"When Faith Has Become A Ritual"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 25, 2004

Psalm 52; Amos 8:1-12

     As we listened to the words from the prophet Amos this morning, they were stinging and filled with judgment.  Many of the issues Amos was pointing to with his words were invisible to the people of Israel.  They were blind to them.  They could not understand how his indictments had anything to do with the way they were living.  Who was he and what gave him the right to pontificate on behalf of God?           

     Amos was the first person to arrive in our faith history ready to define what prophecy would become.  He followed on the heels of traditions established by Elijah and Elisha, but Amos became the first prophet to leave a written record.  His pronouncements were insightful, well informed and highly critical.  He challenged life-styles, attitudes and the general environment of moral permissiveness.   

     His ministry began somewhere around 760 B.C. Early traditions about Amos would have us believe that he was a simple man, a mere shepherd and one who pruned sycamore trees.  This conclusion is inaccurate.  More likely, he owned herds of sheep and groves of sycamore trees.  Amos was well educated.  He could read and write, abilities reserved for a rare minority of the wealthiest.  He knew the history of his people as well as their religious traditions and observances.            

     Amos lived in the southern kingdom of Judah where he received a call from God to preach to those living in the northern kingdom of Israel.  At the time of Amos’ entrance, nothing was visibly wrong in Israel.  Jeroboam II was king and he had recaptured so much land that his kingdom rivaled that once governed by King Solomon.  People were pleased with their king.  During the 25 years of his reign, Jeroboam’s people lived lives that reflected self-assurance and affluence.  Into this idyllic setting came Amos. 

     As soon as Amos opened his mouth, he began to irritate his listeners. It would be as though you were enjoying a play at the Kennedy Center.  At the intermission, however, someone leaped to the stage and began telling the audience about all the places in their lives where they have grown insensitive to the poor, where their respective religious observances were nothing but ritual, pomp and circumstance, how they were self absorbed and uncaring, blind and unable to sense the cries of those marginalized by society.  Imagine the reaction of those assembled.  They would be amused as security ushered this actor from the stage.  Suppose this person kept showing up at various places and continued to create awkward moments among bystanders?

     Amos’ personal mission was to reveal the dark side of the nation’s glowing surface.  He was attempting to do on a national scale what centuries later Jesus tried to do for the individual.  The climate grew so ugly that Amaziah, the chief priest at the sanctuary of Bethel, brought charges of treason against Amos.  It was not a smart move politically to condemn someone claiming to be a prophet of God, so he changed his mind and had Amos deported.  

     Amaziah said, “That is enough, prophet!  All of Israel has grown tired of your relentless prophecy.  Go back to Judah and do your preaching there.  Let them pay for it.  Don’t prophesy here at Bethel anymore.  This is the king’s place of worship, this is the national temple.”  In response, Amos condemned the chief priest, proclaiming that his wife would become a prostitute; his children would be killed in war; his property would be divided and given to his enemies and that he would die in a heathen country.  Yes, Amos’ ministry became very personal toward the end.  Amos had little choice about his future in Israel so he reluctantly returned to Judah.  There he began writing what we have today. 

     Israel enjoyed ten more years of prosperity.  Jeroboam II died the same year that Tiglath-pileser III rose to power in Assyria in the northeast.  He and his expansionist Assyrian army crushed Israel.  Suddenly the words of Amos became inscribed on the hearts of those who survived.  They believed that their collapse as a nation was due to their lack of faithfulness to God. 

     When we consider that this exciting drama that took place over 2,700 years ago, once again we are led to the question: What has changed?  We can drive within 20 minutes of St. Matthew’s and find a mega church on Central Avenue, another one near Fed-Ex Field and another one currently under construction where Rt. 193 intersects with Prospect Hill.  Churches are everywhere in Bowie.  

When Lois and I lived in the District, it seemed that large and storefront churches were well positioned throughout each community.  Judging from the number of churches in every municipality across this nation, one could draw many positive conclusions about the spirit of America. Would they be accurate? 

