Strange Fruit

Amos 8; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Jennifer Hosler (sermon adapted from Brethren Press curriculum written by the author, 2015)

Next Saturday, our city and country will celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). It’s been more than 100 years in the making—first lobbied for by African-American veterans of the Civil War—and was officially established by an act of Congress in 2003. The media have been given advance previews of the museum and the New York Times put it this way: the museum “is here at last. And it uplifts and upsets” (Cotter, 2016). As it should. After all, the African-American story is one of resilience and strength amidst enslavement, adversity, violence, and discrimination.

While the top floor of the museum has several thematic exhibits that you can visit in any order, the main storytelling pathway begins by taking an elevator to the bottom of the building. The story starts subterranean, which is fitting for a people whose origins in this country began in the bowels of slave ships. The gallery moves upward through the Civil War, through reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, to Jim Crow and segregation, to Civil Rights, and beyond, to our present day where our country still struggles with ensuring that Black Lives Matter.

While thousands have been eagerly looking forward to this museum’s opening, I’m sure there have been some criticisms. I’m certain there are people who argue, “We really just need to move on and not remember things like slavery or lynching” or ask, “haven’t we moved beyond this?” Some do not want to look deeply, or even superficially, into this country’s history and how it has been shaped by injustice and oppression.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be different from the world (Rom 12:1-2) and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. One part of that involves remembering and acknowledging injustice.

In our passage today in the book of Amos, we see that the LORD is concerned with injustice and that God cannot tolerate His followers ignoring injustice. In Amos’ day, the people of Israel had forgotten that Yahweh called them to love their neighbors and to conduct their lives in ways that were honest and just. The people of Israel were overlooking the oppression in their communities and doing harm to their neighbors. Because of that, God denounced them through the prophet Amos.

Like the people of Israel were tasked with doing justice, followers of Jesus today are also called to work for justice. In order to do so, we must remember and recognize injustice, both past and present. If we are serious about living out the biblical call for justice, active remembering is the first step. American Christians must remember the sins of our forbearers and work to acknowledge and address those of our present society.

Strange Fruit

Fruit is a food enjoyed by most. It’s fairly inoffensive, as far as foods go (Although I know some people who just cannot stand bananas). Fruit is ordinary and yet also beautiful: for hundreds of years, artists have painted still-lifes of apples, oranges, grapes and more. Though fruit can carry the connotation of sin (think Adam and Eve in the garden), it would be absurd to say that melons or mangos strike terror in the average person’s heart. Yet fruit and horror, fruit and menace, are linked in Amos 8, with the prophet’s vision of summer fruit.

It’s not the only instance I know of where the image of fruit is alarming. There is a song, written in the 1930s, that uses fruit as an illustration of our society’s sins. Written by Abel Meeropol and made famous through the voice of Billie Holiday, the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” take listeners to the segregated American South. There, idyllic pastoral, countryside scenes are the setting of violence: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Strange fruit hangs from the poplar trees—not agricultural bounty, but the bodies of lynched black men. Fruit, a usually benign or beautiful symbol, takes on a meaning of horrific violence and tragedy.

In the Old Testament, fruit is typically a symbol of blessing. It symbolizes bounty, abundant harvest, and God’s provision. Quite often, Old Testament passages use fruit to indicate the blessings associated with God’s covenant to Israel. Yet the vision of fruit at the start of Amos 8 is not this type of fruit. The image, instead of blessing, becomes one of menace.

For seven chapters, the prophet Amos has been giving the message of the LORD, denouncing the people of Israel for their oppression of the poor. They had claimed to be religious but were overtly oppressing the poor and marginalized. The word of the LORD comes through Amos: repent, work for justice, or else face judgment.

In chapter seven, the LORD shows Amos an image of locusts devouring the land. Amos pleads for Israel to be spared, since it is “so small.” Yahweh relents. Next, Yahweh gives Amos a vision of fire consuming the land of Israel. Again, Amos pleads on the peoples’ behalf and the LORD does not send the fire. The third vision is one of a plumb line, a construction measuring device that assesses whether building angles are straight. The LORD declares that Israel does not measure up and will face judgment.

Amos’s fourth vision, in chapter 8, is of a basket of summer fruit. “This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ and I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then Yahweh’s message rings out: ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by'” (v. 2b). There is a wordplay here that does not translate into the English version. The word for “summer fruit” sounds very similar to “end” in Hebrew. This summer fruit signals the end of Yahweh’s blessing and protection upon Israel. Since the people have broken their covenant with Yahweh, He will no longer “pass them by” or refrain from addressing their sins.

The next few verses are disturbing and signal the catastrophe that lies ahead for the people. Without Yahweh’s protection from the attacks of other nations, their worship will be replaced by the sounds of wailing—and bodies will litter the streets. The weight of injustice has become too much for those in heaven and those on earth to bear: “Be silent!” says the LORD.

Covenant Blessings and Curses

Biblical and historical context help us make sense of this difficult passage. The people of Israel had agreed to become the people of Yahweh. In the wilderness of Sinai, when Moses gave them the Covenant and the Law, Israelites heard clearly what they were getting into. Like other treaties and agreements in the Ancient Near East, Yahweh’s covenant with Israel included both blessings and curses (see Deut. 27-28). The LORD promised to make the clans of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into a great nation if they worshipped Him alone and followed His commands. These commands stipulated a specific ethic, with practices for everyday life.

