“A Basket of Fruit: On Justice and Faith”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 21, 2019
Things are not always as they seem. A basket of summer fruit, for example. It is a trick move, really. Generally speaking, a fruit basket is a wonderful, cheerful gift. Strawberries, blueberries, plums, and grapes—or as Theo calls them, geeps. A great big basket of summer fruit—who doesn’t love that? I’m sure there were also figs in that basket. Before his life as a prophet, Amos was an orchard manager and his primary duty was to tend to the ripe, luscious figs. God always speaks through what we know, so a basket of fruit is entirely appropriate for Amos. But this gift is not what it seems. When God sent Amos that big beautiful basket of summer fruits, it came with a foreboding little note that proclaimed the end of the world. Summer fruit is ripe, it is the last of the season, prime for the picking or plucking. The fruit is Israel, primed to be plucked up by God. I don’t think that is a fruit basket any of us would be happy to receive. Actually, I know we wouldn’t be happy if a fruit basket appeared at our front door with such a message.
How did it come to this? How did it get this bad? How did things get to the point where God showed Amos a basket of fruit and told him that the end of the world was near?
The biblical prophets are all about cause and effect, simple equations like those we learned in elementary school. In Amos’ prophecy, we actually hear the effect first. God says that, ‘the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place.’ The cause Amos intones is that the people of Israel have trampled on the needy and brought ruin on the poor of the land. More specifically, the people of Israel have built an economic system that favors only a few. Amos mentions the new moon and the sabbath because the people of Israel can’t wait even for the cycles of the seasons and their faith to get back to their booths in the marketplace. When they get there to the marketplace, Amos says, they make the ephah small and the shekel great—that’s unbalanced scales and inflated currency. The people of Israel practice deceit, Amos says, and they cannot be bothered to sell the best of their fields and orchards, so they sell whatever they can sweep up from the ground.
The cause and effect in Amos’ prophecy is pretty clear—the people of Israel have treated the poor badly and so God is going to make their land an open cemetery. What is interesting to me is what Amos doesn’t include in the indictment against Israel. There is nothing mentioned here about prayer or worship or rituals or even anything about the temple. At this point in Israel’s history with God, they were temple people, commanded to make sacrifices and perform rituals on a daily and seasonal basis according to the marvelous things God had done in the past. But Amos doesn’t say anything about that—he doesn’t say anything about what we call religion. Instead, everything Amos says has to do with how the people of Israel are treating the least among them. To use the language of the Apostle Paul, Amos is talking about their works and not about their faith. It is almost as if Amos is critiquing the faith of Israel, without even mentioned it, by pointing out how the people are acting towards their neighbors. It is because of this that God’s judgment with rain down on Israel like fire from heaven. There will be a famine, God say, not of bread and water but of the word of God, the one thing that has kept the people alive the whole time.
As Reformed Christians, we know and believe that nothing we can do or fail to do takes us out of the grips of God’s grace. We are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. This is the fight that the Reformers waged in the 16thcentury, and it is the basis for everything we say and do in this place today. But several years ago, I heard something from an expert on the Old Testament that brings a little tension into our understanding of grace and faith. The expert was Lord Jonathan Sacks and he was for many years the chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. In an interview, he made the shocking statement that ancient Judaism really had nothing to do with faith. Instead, he said, ancient Judaism was based on how well or how poorly one was able to follow and obey the commands of God. Lord Sacks said that a person’s place in the ancient Jewish world did not depend on how faithful they were in worship or in prayer, but in how they followed God’s law as it shaped the life of the community.
I had never thought about ancient Judaism in that way, and it made me dig more into the Old Testament to see if I could find the same thing. And what I found, with my armchair expertise, is that Lord Sacks is right. Faith is hardly mentioned in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. There are moments about faith, like when Abraham willingly offers his son as a sacrifice to God. But even in that story, it is about Abraham doing as God commanded and not about Abraham believing as God commanded. The laws that lay the foundation of the Old Testament are just a mess of verbs—do this, don’t do this, you shall, and you shall not. Think about the Ten Commandments. Which of those commandments speaks about faith, worship, spirituality, or prayer? Not a single one. They are all about what you should do and what you should not do. The first four commandments outline the Israelite’s relationship with God and the last six outline how the Israelites are to relate to one another.
Amos’ prophecy starts to make a little more sense when we consider that ancient Judaism was more about doing, or not doing, than it was about believing. Amos preached in a time when there was no such thing as standard weights and measures and human nature took advantage of that. Amos preached in a time when there was no such thing as a social safety net and human nature took advantage of that. Amos preached in a time that if you could pay, you could play, and there was no system of justice in place to ensure an even playing field for everyone. And, human nature took advantage of that. Amos preached in a time of great military and economic prosperity, and, as you guessed, human nature took advantage of that. The heart of Amos’ prophetic ministry was to tell the people that if they did not square their actions with the God they proclaimed to worship and serve, that same God was going to rain down on them judgment and destruction beyond their wildest imaginations and fears.
