For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s thematic spiritual practice led by Trecia Reavis, CLICK HERE.
Hi, Friends, I’m Steve, our senior pastor, and welcome again to our first Sunday of Lent. Even though we’ve been talking about this season for a few weeks, I’m guessing that it’s still odd-sounding or off-putting to some of us.
If you don’t have a religious background, or if you have one but it didn’t include Lent, then it’s arbitrary. What is this old word, this dated religious practice? And what’s in it for us? I’d like to speak to that in a minute.
And if you do have a religious background that at all includes Lent, then it might seem like the last thing you need now. Lent is famous for the phrase: what are you giving up? Because Lent has, amongst other things, been a Christian season of fasting? Of not eating meat, or at least not on Fridays? Or giving up certain foods or pleasures or distractions. And for some of us, giving up more this year is the last thing we want. How much have we given up these past 12 months already?
But Lent is a lot more than giving up, and it doesn’t need to be an outdated or off-putting religious practice at all.
Lent is the six weeks before Easter, when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus – the founding events and stories of our faith. Lent is a time to be closer to God, to invite the Spirit of God to shape our lives.
It’s a time of putting down and of taking up. We put down or set aside or even give up things that distract or grip us. That’s where the traditions of fasting and giving come from. If you have things you’d like to to put down for these six weeks, feel free. But given the year we’ve had, we’re downplaying that side of the tradition. Maybe more importantly, Lent is also a season of taking up – of giving time and attention to prayer and welcoming the Spirit of God’s movement in us and in the world.
Lent is a kind of dare to ourselves. Lent is from an old English word that means spring. Where we live, we dare to remember in the cold, snowy winter that we are just a few weeks from brighter days, warmer weather and birdsong and green. Spring is coming.
And we dare to hope that in our mix of putting down and taking up, wherever we feel lost or disoriented, God will help us find God and find ourselves again. Where faith has more doubt and distance, God will renew us. And where we lack focus or center, God will help us find what is most important.
That’s the title of this year’s Lent, What is Most Important. The church won’t tell you what should be most important in your life – that is for you to discern with the help of God and friends. But we’ll read some of the Bible’s prophets and see how they can help us find what’s most important.
The founder of Godly Play, the approach to learning the Bible our church uses with our children, says that prophets are people who were so close to God that they knew what was most important and they can show us the way.
Each week, this Lent, we read some of the words of a different prophet, and see how that prophet can help us pray, can help us find God and ourselves, and can get us wondering what is most important.
Each Sunday, Lydia or Ivy or I will focus on the week’s prophet in our sermon, and then you’ll have five days of Bible readings, comments, and prayer practices you can try in the week to come. You can find that all in the guide that you picked up with your Lent in a Bag or that you can find our website – reservoirchurch.org/lent.
This week we begin with a prophet named Amos. I’ll share brief excerpts from the first two days readings, tomorrow and Tuesday’s readings, and get us started.
Amos 1:2 (CEB)
He (Amos) said:
The Lord roars from Zion.
He shouts from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
So the very first thing that Amos has to say is that God is angry. Amos spoke his anger and wrote his poems in the ancient Near East, 2800 years ago. And sometimes when we read Amos, we’re aware of that huge gulf of time and culture. Amos talks about God sometimes differently than we would. We don’t see the world quite the same way.
But other times, Amos sounds like he could be living among us, speaking to our world.
You’re angry about all that’s messed up in this world. Guess what, God is angry too. What is wrong with us?
This year, Ivy developed the spiritual engagement practices that ends each day’s reading in the guide. They’re on the Lent deck of cards we were giving out as well, and they’re accompanied by a different object each week. For the first week, Ivy chose matches. And tomorrow and Tuesday, you’ll be invited to light matches, as that flame represents things you’re angry about.
A couple of you previewed this material, and said that first week, I’m going to need a whole big box of matches. I thought about that. Because for me, anger is not one of my first go-to emotions when things are wrong. But last week, I sat down with a box of matches, a container to dump them in when I blew them out, and a blank piece of paper in case I wanted to write things down. I decided I’d preview one of Mondays’ spiritual engagement exercises, by lighting a match for each thing I was angry about these days, then after letting it burn for a few seconds, blowing it out, and moving on to the next one. Well, after about fifteen minutes, I had a large collection of burnt-up matches in my bowl and long list of people and groups and forces that I was angry about.
So much cause for our anger. So many targets for our anger.
