Text: Amos 8:1-12
Duane Adkinson was a foot soldier for peace and justice and an ardent supporter of W.W. Finlator and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Duane died last April after a courageous battle with bladder and kidney cancer. In his final days, Duane shared with me several requests for his funeral. He said “Nancy, my dad always preached a 20-minute sermon, (his father was a Baptist preacher) so I want a 20-minute funeral.” Next, he said, “I want you to sing Solidarity Forever and play Willie Nelson singing Uncloudy Day.” Third, he said, “there’s to be no bullshit at my funeral.” And last, Duane said, and he was most passionate about this one: “Whatever you do, do NOT mention spiritual salvation at my funeral but welcome anyone who would sign up a few union people with contracts.”
Over the years, about every six months or so Duane would call me and say “Hey preacher, I’m in need of some soul food.” I knew exactly what he meant. First, he meant it was time to go to lunch at Larry’s restaurant out off of Tryon Road. It was his favorite place to eat. And Larry’s lunch buffet didn’t disappoint when it came to “soul” food. Pig’s feet (Duane’s favorite), collards, cabbage, potatoes, fried fish, really any vegetable you could imagine cooked with ham hocks, and every kind of meat—fried and otherwise—in unlimited quantity. And Duane never let us skip dessert, especially the homemade banana pudding.
But it wasn’t just the pig’s feet and collards and banana pudding Duane wanted. When he said, “I’m in need of some soul food” it was also Duane’s way of letting me know there were some important matters of faith weighing on his mind. In those soul food conversations Duane would present me with a faith or theological dilemma with which he was struggling—always relevant to his passion for justice and his understanding of the social gospel to care for the poor. In those conversations, Duane would often turn to the words of the prophets or those of Jesus. He loved the prophets. He loved the teachings of Jesus, and he studied them daily. When he died, I asked Betty if I could take a look at Duane’s Bible. As I flipped the pages of his ragged Good News Bible I realized just how much Duane loved the words of his faith. Page after page, he had highlighted the sacred words that resonated with him. And it was no surprise to find the words of Amos chapter eight, verse 11 not only highlighted but underscored in that frayed, worn rugged Good News Bible. “The time is surely coming, says God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of God.”
That promise of the thirst to hear the words of God resonated with Duane. But let’s not jump to the dessert; this passage in Amos begins quite differently. In eleven short verses we go from the lovely image of “summer basket of fruit” to words of judgment and an impending famine. Just this past week as I sat with some friends eating a delicious meal, most of which came from the farmer’s market, someone at the table remarked, “this meal has been a delicious taste of summer.” Ripe heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, tender baby squash. When my dinner partner described the meal as a “taste of summer,” I thought of Amos and his summer basket of fruit.
But sometimes, things aren’t always what they seem. Like this summer basket of fruit that God sent Amos. It is important to remember that before Amos became a prophet, he was a “dresser of sycamore trees.” So he knows something about fruit. He knows that the sycamore figs must be pierced before they would ripen. So God shows Amos a fruit basket to create a play on words. The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is qayits but the word for “end” is qets. Amos, what do you see? God asks. A basket of summer fruit, he says. And then we hear the reply from God, “The end has come upon my people Israel…” Isn’t it striking how God speaks through what we know?
Melissa Browning, professor of Contextual Ministry at McAfee School of Theology writes of this Amos passage:
In the stories of the prophets, there is often a clear cause and effect. [In the Amos passage we read] “dead bodies will be many, cast out in every place” because the people of God have trampled on the needy, they have been “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” In the midst of dystopia, the prophets appear on the scene to make connections for the people, showing them how the sin they have shored up in systems of injustice is now directly linked to the violence and pain they are experiencing or will experience. Cause and effect. A simple concept we learned in elementary school with worksheets and classroom exercises. And here we see it again in the prophets. If we create a society that builds violence into systems, we will be left with dead bodies in the street.
She goes on to say:
We may not tend sycamore trees and we might not consider ourselves prophets, but we’ve seen dead bodies in the streets. Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, police officers in Dallas, mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, the state sanctioned death of those on death row, kids who die from hunger in our own neighborhoods… everywhere we look, we find death. Cycles of marginalization, violence and retribution are playing out over and over and over again in our midst.
These things are painful to see. In fact, those who walk through life with privilege might never see them at all. But this is the task of people of faith – to see and to help each other see what is really there. God isn’t sending us a fruit basket. God is asking us to see the pain of the world. God is asking us to respond by rooting out the injustice that causes it.
