Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
In a book I once read about spiritual disciplines, the author stated that instead of trying to fit our devotional time into our busy schedules, we should plan around a set time of regular prayer and scripture reading. We needed to begin our day by committing ourselves once again to Jesus Christ, to help us remember that we were his disciples and not the other way around. I would love to say that I kneel before God faithfully every day, but I admit that sometimes I’m faithful and sometimes I’m not. My guess is that many of you fall into the same category. We sometimes find ourselves close to God, other times we find ourselves barely able to remember when we last took deliberate time to pray.
I’ve met other pastors who don’t remember when they last felt close to God. In fact, they seem to be proud of this “amnesia.” They don’t have time to pray. They don’t have time for scripture. They’re too busy doing ministry. One pastor I know even questioned the dedication of those who took a Sabbath day. He insisted that it was just a clever way of getting out of work.
It’s clear from this week’s passages that both Amos and Mary would disagree…
In both passages, people are also taking God for granted or making assumptions that have no basis. In Martha’s case, she assumes that Jesus will bless her choice, not asking Jesus what he wants. Of course, Jesus is on my side and not Mary’s—why wouldn’t he be? For the people of Amos’ time, no doubt, assume that God is there for their purposes. There may have been those so bold as to thank God for their prosperity and wealth. After all, things are going well for them, so God must be showering them with blessing. They are conveniently ignoring the fact that some in their community are dying of hunger. How often do we assume that God blesses whatever we have chosen to do vs. actually praying and discerning before we do something? We’re Christians—therefore, we must be blessed in whatever we do. Too often, we have fallen into the “ask forgiveness, not permission” mind-set when it comes to God. And some have gone further yet and are beyond caring about permission or forgiveness.
Amos, as we remember, prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel during the late and mid eighth century BCE. At some point during this time, a social revolution occurred. At one time, there appeared to be no major economic distinctions between the peoples. Archaeologists know this from their discovery of housing structures dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries BCE. But at some point, during Jeroboam’s rule, economics changed and social classes emerged. Eighth-century dwellings consisted of large, extravagant homes and groupings of smaller, simple houses (James Luther Mays, Amos [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969], p 2).
God sent Amos to prophesy against the inequality and injustice against the poor in Israel. Our passage for today is one of four visions reports from Amos, each beginning with the statement “and this is what He showed me” (see 7:1-3, 4-6, 7-9). In the first few verses of this passage, Amos reports that he sees a basket of summer fruit, but God replies that the end has come upon my people Israel. There is a wordplay here that we wouldn’t understand in English—the Hebrew words for “summer fruit” and “end” are similar in sound. God is connecting the ordinary to the divine. He has given Israel every chance to repent. In chapter seven he relented when Amos asked him to forgive, but the people have not turned back. So for the second time, he has declared that “on that day,”—the Day of Judgment—hymns of praise will become cries of lament, and many would die.
In verses four through eight we hear the list of offenses. The rich have run down the needy and the poor. They have despised the Sabbath, more concerned about selling their goods and becoming even wealthier than they were about God’s law. The phase “make the ephah small and the shekel” refers to a measuring trick used when people (probably the poor) came in to sell, cheating them and paying them less than their goods were worth. The people had gotten so concerned about their own wants and desires that they were willing to cheat the poor and let their neighbors starve to make one more shekel. Clearly, they had forgotten who they were and to whom they belonged. They had forgotten God’s way—convenient “amnesia” as the money rolled in. And God let them know that He wouldn’t forget about what they were doing.
Our passage in Luke is so familiar that it’s hard to find a fresh approach to preaching it. Who hasn’t heard of Mary and Martha? And when it’s preached, pastors have often contrasted Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet with Martha’s hurrying to fix dinner for the guests. Therefore, it is puzzling why Jesus would tell Martha that what she’s doing is distracting. How else would they eat, if someone didn’t fix dinner?
But actually, the Greek word “diakonia”—the word often translated as “fixing dinner”—is where we get our English word “deacon.” Martha wasn’t fixing a meal as we might assume—in fact, we don’t even know what time it was. She was running around distracted by tasks of ministry and mission. In modern day, it would be as though we’re preparing for a Bible study in the parlor while Jesus is teaching in the sanctuary. Martha isn’t doing anything wrong, but her timing is a little off. She’s missing the fact that the Master is sitting right in her living room! And not only that, but she doesn’t even realize how comical her complaint to Jesus is: “Can’t you see all of this hard work I’m doing to further your mission? I’m leading Bible study tomorrow, I’ve got the Ladies’ Guild on Thursday, and I’m doing the children’s sermon next week! Tell Mary to stop sitting there listening to you teach and make her come help me figure out how to teach others about you!”
