Amos 5: 18-24


18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19  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. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,  and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals,  and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 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. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;  I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.                    
Especially in the Hebrew scriptures, faith is about community first, the individual second. No matter how well appointed or how large the temples were, their mission in the world was to enable people to create and sustain justice—a justice that placed value on every life, a justice that protected and sustained the marginalized, a justice that challenged secular explanations of the world that suggested any of us can justify our place in the world.


In Amos’ day, the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer— and the religious systems of the day supported such inequities.  Amos called the people to realize that the Day of Lord would judge such self satisfaction, complacency and exploitation.  The nation had lost sight of why they worshiped.  Worship had become ritual observances rather than a vehicle to serve.  And worse, the temples became places where the widow, the poor and the alien were more likely to be excluded and exploited than cared for.  Such behaviors revealed that self congratulation was replacing humility.  Worship became a way to celebrate their ‘blessedness’ and used to validate privilege.  All in the name of the Lord, ranking and divisions among people were justified rather than challenged.  Entitlement replaced gratitude.  


It turns out that it is very difficult to keep humility and gratitude at the center of our lives. It is just as hard for us as the ancient Israelites. With the eye of retrospect we realize that these self satisfied people were only forty years away from military defeat and exile.  The chosen people were soon to become the lost tribes.  It is tempting to say that justice was served.  The Israelites got what they deserved but I believe such explanations are too simple and too egocentric.  The Assyrians in Amos’s day were an expanding military empire rapidly moving to the South.  Israel was a stepping stone and a small impediment to their expansion.  The tsunami takes out everything in its path—whether we worship or seek justice.  Efforts to explain almost always suppose that such events are somehow manageable.  If only we had been good, disasters whether natural, political or personal, we would not have to endure the inexpiable. 


In our Faith in Real Life group I asked people what their own life experiences had taught them about their faith.  In both groups, individuals spoke of their parents.  Nesie Willams and Catherine Carter described their mother’s lives of giving and caring.  Both of these women were raised by saints of the church.  And just when it would have been their mothers’ turn to receive some of the care they spent their lives offering, both had severe medical conditions and a protracted period of disability and death.  If anyone ‘deserved’ a better fate, it was those women.  Justice is not what we expect.   We  are called to ‘do justice’ and to love one another but in real life, that is a tough call when we cannot see the outcome and especially tough when we are injured or hurt.  
Facing what we cannot explain or control is one of the disturbing realities of the Day of the Lord.  Because if we cannot explain it, it could happen to us.  Our very lack of knowledge exposes our vulnerability, our mortality and ultimately our creatureliness. Very few of us cope well when we know we could be hurt or blindsided—regardless of our faithfulness, kindness or good intention.  It is nearly impossible to separate the life of faith from the outcomes—good or bad—in our own lives.  Jesus promised to love us EVEN if we killed him.  There was no ‘I” in the way Jesus loved or in the way he sought justice.  His love was not dependent upon how he was treated.  It is perhaps one of our greatest faith claims that loving and seeking justice is what matters in life—not what happens to us personally. 


In real life, we live in a national landscape of polarization and self righteousness.  It is still impossible to read Facebook without finding snarky self justifying comments.  Our political discourse is full of tearing down rather than building up.  It is more important to win and/or be right than it is to listen and be curious—much less extend the benefit of doubt or lend credibility to those we oppose.  Such behavior is sinful.  And we all do it.  If you think otherwise, you’ve already credited yourself with being better than others.  This conundrum happens at every level of human relationship.


I belong to a church and a staff that is committed to community.  Yet, there is not one of us who does not get defensive, avoidant, hurt or indignant when we feel slighted.  These are the natural human fight or flight response.  It is literally super natural to dedicate our efforts to finding a third way.  Fight or flight can only lead to more division.  And if we cannot see what we have in common, compassion and reconciliation are nearly impossible.  We all need acceptance.  We all need to be given the benefit of doubt. We all revert to self protection.  We are all afraid we are not enough.  We all fear being judged and rejected.  


It is often inconvenient and embarrassing to look for common ground first.  Pick someone, politically or personally that you oppose or dislike.  Ask yourself, how am I like that person? Answers will not come easily.  An exercise I use with couples sometimes is to have them write down negative descriptors of their spouse.  My partner is….  Save the list and a couple of days later, write the same descriptors beginning with I am….  We often cannot tolerate in others what we are uncomfortable or afraid of in ourselves.  


Amos pointedly challenged the comfortable of his day to realize justice meant seeing what they had in common.  It meant working to regard one another, not look for ways to claim and exercise self righteousness.  It is why he prophesied that the day of the Lord would come back to bite them.  Instead of being vindicated, their sinfulness would be exposed.  Instead of being ‘better than’ they would see they were living a lie when they claimed superiority.  They were every bit as undeserving as the people they were disregarding.  


Fortunately, when we  can know this, we can build a community based on respect and regard.  Claiming our sinfulness is not to create shame. Rather, it gives us a common bond. It interferes with our pretentiousness and provides the basis for gratitude.   We have been forgiven.  Accepting that promise creates new life and deep connection—with our God and each other.  That is the world God desires for us.   


In the words of Paul, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  It comes with a huge price but it promises life and community we could find no other way.  Let it be so.