Cows, Plumb Lines and Summer Fruit Amos 1:1, 3:1-2,4:1-2,5:20-24,7:7-9,8:1-3 Psalm 96 Matthew 23:13-32 July 8, 2008 Dr. Edwin Gray Hurley It has been said that “Creation is God’s symphony and He has entrusted its completion to us.”i Back some 750 years before the birth of Jesus Christ one of the earliest and most blunt of the Hebrew prophets, a shepherd named Amos, went from his home of Tekoa in the South to the land of Israel in the North and cried out against the nation. The people there were failing in their creative responsibility to complete what God entrusted to them. Amos is the first prophet to present us with a sense that God is concerned not only about his own people, his own little tribe, but about the whole world. Amos spoke a word that has a universal reach and acknowledges that God is concerned about all people. Amos spoke out in a time of political stability and economic prosperity. Things on the outside looked calm and bright, but on the inside they were cankerous and rotting. Much as Jesus said later of the scribes and Pharisees, “You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”ii Greed, self indulgence, and injustice, particularly by the rich against the poor, were rampant in Israel. Against this Amos declared a series of oracles, which have been compiled into his prophetic book. We heard a number of them read this morning. When I was a senior in High School in 1973, the Watergate hearings were underway. The nation was going through massive hemorrhaging as leaders sought to come to grips with corruption awash in the Nixon White House, which, as you know, led to the looming threat of impeachment and then the resignation of the President. At the National Prayer Breakfast early in that year, an event which annually brings together leaders of the various branches of government, along with representatives of foreign governments, and business and religious leaders from across the nation, a Republican Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, a Baptist, was asked to speak briefly on behalf of the Senate’s Bible Study and Prayer Group. He was seated on the platform with Billy Graham on his left and President Nixon on his right. As he stood to speak, Senator Hatfield said, “My brothers and sisters: As we gather at this prayer breakfast let us beware of the real danger of misplaced allegiance, if not outright idolatry, to the extent we fail to distinguish between the god of an American civil religion and the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.” He went on to call those leaders gathered together in prayer for the nation, to an underlying faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the practice of acceptable worship and 2 obedience expressed in specific acts of love and justice. He lifted up biblical references to Jesus and the Hebrew prophets like today’s lessons, where they decried the hypocrisy in the people of God when their words were not reflected in their deeds. Hatfield writes in his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, that he intended no partisan political statement that morning, but only to call all leaders back to biblical teaching and the rigorous demands of Lord. Nevertheless he discovered that the White House was infuriated with what had transpired. They considered having the Press Secretary express the Administration’s offense at the impropriety of the remarks, but dismissed that on the grounds it would only increase attention to his words. Hatfield’s close friend, Billy Graham, wrote him a courteous letter that began “My dear Mark”, but that went on to suggest, “I noted with deep concern that the press interpreted your remarks as political and as a rebuke to the President!.. If I had any suggestion to make it would be that you as a war critic could have turned to the President and commended him for his determination and perseverance in getting the cease-fire in Vietnam This would have had a unifying effect that the Country desperately needs at this time.”iii I When the prophetic word is raised, in ancient Israel, in the 1970’s, in 2007, in any age, it generally is met with defensiveness and resistance by those in positions of power. Amos is a prime example. We may all agree that “creation is God’s symphony and He has entrusted its completion to us.” But when we get down to specifics with what is necessary to do, with what instruments need to play louder or softer, when someone’s ox gets gored, then the prophet is often left out on a lonely limb. Amos finds himself in such a situation. A place he seems able to handle, because, after all, besides being a shepherd he is also a keeper of sycamore trees. Some knows about limbs. The King’s priest Amaziah, warns King Jeroboam. “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words.” The priest interprets Amos’ prophetic work as a conspiracy. Then he turns to Amos and tells him to go back to his home in the South where he belongs, and does his prophetic work there. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary.”iv Amos responds that he is no professional prophet but a simple layman. He is only doing what the Lord commanded him, not what he chose on his own. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”v Amos is the first in an extraordinary line of prophets who spoke out against the status quo and called the people to repent and return to the Lord, warning that unless they do, they will face disaster. Because it was a time of such relative peace and prosperity 3 under King Jeroboam II, the rantings of the prophet had about as much effect on his world then, as do the street corner prophets we from time to time encounter in Birmingham today. But the whole scene will change within a few years when the Assyrian Empire gets a new leader, Tiglath Pilesar III, who reigned from 745 to 727. With great speed and energy he renews the Assyrian assault upon the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This will lead to Israel’s defeat in 722 B.C. and the removal of the leaders of Israel into exile.vi At the time Amos prophesied, however, the Assyria threat seemed a distant cloud on the horizon.vii Amos’ chosen means of warning the people of Israel about God’s coming judgment