07/21/2019: A Basket of Summer Fruit

A BASKET OF SUMMER FRUIT

Amos 8: 1-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
July 21, 2019

Underneath much of the contentious news of our day is a simmering debate over what is called “American exceptionalism,” the conviction that America is God’s special country because it is a shining city upon a hill.
I

The church may not have a solution to this debate, but it can have a reasoned voice, and that voice needs to be influenced the rich treasures of scripture that we hold dear. After all, the Judeo-Christian heritage is founded on a scriptural story about a people of faith who were convinced that they were exceptional. In a famous speech by Moses, he says to the people: The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth to be God’s people, God’s treasured possession. It is that chosen-ness, that special-ness, the early church claimed for itself: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people….

So we know something about exceptionalism. It is part of our religious DNA. It is deeply embedded in the stories of our birth as people of faith. Therefore we have some perspective on the issue of American exceptionalism.

I doubt that any book in the Bible is more attuned to the issue of exceptionalism than the book we know as Amos. It is short: only 9 chapters, but it has within it one of the most quoted texts in all of scripture: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It is worth being aware of the context of that statement.

Amos himself was quite a character. He was a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip preacher. One writer describes Amos this way: “When Amos walked down the main drag, it was like a shoot-out in the Old West. Everybody ran for cover.” He came from a rugged town, a place called Tekoa. He was not a sophisticated, educated man like Isaiah. He was schooled in the wilderness, where he tended his sheep on the barren hills overlooking the Dead Sea, four thousand feet below. He had no degrees after his name, but he had deep insights into his world.

He also had a profound religious experience that came to him in the wilderness like a ray of sunlight at dawn. Here is the way he described it: I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son [that is to say, I have no pedigree for this work!]; but I am a herdsman…, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” So, this country boy from the sticks of Tekoa heeded that call, and traveled north to a place called Bethel.

It was a place well chosen, for Bethel was one of the major religious centers of Israel, and he decided to go there just at the time of the great harvest festival. There were thousands of people there to celebrate the harvest.

II

So Amos had his work cut out for him. He began by playing on their prejudices and condemning their enemies. “Damascus,” he shouted, “is mercilessly cruel in war.” “AMEN,” nods the crowd. They liked this new preacher. Then he lifts his voice over the noise of the crowd again: “Gaza and Tyre,” he said, “kidnap whole communities and sells them into slavery!” “AMEN!” shouts the crowd, by now beginning to think that this new preacher really knew what he was talking about.

“And the Ammonites,” shouts Amos—“do you know what they do? They invade neighboring countries and slaughter pregnant women!” By now the crowd is really getting worked up. “You tell ‘em, preacher!” they shout. So Amos goes through a litany of their most hated enemies, shouting out the horrible crimes and abuses perpetrated by each of them, and the crowd is going into a frenzy of approval. “AMEN!—that’s right, you tell ‘em, preacher!”

But then, he finally comes to the end of his litany of enemies, and there is only one country left to mention: their own, chosen, exceptional country, the country beloved by God as the most blessed of all the countries of the world. What does God say to their country? he asks. Amos opens his mouth to speak for God: You only have I known of all the families of the earth…. So far so good. They liked that! So he took a deep breath and continued: You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for your iniquities. And there is the sound of utter silence. Where are all the “Amens!” Where are all the cheers?

Then Amos, thinking (I suppose) that he couldn’t get into any deeper trouble, plunges on: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

There must have been a long silence, until someone said, “That fellow has stopped preaching and started meddling.” Every eye looked over at the chief priest, whose name was Amaziah, to see what he would do. After all, he couldn’t let this kind of thing go on! So Amaziah quickly reported what had happened to the king. “What in the world can I do?” he asks the king. And the king says, “No problem—just go back there and get rid of him! Fire that preacher!”

So Amaziah sheepishly goes back to the temple and says to Amos, “You’re fired! Go back to the sticks of Judah and preach to your sheep. You’re over your head here, you redneck! And when you leave, don’t ever come back here to Bethel, for this is the King’s sanctuary!”

So Amos walked out, but he didn’t leave. He started milling about in the crowd, and he noticed on someone’s program that the next item on the agenda of the day was the official dedication and the blessing of the summer fruit. On the altar was a great basket full of the best specimens of summer fruit. They all had blue ribbons on them! There they were, all piled up in a beautiful basket on the altar. The high priest, adorned in his most impressive liturgical vestments, stood to bless the fruit of the land and to assure the people that they were exceptional, and that God would always bless their land.

Amos could not resist a parting shot. Just about the time that the high priest was about to intone his blessing on the crop, Amos stood up and began to shout, “You see that fruit? It is a reminder that my people Israel are rotting!” As the security guards were dragging him off, they could hear him shouting about how God will bring a famine on the land because of their behavior in mistreating the poor. He said that the land would become a spiritual desert—a wasteland. But soon security had him in hand and shut him up.

IV

There is one thing about this story that transcends cultures, and could have been said in any culture in the world at any time. It is summed up in the words of Amos: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. These words are as true for us in 2019 as they were for Amos in 750 BC.

And no matter how exceptional a nation is, how beautiful a nation is, how loved a nation is, how powerful a nation is, it will rot like a basket of summer fruit if it ignores justice and has no compassion for the poor. When the church insists on justice for the poor and compassion for desperate, it may be performing one of its most “spiritual” tasks of all, for Christ spoke of those when he said, …when you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.