Martha is so busy with ministry—a good idea—that she has forgotten to come and connect with her Lord and Savior—an even better idea. And not only that, but she judges those who stop and are filled by the one who is the Resurrection and the Life, who has the Life-Giving Water, the one who is the True Vine. She’s running on her own power instead of on God’s power. But Jesus gently reminds her that Mary has chosen what is right in this case, and that won’t be taken away. He isn’t judging or chiding…his voice is gently admonishing and reminding her.
Both of these texts—either together or separately—give us a variety of options for preaching. They connect with each other in that they both feature a person or group of people who have strayed from what God wants, though are obviously in different stages of disobedience. Martha has simply stumbled. She got a little full of herself and her own importance. But we don’t know if perhaps after Jesus spoke to her, she joined her sister at his feet. It very well could have happened. In the case of the ones to whom Amos is prophesying, they are far beyond stumbling. They have fallen flat on their faces and have ignored every opportunity God has given them to repent and do what is right. The fact that we have two distinct examples at opposite ends of the spectrum gives us a chance as preachers to explore with the congregation where they feel they are along that continuum, and where they feel they are as a church. Of course, we know the instinctual response. Most likely everyone would report that they are more like Martha—so busy doing God’s work that they forgot about God. Who wants to admit to trampling on other people? But how often do we do that without realizing it? Are we really just a stumble away from God, or have we fallen and just haven’t figured it out yet?
No Time for God seems to be a general problem in the world. The problem is that we still have the Medieval idea of spending time at the altar in some beautiful church like some pious medieval monk as the only way to spend time with God in our daily lives. How about instead we pray quietly instead of looking at our phone. We can always just take a moment to say hello to God even as we walk through the streets. So next time you walk by a flowering tree with its accompanying wonderful sweet odor or by a wonderful Barbecue place in the middle of the city which smells wonderful be grateful for all the wonderful things we have in our world. At that moment thank our Creator God. Instead of obsessing about the latest political scandal on our android or iPhone take a few moments to appreciate the wonderful nature of freshly grown tomatoes or the sweet hug you got from a parent or child. Turn away from petty pursuits and turn to the sweetness of God.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
I tend to pray comfortable prayers, like “Thank you for another day,” or “Please help so and so,” or “Help me be more like you.” I approach God with a sense of habit and familiarity. These aren’t bad things to pray and, in many respects, my comfort with God is a good thing.
But sometimes I wonder: Am I too comfortable with God? Am I taking God for granted? In my mundane, daily prayers, have I lost sight of who God really is?
There is a Comfort Problem. My regular prayers may be sweet and simple, but they also reflect something disturbing: my tendency to regard God primarily as the one who gets me through the day. Isn’t my faith meant to be more than this? Am I not called to do more than make it through each day? Shouldn’t I live with a keen awareness of God’s presence and power? Bob Goff said it this way: “Live your life right on the edge of ‘Yikes!’”
If I’m honest, I’m usually more at the edge of “yawn.”
Can you relate? The core of this problem goes beyond just feeling too comfortable in our lives—it’s about how we tend to let our comfort invade our perceptions of God. My fear is that we’ve become too used to the gospel and too flippant about our faith. We often struggle to remember the underlying truth that God is not there just to direct our paths and make sure we don’t screw up (though he does graciously provide direction!). He’s not there to passively receive our list of requests (though he certainly cares about and listens to each item!). He’s not even there just to be sure we live lives that honor him (though he certainly desires for us to do so!). (https://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2015/july-22/do-you-take-god-for-granted.html)
That might seem like a silly question, but I assure you it’s not. People take God for granted all the time. We’re all guilty of it to one degree or another.
We as humans have a knack for taking the things for granted that we have come to depend on or expect. Most of us expect a roof over our heads, clothes to wear, and food to eat. Do we thank God for those things daily? No, I mean do we REALLY thank God for those things daily? Or do we just come to expect those things without giving them a second thought?
When we pray, do we go through the motions repeating some basic list of requests we ask for each day? Or do we instead pray with enthusiasm and intensity as if we really want to communicate with, and acknowledge God?
