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Ripe Fruit

Rev. Dr. Norman B. Bendroth
Sun, Jul 21

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Amos 8: 1-12

Years ago I remember leading a Bible study on Amos and someone said, "Oh, those are the white pages on the Bible." I asked him what he meant and he said, "Since we hardly read the minor prophets if you look at the edge of the pages there's a white section there." Sure enough it was true. The Gospels are marked with oily fingerprints from paging through them over the years as are the Psalms, but not the minor prophets, of which Amos is one. I suspect this is the case because they make us feel uncomfortable. All this railing against injustice and cutting corners and going through the motions of religious devotions cuts a little too close to the bone.

Amos wrote 2,800 years ago, but reading him feels like a page out of the New York Times. He lived during the reign of the renowned king Jeroboam II, who reigned forty-one years (786–746 BC) and forged a political dynasty characterized by territorial expansion, aggressive militarism, and unprecedented national prosperity. The citizens of his day took patriotic pride in their religiosity, their history as God's favored people, their military conquests, their economic prosperity, and their political security (4:5, 6:13, 9:10).

           Amos starts with a foreign policy briefing that reads like an ancient version of Amnesty International's annual report on the state of the world's human rights. Amos' affidavit charges Israel's enemies with horrific war crimes. He starts off report that would have made his fellow citizens cheer and jeer. It would be like John Kerry at a press conference wailing on China, Syria, Cuba, and Iran, at those who winked at sex-trafficking, conscripted child soldiers, and arrested religious believers because they were a minority faith.

            Damascus, Amos said, "threshed Gilead with sledges of iron teeth." Gaza "took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom." Tyre sold their prisoners of war into slavery and flaunted international treaties. Edom "stifled all compassion" and pursued its enemies with "unchecked rage." Ammon "ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders." Moab "burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom's king."
           Amos's audience would say, "Yeah! Yeah! You tell 'em Amos. Let 'em have it." Look what these animals did--mutilation, scorched earth campaigns, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and torture." Israel thought they were different, above such crimes against humanity.

           But then Amos turns the page of the briefing to the behavior of his own nation. Convinced of the decency of their own country and of the inferiority of foreigners, they considered their homeland superior in every way to the "axis of evil" that Amos had just denounced. Under Jeroboam, Israel developed an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism which they invoked to exempt themselves from universal standards that applied to their own nation as well as to their enemies.

To his fellow citizen's disbelief, Amos said that Israel was no different than the pagan nations with their war crimes (9:7). Before God they were equals. While he spoke to the general public he especially zeroed in on the nation's leaders— priests, judges, financiers, and state bureaucrats, "the notable men of the foremost nation" (6:1). This was a message to the State, the government: you have an obligation to care for the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the oppressed within your borders. In verse one of our text today Amos compared Israel to a basket of summer fruit (8:1). The northern kingdom had every reason to feel ripe-- they had a strong stock market, excellent profit margins, and savvy marketing schemes by which to boost sales still more--but the fact was they were not merely ripe, but close to rotten. In Hebrew the word for “fruit” is qayiz which is spelled almost identically to the word meaning “the end,” which is the Hebrew word qez. In short, this is a wordplay, a pun. Amos sees qayiz and so God declares that indeed, the qez, the end, has come for Israel.

           Like a rouge blogger who digs deep and tells the unpopular truth. Amos unveiled their national delusions. He was the classic bomb-thrower who preached from the unpatriotic fringe. Amos's prophecy delivers a withering critique of Israel's entire culture. He describes how the rich trampled the poor. He calls the women "cows of Bashan" who lounge on the Mediterranean, slavered in Bain de Soleil, sipping their pink martinis and asking the help to "peel me another grape." Fathers and sons abused the same temple prostitute. Corrupt judges sold justice to the highest bidder, venders put their thumbs on their scales and sold the sweepings from the granary floors, predatory lenders exploited vulnerable families selling the poor for a pair of sandals or a gram of silver. And, on top of it all, religious leaders pronounced God's blessing on this sham. Well of course Amos's message was received like a skunk at a lawn party and in a fit of rage, Amaziah the priest ran him out of town (7:7–17).

So what's this got to do with us? Well let me ask another question. What do the war in Iraq, the collapse of the housing and financial markets in 2008, and the largest oil spill in history (May 2010), inhumane labor practices by Apple's suppliers in China, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman all have in common? They all illustrate the power of large institutions to do great harm. They demonstrate how governments can destroy civil society, how institutional racism can poison a nation, how complex financial institutions can ruin the lives of everyday people, and how multi-national corporations can despoil the environment and exploit workers. God is not indifferent about these social transgressions. That's what Amos has to say to us today.

The Hebrew concepts of justice and righteousness included right relationships, not just the rule of law, not tit for tat, or fulfilling the fine points of a contract. The goal of the law was to mend the community, to bring people into reconciliation. Thus, many of Israel’s laws included care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the downtrodden. It was the expectation that since all of life was a gift and all lived in covenant, that the wealthy had a special obligation to the poor.

The Hebrew word shalom was the aim of society. The word means “peace,” but it is weighty with meaning. It carries the idea of health, wholeness and flourishing; of living in abundance. Land was capital in ancient Israel and part of flourishing meant having a sufficient plot of land upon which to farm, live, raise livestock and enjoy the fruit of your labor. Scratching out a living from the ground was never God’s intent. Yet, the wealthy would amass huge plots of land and lease it out to families at exorbitant rates.

