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Pray With Your Eyes Open

Note: Today’s sermon was preached by John Lyzenga, Seminary Intern Lessons: Psalm 10:1-2, 6-18 and Amos 5:1, 4-7, 11-17, 21-24 In this text, we find Amos at the climax of his prophetic lament. Amos, a sheep and cattle herder from the southern kingdom of Judah, travels to the northern kingdom of Israel to deliver a message of protest and judgement from God. But because of the division between the south and north, Amos has to begin his message by getting on the Israelites good side. He does so by essentially talking trash about the surrounding nations for their sins against God. “A word to Damascus: fire on the house of Hazael!” The Israelites are thinking, “well, they did have it coming.” Amos goes on, “A word to Gaza, Ashdod, and Tyre: fire on your walls!” Again, the Israelites agree, “Well, they did enslave all those people to the Edomites.” “A word to Edom: fire on Teman!” “Are you hearing Amos? For a guy from Judah, he’s not so bad” “A word to Ammon, and Moab, and even my hometown of Judah: God’s judgment upon you.” The audience is immersed. All this juicy gossip about their neighboring countries. And just when Amos has them by the ear, he proclaims God’s judgment against the worst of all the nations. “A word to Israel. You, you are the worst of them all. You sell people into slavery. You tax the poor for your own profit. You objectify and rape your women. You ignore God’s prophets. No matter your wealth, your strength, or your privilege, you cannot escape. Can you not see your complicity in these systems of injustice? Just as you have oppressed the innocent, so God will oppress you.” And so here in chapter 5, Amos delivers this message from God, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. Justice will roll down like consuming waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing, mighty river.” In a modern day context, it might be easy to imagine Amos as one of those sidewalk apocalyptic preachers condemning passers-by for their disobedience to God. However, that’s not how I see Amos. Amos is a prophet. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Malala Yousafzai, Malcolm X, or Michelle Alexander, Amos can no longer stand the current conditions in his country, and he has to do something about it. Amos declares in verses 14 and 15, “Seek good and not evil.” “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice at the city gate.” He is prophetically lamenting the injustice going on in his country—slavery, inequality of wealth, oppression of the poor, violence, sexual exploitation, and nationalism. The parallels between Amos’ context and our own are obvious. I grew up outside Grand Rapids, Michigan in a predominantly white, Christian evangelical town. I attended church each Sunday with my family, and that is where my love for music was born. We sang all these different songs of praise—with an organ, with a guitar, with drums, we didn’t care. My church loved to praise God for all the good things that God has done. And indeed we should, but there was one major expression in worship we were missing that had a fundamental impact on how we related to the world. Like the Israelites condemned by Amos, we did not lament. We did not know what to lament or how to lament. We did not express sorrow or mourn to God the realities of a broken world. My experience growing up in the evangelical church is apparently not the exception. Dr. Denise Hopkins, a biblical scholar, did a study on the use of lament in major liturgical denominations, and her study found that while forty percent of the Psalms are a form of lament, on average, lament constitutes only 15 percent of the songs in our hymnals. The study also found that the majority of Psalms omitted from church lectionaries are Psalms of lament. White American Christianity does not know how to lament. And like the Israelites in Amos, without lament, we become ignorant to the needs of others. Walter Brueggemann explains it this way, “Praise without lament is triumphalism, and lament without praise is hopelessness.” Out of that triumphalism, the privileged will develop a theology of celebration.” Brueggemann continues, “those who live in celebration are concerned with questions of proper management and joyous celebration. The well-off do not expect their faith to begin in a cry, but rather, in a song. They do not expect or need intrusion, but they rejoice in stability and the durability of a world and social order that have been beneficial to them.” What Brueggerman is expressing is that the privileged isolate themselves from issues of social justice because they are comfortable. The world is good to them. The world is good to us. “Who wants to intentionally be sad?” This question reveals our privilege. “Who wants to intentionally be sad?” Lament is not an option or a choice for those who are suffering but is an expression of the reality of sorrow and injustice. If we do not know the real injustices in our world and do not experience their implications personally, why would we lament? If we believe that the fullness of God’s mercy is experienced right now, why would we lament? Because the world is not as it should even if we can’t always see it. Just turn on the news or open up your social media feed—refugees without a place to call home, immigrant deportation, the objectification and exploitation of women, sex trafficking, mass incarceration of black men, police brutality, gun violence. And how do we respond? Sometimes I think we find it too easy to blame Trump, or the GOP, or even white evangelicals for our broken society, but as long as we continue to pass the blame, we continue to be blind to our own complicity in a system that places us on top. These systems of injustice will continue to thrive if the privileged and entitled cannot see or hear. We must open our eyes to the realities of suffering and injustice in our world. We must listen closely for the laments of the oppressed. Our first text this morning, Psalm 10 is exactly that, a Psalm of lament from the voice of the oppressed. The Psalmist gives voice to his grief, asking “Why do you stand so far away God?” “The wicked are in pursuit of those who suffer.” The Psalmist cries out, “Get up, God! Get your fist ready! Don’t forget the ones who suffer!” Often when we open the Psalms, we read from the lens of the author. When the Psalmist exclaims, “the wicked don’t seek God. They think to themselves. We’ll never stumble. We’ll never encounter any resistance.” Likely, we will first think of the wicked as those we disagree with, those who really profit on the suffering of the oppressed. But if this Psalm, this desperate lament is from the voice of the oppressed, perhaps we, a predominantly white congregation in Marin County, are not like the Psalmist. What if we are the wicked ones? What if the Psalmist is pleading for liberation from us? Two Saturdays ago, I went and saw the new Black Panther movie. Black Panther is one of a few Hollywood films that features a predominantly black cast. While the movie has been receiving glowing reviews from major critics, and sold the largest number of advance ticket sales than any previous superhero film, there have been some backlash from audiences—particularly white audiences. It would be easy to simply dismiss this by calling it a form of obvious racism, but I think there is something deeper going on. White audiences are accustomed to everyone on the screen looking like them. We are accustomed to the culture displayed in movies, books, advertising being a reflection of our own culture. Black Panther does not do that. Black Panther was not made for white people. And that’s okay, because most everything else is. Black Panther was not made for us, and neither was Psalm 10. We are not the voice of the Psalmist. We are the oppressors who the Psalmist fears. So if we are the enemy, what do we do? What do we do? Amos calls Israel to see the ways in which it has functioned as the oppressor by acknowledging their own acts of injustice. He says, “hate evil, love good, and establish justice. Amos is calling Israel to turn, to see the world through a new lens, through the lens of God’s justice. Before we can lament the sorrows of the Psalmist, the black man and woman, the immigrant, the Native American, the LGBTQ individuals, we must repent of our ignorance and complicity. Only from a posture of repentance and humility can we lament with those we have oppressed. This Lent, we are focusing on practices. How do we practice lament in our daily lives? How do we undo the triumphalism that years of privileged rituals has embedded in us? Let’s start with something small. Let’s pray with our eyes open. Let’s pray with our eyes open seeing two realities, the way things are right now, and the way God intends things to be. Let us pray with our eyes open that we may see the injustices in our world. Let us pray with our eyes open that we may seek God’s justice, that God’s kingdom of justice may be our vision of hope. Let us not only pray with our eyes open, but our ears—our ears open that we may hear the voices of the oppressed. Let us also pray with our mouth—our mouth closed when it would be used to oppress others and silence the voices of those seldom heard. Let us stand with the oppressed, and let us raise our hands in lament because we see that things are not as they should be. Because we see hope in God’s kingdom of justice. “Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

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