Late Summer Fruit
Amos 8: 1-12 and Luke 10:38-42
Saint Mark Presbyterian Church – July 21, 2013
The Reverend Kay E. Huggins
Introduction: Although the Gospel text concerning Mary and Martha is provocative, I’m focusing on the Hebrew Scripture this morning. (Mary and Martha have small walk-on roles at the end of the sermon.) The Amos passage is rough and hot. A little background will help, so the tough love expressed is these verses does not sear your hearts. Amos was a prophet from the southern kingdom, a farmer and a herder (not a man of wealth and privilege); he arrived in Jerusalem at the height of the nation’s territorial expansion and national prosperity (the “good years” of the reign of Jeroboam II, eighth century BCE). It was a time when prosperity led to gross inequities between the urban elites and the poor. Through the manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small farmers. The smallest debt served as a thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to separate subsistence farmers from their patrimonial farms and personal liberty. As a prophet Amos addressed these issues through a series of four divine visions, recorded in chapters 7 and 8. Our text for today is the last of these; it may help, however, to recount what has come before:
1. A swarm of locust ready for the second growth of grain. Back story: in ancient Israel the first cutting was for the king/something like a tax; the second cutting was for distribution to the people. Without a second cutting, most Israelites could not survive. Amos, a sober and sympathetic soul, begged God: O Lord, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand, He is so small. And God relented, “It shall not be.”
2. A fire storm devouring the land. Again, Amos’ sober and sympathetic soul sensed destruction and cried out: O Lord, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand, He is so small. And God relented, “This also shall not be.”
3. Then, came the third vision: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line…and God with a plumb line in hand. The Lord asked Amos, “Amos, what do you see?”
“A plumb line.”
Then God explained: I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by…” Evidently, Amos delivered this message and evidently, God did not repent. Then comes this vision and divine interpretation:
Amos 8:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB), A vision of summer fruit
This is what the Lord God showed me: a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” 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 forgive them.
On that day, the people will wail the temple songs,”
says the Lord God;
“there will be many corpses,
thrown about everywhere.
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy
the poor of the land, 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,
make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,
and deceive with false balances,
in order to buy the needy for silver
and the helpless for sandals,
and sell garbage as grain?”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget what they have done.
Will not the land tremble on this account,
and all who live in it mourn,
as it rises and overflows like the Nile,
and then falls again, like the River of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and I will darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into sad affairs
and all your singing into a funeral song;
I will make people wear mourning clothes
and shave their heads;
I will make it like the loss of an only child,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send hunger and thirst on the land;
neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the Lord ’s words.
They will wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they will roam all around, seeking the Lord’s word,
but they won’t find it.
Today’s passage from Amos proves that it helps to have a sense of humor when approaching the word of God. Allow us to demonstrate:
Kay: This is what the Lord God showed Amos: a basket of summer fruit. And God said, “Amos, what do you see?”
Jonathan: I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
Kay: Then the Lord said to Amos, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them…”
During our week at Montreat, I discovered this was the assigned text and as I read the first lines, I burst out in laughter. It was before 7 am and Jonathan was walking into the common lounge. So I played the verses on him: Jonathan and I laughed mightily – not once but often throughout the week. Our laughter stemmed from a mutual realization of how infrequently we actually understand what God’s puts before us. Our laughter was also full of gratitude that God eventually interprets divine images and metaphors. Our laughter circled back to our dull minds/hearts. Our laughter awoke our desire to fully understand.
So, for this morning: a basket of fruit, set before the people of Israel as a provocative image. By the way, the text defines the fruit, as late summer fruit, meaning fruit that has one day before ripeness turns to rottenness. I don’t know if you have a ready connection to late summer fruit, but I do. In fact, Amos‘ basket of fruit brings back rich memories, strong scents and the gentle comfort of my childhood home. You see, I was raised in a country setting; we had a large garden; we bought our meat by the animal not the pound; our eggs were fresh and I know the path from chopping block to chicken and dumplings for Sunday dinner.
But, of all the food produced, picked, prepared and put by, my favorite memory involves the late fruit of summer. As you may suppose, the Northern California coastal region is damp (actually it’s a rain forest) and thus, unfavorable for fruit orchards. So instead of harvesting locally, my mom had a standing order with an Oregon fruit grower. His beat-up old truck arrived unannounced on a late summer day. My mom inspected his fruit and when satisfied select 2 lugs of peaches, 2 bushels of apples, 1 lug of pears, and several quarts of plums to be stacked in the cool garage.
The arrival of late summer fruit set off a chain reaction. Canning jars were sterilized, rings for the lids checked for damage, all the kitchen counter tops cleared, and on the morning mom decided the fruit was at the height of ripeness, she went into action. Dominating the next week were cauldrons of boiling water, batches of sticky sweet sugar syrup, piles of peach and pear peelings, and the crunch of apples processed by the Foley food mill. She knew her fruit; always beginning with peaches, the most delicate, and saving the applesauce making to the very last day.