is through a series of graphic visions and vivid metaphors reflecting the situation in which the nation then finds itself. II In one of them Amos calls the people, you “Cows of Bashon.” We used to spend summer vacation time out near a farm in Tennessee, and we would often take the children up the gravel road to look at the cows in the pasture next door. They lazed out in the sun and slowly strolled down to the pond to bathe in the mud. Israel is likened to such a cow, luxuriating in their summer and winter houses, enjoying fine homes of ivory, while the poor are oppressed. The wives say to their husbands, “Bring (me) something to drink!”viii Of these same people, Amos says, Soon you won’t be wondering about what you are going to have to drink. Soon, “they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” In fact, later when Israel was taken off into exile, they had rings hooked through their noses and connected to chains to keep them moving. Another metaphor Amos lifts up is of a plumb line. God in a vision shows him a plumb line, such as a carpenter uses. Such as South Highlanders will use this week in building a house for a needy Mexican family in Piedras Negras, Mexico. In the vision, Amos sees God standing alongside a wall, and measuring the growing separation of the actual wall from the straight and true reflected, by the plumb line. The Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”ix I have not done a lot of carpentry. That which I have done, other than building tree houses and forts as a boy, and then as a father building them with my boys, I have done primarily in Piedras Negras. Every row of cement block we put up there had to be checked with a plumb line to see if it was straight. If we got off center and continued the wall, the problem only got worse. On several occasions we had to take down 3 or 4 rows of block and start all over, building according to the measure of the line. The plumb line is among us still – the truth in God’s self-revelation. When a carpenter or a nation get off track of basic truths it is inevitable things will fall apart, and they will have to start all over. 4 Still another metaphor Amos lifts up is of “summer fruit.” In this vision God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit. We are currently enjoying such fruit from our gardens or at least from the vegetable market who are getting fruits in from Florida gardens. Summertime and the living is easy. Summertime and wonderful baskets filled with ripe squash and oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes and strawberries. There is nothing like fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden in the summer time. Yet that fruit has a limited shelf life. Last week I reached down into the vegetable bin of our refrigerator, to grab a green squash for dinner. What I got in my hands, instead, was an empty skin of green as the rotten insides of that squash squashed out in slimy liquid ooze to fill the bottom of that bin, and mandate a thorough cleaning of it all. There is nothing better than fresh summer fruit and vegetables. There is little worse than rotten ones. III Cows, plumb lines and summer fruits, Amos lifts up all these familiar images for the people of Israel and uses them to cast an uncompromising warning, “Prepare to meet your God, oh Israel.” (4:12) Then follows a clear call to commitment. As did Hosea, Amos lets Israel know that divine worship, however well-planned, the liturgy, however beautiful the music, is unacceptable apart from ethical follow-through. God cries out, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 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 righteous like an ever- flowing stream.”x Friends, the mandate of Israel’s prophets is still upon us. Jesus said as much to the scribes and Pharisees who were concerned with rules about tithing mint, dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. He added, “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”xi Justice, mercy and faith. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, says it well in his marvelous book, To Heal A Fractured World, The prophets warned against a rift between the holy and the good, our duties to God and to our fellow human beings. It still exists today. There are those for whom serving God means turning inward – to the soul, the house of worship and the life of ritual and prayer. There are others for whom social justice has become a substitute for religious observance or God. The result is like a cerebral lesion between the two hemispheres of the brain. The message of the Hebrew Bible is 5 that serving God and serving our fellow human beings are inseparably linked, and the split between the two impoverishes both. Unless the holy leads us outward toward the good, and the good leads us back, for renewal, to the holy, the creative energies of faith run dry.”xii Friends, we are called to live our life before God. We are called to offer worship that leads us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, and to take his commands seriously. “Justice and mercy and faith.” It is these we must practice in thought, word and action. “Creation is God’s symphony and He (really) has entrusted its completion to us.” John F. Kennedy, remember, concluded his inaugural address saying, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Jonathan Sacks in his book says, “God creates divine justice, but only we can create human justice, acting on behalf of God but never aspiring to be other than human.”xiii God grant that we may take up the instrument with which God has gifted us, and really truly play it, within the larger symphony to complete what he began in us. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteous like an ever-flowing stream, through us”xiv Amen. i Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World – The Ethics of Responsibility, p.80. ii Matthew 23:25. iii Mark Hatfield, Between A Rock and A Hard Place, p.99. iv Amos 7:10-11. v Amos 7:14-15. vi Bernard Anderson, Introduction to the Old Testament, p.271. vii Anderson, ibid. p.271. viii Amos 4:1. ix Amos 7:8-9 x Amos 5:23-24. xi Matthew 23:23. xii Sacks, ibid. p. 9. xiii Sacks, ibid. p. 23. xiv Amos 5:24.