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Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

A Sermon by Erin Conaway


April 2, 2018

Amos 5:18-24

One Sunday last fall, a fight broke out on the field of an NFL game. Jalen Ramsey, a second-year cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is widely known and freely admits that a big part of his game is to try to use “trash talk” to get into the head of the player he is guarding. He claims he keeps it professional and never brings in family members to the taunting.

A.J. Green was the wide receiver he was guarding most of the game. Green is a six-time pro-bowl wide receiver who is widely recognized as one of the nicest guys in the league. He is a quiet player, in direct contrast to Jalen Ramsey, who never stops talking. Both men were competing and giving their all when, at the end of a play, A.J. Green turned around to walk back to the huddle and Ramsey pushed him hard enough to knock him to the ground.

Ramsey then started walking away, very pleased with himself. Green got up off of the ground and ran up to Ramsey, grabbed him around the neck and threw him on the ground like he was trying to pop his head clean off of his shoulders. Then, inexplicably, this wide receiver who makes many millions of dollars every year catching a football with his hands, started punching Ramsey in the helmet with those million-dollar hands.

Both men were ejected from the game. That evening, the football-twitter world exploded with shock and awe that A.J. Green did this. Radio show hosts and sportscasters expressed their surprise as they relived this fight on the field. They couldn’t believe it came to this, and they were even more shocked that it came from A. J. Green. If you read closely, the players who tweeted didn’t seemed shocked that a fight happened, they just seemed shocked that it happened at the hands of A. J. Green. They had him at the bottom of their list of Cincinnati Bengals who might get thrown out of a game.

But they had a list.

Should anyone be surprised that a fight breaks out at an NFL game? Football is a violent sport, these professional athletes make their living by smashing their bodies and heads against one another, so it seems very much in keeping with their life-long training and their everyday practice that if they lost their cool, they would absolutely use their violent force to try to regain whatever measure of control or respect they assume they just lost. A fight at a football game? Not surprising.

In the fifth chapter of the book of Amos, the prophet is trying to get the attention of people who have been acting against the ways of God. They are trampling the poor, pushing aside the needy at the gate. They hate the people among them who tell them the truth. They afflict the righteous. They are corrupt. They take bribes. And God says to them through the prophet Amos, “The prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.”

Did you ever have one of those moments with your parents when they tell you it would be best if you just didn’t talk while they got it all out? That’s what this reminds me of. God is in full rage mode.

Our reading begins by God questioning their enthusiasm over the Day of Yahweh. The word we have translated “Alas” is a word used for deaths. God says, “You think you’re looking forward to my return? You’re excited to have me come back? Why would you think that?”

“Uh…because isn’t that the day you fight for us? Remember, we’re your peeps and you said that…um…I mean…”

This is probably why God told them at the beginning to shut up. God says the Day of Yahweh will be like darkness to them, not light: “This shouldn’t surprise you…you who trample the poor and afflict the righteous. You think I can’t see that, you think I don’t hear the cry of the poor and the neglected among you? You think I can’t see you from here? It will be as if you were running from a lion and ran into a bear. Or if you happened to escape both and made it home huffing and puffing, your cold heart pounding in your chest and you put your hand on the wall to steady yourself and you get bitten by a snake.”

Like I said, full rage mode.

But God isn’t done. “I hate, no, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Keep your burnt offerings and your grain offerings. I’m not having any of it. Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not even listen to the melodies of your harps.”

Rage. And from that place of angry proclamation, God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Water is a powerful force in our world. We’ve seen the images of what rising waters can do; we’ve seen images of destruction caused by crashing waves. When I lived in Colorado, we had a torrential rainstorm one night. The next day, many roads were closed. It was hard to get around town to do anything. I rode my bike around just to see what was going on; my only connection to the world was the radio in my truck.

The street I used to get home from work every day was closed. The water came down the mountain like a charging cavalry and knocked the bridge a few inches down-stream. There was a trailer park built just above river level on the mountain side of the bridge. It looked like a bomb had exploded. The trailer homes were shattered to pieces by the water.

It is a powerful force in our world, and God calls upon this image, calling for justice to roll down like surging, crashing, unyielding waters. And the thing about water is that it always levels out in the low places. That’s where justice begins its work. In the low places. Rolling water has a leveling tendency about it—bringing the things from on high down to the things below and making them all float or sink at the same level. The image this brings to my mind is one of toppling the powerful who are disregarding the vulnerable among them, and bringing up the lowly as the pool rises where the waves fall asleep.

One Sunday morning last fall, a man walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX, and killed 26 people and injured 20 more. This was the fifth-worst mass shooting in our history, just a month after the worst mass shooting on record occurred in Las Vegas.

