Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Seeing God

Isaiah 58
Psalm 112
Matthew 5:6, 8

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

I have come to understand as I’ve prepared this series on the Beatitudes that they provide a powerful plan for building or restoring the Kingdom of God from a broken social order. Jesus starts with those who are poor and oppressed and tells them that the earth and its resources belong to them as well as to the rich and powerful. He encourages them to claim their inheritance. I’m sorry that in trying to combine two of the beatitudes, I moved mercy before the desire for righteousness, which is also translated justice. As the words hunger and thirst indicate, this beatitude is spoken to those who have been denied justice; who long for right relationship to restore to them what has been taken from them or that they have never received. You aren’t hungry if you have enough food, and you are not thirsty if there is water to drink. Jesus is speaking to those whose bodies and spirits are starving because of injustice and oppression. Jesus tells them that they will be filled; they will receive justice. They must demand what is theirs because they are God’s children. They must make their case plain and be persistent, just like the widow in his parable who will not leave an unjust judge alone until he grants her justice. The demand for justice is a public prayer. You’ll see Dr. Cornel West’s quote on the front of your bulletin, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Cut that out, copy it, put it on your mirror or refrigerator. Let those words work their way into your mind, and your heart, and deep into your bones. Justice is what love looks like in public.
It takes a realization and conversion for those who have enough to understand how injustice has occurred and how they, or we, are complicit in preserving the status quo. It takes enormous love that can only be called mercy, to relinquish privilege and power; to release what we understand to be our right or our due in favor of another person’s well-being. Some of you have seen the movie 12 Years a Slave. I have not seen it yet, but I have heard from you how disturbing the movie is in its brutality, as it should be. There are many other, less brutal, less obvious forms of oppression against which love must stand, offering mercy, relinquishing perceived rights in favor of the well-being of others. The fraying social safety net, stagnant wages, hunger among our own citizens, guns that threaten the safety of our children and neighbors, are just a few of the forms of oppression in our own nation.
These are not new problems. We, or our forebears, have created these same or similar injustices in the past, and we and our forebears have solved them with courageous and merciful actions in the past. Let’s look at Isaiah 58 together. Isaiah, repeating what he has heard from God, calls the nation of Israel to repentance and righteousness—right relationship and justice. Let’s pay attention to how we might see God if we change our ways; if we live out of a heart that is free of greed; if we create justice.

Shout out, do not hold back!
  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
  to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
  and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
  and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
  they delight to draw near to God. (The people are pretty self-righteous.)
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (And they whine.)
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
  and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
  will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
  a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
  and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? (Apparently God is not interested in sackcloth and ashes as much as doing justice.)
Will you call this a fast,
  a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
  the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
  and satisfy your needs in parched places,
  and make your bones strong; (Notice the water references and remember “thirsting for righteousness.”)
and you shall be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water,
  whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
  from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
  and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
  serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
  and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

          My favorite Bible verse has always been, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I used to think it was about keeping my heart free of bad thoughts then I might catch a glimpse of God. It has taken a long time and a conversion to social justice to understand that seeing God, seeing God’s Kingdom become a reality, means that my heart needs to be free of everything that prevents me from caring for the well-being of my brother or sister or my neighbor. My challenge to you in this season of Lent is to pray Isaiah 58 at least once a day. New phrases will pop out, you’ll see something different every day. Listen for God’s call to a way of living that repairs the breach—the gaps and tears in the fabric of our common life—and that restores streets to live on, building strong and safe communities. May it be so. May we one day ride upon the heights of the earth together.  Amen.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

At the Corner of Mercy and Grace

Isaiah 55
Psalm 23
Matthew 5:7

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Mercy is a full, evocative word with several definitions. The idea of mercy touches us in different ways depending on our experiences in life. It can mean “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; lenient or compassionate treatment.”[1] This definition certainly had traction in Jesus’ community where justice was meted out in the form of “an eye for an eye,” armed soldiers patrolled the cities and roads, and slavery and tenant farming were foundations of the economic system. Many listeners in the crowds that followed Jesus hoped for and often depended on the mercy of those who wielded real power over them. Jesus has encouraged the powerless to claim their inheritance. Now he instructs those with power to act with kindness and consideration.  

