In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible. Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying. This sermon, the sixth in the series, was preached on July 19, 2015.
This has been a season of water! Plenty of water outside, with all the rain we’ve had. And water inside, as we make our way through the Bible Study, Come to the Waters, and gather to worship around the same themes: creation, baptism, thirst, danger, courage, and presence.
How did you do with last week’s assignment? Those of you who were here last week know that we talked about the episode in which the disciples are caught in a windstorm out on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus comes walking across the water to them.
We learned that, regardless of whether we are hiding out in the boat like most of the disciples, waiting for the storm to pass, or emboldened like Peter to strike out on the water, Jesus says the same things to us: Be not afraid. I am with you. And we learned that the disciples saw, in Jesus’s presence and power, the Son of God.
Today, we are moving out from last week’s focus on ourselves to a focus on our neighbors, and on the rest of the world. We as Christians are called to journey both inward and outward. We are called to an inward journey of growth in faith – to lives of prayer, of contemplation, of study, of worship, both on our own and in community. And we are called to an outward journey of mission – of being sent to spread the good news of the kingdom of God among us, through both word and action.
Last week, we were immersed in the waters of our inward journey, wondering about ways in which we come to know and understand Jesus in our own lives, whether we are frightened or brave, whether we are cowering in a boat or stretching ourselves to meet him.
This week, we move on to the waters of our outward journey, to the waters of justice and service. To the world beyond ourselves.
Let’s start with Amos, the prophet. Sometimes people aren’t so sure what a prophet is. Is a prophet a fortune teller, someone looking into a glass ball or shuffling through Tarot cards, to tell the future?
Not in the Biblical sense. In the Biblical sense, a prophet’s job is to call the people back to God and to God’s priorities. Often, a prophet’s job is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo, with the way in which we have drifted away from God, and to return us to God and to what God wants. As the saying goes, the church’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – and the prophet is in charge of the second half of that equation. To afflict the comfortable.
What does that mean? How are we called to be afflicted? What should agitate and disturb us?
We are called by the prophets to be afflicted by the cry for justice in our country and world. We are called to be aware of unfairness, of wrong doing, and, even more, of what we might do about it. And – there is always something that we can do. We start by learning, and then we take action.
A few weeks ago, as you know, I was in Washington, D.C., advocating for mental health and suicide prevention legislation and dollars. How did that come about? Well, I started by learning. I started by reading and talking with people about mental health and suicide prevention, and learning about statistics and causes and prevention. I learned that a lot of the assumptions people make about mental health issues are not true – we know all kinds of things today that we didn’t know even a decade ago. And then I went to work as a volunteer for a suicide prevention organization, writing letters to our senators and representatives about mental health legislation. And now I’ve been to Capitol Hill twice, along with 300 other volunteers each time. Never did I think that I would be one day talking to a United States Congressperson about the National Violent Death Reporting Act, or about legislation to ensure that veterans receive proper medical screening – but I started learning how to afflict the comfortable, and how to seek justice for the underserved and unserved in our health system.
Three hundred of us. And the week before I went to Washington, I learned that a friend from another congregation had been there advocating for diabetes education legislation. And while our group was there, we met some of the 700 people there to advocate for environmental legislation, and some of the 900 people there to advocate for funding to treat and cure pancreatic cancer.
Justice in action. Inspirational, and amazing, and life-giving.
But I can’t do that, you might be thinking. Maybe that old prophet Amos, 2500 years ago, maybe he meant that we should cause justice to roll down like waters, but he didn’t mean me. Or us, in our little church. In which case I would say, Who do you think he did mean? Of course he meant you! He meant all of us!
Too hard, you say. Can’t do it.
But you have done it – think of our Selma program last winter! Remember – we were able to take dozens of students and their teachers, from both Euclid and Cleveland, to see the movie Selma, and then to host them for lunch and a panel discussion. That was a wonderful day in this church – so many of you helped with the lunch and the overall visit – and that was justice in action. Justice in the form of education – which is the first step in making changes in society. We haven’t done enough of that around here – that’s for sure – but we made a start.
And there are other ways in which we reach out, not only on behalf of those seeking justice, but directly to those in need. Our outward journey is about service as well as about justice.
Let’s look at Jesus and what he says. One of the things of which our water study has reminded us is about how many ways we come to see and to know God. We wonder about that, don’t we? When disciples wondered the same thing, Jesus told them a story about a king, who says to those at his right hand, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the king’s followers say, “When did we ever do anything like that?” And the king says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The work of justice is the work of seeking out and altering the root causes of injustice – of poverty, of discrimination, of inequity in health care, in education, in housing. That’s why we talk about making changes in our laws, and about educating our children so that they can be the next generation of change.
But as long as injustice exists, so does the need for caring for our neighbor. So does the need for providing food and drink and hospitality and clothing and care for the sick and imprisoned.
And some of those things we do well, and it is in offering that care that we see the face of Jesus most immediately in front of us. You may have heard me quote Sue R. before: she once said that, with our meals and our thrift shop, “we feed and clothe the neighborhood.” We don’t do those things just to be good people, of course. We do them because we are called to see the face of Jesus in our neighbors. When we offer food and drink to others, when we provide them with low-cost clothing and household items, when we help others who are in trouble or sick – we are doing the same for Jesus.
Jesus, of course, learned from the prophet Amos, just as we do. One thing we know for certain about Jesus: he knew his scripture! He was raised with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which for him would have been the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And thus he knew the prophets well – the prophets whose words he himself had come to fulfill.
This means that he understood the call to serve as he himself did served. He also understood the call to justice – that it is not enough to feed the hungry, but that we are called to further the kingdom of God so that there is no more hunger. And he knew something more, something more that Amos says: that these calls, these calls to service and to justice, grow out of our worship. That our inward journey leads to our outward journey. That worship by itself is not enough – that we cannot call ourselves true disciples of Christ unless we follow him into the world and its needs.
Amos was on fire when he spoke to the people all those centuries ago. Amos told them that God was not the least bit interested in their assemblies and music and offerings – in fact, Amos told them that God DESPISED their assemblies and music and offerings – because that’s all they did. They may have worshipped in beautiful and even sacrificial ways, but they did not go forth into the world to share God’s goodness and love. They did not participate in justice, rolling down like waters, or in righteousness, running like an ever-flowing stream. They did not leave the sanctuary ready to roll up their sleeves and help others. They stayed in place, in their temple and in their self-satisfied lives, they stayed stock-still, as if they were stuck in a puddle — when they were called to be on the move – to be part of the rolling, running, MOVING waters and streams of justice and righteousness.
What about you? Will you go and help with the community meal this afternoon? Will you write a letter to a congressperson this year? Will you remember that we are called to be a people moved to action just like the rolling and streaming of the waters of justice and righteousness?
Can you do those things? Can you follow Jesus, knowing that to see him in others means to act for them and with them?
I know that you can! Start today! Go into that kitchen after church and lend a hand, go to the meal and visit with our guests, go online or read the paper and learn about hunger in Greater Cleveland. You are the people of God, and so you are called to be people of service and people of justice! Amen.