It is very easy to take for granted the phenomenon that we are each alive, but we must try not to.” ~~ Alex Grey Do you get that quote? We even take for granted the fact that we’re alive. If you’re not already doing so, you should be thanking God for every breath of air, every drop of water and every morsel of food that sustains your life. Take away any one of those, and we will die. That is nothing to take for granted.
Now I don’t think any of us mean to take God for granted, it’s just that darn human nature that’s always warring against us. Also, the basics of food, water and shelter come much easier to us in most modern countries. Because it comes much easier, we tend to take it for granted.
The wealth and blessings of this country has never been experienced by any other country before. Those of us born and raised here have come to expect a nice place to live and plenty to eat and drink. Most of us don’t have to sacrifice much of anything to have these things so they become cheap in our eyes. Unfortunately, when that happens, we begin taking them for granted.
It happens in marriages all the time. A husband comes to expect a delicious dinner on the table after work every day. The wife expects the garbage to be taken out and things to be kept in repair. We start expecting things to be taken care of because they have been in the past, and we stop appreciating the ones who do those things for us.
That’s just what happens with us and God. After all, we are the bride, and Christ is the husband.
It’s sad when you think about how we treat God compared to how He treats us. First of all, God never takes us for granted. He blesses us, He wants nothing but the best for us, and He provides us with food, water, clothing and shelter. He helps us with our problems, comforts us when we’re sad, holds our hand while we go through trials, encourages us when we need it, and is there for us 24/7.
How do most of us repay His kindness? Instead of us getting on our knees every day, lifting up our hands in adoration and spending most of our prayer time thanking Him. We muter through a brief half hearted prayer expecting everything to continue as it has been, as if we somehow deserved it.
I know not everyone is guilty of that all the time, but I wonder if any of us is as grateful to God as we should be.
I think this quote pretty much sums it up:
“When something does not insist on being noticed, when we aren’t grabbed by the collar or struck on the skull by a presence or an event, we take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” ~~ Cynthia Ozick
Isn’t that how we are so often with God? He does for us constantly, but because He doesn’t blow a trumpet every time He blesses us, protects us, provides for us, or defends us; we just expect it to happens, and rarely give it a second thought.
I hope this short admonishment to us all, will help us all, to wake up and start showing more gratitude to our God, and make our taking Him for granted a thing of the past. (http://mikeshanta.com/do-you-take-god-for-granted/)
The British Good Morning program on ITV had an interesting moment when they felt that modern day children and young adults should be grateful for the time in which they live. However, recent studies have shown that this is not the case. They instead are constantly anxious because they cannot escape the news and the other communications brought to us constantly by our phones. They are constantly anxious because of the constant political uncertainty in Modern Day Britain goes the reasoning. While there is some validity to this angst it was quickly pointed out that in living memory of many British people who lived through the blitz that there was the constant chance of sudden death.
We seem to have lost the ability to be grateful.
A new word — a new challenge. The English language is ever evolving, and you can now add a new word to your lexicon: workism. In a February 2019 article for The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson coined this term to describe a rising trend in our culture. In Thompson’s analysis, the primary purpose of work has shifted from a focus on material production, as it had been in the early 20th century, and has become a means of identity production. According to Thompson, economists 100 years ago failed to predict work transforming “into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence and community.”
We’re all familiar with the idea of a workaholic, someone who works compulsively or is even addicted to work. Thompson uses this idea as a building block for his concept, defining workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Though Thompson never directly mentions specific faith practices, the article frames workism as a type of religion in competition with traditional religious belief systems. The author claims that everyone worships something, whether it’s beauty, politics or children, and goes on to warn that “workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”
Set in a fictional area of England in the time period from 1912 to 1926, the popular television series Downton Abbey showcased the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants. As wealthy landowners, the Crawleys always had plenty of free time for walking in the garden, gathering in the parlor for conversation, hosting parties or going on vacations. While the Crawley family itself is fictional, the show does depict a realistic period in history when the wealthy worked little, especially when compared to those in lower classes. Rich Americans living in the same era also had an abundance of leisure time to entertain and be entertained. For years, that was the American dream: work less, play more.
Yet the trend in our modern world defies this dream, according to Thompson. Americans now work more hours than citizens of other countries with similar productivity, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Americans also take shorter vacations and enjoy fewer retirement benefits. In 1980, the highest-earning men worked less than middle- and low-income men. By 2005, that trend had shifted dramatically, with the richest 10 percent of married men having the longest average workweek. “Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics,” writes Thompson, “toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.”
