Be a Blessing: Work for Justice
If all you have are solemn assemblies and grand festivals; if all you have noisy songs and delicate melodies; if all you have are the trappings of religion. Well, then God hates your show.
Once upon a time, not very long ago at all, there was a woman who worked for Walmart. She worked there for sixteen years and she was a good employee. She was punctual. She did the work that was assigned to her. She had a spotless record. And she had Down Syndrome.
One day, Walmart implemented an algorithm-based scheduling system.
The algorithm takes thousands of data points—historical demand, staffing politics, local laws, public events, weather patterns, and so on—and tells you that you will need an extra sales associate between two and four in the afternoon this Tuesday. It makes scheduling precise. Down to the hour.
And this woman had trouble with that. Because it meant that her schedule—a schedule that used to be steady and manageable—started… changing. A lot.
She started showing up late. She started not showing up at all. And Walmart fired her.
So she took them to court. Her lawyers argued that, because she had Down Syndrome, she had difficultly adapting to an ever-changing schedule. And she had been a perfect employee for sixteen years. And that Walmart should have made reasonable accommodations for her.
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And because it would have been the right thing to do.
And the jury agreed. They said that Walmart had done the wrong thing, and that Walmart should have to pay a price for that. So they awarded the woman who worked for Walmart one-hundred-and-twenty-five million dollars. In order to send a strong message about how we treat people with Down Syndrome.
First, one-hundred-and-twenty-five million dollars is a lot to you and me. It is not a lot to Walmart. In 2020, Walmart made around five-hundred-and-fifty-nine billion dollars. With a ‘B’. So the jury only asked them to pay about two hundredths of one percent of their revenue for one year.
That would be like fining me twelve dollars. It’s not really a punishment. It’s just what it costs to do the thing.
Second, the thing that the jury didn’t know—because the law actually says that the court can’t tell this to the jury—is that damages for this kind of thing are capped at three hundred thousand dollars. That’s a bit more than two tenths of one percent of what the jury asked them to pay.
That’s would be like fining me twelve dollars and then finding out that I only had to pay twenty-nine cents.
So the jury wanted to send a strong message. And it sent one that sounds strong but isn’t really that strong. And that got watered down. And Walmart paid the cost of doing business in a way that is not great for most employees, and, maybe, is especially not great for employees with Down Syndrome.
And I know that justice is bigger than making sure someone is punished for their wrongs. I know that justice is bigger, even, than making sure that someone makes restitution for their wrongs.
And I know that justice is saturated with mercy for the one who has done wrong.
But it doesn’t feel like justice was done here. It doesn’t feel like things were made right.
Today, we are continuing our summer sermon series about being a blessing: leading with love, praying often, practicing peace, giving thanks, being joyful, being kind, doing good, having courage, working for justice, being the light, and encouraging others.
Today, we are talking about working for justice. And we are hearing from a prophet. God speaks to Amos. And God says, “Tell the people.” And Amos… tells the people.
You want the day of the Lord to be here? You want the heavens to open and God to appear? You want the kingdom to come? You think that’s going to go well for you? It’s gonna be like running away from a lion and right into a bear.
I mean, look at you! You have solemn assemblies with burnt offerings. You have festivals with loud singing. You don’t have justice! You don’t have righteousness!
The day of the Lord is gonna be like escaping marauders by running into a house, and slumping against the wall line exhaustion, and being attacked by a snake!
And that is a hard thing to say to the people. It takes courage to say that to the people. Because the people are… well, the people are good religious people.
If Amos were speaking today—if Amos were speaking to a Christian church—he would be talking to people who showed up for worship on every Sunday and on every holiday. He would be talking to people who read the Bible and who can cite chapter and verse. He would be talking to people who serve on committees and give ten percent and do everything that the world says that Christians are supposed to do.
He would be talking to people who have solemn assemblies and grand festivals.
And he would saying, “God hates your show. Take away your noisy songs and the melodies of your guitars. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Last Sunday, during the announcements, Mary pretended to get a phone call from God. And she came up to the front—she came up to the pulpit—and thanked me, on God’s behalf, for celebrating a… sparsely attended… worship service on the Friday of RAGBRAI.
And I appreciate that. Because I had been feeling bad about that service. And I’ll be honest, I was acting like I was feeling bad about that service.
And it’s true that worship is for God. But worship is also for us.
You see, God doesn’t need the solemn assemblies and grand festivals. God doesn’t need the noisy songs and delicate melodies. God doesn’t need the offerings, whether they’re burnt offerings made on an altar or financial offerings dropped in a plate on the way into the sanctuary.
God doesn’t need any of that; but we do.
This time together—this time of songs and prayers, of scriptures and sermons, of giving and receiving—is for us.
Worship is the time that we spend in the practice room, with the tuner and the metronome, so that we can go out and play the concert. Worship is the time that we spend on the practice field, running drills and rehearsing formations, so that we can go out and play the game.
Worship is the time when we hear anew the call that God has placed on our lives. It is the time when we accept anew the call that God has placed on our lives. It is the time when our souls are filled anew so that we can go out into the world and be God’s people… practicing righteousness and working for peace… everywhere and all the time.
And here’s the thing:
The practice room is good for a musician, whether they play the concert or not. The practice field is good for the athlete, whether they play the game or not. Worship is good for the Christian, whether we live as God’s people or not.
But the practice room means more when there’s a show. And the practice field means more when there’s a game. And worship means more when it shapes our lives in the days to come… when it leads to us practicing righteousness and working for justice… everywhere and all the time.
And I believe that is what Amos tells the people.
If all you have are solemn assemblies and grand festivals… if all you have are noisy songs and delicate melodies… if all you have are the trappings of religion. Well, then God hates your show.
Let those things change you. Let those things transform you. Let those things restore you. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Because being God’s people… because following Christ… isn’t just about what we do here. It’s about what we do out there. Everywhere. All the time.
I don’t know what justice would have looked like in the case of the woman who worked for Walmart.
Maybe it would have involved Walmart giving that woman her job back, and apologizing for treating her like a wobbly cog in an otherwise well-calibrated machine, and working with her to find a way to move forward together.
Maybe it would have involved Walmart looking at the algorithm, and talking to their employees about how they would like to be scheduled, and finding a way to be a more people-oriented company.
And maybe it would not have been good for the bottom line, or for the Waltons’ bank accounts, or for the shareholders’ earnings. Maybe it would have involved reimagining how business is done and what business is for.
Maybe it would have involved reimagining the world.
But maybe that is what working for justice is: reimagining the world, re-envisioning the world, and repairing the world. Maybe that is what working for justice is: making the world look more like the world that God is calling it to be.
And maybe, when we’re doing it right, our worship is feeding our imagination and strengthening us to reenact the things that we do here…
…our passing of the peace, when we welcome everyone…
…our scripture and sermon, when we listen for God’s word…
…our prayers, when we hear the needs of our neighbors…
…our hymns, when every voice matters…
…our communion, when everyone is nourished…
…maybe, when we’re doing it right, our worship is strengthening us to reenact all of that and more… out there.
And, if we do that, I believe that God will love our festivals and delight in our solemn assemblies—God will applaud our songs and hum along to our melodies—because we will not be playing with the trappings of religion… we will be strengthening ourselves for the work ahead… the work of making justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Everywhere. All the time.