July 15, 2012

 

                          ON A MIGRANT WORKER

                                            Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                    at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 15 July 2012 
 
Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Amos 7: 7-15
Reading from the Epistles:           Ephesians 1: 3-14
Reading from the Gospel:                  Mark 6: 14-29

 

Let me tell you a story.  It is about a migrant worker who travelled north looking for a better life.  Back home he had been a peasant and had very little to call his own.  He described himself as a shepherd and as an orchard worker.  Yet he probably did not own the sheep that he tended or the orchards in which he worked.  Times were tough in his homeland, and particularly for rural peasants like himself.  So he set out northwards and crossed the border looking for a better life.  What he found there shocked him to the core, and he was forced back on the tenets of his faith in the Lord God.

What he saw was certainly a more affluent society than that which he had known back home, but what he also saw was that the prosperity of the few was based upon the poverty of the many.  He saw the affluent living in great luxury.  They had large houses with many servants to look after their every need and the whims and fancies of their womenfolk.  It was all very ostentatious.  He saw men and women dressed in expensive clothes made out of luxury materials.  He saw how the ladies of the house were carefully coifed and used pricey spices and perfumes.  He heard the melodies being played by skilled musicians strumming the latest songs, while the householder and his family lolled on richly decorated furniture eating sumptuously of exotic dishes, different every day, prepared by cooks brought in especially to prepare those meals. 

But he also saw how the vast majority lived, and that was a very different picture.  As was the case back in his homeland, the poor lived in great poverty seeking to make ends meet as best they could.  Their womenfolk had to go to the local well each morning and evening to get water.  They swept their hovels clean, and then scavenging dogs would come and eat any scraps that they might find.  Not for these women the luxury of silks and fine linen, but only the simplicity of dresses made out of cloth made of threads spun from the wool of sheep and the hair of goats.  Not for these men expensive many horse-powered vehicles, but, if they were lucky a donkey, and if they were not then their own two feet, maybe shod in thonged sandals.  Not for these families meals of veal or lamb, washed down with fine chilled wines, but simply bread and vegetables and fruit in due season, with just plain water or, perhaps, a bowl of goat’s milk.

Our migrant saw all this and he asked questions.  Not of the high and mighty of course, but of the poor among whom he lived.  We must imagine him in the darkness of a poor family’s hut talking about what he had seen.  Hardly anyone was literate, and in any case there were no books for them to read.  We are talking you see not of today – although the circumstances are not dissimilar to those of today – but of old Israel in the eighth century B.C., nearly three millennia ago.  Back then they had no Bible, no Bible at all, neither Old nor New Testament.  All they had in those days was an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation of the lives of their ancestors.  Men like our migrant – his name was Amos, the man featured in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning – would meditate on that tradition.  And he would have had plenty of time to do so while looking after his neighbours’ sheep or at the end of a long day working in the orchards.  Those with whom he was staying also knew the stories for they were part of their folklore. 

What Amos dwelt on in those conversations was the justice of the Lord God and the injustice of those who claimed to rule in the Name of God or to preach and prophesy in the Name of the Lord.  Nobody before Amos had thought quite along these lines.  He used a word, צדקה, tsedaqah, that, as far as we can tell, may not have been used in quite this way before.  He used it to speak of justice, not as “justice” is too often and too sadly used today to mean “vengeance”, but in the sense of “righteousness” or “fairness”.  Later Biblical writers were to affirm that the Lord claimed vengeance as his own prerogative, to be implemented only by him, but justice, righteousness, right conduct (if you will), fair-dealing, these are all manifestations of God’s presence among us revealed as we treat one another.  

In our relations one with another, צדקה is to flow like a mountain stream rushing along catching up anything and everything in its path.  It is the most basic of truly human relations.  In one way or another, all human cultures with any pretence to humanity and culture have held this to be so.  We either call it the Golden Rule, “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you”, or the Silver Rule, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them to do unto you”.  If a person is to be truly human, then he or she must show צדקה to others and live ones life in צדקה.  Those who listened to Amos in the private darkness of their hovel liked what he said and were to remember it and see to it that his words were passed on so that we have them today, twenty-eight centuries later.  And they also encouraged him to make a public stand, which he did in the most public of places, the central shrine of the Lord God of Israel at Beth-El, which means the House of God. 

The reaction of the poor and the powerless we know, because they kept his words in their hearts and minds.  The reaction of the rich and the powerful, religious and secular, is also well-known to us, since the friends and followers of Amos committed their words and deeds to memory, and we have those memories in our first reading this morning.

As the rich and powerful so often do, they misquoted the words of Amos, accusing him of saying things that he had not said, and then they tried to dismiss him entirely, telling him to go back to where he came from.  But he was not to be cowed, but argued that, unlike his critic, he was not part of the comfortable establishment who had inherited his position from his father because his father had always said and done things to please the mighty of the Earth.  All Amos was was a dirt-poor peasant-farmhand and fruit-tree dresser, and he was listening to what the living Lord God was telling him to do, and not just the words of some rich and powerful man.  The Lord God, whom Amos obeyed, was and is eternal, but Jeroboam II, whom his critic obeyed, was a mere mortal and would die as any other mere mortal.  It was far better to follow the living God of justice than the dying king of injustice.

No doubt Amos was well aware of the risk he was taking in speaking in these terms, but as a prophet, truly called by the Lord, he really had no choice.  Nearly eight hundred years later John the Baptist knew that he too had no choice when it came to dealing with the corrupt use of power that he saw at the very heart of the nation of his day.  In John’s case it cost him his head, literally.  Yet the names of Herod and his mistress and her daughter live on infamy, while his is honoured.

And still, even in our own day, the rich and the powerful take, grab, what they want, ignoring both the Golden Rule and the Silver.  They want the very best for themselves and their immediate family, but deny it to others.  They demand the very best health care for themselves, while leaving the desperately poor to rely on only emergency services.  They demand the finest education for their children, and leave others to survive in so-called public schools and then, from their positions of private wealth and privilege, they dictate how those same public schools should be managed and what they should teach.  They expect to live in luxury in their senior years, while a veteran of a war that they started but in which they probably did not serve has to make a choice between food and medication or cutting the lawn in his front yard to conform with some ordinance. 

The rich and the powerful are not to be condemned for what they do on behalf of their own families.  We all wish we could do the same.  No.  Where they fall short is in this matter of צדקה.  The Golden Rule or the Silver Rule are the guidelines for those who are human.  Like Amaziah in the time of Amos, it is not that they are faithful in attending public worship that will count in their favour – it will not – but how they treat those they pass on their way to and from public worship. 

The richest and most powerful person who ever walked this Earth was one who had no mansion of his own, let alone several, no large wardrobe of fashionable clothes, no private means of transportation other than his two feet – and even had to borrow a donkey on one occasion – no bank account or stock portfolio (or hidden trust funds to avoid taxation), and he saw to it that he used his powers to heal the sick and to teach, both free of charge, and it was the rich and the powerful of his day that did Jesus to death.  And as a result of that death, the real power and wealth of God is ours.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, we have received an inheritance, redemption from all that the world, the wealthy and the powerful can throw at us.

So Amos got it right, even without the benefit of any Holy Scriptures.  And if we want to get it right we too need to see to it that justice flows rushing like a mountain stream in our day, justice for all people everywhere, for the Earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell therein.

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