Why are we working more, not less? In some cases, it’s because of the expectations and demands of employers. Yet according to recent research, for many men and women, long hours are a choice. Thompson argues that one reason many make this choice is that work has become so intimately connected to emotional and spiritual fulfillment. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans choose to spend their extra hours on work because “it’s where they feel most themselves,” writes Thompson. Work is their home; work is their play. My son, who works in the financial advising industry, confirmed this notion and told me that when he gets home from a long day at the office, he often chooses to read a work-related book because it gives him enjoyment. For him, it’s part of the creative process that helps him grow his business.
It’s hard to read Scripture without coming to the conclusion that being a follower of Christ means leaving behind worldly desires. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” How do we balance complete devotion to Christ with the requirements of our work lives? This question is even trickier if work is our source of joy and fulfillment and plays an important part of our identity.
It’s common knowledge that many Americans would rather work, hike, catch up on household chores or do a number of other things besides worshipping with a faith community on the weekend. The competition is fierce. It forces us to ask, Why are so many people no longer thirsty for what the church offers? Whether conscious or not, everyone seeks meaning and connection. As those who share the good news of God’s grace and everlasting love, we must continue to offer Christ as a foundation, even in a world obsessed with workism and other sources of identity and meaning.
What Thompson misses in his comparison between workism and religion is that true religion is about surrendering our false identities to God and letting God transform us into new beings, into our true selves. While workism can provide a temporary substitute for divine connection, it will fail us at some point. Ask anyone who has been laid off, fired, retired, or become disabled. One’s identity can take a huge hit when the work is no longer there. Yet when we fall in love with Jesus, everything else aligns behind that love. Consider the words to the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” written by Isaac Watts in 1707:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all. (https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9710/what-is-workism?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content= What%20is%20workism%3F&utm_campaign=MM%20Newsletter%20070319)
Our Luke passage brings up the age-old issue of “being” vs. “doing.” In our society today, we have made “doing” central in our lives. What is the first question one asks a stranger? “What is your name?” The second question, “So, what do you do?” And then we assign value to that person depending on the answer. A doctor or lawyer who lives in a nice house and has a thriving practice is often more impressive to us than those who are struggling to get by. One of my friends chose to stay home after her baby was born and has received several disapproving looks or comments from those who have asked her what she does for a living. Society has decided that staying home to raise and nurture a child is equivalent of doing nothing. Martha judged Mary the same way – “here I am, doing the work of the Lord, and you’re just sitting there doing nothing. Jesus, make her get up and help me!”
We absolutely thrive on stress, especially when we can compare our stress to someone else’s and come out looking the most frenzied. “You worked 50 hours this week? Well, I worked about 65.” Or… “You got up at 7:00 this morning? Well, that’s nothing – I got up at 5:30 this morning to get everything done that I needed to and didn’t even have time for breakfast.” Whoever is the most harried and hurried and harassed wins! But what exactly do we win? Clogged arteries from eating fast food? Heart attacks from working too hard and resting too little? Shakiness and anxiety from our caffeine rush we must have to counteract the lack of sleep we got the night before? Alienation from our families, our God, and ourselves? It’s a game we should research carefully before we discern whether or not to play. The winner may end up dead, or at least dead inside.
It’s easy for us to shake our head at those against whom Amos was prophesying. Trampling on the needy. For shame. Cheating the poor. How could you? But are we really any better? How many of us will go home tonight and check to see if we have enough food to feed ourselves and our families? Most of us probably will check to see what of about three or four choices we will serve. How many of us go to bed at night wondering if tomorrow is the day our gas or electricity or phones will be shut off because we fed our children instead of paying our bills. Most of us probably will be adjusting the temperature of the air conditioner. We can easily excuse ourselves and say that we would help if we saw the need, but most of the time we just need to open our eyes. In my community, we help people who fall through the cracks – they make just a little too much for food bank assistance, but not enough to pay for food, rent, and the rising gas bills, so the church has tried to help in whatever way we can. Three members of my church have told me that if I see a need, they will provide the finances necessary to help. These members live in middle to upper-class neighborhoods and admit that they are not in day to day contact with those who would need money simply to feed their families. But they solved that problem by finding someone who is and offering their help. Their eyes are wide open.
