Written and delivered by the Rev. Ruth W. Hamilton on Justice Sunday, January 20, 2019.
SCRIPTURE Amos 5: 1-15
A Lament for Israel’s Sin
5 Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
2 Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with no one to raise her up.
3 For thus says the Lord God:
The city that marched out a thousand
shall have a hundred left,
and that which marched out a hundred
shall have ten left.[a]
4 For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live;
5 but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beer-sheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nothing.
6 Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
9 who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Two hundred and forty three years ago, a new nation came into being, casting a radical vision in its first declaration that all people are created equal. Declaring it not because they practiced that vision but because they knew the truth of it. When Mr. Lincoln stood on the platform in Gettysburg, his high-pitched voice reaching the thousands gathered on that new resting place for the honored dead, he proclaimed that that Great War was being fought to determine whether that nation or any nation so conceived could sustain the possibility of that proposition—that all of us are created equally human, same flesh, same blood, same spirit.
Many voices have since rung out over citizens gathered to remember this nation’s promissory note, that all people have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that all people should enjoy the riches of freedom and the security of justice; that a nation cannot hand out bad checks to its people. We have stood in those crowds, weeping and cheering and praying.
It is still a radical vision--a root out of which true humanity can grow. It is an ancient vision planted in the hearts of those whose cries God heard from the fiery brickyards of Egypt, when God led them out from under Pharoah’s pyramid of corrupting power, through pressing walls like firehoses of water on either side, through discouraging decades in a wilderness, to a holy Mountaintop where the destination and the promise came clear, through the Jordan River, chilly and cold, into an already inhabited Promised land where they were to organize that new nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
It is against the eternal backdrop of that radical vision that prophet Amos wails this lament—that one Promised Land, that holy nation under God, has already been divided by power struggles into two—the north called Israel and the south called Judah. Amos channels God’s word to his own neighbors and fellow citizens, THUS SAYS THE LORD--lamenting that Israel has abandoned the more perfect union of One Nation in which all people are created equal. A house divided cannot stand.
He begs the people to seek God again and live--not in the old historic sites of Bethel and Gilgal and Beersheba –as if flying an X-ed out flag and bowing before a Statue of Robert E. Lee could somehow help perfect our Union. The worship of lesser gods always leads to greater evils. Thus says the Lord, You with Power use the divisions to trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you afflict the righteous, you take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the courtroom. You turn the pillars of justice to pieces of rotted wood. You take righteousness to the ground and leave it to die in the street.
The God who flings Pleaides and Orion into the night will not be mocked. Our iniquities are our inequities. Those who hate to hear the truth about them, hate to hear the voice of God. He flashes out against the self-serving Strong and will bring their towers to the ground. In the streets the children sang London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady. Take the keys and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up…finally we all fall down.
2 Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up.
We are gathered together today as part of that nation, that ancient nation under God. We have fallen to the ground.
Thus says the Lord. Seek good and not evil. You may live and you will find God in the good. Establish justice in the gate. The God we have met in the risen Christ may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
In Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, she says:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise….
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Many have fallen in the struggle. We cannot relive their lives. We can only become fully alive ourselves. That high-pitched voice of an unlikely Moses concluded with this at Gettysburg:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Thus says the Lord.
And now to the one who flings stars to the sky and brings lies to their knees
to God be the glory as we rise into that more perfect union.