23rd Sunday After Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who flows through our lives. Amen
Have you ever set hope for the future
on a particular day or moment only to be disappointed?
You find yourself in the midst of something
no so pleasant
and so to get through you find a time in the future
that seems like it will mark the end of your waiting or your suffering,
and you find yourself thinking
‘if I can just make it to this day, everything will be okay
or then I will have some answers’
and so you wait.
But when that day finally arrives,
the day for which you have hoped and longed,
you end up disappointed
when the world, just by reaching this date,
is not magically better,
or what you expected or hoped for.
This is what the prophet Amos
is warning against at the beginning of our first lesson for today.
Those originally hearing Amos’ words,
the Israelites in the North
were living under the Assyrians,
a bigger, stronger nation
who was threatening to come in and destroy them,
the Israelites have latched on to the idea of the day of the Lord.
The day when the Lord will come
and they imagine,
sweep out the threat of the Assyrians,
vindicating the Israelites,
handing them a victory over their foes.
‘If we can just make it to this day’ they think
‘everything will be okay’
and more than just hoping that the day of the Lord will come
they set about trying to make it happen,
‘if we say the right prayers and offer the right offerings, and sing the right songs,
then surely we can help bring about the day of the Lord’
so that’s what they set about doing,
concentrating their efforts
on making sure the worship and festivals are just so.
and then along comes Amos the prophet
who asks them:
“Why do you want the day of the Lord?”
and suggests that what they’ve imagined is inaccurate
and describes what it will be like with vivid imagery.
“It is darkness, not light
as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear”
Amos is saying that the day of the Lord for the Israelites
would be like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire,
oh and all that work they’ve been doing
to try to bring it about,
well here’s what God thinks about all that:
God says “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.”
God hates all the things that they’ve been doing
to make God happy,
‘maybe that’s how those false gods pretend to work’ God says,
‘but not me. I don’t want your worship if it’s intended to manipulate me.’
God is tired of being treated like a cosmic vending machine
where if you put the right prayers and rituals in
what you want comes out.
So what does God want?
“Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” God says “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Justice and righteousness,
that’s what it’s always been about.
Justice, the attention to the needs of all,
healthy relationships that root the interactions of the human community.
Justice and righteousness
have been the goal behind all of God’s interactions with people throughout history
in confirmation this year we are studying the Bible
so far we have heard the story of how God created everything and called it good,
but after a while things on earth among people weren’t so good,
so God came to Abraham and Sarah
and promised to make them a great nation,
a nation of people in relationship with God
and that went fairly well for several generations
until the descendants of Abraham end up in Egypt,
and when we next hear about them
they have been enslaved by the Egyptians,
God, hearing their cries raises up Moses
who leads the people to freedom,
in dramatic fashion they make it away from the Egyptians
and into the desert
and there God sets about teaching them
to live in a community governed by Justice and righteousness,
where the needs of all are met
and healthy relationships are the root of the community.
We see this focus in the commandments
that God gives to the people,
all of them have to do with maintaining healthy just relationships,
the first three focus on the relationship with God,
number four on relationships within the immediate family,
and the rest on relationships within the community,
breaking any of these commandments
will break relationships and lead to injustice.
God gives the people the gift of the law
and teaches them how to live in a community
governed by justice and righteousness
with the intent that they be an example to all the nations of the world
who would see that this was the best way to live
and be drawn to God and the way of justice and righteousness.
And when the people are ready
God leads them to the promised land
where they settle down
and get to work
For awhile things are good,
but then the people get distracted by the shiny idols of their neighbors
and they enter a cycle where they turn away
from God and the way of justice and righteousness,
and that gets them into trouble,
finding themselves in trouble they cry out to God for help,
and God who loves them raises up a judge,
a temporary leader
to show them the way back to God
and they return to the way of justice and righteousness
and life is good, for awhile,
until the next shiny distraction comes along
the people get so distracted
that they want to live more like their neighbors,
they say to God ‘give us a king, a king will keep us safe’
but God knows that societies with kings
are the opposite of societies of justice and righteousness,
a king has too much power for all relationships to be healthy,
but the people persist
and to stay in relationship with them
God relents and gives them a king.
First God tries to find kings that are faithful to God
and the way of justice and righteousness
but even the best, David,
has his struggles and soon it all goes downhill
and the Israelites are living lives
where attention is only paid to the needs of the few
and relationships suffer as a result,
and that is when God starts raising up prophets
to keep speaking to the people the way of justice and righteousness.
Conveniently, that’s the part of the story that we just got to in confirmation last week
and it puts the prophet Amos’ message into context.
The people have gotten distracted
and focused on the wrong thing, the day of the Lord,
Amos is to bring them back to the way of justice and righteousness.
And so we have Amos
reminding the people that what God desires of them is
to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
and this proclamation is as much a promise
as it is a reminder
because with or without the people,
God’s justice and righteousness will prevail like the water that they are likened to.
And it’s an apt image because Justice and righteousness
like water because water always prevail.
