1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In these days of big, breaking news that rushes over us in a raging waterfall, drowning us mentally, emotionally and spiritually; in these times of frenzied Tweets, of friending and unfriending, of disappearing Snaps and Instagrams that live forever, you might be forgiven if you missed one small piece of sad, but poignant, news a few weeks back: after 54 years, The Dictionary of Regional American English, that mine of metaphor, alliteration and nonsensical local linguistics will soon be no more, a victim of lack of funding and the creeping monoculture of digital language.
Losing our regional dialects may not seem like a big deal when the very real possibility of nuclear war hangs over us. But as our language gets less diverse and rich, we could just lose that musical and magical American treasure known as the Southern American preaching style. And you know what? There’s just something marvelous about listening to a great Southern Preacher, from Billy Graham to Martin Luther King, from Barbara Brown Taylor to Michael Curry. You don’t even have to believe to be bathed in the glory of the Word proclaimed by a great Southern preacher, no matter which tradition they hail from. By the time he or she is done with their 18 minutes (or 45 if you’re in a Baptist congregation), you’re ready to go down to the river to pray, learning about that good old way and who shall wear the starry crown. It’s all part of the great festival of American religion.
Today’s reading from the Jewish scriptures is an excerpt from the sermon of a great Southern preacher. He wasn’t an American preacher, of course, because it was 775 BC, and nobody had ever thought of America, except for the people who already lived here, and they called it something else, I’m sure. But Amos was a Southerner, a farmer and lay minister from all that we can tell, and he is famous for using grand Southern metaphors drawn from the natural world. His preaching was in the North, though, to the political and religious leaders who led the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The North, in those days, was much richer than the South, having come out on the victorious side of the Great Jewish Civil War in the days of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. The North had developed its own customs, religious and civil, its own economic structure that made the rich very rich indeed and the poor ashamed and desperate, possessing a smug self-assurance that any day now, Yahweh was going to come crashing through the clouds, aboard that bright and fiery chariot with all those eyes on the wheels, and take out everyone who wasn’t a card-carrying member of the Chosen People Club. Which basically meant anyone who didn’t live in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
So Amos, looking around at all that prosperity and piety, tells them: “So y’all are waiting on the End Times? [He didn’t actually say “y’all” of course, since he spoke Hebrew, though I like to imagine that he did it with a Southern Hebrew accent.] You think it’s going to be all sunshine and springtime, but you are as wrong as can be. It’s going to be like running from a lion only to come face to face with the biggest bear you’ve ever seen. And then, if you escape, getting home and thinking you’re safe from every terrible beast in the darkest woods you’ve ever run through, you lean against the wall, your chest heaving and your heart thumping wildly, and get bitten by a snake. It’s like the deepest, darkest, scariest night ever, when even the stars have stopped twinkling in the sky and all you’re left with is the great gaping silence of judgement.”
Now Amos could have stopped there, satisfied that he riled those uppity Northerners into a very fine lather indeed. But like a boy with a stick, poking a snake, he went on.
“Listen. Yahweh says: ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and your smug self-congratulating congregations. And even though you bring all those fine sacrifices and offerings to my altar, I’m going to look the other way. Stop singing your hymns, stop playing your fine golden harps. I’m finished, done with the whole bunch of you.’”
When they turned to him, curling up their lips in that way that religious people do when something offends their religiosity, they said “Amos, you ignorant little farm boy, are you done now? Are you satisfied?”
Like Martin Luther King Jr., who used to quote this sermon-poem by Amos more than any other portion of holy words, he replied; “No, no, I am not satisfied, and I will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
We don’t know all that happened to Amos after that, but his little book of sermons gives us a hint of some of it. In chapter 7, Amaziah, the High Priest of Beth-el, at the order of old King Jeroboam himself, deported him back to the South with orders to never return.
So now you know where MLK got his favorite scripture quote, and how a Southern boy from down on the farm can become a great and powerful preacher. It’s a great story, but so what?
The so what is in the words of verses 23 and 24:
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.
The words justice and righteousness have particular power in Jewish thought. Justice in Hebrew is the word mishpat and it means the making right of things that are wrong. It’s why we depict the statues of Lady Justice, as blindfolded, holding her scales and her sword: sometimes things get out of whack in this world, and justice is making them right again. Sometimes, people do terrible things to one another and justice means truth-telling, repentance, restitution and yes, forgiveness. Mishpat is the justice of the law which restores order to a disorderly world, where there are things that are right and good and things that are neither. The law judges between guilty and innocent, with due process and equal protection, or at least it’s supposed to.
That’s where the word for “righteousness,” tzedekah, comes in. It’s a hard word to translate, and “righteousness” doesn’t quite do it justice, if you’ll forgive the pun. We tend to think of righteousness as a religious thing, a measure of how well people keep religious practices, like prayer, or going to church or giving a tithe. But tzedekah doesn’t have to do with religion, or even justice in the sense of mishpat. It’s about how a society treats the most vulnerable in its midst. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says: “Mishpat alone cannot create a good society.”
