A seminary intern designed the banners hanging in our chancel this summer, some 15 or more years ago. The designs were adapted from artwork created within our denomination around that time. The fifth banner actually represents this morning’s passage in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”[i] Many of us can’t hear that passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.; in fact, if you thought those were King’s words rather than the prophet Amos’s, I’ll bet you’re not the only one. It is a fitting and beautiful image for the Promotion of Social Righteousness, the fifth of our Presbyterian “Six Great Ends of the Church,” which we’re reviewing this summer.
My first thought was that I preach on the promotion of social righteousness every other week – or more often – so this should be nothing new to you. But this particular term, social righteousness, probably isn’t familiar to most people. When we hear the word righteousness, we often think of self-righteousness, or maybe someone who’s attached to traditional morals. The term “social righteousness” grew out of the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform in the United States that spanned the 1890’s to the 1920’s. The Progressive movement sought to eradicate problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption. Those problems included widespread poverty, a huge gap between rich and poor; exploitation of labor; a shrinking middle class. Which sound familiar.
The Christian Church’s response to the Progressive Era was the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel was grounded in the conviction that living according to the teachings of the gospel would transform society. That sounds familiar, too. The advocates of the Social Gospel worked to renew society, convinced that Christians can and should take political action to advance the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.[ii] That action is social righteousness, and it looks like this: the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, the naked are clothed, those caught in poverty – including the crime, poor health, lack of education and hopelessness that poverty engenders – are freed to live as God intends for us all to live.[iii] It was during the Progressive Era and the Social Gospel movement that the Presbyterian Church adopted these Six Great Ends of the Church.
Then, as now, some people said the Social Gospel movement was too “political.” “Political” is in quotation marks because often what people really mean when they say the Church is being “too political” is that the Church is raising issues that make them uncomfortable. But here’s the thing: The reason this is one of the Six Great Ends of the Church is that a biblically-based faith demands it.
Jim Wallis tells the story of how he had a group of eager first-year seminary students scour the Bible for every reference to wealth and poverty, to injustice and oppression, and to what God expects from us as a response to injustice. They discovered several thousand verses on these topics. They found justice for the poor and vulnerable to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we usually call the Old Testament) – the first was idolatry, and the two were often related. In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor or the subject of money. In the first three books, it’s one in ten, and in Luke, it’s one in seven.
When they’d finished this project, they sat in a circle and discussed how the subject of injustice had been treated in the churches in which they’d grown up. Not one of them could remember even one sermon on the poor from the pulpit of their home churches. In the Bible, the poor were everywhere; yet the subject wasn’t to be found in the churches. That’s when they decided to try what became a famous experiment. One student took an old Bible and a new pair of scissors and began the long process of literally cutting out every single biblical text about injustice, the poor, caring for the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, leveling the playing field, and so on.
It took a very long time. When he finished, there was practically nothing left of the books of the prophets. When the student came to this morning’s passage in Amos, he cut it out. He cut out the verses in Micah that we used in our call to worship. He cut out the verses in Isaiah that Jesus quotes in today’s Luke passage.[iv] In the New Testament, he cut out today’s passage and most of the Sermon on the Mount. He cut out many of the parables and the parts of Acts where the disciples share what they have and meet the needs of the poor. He cut out parts Paul’s letters, the verses where James says faith without works is dead, and much more.
When he finished, the Bible had shrunk to almost nothing and was falling apart in the student’s hands. Wallis started taking this Bible full of holes with him wherever he preached. He figured out that many people say they love the Bible, even base their life on it, and yet completely miss its most central themes.[v] As Desmond Tutu put it, the “social gospel” is just “the Gospel, period.” Tutu said, “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”
This morning’s Amos passage is good news to the poor, particularly timely, and rarely read. Amos was a prophet in the 8th century B.C.E., when Israel and Judah were two separate kingdoms. The agriculturally fertile and militarily superior state of Israel dominated the rocky and barren territory of Judah. Although ancient Israel enjoyed power and prosperity, neither the power nor the resources were distributed fairly among the people. Instead, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few ruling elites who controlled the government. Amos saw wealth flowing from the working peasant class to support the luxurious lifestyle of a few powerful elites. The rich became richer, and the poor became poorer. During the reign of King Jeroboam II, an increasing number of people lost their jobs. These people were squeezed out of the peasant class into a permanent underclass of “expendables,” who found themselves in debt slavery and who had no claim to their own lives. What’s more, vast amounts of the nation’s resources that could have been used to ease human suffering were siphoned away to wage the king’s ill-conceived war against Damascus.[vi]
One hot, parched day Amos, not a priest, just a regular guy, strolls into the upwardly mobile Israel town of Bethel. In Bethel, the economy was booming. Worship attendance was up; the number of sacrifices on the altars was impressive. Amos’ home was Tekoa, far to the south, but God had interrupted his life as a shepherd and called him to prophesy – which means to speak truth to power. So he invades the complacent security and self-righteous piety of these so-called religious people in Bethel. He accuses them of selling “the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals,” of trampling “the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” and pushing “the afflicted out of the way.”[vii] Amos says that God hates, God despises their worship. Strong language. The literal translation of “I take no delight in” is “I will not smell it.”[viii] And God won’t even listen to their music. Imagine God holding God’s nose and covering God’s ears when the church worships.