Think about it, the hardest materials are no match for water,
rocks which seem so permanent
are carved and worn away by water,
Dams or other attempts to control the flow of water
are only ever temporary,
eventually the water will find a way to go where it wants,
sometimes that looks like a great flood
that bursts through barriers
wiping away what once stood in its path,
and sometimes it looks like the continual flow
nourishing life around it
even as it gradually carves a path through.
The same goes for God’s justice and righteousness,
it always prevails,
it is always there working
on even the seemingly most permanent of institutions,
if it has been dammed up,
it will eventually break forth
it is always flowing
easy to overlook by those who only see it as part of the scenery,
but a source of life for those who drink from it.
Water always prevails,
and the water of God is justice and righteousness,
and we have been washed in this water by God who loves us.
At our baptisms the waters of God’s justice wiped away our sins
and the waters of righteousness
forged an unbreakable relationship between us and God
promising that nothing can separate us from the love of God
as Paul put it “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor thing to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.”
Washed in the waters of God,
God promises us that it will prevail
and continue to flow through us and our lives,
calling us to live the way of justice and righteousness
reminding us that whatever decisions we make
or institutions that seem permanent,
it will find away,
and justice and righteousness shall flow.
On this we set our hope. Amen
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who brings us back to love. Amen
Today the Pharisees set out to test Jesus,
and one asks him
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Now this story comes at the end
of several stories of various groups trying to trick Jesus
into blasphemy or treason,
and this time they specifically use the law as their trap.
Remember, the law was a gift from God to the Israelites,
God freed them from slavery in Egypt
and brought them out into the wilderness
and to teach them how to live in harmony with one another as free people
God gave them the gift of the law.
It was a gift given in love,
intended to help build and maintain relationships,
and now the Pharisees propose to do the opposite
they set out to use the law to test,
to trick, to divide, even to harm.
they ask, which law is the greatest?
and Jesus responds:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus brings them back to love.
This is what Jesus does
every time humans take a gift from God,
given in love, intended for love
and use it to test, trick, divide or harm,
Jesus brings us back to love.
Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.
We see this in the gospels
Jesus continually points those he meets back to love,
love that mends relationships and brings people together,
and often this takes a very physical form,
when Jesus meets people whose relationships are broken because of sickness,
he heals them,
when the disciples want to send the crowds away to get something to eat,
Jesus says you feed them,
and helps them feed the masses with a little bit of bread and fish,
when Jesus knows that the people despair
he sends the disciples out to spread the good news
that the kingdom of God has come near.
Again and again Jesus points those he meets back to love,
until he makes the biggest point of all,
his death on the cross,
an act of love so great
that it defeats death, when Jesus, love incarnate, rises on the third day.
Jesus, a gift given to us in love by God
always brings us back to love,
because of Jesus we know that God loves us,
and nothing can separate us from the love of God,
not even ourselves and our failure to perfectly love God, neighbor and self.
God makes this promise to us at our baptisms
and makes us part of the community called to always return to love.
This is what our young people are affirming today,
their commitment to living in the love of God,
sharing it and returning to it when they go astray
remembering the gift they have been given.
Baptism is a gift from God
given to us in love,
at the font God claims us once and for all
so that we may never doubt
who we are and whose we are,
and this is all God’s doing,
we are saved by grace through faith,
not by our own works
and this gift of God is so great
we want to share it with everyone,
we want to partner with Jesus
to live in a world where the sick are healed,
the hungry are fed
and all have a home and a place
not because of what they have done or earned
but because they are beloved children of God.
This is the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed,
the kingdom that breaks in
every time love reaches across divisions.
As we look around
we are well aware that the fullness of the kingdom of God
has not yet arrived,
we face the imperfections of the world each day,
and so we still need the gift of the law
to guide us in communal living
and to show us when we fall short,
when we need to be brought back to love
and this is a continual process,
one that works in our individual lives and in the communal life.
Today we observe Reformation Sunday,
a moment in history
when a monk named Martin Luther
realized that the gift of God was being used to test, trick, divide and harm,
and so he asked some questions
and started a movement of people
looking anew at the gifts of God
and how they were being used
and calling the community back to acting out of love and care for all,
a way of sharing and living the gospel.
This way of looking at the world is part of our heritage,
But the work is not complete
We are called to continue reforming,
to continually look into the mirror of the law
and when the gifts of God are being misused
we are called to point it out,
to bring it back to love,
and of course we do not do this on our own,
Jesus is with us,
recalling us to the promises made at the font
and bringing us to the table
where with his body and blood
he forgives us and brings us back to love,
love that looks like a community gathered
where there is enough for all,
food enough for all,
love enough for all,
love that then gets sent out into the world.
today you are publicly saying yes to the way of love,
a way that the world desperately needs right now.
As you continue to live your faith in the world
there will be those who will question you,
not because they seek knowledge
but to test you,
and you will encounter times
when the way forward is less than clear
in those moments,
remember your baptism,
remember that you are a beloved child of God,
nothing can change that,
and in remembering
you will realize that the answer is clear,
Because Jesus always brings us back to love. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.