Repent, or You’re Going to H-E-Double-Toothpicks

University Temple United Methodist Church, Seattle, Wash.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-42

Repent, or You’re Going to H-E-double-toothpicks. So let’s see if that’s what I’m really getting at today, as we consider again the prophet Amos. As in last week’s reading from the book of Amos, the prophet again sees a vision. This time it is a vision of a basket filled with summer fruit. The Hebrew word for ‘summer fruit’ is very close to the word for ‘end.’ Therefore, this simple basket of fruit spoke to Amos of the end of the growing season — the end of opportunity.

“The end has come for my people, Israel.” Then Amos moved on to proclaim the reason that the nation is doomed — they have trampled the poor and needy. Again and again, Amos indicts the people for having lost God’s shalom, God’s justice for all. Amos speaks about the corruption and hypocrisy of those who “can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that they can start selling again,” and earing profits. He condemns merchants who overcharge, provide shoddy goods or use false measures to cheat customers. They have forced into slavery many who cannot pay their debts to the very people who cheated them.

Amos then uses two images: the darkness and earth-shaking consequences that will come when God turns away, and the hunger and thirst of the people when God rejects them. “People will be hungry but not for bread, they will be thirsty, but not for water.” The famine of being cut off from God’s word and the darkness of God’s absence would be worse than any physical difficulty they had forced on others. Amos is the foremost prophet who cries out for justice for all the people. Unceasingly, he cries out for both compassion and justice, setting the standard for prophetic proclamation in Israel, and for the vision of justice God calls us to, even today. But let’s face it. It’s been 2800 years since the cries of Amos went out over Israel and still we live in a world in which justice and compassionate living are still utopian ideals, far from being accomplished in any significant way.

At the Cooperative School of Christian Mission taking place this weekend, one of the studies is on Indonesia and another on Refugees. One of the conclusions that cannot be avoided is that there is a lack of justice in the world today on an incomprehensible scale, causing a shift in the world’s populations that casts people into lifetimes of dislocation and misery. But most of us can avoid knowing about it and therefore can live easily side-by-side with such misery.

Dr. Beverly Harrison, noted ethicist and theologian, says that the hallmark of todays affluent American society is that, “We have lost the capacity to yearn for justice.” Think of that: we have lost the capacity to yearn for justice. Injustices don’t affect us; droughts in the southeast and southwest might drive up some prices at the supermarket and once in a while there is a surge in gasoline prices at the pump. But by an large we aren’t affected by the vicissitudes of life that rob life of both meaning and justice all over the world.

The question that comes up is a question theologian Robert McAfee Brown asks in his new book, Speaking of Christianity. Can we have a just and compassionate society? Is it possible or is it just a utopian ideal that can never really be accomplished? Brown acknowledges that history offers virtually no examples of societies trying to live on the basis of compassion, but suggests that there has recently emerged an example of a corporate attempt to do just that, and to temper justice with mercy to an unexpected degree. The instance he cites is South Africa. Just over twenty years ago Brown’s dominant impression of South African was of the deep fear present in all the groups he visited: Afrikaaners, English-speaking South African whites, blacks, coloreds, Indians, everybody. His colleague, a white minister shared, “I agree. I’m afraid, too.” “I’m afraid,” he said, “that when (the black people of South Africa) get power you will treat us the way we have treated you.” Brown asks, “Who could fault that expectation twenty years ago that the inevitable scenario would produce still tighter repression of blacks by whites, the increasing use of force by both, and a point when black anger would surface uncontrollably and whites would respond in kind?” And yet, that’s not the way the scenario finally played out. There has been much violence in that twenty-year period, and many innocent people have been tortured and killed. But compared to an almost inevitable violent outcome, the transition of power from one group to the other was accomplished with relative calm, decorum, and compassion. The realism of modern politics would have expected that justice and compassion can never come together in politics; that we would be naive to assume that it could happen in the “real” world, and in South Africa of all places. In addition, South Africa has also become the first nation in the world to establish laws forbidding discrimination against people who are gay or lesbian, and they did it on the basis of their sense of justice.

The lesson from South Africa, says McAfee Brown, is that we are never entitled to close the door marked hope. We are not allowed — as Christians and as Jews as well — to dismiss the possibility that justice can prevail.

Now again, there are those of us who think that this is a utopian idea that will probably never be accomplished. But the Bible, both the old and new testaments, teach us that it really is Kingdom of God thinking. We in the church, unfortunately, get caught up in a kind of ideological struggle between those two ideas that goes something like this: On the one hand, the creation of the kingdom of God is not a human construction at all. It is totally the work of God, and its even partial presence in our midst is not the result of doing good works, but is purely a gift of God, undeserved and unattainable through the exertion of human power. On the other hand, the proposal of a human utopia rests on a human rather than a divine construction. To whatever degree it is realizable, it depends on the expenditure of prodigious amounts of human efforts. All too frequently, these two visions have been seen as being in conflict with each other. The proposal to “build the kingdom of God” is seen as an act of hubris that is doomed to failure since it rejects the divine creativity and tries to substitute a human agenda in its place. Similarly, the proposal to create a human utopia is seen as a denial of the divine creativity, and becomes an instance of human beings tryng to play the role of God. There is, however, a third way of looking at the quest for justice, such as liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez help us see, that combines human striving and divine action and relates them integrally to each other. Gutierrez talks about the human task in establishing justice as one of “preparing the way” — preparing the way, ultimately, for God to establish the divine kingdom in all of its fullness. Gutierrez is quite explicit that we do not “create” that kingdom, nor do we “bring it in.” What we are to do is to create little foretastes, here and now, of what God will to be the ultimate expression of human life and community under God, places where signs of the nature of the kingdom are present.

These will be present where starvation has been overcome or at least diminished; where the children of the world will be loved and cared for adequately. These are little foretastes of the kingdom, and they “prepare the way” for the achievement of a just society that we believe God is creating, even now.So how do we live in hope? Certainly the “foretastes” I’ve just mentioned are sources of hope for us; they keep us focused on the vision of justice God has given us. McAfee Brown suggests a possibility for living in hope that speaks to events of this week. He says that we must proclaim hope even as we live in anticipation of finding reasons to hope. It’s kind of like John Wesley’s advice, “preach faith until you have it.” On the plane of history alone there will never be sufficient reason to hope. Too much evil has taken place. One only has to visit a death camp from the second world war to understand how much wrong has been done in this world that can never be set right.

But we are called to live “eschatalogically.” Eschatology is the belief in, the study of, the end times, when God will finally bring the present age to a close. We must live as though the kingdom were already come, as though justice on earth were a reality. That kind of eschatalogical hope was manifested this weekend in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Arian Nations decided to march in Coeur d’Alene this weekend. And the people of Coeur d’Alene responded, not in protest, not in outrage, but as if the Arian Nations did not matter, had no power, and were already a non-being participating in a non-event. The people of the town developed extensive alternative opportunities for the day, especially for the children and youth. Games, athletic events, all kinds of attractions for youth were opened up and made free for the day, including all the movie theatres in town. And a pledge drive was established: people were asked to pledge a $1,000 for each minute the Arian Nations parade lasted, the money to be used for the development of a fund for children. Eschatalogical hope — the people of Coeur d’Alene chose to live as though the marching of the Arian Nations did not fill them with despair. They chose to make out of this event a moment of hope and promise.

Will the cries of Amos ever be heard and the people trampled by injustice ever be vindicated? We must choose to live the hope, to make manifest the hope, that justice will prevail. Thanks be to God. Amen.