Struggling to Love
In this week’s passage from Amos, the Israelites seek vindication over enemies, but find a surprise instead. It turns out that their sacrifices and worship were void of care for the downtrodden neighbors amongst them. Instead of triumph, they are reminded that what the Lord desires more than the fatted calf or the first cut of wheat is justice and mercy.
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.
For the Israelites, ‘the day of Lord’ was thought of as a good thing— God’s chosen people would finally be vindicated. Israel’s enemies would be punished. God would make all things right. But Amos turns this beacon of hope into castigation. Israel herself, the chosen people—the very people who worshiped God would be treated as enemies of God.
Amos warned that instead of vindication, the day of the Lord would bring judgment and devastation upon the people—”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.” Much as the flood waters were God’s judgment upon the wickedness of humankind, the day of the Lord would bring catastrophic judgment to the people of Israel. Even though many Israelite sincerely sought to worship rightly—they honored God with festivals, made offerings, sang hymns and played music for the Lord, they had missed the entire point of worship and God would have none of it.
Amos said unequivocally that worship without social justice was unacceptable to God. God cares about all of his children and if we fail to care about our neighbor, we can not claim to worship God. The truest indicator that we ‘get’ what God has called us to do is how we love our neighbor. Only when we realize that God’s love is entirely his gift can we separate ourselves of the the self righteousness of our deeds. Nothing separates us from one another or in the sight of God—except our insistence upon seeing our differences, pieties and deeds as measures of our worth before God.
Serving the Lord means sacrificing every claim we have to ‘special status’ before God and accepting God’s care or us. That is the ‘love the Lord with all your heart mind and strength’ of the great commandment. It evokes profound gratitude and humility and leads directly to ‘We love because we are first loved’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Amos harshly warns that if we are not sharing regard and inclusiveness to others, we could not possibly have received God’s love in the first place. Without such service, worship had become a way to elevate and insulate themselves from the rest of the world instead of the means to serve the world. There is no contemplative, pious or worshipful life that is acceptable to God that does not lead to regard for others.
There are two real life dilemmas that we discussed in FIRL I want to address. The first is how easily this guiding beacon becomes a new source of guilty self-assessment rather than a natural extension of being loved. And second, how do we use God’s word as a standard around which to organize our lives? How does our faith make a difference in our individual and corporate lives?
For the most part, the participants in FIRL are acutely aware of the needs of the people around them. The issue has not been mindfulness and willingness to serve, it has been, how do we cope with the never ending needs and injustices of the world without drowning in them? The difficulty arises when we worry about doing enough instead of doing what we can. When we focus on doing enough, we implicitly focus upon ourselves and how we measure up. Our trust is in ourselves. It is up to us to repair the brokeness around us. On that scale we will always fail.
However, when we focus on what we can do the focus shifts to God. The choir sings a wonderful anthem ‘Trust in the Lord’ by Daniel Gawthrop (based upon Proverbs 3:5,6): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
This is the faith that is required to be additive to a broken world. We can rarely be sufficient to the task. Our lives are too short to even know the long term impact of our efforts. We can only obey God’s command to love our God and neighbor—and trust that in ways we may never understand, God is present and will prevail. When we have confidence that God loves us, we have the freedom to act in an uncertain world—without the fear that our inadequacies and sinfulness will held against us.
In real life, this is far easier said than done. Trusting our lives to God when we are under threat is counterintuitive at best and impossible at worst. It is the direction of our lives rather than any destination we attain. Our desire to preserve ourselves and to have certainty about right and wrong is always in competition with our desire to rely upon God. It is actually quite difficult to follow this beacon, but it is a way of life that slowly and surely transforms us.
The second real life issue is how do we use our faith (or do we) when we are in a secular political arena. I stand with many who complain about the polarizing atmosphere that makes conversations so hostile. That is the easy part. The much harder part is how I will love my neighbor? How will I find the child of God in my enemy? Will I place myself ‘above the fray’ and avoid engagement. Will I argue that politics and church should not mix? At least that way there is less division and fewer people angrily leaving the church over issues like homosexuality, gun control, immigration or presidential choices.
But those are the issues of real life and Christians are called to be involved. Christians are called to love our neighbor. Unfortunately, it turns out that it is hard to love our neighbors in our church much less our neighbor across the political aisle or across religious and racial differences. I have a spiritual practice (albeit unevenly practiced) in which I try to identify how I am like those I oppose. The similarities are always there. Pick a leader you have no respect for and examine how you are like them. It is much easier for me to demonize, to make it about ‘us’ and ‘them’ than it is to see that my disrespect is exactly what I am complaining about in others. If I have to be ‘right’ or if I take another person’s views personally, I can not listen. And listening is the beginning of loving.
Humans can not listen without feeling safe and that is what trusting the Lord promises. Our job is accept that promise and offer that safety to others. Instead of judging or insisting on our own way, we are called to regard, respect and understand—even those who oppose us. This is a very high standard. But its difficulty does not absolve us from the expectation that we try. Our individual job as well as our corporate responsibility is to love our neighbor. No matter how inept any of us are, that is the beacon that guides our religious life. Unless we take that charge seriously, all of our worship and piety are ways to keep us apart from the world. It allows us to live under a self righteous umbrella of our moral superiority. That is not ok with God. As Amos pointedly puts it, God hates and despises such behavior. And we are all guilty.
It is hard to practice what we preach. Amos and Jesus call us into a messy, antagonistic, uncertain world. But in all things we are called to trust him and love our neighbor. Give us courage. Let it be so.