When God calls religion sin.

Every Wednesday evening, Pastor Ryon Price has been walking us through some of the great (and often troubling) narratives of Scripture.  We have talked about King David, not as a supernatural hero, but as the flawed and broken man the Bible reveals to us.  We have talked about Jacob and Solomon and Elijah, examining their lives and their work through a Jesus lens.  These studies are part of a dramatic turn our congregation took in the Spring of 2020.

Shortly after George Floyd was murdered by a sneering police officer, Ryon shared his vision for the people of Broadway Baptist Church.  “At this critical moment in our nation’s history,” pastor Price told us, “it is important that the historically White Church take responsibility for the harm it has done in dividing the Body of Christ and segregating society.”

“The Broadway mission is to ‘share in Christ’s work of reconciling the world to God,’” Price continued.  “We are also called to the work of reconciliation with one another.  To that end, I am requesting that a special ACT Committee be formed, with the express purposes of studying, identifying, and developing a vision relative to the acronym ACT: Acknowledge, Confess, and Transform.” 

Specifically, Pastor Price was asking “that the ACT Committee be charged with helping both the members and institution of Broadway to acknowledge our histories of both confrontation with and also complicity in the personal and societal sins of racism, segregation, white supremacy, and other forms of prejudice and/or exclusion, including discrimination relative to gender, sexual orientation, and denominational affiliation.”

Then he laid out the biblical foundations of the ACT vision. “The purpose of this Committee is to give a broad account of the history and harm which has been done by our individual and corporate support of what Ephesians calls “the dividing wall” of separation (Eph. 2:14), and a greater recognition of the Spirit’s ongoing work of dismantling that wall in our personal and congregational lives, thus bringing about greater healing and wholeness for ourselves and our Church, and helping us all to “reach unity in the faith . . . and attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).”

On Wednesday, November 17, 2021, our Wednesday night group looked at the life and message of the prophet Amos. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” the prophet told a shocked Israel.  The words were particularly upsetting because Amos was speaking in full “Thus saith the Lord” mode.  He was just getting started.

“I take no delight in your solemn assemblies,” the prophet continued,“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.”

It will not surprise you to learn that Amos was run out of Israel shortly after unleashing this prophetic tongue-lashing.  “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” he cried.  “I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

In short, Amos was sweeping away the entire liturgical folderol of Israel—the very forms of worship mandated by Moses.  But his program wasn’t entirely negative.  Amos wanted God’s people to stop replicating formalities so they could start doing the one thing needful: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

These immortal words were central to the spiritual vision of Martin Luther King Jr.  He quoted them in his I Have a Dream speech and in his Letter from Birmingham Jail

When Ryon told me we were going to be talking about Amos, I told him I would like to sing a song I had written on November 18, 1997, twenty-four years ago to the day.  I use the word “written” loosely.  My song, I Send the Snow is actually a collection of thematically related biblical texts cobbled together.  Since biblical writers did this all the time, I figured I should be granted some poetic license.

The song begins with Isaiah, chapter one: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Isaiah, a rough contemporary of Amos, had an even lower appreciation for religious formalities.  The first chapter of Isaiah is the most devastating assault on organized religion ever voiced by mortal tongue. 

Isaiah’s reference to sins being “like scarlet” and “red like crimson” reminded me of the rebuke Yahweh hurled at Cain: “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”  Then I added the words from Amos 5, quoted above, and the equally iconic refrain from the sixth chapter of Micah.

The central image is a blood-stained battlefield (the sin of Cain multiplied endlessly for millennia). Only a snow blanket from God can help. But that can’t happen without justice. And there can be no justice without repentance.

Ryon Price was right to highlight the complicity of the white American Church.  If ever a people of faith needed to harken to the words of the prophets it is us. 

I have printed the text of I Send the Snow below.  After that, you will find a video of this Wednesday’s study.  The song comes about ten minutes in.

I SEND THE SNOW                       

November 18, 1997

Come let us reason together
Come, let us argue it out.
Though there be sins as the scarlet,
Though they be crimson as the blood.
Come let us reason together,
I make the ice wind to blow,
Your land is bathed in the scarlet,
But I am sending the snow,
I send the snow, white wooly snow,
Your hands are bathed in the scarlet
But I am sending the snow.

What good to me is the blood of your bulls,
Ten thousand rivers of oil,
What good to me is the fairest fruit of your field,
The crimson cries from the soil.
What good to me is the song of your harp,
My ear falls deaf to the sound,
Sabbath assembly,
Sacred iniquity,
The crimson cries from the ground

Let justice roll like the waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
He has shown you, O man, the thing that is good,
How can you dance with a dream,
But to do justice, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.

Isaiah 1:10-20; Genesis 4:8-10; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8


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One thought on “When God calls religion sin.

  1. I think that awareness, that recognition about how we subtly exclude others, is a life long journey. Probably the biggest lesson God has taught me here in Japan is to see how I have treated the foreigner and some of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ unkindly through some of the experiences I have endured.

    A lot of this is very subtle. We grow up in the system so many things are “obvious” to us. We grow up in a shared culture, which people outside don’t know. We like to spend time with people who share those experiences, culture and mutual understanding of subtleties. There is greater tension when we really have to parse why someone did something, and try to see things from angles we are not accustomed to. It takes considerable effort to reach out to people who are a little different from ourselves. I guess it takes sacrifice in some ways to willfully try to get to know our fellow brothers and sisters. It is so much easier to hang out with our buddies and pals.

    As your Pastor mentioned, we have trouble seeing ourselves as Pharaoh, or a Pharisee, etc. Certainly, what he talks about there is daunting.

    So I would say it is not something where we arrive at becoming more welcoming and understanding, or that we break these walls that separate us in one fell swoop. Rather, we gradually become aware of these walls through the hard experiences of life and meditating on his word.

    by Grace we proceed.

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