Amos 8; Acts 3:1-10
St Barbara’s; 5.2.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
As a young Christian I was once told by my new friends in church that faith and politics don’t mix, that the Christian faith was all about the soul and the spiritual life, and that as Christians our priority wasn’t political issues. My energies were better spent as a young Christian on reading the Bible and telling others about Jesus.
A few years later, I found myself living in Soweto in apartheid South Africa, and seeing first hand in the lives of my friends the impact of racism, state-sponsored violence and the ravages of injustice. These friends of mine were also Christians, but their message was quite different: God is a god of justice, who cares about the poor and the marginalised, who rails against injustice and discrimination.
Who was I to believe?
Well, my friends in Soweto would take me to passages such as this one from Amos to make their case, and even to this day I remain convinced by what they said. The prophet Amos is crying out to the people of Israel to repent before it is too late. God despises their acts of religion – their religious feasts, their burnt offerings, even (dare I say it at this service of choral evensong) the sound of their songs. He threatens the people with a famine, not of food or water, but a famine of his word. He will stop speaking to his people. He will withdraw from them. What could cause such a calamity?
The answer is not religious acts of personal piety. The answer is about how they treat others. “You trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land… you skimp the measure, boost the price and cheat with dishonest scales… you buy the poor with silver, the needy for a pair of sandals…” The poor and vulnerable are sold into slavery, dishonesty marks their trades. It is this which God abhors.
Our worship is only acceptable to God if we are generous to the poor, if we are working for justice, if our lives are marked by love and compassion.
Two people whose lives have inspired me most in the Christian life were a couple called Ian and Ruth. Their faith shaped the way they responded to others. They regularly opened their home to others – people whom they had befriended who had got into desperate situations, others who were living homeless. I remember sitting around their meal table one evening, sharing food with a homeless man who they had got to know, another man who due to mental health problems his family had neglected and who lived in a state of almost permanent isolation, and a family who at that time were struggling to afford more than a meal a day. We said grace before the meal, but no other mention of Christ was needed. For all of us, the love and compassion of Ian and Ruth needed no words to point us to Christ.
It is that way of living that we see lived out by Peter and John in our second reading. Peter and John were on their way to pray in the Temple – more than likely one of those regular times of prayer that we spoke about this morning. But on their way, they stop and respond to the cries of the beggar by the gate. It would have been easy for them to push on, to say that they had more important things to do, but instead they stop and respond to the man’s need. In touching him, in taking him by the right hand and lifting him up, Peter was almost certainly making himself religiously unclean. It would be difficult for him to enter into the Temple to pray for a few days afterwards.
But he and John are driven not by religious conformity but by love and compassion, the love and compassion that was singularly missing in the people of Israel that Amos addressed.
For us all the challenge is to live lives that stand up for justice, that show compassion. We live in troubling times where it seems to be becoming more acceptable to vilify the outsider, to make sweeping judgments about “all refugees” or “all Muslims”; where families want to abdicate responsibility for looking after elderly relatives.
Faced with such challenges we certainly need to pray more and seek God’s strength more – Amos only spoke with such authority because he had spent time listening to God first; Peter and John only encountered the crippled man because they were on their way to pray – but like Amos, like Peter and John, like my friends in Soweto, and my friends Ian and Ruth, our prayers must lead us into action.
May God help us to be people of compassion and justice.