A Herdsman and a Dresser of Sycamore Trees

July 15, 2018

Rev. Dr. Alan Baughcum

Day’s Ferry Congregational Church, Woolwich ME

Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

God has a mission for each of us. Using traditional religious language, God is calling . . . God is calling . . . each of us to a mission.

Some in this congregation who are listening to my words have already been called to a mission and know it. Let this sermon be an encouragement to them.

Some in this congregation who are listening to my words are waiting to be called to a mission. Maybe we are waiting impatiently. Maybe some of us are even a little fearful that the call won’t come. Be patient. It will come . . . in God’s own good time.

We need to be careful about our expectations. God may call us to what seems like a great thing, like leading an organization fighting for justice for the oppressed, to clean up the environment, or to educate children. But God may also call us to what may seem a small thing . . . for example, smiling at a neighbor or a co-worker and asking them how they are doing. It is amazing what mighty works can flow from the relationship that grows from that initial inquiry . . . all of the power of creation rests in a new relationship that God calls into being . . . and the power of creation can defeat the powers of destruction at work in our society and in our culture!

This is a sermon about people who are called to mission. It includes Amos, it includes the people of ancient Israel, and it includes each of us.

Amos was called to a mission during the first half of the eighth century B. C. God spoke to Amos and told him to leave Judah and go into the kingdom of Israel and tell the people of Israel that God was unhappy, very unhappy, with their behavior. In fact, Amos was directed to go into Israel and tell the people there that God was so unhappy with Israel that God was going to bring enemies to destroy Israel.

We know from the very first verse of Amos that he was “among the shepherds of Tekoa.” Tekoa was a small town in northern Judah — in the mountains about 20 miles southwest of the Jordan River and about ten miles west of the Dead Sea. Amos’ flocks would probably have included goats as well as sheep. And Verse 17 of chapter 7 tells us that Amos was also a herdsman, referring to herding cattle.

I grew up hearing these scriptures and thinking that Amos the prophet that he was probably some poor nomad wandering the desert whom God had called to deliver the bad news to Israel. Amos did not seem much like me.

But, remember, last week we found out that God calls people of all sorts to be prophets. While most of the Old Testament prophets were men, some were women. And now I want to suggest that prophets do not have to be some poor, anonymous schlub. They may be prosperous and well-to-do and educated, like many of us in this community.

For example, the Hebrew word for shepherd which Amos employs is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible only once. In that one other instance “shepherd” refers to the owner of substantial flocks of sheep.

 

Amos also tells us in verse 14 of chapter 7 that he was a “dresser of sycamore trees,” here using a Hebrew word used nowhere else in the Bible. Amos’ sycamore trees were not the sycamore trees that we know in the U. S. Our sycamore trees are tall plane — p-l-a-n-e — trees that grow their seeds in those hard green balls that are covered with stiff prickles and that hang from branches in clusters of two and three. There were sycamore trees in my childhood neighborhood in Georgia. And of course we children did the only sensible thing …. we threw those hard prickly balls at each other!

Amos’ sycamore trees were not the same as our sycamore trees. Amos’ trees grew figs, sycamore figs. Sycamore figs are not as tasty as the figs we buy in the stores. Still, they are edible and tasty enough for humans. Mostly they were used to feed livestock. But the poor who could not afford more expensive fruit also ate them.

Dressing sycamore trees probably meant that workers climbed the tree and cut the unripe sycamore figs with a knife. The cuts caused the figs to release ethylene gas which ripened the figs within four days. Repeated dressings during the growing season could result in as many as six crops of figs!

Amos’ sycamore trees grew tall and made good lumber. Their leaves were also used as fodder for livestock. All in all, Amos’ sycamore trees would have been valuable assets.

If Amos owned fig orchards and lumber resources in addition to his flocks and herds, Amos may well have been a wealthy man. Indeed it may have been his wealth which freed up Amos’ time for his brief prophetic mission to Israel.

 

Another way in which Amos is similar to members of this community is that Amos may have been relatively well educated for his time. The language of the book of Amos is widely regarded by scholars as that of an educated person. For proof, run the text of the book of Amos through the computer software program Grammatik to generate a readability score. Grammatik will report that the language of Amos is pitched to a fifth grade reader. For comparison, Ernest Hemingway’s novels are written at the fourth grade level.

It is very difficult to write at that level. Most of us college-educated folks write extremely dense and frequently unreadable prose for other college-educated readers. When I worked for the federal government, I once wrote a memo on energy economics which, according to Grammatik, required someone with twenty-two (22) years of education to read. Of course, what that meant was that my memo was completely incomprehensible! It takes talent, skill and education to speak and write so clearly and simply that anyone can understand what we write!

God called Amos to a mission, just as God is calling us to a mission. Amos’ mission was to confront Israel with the sins being committed in that country and to announce God’s judgement of destruction of Israel.

The sins of Israel were many and were common in the societies that surrounded Israel at that time. But of course Israel was party to a covenant with God that required Israel to live up to higher standards and behave differently from its neighbors.

