Our Prophetic Imperative

It is rare that a Unitarian Universalist minister begins his or her sermon with a biblical quotation. My subtitle for today’s sermon, “Let Justice Flow,” deserves a citation. The line which has been made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. comes from the wild and wholly Hebrew prophet Amos. It was Amos, not famous first for cookies, but for telling the Kings of Israel and Judah that they had turned to greed, who put it this way:

“I despise your greed and I take no delight in your assemblies even though you have offered up the burnt offerings. God will not hear the noise of your songs or the melody of your harps but let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:22-24)”

As I thought about this passage I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states: a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel to the North and Judah to the South, with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is the only offering God really wants from his people.

Sound familiar? It ought to. How different is our arrogance as the only remaining superpower, the openly proclaimed Empire of the World from this fallen age of Israel? Some even suggest the new Star Wars film by George Lucas is a commentary on George W. Bush and the encroaching agenda of fear and the attendant loss of civil rights around us. Part of our effort today is to name the true costs of this war. The facts you can see for yourselves, a billion dollars a week, 4,000 American lives, half a million Iraqis dead or displaced, and our neutering as a voice of compassion and change in the world. As Linda Bilmes who lectures at Harvard wrote in a recent LA Times Op-ed (3/16/08), Californians, because of our disproportionate size in the military industrial complex, are going to bear the greatest brunt for this war. And then there are the personal costs such as this from Jim Wallis’ blog about his newest book The Great Awakening, My Son’s Grave (by Celeste Zappala) ‘The Cost of War’. The sorrowful convergence of the fifth anniversary of the war and the observation of the 4,000th fallen U.S. soldier in Iraq (has sadly past). Soon candles will be lit and vigils held, arguments will ensue as to who was right, and the meaning and value of sacrifice and the chorus of whispers, wails, and anger will be carried on wind sweeping across this country and all the gravestones of war. The stones are silent witnesses to the failure of humans to follow the commands of the Lord of Love. The stones are places where U.S. families gather, as far as can be from the bombs and desert fears. It is in that cold silence that my grandson and I visit his father’s grave. He throws chunks of snow around the fully decorated gravesite. “My dad loves to have snowball fights” he tells me in present tense. “My dad and me always team up against my mom; she doesn’t like snow.” He laughs; and in this moment of transcendent playfulness I look at him with great love and will not speak of horror and lost hopes. Head bowed, snow tears on my face, I let the chill of the day overtake me – but I do not want my grandson to see my thoughts. In spite of all my protests, I could not protect him from losing his playful, tender father. I can only hope now to be a witness to the good life lost – to all the good lives lost. I will add my voice to the wind of remembrance and faithfulness. And I know for the rest of my life I will come to this country cemetery and visit my son who will never be older than 30. And I, like so many mothers and grandsons in this cold season, will stand amidst the stones of this country to listen in the snow for the laughter and forgiveness of our lost’. Celeste Zappala is the mother of Sgt Sherwood Baker, who was killed in action on April 26, 2004. Sherwood was killed while protecting the Iraq Survey group as they searched for the weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. He was the first Pennsylvania National Guard solider killed in Iraq. But where are the Amos’ of our time? Who shall proclaim the truth to let justice flow again?

In the tradition of the ancient Hebrew Prophets, I see our third smooth stone of liberalism as in Adams words “the moral obligation to direct our effort… towards a justice loving community.” Distinctly different than those religions that retreat from the world, our religion must, by its very nature, help justice flow into the world. We, and others, are here to proclaim that prophecy in the old testament way, not only of the future but of what in the present needs to be changed. Prophets, as Adams put it, “foretell” if this continues this will happen, not forth tell, as if they had some crystal ball. As a free church we come from an ancient tradition of foretelling: “The Radical Reformation of the 16th century, the heralds of the Renaissance, the mystical and radically democratic sects of the 17th century, (from which many of our religious forebears hail), the democratic revolutionists of the 18th century (including the founders of our own nation, many Unitarian), the religious liberals….the evolutionists and scientists of the Social Gospel in the 19th century – all were prophet bards foretelling and struggling for a new epoch.” (From The Prophethood of All Believers by Adams). We are right here part of that same prophethood of all believers, the prophethood that brought us Theodore Parker, Thomas Jefferson, Lydia Maria Child (the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate) , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, our own Hope Foye, all Unitarians and Universalists, who foretold and acted upon that prophecy.

