So Amos was our guest minister again on Sunday. My flock might not have come if they knew that the words of this fiery prophet were going to be the text for our corporate reflection! We survived a tough bout of bad news from him in chapter seven a week ago I’m blaming my scripture selection on the lectionary schedule of readings. It gives Amos a couple of Sundays in the three year cycle to make his point so it seems only fair to listen! Besides, if you think this is tough stuff, read on in Hosea over the next two weeks and Amos’ pronouncements will seem almost cheery!
Brace yourself for what our liturgist read:
Chapter 8 This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. 2 “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.
“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.
Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
3 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing.[a] Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”
4 Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure,
boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
6 buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
7 The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
8 “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink
like the river of Egypt.
9 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.
I mean, “Thanks be to God?”
The opening image God offers him is of a bowl of fruit. How relevant for those of us enjoying a West Michigan summer! It’s a pleasant thought to sit down to a bowl of Traverse City cherries or Krupka raspberries or Robinette apples! But God crushes the joy out of that vision quickly and the fruit becomes a warning of impending doom. What appeared to be healthy and beautiful is now past its prime and rotting.
“The end is near” is funny stuff for cartoonists. There’s one cartoon by Roy Delgado of two men in suits talking by a desk in an office. At the doorway is a shaggy prophetic-looking man holding a sign that says in large letters, “THE END IS NEAR.” Underneath the picture is what one of the executives is saying to the other: “The scary thing is he’s our CFO.” Another cartoon by Roz Chast depicts two individuals standing next to each other with picket signs. The disheveled man in a long robe has a sign that reads: THE END IS NEAR FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS. He appears to be talking angrily to a prim and proper woman who is holding a sign that says, THE END IS NEAR FOR ECOLOGICAL REASONS. Above the image is a heading that says, TURF WAR ON WEST 49TH STREET. “The End is Near” is fodder for comedians but it’s certainly not so funny for Amos and the 8th century Israelites. God levies charges at them through Amos, who picked the short straw and became the mouthpiece for an angry Deity!
What we gather from this passage is that there is a great divide between the rich and the poor. The rich live in the lap of luxury, exploiting the vulnerable for their own gain. The upper-income citizens assume that all is well. Those at the bottom are starving, abused, enslaved, trafficked and underpaid for their work. Amos makes a connection between God’s good gifts that the wealthy are hoarding and justice. The poor are not on the political agenda. Worse yet, their suffering has become normative. The culture believed that they were somehow deserving of their misery. Merchants are singled out as being particularly culpable in taking advantage of the peasants. Forbidden from working during the Sabbath, the charge is made against them for breathlessly counting down until the Sabbath was over. Then they could jump right back into their crooked business tactics. They falsified their scales so that people paid more money for less product. (Remember when ice cream containers were a half gallon? Then the producers pulled one over on us by reducing the size but keeping the price the same? Genius! I like to think of the discussion that happens behind closed doors in darkly paneled board rooms where business execs talk in terms of ‘profit margin’ but never admit to deception!) As we sit here on a Sunday morning where do our thoughts wander? Does our worship on Sunday still speak to us on Monday morning or do we shelve our religion for the week, convinced that Christian rules don’t apply?
The prophet continues by naming the evil of buying human beings with silver or in exchange for a pair of sandals! The gap between rich and poor was so great in Biblical times that people had to sell themselves or their child into slavery to pay off a debt. Families were commonly broken up as the vulnerable were exploited. Jeffrey Epstein has been in the news the past couple of weeks. Perhaps you heard that he was denied bail and will not be able to enjoy house arrest in his $77 million Manhattan mansion. In unison we can all say, “Oh, toooo bad.” A man accused of trafficking dozens of teenaged girls actually has to sit in jail to await trial and sentencing. His crime seems unthinkable…and distant.
Yet not too far away we face our own harsh realities. Michigan is ranked tenth in the nation for human trafficking. Perhaps you remember the ad campaign about five years ago developed by the Kent County Human Trafficking Taskforce in which they had people look at a photograph of someone and describe what they imagined this person’s life was like. Volunteers assumed their lives were rich and full. In fact, each person pictured was a victim of human trafficking. Their story was hard. In the ad the volunteers were then led into a larger room where there was a huge billboard covered with photographs of individuals representing all the victims of this illicit but booming business in West Michigan. The ad showed people weeping as they took in the scope of this scourge in our community. One in three runaways will be approached in the first 48 hours on their own. One in six will become a victim. One in four are younger than 16. Amos makes the point that morality is, of necessity, tied to economics. Jesus knew that this was unwelcome news for the wealthy. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus preaches, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The reaction of his audience could easily be echoed by most of us. The text says that they were astounded and said, in essence, “Then what hope is there for any of us?!”
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America (2001). In it she reflects on her experience as a waitress: “The worst [patrons], for some reason, are the Visible Christians—like the ten-percent table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill.” Amos insists that morality and economics are inextricably linked!
My email box popped up with a message for me: You have 5 repayments! It was from Kiva, an organization that makes micro-loans to people around the world. Six years ago I invested $100 in four $25 loans to women in different parts of the world. As these women repaid me, I was able to re-lend to others. Over the course of the past six years I’ve invested a total of $204 in 32 people living in 22 different countries. It doesn’t take much of my money to make a big difference in the lives of individuals across the globe. Guess how much money has been repaid by five grant recipients so far according to my email? All five totaled have reimbursed me $9.41. They struggle to put $2 toward the loan but they do it! Economics and justice work hand-in-hand and it doesn’t take great wealth to make a difference!
