Friday, July 26, 2013

A Message with the Fruit Basket

This past Sunday I was invited to speak at Third Baptist Church in St. Louis while their pastor was away.  The pastor suggested the lectionary passage for the day as my text—Amos 8:1-12.  I was delighted to spend some time with Amos.  Amos began his ministry in the first half of the eighth century B.C.  He led a line of great prophetic voices through which the people of Israel came to a deeper and more profound knowledge of the nature of God and his purposes. This new understanding came as the people of God were confronted with some of their greatest challenges. 

What was the message of the fruit basket? 

God sometimes speaks through everyday experiences.  Amos is looking at a basket of summer fruit. Summer fruit is obviously fruit that ripens during the summer and is gathered in the fall.  What do you see, Amos?  A basket of ripe fruit.  There is a potential play on words in the question and response.  The word for “summer fruit” sounds like the word for “end.”  The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.  The “end” is near. 

The message is not a warning.  Amos has previously sounded a call for justice, and now he announces an imminent judgment. During the Feast of Tabernacles and the time of harvest, the people would have been gathered for the celebration.  The priest might have appeared and delivered a message of assurance based upon God’s continued provision and blessing. Amos shares a message of doom—the end has come upon my people Israel.  The songs of the temple and festival celebration will be turned to wails and lament.  The fruit basket was a message of judgment.

What was the reason for God’s judgment?

Why does Amos bring this message of judgment?  Why would God deal so harshly with his people?  The oppression of the poor brought God’s judgment upon his people.  The people addressed are those who trample upon the needy and cause the poor of the land to cease.  They are literally exterminating the poor through their greed and exploitation. 

These merchants were trying to squeeze every penny from the hands of the poor.  Their policies were making it impossible for the poor to survive.  They exploited the poor by giving smaller measures than expected, charging very high prices, using rigged scales, and selling corrupted or adulterated merchandise (wheat mixed with the sweepings from the floor).  Amos said that God has sworn not to forget their deeds.  This judgment is the opposite of forgiveness when our sins are “remembered no more.”

I heard about a recent study by a Harvard professor and economist where 5,000 Americans were surveyed regarding the wealth inequity in our nation.  The survey was a cross-section of our population economically, educationally, and politically (republicans and democrats).  Ninety-two percent of those surveyed felt there was inequity in the distribution of the nation’s wealth, but almost none had an accurate picture of the current wealth distribution.

The top 1% of our nation’s 311 million people have 40% of our nation’s wealth.  The bottom 80% have a collective total of 7% of our nation’s wealth, and the bottom 40% (more than 124 million people) have practically none of our nation’s wealth (it is statically insignificant).  Many of these people are living in poverty in the richest nation in the world. 

This trend of inequity has significantly accelerated in the last 20 to 30 years.  The top 1% receive 24% of the nation’s income and own 50% of the nation’s stock.  The average CEO makes 380 times what his average worker makes (his average, not his lowest paid worker).  So his average worker must work more than a month to earn what the CEO makes in one hour.

I wonder what Amos would think?  More importantly, I wonder what God thinks about the economic policies and practices that favor the wealthy and lead to the oppression of the poor in our nation and around the world.  When the people of God fail to speak to the injustice in their communities by our silence we endorse it.  When we refuse to act to correct these injustices, we ignore the urging of a Savior who said when you did it for the least of these you did it for me.

What was the nature of God’s Judgment?

Amos says he remembers our deeds—he remembers our sin.  And, because he remembers, the nation will tremble.  There will be fear and mourning.  There will be chaos and unrest.  There will be darkness.  Their festivals will be turned to mourning.  Their singing will be turned to weeping.  They will exchange their party clothes for sack cloth.  Their heads will be shaven because of their grief and mourning.  The grief will be profound—like the grief that comes at the death of an only son! 

Maybe the most profound judgment coming is the famine.  It will not be a famine of food or drink, but rather a famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord.  There will be no word from God.  No matter how far they search (sea to sea) they will not find it.  From the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, there will be no “word from God.”

Nothing worse can happen to the people of God than to have no word from the Lord—for men do not live by bread of alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.  The merchants of Amos’ day who thought the sacred seasons and Sabbath observances were a waste of time and kept them from earning a profit, are coming to a day when they will search for a word from God and not find it.

Sometimes our lives are so removed from the world around us that we miss the pain, but it is all around us.  Here are just a few examples:

(1) Bob and Carol are young adults raising their two children in a small town in our state.  They both work hourly jobs, but neither of their employers provide health care benefits.  Bob employer keeps his hours below the threshold which requires them to provide benefits, and the small business where Carol works does not provide health care coverage.  Since our Missouri legislature refused to accept the Medicaid expansion which is a part of the affordable health care act, they will remain without coverage even though they have a child with special health care needs.  They receive too little health care and the pay higher prices for the care they receive.  Our current health care policies imply that the health of hundreds of thousands of Missourians does not matter.  Ten people die each week in our state for lack of health care.

(2) Missouri’s income tax code was last updated in 1931.  Our top tax bracket is $9,000.  While $9,000 was a significant income in 1931, not many of us would consider it adequate today.  What does this mean?  It means that our tax code, which was at one time progressive and fair, has been become regressive and unfair over than last 80 plus years.  It means the poorest 20% in our state pay a much higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes (including sales tax) than the wealthy in our state (nearly twice as high).   In fact they pay a higher percentage than any other group.  This is the group (the bottom 20%) who earn less than $17,000 per year. Is it right for the poor to pay a higher percentage in taxes than we do?

(3) John works for minimum wage and accepts all the overtime he can get to help support his family—his wife Joyce and their son John, Jr.  Joyce also works part-time for minimum wage.  They live in a small home in the city which they have been paying on for 15 years.  When his 10 year old car broke down, John got a payday loan to pay for the repair bill because his bank would not loan him the money.  Without his car John had no way to get to work.  Because our state has almost no restrictions on payday and car title lenders, John is charged more than 500 percent for the loan.  The payday loan industry is permitted to charge over 1,500 percent in our state.  A week after he takes the loan to fix his car he is laid off of his job.  While he works odd jobs to buy food for his family the spiral of debt and interest quickly puts the family in freefall.   They fall behind on their mortgage and lose their home.  Because we have practically no restrictions on campaign contributions, the payday loan industry makes contributions to legislators of both political parties to ensure no real payday loan reform is ever passed.  The people of God cannot be silent in the face this injustice which allows an industry to prey on the working poor in our state just because they have nowhere else to turn.

For most of my ministry I have led congregations to feed the poor, and to provide emergency assistance, but I have done little to lead congregations to work on the systemic problems and unjust systems that keep people trapped in poverty.  In the past ten years I have become involved in several efforts within the faith community to address these injustices including Missouri Faith Voices.  Missouri Faith Voices is a statewide, ecumenical network of congregations organizing to address the real needs and issues in their communities and our state.  The message of Amos is—the time is ripe! The time is now for the people of God to be heard.