Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

+ A sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 8, 2020 +

Text: Amos 5:18-24, Matthew 25:1-13


There’s a scene from a movie that’s been playing in my head for over a week now. It’s from the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy called The Two Towers and features the Battle of Isengard. You see, when we first see Isengard in the first movie of this trilogy, it was a beautiful and lush green paradise, full of trees and gardens where humans and nature peacefully coexisted and it’s watched over by a wizard named Saruman the White who lived in its fortified tower. But by this film, Saruman has allied with the Dark Lord Sauron, the representation of pure evil and oppression in Middle-earth. And Saruman has utterly transformed Isengard by damming the river to produce more power and cutting off the vegetation from its life source, and in doing so changing the landscape from verdant hills to an industrial wasteland so he could build a mighty orc army bent on the subjugation of the world. Now in this second movie, all of Middle-earth is at war including the Ents, an ancient and fantastic race of tree-protectors who are enraged to see what Saruman has done to the once harmonious Isengard. So they launch an assault on the evil wizard and, in a devastating attack, they tear down Saruman’s dam. When they do, the pent-up waters burst forth and cover Isengard, destroying its walls, sweeping away the orcs, flooding the industrial wasteland, and trapping Saruman in the tower in defeat. And after this victory, when the movie later returns to Isengard, the land is once again lush and the trees and vegetation are growing over the scars of industry bringing healing and new life.

It’s a powerful force, water. It’s essential for life as we know it. It makes up a large portion of our very bodies. Here in the Northwest we have harnessed it to power our homes. Because when it’s pent-up and restrained, water can burst force with unimaginable force. And it will change the face of the planet—carving rivers through mountains, eroding coastlines into the sea, bringing vibrancy to barren places. So when I hear the Prophet Amos foretell of the coming of the Day of the Lord, and when I hear that beloved line, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” that’s what I picture—the waters of the river, long pent-up by the forces of injustice breaking loose of their bonds and flooding the earth with power and might and bringing life to those who had been cut off.

That verse is a favorite of many. I’ve seen it on plaques and I’ve heard it in speeches. But it’s usually not accompanied by those preceding verses, is it? We don’t usually hear about the gloom, the hating on worship, the lions or bears or snakes. And probably because those verses make us uncomfortable, don’t they? Their ferocity and biting incitements sting our ears. They’re not the verses we want to hang on our walls.

And one of the reasons they’re so uncomfortable is that Amos is taking direct aim at the most pious, the most religious people of his day. These scathing verses aren’t for the tyrants or the wicked people, but the people that go to worship each week, the people that give the offerings and know the songs. The people who assume that they’re doing what God wants them to do. And it’s uncomfortable because we assume these people are good! Maybe we even see ourselves in their place—faithful members of our congregation who go to worship and support our ministry and long to sing our songs together in person again. But God sends Amos to tell these people that their worship alone isn’t enough. That true worship must be coupled with lives of true justice and true righteousness.

Now, in this country, when we hear “justice,” we often think of a legal system in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But in the Hebrew Bible, justice—or mishpat—means something deeper. It means fairness. It means attending to the needs of the poor, the outcast, and the dejected. It means ending systems oppression and creating a society where all people are cherished and their rights are protected. And when we hear “righteousness,” it’s easy to think of avoiding personal failings or individual sins. But in the Bible, righteousness means right-relationship. A sense of commonality and interdependence. A connection with God and a recognition that we have been bound together into a community and are called to love and care for each other. So righteousness is not just being personally pious, it’s forming our lives to live in close connection with God and one another. And justice is not about what is legal under the law, it’s about forming our society to emulate what God intends for us and our collective lives.

I think that’s why this verse from Amos was a favorite of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he fought unjust laws during the Civil Rights Movement. That he was calling for a reforming of our country that would finally and fully embody the society God has in mind for us—a beloved community where all people are truly equal and treated as the beloved children of God that they are. Dr. King was channeling the Prophet Amos and calling us to compare our country with God’s perfect commonwealth and acknowledge where we still have work to do.