Amos is asked to address a society where injustice has become normative. The kind of humane treatment God requires has become unimaginable. The guilty parties aren’t about to take this kind of criticism quietly. From the text we can imagine them starting to defend themselves: “How can we make a difference—the scale of the problem is so great?” “If it weren’t for me she would be living on the streets.” “He willingly came to me and is grateful for what I pay him.” God doesn’t want to hear it: “Be silent!” God is not finished yet with the accusations so they need to sit and listen. Willis Jenkins writes, “The prophet must find ways to silence languages of a people’s gods and goods long enough to let the words of justice be heard.” (Willis Jenkins, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 248).
What are the gods and goods we worship that blind us to the needs around us? What excuses do we make for filling our time with projects of personal improvement and pampering while ignoring the cries for help that surround us?
We aren’t accustomed to hearing this sort of message from our Sunday readings. I know folks who say they don’t like the Old Testament God. No wonder! But Amos would be the first to remind us that God corrects us out of love. God gives us a chance to turn our lives around but ultimately leaves us to our own devices. Our God loves us so much that there is no subject matter considered off limits when considering a holy lifestyle. We may prefer false gods because they will never tell us anything that we don’t want to hear. But they also don’t care about our well-being. They deceive us to earn our allegiance and then let us fall.
At the end of the passage from the eighth chapter God makes a surprising promise about the future of the doomed Israelites. God will send a famine not for food but of hearing the word of the Lord. People will wander great distances to hear from God but they will not succeed. They will be parched for the scriptures and guidance they offer. They will regret how they led their lives with no care for God’s rules. Psalm 42 reflects this yearning: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” In the 62nd psalm David cries out, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Are we living in a time of famine from hearing God’s Word? Is there a spiritual hunger that can’t be identified because Christians have either been loudly judgmental or silent about their faith convictions? Because we don’t want to be identified with another brand of Christianity, we often keep our love for Christ under wraps so as not to offend anyone? The people of Amos’ day learned that life in a world devoid of justice can drown out the sound of God’s Word.
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, three friends overhear laughter and riotous partying in the palace as those in power take advantage of their elevated rank. Marcellus proclaims to his friend, Horatio, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Is the fruit in our West Michigan bowl lush and juicy or is it overripe and rotting? Are our politics much different from the calloused elite of Amos’ time or the carousing body politic that Shakespeare mocked? Last I heard we have about two dozen Democratic contenders for the 2020 Presidential race ready to take on our sitting President. Sometimes we are inspired by a rousing speech of lofty ideals. Every now and then a politician puts the poor on the national agenda. But far too often it’s a free-for-all that reeks of mistruths, mud-slinging and carefully tailored posturing. Is there something rotten in our country today that we need to address? Have we ignored our spiritual needs for so long that we no longer recognize that our hunger is not for things or elevated positions or money? Willis Jenkins stated that Amos’ words “must silence society’s discrediting religious noise and political spin long enough for people to hear simple words of justice.”
Is that what we’re yearning to hear: simple words of justice? If Jesus Christ is our anchor in the crazy storms of our lives, shouldn’t we watch for opportunities to share that with others who may not even know what they’re missing? Isn’t that what we cling to when we hear our leaders authentically speak of compassion for the least of these and reverence for God first and foremost?
My brother and his 15-year old son are doing a college tour and stopped this past week at the Library of Congress to dig through their records. They found what they were looking for: a prayer my father offered to open up the Senate on April 5, 1984. My father, a career Air Force Chaplain, was stationed at Langley Air Base in Virginia and got to know Senator Mark Hatfield. Hatfield invited him to give the opening blessing for the dealings of our politicians on that particular day. I find his words to be remarkably relevant to our country’s challenges and blessings now. And so I close with the Word of the Lord as shared by my father 35 years ago in our nation’s capitol:
ETERNAL GOD, CREATOR AND SUSTAINER OF EACH PERSON AND EACH NATION, WE BOW TO ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR SOVEREIGNTY OVER US AS A PEOPLE. WE KNOW THAT WHATEVER WE DO THAT IS NOT WITHIN YOUR WILL IS FUTILE AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. WE KNOW AS WELL THAT THAT WHICH IS YOUR WILL FOR US ABOUNDS BEYOND OUR WILDEST HOPES. YOUR REVELATION OF YOURSELF TO US HAS BEEN ENOUGH THAT WE KNOW QUITE WELL WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE US DO. WE UNDERSTAND THE GOALS THAT YOU HAVE SET BEFORE US. WE HAVE ARTICULATED THEM IN MAJESTIC TERMS IN OUR NATIONAL DOCUMENTS. SO WE DO NOT SO MUCH PRAY FOR WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING AS WE DO FOR COURAGE TO DO THAT WHICH WE ALREADY COMPREHEND. HAVING RECEIVED YOUR DIRECTIONS FOR OUR LIVES, LET US HAVE THE HUMILITY TO PUT ASIDE SELFISH GOALS IN PREFERENCE FOR THOSE UNSELFISH ONES WHICH BEST SERVE YOUR KINGDOM. IF WE CAN DO THAT, THEN WE SHALL BE KNOWN NOT FOR PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT, BUT FOR THE SHARED GOOD OF ALL OUR PEOPLE, AND THROUGH THEM, THE WELL-BEING OF THE WIDE WORLD AROUND US. IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST I PRAY. AMEN. (Colonel Chaplain James W. Chapman)