Rev. Ellen Jennings
~Amos 5:6-17, 21-24~
In the flood that is this life
some waters will sweep your home away
and others stop at your doorstep.
There is no choosing, no deserving
in their rising or receding.
On any given day one of us is picnicking,
another swimming for our lives.
For all of us some day waters will rise,
and with them,
beside us in the water a reaching out,
above the swirling flood a reaching out.
So many reaching out.
This is what we have to stand on.
~ Steve Garnaas-Holmes
I suspect this is what keeps so many of us going at a time like this: with floods in Houston and Louisiana and Bangladesh and Mumbai and fires from Montana to LA, with distrust and unrest throughout our great land and religious statements judging our neighbor by people who should be preaching the opposite.
Yet, despite all this: Despite the natural (or are they human-made) disasters, despite the meanness of spirit that assaults us whenever we turn on the news, despite the very real injustices that have, in all truth, blighted the human condition since the Prophet Amos uttered his desolate lamentation… we hope. We hope because, as Garnaas-Holmes writes in his poem, we see, every day we see the “reaching out.” We see people – in this sanctuary, in our community, in our government – who attempt to live out this ethos in the world: the reaching out. Reaching out to those who are in need. Reaching out to those who are down. Reaching out to those who are, in fact, “out.” Reaching out. We do not kick people when they’re down. We do not blame them for the rains which fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. We do not judge whether they’re deserving or undeserving of our help. We reach out. Because God is not interested in our offerings or our songs or our prayers or our festivals – or not unless they’re accompanied by justice and right living. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, exhorts Amos! It’s such a beautiful line, to my ear one of the most beautiful in the Hebrew Bible. And there’s a reason for this: it calls us to truth. It reminds us what is truly, inherently, profoundly important. “Don’t mess with me,” says God. “Don’t try to distract me with your rituals and flattery. I’m not interested!” Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
What do you feel when you hear this?
There’s no right answer, but it helps me breathe. For I find both power and peace in it. I think this is so, because anything truly in line with the divine always brings peace. In fact, one of the common signs and slogans this past Monday at the Minister’s March for Justice on the 54th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice was, “No Justice, No Peace.” Now, I must admit, I’ve always thought that line was kind of negative. I mean, wouldn’t it be better to say: “With Justice, Comes Peace?” But as I considered (yup, there I was at the march, critiquing the slogans!), I concluded it actually does make sense: because it’s true. Without justice, there is no peace. No real peace anyway. God knows it. Amos knew it. MLK knew it. And I intuitively feel it whenever I say those powerfully peaceful words: Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The march itself was amazing. There were 3000 clergy— they’d called for 1000— from many different faiths. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a black Jewish descendent of slaves and a black Catholic nun speak out on justice, power and community action! The speakers were all inspiring and we, the audience, riveted (the incredibly beautiful, cool, sunny day didn’t hurt…).
There was only problem. We couldn’t help but think: “Really? We’re here again?” 54 years later, and we’re still marching for the same damn thing?! Well, not I, personally. I was in the womb, August of ’63. But you get the point. I mean, listen to some of these words and see if you can tell whether they were spoken then or now (spoiler: they’re from organizers of the 1963 march):
From A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters and visionary director of the March on Washington:
Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education, and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate Congress.
And… Those who deplore our militants, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension than enforcing racial democracy.
The only difference I can perceive in these statements between then and now is the use of the terms, “Negro” and “Dixiecrat.”
From Whitney Young, Director of the National Urban League:
How serious our national leaders are will be measured not by words but by the speed and sincerity with which they pass necessary legislation, with which they admit to the tragic injustice that has been done our country and its Negro citizens by historic discrimination and rejection and until they take intensive remedial steps to correct the damage in order to give true meaning to the words “equal opportunity.”
And from Rep. John Lewis, then 23-year-old Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC):
We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.
And… We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.
Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?
Oh, young John. There is no political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington! There are just people, we the people. We the people, who are charged with trying, always, to make a more perfect union. We the people, whom God calls to be righteous and just. We the people, whom Jesus exhorted to love one another. We the people, who must reach out, who must reach out. Always. In 1963 and ‘83 and 2003 and ‘23. We must keep reaching out.
So, as we prepare for tomorrow’s celebration of Labor Day, how will we reach out? I don’t mean to downplay the importance of gathering with family and friends, of barbecues and picnics and the last swimming day of the season, and I don’t think God wants to downplay them either. Actually, I’m certain God wants us to have joyful, recreational, exuberant fun. As long as we don’t lose sight of Her call to do justice and love kindness. As long as we don’t stop reaching out.
Because, friends, the truth in the words of Ray Charles is: “If one of us is chained, none of us are free.” We are all connected. We might not see it. We might choose to shield our eyes from it. But it’s true. Thus, we are called, in the words of Amos, to “hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gate.” Thus, we are called to create a world in which everyone, including ourselves, is free. This is our work, the labor God asks us to do.
So, this Labor Day, enjoy the pool, drink a cold one, have fun with family and friends. Rest and restore— for your own sweet soul and all the work ahead. Because we still have much work to do.