In the Law given by Moses, stipulations about worship rituals and economic business practices are side-by-side. Yahweh made it very clear idolatry and injustice both constituted a breaking of the covenant between the LORD and Israel—and the people agreed to uphold Yahweh’s values and teach future generations to do so. The LORD wanted the Israelites to worship Him with their whole lives. Loving the LORD with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5) involved practicing justice; religious rituals were supposed to go hand-in-hand with caring for the marginalized.

By entering into a covenant with Yahweh, the people of Israel agreed to face judgment if they broke their part of the covenant. But later on, they just hoped that God wouldn’t see their wrong doing as long as they still did all the right religious things. But God does see.

Israel’s injustice angers Yahweh—who has been revealed as the God of the oppressed, the God of the weak and powerless—and so the prophet Amos becomes a mouthpiece for a roaring lion, intent on taking down those who oppress the poor. The Israelites’ failure to do justice meant that they would no longer get the blessing part of the covenant; they would face the curses that they had agreed upon.

The LORD calls out those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (8:4). The Israelites are going through the motions of religion but God knows what they are really thinking: “When will we get done with this religious stuff so that I can get back to my real life, making money to live the prosperous life I dream of?” (v. 5). Not only are their hearts in the wrong place, they are going out of their way to defraud and steal, giving inaccurate weights and cooking their balance books. An accusation from Amos 2 appears again in chapter 8, that people are “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” promoting slavery and forced labor on account of tiny debts.

Verses 7 and 8 say that the LORD has had enough of their unrepentant, cheating, and oppressing fake religion. He would overlook them no longer. “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds,” the LORD says (v. 7). Though it might have seemed like the cheaters and schemers were getting away with their evil deeds, the Day of the LORD would bring reckoning and mourning.

Memory and the Church

In Amos, we see that the LORD is concerned with injustice. God will not allow His people to ignore injustice, to sit idly by, and certainly not to benefit from oppression. So God rebukes and judges His people for taking part in this unjust and oppressive economy. Flash forward several thousand years to our day. What does Amos’ message mean for Christians, for us in the United States, as we consider our country’s legacy of injustice toward numerous people groups, but especially toward African-Americans?

I think, first, it means that we cannot run away from remembering. There are some things that our culture works hard to remember. We just marked September 11th – at the gym, I saw a commercial playing that implored viewers to “Never Forget.” The US doesn’t want to forget it. Another historical incident that we are urged not to forget is the Holocaust; by remembering, we hope that people will never again dehumanize and murder millions because of their ethnicity or religion. We try to remind ourselves of the absurdity of Nazi Aryan supremacy. And yet, for as many horrors and atrocities as have occurred against millions of African-Americans, there has been very little movement by the white majority to remember.

A museum like NMAAHC is groundbreaking because it brings black excellence and black dignity and black resilience to the forefront of the National Mall. It is also groundbreaking, because it provides a way for our culture to work on it’s remembering, to recognizing the injustices inflicted on millions of Americans because of the blackness of their skin.

Many European-Americans (as in white Americans) are hesitant to confront the realities and pains of discrimination and prejudice in both the north and south. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable to consider whether your family owned slaves or whether your town lynched black people. Many people don’t want to look at the history of their communities, north or south, where African-Americans were discriminated against in housing or schools or restaurants. If we’re really honest, most of the injustice against African-Americans has been perpetrated by people claiming to be Christians. More specifically, by white people claiming to be Christians.

Regardless of whether I or my direct ancestors have taken part in this oppression, it would be safe to say that every US white person has benefited from white privilege at least some way.

I believe that if the prophet Amos wrote to American Christians, he would call us to repent and mourn.  He would call us to recognize the stories of millions of Americans whose pain has seldom been acknowledged, he’d call us to recognize the slaves whose sweat and toil and blood built this country.

I see the words of Amos calling us to play close attention to what has gone before: to learn more about slavery, about lynching, about Jim Crow, about housing discrimination in the north. If we have been made right with God through Christ and are working toward a beloved community, as Dr. King called it, part of building that reconciled and beloved community involves knowing one another’s stories—including the terrible ones that make us feel ashamed. At the same time, we need to learn about people not only as victims but as persons with immeasurable strength and courage to persevere in this land. That is the African-American story that the church in the United States must familiarize herself with, in order to work towards justice.

Beyond the historical memory, we must hear that the message of Amos is to open our eyes around us, to see and challenge present injustice. We can’t do that without listening to and acknowledging the stories of our African-American sisters and brothers. As individuals and a congregation, how can we listen to these voices? How can we use our privilege or resources in order to amplify voices in society that are not being heard? How can we advocate for just practices in housing or in education or in health policy, in our city or this country? How can we labor for a more just future?

There are many parts of scripture that make it quite clear: God desires more than church attendance, pious prayers, or rituals. One of Amos’ colleagues, the prophet Micah, asked, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Sisters and brothers, we are called to remember and recognize past injustice, to challenge present injustice, and to work for a just future. Let us do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, and remember rightly. Amen.

References                                                                                                                                          Cotter, H. (2016, Sept 22). Review: The Smithsonian African American Museum is here at last. And it uplifts and upsets. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/arts/design/smithsonian-african-american-museum-review.html?_r=0

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