“IT’S ALWAYS DARKEST…”
The Church Forward: Justice
Amos 5: 18-24
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
February 5, 2017
In 1841, 35 delegates to the Union Baptist Association meeting in Texas accepted the suggestion of the Rev. William Milton Tyron and District Judge R.E.B. Baylor to establish a Baptist University in Texas. This university, which many of you will know as Baylor, has become one of the preeminent Christian universities in the nation. This year, Baylor has over 16,000 students and prides itself on its successful marriage of scholarship and faith. This is how the University describes its convictions:
Baylor holds firm to the conviction that the world needs a preeminent research university that is unambiguously Christian, where such a commitment requires scholarship and creative endeavors at the highest levels of quality to complement and inform its teaching and service.
Baylor University Values and Vision
As a Christian university, Baylor is committed to the highest pursuits of scholarship and offers a distinctive voice to global conversations about crucial issues – such as social responsibility, health care, economic growth, human rights, poverty, diversity, and sustainability – in a way that few others can.
Amidst a sea of secular and parochial institutions of higher education, Baylor stands unique in its pursuits of scholastic excellence while holding firm to its Christian heritage, believing that both intellectual and spiritual pursuits are not only partners in the quest for truth, but essential to the growth and development of the whole person.
That’s a very impressive and strong statement. Now, I am not sure if you know this, but Baylor also has a football team. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know since for decades they were terrible. But over the last few years, under the leadership of head coach Art Briles, Baylor’s football team began to match the excellence of the university. In his final 5 seasons as head coach, the Bears were a staggering 50-15, a record which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. So, why is Art Briles, head football coach extraordinaire and author of the book, “Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith,” currently unemployed? Well, that brings us to our point this morning. Baylor football, under Briles, became a cesspool.
Briles, the University’s Athletic Director, and it’s President, were all fired after an independent study showed they had conspired to conceal numerous criminal acts by the football team. And by criminal acts, I don’t mean jaywalking or unpaid parking tickets. Guns, drugs, and assaults against women became, apparently, commonplace under Briles’ regime. And finally, this past week, we were able to see the degree to which Briles and his coaching staff covered up these issues. Texts from Briles to the Athletic Director, who is now the AD at the very Christian Liberty University, reveal that the men sought to bypass institutional regulations and local law enforcement in matters ranging from underage drinking, to threatening a woman with a gun, to an alleged assault on a female athlete by 5 players. The latter being one of the more egregious cases of victim blaming I have seen with Briles texting, “those are some bad dudes. Why was she around those guys?” Never mind that they were all active and eligible football players at the time.
So, in sum, here you have an institution which was established to be a beacon of Christian values in academia, to be a place where students from around the world could gather and openly celebrate their faith, but where so long as the football team was winning, those cherished Christian values came to nothing. And people wonder why we have so many prophets in Scripture.
Amos is the Bible’s oldest prophetic book; his writings dating back as many as 2800 years. He was a prophet in the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, preaching to its people at the height of its wealth and power. Soon, it would be gone, but when Amos preached no one knew that. All they knew was that this was a guy who was telling them what they didn’t want to hear. They were thriving, and here was Amos pouring cold water on the whole thing. Our passage from today illuminates the problem. Their worship was just as it should be. They were making offerings to God, lifting prayers and singing songs, but God did not care. No. God turned his back on their songs and offerings. And why? Because there was no justice in the land. If you go and look around Amos, you will find the words, “trample on the poor,” throughout the book. In the midst of Israel’s prosperity and their showy worship, justice and righteousness had abandoned the land, and without those things nothing else mattered.
As we look at the church forward, it is vital that we look back because if we look at Scripture and we look at the history of the Church in the world, we will find that throughout history the greatest threats to the Church of Jesus Christ have never come from outside. They have come from within. I am sure Baylor was well aware of perceived external threats to their university, but none of those things will prove to be as damaging as what they did to themselves. As this scandal unfolds, Baylor, Christian, faithful, Baylor, where they have chapel every week, where they celebrate faith, will become known as a place where success on the football field became more important than their commitment to justice and righteousness; indeed than their commitment to God.
It won’t surprise you to know this since I am a pastor, but I love the Church. And if you think that’s part and parcel with my job; well, let me tell you that I have loved the Church for a long time. I have always felt that I am most fully myself when I am active in the Church. But as much as I love the Church, I must be honest and say that throughout our history we have too often ignored Amos’ path and instead chosen the path of self preservation and congratulation. In our era here in America, there is a growing gap between those on the inside and on the outside of the Church, and you may believe I am crazy, but I believe that the prophets, the fire and brimstone books like Amos’ could be the blueprint for bridging that gap.
Amos spent precious little time preaching against the nations, although he did that, but he spent a lot of time speaking to the systemic ills that were plaguing God’s people. Ills, which I should point out, had nothing to do with the quality of their worship, or the expectation of a triumphal future rooted in God, but instead in how they treated their weakest members. In so many ways, the failure of the ancient kingdom of Israel, and the failure of Baylor University are the same. They got lost.
The prophets exist to help us get back onto the right track. The prophets tell remind us of the harmony which is to exist between worship and justice. We cannot have one without the other. And if we want to tell the Christian story in this place and this time, we must first be honest about our failings, but then we must also be bold in our reflection on Scripture itself. Rather than choosing the passages which best suit us, we should never stray far from the challenging words of Scripture, the words which teach us about love, which remind us to care for the least of these, which tell us the faithful path will be hard.
I do not know what will become of the Baylor mess, but I do know that it should never have come to this, and I also know that, as the Church, we have a holy obligation to cultivate the harmony that is so often missing in our work: the harmony between worship and justice. This is hard work, but it is precisely the work that the world needs, and to which God is calling us in this day and age. Without fear, without guilt, without shame, and with God’s songs on our lips and God’s grace in our hearts then let’s echo Amos’ prayer today for all the victims at Baylor, for the poor in our community and for all those on the wrong side of the powers and principalities of this world; let us too pray that God’s justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness, like an ever flowing stream. Amen.