Because that’s what Amos is doing. He’s calling the people to see that there is a dam that has been built up that is trying to prevent the streams of justice and righteousness from flooding the earth, that the forces of injustice are holding with all their might to contain those life-giving waters from flourishing God’s beloved community. And Amos is demanding that the people—the good, religious people—take a hard look at themselves, to really ask themselves how they’re doing in enacting justice in the land, how their lives reflect righteousness. Are the building up the dam or blithely benefiting from its presence? Or are they working to tear it down until the force of God’s justice drowns all the institutions and systems of injustice? Until the rivers of righteousness wash away the evils of the world and the whole earth springs forth in verdant life.

Now, perhaps it’s because of my own love of worship and liturgy, but I have always chafed at these words and insisted that Amos’ message does not mean that worship is bad per se, but worship that is complacent and separated from lives of justice is the problem. Because there’s nothing wrong with the worship these people are doing in and of itself, but Amos is so frustrated, so scathing because the people have substituted worship for living lives of righteousness and enacting justice. Amos is not saying that worship is unimportant, but demanding that our worship should spur us into lives of doing justice and living righteously with our God. That worship is not just showing up on Sunday mornings, but is a place where we are renewed, restored, and equipped before we are sent out to live lives of justice and righteousness.

But during this pandemic time, the words sound especially pointed in my ear. Because as one commentator pointed out, right now we don’t have our normal worship. That this would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that our lives of faith are more than just gathering on Sundays, that our Christian identity is so infused with our whole lives that we can’t help but live it out even when we cannot gather. That we’re not focusing on our festivals and assemblies and songs right now, so we can focus our time and efforts on doing justice and demonstrate how our worship has formed us to lives of righteousness. And, well, that’s not really a lens I want to put on myself right now, if I’m honest. It’s all the more uncomfortable because I know how far we have yet to go and I’m well aware of my own failings.

Because when we heed Amos’ message, we quickly realize where the waters are being held back around us. When so many of our siblings from Sub-Saharan Africa to India to Flint, Michigan lack basic access to clean water. When the waters of the earth are warming and getting polluted, threatening life across the globe. When flourishing of life depends on your zip code or income bracket rather than your fundamental human dignity and identity as a child of God. When the forces of racism and sexism and oppression continue to rear their ugly heads in our society. Amos is reminding us today that God has shown us what is right, that God has shown us what justice means and has called us to participate in its reality. To refuse to dam up God’s flowing rivers but to work with God to tear down all the barriers that would try to hold them back because God’s justice cannot be stopped and is going to flow across this world, and the streams of righteousness will never dry up, but will bring flourishing and life to the whole creation.

You know, not long before I recorded this sermon, the race for President of the United States was called and Joe Biden was named the winner. But regardless of the winner, our task as Christians has not changed. Because no matter who sits in the White House or our Governor’s mansion, no matter which party controls Congress or our State Legislature, we know that we still have work to do. And as newly elected officials prepare to take their seats in Olympia and in Washington, DC, we have a renewed opportunity to demand justice, a continued chance to live in right relationship.

In the waters of our baptism, my friends, we have been assured of our identity as children of God and reminded that God loves us deeply and cares for the flourishing of our lives. But we were also charged with joining with God, who has laid claim to our lives, in enacting justice around us and living in right relationship with God and with our neighbors. And if we live into those baptismal vows, partnering with God and each other, I am confident that we will see the power of those waters as they spill over from that font, overwhelming us with their power and promise, and flow throughout the whole earth bringing healing and wholeness and hope. And God has promised that day is coming, the day when evil will not be abided and injustice will be overwhelmed. And, as Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel, we are to keep watch, to stay vigilant, and to prepare for its arrival.

God has shown us how we are to live, beloved. God has called us to live lives of justice and righteousness. God is among us now to equip us and restore us as we worship. God is working within us and around us for the flourishing of our lives and the transformation of the whole world. And God has assured us that the waters of justice are going to roll down and those streams of righteousness long foretold will surely and finally sweep over the earth, covering it completely, filling our lives and the wounds of the planet with God’s perfect reign.     

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