Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sermon - long version

As part of our summer series on the Minor Prophets, which are the last twelve books of the Old Testament, I am going to be reading today from the prophet Amos. Now what is a prophet? A prophet is not necessarily someone who can see into the future. Prophets are not magicians or weathermen. But they are messengers. They are people who have a special connection to God, who can see a vision or hear a message or even just look around them and understand what is happening in a way that other people can’t.
So today let’s go with our imagination to listen to the prophet Amos. We’ll be the Israelites standing around listening to him speak. He’s got a wondeful message for us today. He’s saying that the nations all around are practicing all kinds of wicked behavior and that God is not blind to it! It comes in a poetic form, like a riddle. Listen to Amos’ first oracle, in chapter 1 vs3. THUS SAYS THE LORD:
For three crimes of Damascus,
and for four, I will not take it back;
because they have threshed Gilead
with threshing sledges of iron.
So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.
One thing we need to understand is the riddle form, “For three crimes, and for four, I will not take it back.” It is an example of an old teaching tool. Three things give an example of the general idea, and the fourth zeroes in on the important point. So Amos is using a traditional form and saying a rather traditional thing. He’s not rocking the boat when he says “Damascus! What an evil nation! You invaded our land and killed our people!” When Amos said these things, “I will send a fire on them – this is the word of God!” the people of Israel probably all stood around cheering. Yeah! Down with our enemies!
Amos is doing well. He identifies another villian – the city of Gaza – the people of the Philistines. Philistines are enemies of Israel.
Thus says the LORD:
For three crimes of Gaza,
and for four, I will not take it back;
because they carried into exile entire communities,
to hand them over to Edom.

The people of Israel remember this happening. They remember when the Philistine slave raiders came and took Israelites captive, and sold them in slavery to Edom. The slave trade? Now that is evil. Come on, everybody, let’s boo and hiss. Philistines! God knows what you have done!
Amos is on a roll! He names five more foreign enemies. Tyre! They broke a covenant! (boo, hiss) Edom! They pursued their own brothers with the sword! (boo, hiss!) The Ammonites! They ripped open pregnant women in their warfare! Moab! They burned the bones of their dead and didn’t even give them a proper burial! God will not put up with these crimes! God is sending the proper punishment!
The crowd is loving it. They know they are not powerful enough to take vengeance on these foreign nations, so they love hearing that God is going to do it for them. Now Amos throws a stronger one in. For three crimes of Judah, and for four, I will not take it back. Now at this time Judah and Israel were split into two kingdoms and although Amos himself came from Judah, he went to Israel and that’s where he preached. He is admitting the crimes of his own homeland. Now what is Judah’s crime?
Thus says the Lord: they have rejected the law of the LORD,
and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
after which their ancestors walked.

Well that’s a real zinger. It’s not an objective moral crime, like slavery and murder, but Judah has a different standard because they have a covenant with God. God holds them responsible for an even higher level of conduct. And Judah did not live up to this high standard… they wandered. And so the people of Israel would say – HA! Serves you right! Let’s all wag our fingers at Judah.
But wait. Amos has one more oracle to say. With all the great ones he’s given us so far this must be a real ringer, right? Listen carefully.
For three crimes of Israel,
and for four, I will not take it back,
because they sell the righteous with silver,
and the needy with a pair of sandals--
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.

And to this the people of Israel start looking around and grumbling. What is this guy trying to say? That it’s a crime to make a fair deal? That it’s wrong to buy and sell, and lend and charge interest? Is he trying to say that WE are responsible for someone ELSE’s poverty??
You see – the people of Israel were doing pretty well, economically – or at least there was a solid upper class of people who were doing really well, and they had extra silver to lend, and they considered this must be God’s blessing on them. If we’re prospering, it must be proof that we are righteous, right? And Amos says no.
Now that’s the beginning of the book – Amos’ first prophecy. It’s not a long book, only nine chapters, and it’s worth reading the whole book if you can, but for now I’ll pick out a few important verses to help us understand what was going on in Israel in the 8th century BC. They are noted in your bulletin if you want to look for them later.

