Vicar's Sermon - 17th July

Amos 8.1-12

On the wall of my study, just to the left of my desk I have a large framed print of St. Andrews in Scotland. I bought it as a memento of my time at St. Andrews University so I have had it for a frighteningly long time. It is no 362 of a run of 1500 (so it’s not particularly rare!) but the reason I bought it is that it shows an iconic view of St. Andrews from the end of the pier, looking up to the old Cathedral. It‘s an incredibly detailed line drawing by a Czech artist but what sets it apart is that it tries to show the old city as it was in the 15th century, not as it is now. For a start the Cathedral is still standing – John Knox’s followers reduced it to ruins at the reformation. The Castle sits off to the side of the frame and, on the pier are any number of people: merchants buying and selling, pilgrims, priests and residents of the town. In the harbour are three ships – testament to St. Andrews’ prominence as a port. The whole picture has been researched thoroughly: it’s details bear historical scrutiny but it is actually a fiction – in the style a 15th century advertisement for the town. In reality the harbour is not so large, the ships would not have been so grand, the Cathedral and Castle not quite as imposing and the wealth of the nations on show on the pier somewhat more limited.

In the Bowes Museum the other day (after seeing ‘the shoes’ exhibition) we popped into the gallery with the Brussels polyptic in it. There, on the wall by the door was another picture that owes more to the imagination than to reality: you may know it – it’s a picture that shows a woman selling vegetables. The thing is all of the vegetable are hugely oversized. It is presumably impossible to grow a cauliflower the size of a sheep but this woman seems to have managed it. Apples, carrots and the like – you wouldn’t need to buy a bunch of carrots, a you’d need a big bowl to hold the apples – as with the picture of St. Andrews nothing is actually ‘True’ in the picture.

Amos saw a bowl of fruit – yes, it’s him again, we met him last week. A bowl of summer fruit. An image of fulfilment, of promise, of health. He sees the bowl of fruit and then it doesn’t reappear in our reading. Find your bibles and read on the chapter 8 and there is no further mention of fruit anywhere. It’s not even as if he gives us a ‘mememto mori’ word picture of fruit rotting in a bowl so why is he shown this image? Why does our lesson paint us a picture and then abandon it?

The answer lies in the italicised notes that you find in some bibles. Amos’ prophecy of judgement is based on a simple word play. I don’t know Hebrew but it turns out that the word for ‘fruit’ is qayets and the word for ‘the end’ is qets: presumably there is next to no difference in the way these two words are pronounced.  Amos seems to be saying that what seems to the Israelites to be a sign of their success, a sign of their wealth and of their greatness is actually a sign of their falling under judgement. The image they have of themselves and of the health of their nation does not match the reality that he sees through the eyes of God. Once again, and this does seem to be theme I am coming up against repeatedly, they are delusional, they have lost touch with Truth.

Back in the late 18th century and at the turn into the 19th century this country underwent that huge social upheaval that we now know as the ‘industrial revolution’. We all know that back then there was a migration from the countryside into the cities. It took us a century and more to get to grips with the shock of this huge economic upheaval. In the years of the 19th century, (charted through the writings of the great social reformers and the likes of Charles Dickens), life was hard for the ordinary man and woman: we know about overcrowding, poor working conditions, children up chimneys and down mines, industrial injury, cholera, poor sanitation, tenements and the like. It took time. It took moral courage to address this societal change and to restore some semblance of common justice between the displaced and the poor and those who became phenomenally wealthy through this period.

At the time of Amos a similar change was taking place. A society that had rested on subsistence farming was moving towards becoming a mercantile society, built on trade. Old established patterns of living were being uprooted. A new class of people was coming into existence. People who had money, who could access capital. People’s connection to ‘the land’ was being severed. Property was bought and sold and great estates came into existence with tenanted farmers rather than multiple small holders. This is a road that many societies have travelled: there is nothing unusual about it, nothing particularly wrong about it but Amos’ prophecy highlights its pitfalls. The fortunate few, those who by luck or design rose to the top of society at this period seemed unable to see the underside of their success or, for that matter to see what it was doing to their souls. It’s there in verses 4 – 6. In what way does one ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ if your wealth results in their being brought to ruin? What society can survive if the needy are simply bulldozed out of the way of the strong, trampled underfoot. What values are we living by if the only thing that matters is the next deal, the bottom line, the extension of hours for doing business? Amos’ observations are wholly modern. He points at dishonesty in commerce: ‘we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practise deceit with false balances’. He sees that his society has reduced individuals (individuals, who for the person of faith are made in the image of God we should remember) to means of production that can be ‘bought for silver’. The labourer’s life is now worth less than a pair of sandals- all too real when you see the shoes in the Bowes Museum or think of the sweat shops of Asia or the Far East! The labourer doesn’t need anything more than the sweepings of the wheat.

But it’s hyperbole isn’t it? He’s overstating his point to make us sit up and listen? Perhaps we’d like to think so but our children now learn in school of how any number of toxic substances used to be used to bulk up flour. Not so long ago we were being sold horse meat thinking it was beef and cutting the number of health and safety inspectors in our factories. We don’t like ‘red tape’, every Government promises a bonfire of regulation and yet someone surely must protect those who have no power, is that not a religious duty?

It’s hyperbole, until you examine the reason for so many attending FoodBanks – the abuse of power as petty sanctions are meted out by Job Centres. Amos protests too much…unless you are a worker in Bangladesh making clothes for sale in the West, or a refugee leaving poverty in western Africa trying to find a better life.

Economic change is shaking the world, economic shocks seem to be coming at more frequent intervals and they will always produce winners and losers.  Amos refuses to be silent as he gives voice to those who feel they have no voice – if Israel wants to be blessed by God then it needs to keep covenant with him. It is after all, all there in the ten commandments signed and sealed so many years ago.

Perhaps we can take heart from the Vicar’s daughters’ speech on the steps of Downing Street. Maybe she was in church last week and heard Amos speaking to her then?  She is absolutely right to seek to build a country that works ‘not just for the privileged few’ even if, in stating the fact she seems to have passed judgement on where we have been so far this century. Theresa May is right to seek to address what she calls the ‘burning injustices’ of inequality, to question those who build empty palaces for investment but do not build homes for people to live in. She is right to promise that ‘when it comes to taxes we will prioritise not the wealthy but you’…the working class. She sees injustice between rich and poor, black and white, male and female, state educated and privately educated, between young and old, and against those who suffer from mental illness. The observation are correct albeit that they have not been matched by her voting record so far: but with the benefit of the doubt  what a battle she is in for, a battle that people of faith should join as did our predecessors, to build a better society for all.

Theresa May will be judged against her speech the other day. All power to her arm. But remember Amos’ bowl of fruit? All style and no substance has never been enough and it’s not just a modern problem to overcome. Jesus said ‘by their fruit you will know them’ – and those are words not just for Prime Ministers but for us as well.