Sermon at St. Aidan’s, Louisa, July 17th, 2016
One of the things I like most about summer is the berries. I can eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With cereal for breakfast, with yogurt for lunch or with ice cream as a desert for dinner. So when I saw that the reading from Amos started with a basket of summer fruit - not long after Cheryl had come home with the week’s groceries which included a whole basketful of fruit - I was immediately drawn to it. And to Amos, about whom I knew little. I have come to like him because he is a very modern prophet.. Who is Amos?
Amos wrote almost 3000 years ago. He lived during the reign of the King Jeroboam II. From a village in southern Judah, Amos traveled to the northern kingdom of Israel. He was not a prophet but a farmer from a little town about twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem. Amos was a shepherd from the desert and a farmer of sycamore figs. He was an unwelcome outsider, who preached from the unpatriotic fringe. He was more blue collar than blue blood. The cultured elites of his day despised Amos as a redneck.
King Jeroboam forged a dynasty through by aggressive military expansion and unprecedented prosperity. The citizens of his day took pride in being religious and God's favoured people. They valued their military conquests, their economic affluence, and their political security. Strange things happen when people suddenly become rich. Like many periods of prosperity, it was brought about on the backs of the poor and powerless.
Amos could not believe his eyes. Poor people were starving in a rich agricultural land. He considered dire poverty in the midst of such prosperity an outrage. The rich plotted to cheat the populace by manipulating the currency and fixing measuring scales. The rich forced the poor into slavery and to eat the refuse of the field.
In the reading, God tells Amos that God is so outraged by the way the Israelis treat the poor that there is no more mercy for them — only wrath. God shows him a basket of ripe summer fruit to illustrate that his wrath is fully ripened and is ready blow.
Amos criticizes Israel's entire culture. He describes how the rich trampled the poor and how the affluent flaunted their expensive lotions, elaborate music, and vacation homes. Fathers and sons slept with the same temple prostitute. Corrupt judges sold justice to the highest bidder, predatory lenders exploited vulnerable families, and religious leaders pronounced God's blessing on it all.
With Israel at the peak of its power, and having good reasons to believe that no disaster could befall it, Amos preached a counter-intuitive and culturally subversive message. To the country's disbelief, he said that Israel was no different from the pagan nations with their corruption and war crimes. Before God, they were equals. He spoke to average citizens in general, but to the nation's leaders in particular — priests, judges, financiers, and state bureaucrats. Amos compared Israel to a basket of summer fruit that was not merely ripe but close to rotten.
Israel had overplayed its hand. They misread the signs of the times. Convinced of the nobility of their own nation and of the inferiority of foreigners, they found it impossible to understand how others saw them. They considered their country superior in every way to the surrounding pagan countries. Under Jeroboam, Israel developed an exaggerated sense of what they could get away with. They invoked this to exempt themselves from the universal standards which applied to their own nation as well as to their enemies.
I imagine that very few people listened to Amos. In his rage and in defence of Jeroboam, the High Priest ran Amos out of town.
The book of Amos contains the much used expression of God’s call for justice. “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. It’s been quoted by Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders, and countless others. Amos reminds me of Bernie Sanders.
Wealth brings privilege and responsibility. Money's privilege means freedom from material want. But an abundance of money also brings the responsibility to help others in need. The pursuit of money can blind some to this responsibility; wealth leaves some incapable of compassion.
What do the civil war in Syria, the incredible boom of the housing market in Vancouver, and the explosion of the oil-filled train in Lac Megantic 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 real estate and financial institutions can exploit the lives of everyday people, and how corporations can cause human death and despoil the environment in an unprecedented way.
God cares not only about the private lives of individual people, but also about the moral actions of institutional systems. Personal piety is important to God, but social justice is perhaps even more so. Only large institutions with complex bureaucracies and vast resources — national governments, corporations and unions, large institutions — can create systems of injustice which cause death, manipulate markets and ravage the planet while privatizing profits and spreading the risk around.
Systems of injustice are directly linked to the violence and pain they cause. If we create a society that builds violence into its institutions and systems, we are left with ruined lives and tragedy. We’ve seen death in the streets recently - Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, police officers in Dallas, mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, indigenous teenagers who take their own lives, indigenous women who disappear without a trace, murderous battles between street gangs.
When we look at our own society, we find cycles of marginalization and violence playing out in our midst. Kids who live on the streets in our own cities, native women abused by police or dropped off out of town in freezing weather, poverty in our municipalities. There is direct link from the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples to the modern-day racism against First Nations and Inuit people. We cannot just point the finger at our neighbours to the south.
These things are painful to see. But this is the task of people of faith – to see and to help others see what is happening. God is asking us to see the pain around us. God is asking us to respond by rooting out the injustice in our own environments. When we begin to look with eyes of faith, we see a web of connections where injustices collide, creating not a culture of abundance for all, but absolute misery for some and a picnic for others. When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things don’t go well for you. God isn’t sending us a basket of fruit.
In the Gospel reading, Luke’s story about Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha is straightforward. Martha extends hospitality to Jesus. Mary listens to Jesus’ teachings. Martha attends to the duties of hospitality. Martha complains that Mary has neglected the duties of hospitality. Martha asks Jesus to instruct Mary to help her. Jesus responds that Mary has chosen the better activity.
The passage turns on the meaning of “only one thing is necessary.” The “one thing” in Jesus’ logic is the “what is best” that Mary has chosen. And what is that? Jesus says that hearing the word of God’s messenger is the one thing needed, not providing for his physical needs. “God’s messenger is, of course, Jesus himself. Thus, however important hospitality is as a social context for the spread of the Christian message, it is even more important to what Jesus has to say. Jesus is asking Martha and us to hear with the ears of faith and to look with the eyes of faith at what is happening in our society and to do what we can, individually, about social injustice. Much like Amos.