Chapter 5 vs 11 tells us that the rich are taking taxes on the grain of the poor people. This is not a governmental tax, for roads or the army; it’s part of a large-scale economic shift. Where Israel had previously been farmed by small-scale subsistence farmers, now folks were consolidating land into fewer, bigger, cash crop producers. Rich people would essentially buy whole swaths of land from subsistence farmers, plow the whole thing for one crop, hire the farmer back on to work, and export the crops at the end of the year. By doing this they became so rich that they were able to make loans at a profit, or to take bribes, and generally to give themselves an unfair advantage. Chapter 8 verse 5 tells us that people were using false balances in the market in order to increase their profits. And they certainly did increase their profits!
The general result of all these practices is told in chapter six verse 4: they live a life of luxury. They relax on couches made of expensive ivory. They sing idle songs. They eat lamb and veal. Now I’m not going on a vegetarian kick when I talk about eating lamb or veal – it’s not about that but it is a very important point to understand. The folks in Israel who used to be subsistence farmers had a traditional way of raising their crops and herds. They knew that agriculture was risky business – you might get rain, or you might not – and so they managed their risks by diversification. Flocks and herds are an important part of this diversification. The ancient writer Chrysippus put it eloquently when he said “the life in a pig is a preservative: it keeps it fresh until you’re ready to eat it.” So you’ve got a little disaster bank on the hoof, wandering around your fields, ready, alive, and edible in case your crops failed. When you needed extra food you would cull the older flock members and eat them. But in abundant years you would keep them around to reproduce as much as possible, because you know you’d need them if a hard year came by.
So imagine you are a former subsistence farmer. You’ve been used to a diversified schedule, but your land was bought up and so now you work on olive trees year-round, and you have no grazing land so you’ve sold off your whole flock. Since you have only the olives, you’re at much greater risk if that year’s crop fails… in fact, let’s imagine that last year’s crop DID fail, and you took out a loan from the landholder. You gave him your sandals as the traditional pledge, and he gave you some silver coins to get through the year, but you will have to pay him back big time at your next harvest.
And now picture your landholder sitting on an imported ivory couch in his big expensive house, and just behind his house he’s got his own little private feedlot. He bought your flock of sheep, and he eats a young one whenever he wants to, and fattens it up ahead of time. You’d probably be enraged, and bitter, and jealous. This is a really pointed symbol of the economic inequality that was going on in Israel at the time.
So what Amos is doing here is pointing out the injustice of a whole economic system. And I think it’s one that is not too far away from many things we have been experiencing these days. Has anyone seen poor people being bought off their land? Land being consolidated for cash crops? Rich absentee landlords? Conspicuous and wasteful consumption? People selling themselves into debt? I think of my experience in Uganda, which is a coffee-growing nation. Ugandans themselves prefer to drink tea, but they can get a good cash price for their coffee beans. So almost every family dedicates a proportion of their land to growing coffee, which is sold for cash. The ironic thing is that when ugandans DO drink coffee, it is always instant Nescafe. The Ugandans grow the coffee beans and sell them to Nestle, who process them, package them, and sell them back at enormous profit. Coca-Cola does a similar thing with water in India, buying up land and water rights, and then filtering, bottling, pricing up, and selling that same water back to the people who used to use it for free.
Similar things happen in America, particularly in Iowa and places that predominantly raise corn. Because of the way the industry and the subsidies are balanced, there are areas where the land produces great quantities of food, but none of it is for local use. When it comes to the day-to-day balance of food, it is produced there, trucked out, processed, and trucked back in. The very farmers and ranchers – who ought to have the closest connection to their food – have little more food security than anyone else. In fact, in some cases, they have almost no food security whatsoever, because they may be planting genetically modified seeds that are copyrighted by Monsanto. They cannot even save their own seeds to replant. This may not be a crime but it is cruel because it is hurting some people.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for everyone to go back to subsistence farming. I know that subsistence farming is not romantic, or easy. However, as we move away from subsistence, the systems we build get larger and more impersonal, and there is a greater risk of abuse. Because of their position and their money, Coca-Cola can cheat their neighbors in a way that one person would not be able to abuse another neighbor.
For example, take a strictly economic look at things: when a loan is an agreement between two people, it all happens face-to-face, and each person has an ethical obligation to be fair. But if a large financial company makes a thousand loans, or a million, no one finds out about the ethical issues until they default and make national news with widespread damage done. It wasn’t that one person directly hurt another person – there was never face-to-face cruelty, and maybe not even a crime, but cruelty nonetheless through the system of trade.

Here’s where the prophet comes in. A lot of people think that the Bible is just about personal ethical behavior. That what matters is if you are nice to your neighbor, and say your prayers, and don’t curse, and have a reverent attitude throughout your life. Those things do matter, but people have been known to go through life WITH a nice and generous attitude toward everyone they see face-to-face, WHILE oppressing and impoverishing a whole class of people whom they do NOT see face-to-face. The people of Israel probably did not think they were doing anything wrong. But the prophet Amos says that God sees this hidden cruelty and that God will hold them all accountable for their actions. The prophet shows up to call people to awareness and then to repentance.

As Steve said last week there are two parts to repentance: turning away from evil, and turning toward the good. You have to have both parts, or else you’ll get stuck and never actually get anywhere.
It is hard to see many examples of people turning away from the evil in this world. So much of the world is powered by money and greed. What can WE do – small individual citizens – about the hidden cruelty that is done on a large scale, by rich corporations and impersonal financial systems? We can speak out, we can report the injustice that is hidden, we can open our eyes and find out if the companies we buy from are treating others kindly or cruelly. And if enough of us cooperate we CAN make an impact. But all our efforts do not mean that the people in charge of these systems are necessarily going to change. We cannot force other people to change. In the meantime we take comfort in the prophet’s words – that God will NOT allow these things to last forever. We serve a God who CARES about the systems of our world, and who will make all things right and just. Whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table we proclaim that we live in this waiting time “until Christ comes again.”
But we CAN take our own part in making the world a just place, and I can see some examples of people turning toward the good. I think this current recession has triggered many people to try to take better care of their families and their land. People are planting kitchen gardens and raising small flocks of chickens, not because it is so much cheaper, but because they want to take control of their food security, and there is nothing more secure than a pantry full of food you raised yourself. This is a turning toward the way God wants us to be. It is a statement of responsibility. It is also a statement of abundance – that God really HAS given us enough on this earth, and that if we all do our part, no one will have to go hungry.
When we gather around the table of our Lord in a few minutes, we will also celebrate abundance. We remember when Jesus fed five thousand people. We remember his descriptions that heaven is like a banquet, or a wedding feast, to which everyone is invited, and where no one will go hungry. We are turning toward the way God wants us to be when we share freely and generously.
Let’s finish with the last words of the prophet Amos, who has spent nine chapter denouncing the evil oppression of the rich Israelites, promising punishment from God, spewing fire and brimstone – and then – he shifts gears – and promises God’s favor, restoration of the land, and abundance:

The time is surely coming, says the LORD,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the LORD your God.

May it be so even in our land, and may we turn to God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Amen.

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