Sermons: Seek God and Live

The following is the sermon on Amos 5:1-17 that Deb Whalen-Blaize preached on September 29 at Wine Before Breakfast … After Dinner.

Last week, we gathered together, and listened to Aileen talk about apocalypse.  This week, my dearly beloved, we are gathered together to talk about death.

Hear the words of the prophet:

 “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up.”

No one to raise her up.  Strange words to hear the prophet say, as one who is speaking on behalf of a mighty God.  “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”…  Surely THIS God can raise anything from the dead.  Surely Israel’s God, who delivered them from Egypt through a parted Red Sea and kept them alive in the desert -surely THIS God can save them.

But what I hear Amos saying to Israel in its apocalypse is not that God can’t raise her up.  What I hear Amos saying is that God won’t.  They have become a society God will no longer endure.  We’ve been reading this for weeks: they no longer behave like people who had once been delivered from oppression.  They, instead, have become oppressors who capitalize on the weak, poor, and needy. The memory of how it felt to suffer under systems of iniquity and captivity is no longer within reach of the most powerful among them; instead those with power choose to nurture a system that sacrifices the wellbeing, livelihood and humanity of the poor.  And in so doing, the rich and powerful have sacrificed their own humanity, and fail to live up what it means to belong to a just God.  There’s a decay of life in all directions, and justice has been turned to bitter wormwood.

To add further insult, they continue to participate in worship and observe holy festivals as if God still means something to them. The rich and powerful of Israel bring grain and livestock in portions that barely affect their legers and expect that God will be appeased and overlook their rotting culture of injustice.  Perhaps they think their offerings are just about meeting that bottom line.  Perhaps Yahweh will look away from what they know is piss-poor conduct for those who belong to the Most High, so long as they offer him a cut of the reapings.  The worship they offer includes nothing of devotion or gratitude, and does not resemble sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination.  I wonder which came first…  Did their conduct of increasing injustice corrupt their worship?  Or did an indifference creep into their worship and corrode their sense of righteousness and equity?  I certainly can’t tell you which came first, but there IS a co-relation.  Their devotion to power and greed flickered to monsterous life as their devotion and gratitude toward their life-sustaining God shriveled up and died.  Worship is supposed to be life-giving.  Yahweh asked for a practice of worship for Israel that would nurture and sustain their relationship, to God and to each other.   But this token appeasement?  It’s not worship.  It’s not service or devotion.  It’s no better than bribery -Hush money in exchange for the allowance of abusive inequity.  Of course, this is not the kind of worship God desires, nor accepts.

And thus the harsh critique is issued:  God is calling time of death.  Start the funeral.  Time for this whole system of death just die.  God is not interested in restoring THAT Israel.  But, thankfully, God is not done talking.

“You are dead.  But…  Seek me” God says, “And live.”

Death is not just a metaphor.  Most of us, by this point in our lives, have been very deeply affected by death.  We have been robbed of people precious to us by death.  COVID-19 shook us so harshly because of it’s capacity for death.  God uses this image of death because of how serious it is -and also because it’s more than a metaphor.  Systems of inequity literally lead to death for those who can’t find housing, who have no support through addictions or mental health challenges, and who can’t access income because they’re not seen as hire-able or because the wages for the jobs they are doing are insufficient and unfair.  Those of us with privilege can’t just brush these things off like they have nothing to do with us.  A society is not just a bunch individuals who are just near each other.  Our behaviour affects each other and we need each other, especially when things get bad.  So when things go well, we need to use our fortune and privilege to support and sustain those in need.  Everything we get is supposed to be seen as a gift from God, which helps us to nurture our understanding of Godly generosity.  However, if you’ve gained what you have from evil, unjust practice, you’re not going to think of what you’ve gained as being from God, or for God either.  The hoarding of wealth so often implicates that it was wrought by illicit means.  If you don’t care who you crush to acquire your fortune or your power, you’re probably not interested in using those assets to support and empower those you are responsible for crushing.

