by Ellen Sims
Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25: 1-13
Some days I want to take a page from the Fundamentalist playbook and call down God’s wrath on certain people. If I were to do so today, I would stand at this pulpit to cry a biblical “woe” to those in powerful places who claim Jesus is on their side even as they thwart God’s justice and righteousness, even as they abuse their power. Today is a day I want to point my non-fundamentalist finger and name one very prominent Alabamian who for years has been trying to force the entire country to be Christian, his brand of Christian.
Yet I also remain committed to the separation of church and state—meaning I will not use this pulpit to endorse candidates. I may approach but won’t cross that line today. But whenever we try to apply biblical teachings to our contexts, we inevitably arrive at political as well as personal implications. I hope to speak prophetically from this pulpit (that is, to challenge you to evaluate your own and our leaders’ ethics). I also will speak pastorally (that is, to offer comfort especially to women today at a time when this nation is, God help us, perhaps finally recognizing what many powerful men have been getting away with for so long). The prophets of old and Jesus of Nazareth are beckoning you and me to expose the false religion of Public Piety.
One advantage of following the lectionary’s assigned scriptures is that I’m forced to deal with texts I might prefer to dodge– like today’s texts featuring an angry God. The truth is I prefer NOT to preach about the Angry God. Doing so seems to put me in the company of the haters. I have a hard enough time presenting the Jesus-y God to LGBTQ folks who’ve been harmed by Christians. I have a hard enough time speaking about God with intellectuals who consider all religion to be a superstitious process of appeasing the volcano God lest he destroy our tribe. That god, by the way, usually requires virgins to be sacrificed. I think generally the angry God is a vestige of a warrior culture we should reject. But today it’s good we haven’t excised from our Bible these embarrassing verses we just read about the Grumpy God. They teach us about divine indignation.
But first we need to recognize to whom God’s anger is directed. We hear Amos’s God spewing sarcastic invective: “I hate, I despise your festivals” (meaning your religious rites). Likewise, in today’s parable you may have heard Jesus’s warning to mean that some will be locked out of the heavenly wedding banquet if they, like the five foolish bridesmaids, figuratively run a little low on oil or get tired and fall asleep. How unforgiving and harsh that seems! It’s these kinds of scriptures that make progressives cringe and that provide ammunition to religious fanatics who condemn those whose “sins” are of a particular variety.
However, the objects of God’s wrath in these scriptures are not the people usually condemned by scripture-quoters. The very people who like to clobber others with Bible verses are the ones these verses are meant to clobber. Today’s Hebrew Bible text features a God furious with people who call on the name of the Lord and do all the religious-y things but who are just using God to gain power and cover up evil. They’re the kind who, for instance, might insidiously twist the nativity story of Jesus to excuse the molestation of a 14-year-old girl. Amos’s God is angry at those kinds of leaders who use religion abusively and accrue power consequentially. Amos’s God stops his ears during the hymn singing, throws the offering in the trash can, and says that what matters is justice for the weak. What is required is the creation of a community of wholeness so that justice comes roaring down like waters washing away the iniquity and cleansing the land.
Similarly, in the Matthean parable Jesus acknowledges the cost of doing justice and encourages folks like us who are exhausted from our work to house homeless families and lovingly lift up lgbt youth and stand for gender equality and treat our earth gently and support workers in Ghana with fair wages. Some of us are finding that the oil in our lamps is running low. We’re tired. We do get discouraged by the overwhelming injustices and deceit in public life. At times we want to give up. And we do need periods of rest. But in the words of the old spiritual we sang earlier and which are based on this parable, we need to encourage one another: “Children, don’t grow weary. The time is drawing nigh.”
On the one hand, I am sickened but not shocked by the number of men in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. whose abuses of girls and women are coming to light. On the other hand, I pray these revelations will bring us to a turning point where such abuse and disrespect of women in work places and public spaces, in homes and churches, will no longer be tolerated. I pray that certain evangelicals will stop telling women to be submissive and silent. I pray that a version of masculinity that requires guns to prop up fragile egos will be discredited. I pray, as we anticipate our observance on Nov. 20 of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, that the horrifying incidents of violence against people with different gender expressions will cease.