When archaeologists dig into the ruins of ancient Israel, they find periods when the houses were about the same size, and the unearthed artifacts of life show a relative equality among the people--no great economic distance between the top and bottom of the society. During those times, the biblical prophets were silent--they had nothing to say. No voice of an Amos, Isaiah or Jeremiah was heard speaking to the demands of justice.
But the diggings also uncover other periods when there were huge houses and little hovels, and the objects of life reveal great disparities. Not surprisingly, it was during those times when the prophets were most outspoken, denouncing the great gaps in wealth and the neglect of the poor. The Bible doesn't condemn prosperity; it just insists it be shared.

Now, it's not that these people weren't religious; they were. They went to Temple. They offered sacrifices. But what did they talk about in the narthex after church while sipping their coffee? Business. Commerce. “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?" (8:5a) "Can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over because I’ve got lots to put on the market tomorrow!” “Oh I couldn't agree more. These forced days off from work are a real pain, aren’t they?! Can’t wait to get back to the office tomorrow. I’ve got a new pricing scheme that I’m just itching to try.”

And what does God say about their piety? "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 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. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps." (5:21-23). They were simply going through the motions. They didn't love God anymore than they loved their neighbors whom they exploited.

In fact, God says in vss. 11 and 12, that if they keep it up there will be a "famine of the word of God." God will shut up. God will stop speaking. God will not be found because these practices put up a wall between God and the nation.

There are Christians who think of "sin" as primarily a personal or private matter.  Our society has this voyeuristic impulse to "Tsk! Tsk!" when a public official has personal moral failing or weakness. And on a personal level, we are genuinely sorry about our bursts of anger, unkindness, looking down our nose at another, visiting inappropriate sites on-line, and not exercising enough. And this is all good. It is entirely appropriate to take a personal moral inventory at the end of the day and ask God to show you, "Where have I been selfish or resentful or angry or loveless?" That's how we grow in grace.

I was the pastor at a church where I introduced the practice of public confession into worship. One indignant parishioner complained that Congregationalists don't confess their sins, Catholics do. I explained that confession is a practice of the universal Church. Confession reminds us that God is the Creator and we are the creatures, creatures who fall short of the glory of God. She snorted and said, "Well, I guess I just don't think of myself as much of a sinner!" And I thought to myself, "Well, I guess I've got an answer to a problem you don't think you have."

Amos is telling us, friends, it's not either or. Sin is personal and it's social. You can't separate personal piety, spiritual formation, Christian practices, whatever you want to call them, from social justice. They are of one cloth. Unless our calls to justice are rooted in prayer, scripture study and contemplation, discernment and meditation, we are no different than Green Peace, the National Fair Housing Alliance, or the Humane Society. It doesn't mean that these organizations don't do good work or aren't used by God to ameliorate suffering in the world, but our motivation and wisdom come from a different place.

Faith is personal, but it is never private. Each of us must take responsibility for the beliefs we hold and must personally wrestle with life's most fundamental questions. But once we have decided to follow Jesus, we cannot help but live out our personal beliefs in public ways. The demands of the gospel refuse us the option of a purely inward spirituality.

I was in North Carolina the week before last where I learned of an ongoing protest called "Moral Mondays." Since late April, dozens of faith leaders and hundreds of others have been arrested at the state capitol as part of an ongoing protest. What would motivate these folks to take such a strong stand at such a personal cost? North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and conservative majorities in both chambers of the state legislature have pushed a rigid budget agenda that has cut benefits to more than 70,000 people without jobs, restricted access to health care for low-income people, and attacked voting rights. The legislature is working on a tax cut for the wealthy and corporations while increasing the burden on struggling families.

Pastors in North Carolina are putting their faith into action because their elected officials are ignoring the views and values of the people they are supposed to be representing, not to mention biblical values. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a pastor, the president of the NAACP in North Carolina and a key organizer of the rallies, said, "We had to stand up as a coalition -- not liberal vs. conservative (that's too small, too limited, too tired), or Republican vs. Democrat. We had to [give] a moral challenge because these policies they were passing, in rapid-fire, were constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane."

This past Monday an estimated 5,000 protesters showed up after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Rev. Barber left the national NCAAP convention he was attending to be with the crowds. He said he was angry, hurt and depressed at what he described as a “wink of Southern justice” similar to what happened in 1955 when three white defendants were set free after the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

Barber told the crowd that his oldest son’s eyes welled with tears as Fox TV commentators described Martin, with his gray hooded sweatshirt and a bag of Skittles, as a teenager whose image instilled fear in the armed neighborhood watch volunteer who pursued and killed him. “My son turned to me and said, ‘Dad, they want to emasculate us all.” Barber roared to the crowed, “They want to take our voting rights, they want to hurt the poor. This legislature has gone gun-crazy.” "But," he continued, “I also came back to tell all of us, ‘Let’s stand our ground.’"

My friends, "Let's stand our ground." Let's stand our ground with the counter cultural, counter intuitive message that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; that if God has to make a choice between the rich and the powerful or the poor and the marginalized, the poor will always get God's vote; that in the 'least of these' we see the face of Jesus.

The Bible does not draw a straight line between Amos and ourselves. It doesn't tell us whether there should be excise tax on a pair of snow tires or how we should dispose of nuclear waste, but it does lay down some pretty clear principles of justice and righteousness, of kingdom values, of people before profits, of the care of creation, and fundamental human rights for all of God's creatures.

So yes, say your prayers, read your Bible, walk the Labyrinth, feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the broken-hearted, go to GBIO meetings, and above all stand your ground.

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