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Through the mouth of the Prophet Amos, God rages against the performative piety of the people:


You call this worship?

You think I’m pleased?

All these lavish, self-important gatherings where you act all perfect and holy?

I’m not impressed — I ain’t going!

All that grain you plated up for me, all those fatted calves you cooked up as an offering? Turns my stomach — I ain’t hungry!

All that clanging, noisy music? Hurts my ears — I ain’t listening!


I want none of that!

Hear again for the 7 times 70th time what I’ve been wanting.

It’s been the same for every generation and will be the same until the end of time:


…Let justice roll down like water

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


Whew, God!

We got you, we got you — loud and clear.


Listen, and I will tell you a story.

Picture it: A nearby city, 2005.

I had my first church job doing youth ministry while I was in seminary — back when I knew everything.

I somehow landed myself at a large, historic, force-of-nature congregation — what we call a “tall steeple” church.


Like many historic urban churches, the neighborhood demographics outside of the building changed over time, yet who was inside the building remained consistent.


The faithful folks who filled the pews were people of affluence and influence. The well-salaried and well-caloried, and predominantly white. They were the CEOs, presidents, founders, lead partners, owners, executive this-and-thats of local, national, and international ventures. An impressive bunch for sure.


And the congregational culture reflected that. The building, the grounds, the sanctuary reflected that. Their unmatched financial generosity helped to build and maintain the awe-inspiring sanctuary: marble steps leading to the chancel outfitted with dark oak and rich mahogany; carved stone pillars rising to the ornate arches of the vaulted ceiling; pane after soaring pane of stained glass along the walls and behind the chancel.


But nothing — I say nothing — was more impressive than the pipe organ. This magnificent work of art rivals instruments in great cathedrals.


Four manuals (those are the keyboards), 68 ranks, over 4,000 pipes — including those awesome long herald trumpet pipes and something called a zimbelstern — these cool little tinkling bells — do you have a zimbelstern here? [Hmmm. That’s too bad.]


This behemoth of a sacred instrument was truly the centerpiece of the sanctuary, and — indeed — often the centerpiece of worship.


In 2004, a fundraising campaign was launched to refurbish and expand the pipe organ. Hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed in to support the effort. With the work complete and its grandeur even more grand, the pipe organ sang, soared, heralded,…tinkled?…, and thundered to life again on Easter Sunday 2005 — blessed and rededicated that morning with great applause, celebration, and praise.


But the excitement didn’t stop there. It was going to be a big week at the church! We had invited a prominent, prophetic preacher from another large, urban UCC congregation to continue the joyful work of Easter through what was publicized as something of a revival.


So on that Monday after Easter, we welcomed The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. — then-Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.


Now, if you know of Rev. Dr. Wright and if I did a good enough job setting up this story, you might be able to tell where this is going.


I get why folks thought this would be a good idea: Trinity UCC is a large, historic, urban church, and so were we. Trinity UCC is deeply connected to their neighborhood and the needs of the community, and we were striving to do the same. Rev. Dr. Wright is a famous (and to some, infamous) prophetic preacher in the Black Church tradition, and our church had the reputation and resources to bring him out for a 3-day event right after Easter. 


What could possibly go wrong?


Well, dear listener, let me tell you.

It didn’t go as planned.


During that first evening worship, Rev. Dr. Wright preached on the same passage from Amos we heard this morning. He began by sharing all the transformative work and witness that was happening through Trinity UCC. Truly inspiring ministries in solidarity with and in service to the most marginalized in the community. The crowd was sufficiently impressed and inspired.


Then things got a little…well, you’ll see.


Rev. Dr. Wright went on to explain that they don’t do this work for accolades. They don’t do it to be seen doing it. They don’t do it because their pockets are overflowing with cash. They do it because it’s the work of the Gospel, it’s what Jesus instructs us to do, it’s what God commands us to do — because that’s how you honor God, that’s what pleases God — not a fancy sanctuary, not pretty words, not pretty music — and then, building to a crescendo, this:


So you spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and rededicated your pipe organ? So what! God doesn’t care about that!



Audible gasps.

I kid you not.


The look on our Senior Pastor’s face at that moment! I’m sure he had visions of his email inbox exploding with angry tirades. Pledge cards being torn up in front of him. Demands from those whose names were engraved on the donor plaque that he resign.

And yes — all of those things happened that night, the next day, and in the days following.


At that moment in the evening worship, at least a dozen people stood up, turned around, and stomped right out while most of us sat there in stunned silence.


Now, it turns out that Rev. Dr. Wright did not actually know that our church had, in fact, just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing the pipe organ and had rededicated it the previous day. This was simply a message he brought to many churches before and likely after. Probably even a message he proclaimed at his own church.


It was nothing personal. Just the Gospel.