I believe the parallels between the time of Amos and his prophetic ministry are strong with the times we find ourselves in today. Of course, we have modernized and advanced, but human nature will always be human nature. We have built and participate in an economic system that favors those who have and not only disadvantages those who don’t have but actively pushes them to margins. We live in a world where we have utterly lost compassion for one another, rallying behind the false and sinful ideology that everyone is just out to get something for free. We live in a time where if you have ‘it’, you use ‘it’ get on top, whatever ‘it’ may be—power, money, influence, force. That is a problem that plagued this very congregation for decades and was one of the main reasons for the schism that ripped this place apart almost eight years ago. We live in a time of great military and economic prosperity, but while the military and some bank accounts might be strong and mighty, children die daily in this nation—Flint, New Orleans, Oklahoma City—because they lack access to basic nutrition.
What might Amos have to say to us today, those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, who live in 2019, who sit in this house of worship today? Would Amos commend us for the beauty of our house of worship and the splendor of our music and the nice words of our doctrine and theology? Would Amos commend us on our worship attendance, our devotion to studying the Bible, and our vast knowledge of church and theological history? From the Scripture in front of us today, I think it is clear that Amos would have no time for these things. Instead, I believe Amos would look each of us in the eye and ask, “What have you done today to make your neighbor’s better?” If Amos were here among us today, he would have no time to hear about our building projects or our new hymnals or our history or theology. Amos’ one and main concern, because it is God’s one and main concern, is to know what we plan to do with all those things we hold dear in order to improve the lives of our neighbors, the needy, and the least among us.
Where our times do not align with those of Amos is in regards to the judgment to be poured out on those who act so poorly. The final judgment in which we stand is the cross of Jesus Christ. That was God’s final word on the poor and evil nature of human life, and in dying on the cross Jesus took the judgment that we all deserved and that none of us could handle. But that does not release us from our obligation to God and to our neighbors. This is the most complex and perplexing part of living as followers of Jesus. We have no fear of God’s judgment because that judgment has already been made on the cross and in the empty tomb. But I believe it has made us so terribly lazy in using the good and honest and true things of our faith in pursuit of a better, more holy, and more whole society. Yes, Jesus paid it all, but he didn’t do it all—he left us here to work on his behalf until all things are transformed and made right. He gave us faith to know that we are saved by grace, and this is of utmost importance to who we are. But he also gave us hands and feet and intellects and hearts and souls so that we might do something with the faith we have been given. What good is it to have a good and true and honest faith if that faith does not radiate out, bringing light into the darkest places of this world?
Its no good. A faith that does nothing for the world in which we live is no good. And that’s not my judgment, that Amos’. And it is God’s judgment also, one that we must accept today and covenant with God and one another, with everything that we have and everything that we are, that we are going to try and do better. It is overwhelming to consider all of the things in this world in need of our faith and action in the name of Jesus Christ. But to quote another famous Rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon who lived in the first century, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either. That work my friends, begins right here in the heart and it radiates out into the church, into the community, and into the world.
We don’t have to solve the immigration crisis, but we can reach out to those in our community who have been pushed to the side, offering some shred of humanity where all has been stripped away.
We don’t have to solve the tangled and deceptive mess that is our world economic system, but we can support something like Fair Trade that makes a small but mighty difference in the lives of so many all over the globe.
We don’t have to solve the education funding crisis in Oklahoma, but we can build a relationship with a child in need of academic or life mentoring so that they know just how much they are loved and valued.
We don’t have to solve the dark and destructive world that is social media, but we can put our phones and keyboards away for a while and refuse to participate in it.
We don’t have to solve issues like racism, nationalism, or sexism, because, frankly, they may never be solved. But we can hold true to the truth and live the truth of our nation’s founding documents and of the Scriptures of our faith that say all people—all people—are endowed with certain inalienable rights and imprinted with the image of God.
We don’t have to solve the gridlock and childish bad behavior and immaturity that marks our current political reality, but we can, and must, live in a better way, the way of the Gospel, the way of Jesus Christ, loving God and our neighbors as ourselves. Always God. Every neighbor. All neighbors. All the time.
It starts here. And then it moves out in ever-widening circles. So I ask you today, as Amos might if here were here: what are you doing right now, or what are you going to do, that will make the life of your neighbor better. The truth is, you have so much to offer the world, the church, every person you meet. You also have the faith to move mountains. Make the commitment today, before God and your fellow believers, that you are going to strive to live a better, more faithful, more just and giving life, not just because it is the way of Jesus but because it will change the world you live in. We don’t have to perfect it, but we can’t ignore it either. This is the calling of our faith. This is the calling of Jesus Christ. May God bless us as, together, we work for the transformation of all things. Amen.