what passes for justice in our country.

In 2003, in Georgia, Gennarlow Wilson, a 17 year old high school football player
engaged in consensual sexual acts with a 15 year old
and was sentenced in 2005, to 10 years in prison
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

In 2015, in California, Brook Turner, a college freshman
raped a young woman
and was sentenced to six months,
and his parents thought that was too much.
He will never be his happy-go-lucky self his father lamented.

Author Jennifer Weiner, writing in The New York Times, this past Friday
points out in an article entitled “The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up
how men have avoided responsibility by not claiming their maturity.
In 1969, that was 37 year old Teddy Kennedy,
whose “handlers”/family figured “if America saw
this married man in his late 30’s as a boy—
handsome and high spirited, mischievous, not a criminal—
he’d be able to squirm out of his misdeeds with minimal punishment.
And today, it may well be 39 year old Donald Trump, Jr.—
“that honest kid,” don’t you know.

Women and nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.

If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups,
whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.
Witness every administrative body, from middle school to Congress,
that has decided that it’s easier and more culturally acceptable
to police police girls’ and womens’ clothing than it is boys’ behavior.

Should one of these fine young fellows slip —
inflamed, perhaps, by one bare shoulder too many —
there’s probably a woman to blame,
and it’s his punishment, not his crime, that becomes the tragedy.

People of color, of course, never receive the leeway
that “good kids” like the 39-year-old Trump son seem to get.
When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice,
for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun,
their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.

Oh, and there’s this:
in 1984 people sentence to life in prison numbered 34,000
by 2013, it was nearly 160,000.
“Upward trends in life sentences originated in the ‘tough on crime’
political environment of the 1980s, which saw growing skepticism
about possibilities for rehabilitating serious criminals”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states)—
which is a theological heresy, by the way—
a total rejection of the grace of Scripture and God.

At a recent Baltimore County Council hearing
on a request from the federal government that local law enforcement
be trained and designated to perform immigration officer functions,
the rhetoric was all about the violent criminals in our community
(of whom ICE is notified when they’re arrested anyway),
as if there haven’t been family members deported after traffic stops.
I said, “You speak to this program at some imagined best, free of abuse,
as if people won’t be forced to live with it at its worst.”

And the fact of the matter is, … well, here are some crimes
for which people are serving life sentences in our country:

— acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop;
— having a stash of over the counter decongestant pills
that could be used to make methamphetamine;
— attempting to cash a stolen check;
— possessing stolen wrenches;
— shoplifting three belts from a department store;
— making drunken threat to a police officer
while handcuffed int he back of a patrol car;
— taking an abusive stepfather’s gun from their shared home
(http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/14/23-petty-crimes-that-have-landed-people-in-prison-for-life/).

As you will no doubt have surmised,
the racial disparity among those serving life is striking.
“[T]he black population of lifers reaches a remarkable 77% in Maryland”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states).

And finally, I heard something this week I haven’t heard before.
And maybe it has been said, and I just haven’t heard it,
but in the aftermath of the police killing
of Justine Damond Saturday a week ago,
the police chief in Minneapolis has already resigned
and publicly stated, “Justine did not have to die.
This should never have happened.”
No blue wall in Minneapolis this past week.
But of course, Justine was a beautiful, blond, white meditation instructor,
and the officer who shot her, Mohammed Noor, of Somalian descent.

The disgust must build, my friends—the rejections.
Because these are not isolated incidents,
but evidence of who we are,
and it’s only after confession that there can be repentance,
and only after repentance that there is a new positive to embrace.

There are stamps in our bulletin.
They’re a part of our history—part of our story, yes.
They’re also about how you get a message across.

There’s also a fist in our bulletin—
a raised fist.
It’s an offensive image to some—
as is Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the thing:
to consider the racial history of our country
is to find not a single advance that was not hard fought:
abolishing slavery,
segregating schools,
the civil rights bill.
Nothing was done out of any moral imperative of the majority.
Think about that.
It undermines so much of how we like to think of ourselves.
But we have too much engaged in the fatal flaw
of thinking we are who we’d like to think we are
instead of what we do.
Unfortunately it seems, historically speaking,
social justice is rarely offered.
It has to be demanded.
For while social justice is ultimately good for all,
it’s not as immediately profitable for some.
It does not justify the power to which some cling.

These are the realities against which
the words of Amos resound in our worship.
So this is some of what I think needs to be heard in our worship—
needs to hear from the church—
from us as followers of God in the way of Jesus:
that Black Lives Matter is not an arrogantly confrontative, exclusive claim
but the desperate, sad and lonely recognition that too much
in our culture, they don’t.
Our world needs to hear that we absolutely and completely
utterly reject any narrative of white supremacy as heresy—
racism as sin—
that we acknowledge how both lead to injustice
and to God’s utter disdain and contempt.

For if we do not confront and challenge such narratives,
we will be destroyed.
Oh, not by any external threat,
but in moral decay proudly clinging to rotting ideals.

Our love of country only has integrity
if we recognize and despise those parts of it that are evil.

Psychology teaches us you can’t really love yourself
until you embrace your shadow side.

Our youth and children Passport camp theme
was do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God—
a theme that rolls through this worship series.
And here’s a question for you:
if justice rolls down like waters,
what gets swept away?
If kindness and humility were prioritized—
if we lived in hope, not fear,
what would life in this country then be like?
More like God’s dream?

I am hopeful;
I am excited.
We can still be the church.
But only if we realize
that, according to God,
that doesn’t have to do with worship.
It doesn’t have to do with dogma.
It has to do with justice
and kindness
and humility.

I have a dream.

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