After a week dedicated to canning, our pantry was stocked with jars of golden peaches, translucent pears, purple-red plums and cinnamon brown apple sauce. Our family would have fruit everyday throughout the winter; our relatives, guests and many strangers received portions of this labor. As a child, late summer fruit meant devoted work to me: long hours in a sweltering kitchen and pantry shelves lined with colors and tastes for the winter. So, if I’d been Amos, and God showed me a basket of late summer fruit: I’d know it was time to get busy. Late summer fruit does not last…the end comes, swiftly. I would have picked up that basket of late summer fruit and started canning. I would have worked from dawn to dusk, and beyond, to turn this dire prediction into a divine blessing.
I can imagine myself darting about trying to stop all the abuses of the day:
• the trampling on the needy
• the squabbling over Sabbath rest
• the false scales
• the polluted grain offered as pure
• the selling of the poor as slaves
I’d get busy: preaching and working against all that! I know I would. After all, I know what to do with late summer fruit.
Yet, as I read the passage, over and over, I realized (slowly) that God wasn’t interested in my urgent responses to fix everyone’s heart and mend every broken system. You see, I’d missed something in the divine metaphor and message. God wasn’t showing Amos the deeds that needed to be made right (my crusader’s impulse); God was concerned about something much deeper. I heard this most clearly in the definition of the end that was surely coming; it was not a famine of bread or a thirst for water (a logical conclusion based on late summer fruit) — the future held a famine of hearing the word of the Lord.
God wanted the people, all the people, to listen, learn and live. It wasn’t as simple as late summer fruit to be canned, God desired a listening relationship with Israel. And here’s the surprise. What was true when God showed Amos the basket of fruit and when Amos spoke God’s words of interpretation remains true today: God wants the people, all the people, to listen, learn and live godly lives.
• Enter the gospel.
• Enter the word made flesh.
• Enter the son of man who walked with his disciples, talked with the sick and mentally ill, lingered with the grieving mother and outcast demonic, sat down to table in the home of Martha and Mary.
• Enter the time of listening…even while the noise of the world clamors like pots and pans in the kitchen.
• Enter the time of reflection and attention…even as the late summer fruit begins to turn.
• Enter the gospel judgment, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
Friends, this is completely true: there is a time for busy activity. I learned that well in my family of origin and from my ministry. But, there is also a time for listening for God. This is the time indicated by Amos’ Basket of Late Summer Fruit.
Allow me a few personal comments as I close. By my interim work here at Saint Mark, I’ve come to understand my stage in life as resembling Late Summer Fruit. I’ve given my long term and mighty service to the church; from this point on, smaller/briefer contributions will be mine. Over the past seven months, I’ve learned the opportunities hidden within interim ministry, particularly the opportunity to do less, but attend more to God’s word and will. Here are three examples of listening for and hearing God within the life of Saint Mark:
• Initially, George and I were attracted to Saint Mark by the quality of worship; that came through the seriousness by which worship leaders lead, but also by the palpable significance of worship to the congregation. You may not realize how blessed is your worship; but we sensed it immediately. As your interim never (never!) have I left worship wondering about the Spirit’s presence; I always sensed God in this place, among your leaders, and through your openness to that divine/human encounter.
• On meeting your pastor, Roy, I was certain we’d be feisty conversation partners. Our was not a relationship of teaching one another (or worse, trying to one-up each other); our conversations focused on listening to each other, experiencing the impact of our individual voices and seeking the divine element within each ministry moment. Those were blessed conversations…and I’m glad we took the time to let words flow slowly, rather than always rushing into the next program to institute, the next idea put into action, the next agenda item to check off. Many holy, faithful conversations were shared. By those conversations, I was blessed to hear God more clearly.
• Finally, I’ve experienced God’s compassion among you. Although I did not have pastoral care responsibilities (the usual path for pastors to draw close to parishioners), I did have the assignment of public prayer. This was a graceful responsibility and one that led me to know you. From this weekly act of leading you in prayer, you offered me bits and pieces of your souls. These were often brief, but always precious exchanges. As you spoke your few words to me, I sensed your joys and struggles and began to carry you in my heart.
I thank you for these lessons; I will miss observing, from this perspective of the pulpit (this is the best view of Saint Mark), your gathering before God in worship , but I will be glad to join you frequently in the sanctuary; I will miss leisurely, surprising and faith-filled conversations with your pastor, but I will continue to be a comforting and challenging colleague; I will miss prayerfully attending to your hearts, but I will continue to carry you in my prayers. As I prepare for my last week of interim work, I am happy to be redirected from activity for God to listening to God.
Oh I know I’ll always want to be doing something for the Lord’s work and people. But, looking at the basket of late summer fruit and hearing the words, The End has come…there will be a famine of hearing the word of God, I’m drawn to deeper attention. I’m back to my foundational response of faith: Speak, O Lord, your servant is listening. You, the congregation of Saint Mark, have helped me understand: this is my Late Summer Fruit response.
May God bless you with an abundance of hearing the word of God…
and with significant participation in God’s work. Amen.