Vicar’s sermon 17th July 2022

Amos 8.1-12  17.7.22.

Have you been to the Spanish Galleries in Bishop Auckland yet? If not, you really should. Yes, it costs to get in…but treat yourself if you can, the art is magnificent and the gallery laid out really well with tea shops and eateries near by so that you can break up your viewing of the pictures.

Jonathan Ruffer’s aim in the Gallery was to bring together pictures from the Golden Age of Spanish art – the 16th and 17th centuries, building upon the fact that Auckland Castle houses Zurbaran’s famous pictures of the tribes of Israel in the Bishop’s dining room. What I learned from my visit was that, over this period, Spain became incredibly wealthy – this period in history saw the expansion of Spanish Colonies into the New World – but that Spanish art of this time was uneasy about this wealth and reflected the impermanence of life. Indeed, the Royal dynasty that oversaw Spain’s rise (the Spanish Hapsburgs) were so concerned about preserving their true-blue royal blood line that they would only countenance marriage ‘within the family’ (albeit distant cousins perhaps) – and of course, there is a reason why this is not a good idea. Their last monarchs gave way to madness and infertility. As far as the art is concerned this sense of impermanence and death is portrayed in still life’s that show great baskets of fruit that is ‘just on the turn’, or bouquets of flowers where it seems the petals are about to drop. Simple kitchen scenes show the abundance of produce available…but have dead game hanging on the walls or lying across the kitchen table. Life…and Death in one picture, a picture of the nation.

And so to our Old Testament reading where Amos ‘sees’ a bowl of fruit, but his prophetic ‘seeing’ leads him to contemplate what the vision might mean…and the answer is not good. This bowl of summer fruit looks magnificent. There is no indication that it is beginning to rot – all seems fine, but Amos’s insight is that all is not well… judgement is coming.

I last preached on this passage on the 17th July in 2016. It just so happens that earlier in that week Theresa May had been elected prime Minister by her MPs – the election had not gone out to Conservative Party members because Andrea Leadsom (who had been in the last two in the running) had dropped out. You might remember that Theresa May (herself the daughter of a Vicar) had stood on the steps of Downing Street back then and promised to address what she called the ‘burning injustices’ of the nation…her pitch was to help the JAMs, those ‘just about managing’. Much has happened in the last six years, but those injustices are still there, waiting to be addressed. Indeed, every one of those seeking to be elected Prime Minister this week has recognised the ‘cost of living crisis’ – they will be elected on the basis of how they propose to address it – and, because politics is about making choices, choices will need to be made.

What does Amos contribute? Well, he has already contributed quite a bit (in the background of the tumultuous weeks we have just had) – it seems that Sajid Javid threw his hat into the ring following a ‘prayer breakfast’ he attended at which he heard a sermon based on the bible passages we have been reading in church recently.

Amos’ words predicted huge social change and disruption. From what he can see the nation will be invaded and destroyed – and so Amos spoke of the temple worship being turned to mourning, in his vision he could see bodies in the streets. The upheaval he predicted would be as dramatic as the rising and falling of the Nile in flood. Why does this judgement threaten?

The answer lies in verses 4 to 6: it is because the wealth of the nation has been bought at the expense of the poor. In Amos’ day most people were subsistence farmers who got by in a barter economy. What we now call an ‘economic shock’ had hit the country as the ruling class (which included the religious elite) had begun to break away from the land and earn their wealth through trade. Those who set the rules of the game became increasingly wealthy. Those on the receiving end of this shift saw themselves bought off the land and ever more reliant upon the charity of their wealthy lords. As far as Amos was concerned, this new economy did not reflect the covenant (the agreement Israel had made on Sinai with God): so he condemned the drive for profit that couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over; he saw people brought to ruin, the needy walked over. In a verse that shows us the importance of what we now call ‘Trading Standards’ he pointed out malpractice of those who said ‘we will make the ephah small and the shekel great, we will practice deceit with false measures and use the sweepings of the wheat’. Speaking in the name of the Lord the promise of judgement was made with an oath (in verse 7) which is, itself interesting – ‘The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob’ – it says. Like those Spanish bowls of fruit all seemed well on the surface, the nation is ‘proud’ of itself, but the ‘turn’ is coming.

As a nation we have come, yet again, to an inflection point as a new Prime minister is sought – these moments of change seem to be coming ever more quickly. The invasion of Ukraine has upended 75 years of thinking about the world order: western nations are playing ‘catch up’ to reset our reliance upon Russian energy. Germany, in particular, has done a complete turn around over how it might relate to Putin’s Russia. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO (after decades of feeling this wasn’t necessary). World markets have been thrown into turmoil – firstly by the pandemic but then also by war in Europe. Just when we thought we could be ‘global Britain’ we find that trade with and reliance upon both Russia and China are either not possible or advisable.

The energy markets are in turmoil: Martin Lewis (on the radio the other day) pointed out that the average energy bill by the turn of the year will eat up a third of someone’s state pension. ‘Heating or eating’ has become a phrase that just rolls off the tongue. Most people using foodbanks are in work. The two-child policy that means anyone on benefits only receives assistance for two children (no more) means that the numbers of children in school living in poverty is steadily increasing a policy opposed by our Bishop in the House of Lords: remember, most people on benefits are in work. Schools in this town (so imagine what it might be like in Middlesbrough or Hartlepool) are becoming branches of social services – discretely delivering food parcels to parents, managing the mental health difficulties of children. Add to this the many issues surrounding food sustainability, climate change, NHS waiting lists, inflation at a 40 year high, industrial unrest and shortages of workers in key industries and we have some major decisions to make and need to do so quickly.

All of our political parties will have to address these and other urgent issues in their pitch to the electorate if the many gains of the last decades are not to be lost. What will guide our choices?  For Amos, the answer to that question was ‘the covenant’, the agreement that bound the nation to God and to one another. Policy has to reflect the belief that ‘we’re all in this together’ and it must have a bias to the poor: the temptation, of course, is that we judge policy by how it affects us and have no concern for how it might affect others.

Because  he wrote at a time when faith was the norm Amos spoke of the need for the nation to ‘hear the word of the Lord’. We know that the western world has unhitched itself from its Christian inheritance. Previous generations of politicians were versed in the Christian values that shaped the nation: whether through being High Tory Anglicans or Non-conforming Methodists.  But mine was the last generation (and 60 years have passed) that attended Sunday School or had any serious connection with faith.  Generations that have followed have drawn less and less upon the scriptures for their guide and they push back against any suggestion that faith might have a voice in the public square. Right and wrong have become relative, negotiable. There is no such thing as truth, only ‘my Truth’ and ‘your Truth’.  We’re not far then from the famine Amos predicted – a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. Continually choosing to ignore the principles and guidance of the word of God leaves us unable to hear it when we most need it.

And so we pray as Christian people for those who lead us. For those who seek to be our next prime Minister. For the wisdom to meet this moment in our common life. For the Government and Opposition as we stand before this scripture that we have been given – for humility, repentance, a care for those who are poor and in need, for justice and right dealings one with another and for the word of God to reshape us into a nation that honours God’s presence within all his people.

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