Martha wasn’t caught up in unimportant things—she was doing ministry and mission. If she were alive today, she would be sitting in the church office in the morning returning phone calls, preparing her report for the next church meeting, running off copies of her Bible study hand-out…and in the afternoon would be out visiting a woman who had a new baby and then going to the hospital to visit the man who just had surgery, and would probably swing by to say hello to one of her colleagues. It wasn’t the fact that she was doing that was the problem. It’s that she was missing the opportunity right before her to be with Jesus. She was simply in the wrong place at the right time. At that particular time, she was doing God’s work when she was invited to be in God’s presence.
We, too, are continually holding the concepts of being and doing in tension with each other. When we remember that we are the clay and not the Potter, we’re pretty good at being. When we begin to think that we’re the Potter, we begin to think the world rests on our shoulders and won’t slow down. The world is too heavy for our shoulders, and we were never meant to carry it. Our job is to walk with Christ and follow his lead—the Christ who went away and prayed by himself just as often as he healed the sick.
How would we have reacted to those extravagant homes in Amos’ time? We are fascinated by the way the rich live, or at least how people live who are richer than we are. In the town where I lived for a few years, a new subdivision was built just a few blocks from where I went to school. It was the only subdivision at the time that had two-story homes, and that caused quite the stir. In the evening, a very popular form of entertainment was to slowly drive up and down the streets of the subdivision, admiring the styles and colors of the finished homes and the progress of the ones still being built. Unfortunately, people were so busy looking at the houses that they didn’t watch where they were driving. The other feature of the subdivision was that the mailboxes were street-side vs. attached to the houses – and several of them had to be replaced that first year.
“God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus [New York: Crossroads, 1989], p. 17)
“Intimacy with God cannot be rushed. We cannot enjoy the presence of God if we are always looking at our watches.” (Calvin Miller, The Table of Inwardness [Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1984], p. 35)
“The question is not: ‘How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results?’ But: …’Do you know the Incarnate God?’” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus [New York: Crossroads, 1989], p. 24)
“We know from experience that…our lives become fragmented into many tasks and obligations that drain us. How then do we keep our goal clear? By the discipline of prayer: the discipline that helps us to bring God back again and again to the center of our life.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now [New York: Crossroads, 1994], p. 77)
“In Judaica the Sabbath is loved as a bride or queen. Deep in our beings there is a longing for completion, and all sorts of prostitutes in our culture compete to satisfy that yearning. Only holy time, in which we experience the presence of God, can fill our emptiness.” (Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], p. xv)
“We will always be…busy with many urgent demands, but when there is a time and place set apart to return to our God who offers us eternal life, we can come to realize that the many things we have to do, to say, or to think no longer distract us.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now [New York: Crossroads, 1994], p. 78)
“We cannot be filled with God until we are not so full of ourselves. Our hearts and minds, wonderful as they are, are simply too small. We cannot give our hearts to God, or anyone else for that matter, as long as they are too heavy for us to lift.” (Robert Benson, Living Prayer [New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998], p. 27)
“If you want to worry, worry about that which is worth the effort. Worry aboutlarger things than your family, your friends or tomorrow’s meeting. Worry about the things of God: truth, life, and light.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now [New York: Crossroads, 1994], p. 104)
“Most of our inferiority complexes derive from the fact that we haven’t done everything we wish to do or haven’t been as productive as someone else. No matter who we are, we can always find someone who has accomplished more, so we are doomed to always feel second rate.” (Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], p. 17)
When we ignore the poor, our own judgment is tri-partite. We are as good as dead as a people because all we have is our SUV’s. We are indeed in mourning because that is what anxiety and rushing and defensiveness are all trying, unsuccessfully, to hide. And finally, we are wandering. We are a people who have the capacity to drive anywhere but have no direction. The triple judgment of Amos is very profound – and can all be seen in a basket of fruit.
That basket needs full attention. Is it just mine? Or is it just ours? Or is it something that comes alive when we share it? Amos knows we must share it. He calls the not sharing, a “trampling” of the poor. Again, this is heavy stuff and it is hard to make connections between current wealth and current poverty.
I recommend the preacher don a bulletproof vest and get his or her resume out before preaching this text. Then I recommend preaching it by devoting deep attention to the fruit. Is it really wrong for biological humans to desperately want fruit and bread, grain and the silver that buys it? I think not. Indeed, Amos is arguing that all people are desperate for fruit. That fruit, food, biological bounty is so good that all people must have it. Thus says the Lord: I am not anti-food so much as pro-distribution. One way through the horror of the judgment of the prophet Amos is to unpack the guilt trip. Looking deeply we see that we all need food. We therefore want to share. We want to share not just to avoid judgment but also because we know the human’s urgency for food!