The problem was not Israel’s religious practices. Israel wasn’t worshiping idols or messing up the prayers. The problem was that Israel had disconnected its religious practices from the pursuit of justice and righteousness, especially with regard to the marginalized and the poor.[ix] Amos is not saying this is an either/or here: either worship or justice and righteousness. God is saying that worship, even sincere worship, is not enough for a proper relationship with God. Worship and life have to be of one piece, not separated or compartmentalized. If there is no social justice, there is no acceptable worship to God. “God will not tolerate a full church and a vacuum of justice. If you don’t take care of the less fortunate, God does not want your praises and prayers.”[x]
Jesus returns to this theme throughout his ministry, critiquing the religious elite for their show of piety while they ignore the poor. In Chapter 11 of Luke, Jesus says, “’Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. … For you tithe mint and … herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”[xi] That, right there, would be among the many, many sayings of Jesus that would have been cut out of Jim Wallis’ Bible full of holes.
Over the centuries, the Church has strayed a long, long way from this great biblical theme of justice. I’ve seen bumper stickers that say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” meaning, usually, “I take the Bible seriously and maybe even literally.” What this really means is “I take parts of the Bible seriously and literally,” because, sadly, rarely if ever is the driver of a car with that bumper sticker talking about the thousands of verses in the Bible dealing with doing justice, caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, or condemning greed. Tim Hart-Anderson writes, “Too often we act as if following Jesus were mostly about getting our religion right, when it is more about getting life right. God’s agenda in Jesus – and therefore in the church – is not theological correctness … . Jesus did not say, ‘I came that you might have religion and have it in abundance.’ God sends Jesus so that life in all its fullness might break forth on this earth.”[xii]
Jesus did not say, “I came that you might have loads of religion.” He said, “I came that you might have abundant life.”[xiii] The social gospel is the Gospel. And so the Presbyterian Church reminds us with this fifth Great End of the Church. Jewish thinker Martin Büber described justice and righteousness as gifts from God. This pair of words, justice and righteousness, are not, as one commentator points out, “behavioral goals.”[xiv] They are gifts that allow a community or a society to flourish. Or, the society can reject them. To its peril.
What does this mean for us here at First Presbyterian Church? We are on a good path, a path of striving to accept God’s gifts of justice and righteousness. As Bob Conover (the Mission Presbyter/Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwoods) pointed out to our session a couple of months ago, few churches would hang the banner we have on the front of our church, a banner that we need to replace, by the way.[xv] And we back up that banner with action. But every church, and every Presbyterian, needs reminding that if we hope our religion can remain fundamentally a private matter, we are mistaken.
The gospel is meant to be heard by the poor as good news.[xvi] We are called, along with all followers of Jesus, to participate in bringing good news to the poor. 13.3% of Californians live below the poverty line – that’s more than one in ten people who live on less than $24,860 for a family of four.[xvii] Our CentsAbility and Food Bank offerings are a start but the problem is huge, so what we need is advocacy, going upstream. That’s why we support Bread for the World, and it’s why we’re part of the Marin Organizing Committee. We’re called to proclaim release to the prisoners – sex trafficking, migrants in detention, mass incarceration and for-profit jails come to mind. We’re called to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. That sounds like a call to advocate for healthcare, but perhaps, also the pursuit of truth in our age of disinformation and blindness to facts, and in particular the fact that we all need to pitch in to heal the planet. We’re called to let the oppressed go free. That sounds like a call to confront every sort of discrimination and denial of personhood for any human condition – race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation.
We’re called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to what the Bible calls “jubilee.” Every fiftieth year was to be a holy year of rest and homecoming, a year of leveling of status and wealth. All the land was to be given back to its original occupants.[xviii] The message of jubilee was that when you live with God, your failures couldn’t ruin you for good. A fresh start was always coming. God is the one who flips things around to remake them. That sounds like a call not to give up hope, even when things look dismal.
The promotion of social righteousness can feel as though we’re taking the weight of the world on our shoulders. We need to solve climate change. We need to end poverty. We need to end racial and religious bigotry. It’s too much. We burn out, or we avoid the news. We lose hope. It helps me to remember that I can’t clean up everything, but I can clean up my yard. I can love these few neighbors, this neighborhood, this church and these folks in the pews. I can treat the person behind the cash register fairly, let people cut in front of me in traffic, and give to Centsability. And – I can vote. Brian McLaren writes, “If enough of us are freed from the unbearable weight of doing everything and do the one little thing that is ours to do now, then, we can trust, God can get done through all of us what none of us can do alone. And suddenly, it’s not burdensome work. It’s aliveness. It’s joy. It’s freedom. Instead of playing God, I’m playing with God, at play in God’s world, where everything is holy.”[xix]
That is the promotion of social righteousness. “Instead of playing God, I’m playing with God, at play in God’s world, where everything is holy.” Playing is always more fun when we do it together. That, my friends, is the church. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights res
[i] Amos 5:24.
[ii] Cynthia L. Rigby, Promotion of Social Righteousness (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 2010, 2-3.
[iii] Timothy Hart-Anderson, “Plain Talk from Jesus on Poverty and Wealth,” in Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church: Mission and Ministry for Presbyterians, Joseph D. Small, ed. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2010), 117.
[iv] Isaiah 61:1-2.
[v] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 212-214.
[vi] Herbert Marbury, January 20, 2008, http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=5.
[vii] Amos 2:6-7.
[viii] Terence E. Fretheim, “Working Preacher,” November 9, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1949.
[ix] Mark S. Gignilliat, “Working Preacher,” November 6, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1030.
[x] Fretheim, ibid.
[xi] Luke 11:39, 42.
[xii] Hart-Anderson, ibid.
[xiii] John 10:10.
[xiv] Margaret Odell, “Working Preacher,” November 12, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3467.
[xv] The message on this banner: “In this church: Black lives matter; women’s rights are human rights; no human is illegal; science is real; diversity is beautiful; Muslims, Jews, Atheists and everyone else – all are our neighbors; love is love.”
[xvi] Hart-Anderson, 119.
[xviii] Leviticus 25:8-17.
[xix] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 198.