The prophets are here and they are more than us. But their voices are not being heard because of the control our government has over the media that allows those voices to prophesize. I think of Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian who is challenging the powers that be. I think of Barbara Boxer, our senator from California, I think of the past President of the UUA and past director of Amnesty International, Dr. Bill Schultz, whose report naming our country one of the worst in human rights abusers in the world has met with a firestorm of protest from the President on down. As Dr. Schultz said on NPR, “I think the President doth protest too much, perhaps there is more truth here than they admit”.

To help justice flow and stem the costs of this war we must begin by unblocking the dams upstream. Its one thing to rescue the victims of our arrogance it’s another to unblock that which holds justice back. Or as William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, put it over a century ago “We can’t just keep picking people up at the bottom of the cliff without climbing up the mountain to see who is throwing them off.” (As quoted in, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis). What are these dams that are holding justice back, not only in the freedoms of our own country, but the very right to life in the world’s poorest countries?

First among them is our failing as a moral country. We have to replace platitudes about religion with the real religion of life. You know we heard all about how the religious right had voted Bush into office on “moral values.” Well we have moral values too! UUs and UCC and most other mainline churches have the moral values which hold that 30,000 children a day dying of hunger is just plain wrong. We have the moral values that say that debt cancellation to the lowest 10% of the world is not only possible but necessary. We have the moral values that hunger and abuse and poverty here or anywhere else for that matter is wrong. We have moral values that say torture – any torture – is wrong. That there is no such thing as just a little bit of torture.

We can begin to live up to our prophetic imperative by proclaiming those moral values in the public square. Not only in good-minded churches binding together, but in YOU speaking out at work and in your community about YOUR moral values. When someone tells you homosexuality is wrong, tell them love is right and then tell them what is really wrong: allowing homelessness to continue, denying aid to Darfur, reforming a tax code that rewards only the wealthy. Whenever we hear a story glorifying this war speak out about its cost. We are the people we have been waiting for.

And when people tell you that this is a time of war and we have to make hard choices, ask them ‘whose war?’ Because the question is not guns or butter, as the commentator Mark Shields put it, but rather caviar and missiles (quoted on Shield and Brooks, Jan. 2003, PBS). Budgets, whether it is the federal government or this church’s budget, are moral documents. It is time to put up a fight for what we truly believe in. It is time to let justice flow with our money.

Only our money will break down the damns beyond our own little worlds. Only money buys us the voice we need to be heard. I would like to believe that citizens alone could turn our world around and they can help but our money will also be necessary. We are always stretching. We are stretching to break through the dams to a new world. The question is why? We are here, as someone a few weeks ago put is so well, to “save lives” — not only the lives of the people who come here but the people who we will never meet who have no Amos in their corner. We and our money have the power to let justice flow again.

Specially, I am asking you to join the UUSC today. Fill out that form, drop a check in it and drop it in the collection basket. I am asking you to help us help justice flow again, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. But I am also asking you this month to make your financial contribution to our annual budget by way of a pledge.

To be of any use to this hurting world – to save the world which is our home – we must broaden our meaning making beyond just what we need. In the words of my colleague, the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, may we be a place “… whose inward focus is on worship and spiritual development and whose outward focus is on bringing the good news of UUism to the larger community through words and deeds.” (UU Congregation of Frederick newsletter, 2005). We can be the deed doers, the makers of a new world, right here and now.

Some would disparage over the world we live in, but take hope and have courage. I always remember the words of Theodore Parker, our great prophet, ‘the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. It is our task to create a better world, even just a little bit of it, to remove those impediments towards the flow of justice again, person to person, hand to hand, arm in arm, help does arrive despite the politicians. Our social action committee, these brave souls are here to help you let justice flow again. Our imperative is to shout it out from the mountain tops and the valleys: “stop this war” and change the world! As Jim Wallis puts it, we must stop being the thermometer that measures the temperature of the world and begin to be the thermostat that turns the heat up and melts the dams of injustice, breaking through with the free flow of justice (in Great Awakening by Jim Wallis).

Join us as we change the world. Give generously to the causes we support. As Wallis said, “Imagine politics being unable to co-opt the (religion) but being held accountable to its moral imperatives. Imagine social movements arising out of spiritual revivals and actually changing the wind of both our culture and politics. Imagine a fulfillment in our time of the words of the prophet Amos’ ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Just imagine.” (ibid, Wallis)


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