Whose fruit is it anyway? Is it not the bounty of the Lord and not the bounty of the marketplace? In other words, did we really earn the fruit by working hard or was some other serendipitous mechanism at work?
The guilt reduction act of 2004 applies. There is no spiritual purpose in getting people to feel more guilty about their fruit and their SUV’s. There is spiritual purpose in avoiding the defensively laid traps and finding a way to excite people about a world and a way that is different than what we have. A world where we don’t need to mourn or be afraid about the “end of our people.” We know our people will survive because we have looked deeply. We know our people will survive because we choose not to trample each other. In this world, the mourning is over; the sackcloth has gone into the closet. Instead of mourning our death, we rejoice in our common life. Finally, in this world the wandering ceases. We know where we are going: our destiny is justice.
Our kids were all home for the holidays. There were the usual squabbles about who had borrowed the last money from whom, typically in front of parents, and how some people were deadbeats. At any given moment someone was always in the deadbeat category. I got sick of this squabbling and announced “aren’t we all deeply indebted to each other?” Yes, indeed we are.
We are all also under a kind of rubble, like that 97 year old Iranian woman, found after the earthquake, alive Did we not find our life in her life? Is she not someone with whom we would like to share fruit? Do we also not need to rise above the rubble of our life?
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, argues that most people have about three or four major projects at any given time. They have fifty or sixty unfinished projects sitting behind these on the front burner. Allen consults with people about how to get things done. He argues that we face the karma of incompletion. He suggests that we clear our mind of all those things we had hoped to do we had not done. I still have Christmas recipes sitting around, calling my name. Guess what? They aren’t going to get done. Some did get done. That’s where Allen would focus us. Is this incompletion not a sign of the wandering that comes from not paying attention to the fair distribution of fruit? Aren’t there some projects that need to bump above others?
I had the privilege of hearing Desmond Tutu speak not long before the apartheid system broke down in South Africa. In speaking of the poor and disenfranchised in his country, he said, “We don’t want to share the crumbs from the Master’s table; we want to participate in the preparation of the meal itself.”
Here’s what contemporary rotten fruit looks like. Impurity (that which makes us unfit to come before God) offends our notion that humanity is fundamentally good - it is the soiling of life with things that make us unacceptable to God. Dissension (a flying apart) describes a group in which the people disagree on fundamental principles as well as disliking one another. Witchcraft (literally ‘use of drugs’) follows idolatry and portrays our efforts to control God if not make God over in our own image.
This rotten fruit poison us! This fruit brings self-destruction and collapse of any group to which one belongs - when we do not acknowledge God, these degrading passions control us, and we do things that should not be done. This fruit also insures we do not inherit the Kingdom of God. Amos, and later Paul in Galatians, recognizes that life built on consuming these fruits retains an eternal threat that even Christ’s grace does not remove.
“We are all manufacturers. Making good, making trouble or making excuses.” H. V. Adolt.
“An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.” Alexander Pope .
“He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.” Benjamin Franklin .
“No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has.” Henry Ward Beecher.
“Subtlety may deceive you; integrity never will.” Oliver Cromwell. .
“The time is always right to do the right thing.” Martin Luther King, Jr. .
“I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity an obligation; every possession a duty.” John D. Rockefeller.
Mother Teresa understood who she was. She had looked intently into her situation and expressed it this way. “By blood and origin I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus.” (Lucinda Vandy, comp., Mother Teresa: A Simple Path (New York: Ballantine, 1995), xxvi-xxvii).
As an act to correct some of the social injustice in Venezuela, the nation’s government is considering a plan to decriminalize theft for the hungry. According to Reuters (1/16/04), the Venezuelan government is thinking about not making it a crime if people nonviolently steal food or medicine, if the theft is motivated by extreme hunger or need. Supreme Court Judge Alejandro Angula Fontiverso announced that he favored the “famine theft” clause on humanitarian grounds. Critics of the plan argue that it will fuel crime in a country that has been mired in recession and where police last year reported an average of 25 murders per day and thousands of robberies each month. Supporters of the proposal, however, point out that the “famine theft” exemption would apply only to those who engage in nonviolent crimes, and thus violent offenders would still be able to be prosecuted. Approximately 2/3 of Venezuela’s 25 million people live in poverty, and a third of those cannot afford basic food, despite the fact the nation has huge oil reserves.