I asked God to give me a sense of where God was in the anger, how God was responsive to all my anger.
And the picture that came to mind was one of the biggest fires I’ve ever seen. When I was in high school, every year we had a homecoming weekend in the fall, and the school and the fire department would construct this enormous bonfire on this empty grassy plot near our school. They’d put this scarecrow outfitted in the colors of our school’s rival on it too and burn that thing in effigy. Add this to the list of my high school memories that would never happen in public school around here these days.
Anyway, that fire came to mind and the thought that came to mind in prayer was God saying: Steve, if you have match fire-sized anger, I have bonfire-sized anger.
God is angry too.
The early framers of Christianity wanted a God that would be respectable to the Graeco-Roman world of the time. So following the lead of Plato and Aristotle, they tried to reconcile their experience of God and the Bible’s accounts of God with what Plato and Aristotle imagined the highest God must be like – unchanging, aloof, above human emotion and passion, the unmoved mover. And these concepts have been passed down over the centuries in the faith.
So that most Christians today don’t imagine that God has an emotional life anything like ours. They tell us not to trust our emotions – they’re feelings, not facts. So-called negative emotions like anger are shut down too often.
But when we come to the prophets, we find this is not true of God. God is passionate. God’s emotional life is larger, more vivid than ours. This is part of what is most important, that God is engaged, invested, emotionally responsive to what goes on in God’s creation, our lives, our world included.
When we have good cause to be angry, God is angry too.
Now God’s anger is not like ours in some ways. People often get angry when we’re afraid. One mentor I knew who had significant anger issues he was dealing with said to me: it’s stunning, really, how often when I stop to look at my anger, I discover that beneath that I’m really afraid.
Other people get angry when they’re experiencing shame. How often do you see a man make some mistake behind the wheel of a car, and someone else honks their horn to get their attention, and the same driver who made the error starts honking back, or flipping the bird, or swearing in anger? A lot of us don’t know how to handle when we’re ashamed, and so to move away from the discomfort of that shame, we go straight to anger.
God’s anger isn’t like this. God doesn’t experience shame. I think God is mostly not afraid too, and if ever God is afraid, God knows not to cover that anger. God isn’t always on our side either. Sometimes we’re angry when we lack perspective, or our pride has been wounded, and we need to be curious and let go of that anger.
But when it comes to wrongs done, violence done, harm done in God’s creation, God feels immense anger. The first chapter is a catalogue of ancient societal injustices – land theft, environmental degradation, forced labor and slavery, sexual crimes; people, nations stripped of their rights or dignity.
God sees and God roars like a lion.
The prophets see what is worthy of God’s anger, and they don’t turn away or try to shut down their own anger. They feel what God feels and they speak the truth.
I wonder what you are angry about this year. I wonder how you are feeling that anger? How are you experiencing your anger? What is it doing in your life? How would help to know that God is with you in your anger? That God is angry too? What might this mean to you?
We’ll have the chance to explore questions like this with Amos this week. And we’lll see that God’s anger goes to some interesting and constructive places too, some places we can perhaps go with God as well.
Let me read the second of our two scriptures. This is part of what you’ll read on Tuesday.
Amos 5:21-24 (CEB)
21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos is speaking in the voice of God, which is maybe the wildest thing the prophets of the Bible dare to do. You’ve got to be careful when you try to speak for God. For every one prophet in the Bible who did so, there are thousands of others in history, even today, who would have left us all better off if they’d stayed quiet instead.
Anyway, I hear a couple more things here. I hear more reasons God is angry.
What a waste, right. Amos speaks another strand of the sadness and anger of God. God is angry over injustice, but God is also angry over bad religion. Religion that justifies the status quo, religion that performs supposed love and worship of God, while hating God in the face of the neighbor made in God’s image. Religion that loves power but not doesn’t love. Religion that offers things to God but doesn’t support lives of humble integrity, offered in kindness to one another.
Again and again in the prophets, they tell us this is important too. They tell us God wants nothing to do with this kind of religion. God doesn’t want to be associated unjust, unloving, violent religion, which is a lot of what religion is and has been.
From God’s perspective, it’s got to seem maddening when people speak for God, perform devotion to God in public, construct buildings and institutions and ideals in the name of God, without learning to be decent people, kind people, loving people, just people.
What a sadness. What a waste.
People might be fooled by bad religion, but God is not. Last week, while reading a pastor and theologian named Bruce Epperly, I came across this line: “God sees everything as it is, but also everything as it could be in light of God’s version of Shalom and beauty.”