     Where are we as individuals when it comes to our relationship with God?  Do we carry ourselves with faith that goes deeply into our souls or are we caught up in the illusion that all is well because that is what our senses tell us?  Amos’ preaching made absolutely no sense because everyone knew that they were fine.  They would say to one another, “Just look around at our prosperity.  We have everything we need.  God is blessing us.”  Is this where we are too?  

    Most of us remember talking to people during that chapter in our lives when the snipers were on the loose. We remember thoughts that gave us pause when a student was shot at Benjamin Tasker, one mile from here.  We found ourselves scanning for white vans when we came out of Home Depot or Lowe’s.   When we were pumping gas, many of us admit to having distracting thoughts enter our minds.  We remember our collective relief when we learned that the two shooters had been caught in their car and not in the van that had been the focus of our attention.  How well we manage fear is a very accurate measuring device for the quality of our faith. 

     What role does our faith play in our lives when rapid changes are taking place in areas that make us feel secure?  For example, what happens to us when we “fall out of love”?  What happens when our sons and daughters are being deployed in Iraq?  How easy is it to let go of hurt when inaccurate words are spoken in haste?  How do we respond when we have expectations of the Church and we feel ignored?  What faith-skills do we possess when our prayers are not answered, when death robs us of a loved one or when our mobility is compromised by a long period of convalescence? 

     Not long ago I had an insightful conversation with a woman who formerly had attended St. Matthew’s. Her family joined another church because of the tuition break they receive for their children who are enrolled in the school there. After telling me how wonderful St. Matthew’s was, which was the politically correct thing to do, she went on to tell me about their new church home. 

     It is a mega church with an orchestra and a 100-plus-voice choir.  She said, “When they sing, you are lifted out of your pew.  The sanctuary is absolutely immaculately adorned with every artistic appointment imaginable.  The lighting is very dramatic. It’s like being in the theater.  Dick, you ought to experience it!  Our moods become modified as we prepare for prayer or as we become excited when its time for celebration – all because of the way they manage the lighting and music. The experience is out of this world.  The church is growing by leaps and bounds.  When the service is over, we want to applaud.  There is a lot of energy in our worship experiences!”  After listening to her, I wanted to attend her church!    

     At this time in our culture, Christians are not clear about a number of things.  First, is there a difference between worship and the thrills and creativity made possible by large budgets for what some are calling, “sacred entertainment”?   There can be little doubt about the enormous appeal of such worship experiences to our senses.  Anything extremely well done as she described would be very satisfying emotionally and spiritually.  

     Second, it remains unclear how well-choreographed worship experiences influence people who are facing a messy divorce, who are camping out for weeks at Children’s hospital while their child hangs between life and death, who are dealing with very needy, elderly parents who refuse to leave their home for a place like Asbury Methodist Village, Riderwood or Charlestown.  Does worship that produces heightened emotions help people better cope with siblings who are making insane claims on the inheritance left by their folks, or with a child whose behavior has been very controlling of the entire family?  

     Where is our faith and trust in God actually made visible?   Do we find our faith revealing itself during moments when we are receiving, like in elaborate worship services, or when the minister calls, or when the Angel Gang brings wonderful, thoughtful gifts to our bedside?  They are in ministry, but where are we?  Amos was in ministry but where were his listeners?  While these ministries of support are incredibly important, throughout history they have been inadequate measuring devices for determining how deep the faith is of the ones receiving. 

     Our faith becomes visible not by what we receive, but by who we have become, i.e., what our faith enables us to do.  Amos challenged the people of Israel, claiming that their religious practices were empty.  Their ritualistic formulas of worship had not changed their inner lives. Amos said to them, “You say to yourselves, ‘we can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain.  When will the Sabbath end, so that we can once engage in our business pursuits? Then we can overcharge, use false measures and fix the scales to cheat our customers.’” 