I say that I pray for these changes. But what I should say is that I commit to WORKING for these changes. And I call on you to be part of that effort. Which includes how we vote. And what we demand of our political leaders. And how we live our lives. And what we teach the next generation. And how we become self-aware of our own prejudices, big and small. How hard to recognize that even we progressive Christians—even a feminist like myself—can be saying and doing or NOT doing things that perpetuate stereotypes or trivialize some acts of injustice. We all have to check our own privileges and be open to changes in the world and our own hearts.
And we must call out abuses of power, especially by those who names themselves Christian. How can they pretend to follow Jesus? I know why they take Christ’s name. It has political currency. I just don’t understand how they get away with it.
Let’s don’t let them.
Which means for those of us who care about the appropriate use of sacred scripture and the misuse of political power and the abuse of girls and women—there is so much more work to do.
And we grow weary.
But that’s why we come together. A recent podcast interview with Buddhist abbot Joan Hallifax suggests two methods for avoiding what some call “compassion fatigue” but she calls “pathological altruism,” when we harm ourselves in caring for others. These two methods are consistent with Christian practices that a church like ours can provide: ritual and meditation/prayer. Ritual and mediation can support us in doing justice without exhausting our bodies and spirits.
Joan Halifax learned the value of ritual by observing various cultures, especially the Dogon people in West Africa whose key ritual happens every 53 years and lasts 7 years. Can you imagine a church ritual lasting 7 years? Halifax believes that “rituals release us from . . . a sense of time as small and locked.” Ritual “drops us into the past, it brings up the present, it also projects into the future, but it is also deeper than chronological time” which “disappear[s] when the sacred [is[ unfolding in that culture.”
Friends, we have a chance to experience timelessness when we participate in Christian ritual with respect for the foundations of our faith and with awareness of our small moment in this trajectory that, we trust, will eventuate in greater love and justice. I find encouragement that, when the work is wearying, I am playing a small part in some movement toward a greater expression of Love’s fullness. I may screw up. People around me may fall away. But the enterprise of love will continue and we can all play a part. That thought sustains me. Halifax has suggested that we need more rituals for a healthier society and mentioned specifically a need for rituals that reintegrate soldiers returning from war, which I want to affirm on this Sunday after Veterans Day. How wonderful the church is able to create other new rituals—as some in the UCC have done for transgender persons to mark their important transition.
Halifax, an anthropologist working with neuroscientists, spoke especially movingly about the role of meditation in the work for justice. She cited research based on studying the brain waves of meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks revealing that expert meditators initially feel another’s suffering more acutely than the average person. but they let go of it more quickly. Training in mindfulness allows one to both feel compassion but also to detach so that a caregiver or friend remains distinct from the one suffering and therefore better able to give care and love without self-harm. Our prayer life as a church can support us in care for others and self-care. Worship calls us out of our selves and encourages us to find time daily to be gratefully aware and see others and our own selves with eyes of compassion.
When we get church right, we are doing the yin and yang of interior and exterior work: resting and resisting, meditating and marching, praying and serving. When we get church right, our own needs are met as we help to meet others’ needs.
The work that lies ahead is daunting for a new church like ours. Together, however, and by God’s grace, we will keep our lamps burning and not grow weary.
Mother God, forgive us. We Christians have sullied the name of Christ, used it like a password into the halls of power, like a totem we carry into a 21st century crusade against Muslims, LGBT folks, young girls, racial minorities. We have placed our faith in guns and wars rather than in your love and peace. We have been impressed by rich people even though Jesus kept company with the poor and disreputable. Forgive us. We thank you for this faith community and that you can use us for your kingdom and refuel us for that work. Amen