|Clarke Fitzgerald's The Plumb-line and the City|
"Out of the Ordinary: Ripe; for Judgement or Flourishing?"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
August 25, 2019
Luke 13:1-9; Amos 8:1-11, 9:11-15
We have reached the end of this series of sermons on the prophet Amos. Perhaps that’s a relief. But it’s not the end of the relevance of Amos to our life and faith. I have learned a lot and enjoyed my summer with Amos. I think he is going to hang out together more, now that we have grown closer. I met Amos once before, fifteen years ago. I had just completed my second year of seminary and was a lay staff member at the church I served. The pastor there graciously mentored me by allowing me to preach about once a month. That summer of 2004, the hotel workers at independently owned hotels in the vicinity of LAX were trying to unionize. Their hourly wage was good, but they were prevented from working enough hours to earn health benefits and they were at the mercy of managers who adjusted their hours to prevent them from working a second hourly job. The independent hotel owners enjoyed huge profits from a distance.
The connection to Amos seemed obvious to me.
“Listen to this, you who live off of the needy and oppress the poor of the land, you who say, “If only the New Moon were over so we could sell our grain,” and, “When Sabbath is over, we will sell our wheat charging higher prices for smaller portions, thus tilting the scales in our favor. That way, we can buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – and even make a profit on the chaff of the wheat!”
From the pulpit of that big-steepled sanctuary near Beverly Hills I preached that it was wrong for the children of the hotel workers to go without healthcare benefits or shoes while the owners profited. Little did I realize that the largest donor to that congregation owned one of those hotels. My intention was not to anger or shame him, but to advocate for the workers that:
“The days are coming – it is YHWH who speaks – when the one who plows will meet the one who reaps, when the mountains will run with new wine and the hills will all flow with it.”
That member left the congregation. The senior pastor and the leadership of the congregation supported me. But there were consequences. Doing what is just does not dismiss the difficult consequences of our actions. The fruit which we reap from faithful actions may be bitter fruit.
Amos is often remembered as the source of two powerful visual metaphors that echo throughout scripture. The first image is the plumbline – God’s gracious reminder and example of upright conduct. In my mind I see a line stretched from the dynamic, living Being that is the source of all being, and drawn toward the gravity of our human existence – which shifts and changes with time and place – history and circumstance. The plumbline reminds us of the ethical living that swings toward the realization of the beloved community – or kin-dom of God.
· people are not to be treated as things;
· human welfare supersedes commercial profit;
· no pledged word is negotiable for the sake of self-interest or self-advantage;
· hatred of “the other” is inadmissible in the human heart;
· personal ambition must be limited by the rights of the helpless; and
· vengeance must be renounced.
Last week, I suggested that for those of us who follow Jesus, this ethic – this plumbline – is made flesh in the way of Jesus – forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. Sometimes we bump up against this plumbline, setting it to sway – sometimes erratically or violently – making it difficult to know how to live. But the plumbline is always stretching to connect God’s desire for the flourishing of creation and the gravity of our human condition. The plumbline helps us to build our lives in God’s direction.