And it’s not just wealth that is acquired or maintained easily by unjust means.  Power works that way too.  And I think this is where the church is the most susceptible to evil, death-dealing practice.  How many of us have suffered under power-hierarchies built and sustained by those in the church who do not actually represent all who belong?  How many of us have been told that we are less than, that our gifts are insufficient, because of our gender?  Our sexuality?  Our nationality or skin colour?  How many of us have been shut down and rejected because of expectations we could never meet?  Expectations never put on us by God.  Expectations that are set impossibly high so that only a select few have actual access to leadership and influence.  This exclusion and dehumanization for the sake of power is STILL happening in the church.  God’s church.  Rather than being an example of justice and equality and unconditional love and commitment, the Church in so many respects reflects and practices exclusionary economics.  And then the church says this is God’s way, sign God’s name to it and convinces themselves this is how God taught them to do church.

But this is not the unconditional, empowering, life-giving way of God.  It is the way of death.  It kills faith.  It keeps people from God.

I worry that as society wakes up to injustice and fights to dismantle it and evoke change, the church is getting left behind.  A few weeks ago I attended an online session about racism in the context of church.  It was sobering.  The lecture was being given by Michael Blair, a black man in leadership in the United Church of Canada.  He spoke clearly and prophetically, talking about the lack of diversity within the church in Canada, and the way that Canadian churches haven’t made any formal statement in support of the anti-racism movement.  Most of us don’t even realize how ethnocentrically European the church here is.  Many of us don’t WANT to know.  Because we benefit from this ignorance.  And because the work of change is hard.  Changing means we need to face and confess to the injustice we’ve perpetrated and participated in, and then we have to keep working and dismantle the corrupt system and then rebuild a new system that shares power.  If I’m honest, the white girl in me who hates conflict and has been fortunate enough to be able to ignore the problem of racism in the church for so long…  that part of me doesn’t want to do the work.  Because once we start, we can’t quit and it’s going to take a long time.  Injustice in the church runs deep in our history.  We’re going to be digging up and destroying those those roots for a while.  For so many reasons, I would much rather keep singing nice songs to Jesus and go on about my business, pretending I’m not ignoring the voice of God calling us to account.  I don’t want to confess to the wrongs I’ve participated in.  But how can I look at my family and friends of colour, how can I listen to their experiences of injustice and denied humanity, and keep behaving as if there’s nothing wrong?  My life-denying practice of racism and presumed privilege needs to die.  I’m finally willing to admit this.

At the end of Michael Blair’s lectures, I decided to be brave and ask a question:  Where do we start to dismantle our system of racism in the church?  What will it take for the church to get to a place of practicing justice and rebuilding a reputation for being anti-racist?  How do we seek God and live?

He said we need to start by admitting we have a problem -that racism IS present and practiced in the church.  We have to do the work of understanding racism so we can identify it and uproot it.  One of the things he says the church needs to do is recognize the diversity of its members, even beyond race. Each individual church community should be excited by diverse theology, experience, resources… there are more kinds of diversity than just racial.  We need to practice expressing and celebrating that diversity.  The more diversity that is on display in a congregation, the more it provides an opportunity to visitors to see something of themselves in the congregation, which leads to that community growing.  Diversity might be a challenge, but it’s absolutely a strength.  And it absolutely indicates, perpetuates and honours life.

“Seek me and live” says our God.  Whether through the audible voices of prophets and teachers or the inner voice of the Spirit, I am grateful that God continues to call us away from fear and death, and is ready to remind us how to nurture and practice life.  God is not afraid of death, but is powerful enough to overcome it.  I am grateful that death can be a disruption to evil, and can make room for life to happen.

And as it goes with practicing anything, when we commit to practicing justice, it will get easier.  We will see more and more life springing up around us and we will forget the fear we once nurtured.  Valuing the humanity in one other will become our riches and our pride.  We will be enlivened as we cultivate life.  We will love God as we love each other and justice will begin to flow from us with ease.  When the church practices justice, it will flow out of the pews and down the aisles, out the doors and into the streets.  Let’s stop damning up this river and instead trust God’s promise that his way of justice brings life. 

Dearly beloved: Let’s seek God.  And let’s really live.