Just as greed dominated the culture in Amos’s day, greed continues to be a dominant characteristic in our contemporary society. According to Reuters (12/18/03), one of the biggest status symbols in New York City right now is the ability to brag about how big your closets are. The more room you have to store up the possessions that you have accumulated for yourself, the more envied you are nowadays. One doctor told a reporter, “If I told you how much closet space I have, you would die. I have more closet space than I can fill!” The physician said that when people visit his apartment in Manhattan, “They salivate, and they get jealous.” Another New Yorker told a reporter that she chose an apartment that had big closets and a view of a brick wall over another apartment that had fewer closets and a great view.
Like in Amos’s day, our focus on acquisitiveness is evident in the fact that enough never seems to be enough. In The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, Juliet B. Schor cites a study that reports that 27% of all households that make more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they need. Nearly 20% of those households claim that they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life.” Among those who earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, 39% say they can’t afford to buy everything they need, and 33% of them indicate that they spend all their income on basic necessities.
An article in The Christian Science Monitor (12/24/03) raised the same basic questions that Amos raised. The article was titled “Inequity: Is it a sin?” The report observed that the gap between rich and poor people in the United States has doubled in the past 21 years, and the division between the two groups is likely to widen. Does society have a moral responsibility, the article asked, to narrow that gap? Joseph Hough, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, recently said in a sermon, “A fundamental teaching in the New Testament and strongly present in the Hebrew scripture is that God has a special care for those who are poor and needy. I’m deeply concerned about the directions we are taking in our common life.” Last fall Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, a conservative Republican who has historically been against tax increases, proposed raising taxes on the wealthy people of the state in order to provide benefits to the poorer members of their communities. Riley indicated that he decided to do that because of his faith, believing that it was a matter of social justice. For instance, the state’s powerful timber industry, which owns 71% of the land, pays only 2% of the property taxes in Alabama. Meanwhile the sales tax that poor people in many counties face is up to 11%, which applies even to groceries. Ron Sider, who heads the Evangelicals for Social Action, states, “It’s a scandal that the richest society in human history has the highest poverty level of any industrial nation.”
The wealthy people in Amos’s time had their sights set on wealth, not on God. They might very well have been interested in a new TV network that is set to begin. According to Fox News (1/15/04), Wealth TV is set to launch on June 1 of this year. The network follows in the line of such shows as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, VH1’s The Fabulous Life, and E!’s It’s Good to Be. Executives with the new network say that instead of merely showing fast cars and beach houses, the channel will tell stories of how the rich made their money, how they keep it, and how they spend it.
Like in ancient times, materialism persists even today. According to the Los Angeles Times (1/26/04), a record low percentage of college freshmen indicate that to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life” is very important to them. At the same time, those who think being “very well-off financially” is at its highest point among students in 13 years. Those findings were presented in the annual study called the American Freshman Survey, which has been conducted for 38 years, making it the longest-running assessment of student attitudes. The survey polled 267,449 students at 413 colleges and universities. Slightly less than 40% of college freshman said it was important for them to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. That is in contrast to 1967, when 86% stated that it was important for them to have a meaningful life philosophy. The findings, some say, indicate that many freshmen today believe that the reason you go to college is in order to make a lot of money.
With so many people seemingly out to make every dollar they can, you often have to wonder where people’s sense of justice is. According to the Associated Press (12/11/03), a jury in Beaumont, Texas, awarded Deborah Hayes more than $1.3 million for the heart damage she suffered because of taking the drug Fen-Phen. Afterwards, though, she thought the amount was excessive and voluntarily reduced her award to $588,000, which is the amount of damages that she believes she proved in court.
Amos attempted to get the people to recognize that money is not meant to be used only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of those around us who are in need. According to an AARP study called “Attitudes Toward Wealth, 2000,” different generations certainly have different perspectives when it comes to using money. In the study, members of different generations were asked what would be the main things they would do if they suddenly received $1 million. Among the younger Generation X—those born between 1965 and 1982—75% said they would like to be wealthy, 14% said they would use the money to help family and friends, and 10% indicated they would donate to charity. In contrast, among older people in the World War II generation—those born before 1936—only 38% said they would like to be wealthy, another 38% reported they would help family and friends, and 24% said they would donate to charity.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 sought to bring some justice to poorer workers who were being unfairly treated by their employers. In particular, the Act made it illegal for employers to punish workers for revealing their wages to one another. However, according to Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America, many companies continue even today to attempt to keep employees from speaking to each other about their pay, for fear that the employees might come to realize that they’re being taken advantage of. Ehrenreich suggests that the practice is slowly being eliminated as companies, one by one, are being challenged with lawsuits over the matter.