The other powerful image that Amos used and set in motion is the basket of ripe summer fruit – or figs in most translations. A luscious crop of figs is a metaphor of faithfulness and reliance on God’s goodness. But commentator J. A. Motyer reminds us there is a another meaning. It also recalls “to the people the fact that they had been gathered in themselves from among the nations to be the people of God. The sense of prosperity with its attendant buoyancy toward the future would have filled the minds of the worshippers as they came bearing their harvest [baskets] to the shrines of Israel. Into this situation came a bitter word from Y H W H: Ripe? Ripe indeed – for judgement! They came into the presence of God not just with ripe fruit but as ripe fruit, ripened over the months and years of moral and spiritual probation which [God] had afforded them…,” like the vinedresser having intervened with the vineyard owner, extending one more year of grace after another, but “now, sadly, ready for a particularly [unpleasant] harvest time.”[i]
The unquestioning reliance of their religion on the goodness and grace of Y H W H – the womb of life and wooer of unconditional love – had betrayed them. They had slipped or plummeted into the presumption that whatever furnace they built, God would rescue them from the fire of its judgement. So when Amos warns, “Bad things will happen to good people!” the powerful – those who have been tilting the scales ever so lightly in their own favor and leveraging the circumstances of poverty to further disadvantage the poor – blithely respond, “Surely God is not like this! … why, [these] are not even real sins” – don’t even call them atrocities – “they are just the way life is lived and has to be lived in this hard world: where’s the sin in being a successful [entrepreneur]? Surely, it’s a bit hard if religion is going to insist on” forgoing the greatest possible profit – “losing [out] to one’s competitors! Surely that’s religious mania!” Yet, “Y H W H swears by the Pride of Jacob, ‘I will never forget a single thing you have done.’”[ii]
A society which discounts or disregards the consequences of its actions displays familiar characteristics. It displays insecurity, sorrow or feigned and shallow folly, bitterness, a fixation on victory at all costs, an aversion to reality of limits, and pursuit of immortality. The further we get from alignment with the plumbline the further we become untethered from the source and end of being. Motyer points out that “there is equally – indeed primarily – a dimension here of the biblical doctrine of world conservation. When [we] get out of step with God, nature gets out of step with [us] and is corrupted and polluted from its [vitality].”[iii]
Next week I will begin a new sermon series on the season of creation. Consider this a foreshadowing that cannot wait. Our planet is on fire – not just burning but being burned – and for exactly the reasons that Amos prosecutes the leaders and the people of the northern kingdom.
Here I quote one of our very own modern day prophets – recently retired United Methodist missionary photojournalist, Paul Jeffrey.
“The burning of the Amazon is not accidental. The resource pirates who have long seen the Amazon as an unlimited source of profit have been turned loose by Brazil’s new president, Bolsonaro. Among those who continue to fight for the forest are church activists like Father José Amaro Lopes de Souza. … Father Amaro serves the Anapu parish, and was a close friend of Sister Dorothy Stang, the U.S. nun who was killed by ranchers there in 2005. Father Amaro, like Dorothy an ardent human rights advocate and champion of the forest and those who live in it, was arrested last year on what his defenders claim are charges invented by local allies of Bolsonaro. As his case works its way through the legal system, he spends his days under house arrest in [a] room in the local bishop's residence.
“The people burning down the Amazon are the same ones who killed Dorothy and are trying to get rid of Amaro. The massive destruction is a sign of the corruption, greed, and disregard for science that characterize the Bolsonaro regime, which is backed enthusiastically by [our own regime]. We must do more than put out the fires. We must extinguish the faux populism that elects criminals like Bolsonaro …. And we must support the real heroes like Amaro who struggle every day to keep alive the forest and those who dwell therein.”
Well, we are out of time. We have been pressing toward the end of Amos, because there I see a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. It is a hope in what the God of Being Always Becoming says shall come to pass. It is the promise that builds vitality and resistance to the threat of insurrection and invasion. It is the promise of Jesus’ way. It is the promise that points to abundance and enjoyment.
“On that day, I will set up again the fallen tent of David. I will mend its tears, restore its ruins, and rebuild it strong as it was in the days of old, …. It is YHWH who speaks, YHWH who will carry this out!
“The days are coming – it is YHWH who speaks – when the one who plows will meet the one who reaps, when the mountains will run with new wine and the hills will all flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people who contend with me. They will build the ruined cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink the wine, dig their gardens. …. It is YHWH your God who speaks.”
Beloved, in the end we are left with a hope and a burden. Indeed, the meaning of the name Amos is “burden.” The hope is that greater security comes from the flourishing of all than from the building of a wall. The burden is that we are called, in whatever small way we can, to strive for the flourishing of creation in connection with God and with neighbor. We cannot all be prophets – those who see and sigh and say, “It is Y H W H who speaks.” That is a form of caring for persons and the world to which only a few are called – and perhaps not even as often as once in a generation. We cannot all fight the fires in the Amazon. That is a form of caring for persons and the world that our leaders may not even get around to in time – though some, like Macron of France are attempting this weekend at the G7 meeting.
The burden we all share – having been lovingly yet insistently alerted – is to connect our actions and choices to their consequences – both direct and indirect. Our burden, as hearers of Amos and followers of Jesus, is to act with justice, to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.
[i] J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1974), 177.
[ii] Ibid., 178-9.
[iii] Ibid., 180.