You see, tzedekah combines two important virtues: doing justice and offering charity to those in need. Rabbi Sacks goes on:
To [mishpat] must be added tzedakah, distributive justice. One can imagine a society which fastidiously observes the rule of law, and yet contains so much inequality that wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few, and many are left without the most basic requirements of a dignified existence. There may be high unemployment and widespread poverty. Some may live in palaces while others go homeless. That is not the kind of order that the Torah contemplates. There must be justice not only in how the law is applied, but also in how the means of existence – wealth as G-d’s blessing – are distributed. That is tzedakah.
Sometimes there are notions or customs or powerful institutions which oppress or marginalize or destroy people because of how much money they’ve got or how they look or how they talk or where they’ve come from or the way they think about God. Sometimes there are good laws ignored or bad laws imposed. Sometimes there just is no justice.
Rabbi Sacks says that you really cannot translate tzedakah in other languages because it joins together two concepts that in most other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I give you $100. Either you are entitled to it, or you’re not. If you are then my act is a form of justice. If you’re not, it is an act of charity. In English, as in most other languages, an act of charity can never be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be charity. Tzedakah is an “untranslatable virtue” says Rabbi Sacks, because it means both.
A central feature of the Jewish economic system was its care for those most vulnerable to the ravages of economic disorder. Judaism had special protections in place for four groups of the especially vulnerable: widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. Tzedekah means living and working to make sure that this “quartet of the vulnerable” are protected and provided for. As Timothy Keller, a minister at Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church notes, in the Hebrew scriptures, “the just” are those who “disadvantage themselves to advantage the community,” whereas “the wicked” are those who “disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” Or as Bryan Stephenson, the American civil rights attorney and a powerful preacher in his own right, says: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”
In the Episcopal Church, we have one of the finest ways I know to do tzedekah: Episcopal Relief & Development, the Church’s special mission to the world’s most vulnerable people. Episcopal Relief & Development works with Church partners and other local organizations to save lives while helping to transform communities worldwide. That means helping to rebuild after disasters while empowering people to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and disease. Working in nearly 40 countries, the programs of Episcopal Relief & Development impact the lives of at least 3 million people around the world.
The programs of Episcopal Relief & Development are helping to address gender-based violence, develop safe drinking water projects, treat and prevent malaria, improve maternal and child health, promote agricultural techniques that sustain farm families while helping them develop economic self-sufficiency, provide microfinance programs to help entrepreneurs start new businesses, and mitigate the effects of natural disasters by training and developing disaster response teams in areas prone to the effects of severe weather, floods and earthquakes. This past year, your gifts to Episcopal Relief & Development were at work in the Caribbean, Texas and Florida after the hurricanes, in Mexico after the earthquakes, and in California after the wildfires. Even more importantly, the everyday work of Episcopal Relief & Development is rooted in tzedekah: bringing both justice and compassion to the world’s most vulnerable people.
I’m asking you this morning to consider becoming a regular supporter of Episcopal Relief & Development and if you already do that, to consider increasing your gift. There are a lot of charitable organizations that you could and probably do support. But there is only one that fits both the distinctly Anglican vision of bringing the Divine Reign to reality everywhere on this earth, with both justice and charity. Episcopal Relief & Development does not just provide resources to the poor, it works to change the systems that make people poor in the first place. It is tzedekah: making things right while responding rightly to the needs of others.
In his most famous sermon, I Have A Dream, Martin Luther King said: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” A half-century later, the laws in this country have changed. Jim Crow is no more. We’ve had African Americans, both men and women, who have served as Governors, as Secretaries of State, Attorney Generals and Ambassadors. We had an African American President who served for eight years. But we cannot be satisfied with that.
For justice still does not roll down like waters. Righteousness does not yet flow like a never-ending stream. Racial hatred and division slice through our land, in spite of the piety of our devotion, the beauty of our hymns, the promises of our baptism. The noise of religion still drowns out the prophet’s call to do justice and to live righteousness. And we cannot be satisfied with that.
Across the globe, 767 million people, more than one in 10 people, live in extreme poverty of less than $2 per day. Another 2.1 billion people live on less than $3 per day. 328 million of these are children, at least 17 million of whom suffer from severe hunger and 1 million of whom will die every year. Every single day, 1,000 children under 5 die from preventable illnesses like diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera caused by contaminated water and inadequate sanitation. We cannot be satisfied with that.
We cannot be satisfied with the way things are, because we have the power to change them. We cannot be satisfied that widows and orphans, the immigrants and the poor still suffer simply because we think there isn’t enough to go around. We cannot be satisfied until things are made right for everyone, until justice rolls down like a river and righteousness flows like a never-ending stream.