Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost: “Thoughts and Prayers”

sutherland-springs-1280x720

Sermon on Amos 5:18-24 and Matthew 25:1-13

“Thoughts and Prayers”

November 12, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Saint Paul, Minnesota
by Eric S. Fought, M.Div.

We have just listened to two challenging texts—the first from the prophet Amos and the second from Matthew the evangelist.

In the first we find a prophet reflecting on what will happen on the day of the Lord, a future time when God’s people will be judged for their actions in the past and in the here and now.

This passage is challenging because it’s a message that we can easily dismiss today as coming from a different time and place, a world that is long gone.

Indeed, there are some Christians who only read the New Testament for this very reason, believing that the texts of the Old Testament have no relevance for us today. And in so doing, those Christians not only miss some of the richest and most compelling narratives about how God has worked and does work in the world, they miss the opportunity to look deeper into the world in which Jesus lived and taught. These were the stories that formed him, and those who followed him in the beginning. These are the stories that shaped the church at its very start, the church we continue to imagine today.

Anyone who has taken an introductory course in psychology can easily see that Amos is projecting a bit, or a great deal, in this text. God is angry, and it sure seems that Amos is angry as well. He was likely deeply frustrated, living in a world that was deeply divided between two groups of people who were loyal to the late King David, one group which supported any successor of David no matter how corrupt, and another group that only supported those leaders who embodied what they believed to be David’s best qualities.

However, Amos wasn’t simply angry about the divisions playing out in his community surrounding governance and politics. He was concerned about how that community was gathering in prayer and how they worshipped their God.

“Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

It wasn’t that the singers were off-key or the harps out-of-tune. It was that the people of Judah thought that singing songs and making sacrifices in the shrines and temples were enough in such a time as they were living. Such prayer and worship was important and necessary, but not enough.

God, and God’s people require more, and that more is found in working so that justice might flow like a flood into the driest of places, that righteousness might roll down like waves of light into a dark, dark world.

In the past week we as a nation have once again engaged in what has become a recurring argument, a discussion regarding our country’s lack of action to address the epidemic of gun violence. These shootings, which are not tragedies that can’t be avoided but atrocities that must be, prompt such a discussion, an argument over whether thoughts and prayers are enough.

And, of course, they are not.

Even more so, the statements and tweets of lawmakers who claim to be praying and thinking about the latest atrocity—in this case the loss of half of a Christian congregation, whose members had gathered to pray last Sunday morning—those statements, those tweets are nothing more than hallow, self-satisfying distractions.

We can hear today, in a clear voice, the God of Amos saying, “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” Keep your so-called sacrifices to yourselves.

Of course, we must pray for the victims of the shooting, and for the people of Sutherland Springs. And we must never stop praying for the families left behind in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, the list goes on and on.

However, the God of our ancestors demands much more of us. It is long past time for justice and righteousness to roll down. And those who fail to act in Washington and in state houses throughout this country are acting as floodgates and dams, constructed by the engineers of a corporate gun lobby that they are so very afraid of losing favor with.

The second challenging text for us this morning is our gospel passage from Matthew.

We’ve returned to yet another parable, and another wedding feast. The disciples are gathered on the Mount of Olives, and the end is growing closer and closer. Jesus is no longer teaching them about the kingdom of the present, but the kingdom to come, that time soon when he will no longer be with them. He is preparing them for what is next.

And his message challenges us because we have come to believe that which is true, that Jesus never truly shuts the door on anyone, that there is, in God, no shortage of oil, no lack of abundance.

But Jesus seems to be seeking to shock his disciples a bit, disciples who knew that the door would not be shut, that there is enough oil. Shocking them much like the prophet Amos shocked those who heard him long before.

Stay awake. Keep your wicks trimmed. The night is long and the darkness is stark. Be ready.

And, perhaps the most challenging part of it all is the waiting. The day and the hour of the bridegroom’s return is not known.

For those in the Christian community that Matthew was writing to, the waiting was getting old. They had been waiting for the bridegroom, Jesus, for more than 50 years. Many, if not all, those who walked with Jesus in the flesh were gone, dying before his return, which they believed would have happened in a matter of days or weeks or months, not years.

And, while we occasionally come across a wayward soul who predicts that the end is near, or that Jesus will be coming on a date certain in the near future, we continue to wait.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus will return. And as Christians, we know that we must be ready, our lamps lit with plenty of oil to keep them going.

And yet, we have moved from the Upper Room, realizing that the wait is longer than we anticipated. And we have come to realize that our waiting cannot be filled with passive acts of thoughts and prayers, or worship that simply fills the air with pleasing melodies.

Like Amos and his neighbors, we must turn to action. Our waiting must be a time of preparation, of evangelization and of readiness for all that will challenge us.

Jesus also taught his disciples to recognize that in serving others they served him.

As good justice-minded Christians, all of us in this sanctuary today know that the 25th chapter of Matthew not only contains the parable of the bridesmaids, or the parable of the talents which follows it. It is later in this chapter when we read, in his last teaching before the plot to kill him comes together, Jesus tell his disciples, “truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Today, as Christians, we are called to wait, to be ready. But we are also called to let our collective light shine in a world that is so very dark.

We know exactly who the “least of these” are for us in this moment. They are the survivors and those of our brothers and sisters left behind in Sutherland Springs. But the “least of these” are also those praying in churches this morning and on Sunday mornings in the future, those children who will fill our schools tomorrow, those concertgoers who will fill arenas and those who will come to dance in nightclubs. All of whom, we know, we fear, could be among those we mourn next.

The “least of these” are the families who will be torn apart by ICE raids. The children who will walk the streets of this City tonight cold and hungry and afraid.  The next black body shot by police, the next transgender child of God bullied, the next woman sexually harassed or assaulted.

Our readiness, our light is found in our collective action, in a moral voice that responds to the evil that is found in the paralyzing passiveness of “thoughts and prayers.” Our call is to respond, to be ready and to show the world what the light of Jesus has to offer.

Let our songs and our worship in this holy place strengthen us for that difficult journey. Let us take the time to rest and be filled. But let us leave this temple with our wicks trimmed and our lamps lit.

Amen.