And when you invite a fiery prophetic preacher to preach, don’t be surprised if you get a little burned.


But in that moment, some folks there couldn’t take that heat.


As for me, I confess that I basked in the light of my own smug, self-righteous piety, trying to hide my schadenfreude-induced, told-ya-so giddiness because I happened to agree with Rev. Dr. Wright.


But I was wrong.

I was wrong.


I was wrong because I assumed that all of the people who got up and left that night and who wrote angry emails the next day were thoroughly guilty of performative Christianity. That the sum total of their interior faith life amounted to how much they funded the outer trappings of our worship space. That they came to church to be seen by others and that their faith did not compel them to see the divinity in others.


But mostly I was wrong because I assumed that certainly I was not also guilty of that same performative faith to some degree.


The words of the Prophet Jeremiah Wright were as challenging for those of us in the sanctuary that night as the words of the Prophet Amos were for his ancient audience. Unvarnished and incisive, they tear back the lavish trappings and cut our pious self-image to the bone, leaving us exposed and raw. This is not a gentle invitation to seek another way. It is a forceful demand for repentance. So, I can understand why many of us there that night responded with fight, flight, or freeze.


As for Amos, his dire warnings and harsh rants got him kicked out of the king’s temple. He was told to go back to where he came from and tend to his cattle and fruit trees. His words were far too unsettling for the king. Amos skipped town, but he never stopped denouncing injustice.[1]


Amos prophesied in a time of great prosperity for some and even greater hardship for others. The gap between the wealthy elite and the poor, laboring class was as wide as ever. What’s more, the wealthy elite gained and maintained their wealth through the brutal and constant exploitation of the poor.[2]


Those same wealthy elites viewed themselves as steadfastly faithful to God, demonstrating their devotion with effusive praise and worship, bountiful festivals, and elaborate offerings — believing that their power and prosperity were signs of God’s blessing.


These same elites eagerly prayed for the “Day of the Lord” — a time of divine judgement when all of their enemies, all who they deemed unrighteous would be punished — assuming, of course, that they themselves numbered among the righteous who would be spared and crowned with glorious victory.


While the powerful sang praises and brought ostentatious offerings inside the opulent temple, the poor languished outside at the gates, begging for just a crumb of those offerings. The powerful elite believed they were honoring God, but their worship caused great offense.


The worship itself was not the issue.

God does desire praise and worship. Through Isaiah, God declares blessings for all those “whom I created for my glory” and “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”[3]


But that’s not where it ends, and pretty music and elaborate rituals are not the only way we show our devotion to God. Worship is not the fulfillment of God’s desires. At best, it is a part of how we live out our faith. At worst, it is a hollow performance for our entertainment.


God’s anger was stoked by the elites who sang their praise songs and made grand gestures of offerings while they (quote) “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way,”[4] and “turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground!”[5]


Time and again, God makes clear that our displays of piety are worth nothing if we are not also seeking justice and righteousness for the “Quartet of the Vulnerable” — the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the poor among us.


Justice looks like liberation over exploitation — an economy of abundance and not scarcity, where there is plenty for all to flourish.

Let justice roll down like waters, replenishing parched fields and quenching the thirst of all.


Righteousness looks like doing what is right and virtuous and faithful even when — especially when — no one can seeing you doing it! Caring for the most marginalized and exploited, the beaten up and beaten down.

Let righteous burst forth like an ever-flowing stream — steady and constant in the midst of a harsh wilderness world that would dam it up and sell it for profit to those who need it most.


Again, God through Amos reminds us that worship and praise are meaningless if we are not also seeking justice and righteousness. Worship can either be a barrier or a vessel for this call.


It’s not how we worship, but what we worship.

Does our worship give thanks and honor to God? Or do we elevate ourselves? Are our rituals and sacred spaces venues and vehicles for devotion? Or are they objects of idolatry, distracting us from or taking the place of God?


It’s not how we worship, but how we live out and live into our faith beyond our times of worship. Does our generosity extend beyond the offering plate to those who languish at our own gates? Is our generosity about more than our money, but also our compassion — open hearts more than open wallets? Do we put as much devotion into clothing the naked as we do towards decorating our sanctuary?


God delights in our festivals when the table is big enough for all, and there is food for all to be filled.

God is pleased when solemn moments invite us to deep self-reflection, when we listen for the Holy Spirit and respond to her call.

God is honored by our offerings of help and hope, generosity and compassion, solidarity and advocacy.

And God sings along when shout joyful songs of gratitude for the one who desires liberation and flourishing for all of creation.


[1] Amos 7 NRSV paraphrase

[2] New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) intro to Amos (By Gregory Mobley?)

[3] Isaiah 43:7b, 21 NRSV

[4] Amos 2:7 NRSV (+ 5:11-12; 8:4-6)

[5] Amos 5:7 NRSV

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