I don’t know why we rank them—the horror caused by these events cannot be measured. The ripples of each life stolen from us go out for unseen generations. And once again, we all seemed surprised, or startled, or shocked. Well-meaning people say into that horrible darkness where no words could possibly matter, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”

I think if we listened closely, we might hear God saying again, “I hate, I despise your thoughts and prayers! I take no delight in your lighted candles and your stuffed animals laid down by the police crime scene tape.”

Why? Because we refuse to act. We are paralyzed by something…I don’t know what exactly, but we are stuck as a society. I know that we hold a variety of opinions on guns in our family of faith. I have been a gun owner most of my life. I grew up around them and learned to respect them and treat them as agents of death and destruction.

I have friends and family members, whom I love and respect, who own high-capacity assault style rifles, and I can’t figure it out. A high-capacity assault style rifle has only one purpose—to accelerate the rate of death. In my opinion, there is no logical hunting rationale to be made for a semi-automatic rifle with a clip that holds thirty rounds. If you need that many bullets in one clip to hunt, you’re just a bad shot and more bullets fired in more rapid succession probably won’t help you anyway.

If you say you need one for target practice or for pleasure shooting, think about what you are saying. We’re telling the people of First Baptist Sutherland—and Las Vegas, and Orlando, and the children in Sandy Hook, and the students in Blacksburg, Virginia—I’m sorry you’re dead, but I need to be able to feel that rush you get when you fire off rounds as fast as you can squeeze the trigger.  I need to be able to shoot 30 shots at hogs before I reload (even though they scatter after the first shot). There might come a day when I have to help overthrow our tyrannical government and I think my high-capacity clips will win the day against our own military forces whom we deem the best in the world—and they have bigger, more leathal weapons and training in warfare, but still—I need to be able to shoot a lot of bullets before I have to be bothered with reloading.  These things are more important to me than your life.

Could you do that? Could you stand at the graveside this week and say that to a family member who just buried their six-year old? Of course not. But aren’t we doing just that in our silence?

Are high-capacity assault style rifles the only weapons used to kill people in mass? No. Have we responded to the other means of mass murder by changing our habits and our freedoms? Yes, we have. You still have to take off your shoes before you can fly on an airplane because one guy hid explosives in his shoes and tried to blow up a plane. We’re putting up more and more vehicle barricades around walking paths and large crowd gatherings.  Ammonium Nitrate (primarily used in fertilizers and first-aid products) became a federally regulated substance following the Oklahoma City Bombing. 

If you want to purchase more than 25 pounds of Ammonium you must register with the federal government, be screened against a known terrorist list, and report any thefts within 24 hours. Owning Ammonium Nitrate isn’t a Constitutional right, but you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater even though Free Speech is.

We respond to all of these other mass murders by changing our laws, regulations, and our practices with this one glaring exception: we just love our guns too much. I know there are even more efficient ways to take the lives of large numbers of people than an assault rifle, but you cannot walk into Cabela’s and buy a rocket-propelled grenade or C-4 explosives.

If the trade is worth it to us—if our desire to individually own high-capacity assault style rifles for target practice, or questionable hunting practices, or some form of protection from an army of assailants that already got past our national defenses, or if you imagine needing to form a well-armed militia that would fight against our own military, and you think your assault style rifle will carry the day against the myriad of bigger, faster and more lethal weapons of our armed forces—if that’s more important than the people who were sitting in the pews last week, or the ones sitting in their classrooms or practicing baseball in the nation’s capital or standing at a concert or dancing in a club, then we should be honest about it.

We dare not offer our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families; we should just tell them, “This is the cost of our selfishness, our hobbies, our fear. We want easy access to weapons of mass death more than we want to try to make it harder for people who snap to inflict these numbers of deaths and injuries, and your children and siblings and parents and friends are collateral damage to our selfish desires.”

Could the day of the Lord be light in this current climate? Aren’t we pushing aside the needy at the gates saying, “Me first; my preferences, my wants, my fears, my rights go first. Get out of my way.”

God says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For now, we are the people in power—the ones who have a certain amount of agency as active citizens and leaders in our communities to speak out, to demand actions, to try to align our power—however great or small it may be—with the flow of justice and righteousness from God’s hand to our world.

Note: This was Erin’s transition from the sermon to communion:
We frame our sharing of Communion in different ways—sometimes we eat and drink like we did last month with our sister church—to remember our oneness in God and with each other. Sometimes we eat and we drink to remember that we are forgiven. Sometimes we eat and we drink to remember that we are sustained by God’s loving hand. This morning, may we eat and drink to remember that we are not only objects of God’s Grace, but we are also to be avenues of that Grace. May this bread and this cup fill us with the wisdom and the courage we need to be light in our world, especially during these dark days. May God’s body and blood bind us to one another in sacrificial love, because, as beloved children, we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread…

—Erin Conaway, a native of Midland, TX, is a lifelong Baptist and the pastor of Seventh & James Baptist Church, a BPFNA ~ Baustistas por la Paz Partner Congregation in Waco, TX.

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