According to the BBC (2/17/04), the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, says that the biggest challenge confronting the world is not terrorism but poverty. He recently told reporters that poverty is humanity’s “greatest scandal and scourge” today. Murphy-O’Connor, who is archbishop of Westminster, said, “States fail when they are incapable of lifting people out of poverty, or when they pay insufficient heed to the importance of ensuring that wealth is adequately distributed so that the whole of the population can flourish.” He added, “Indeed, they fail when they do not take seriously the obligation to ensure that wealth is not created for the few and at the expense of the many.” The United Nations established Millennium Development Goals, which set targets for improvement in such areas as hunger, peace and health by 2015. But the World Economic Forum recently concluded that the developed countries were doing scarcely a third of what is needed to achieve those goals.
Amos was dealing with a society where wrong-doing had become the norm. Even today, when enough people engage in immoral or illegal acts, many others assume that they have a right to do likewise. For example, in The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan points out how rampant cable theft has become. In fact, the cable television industry estimates that each year they lose more than $6 billion to people who illegally hook up their TV sets to the cable lines without paying for it. It is believed that around 100,000 households in the Chicago area alone are stealing cable, which is about one out of every ten households. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, the police department was even stealing cable. And the police were not only tapping into the sports channel, but also Spice, a premium channel that features adult content. None of the officers seemed to be too troubled about the morality of what they were doing until investigators from AT&T showed up at their station.
The wealthy often seem to be governed by one set of laws while the poor are subject to another. As David Callahan suggests in The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, the savings and loan frauds of the 1980s cost taxpayers nearly $400 billion. Yet very few of those savings and loan executives ever served a day in jail for their misdeeds. The most infamous of that crowd, Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, managed to avoid the full penalty for the $3.8 billion in losses that he was responsible for. Four and a half years into his ten-year sentence, a federal court ruled that his jury had been given faulty instructions and his guilty verdict was set aside. The amount of time that Keating spent in jail for a $3.8 billion theft was about the same amount of time that a 21-year-old Boston man spent in prison for making off with $1000, even though the fellow explicitly told the bank tellers that he was unarmed.
The prophet criticized the people for having a greater concern for wealth than for God. Apparently, that’s still a problem now. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz observes that Americans go to the shopping mall more often than they go to worship. The average American, a survey found, goes to the mall about once a week, which is considerably more often than the typical American goes to church. In one survey, 93% of teenage girls said that shopping was their favorite activity.
Amos lamented that so many of the people of his day could only see the material things in front of them and were blind to the spiritual things that God wanted to offer them. In Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Philip Yancey tells about when Magellan’s explorers navigated the waters off the southern tip of Argentina, a region called Tierra del Fuego. As Magellan’s ships sailed past, they could see natives on the shore tending their fires, but they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the vessels. Later, the natives explained that they had thought that the ships were an illusion, because they were so different from anything they had seen before. They lacked the experience and the imagination to interpret what was passing right in front of their eyes.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
People: I will thank Him forever, because of what He has done.
Leader: In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name.
People: Let us worship the Lord God Almighty.
Forgive us, Lord, when we sin against you. We confess that sometimes we are too much like Martha, running around from activity to activity. We claim we are doing things in your name or for your sake, but often we get caught up in our own actions and forget about you. Forgive us when we act without praying. Calm our minds and hearts so that we may be focused on you. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
To you, O Lord, we bring our tithes and offerings this day. We pray that our gifts may be used to help others in this church and in the world. We also dedicate our very lives to your Kingdom. Use us to your glory, and show us how to be Christ to one another this week. Amen.
Giving God, thank you for the blessings you have bestowed on us this week. Thank you for the opportunities to do your will, to help others, to grow in your Word. Thank you for giving us both a heart to be like Mary, and sit at your feet, and a heart like Martha, to get up and do your will. Show us how to be like Christ in our world, nation, community, and church.
Open our eyes to the condition of our world. We pray for our earth —our rivers and air and ozone that we have polluted. We pray for our brothers and sisters of other nations who are struggling and suffering. We pray for our war-torn lands.
We lift our community and our congregation to you this day. Be with those who are grieving, those who are sick or injured, and those who are suffering in mind, body, and spirit. Give us discerning hearts that we may help those around us. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.