God sees everything as it is, but also everything as it could be in light of God’s version of Shalom – wholeness, wellness, peace with justice – and beauty.
What could our world be? What could our lives be?
If God doesn’t want injustice and God doesn’t want bad religion, what does God want? If injustice and bad religion make God angry, what makes God happy?
The two words Amos lands on are the Hebrew words “tsedeqah” and “mishpat”, what we usually translate as “righteousness” and “justice.” God’s arc, God’s longing, God’s big play in the world is that justice, mishpat, would roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness, tsedeqah, like an ever-flowing stream. That we – people, families, communities, churches, nations, societies, would become tsedeqah and mishpat.
These two words are collapsed into one word in the Greek of the New Testament – dikaiosune. It’s usually translated as “righteousness” in English Bibles, but it really means these two things put together – righteousness and justice – heart and actions as they were meant to be.
If you had to distinguish between these two words, one is more personal, one more collective. One is more private, one more public. One is more about intentions and one more about impact.
Righteousness, tsedeqah, is about being a good person. About setting loving intentions. Cultivating good, trustworthy character. Becoming the kind of person other people can trust with their children. Seeking the good of your neighbor and even your enemy, not just yourself.
And mishpat is about right actions, that regardless of intention, you do the right thing for the common good. It’s about companies and governments and churches together doing what is right not just for themselves, but for the common good.
Some of care more about one of these than the others. We say, intentions don’t matter, impact does. We say as long as we achieve economic justice, enough for all, as long as we dismantle what degrades ourselves or our neighbor – racism, homophobia, misogyny, sexual assault, pay gaps, equity gaps, and on it goes – than we can be satisfied. This is mishpat, and it is holy and good and important to God.
Some of us don’t have such public eyes. We care most about people being kind and loving and decent, doing the right and moral thing in their private lives, having integrity. This is part of tsedeqah, and it too is holy and good and important to God.
God wants both. Good, kind, loving people that together shape a just and peaceful world. This is important to God.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was famous for preaching these words of Amos, of course: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We will never be satisfied until we see this. God will never be satisfied until God sees this.
King spoke these words often. They were in his “I Have a Dream Speech” among many other places – in the first half of the speech, the part with more substance and less swagger. These words of Amos anchored his vision for this country, a vision we have still not embraced. These words of Amos anchored King’s prophetic vision of the beloved community – a public life of universal belonging, of opportunity and equity for Black Americans and for all Americans, a more peaceful and just world for all peoples.
King believed that the arc of history was heading this way. The moral arc of the universe is long, he said, but it bends toward justice. I don’t know whether or not King was right about this. You could argue it both ways. None of us can predict the future and know just where our world, let alone our universe, is heading next.
But we know this is God’s arc. God wants to see righteousness and justice – kind and good and generous and loving people in a just and peaceful world.
I wonder what in this vision you will find important. Is there some way the prophets will work on you this week, this season, to shine light on your character, clarify who you are and who you long to be? Is there some way God seeks to grow you into healing of heart and more loving intentions?
Or has this year taught you about justice? About embracing God’s vision of a well-governed, equitable world of mishpat? Is there a cause or care you’d like to give yourself to more, along with others?
This week, as we begin Lent together, I’m excited to put down a few of my first thing in the morning distractions and to spend a half hour each morning with our Lenten guide. I hope you’ll join me each day for whatever amount of time works for you.
As we take up this prayer and attention to what the prophets have to say to us, I hope we’ll each discover something important about God – how vitally engaged God is with us, how loving, how responsive, how much creative possibility God greets us with. And I hope we’ll listen and awake again to what’s most important for us as well, finding our way forward into beautiful, whole lives that make God happy, that make us glad – lives well-lived even in hard times, lives of righteousness and justice, best as we see the way for ourselves and one another.
I’m excited to begin together. If you’d still like a paper copy of the Lenten guide and our Lent in a Bag with cards and objects, we have 20 or 30 left at the church. You’re welcome to stop by the sanctuary between 11 and 2 and pick one up while supplies last. If not, stop by the link on our site – reservoirchurch.org/lent to view or download all you need. We’ll even start to tease out these themes of Amos – what makes us angry – on today’s wave call, if you’d like to join us there.
This Lent, these next six weeks, may God give you the blessing of moving closer to God, as the prophets did, and of finding for you before God, what is most important and how to go there.