Our reading from Amos 5 today, like most of the book of Amos, is full of judgment. But it turns in verse 24 to a call to deeper commitment. In studying this text with my colleagues this week it occurred to us (thanks, Pastor Elizabeth Neese) that in our worship life – in the rituals and rites we enact together – we have the opportunity to enact important spiritual practices that stand in opposition to the very things that God condemns in Amos.
The problem that God has with God’s people in Amos is that there’s no connection between who they claim to be as God’s people, in terms of their daily living and God’s call to do justice, as well as there being no connection between what they do in worship and living in ways that support greater equity in the world. And so God’s call comes: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
So I thought it might be good today to look at what we do together in worship and to think about what these rites and rituals might mean for us in terms of modeling how we might live our lives out in the world from Monday to Saturday.
When we gather, among the first things we do, is confession. It’s important to be honest about who we are and who we aren’t. It’s important to be honest about how we fail to live into the vision of life to which God in Christ has called us. It’s important to be honest about what we do, and what we fail to do in terms of loving God and loving our neighbor.
And at the same time, just as we follow the confession with the announcement of the entire forgiveness of all of our sins, we are called to live lives marked by freely giving and receiving forgiveness. As the baptized people of God in Christ, those who are washed in the cleansing flood and named and claimed by the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are to stand ready – always ready – to forgive as freely as we’ve been forgiven. God in Christ has not required us to earn the forgiveness of sins through the merits of our own goodness or by the doing of good works, and we must not place such restrictions on our sharing of that gift either.
Freely we are forgiven. Freely we forgive.
We might very well as Lutherans call this two-fold action of confession and forgiveness an experience of Law and Gospel – of death and life. We confess our sins, realizing that the wages of sin is death, and we receive the gift of forgiveness, realizing that it is just that – a gift – an expression of Gospel – Good News.
Which, by the way, is another thing we practice in worship. Telling the story of God’s saving presence in the world is important. Now, I know that many of us are not comfortable doing this in any public way, but it’s important. Among the final instructions Jesus gives at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is to go into all the world and teach them everything I’ve commanded you, in other words, go and tell God’s story in the world. It’s a central part of the great commission, not a suggestion – Not, you know, you might consider this, if you’re not too uncomfortable. No. It’s an imperative! Go and do this!
And notice that we do it in worship in a number of ways. We read from the Holy Scriptures. We proclaim the Word in terms of how those Scriptures apply to our daily living. We sing the meaning of God’s Word in hymns. We apply those meanings to the lives of others in intercessory prayer, and in how we share generously those resources God has placed at our disposal. These are all ways in which we share the story of God’s saving love in word and in deed. And having heard and shared in these stories, we respond with an act of reconciliation – the sharing of peace.
Now I’ve noticed a tendency for this important ritual to devolve in a couple of ways.
- It might become nothing more than a 7th inning stretch of sorts – an opportunity to get up and stretch your legs and greet a friend.
- It might be narrowed down to the point where it loses it’s meaning by becoming just greeting those sitting by you, usually family members or those you’re otherwise close to.
But the deeper meaning of this ritual is to grant an opportunity for each person to do what Jesus teaches us about reconciling with others before bringing one’s gifts to the altar. If there’s someone you’ve got a problem with, that really ought to be the first person you’re looking for at this time, so that you can offer one another the chance to be reconciled, not according to your own judgment, but according to the grace and mercy of God in Christ who doesn’t withhold forgiveness from anyone. And having taken the opportunity to grant and to receive forgiveness and reconciliation, and having heard and proclaimed the word in God’s story in reading, and preaching, and singing, and having lifted up the needs of others to God in prayer, and in the sharing of peace and reconciliation within the community of faith, we then give our gifts, generously and gratefully, acknowledging that everything we have and everything we are comes from God in the first place, and all God asks is that we share a portion in response to God’s generous blessings given to us in the first place, not in order to earn God’s favor – not because we have to – but because God has lavished such love on us that the only response that makes any sense at all is for us to lavish blessings on others in response.
Having, then, shared a portion of what God has first given to us, we gather at the Lord’s Table and share in the foretaste of God’s eternal banquet wherein God feeds us with heavenly food and continues to bless us with forgiveness through the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, given for us, for the forgiveness of sin.
Which leads us to the sending and dismissal, which, frankly, are the reason for the whole gathering, in the first place. We gather for what the Church for most of its history called the Mass – which, by the way, is from a Latin word that means “sending.” We are gathered to be sent. This is the entire trajectory of our gathering.
And so, just as God’s people in Amos’s day hear God’s Word and then receive the call to do justice –
To let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream – we hear and receive God’s saving Word in worship, in both Word and Sacrament, so that we might be empowered and equipped to go out from here to make a difference in the world. To enact the reconciliation and peacemaking we’ve learned in and through our worship experience, to do justice, and to live lives that are in right relationship to God and to our neighbor.
Or let me put it another way, based on our Gospel text and from the overall context of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
The Church in Thessalonica was so focused on the promised second coming of Christ that they were failing to live faithfully in the here and now. They were worried about who was going to go to heaven first, the living or the dead, and some in the community had even taken to just sitting on the hillside looking up at the eastern sky waiting for Jesus to return. They were, in other words, like the 5 foolish bridesmaids of Matthew’s parable – they weren’t attending to the important stuff in the here and now, because they were too focused on what was yet to come. Or, as some might say it, they were so heavenly minded, that they were no earthly good.
The call of God in Christ, the call and covenant God makes with us in holy baptism, is a call that must be lived out in the here and now, through actively living in ways that advance justice and peace in all the earth. Being ready for the coming of the reign of God – keeping your lamp trimmed and burning – is about a call to action that involves all the promises made at baptism:
- To live among God’s faithful people
- To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
- To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
- To serve all people, following the example of Jesus
- And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
This is what the life of a faithful follower of Jesus looks like, and what we do together in worship makes us conduits through which God’s waters of justice, and God’s ever-flowing streams of righteousness can flow forth, bringing new life, and ushering in the reign of God here and now. Amen.