Working for Justice Versus Feeling Religious
By Rev. Robin Martin
The other night I was actually doing something useful for a change. I was ironing, and John was sitting in the same room reading a murder mystery about Inspector Morse of the PBS “Mystery” series fame. Those of you familiar with the shows remember that Morse was an arrogant, eccentric, opera-loving, unlucky-in-love Detective Inspector on the Oxford police force. At any rate, about half way through my ironing duties John chuckled aloud and said, “Listen to this.” He then read the following to me: “Forgive us for loving familiar hymns and religious feelings more than Thee, O Lord.” Listen again, “Forgive us for loving familiar hymns and religious feelings more than Thee, O Lord.” This was one of two citations at the beginning of chapter forty of the book he was reading, and it comes from the United Presbyterian Church Litany. That’s the Presbyterian Church in England. The chuckle, of course was occasioned by the fact that we read the powerful passage from the prophet Amos this morning in which God declares through the prophet, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” And after disparaging sacrifices of every kind, God concludes by demanding, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
I have to admit, though, that the quote from the United Presbyterian Litany hit home for me at another level. You see, one of my steepest learning curves here at St. James’ Church in Downingtown has been the liturgical mix that happens here Sunday after Sunday. In the beginning, it involved repeatedly stumbling through the nine o’clock service until the different flow and cadences in that service got deeply enough ingrained in me to come out more naturally. Then there was the nine-thirty service during the summer when we did a mix of the contemporary and the conventional services that depended on who was providing music on a given Sunday. I was hoping the opportunity to experience something different enough that we would be unable to breeze through it on automatic pilot would be good for all of us. I think it was, but I’ve been at this long enough to know that most of us, including me, can get pretty aggravated when people start messing with the liturgy which nourishes and sustains us.
The issue, of course, is not whether our worship is graceful and elegant. It’s not about whether we make our way through it flawlessly. The issue is: what’s the larger context in which that worship occurs? What difference does our worship make in the world in which we live? It’s not that the Creator of music doesn’t appreciate a beautiful melody and stirring lyrics. It’s that the melody goes flat when justice is not known in the land. It’s that the words ring empty when righteousness is absent in the community. The problem is when the worship itself becomes the object of our adoration so that we love the familiar favorite hymn and feeling religious more than we love God. The issue is when we love anything…anything more than God.
This is an issue which Jesus raises over and over and over again, this loving anything more than God. And he raises it with amazing tenacity in an astounding variety of ways…like the parable we hear this morning. This story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is yet another parable of judgment, and so it inevitably takes us out of our comfort zone. I’ve come to believe we almost always hear the story from the perspective of the five maidens who neglected to bring along enough oil to refill their lamps. I mean, who among us has never been un- or under- prepared? And who among us hasn’t breathed a deep sigh of gratitude when someone more forward-looking than we are bails us out? And who among us, knowing what it’s like to be caught short, hasn’t willingly shared our own resources, however meager they may be, with the person who’s not prepared? After all, generosity is a gospel virtue. It gets pretty easy to condemn the so-called wise bridesmaids for their selfishness…and miss the whole point of the parable. I think somewhere deep down inside us we just kind of figure that maybe Jesus didn’t quite get it right on this one.
But Jesus did get it right. The wisdom of those bridesmaids lay not in their extra flasks of oil, but in the fact that they would do nothing to endanger their entry into God’s kingdom. In the parable what they risk is being seen as selfish and uncaring, a risk most of us just aren’t willing to take. So we neglect our prayers for the sake of busily “helping” others. Or in terms of what Amos is saying, we turn our faces from the hard work of justice for the sake of feeling religious. We can and do sing our favorite familiar hymns with great gusto. But if we’re not careful, our singing drowns out the lies our leaders and our culture pass off as truth, and we block out that nagging reality for the sake of feeling good with God.
The wisdom of the bridesmaids and the wisdom of Amos is the paradoxical wisdom to which you and I are called. If our devotion to God immunizes us from the cares and suffering of the world, we’ve got it wrong. If our determination to serve the world in God’s name leaves us stretched too thin to rest in God’s presence, we’ve got it wrong.
When, by the grace of God, we get it right, our festivals and solemn assemblies propel us into the world and into the service of others. When, by the grace of God, we get it right, our efforts on behalf of justice and righteousness in the world draw us ever more deeply into the nurturing and sustaining presence of the holy.
God, in your mercy, grant us this deep, paradoxical wisdom.