Sunday, July 17, 2016

SIGNS OF SUMMER FRUIT

SIGNS OF SUMMER FRUIT
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
July 17, 2016 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

Amos 8:1-12
8This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit.*2He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’* Then the Lord said to me,
‘The end
* has come upon my people Israel;
   I will never again pass them by.

3 The songs of the temple* shall become wailings on that day,’
says the Lord God;
‘the dead bodies shall be many,
   cast out in every place. Be silent!’ 

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practise deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 

7 The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

8 Shall not the land tremble on this account,
   and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
   and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 

9 On that day, says the Lord God,
   I will make the sun go down at noon,
   and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
   and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
   and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
   and the end of it like a bitter day. 

11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
   when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
   but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
   and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
   but they shall not find it.
 

         Dr. Melissa Browning teaches restorative justice at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.  She is a kindred activist for social justice who isn’t afraid to look honestly at the way we live and speak truth about it.  Dr. Browning has written a brilliant commentary on the lectionary text from Amos titled Death, Injustice, and a Basket of Fruit that appears today in ON Scripture – The Bible, a weekly online multimedia resource about current issues that includes insightful commentary.  Here are excerpts from her commentary on today’s lesson:

Things aren’t always what they seem…Generally speaking, a fruit basket is a wonderful, cheerful gift.  Strawberries, blueberries, plums – or in Amos’ case, ripe figs.  Everybody loves summer fruit.  It reminds us of picnics, and parks, and cookouts with friends.  But when God sent Amos a fruit basket, it came with a foreboding little note that proclaimed the end of the world. 
God always speaks through what we know, so God shows Amos a fruit basket to create a play on words.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is qayits but the word for “end” is qets.  Amos, what do you see?  God asks.  A basket of summer fruit [qayits], he says.  And then we hear the reply from the Lord, “The end [qets] has come upon my people Israel…”

In the stories of the prophets, there is often a clear cause and effect.  The passage continues by saying “dead bodies will be many, cast out in every place” because the people of God have trampled on the needy, they have been “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”  In the midst of dystopia [a situation where people are unhappy because they are treated unfairly], the prophets appear on the scene to make connections for the people, showing them how the sin they have shored up in systems of injustice is now directly linked to the violence and pain they are experiencing or will experience.

Cause and effect.  A simple concept we learned in elementary school with worksheets and classroom exercises.  And here we see it again in the prophets.  If we create a society that builds violence into systems, we will be left with dead bodies in the street.

We may not tend sycamore trees and we might not consider ourselves prophets, but we’ve seen dead bodies in the streets.

Philando Castile [Falcon Heights, Minnesota], Alton Sterling [Baton Rouge, Louisiana], [Delrawn Small, Brooklyn, New York (July 4)], [Alva Braziel, Houston, Texas (July 9)], police officers in Dallas [July 8], mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, the state sanctioned death of those on death row, kids who die from hunger in our own neighborhoods…everywhere we look, we find death.  Cycles of marginalization, violence, and retribution are playing out over and over and over again in our midst.

These things are painful to see.  In fact, those who walk through life with privilege might never see them at all.  But this is the task of people of faith – to see and to help each other see what is really there.  God isn’t sending us a fruit basket.  God is asking us to see the pain of the world.  God is asking us to respond by rooting out the injustice that causes it.

When we begin to look with eyes of faith, we see the connections.  Not the simple cause and effect we learned in elementary school, but a web of connections where injustices collide, creating not a culture of abundant life for all, but a reality that is dystopian [miserable] for some and a picnic for others.

When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things will not go well for you.  The end of injustice is coming, whether or not you have eyes to see. Will we join God in heralding the arrival of justice?  Or will we stand in the way?

…We live in a culture where the state is allowed to kill and where people of color are imprisoned at levels that are unconscionable.  Are those who believe the death penalty and our prison system are just able to see the injustice of police violence [where people are killed without being arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and allowed to appeal what the state does to them]?  Mix this blindness with the blindness of racism and it’s no surprise that white Christians are more likely to say “all lives matter” rather than “black lives matter.”  It is no surprise that a recent PRRI study showed us that 80% of black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger injustice while 70% of white Christians believe they were isolated incidents.