 

Economic sins of the time included inducing farmers to take out loans that they could not repay and then picking up their land for non-payment. Loss of land could well mean starvation for the farmer and family. The wealthy and powerful merchants also oppressed the poor in the marketplace with fraudulent weights and measures. They were not above adulterating the products they sold to increase profits. Then when the poor appealed to the courts, the wealthy denied them justice by bribing the judges.

The elites used much of the wealth taken from the poor to import expensive armaments for their military and luxury goods for themselves. Amos particularly hated the latest fad of his time, buying beds made with ivory. Neither armaments nor luxury goods benefitted the poor. The poor couldn’t afford to purchase the expensive luxury goods. The armaments mostly protected the rich and powerful living in fortified cities, not the poor who lived in unprotected rural areas.

The sins of Israel extended to Israel’s foreign policy. Israel’s elites gloried in their military successes against their neighbors and deluded themselves that they were in control of their destiny. They had in effect declared their independence from God.

Israel’s sins included religious sins. They worshiped local agricultural and nature gods — such as Ba’al and Asheroth and Dagan and Yam — in the hope of bringing forth good weather and ample rainfall to secure a plentiful harvest. At the same time Israel was scrupulous about maintaining the formal rituals associated with the worship of Israel’s own God.

Amos told the people of Israel that these formal rituals were in fact objectionable to God. Maintaining proper formal worship of Yahweh meant nothing if they were worshiping other gods and committing economic and social injustices against the poor.

Conspicuous consumption, vast military expenditures, worshiping false gods, and acting unjustly against the poor of the world ….. I think I read about that pretty often in our media.

Data from the World Bank indicates that U. S. per capita income in 2018 is about $60,000 per year. The income for the rest of the world averages about $15,000 per year. During those times when we are not feeling so rich, we need to remember that, on average, we have four times the income of the rest of the world. And, yes, I know about the statistical problems of relying on averages …. still and all, we stand at the top of the income table for the nations of the world.

Having studied what the Bible has to say on the subject of wealth, my opinion is that God is not opposed to wealth per se. But God is concerned with how we gain our wealth, whether we do so by dealing fairly and honestly with our neighbors within the bounds of law, religion, and ethical behavior. God is also concerned with how we spend our wealth. God is vitally concerned about what wealth may do to us as a people ….. that is the real danger from wealth.

The wealth of Israel had lulled them into believing that they were in charge, not God. Today the U. S. is said to be the only remaining global superpower. Like the elites of ancient Israel we must be especially careful lest we succumb to the illusion that we are in control of our own destiny, much less in charge of world history.

Like us, the people of Israel covered their bases. They worshiped other gods, nature gods — as a kind of weather insurance. Just to stay on God’s good side, they followed the rituals of formal worship of Yahweh to the letter. Similarly Americans are by most measures among the most religious people on the planet. Yet we seem to be willing to elevate popular entertainers, sports stars, political officials, and sometimes ideas and “isms” (such as capitalism and socialism) to a level which suggests we are running the risk of forgetting who our God is and who is charge.

God’s call to Amos, to the people of Israel, and to us may take many forms. But surely we can see that call to us, at least in part, in Psalms 82:3-4: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” That applies not just in the U. S. but worldwide. When the modern prophet Mr. Rogers invited children to be his neighbors, he did not limit that invitation to U. S. children.

Just as God called Amos and the people of Israel to mission, so also does God call us to mission. God is asking us to use our resources of time, talent, and money on God’s behalf. Given the generosity of the congregation, it would appear, happily, that our Board of Outreach can do better than the bare-bones amounts we budgeted earlier this year when we thought we would facing a shortfall in giving.

And now we know we have the capacity to respond generously when we face unexpected needs. Thanks to everyone who has given to help the Turner family in their hour of need. It is not just the fact of helping, it is the generosity of spirit exhibited in our community that is so gratifying!

Paul had the experience we have had, 2000 years ago when he asked the followers of Jesus to contribute to the needs of the faithful poor in Jerusalem. At Colossians 1:9-12 he prays that they will “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power . . .” Praise God we have experienced that strength in our own midst.

 

It is good to contemplate our successes and faithfulness ….. but the need of the poor and the oppressed continue. There are always new opportunities to help. In those cries for help, we hear God’s call to mission. That may require new ways of thinking, new structures, new policies …. that is ok. We can do that. We can listen and we can respond.

Most of us know that this church know that this church was founded by the folks at the old Nequasset Church. The ferry traffic across the Kennebec River from Bath was so great that West Woolwich, that’s us, became a center of commerce and habitation that needed a church. And so Day’s Ferry Congregational Church came into being in 1833.

When the Carlton Bridge was built in 1927, Day’s Ferry took it on the economic chin as the ferries shut down. We joined with Nequasset and with the Methodists in a new organization named the Woolwich Union for Christian Service. We wrote bylaws, elected officers, held church suppers to raise money, coordinated worship schedules, and worked together to serve Woolwich. One of our ministers even officiated at the wedding of a leading member of the Baptist church. Both the Baptists and members of the Woolwich Union wished the newly-married couple all the best! Praise God for unity among believers!!

My sisters and brothers, as I prepare to leave this pulpit in a few Sundays, I want to encourage the good listening to continue, to hear God’s call for us. We are good at that …. we’ve been practicing! Amen.

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