July 21, 2013 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Scholars tell us the book of Amos is the earliest of the prophetic books and began a new theological tradition in Israel–a tradition that significantly critiqued the way people were living and called them back to the way of God. In Amos, we hear God lamenting that the people have turned away. In chapter four we hear God recount all the opportunities God has given to the people to repent–but the people did not return to God.
We heard last week in chapter 7 about the plumb line God used as a measure of the people’s faithfulness and how over and over again they did not measure true to how God had called them to live.
This morning in chapter 8, we hear the end is coming. All the ways God has used to reach out to the people have been rebuffed and Amos brings the word of God’s judgment.
In the opening of the passage there is a word play in Hebrew that we miss in the way the NRSV translates the first two verses. The New International Version uses “ripe” instead of “summer” and that will help us hear the word play.
Listen for the word of God.
[Read Amos 8.1-12]
v.1-2: This is what the Lord God showed me–a basket of [ripe] fruit. God said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of [ripe] fruit.” Then the Holy God said to me, “[The time is ripe for] my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.
v.5a: [That is, the sabbath is being observed but all the merchants can think about is how soon it will be over so they can sell things again. They’re not observing the sabbath at all.]
v.5b: [The ephah is used to measure an amount of grain by capacity, and the shekel is used to measure an amount of grain by weight.1 Therefore selling a smaller amount of grain for a greater amount of money.]
v. 6: [In other words, the poor are selling their sandals to a pawn shop in order to get money to buy grain and the pawn dealer knows full well they will never be able to buy their sandals back. “Selling the sweepings of the wheat” means including the chaff of the wheat–the stuff that’s inedible–in the bag that’s marked “100% whole grain.” It’s one more way for merchants to cheat people.]
As I read through the book of Amos, even with all the words of judgment, what I kept hearing was the broken heart of God–“the deep affection” as Abraham Heschel names it, that God has for this band of people whom God has known “more intimately than any of the other nations.”2 “My people Israel” God calls them.
This is no wrathful, vengeful God throwing lightening bolts from heaven. This is the God who is deeply in love with creation and its creatures and especially the people God has chosen to be most closely connected to and who has tried everything to get them to come around and live life the way that people connected to God are to live. And God cannot get through to them and now there are terrible consequences.
And Amos the prophet, carries the burden of proclaiming this word. Chief among his complaints are the corruption in the judicial system and the economic structures designed to abuse and disadvantage the poor.
Now the role of the prophet in the biblical tradition was not to foresee the future. The role of the prophet was to call the people to make choices “in view of their identity as God’s people, choices that would lead to their shalom [their well-being] rather than [their] destruction.”3 Johanna Bos says “Amos was recalling the community to the task of living as Torah-people.” That is, living as people who follow the righteous ways of God. Amos points out their shortcomings and what he announces “is for the purpose of having them make different choices.”4
So Amos calls the people to choose justice and mercy. Not only as individuals but also as a community and to order their judicial and economic systems in ways that do not favor the rich and powerful but accord justice and opportunity to everyone.
This is not an optional invitation. This is a demand of living as God’s people. This is what righteousness looks like. This is what love looks like.
I recently returned from San Francisco Seminary where I took a class on Reformed Spiritualities. It was a class about what the Reformed tradition (the theological tradition that shapes the Presbyterian Church) offers to the world for nurturing a life with God. The first thing many people associate with the Reformed tradition are rules, legalism and intellectual pursuits which are not always what we think of first in relationship to nurturing a life with God. However, one of the great theological streams of the Reformed tradition is that all of life matters to God and that God is involved in all of life. There is no part of our life or the life of the world that is separate from God. Which means all of life is spiritual and theology is concerned about all of life.
So just as it was for Amos and the people of Israel, so it is for us: living a moral and ethical life as individuals and a community is essential and required as God’s people. It’s not optional or secondary to some other religious or spiritual concern. And all the prophets remind us of the devastating consequences both communally and individually when we neglect this part of a God-centered life.
This is not news to you who worship at Central. Many of you come here because of this congregation’s commitment to justice and because of our advocacy for people who are vulnerable and marginalized. But we cannot rest on our laurels or on the ideals we talk about.
Amos preached in the middle of the 700s BCE.5 That’s about 2700 years ago. Which could make you think this is a message far removed from our own reality. And yet what are the headlines in our news in the last few weeks?