When we begin to look with eyes of faith, we see the connections. Not the simple cause and effect we learned in elementary school, but a web of connections where injustices collide, creating not a culture of abundant life for all, but a reality that is dystopian for some and a picnic for others. When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things will not go well for you. The end of injustice is coming, whether or not you have eyes to see.
And so I return to verse eleven, that verse Duane had highlighted and underscored in his Bible. We usually think of famine in terms of our physical needs—as Amos describes—a famine of bread and a thirst for water. But Amos speaks of a more devastating famine: a famine of God’s justice and mercy. A famine where God’s people turn their hearts and eyes and souls away from the needs of their neighbors. A famine where our institutions and social systems fail to see and respond to the cries of injustice. A famine of equality in our societal systems. Simply put, a famine of our collective soul. We are starved of compassion and justice and equality.
Our nation, and we as individuals, are starving for some soul food—soul food in double portions of compassion, mercy, justice, kindness, understanding. This is the nourishment we need right now, and we need second and third and fourth helpings of this soul food. And we need to cut out of our diets judgment, indifference, apathy, greed, pride and fear. Yes, in Duane’s words, we are in need of some soul food.
The term soul food became popular in the 1960s, after Alex Haley recorded Malcolm X’s life story in 1963. To Malcolm X, soul food represents both southerness and commensality. Those who had participated in the Great Migration found within soul food a reminder of the home and family they had left behind after moving to the unfamiliar northern cities.
The only way to stave off this famine that we are experiencing in our world is by cooking up more soul food – nourishment that is evocative of our collective belonging – and then inviting others to eat with us. Our Round Table Fellowship is a start – we moved beyond handing out food, to creating a community table where our friends sit and eat with us and have conversation. And Amos is asking us: “What is the next step in that soul food? What would move us farther toward Duane’s beloved solidarity?”
The prophets are known for proclaiming coming doom. They didn’t have magical powers that warned them of the impending disasters. They simply knew what the inevitable outcome would be if the people didn’t do justice and love kindness. And so they spoke hard words of truth. But the prophets didn’t just preach doom. They also spoke words of hope. Take for example the prophet Ezekiel, who prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. He would later become known as the prophet of HOPE. No longer did he call Jews to repentance to avoid being overthrown. He addressed instead the questions that must have been on their minds now that their nation was no more. What future did they have now that they had offended God so grievously that God had allowed them to be driven from their land? Was God still their God? Were they still God’s chosen people? And even if God were willing, could God gather people so widely dispersed as the Israelites were in Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and elsewhere throughout the world? As this news sank into the exiles’ minds, making the prophesied dispersion a reality, Ezekiel was called to cast a beam of light on a future known only to God. His messages were messages of hope. God would never abandon the people, Ezekiel said.
Anne Lamott, in her recent blog post, writes:
Life has always been this scary here, and we have always been as vulnerable as kittens, plagues and Visigoths, snakes and schizophrenia; Cain is still killing Abel and nature means that everyone dies. I hate this. It’s too horrible for words. When my son was seven and found out that he and I would not die at the exact same second, he said, crying, “If I had known this, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.” Don’t you feel like that sometime?
How on Earth do we respond, when we are stunned and scared and overwhelmed, to the point of almost disbelieving? I wish there was an 800 number we could call to find out…But no. Yet in the meantime, I know that we MUST respond. We must respond with a show of force equal to the violence and tragedies. With love force. Mercy force. Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering, including ourselves. Two dollar bills to the extremely annoying guy at the intersection who you think maybe could be working, or is going to spend your money on beer. Jesus didn’t ask the blind man what he was going to look at after he restored the man’s sight. He just gave hope and sight; he just healed.
To whom can you give hope and sight today?…Remember the guys in the Bible whose friend was paralyzed, but couldn’t get in close to see Jesus preach and heal, so they carried him on a cot, climbed the roof, and lowered him down for the healing? Can a few of you band together—just for today—and carry someone to the healing? Help a neighbor who is going under, maybe band together to haul their junk to the dump? Shop for sales for a canned food drive at the local temple or mosque? How about three anonymous good deeds?
There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE, keep it to yourself. It will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does—and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.
In so many ways, it feels like we have left home and are living in an unfamiliar place, and we are starving, longing for some comfort/soul food. The words of Amos strike me as saying that if we want to get to hope we have to eat more soul food. We have to set our tables with an abundance of compassion, mercy, grace, and more love. So here at Pullen let’s keep on gathering everyone we can find around our table and dish out as much compassion, mercy, grace, love, and hope as we can. Let us be that place where people gather when they are in need of some real soul food.