Proper 11, Year CAmos 8:1-12
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
I have something to show you today! I don’t usually do an object lesson, but if God can do one in today’s first reading from Amos, then I might as well give it a try. [Hold up basket of fruit.] You all take Amos’ role here: “What do you see?”
… Yes, a basket of fruit, a basket of summer fruit, straight from yesterday’s farmers’ market! I love fresh summer fruit, don’t you? In May, we see baskets of strawberries, bursting with bright red flavor; in June, there are juicy blueberries and blackberries; now we have velvety peaches; and soon we will get tender figs, the ancient summer fruit that Amos probably would have seen in God’s basket.
There is one problem with this delicious abundance of fruit, though. Unlike apples and oranges, which can last awhile, summer fruit starts to go bad much too quickly, doesn’t it? The pieces at the top of the basket might still look plump and shiny, but down at the bottom, hidden in the dark, an icky gray fuzz will start sprouting and silently spreading. Quickly, the disgusting mold will move up and down, in and out, from one piece of fruit to another until the whole basket is spoiled and runny with slime.
You won’t notice without reading the notes in your bibles, but “summer fruit” in Hebrew is a clever pun on the word “ending.” At once, God shows Amos both a basket of summer fruit, and a “basket of endings.” Holding the cup of rotting raspberries in my fridge, I can easily imagine a rotten basket of endings—slimy, moldy endings, endings that run and stink, endings that we cannot stomach, endings that creep up on us through death, through sin, through time. Just hold Amos’ words up to the recent news headlines: a joyful summer fireworks celebration and an evening of dancing that terrorism suddenly turns to mass slaughter; a peaceful demonstration that hatred turns to violent death; loving lives brought to an unjust end by fear and racism; once-happy families cast out into a harsh and unwelcome world by war. Fear, violence, hatred, misunderstanding, destruction … they all seem to spread through the fragile skin of our lives like mold through summer fruit, touching us all, condemning us all.
We are all much too well-acquainted with the basket of endings: the ending of joy, the ending of meaning, the ending of words, the ending of relationship, the ending where only the deserted quiet of the trash heap leaves us in defeated silence. What we want is permanence. What we want is to know that the good fruit will last. My tendency these days is to demand reassurance from God that the rot will stop spreading. My prayers are pleas for fruit that doesn’t go bad, life that doesn’t end, a world that is guaranteed to stay sane and safe.
I was reminded of my mother’s fruit bowl. When I was a child, we might have had an old apple or orange rolling around in the back of the fridge, but we mainly ate our fruit canned—DelMonte-style. The only basket of fruit in my house was my mother’s pride and joy: an intricate silver filigree bowl filled with wooden fruit, placed on the table for all to admire year round. Each piece was painted to look like real fruit. When I was little, I loved to sneak over and play with it when no one was looking. I would pick the pieces up one after the other, slowly and carefully, weighing each one in my hands, turning it in admiration, and then fitting it back in its silver bowl, like a puzzle piece. Each fruit had such a smooth, cool heaviness in my hand. Solidly satisfying. Unyielding. Just the way I want my world to be, the way I want my God to be.
But God doesn’t show Amos a bowl of wooden fruit, does he? Left with only my mother’s wooden fruit, we would starve, both in our bodies and in our souls. God’s true presence is far from comforting imitation. It’s not there just for show. True life, God-given life, is not a bowl of changeless certainties. As I pondered today’s text, I made an interesting discovery. “Summer fruit” might be a pun on “endings,” but “summer fruit” is only used elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures in a positive, celebratory way. Summer fruit is the food of kings, of banquets. It is fresh and pregnant with life-giving juice. In scripture, there’s no mention of its rotting. Summer fruit in other texts stands only for the enjoyment of plenty and prosperity in the moment.
It made me wonder why God shows Amos a basket of this fragrant, life-filled fruit in the midst of the desolation of endings. Perhaps God puts this alluring basket out not just for judgment, as it might seem at first, but also to offer us life in the midst of death. After all, God sends God’s Son into this decaying world, where he becomes a part of all of its messy endings. God’s Son dies in the biggest ending of all, an ending similar to the one that God describes to Amos. Jesus breathes his last, and the sun goes down and the sky darkens in broad daylight, and the earth quakes and is tossed about like the waters of the Nile. Holy Saturday, like this section of our text, ends in utter silence. And yet in Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection, this Ending of all endings is also a beginning, the beginning of our salvation.
Perhaps this basket of summer fruit is a gift from God, a gift to remind us that ours is a God who makes beginnings out of endings. When the world gets us down, perhaps we can imagine God carefully choosing for us a ripe fruit from a tree at the corner of heaven and earth, picking it gently from the salvation-bearing arms of Christ, and placing it in our parched mouths? Can you taste its live sweetness, like joy? Can you smell its deep fragrance, like incense? Can you feel it drip down your throat with all of the life-giving force of that first sip of orange juice after surgery? Can you feel it strengthening you to face the endings we must live in this world, strengthening you to turn and offer this same sweet gift to others?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus isn’t holding out a basket of fat, ripe summer figs to Mary as she sits silently at his feet in our Gospel lesson—offering her a concrete taste of life, and joy, and meaning in the face of the ending and upheaval that is to come for her with his death. Perhaps that One Thing that she chooses is to take the gift of a delicious fig from his open hand.
When was the last time that any of us spent any time with God that could be likened to eating summer fruit? Joyful, full of sunshine, full of health? I know that I feel more like Martha in my prayers—dutiful, asking for things to do. I seem to ask Jesus for a quick vitamin pill or a stiff wooden peach more often than for the squishiness of a ripe fig. I wonder what fruit Jesus might want to offer each of us today? Is God perhaps offering us the chance to pray forth our despair with a psalm, one that is gritty like a fig? Or to immerse ourselves in a moment of music, luscious like a peach? Maybe it’s time spent with a book as juicy as a watermelon or with a poem as small and full of flavor as a berry? Maybe it’s spending time on a walk on sand as grainy as raspberry seeds? In the face of all of the endings that frighten us, all of the pictures of violence and injustice that haunt us, all of the silences that overwhelm us … choose to take a moment this week to sit in the sun at the feet of Jesus, and take a piece of summer fruit from his hand.
See 2 Sam 16:1-2; Micah 7:1; Isaiah 28:4. See also Yvonne Sherwood, “Of Fruit and Corpses and Wordplay Visions: Picturing Amos 8:1-3” in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 92 (2001) 5-27.
image of painting by Paul Cezanne