The kingdom of interesting times

Readings for Sunday, December 18, 2011:

Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11)

Psalm 98 (Morning)

Psalm 103 (Evening)

Amos 9:11-15

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 13-17

John 5:30-47

On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this. 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. Amos 9:11-15 (NRSV)

In our excursion into the Book of Amos today, I’m reminded of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” These are, indeed, interesting times to be studying the words of the prophet Amos, as they reveal several weighty matters of social justice in his time, and ours.

At the time of Amos, roughly 750 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was enjoying relative prosperity, but not without a price. The prosperity was partly due to the ruling classes exploiting and oppressing the poor and needy members of society, and much of Amos’ prophecy consists of the condemnation of those in power for their ill treatment of the more defenseless, while the powerful lounge in the lap of excessive luxury. Its message of social justice carries some spooky parallels with the news of today.

Today’s reading, the last few sentences of the book, represent the one glimmer of hope in both Amos’ “interesting times,” and ours (although these last few lines, most scholars admit, were probably not authored by Amos, but rather from someone with perspective of Judah, the southern kingdom, and after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.) If anything, they at least say, “It gets better.”

The striking part to me in this passage is the revealing of something we don’t always like to think about–restoring the Kingdom of God, is, at times, drudgery. “Mission” is not always pretty nor is it always a feel-good proposition. Mission is often plowing brown earth with no green in sight, dropping in little brown seeds that don’t even look edible, and stomping on grapes until we’re purple up to the ankles, and not being around to see the finished product.

I think about some of the various forms of mission in which I’ve been engaged, both as an individual and as a member of my parish. They’ve been things like cleaning moldy insulation and lying on my back with creepy crawly bugs under a recently flooded house, or helping a man sift through his tornado-leveled house searching for his cat. The man with the cat still haunts my mind now and then. I can still hear the hope in his voice that the cat was still around somewhere (“One of my friends is sure he saw him two days ago, right here at the house”) and me looking around at the devastation, thinking, “Dude, I can’t even begin to believe your cat is anywhere near this place.” Yet I kept looking with him simply because it was the one hopeful thing within a hundred yards worth grasping. I still wonder if he ever found that cat.

I think sometimes about what we want mission to be, and what it is. Our parish participates in a summer program that provides lunches for school-aged children during the summer. In our “happy mind’s eye of mission,” I think a lot of us envisioned these reasonably well-behaved, polite, grateful little kids–cute little six and seven year olds–enjoying their lunches without complaint. Well, we certainly had several of those, but I don’t think all the carrot sticks we picked up at the end of the day, or all the peanut butter blobs we cleaned off the picnic tables were part of that fantasy. We didn’t think about the fact some of these “kids” were 15 year old girls with babies. (Yeah, that’s “babies”–with an “s”–as in plural.) What we experienced and saw was a very stark reminder that we Middle America small town types hide our poor very well.

It’s so easy, when we’re tired, or grouchy, or in the mood to separate “us” from “them”, to wish for a big fix to these problems, and think these little things we do are for naught, and even rationalize that we are only doing these things to make ourselves feel better. We can take that line of reasoning and depress ourselves even further by saying all the good in the world we are trying to do is merely a cork in an ocean. We can adopt a “blame the victim” mentality and say, “These people will never change. Why bother?”

Amos’ prophecies, however, call us to a different place–a place of restoration. A place where the Kingdom of Interesting Times inches just a little pencil mark closer to the Kingdom of Heaven with every dirty hand and every stained grape-squashing foot. We don’t always recognize that the rambunctious child that flung her carrot sticks halfway across the park thirty years ago, might be the person who now delivers our mail, or fills our prescriptions, or teaches our own children. We may not always see the fruits of our own labors, but we are certainly living in the midst of the labors of those before us.

Do we choose to be unaware of that possibility, or do we choose to make the best of the little things we do for others in the hope that something might change? Perhaps when we choose the latter, “living in interesting times” becomes less of a curse and more of a fulfilled modern prophesy.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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