The nation’s six largest banks reported $23 billion in profits in the second quarter.6
The House of Representatives took up the Farm Bill. This bill has a long history of being a bipartisan effort that connects the interests of food producers (which more and more are large corporations) with food eaters. However, the version the House of Representatives recently voted to enact did not include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called Food Stamps), “our nation’s widest-reaching, most effective anti-hunger program.”7
Last Saturday a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. An adult armed with a gun murders a teen who has no weapon and he is found not guilty.
Last month the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act because, in the words of the majority “our nation has made great strides” since 1965 when the legislation was enacted.8
It’s not a stretch to hear Amos talking to us.
We have an economic system that favors the wealthy and tilts against the poor.
We have a court system that is particularly unjust to people of color and especially black men.
President Obama talked on Friday about his own experience of being followed when shopping in a store, hearing the car doors lock when he walked across the street. Experiences that are common among African American men and women.
Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, writes “Our criminal-justice system has for decades been infected with a mind-set that views black boys and men in particular as a problem to be dealt with, managed and controlled. This mind-set has fueled a brutal war on drugs, a get-tough movement and a prison-building boom unprecedented in world history.” She continues, “Research shows that racial disparities in violent crime disappear when you control for joblessness. Unemployed men of all races are equally likely to be violent, particularly if they are chronically without work. But rather than viewing high levels of violent crime in ghettoized communities as a symptom of the deeper economic and social ills, black men and boys are viewed as the problem itself and treated accordingly.” 9
According to the Urban Institute, between 2007 and 2010 “black family wealth fell by 31%, compared with an 11% decline for whites.” During the same time period, the black unemployment rate was 13.7% while the rate was 6.6% for whites.” 10 38% of African American children grow up in poverty compared to just 12% of white children. 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty.11
African Americans make up 13% of the population in the U.S. yet nearly half of the incarcerated people in this country are African Americans. 1 million of the 2.3 million people in prison are black.12
Poverty and the judicial system are all tied together. Injustice is all around. We participate in it knowingly and unknowingly. We are part of it individually and collectively. And Amos calls out to us from the pages of the Bible to make different choices. To amend our ways. To live justly and mercifully.
Now I know what you’re thinking (because I often think it too): I’m doing the best I can! Or you may be thinking (which I also often think): What difference can I make in a huge system of injustice?
Let me suggest a few places to start.
1) Find something you’re passionate about that makes a positive difference in the lives of others. That could be raising your child to be compassionate toward the needs of others and aware of his/her privilege in the world. Or getting involved in legislative change at the local level. Or gathering with others to learn about an issue and taking action together. Or sharing your gifts with an organization that is already doing work that changes the world for good. Or a whole lot of other things that tilt the world toward more justice and greater mercy.
2) Do something that continues to narrow the gap between your spiritual life and the rest of your life. How often do we leave this place and then the rest of our week is business as usual? What does it look like to be God’s person at work? In your neighborhood? With your friends and family? I’m not talking about being nice. I’m talking about doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. What helps you make that a day in and day out way of life? Reading the Bible? Praying? Practicing Sabbath? Getting together with others to talk about how to live as God’s people in the ordinary and difficult experiences of life? Or maybe something else?
3) Particularly for those of us who are white, we can work at dismantling the racial prejudices and assumptions we have absorbed from being reared in the United States. Whether you were brought up in a family that was overtly racist or covertly racist, we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid that leads us to a place where the life of a teenage black boy is less valuable than that of a teenage white boy. And that unequal valuing is a scandalous affront to the God who made us each in God’s own image. Sweet Honey in the Rock sings, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons: We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
I know some of you are already hard at work at these things–and much more. And some of you need a reminder and some encouragement and that’s why we’re here and that’s why we’re part of this community.
The Talmud (one of the Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Bible) says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”13
May it be so.
* * *
1 The Access Bible, NRSV, Gail R., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, Amos 8.4-14 note, p1187.
2 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1, (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p35.
3 Email correspondence with Dr. Johanna van Wijk-Bos, 19 July 2013.
5 The Access Bible, p1176.
6 http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/big-banks-flooded-in-profits-fear-flurry-of-new-safeguards/?hp accessed 18 July 2013.
7 http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2013/07/house-decimates-farm-bill.html accessed 18 July 2013
8 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/us/supreme-court-ruling.html?pagewanted=all accessed 20 July 2013
9 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2147697,00.html accessed 18 July 2013
10 http://www.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2147718,00.html accessed 18 July 2013
11 http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/#4 accessed 20 July 2013
12 http://www.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2147718,00.html accessed 18 July 2013
13 I don’t know a more specific source of this quote that I’ve had on my desk for years.