Sermon, July 17, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

July 17, 2022

“God Will Not Be Mocked”

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

Amos 8:5b-6[i]

In a time when the January 6th Special Committee explores how very close we came to losing our cherished democracy, when Europe is experiencing unprecedented temperatures and wildfires[1], when children are being gunned down simply for going to school, when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, when lies are embraced as truth, the words of Amos echo in our ears.

He lived in an era of relative stability and prosperity, but he saw the engine of decay at work within his culture.  The rich and powerful used the tools of corruption.  The poor had their meager farms repossessed, some were sold into slavery and the powerful of the land ignored the plight of the powerless.  He warned that God would not long endure such iniquity, that the scales of universal justice would be rebalanced, Judah and Israel would be crushed by foreign powers, the voice of God would fall silent, and God would not act to deliver them from the whirlwind of judgment.  The words of Amos are not easy words to hear.  They are words that on many days I would seek to ignore or brush aside.

Nevertheless, here they are.  I did not put them in the Bible.  They are here because they were found to be true.  Robert Frost once commented that “Something there is that does not love a wall…that wants it down.”  Something there is within the justice of God that calls for injustice to be challenged.

I think you know me well enough by now to know that I have difficulty with this view of God.  I come to the central symbol of our faith — the cross — and I confess to having difficulty squaring a God of wrath with a God who would die on a cross rather than meat out the punishment for sin on those of us who are yet sinners.  The two images of God do not fit nicely together.  But before we reject Amos in favor of a more compassionate God, let us work to find the truth in what Amos is saying.  We do this not merely to deepen our understanding but because the stakes of the present moment are too high to ignore the judgment that might await us.

I don’t know how you would square the cross of Christ with the words of Amos.  All I can do is tell you how I would move forward.  I begin by proclaiming divine purpose at the moment of creation.  It goes far beyond the biological purpose of survival.  It is grounded in the nature of the creator.  As such, justice is woven into the human experience.  To trample on the principles of justice is to go against existence itself.  Such an action will, by necessity, have consequences.  When lies are told as truth in order to preserve one’s political power, when the welfare of nature is ignored and greed becomes our god, when we fail as a people to protect our children from violence in the name of freedom to bear arms, there will be a price to be paid.  A culture that ignores the claims of justice will soon find itself in a death spiral.

Some will object.  Some will say that religion has to do with salvation and the heavenly realms.  But Jesus ended up on a cross because He was a threat to those who had a stake in the status quo.  If we are indeed called to carry the cross of Christ, then we who are Christ’s body in the world must take on the bloody history of a world torn asunder.  So, to all those who would object, I say we have no choice.  Our faithfulness to the cause of Christ demands that we speak and requires us to act.

At this point, a moment must be taken to address an issue that many are focusing on today.  Much these days is being said about the separation of church and state.  Some say that such a principle denies the heritage of America.  God, they say, should not find an adversary in the government, but a partner in virtue.  That may sound noble enough, but it is a misreading of history.  The first time the phrase “separation of church and state” was coined it was by Thomas Jefferson writing to the Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut.  It addressed the problem of taxation.  In Puritan America, the Standing Order, what would become the Congregational Church, held that in order to become an incorporated town in Massachusetts, the town had to have a church of the Standing Order.  In order to pay the salary of the pastor, the people of the town were taxed.  The problem?  Baptists.  Those who held a different theological view formed their own churches and their clergy were not supported by taxation.  This meant that those outside the state prescribed church had to pay the salary of clergy serving churches they did not attend.  So the question became “why should I have to pay the salary of the Congregational pastor when I don’t attend that church or necessarily believe all that is preached from its pulpit?”  And if you look at the religious history of England, a history the Pilgrims and the Puritans sought to flee, it’s a bloody mess because church and state were in bed with each other.  As soon as you allow the church to wield the power of the state, coercion and force become legitimate tools of conversion.  Church and State must remain separate, thus the passage of the very first amendment to the Constitution.  If you think the First Amendment is about freedom of speech and assembly, you are only partially right.  Here is what it actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The very first issue addressed by the First Ammendment is how the stat and religion are to be related. 

Think of it this way.  The state cannot use its power of coercion against the church.  But this does not mean that the church must remain silent concerning the affairs of state.  While the government could pass a law requiring us to paint our church pink, the church cannot pass a law requiring that all town halls be painted pink.  We can suggest it.  We cannot legislate it.  The power dynamic between church and state is and ought to be fundamentally different.

            So when Amos speaks, he is addressing the injustices being practiced by the state and warning that in the end, God’s justice will prevail.  We would do well to heed his words because we live in a time not dissimilar to his own.  The problems before us are monumental.  The future is less than clear, but unless we turn and follow in the way of God’s justice and truth, a price will be paid.  In the end, God will not be mocked.  Let us pray…

[1] New York Times, July 17, 2022

[i] Amos 8:1-12

8This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.