Pastor Steve Mechem
Amos 5:21-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
224 miles North and West of Minneapolis is Minnesota’s oldest state park, Itaska. There are over 100 lakes within the park boundaries. The largest is Lake Itasca.
Lake Itasca is a cold water lake, after all, it is in Northern Minnesota. The Lake is about 1.8 square miles. For comparison, Lake of the Ozarks is 84 square miles.
Lake Itasca is classified as a glacial lake and is fed by several streams that run into it from further North.
In the North West corner of Lake Itasca, a stream, 20 feet wide and three feet deep, departs from the Lake. The stream moves West and South and North and East in a topsy turvy winding manner, all the while moving demonstrably toward the South. Other small creeks pour into this stream that originated at Lake Itasca. The stream becomes wider and deeper and after many miles it no longer looks like a creek but rather a River. And that River, which began as an insignificant trickle at Lake Itasca will travel 2,350 miles, meandering, turning and bending North to South through the Midwest down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, hundreds of creeks and large rivers, from Sucker Creek to the Missouri River, pour into the river transforming the pleasant stream into a great river- and that is the meaning of its proper name- “great river.” And during the spring, as winter thaws impact those tributaries, the stream that becomes a great river becomes a turbulent roaring force of nature over bounding it banks creating floods and impacting the landscape. The floods subside and the river returning to its banks, flows on.
The river is long and winding as it passes through 10 states.
If you were to put a rubber duck in Lake Itasca at the source of the river, and it floated without interference, it would take about 90 days for it to be deposited in the Gulf. That duck would float by Minneapolis, by LaCrosse, by Dubuque, by the town in which I grew up, Bettendorf, by Hannibal, by the Arch, by Cario, by Memphis, through New Orleans.
The River, with a beginning width of 20 feet across and a depth of 3 feet deep varies in depth and width on its journey Southward. It is a mile across at the Confluence just north of us and in New Orleans it reaches a depth of 191 feet.
The River is a massive landmark in the telling of our nation’s history as it has been used by indigenous peoples, western explorers, merchants, entrepeneurs, travelers, pioneers, escaping slaves, adventurers, and tour companies.
And it starts as a small stream which pours out of a relatively small lake in Northern Minnesota- Lake Itasca.
The Prophet Amos declares
“Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
He is speaking to a people who emphasized religion form over justice and mercy. After telling them that God could care less about their religiosity, He told them what God wants from the people who claim to follow God.
From the Message Bible:
“Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
Our task, as given to us by God through the prophet Amos, is to promote justice and fairness in our world.
The problem is, however, that we live in a world, a country, a community, a society where injustice and unfairness abound and we feel small and inadequate in our ability to contribute to making a difference as far as justice and fairness are concerned.
The problems are so big. And we are so insignificant.
And yet, it is our calling- to let justice roll.
How do we do it? What can we possibly do?
Here is my suggestion. Be Lake Itasca- where the small stream begins. Let Justice stream from you in your piece of the world. Be a voice where you can be a voice. It may seem small and insignificant but as we are reminded, a mighty bush grows from the tiniest of seeds, a mighty river grows from a trickle of water. And when the actions by others are combined with our own, rivers of justice flow, and the kingdom becomes.
How to be Lake Itasca- the source for small acts of justice and mercy?
You are Lake Itasca when you stand up for those who are distrusted, or misunderstood, or left behind, or villainized for being who they are.
When you refuse to join in malicious gossip or refuse to listen to demeaning jokes about others or make it a point to let people know that you don’t support their bigotry, you are Lake Itasca.
In just a few weeks, many of us will be sitting down at meal tables for the holidays. Family and friends will gather and conversation will take place. Much of the conversation will be warm and fuzzy and wonderful. Some of the conversation, however, will drive you crazy.
At some tables, political and social disagreements will be volatile and voices will get loud. Quite honestly, much of the unfortunate conversation (especially the politics) won’t be worth the arguing over. After all, as Wendell Berry encourages, “By restraint we are made whole.”
But some of that conversation, conversation that is mean spirited and bigoted needs to be challenged in love.
If Uncle Bucky starts talking about black or brown people in the way he is apt to do, you can ignore it, or change the conversation or you could be Lake Itasca and respond seeking justice and fairness. If you don’t know what else to say, you could say, “you know, at our church we have these courageous conversations where folks from different races get to together and talk and I am learning that we have much more in common with each other than we have differences. We all just want to take care of our families the best we can and have opportunities to do better.”
If Aunt Sally makes an off-color joke about gay or trans people, you could choose to be Lake Itaska and respond to her words. If you don’t have anything else, you could say, “you know, my pastor’s son is gay, and we have gay and trans people in our church and I believe we show God’s love when we respect and support all people, regardless of who they love or how they identify.”
If cousin Billy-Bob makes irrational and mean comments about immigrants, you could be Lake Itasca and respond by saying something like, “We have several immigrant families in our church and they are amazing, caring people who are just like you and me. They may speak a different language or eat different foods, but it is wonderful to experience life with them.”
If cousin Gertie is defending her favorite politician or preacher who has bee accused of predatory sexual behavior by saying, “you know the way these. girls dress, they,re just asking for it.” You could respond with something like, “No woman, or man, deserves to be harassed verbally or physically and it is a truly despicable act, whether you are the president, or a celebrity, or a clergy person or a next door neighbor.”
Or, in response to any of these nasty kind of remarks, especially if they come from church people, a totally Lake Itasca response would be, “you know, Jesus teaches us to treat other people the way we want to be treated so I think that’s what we should strive to do.”
Granted, you always have to measure your words when at the table with the family. Remember, small streams produce mighty rivers of Justice.
Recycling, making choices that are environmentally friendly is Lake Itasca justice.
Voting is a Lake Itasca act of justice as long as we vote, not just for our own self interest, but for what is right and fair for others.
Choosing not to participate in activities that demean and denigrate others is Lake Itasca justice. And choosing to participate in activities that encourage people and support people is Lake Itasca justice.
The Facebook post, “me too” is Lake Itasca justice.
Holding a hand, signing a petition, marching in the streets can all be Lake Itasca acts of justice.
Serving at a food bank, teaching in a prison, tutoring immigrants, being a foster parent, filling thanksgiving baskets, stuffing backpacks, running for a cure, walking in a pride parade, singing in the community gospel choir, caring for your neighbor are wonderful examples of Lake Itasca justice.
Learning about injustice, befriending people who are different than you ethnically or religiously, listening to people’s stories, striving to discern the truth in situations, acting on the behalf of hurting people is Lake Itasca justice.
Compassion, prayer and action are Lake Itasca Justice.
Lake Itasca Justice is served out in our small acts of kindness and mercy. As others also serve out small acts of kindness and mercy, those acts of kindness become a roaring river of God’s justice and grace. It does not matter how big our actions, it matters that what we do, we do for others.
Let Justice Roll like a mighty River, and let it begin in us.