…In the wake of the horrific murders in Dallas, Shaun King reminded us that as we speak against the violence that took police officer lives, we must also admit that Micah Johnson is a product of the society we have created.  King uses the analogy of baking a cake as he talks about the bitter ingredients that formed our society – from the genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery to modern-day racism and a society that has more guns than people.  King then asks, “How did we expect this would turn out?  Did we sincerely think that we were going to pile bitter ingredients on top of each other for years on end and not get something what we see in Dallas right now?”[1]

…The prophets continue to call.  Do we see a basket of summer fruit, or dead bodies in the street?[2]

         So I put the question to you that God put to Amos.  What do you see when you look at this society?  Do you see a society built on justice?  Do you truly see a society that is “exceptional?”  Do you see a society that is a model to the world of fairness and opportunity for all?  Do you see summer fruit?

         If so, have you forgotten the dead bodies?  Have you forgotten that the wealth of this society is built on a foundation of dead bodies? 
·      Dead bodies of indigenous peoples.
·      Dead bodies of African slaves.
·      Dead bodies of workers (who have often been immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific Islands [including children]) who died while working in conditions that were plainly unsafe.
·      Dead bodies of the lynched.
·      Dead bodies of low income people who died in the military in service to this nation’s addiction to military adventures.
·      Dead bodies of people killed because we love guns more than we love peace.
·      Dead bodies of bullied LGBTQ persons.
·      Dead bodies in the street!

Do you see our signs of “summer fruit?”

         At Amos 8:7 we read:  “The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds, Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it…?’”  At verse 10 we read:  “I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”

The Fourth of July fireworks and festivities this year began a week of mourning.  Our national leaders called us to mourn five slain police officers, and we rightfully did so. 

But our leaders have not called us to mourn people like Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd,  Eugene Ellison, Monroe Isadore, Shantel Davis, Amadou Diallo, Tanisha Anderson, Kimani Gray, Troy Davis, Renisha McBride, Lema Baker, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, Jr. 

Our self-proclaimed “religious” nation has stubbornly refused to mourn and repent from its ongoing legacy of state-sanctioned injustice against marginalized people.  The rising death toll of people slain by police and our refusal to hold police who kill civilians accountable is proof that we remain unrepentant about state sanctioned injustice despite all the pleas we hear from people for “reconciliation.”  The people who now are calling for “reconciliation” must be reminded of a Biblical formula:  no repentance, no reconciliation!  Repentance must always happen first.  Only then can reconciliation begin.     

The “summer fruit” prophecy Amos was inspired to proclaim from God to Israel spoke of judgment by famine, but a different kind of famine.  The time is surely coming, says the LORD GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it [Amos 8:11-12]. 

Has our famine come? 

Despite meetings of police and community leaders and despite press opportunities like the one last week—where President Obama and other politicians pimped the pain of family members of people slain in police-involved killings—and despite everything else, we have not found the way to justice.  We have not found “the word of the Lord” for justice. 

Rev. Dr. Emile Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and a leading scholar in womanist ethics and liberation theology, writes about the result of our famine very clearly with these words. 

We are living in a world and a nation in which we have to say over and over again that #blacklivesmatter as we view the videos of Alton B. Sterling’s death at the hands of two Baton Rouge police officers or Philando Castile’s death at the hands of one police officer in Falcon Heights.  It’s a shame that Black folk and our allies have been saying this since this country became a republic and united itself around the notion of freedom.

But we began this on the bad foot of Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 that declared that, for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved Blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state.  Enslavement written into our founding document is something we have never fully reckoned with as a nation.  And we have been reaping this bad seed of a beginning ever since while trying to ignore the fact that we do not legally, politically, socially, or theologically practice the belief that all lives matter.[3]

Do we see the injustices, or are we blinded by privilege so much that all we can see is “summer fruit?” 

Do we see how this society has ignored the cries of marginalized and oppressed people since its beginning? 

Do we see how this society designed, constructed, financed, and continues systems of injustice? 

Do you see us wandering and seeking to find answers to mass murders, police-involved killings, mass incarceration, and so many other obvious social ills?

Do we see the signs of divine judgment on this society because of its rampant and systemic injustice? 

Has our famine come?

What do you see?   

Amen.



[1] SHAUN KING, Micah Johnson is the making of America’s own racist creation, NY Daily News, July 8, 2016.
[2] MELISSA BROWNING, Death, Injustice, and a Basket of Fruit, ON Scripture, July 17, 2016.
[3] EMILE TOWNES, The Problem We All Live With:  Bearing Witness, But Never Finding Justice, Religion Dispatches, July 10, 2016.

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