Sunday, November 12, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
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 everflowing stream.
When I was seventeen, my mother told me it was time to get a job. And so, I did – as a dishwasher in a Sambo’s Restaurant. My next job was a few steps up the social ladder. I even had to wear a shirt and tie to work. That was the uniform for all the bag boys at the local IGA supermarket. But there was another job I had at that same time which was by far better than either of the others. And that was cleaning my dad’s church – every Saturday.
I loved that job for all kinds of reasons. First of all, unlike the other two, this was a solo job. There were no demanding customers, no dirty dishes, no annoying bosses. But more than that, I loved this job because of where it was. You see, I just really liked being in church.
I guess that’s why I’m still hanging around all these years later! I still like church. I like being in church with all of you. I love this room. I love what we do in this room; this sanctuary away from the rush and hurry and worry of our daily lives.
And if you’re here today, then I suspect that you like church too. Maybe you enjoy the physicality of it all; the sense of community and belonging. Or maybe you connect to the rhythm of the church year. Or maybe it’s the liturgy or the sacraments or the music. Or maybe you’re just here for the free donuts.
Whatever your reason, going to church makes us increasingly the odd ducks of American society. We might like it here, but more and more and more of our neighbors don’t.
For decades now, the American church has been in a steady decline that shows no signs of abating. And Covid certainly didn’t help. Here’s a case in point: in 1957, when our denomination, the United Church of Christ was founded, it had almost 2.2 million members. Today there are only 745,000 – a 66% decline in 66 years. Closer to home, the city of New Haven, founded by and once a bastion of Congregational Christianity, now has a total Congregational church membership of just 346 people between its five surviving congregations.
And it’s not just our brand of Christianity that is struggling. Churches of all stripes, high and low, liberal and conservative are hemorrhaging members and shuttering buildings. Some of the most fabled churches in this land are shadows of what they used to be. And I, for one, mourn the decline of this institution that I love and that has done so much to nourish me.
That being the case, you have to wonder why on earth I chose the Amos passage from today’s lectionary selections! Old Amos is not for the faint of heart! And Amos seems to have an especially sharp ax to grind against worship. Amos writes this on God’s behalf: “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... Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
So just who was this harbinger of doom named Amos? Well, he hadn’t gone to seminary, that’s for sure! And he didn’t come from the right kind of family, that’s for sure. You see, all the best prophets came from a family of professional prophets. You were a prophet because your father was a prophet and your grandfather was a prophet. But Amos, well, he was a sheep herder and grew figs. Besides all that, he wasn’t even local. Amos was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but had wandered across the border to prophesy in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So, he was a double-outsider: not from the right kind of family, and not from here.
But there he was, predicting doom; there he was criticizing their worship services, even though everything seemed to be going just fine. And the other prophets called him on it. “Look around,” they said. “The economy has never been better. Our armies are the best. The king’s treasury is full. And gee whiz, have you been to our worship services? Even God must be impressed!”
But that’s the thing: God wasn’t impressed. In fact, it was their worship that was indicative of the much deeper spiritual issue that infected the whole society. And that is an age-old problem that accounts for why some people look at what we do here on Sundays and say, “No thanks.”
You see, in Amos’s day, worship was all beauty and glory, processions and music. But outside, it was all misery and want. Historians tells us that when Amos prophesied, the division between the haves and the have nots was at its widest. The king’s treasury might have been full. But the people’s bellies were empty. And yet the worship continued as if all was well. And so, the prophet spoke.
In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Amos in order to make the same point. After detailing the intense and systematic suffering of people of color in what was then a very go-to-church-on-Sunday country, Dr. King declared: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” In other words, Dr. King called upon the people of this country to connect their worship to the way they lived their lives. He understood that worship alone has never changed the society. But when worship and justice meet; when they are seen not as two disparate things but as one holy thing, then the Kingdom of God has come near to us.
Now I know that “the J word,” has become a politically dangerous word. But I don’t really want to really get into that because I am not a politician and this is not a political rally. This is worship and I am a preacher and my only duty is to interpret this book as best as I can. So, here’s my best shot: in the Bible, justice is most often defined as equity for the poor and freedom for the oppressed. It is about a better life for the least, the last, and the lost. In his very first sermon, Jesus said that he came into the world to bring good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18). So, the question before us is, how do we follow in his footsteps?
Well, contrary to what some churches preach, it is not by identifying our faith with any particular political movement or ideology. Frankly, that’s idolatry – making God into our image. And it’s not by assuming that we have to solve all the problems of the world. Remember that even Jesus didn’t feed every hungry person or heal every sick person. But he did react to what was in front of him. It was local. And when he got tired or frustrated or confused, he withdrew to pray. And there it is – the whole thing that Amos was preaching about – that vital connection between worship and justice.
Which brings me back to why I love church. Worship reminds me of what is true and good and holy. Worship reminds me that everyone born is a child of the Most High God. Worship primes the pump for what Amos called the ever-flowing waters of justice and righteousness. That’s why what happens in this room is so important. Worship fills us up so that we might pour ourselves out. And just about the time we feel empty; just when we have given our last cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, we gather in this room once more to remember our salvation. We gather to sing the praises of the One whose love never fails. We laugh and eat and embrace. We splash around in the grace of God. And then, we take that grace back out the doors – until the whole world becomes a sanctuary, and praise is found on every tongue.