I am so glad to be at Pulse and preaching on one of my favorite topics- God’s care for creation. It is an issue that has been placed on my heart and would not let go until I did something about it. Maybe some of you have had a similar experience- when you feel so strongly called to an issue and once you got to work on it, you looked back only to realize God had been preparing you for this all along? That’s how it feels for me.
I grew up in Oregon, which is pretty much crunchy-granola-hipster central. I literally remember the first time I saw someone throw paper in the garbage. I was working at a camp in California and couldn’t comprehend not having recycling. You can imagine my shock when I moved to the South! It honestly wasn’t until I moved here that my passion for environmental justice and care for God’s creation began to take hold. It’s become an unshakable conviction of mine, and I believe, of God’s.
Today, we’re diving into the book of Amos. It’s one of the so-called Minor Prophets, not because it isn’t important, but because it’s shorter than the “major prophets” Jeremiah and Isaiah. Amos is known as Israel’s first theologian. He was the first person to take theological claims that Israel had taken for granted, of being God’s chosen people, and give them new meaning. His radical and searing words continued to hold meaning for Israel through the exile, the return, in Jesus’ community, and throughout the diaspora. They have held meaning for the early church all the way to us today. For almost three thousand years, these words of Amos have shaped and challenged the people of God about what it means to be a just community.
Amos was living and writing in the 8th Century BCE. It was a time of incredible national economic productivity, but one that came at a great cost. For centuries, the Israelites had been living in small familial communities. Farming was hard work with very little technology and nearly everyone lived at the subsistence level. They all worked year-round just to have enough to eat. If they had any extra, they stored it in case another member of the extended family needed it. It was like a community safety net. No questions asked- if someone was in need, the others would provide for them. The excess they saved was distributed, never wasted.
But then Israel wanted to be like their neighboring empires—they wanted a King. When God relented and gave them a king, first Saul and then David, it also began a process that changed the social and agricultural life of the people. Elites began taxing the people, forcing them to give up their small excess safety net. They continued to raise taxes, forcing the peasants to become cash crop farmers, where they couldn’t afford to feed their own families. A single bad harvest, which wasn’t a rare occurrence, would force them into starvation. Despite their hard work, peasants fell deeper and deeper into debt, until they had to sell the land of their inheritance. Small familial communities were replaced by large estates. The elites continued their heavy taxation, living in luxury, to the point of waste. They had more food than they could eat, while those growing it were starving.
Within a century, the agricultural practices had entirely changed the community of Israel. Families went from sharing and surviving together to becoming sharecroppers on the land that was once theirs. It changed how they related to one another, how they worshipped and what it meant to be tribes of Israel.
Because if you impact access to food, you impact everything. Food shapes the community. Just think of the food that we associate with different parts of our country—deep dish pizza in Chicago, a New York bagel, southern barbeque, or New Orleans gumbo. It may not be exactly true that we are what we eat, but what someone eats tells you a lot about them. It tells you what they can afford, where they probably live, what their schedule is like. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what they care about, because often people eat what they have access to, not what they would ideally be eating. Access to affordable, nourishing food was not a given in Amos’s day Israel, nor is it today. In Georgia, nearly 2 million people live in “food desert” where low-income communities live more than a mile from a store to buy fresh food. It’s no surprise that if you’re living paycheck to paycheck in a neighborhood where it takes you 20 minutes to get to the closest grocery store that you don’t have time to try new kale chip recipes. You choose Burger King over Whole Foods because you have to. You support shady businesses that underpay workers like Walmart because it’s what you can afford and it’s what is in your neighborhood.
The neighborhood of Peoplestown is less than a mile away from us, but the closest grocery store is almost three miles away. For the many residents who don’t have a car, it takes 1-2 hours on the bus just to go to the grocery store. And of course, who lives in Peoplestown? Primarily low-income people of color. What we are seeing in our city and in our country is not only systemic racial injustice but environmental injustice. In 1987, three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics lived in communities contaminated by toxic waste. By 2007, it was still at 50%. The fact that Flint, Michigan is a majority black city is not unrelated to the fact that they still don’t have clean water. Multinational corporations make billions off of oil pipes desecrating sacred land at Standing Rock and Bears Ears. The abuse of creation is deeply connected to racism and the systemic injustice that plagues our country.
This is the kind of injustice that made the prophet Amos’ blood boil—the rich and powerful abusing the poor and marginalized, particularly by abusing their relationship to the land. Amos repeatedly warns them of the destruction that will come to Israel. It will be complete and total. And yet, at the very end, there is a vision of glimmer of hope. It’s a hope for someday far in the future. Amos 9:13-15 reads,
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.
I love the vision of God as a gardener, carefully planting us in a land where we will never be forced out, evicted, or bought out. Amos’ vision of justice is not separate from the land and those who tend to it, but they are intrinsically tied together. Justice for the oppressed in Israel meant economic and ecological justice. When the unjust agricultural system denied the poor their land, their rights, and their freedom, God promised restoration. This promised restoration is of agricultural bounty—food so abundant they can hardly pick it before the next growing season starts again.
You see, hope for the restored kingdom is not hope in a life free from the context we live in, but a hope of our world made right. The restoration of David’s Kingdom is the restoration of the land that the people of Israel inhabit. No longer will God’s people see their hard work go unrewarded or the fruit of their labors go to those who did not work for it. The restored kingdom will be a kingdom where all will reap the fruits of their labor. Restoration means returning something to its former owner or condition. The ruined cities will be brought to life again and those who long for home shall find it there.
I believe this is a message of hope for the church today. As Christians, we long for God’s kingdom to come on Earth “as it is in Heaven.” This is not just something we must wait for, but we can participate in bringing that kingdom to life, as we can see from the vision of David’s restored kingdom. The restored kingdom comes to life when Indigenous people are free to return to their land and tend to it without oppression. The restored kingdom is in the places where ghettos are transformed into urban oases, not through gentrification and pushing out the poor, but by transforming the lives of those who live there. The restored kingdom proclaims that not only do Black Lives Matter but so does the land they live upon and the work that they do.
We can work to make the restored kingdom come when we plant fruits and vegetables, tend to them all season long, and enjoy the fruits of the hard-earned labor. We can make the restored kingdom come when we fight against climate change that makes the parts of the Earth inhabited by people of color unlivable.
We need only to look around to see that the restored kingdom has not yet come in full, but it is slowly making its way into this world. To seek justice that flows down like waters means seeking ecological justice, and with it, justice for those who inhabit the land.