     Yes, Amos became very personal.  He knew that so goes the individual, so goes a nation.  Again, the question returns – Does our faith fall under the indicting words of Amos? Are our experiences empty ritual, practices and experiences so that on any given Sunday we may find our time together meaningless or empty?  How many of us grow bored or glance at our watches as we get close to the end of our service? Are we very attracted to a particular sermon because it spoke directly to our self-absorbed sister? We can hardly wait to send her a copy.  We can leave church feeling that the service was dead because we came with a mindset to receive.  

     Have we considered the fact that our failure to connect with God may have been due to a horrible date last night, that we partied too long with the wrong crowd, that we are not in the mood to be here, that life is a bummer, that our self-esteem is as low as it can get, that we are apprehensive about the outcome of our pending surgery or that we are overwhelmed by dread because Monday morning is almost here? 

     These thoughts, emotions and mood swings may provide some hint as to the depth of our faith. When our courage for living is subject only to smooth sailing conditions, we have some work to do.  We cannot look to worship experiences to pick us up.  External experiences can do that, but only temporarily.  A faith that is working allows us to bring a degree of tranquility when the seas are calm as well as during the times when we are tossed around like toothpicks in seas that are turbulent.  Faith means walking with God in trust that we will have strength for all occasions that come up for us.  

           When we feel abandoned by God, it is like screaming for more air when we are completely surrounded by it.  God would say, “Breathe, breathe!  I am here. Try not to ask me to give you skills that you have neglected to develop.  I will do for you what I do for everyone.  Remember, I have equipped you with everything you need to bloom and bear fruit.  I would not allow you to live here without adequate means to evolve.  I have also chosen to remain at your side forever. What more could you possibly need?  Open your spiritual eyes.  I am here!” 

     We need to understand that faith does not repair the outer world, other people or clean up our horrible circumstances.  Faith only governs the quality of our inner life.  What is inside is what helps us walk confidently into the sun light of pleasant relationships as well as during moments when the behavior of others makes us wonder if the phase of the Moon is full.            

     When we define our faith by the quality of our experiences, which is what the people of Israel had been doing, we may miss understanding faith as the primary source that propels us, motivates us and inspires us during episodes that are far from being attractive or desirable.  Jesus never broke his connection to the Vine once he realized that his path was leading him to his death.   Is this where we are, or are we still operating from a frame of reference that God is the Miracle Worker who clears our paths of undesirable distractions?            

     Amos used his words as harpoons to awaken the people.  We may find them useful for ourselves in a day when abundance surrounds us with its many blinding qualities. 


    Lord, God, too often we substitute your guidance with our own well-meaning activity.  We rush through our very busy days, and easily lose sight of the horizons you intended for us to reach.  Our actions, even the well-intentioned ones, seem to lead us away from you.   Frustration comes when our best deeds produce no fruits and our kindest words are ignored.  Sometimes our greatest sacrifices receive responses that are less than gracious.  Guide us to see our priorities in the light of your hopes for us.  Teach us that it is your will that we seek and not our own.  May we find peace as we surrender our neediness to be loved so that our spirits constantly radiate our gratitude that you do.  Amen.


    Merciful and always caring God, we are grateful that during these moments we may experience confidence coming before you just as we are.   There would be no point at pretending to be otherwise.  With you, our masks do not work. Our pretense at being cultured and polished cannot blind you.  Our academic degrees, certificates of merits and life experiences cannot replace the skills of spirit we still need to polish.  Yet your love of us is infinite.  Sometimes, when our identities are challenged by self-doubt, it is reassuring to know that we are your children.    

    During these moments together, enable us to reflect not on what we receive here, but on how we intend to give ourselves away in the coming week.  We are among the most fortunate people in the world, yet in spite of our bounty, most of us feel we could always use a little more.  We are more at peace when receiving and perhaps not as faithful in our giving, even though you spend your energy giving to us.  Lead us, O God, in developing skills that would make us a better friend, a more sincere listener, a less selfish mate and a person who has become more at peace with ourselves.  Hasten the day when our neediness no longer commands us with such a dominant voice.   Enable us to serve each other with a spirit of acceptance and helpfulness.  May each of us enter tomorrow with a spirit that trusts you and remains grateful to you for every circumstance that allows us to glow in its midst.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .