Most of the time, when people quote Amos, they quote the sweet part (Amos 5:24) which says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” What they miss is that the verse they know is in the midst of more pieces just like the one we just read. The paragraph that verse is in, is attributed to God, saying:
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 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.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves;27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
I say that mostly so that you don’t think our passage from Amos today is the weird part of the book. Amos loves justice and righteousness, and he speaks about a God who cares about how people are treated. But, even for prophets, Amos isn’t a cheerful one. He believes that the people of God have utterly failed to uphold their end of the covenant and that their utter destruction is imminent. He says so, and people hate it.
Looking at today’s text, this is one of the times that Biblical translation totally ruins the play on words. Amos sees a basket of summer fruit and the word for “summer fruit” sounds like the word for “end.” Therefore the first hearers would have noticed the play on words and been able to follow, but for us the textual connection is just obscure. We are left to trust the Hebrew scholars who tell us that it goes like. that This is a vision and a pronouncement about the end of life as Israel knew it.
Most scholars think that the book of Amos reflects prophetic oracles that derive from Amos himself, although they have been edited and a false ending added to soften the original end of the book! They think it came into its present form during the exile (587-539 BCE), so about 200 years after the prophet lived and spoke. As one scholar puts is, the oracles of Amos, “mainly condemned the ruling class in the north for their oppressive treatment of poor and needy members of society, and threatened that Israel would be punished by God, probably by military invasion and defeat. … Amos does not condemn Israel for faithless foreign policies; rather, he concentrates on the treatment of one section of society by another.”1 This oracle certainly fits that description.
There is a lot of destruction predicted, and that may reflect both the historical sayings of Amos and the historical remembering of both the Northern Exile (722 BCE) and the Southern one, since it got written down after both of them. I would like to focus, though, on the complaints that Amos names as the issues God is having with the people:
that they “trample on the needy”
and “bring to ruin the poor of the land”
they are impatient with religious observance, wanting to get back to making money
they cheat the people with improper weights and measures
they are “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”
instead of selling food to people, they sell them mostly inedible food leftovers
These are both individual and communal wrongdoings. While each individual seller is responsible for their own actions which are wrong, that’s not all that is happening. It is because EVERYONE is doing this trampling that the poor are trampled. If some of the merchants were fair, people would have good options. If there were regulations of weights and measures, the people couldn’t be cheated. Society has to look the other way, and the empowered have to choose to do nothing in order for the poor and powerless to be so completely decimated. The wrong that is done is done by each person doing it and by the whole for not stopping it.
The line “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” is one of the more provoking in the Bible. It exemplifies the reality of greed – that when one person is trying to get rich, the people they are getting rich off of are paying the price. In reality, this was likely happening. It was common in ancient days (and ones not so long ago) for people to get so deeply into debt that they would sell themselves or their children into slavery to pay off the debt. The vision of God in the Torah which forbids interest AND forbids the selling of ancestral land, seeks to create a society without people being sold to pay off debts, but the people weren’t living that vision. People were cheating each other to make greater profits off of sandals, and those who were poor and vulnerable were being bought and sold because of the injustices of those profit margins.
I can imagine the justification of the grain sellers in the markets in Bethel, their responses to hearing Amos’s claims. Can’t you? They would say, “I have to feed my family! And I can’t do that if I sell the wheat in pure form because the harvest wasn’t good enough.” They would say, “I know my scale isn’t balanced, but did you see the guy over there? His is way worse!” They would say, “Yes, I’m doing OK for myself, but I work hard and I’ve earned what I have!” They would say, “It is the people’s choice to buy where they want, it isn’t my responsibility to take care of their well-being.” They would say, “If you don’t have enough money, you don’t get to buy the good stuff.” They would self-justify to the end, and in doing so deny their shared humanity with the people who happened to be poor or needy.
This spring I went to a training put on by the United Methodist Women about Human Sexuality so that I qualified to teach “Human Sexuality” MissionU this summer. They’re coming quickly! During the exercises we did to experience the curriculum we heard from a survivor of child sex trafficking. In the video she mentioned how many children are trafficked and how many people they were expected to sleep with every night. I did the math my head. By low estimates, 2,000,000 times a night, a child is paid for sex in our country. Suddenly it occurred to me that this means that there are A LOT of people choosing to use the bodies of children in this way. My mind was blown. I had no idea that so many people were engaged in such behavior, and it made me rethink our society as a whole.
It also led me to continued research, and I found quotations from men who bought sex with sex workers which are entirely too disturbing to be read from this pulpit.2 Even more distressing was that according to the research that is out there (which is mostly LOUSY by the way) the people who are buying sex are pretty NORMAL. Talk about “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandal” though! People who have enough to spend some as discretionary income are using it to buy access to the bodies of people who have no choice. (Although I acknowledge the reality that there are people who choose out of true free will and not just economic circumstances to sell their bodies, I believe that is rare enough and the harms done to those who do not truly have choice are severe enough that it is worth focusing on those who do not have control.) Most of sex that is bought and sold is done of desperation, addiction, and usually a lack of control over one’s life. Yet, people buy it.
People BUY access to another person’s body – quite often young girls who have been taken away from their families and friends. It is very clear to me that the harms that Amos spoke about, the “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandal” are very much still alive and well here and today. In Schenectady we know that there is plenty of prostitution and sex trafficking, and we know that once the casino opens we will have a lot more.
We also know, at least if we are listening to Amos, that God cares about the people that society ignores. The poor, the needy, the disenfranchised, the “least, the last, the lost, and the lonely” to name a few. God gets upset over the treatment of people who society tries to pretend don’t exist.
This week I was given the honor of being invited to sit on a panel to talk about the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Schenectady, and in particular the relationship between minority communities and our police forces. There were many articulate comments made about the ways that people who live in dark skin are told that they don’t matter. Some of the worst of those are known to us in the homicides perpetrated by police, but there are a million tiny cuts that happen every day in our city and county and country to people in dark skin.
Our society defines some people as mattering and others as not. That’s why we have to say #BlackLivesMatter. That’s why we have to be informed about sex trafficking and think about the reality that people BUY one another – if even only for minutes at a time. God is angered by the ways we dehumanize each other. God is angered when we allow injustice to fester and the vulnerable to pay the price. I’ve said before, and I still believe that the root sin is dehumanizing other beloved children of God. Everything derives from that.
Amos threaten the people with being abandoned by God, defeated in war, and the destroyed by an earthquake. That is to say, he thought God was angry, and angry enough to act on behalf of the people that the king and his empowered court had abandoned. I agree that God is angry, although I disagree with Amos about God’s methods. Given the injustices of today, I simply hear God crying and begging us to pay attention all of God’s people.
In the #BlackLivesMatter conversation we were encouraged to participate in Study Circles (I believe they will be coming back and we will get information out), to talk to people are different than we are, and to continue the work of educating ourselves on racism and – where it applies – white privilege. There is also a plan for continued conversation in our city.
With regard to sex workers and human trafficking, there is a a local resource that is doing great work. (Please consider this your mission moment in the sermon.) “Patty’s Place is a drop-in support and referral center for women engaged in sex work. They provide basic services such as food, showers, hygiene items, clothing, HIV testing, and a secure resting place, which help these women be safer in their current lives. They also offer counseling and referrals for longer-term services that can help women improve their lives and leave the sex trade. Most of the women with whom they work have suffered from years of abuse and have a variety of overlapping problems and needs. Patty’s Place gives these women a network of supportive relationships and help navigating the diverse services they need.” If you want to help, their two biggest needs are volunteers and donations. Volunteers are needed to do outreach and to do administration work. Donations are useful both as money and as supplies. Today they are mostly needing new underwear in all sizes and deodorant. If you get donations to us, we will get them to Patty’s place.
As the casino gets closer to opening, we are needing to prepare for expansions of dehumanization in our city. Studies tell us that there will be more trafficking and more people looking to buy sex. They also tell us that there will be more corruption, which means more injustice. There will likely be more crime, and more of it violent. As incumbent as it already is on us to re-humanize other people, and to recognize all people as beloved by God, there are going to be new challenges to that work. The current projections are that the casino will open in the first quarter of 2017.
There is a lot of work to do. Some of it, however, is in getting quiet and listening. We are not going to be able to invert all of the damage to our communities created by the city. Singlehandedly, we cannot even solve the struggles our city already has. We will need to focus a bit, listen for how we are best able to rehumanize God’s people, and get ready to do it. That is, while I encourage us to continue the work of building the kin-dom, loving the people, transforming injustice, and acknowledging all of God’s children, I also encourage us ALL to take some deep breaths. Maybe even a few months of deep breaths. Things are going to get harder around here, and we are going to need to be calm, centered, steady, and supportive of each other to be useful in changing things.
We aren’t called to be like the merchants in Bethel that Amos spoke to. Instead, we are called to take responsibility for the ways that our society diminishes beloved children of God, and do our part to change it. Some of that involves being quiet and observant to notice what is going on. Thanks be to God that there are so many ways we can participate in acts of love and justice. Thanks be to God that we are called both to action AND to Sabbath. May we learn to do both well. Amen
1John Barton “Introduction to Amos” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible edited by Walter J Harrelson (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2003) 1279
2Two of them, “Prostitution is renting an organ for 10 minutes” and “Being with a prostitute is like having a cup of coffee, when you’re done, you throw it out” found at http://www.ksufreedomalliance.org/sex-trafficking.html
June 17. 2016