I’m going to share something with you that just seems too perfect an illustration. I am an adjunct professor at Seattle University. Those of us who are adjuncts, part-time, and non-tenured professors have been invited to join other adjuncts in similar universities in joining a union. I’m not going to get into any details here, other than to say that I have been a union worker and I have managed union workers and I see both the attraction and the limitations of unions. The truth is, that when employers use ethical standards and treat their employees as a valuable resource and asset, union organizers don’t have any sway because they are not necessary. But when employers make an unfair profit on the backs of their employees and treat them poorly, unions become a tool for justice. Adversarial labor relationships arise from a lack of fair, compassionate treatment and an unwillingness to share the full benefits created by the industry of all participants. The adversarial climate in the school I love makes me so uncomfortable, especially since it is a Christian institution that prides itself on its promotion of justice. I’m hoping that we can talk calmly, and listen deeply—that we can be kind to one another as we work towards justice without having to resort to an adversarial relationship for negotiations.

I wish that I could preach as eloquently about the growing economic and social inequities in our country and the disregard for the working poor as Dr. Cornel West did at The Well last night. You’ve read the statistics. There is no mercy in our economic systems right now. The social safety net has been stripped over and over again until there is almost nothing to meet the needs of those who lose a job, or whose medical bills exceed insurance limits, or who have not been able to get insurance, or who cannot care for themselves because of mental illness, or who run from domestic violence. There are not enough beds or shelters any night for those who want or need them. A young medical doctor stood up last night and asked Dr. West what we do about the effects of poverty that he sees in babies born with low birth weight because of hunger in our region. The answer was that we have to work together to change systemic disregard for human life in the quest for profits. We must become merciful and our mercy must have legs because we serve God “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45b).” If God waters all the earth, then all the people should get wet.

Can we bring the need for mercy closer to home; a way that we might enact mercy today or tomorrow where we live? We might soften this first definition of mean “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; lenient or compassionate treatment” in our time to say that mercy means “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”[2] Think of all the different people who could be treated harshly. I think of servants, service workers, menial laborers, disobedient children, and phone solicitors. Our son was a phone solicitor once because that’s the only job he could find in a tight labor market. He taught us that phone solicitors need love too. I try to picture my son on the other end of the phone when I get one of those calls.
I believe the essence of this definition rests on recognizing and honoring human dignity. One of the bidding prayers that I use in our cycle of pastoral prayer, gives thanks to God for the treasure stored in every human life. Jesus ate with tax collectors and fishermen; he touched people with leprosy and other diseases that were considered unclean; he held children on his lap—unheard of in his time; he spoke to women and healed foreigners. Trevor Hudson, in A Mile in My Shoes, shares an African proverb that begins with a conversation between a wise old spiritual master and his disciples.
Once he asked them, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?”
The disciples were quiet for a moment, and then one answered, “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper.” Another responded, “When we can see an animal, and know that it is a fox and not a wolf.”
“No,” said the old man, “those things will not help us.”
Puzzled, the students asked, “How then can we know?”
The master leaned over and said to them quietly, “We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; for otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”[3]
The deep respect we extend to one another because of our kinship as children of God undergirds an understanding of mercy. This is where God’s grace relies on human mercy.

A third definition is “kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation; compassionate treatment of those in distress.” This is where charitable acts of kindness fall; “works of mercy among the poor.” While we work for justice that eliminates poverty, we respond with immediate aid. Immediate aid is of little value without addressing systemic injustice that perpetuates poverty.

          We stand at the corner of mercy and grace as the people who have experienced God’s unconditional love and kindness. The question is whether we will recognize another person as our sister or brother and extend mercy, forbearance, leniency, and kindness toward each person, whether we think that person deserves it or not—that’s grace. Will we go another step and work for social justice in our society—that’s mercy? At the corner of mercy and grace—that’s where I’d like to see our church planted.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mercy, accessed March 8, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes; Cultivating Compassion (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005), 45.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blessed Are the Passive Resisters

March 2, 2014
Isaiah 29:17-24
Matthew 5:5

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

What is the first image that comes into your head when you hear the word “meek?”  When I was looking for images to use in worship, I found a lot of cartoon mice.  I’ve heard meekness compared to being a doormat, someone that other people walk all over.  Meek is not the same as weak.  Although, if you look the word up, these are some of the definitions you’ll find:
1.     enduring injury with patience and without resistance, synonym: mild
2.     deficient in spirit or courage, synonym: submissive
3.     not violent or strong, synonym: moderate
I can’t think why anyone would want to be meek, even if the reward were to inherit the earth.  I did find a photo of a bit of graffiti that said, “I’m meek!  And I’m here for my inheritance.”

The Christian tradition, as seen in other modern translations of Matthew’s gospel, interprets the word “meek” as humble, teachable, gentle, free of pride, those who trust God and do not try to get their own way, or those who claim nothing.

          If we want to know what Jesus means, we have to understand that the Hebrew word that was translated first from Hebrew into Greek in the Septuagint 200 years before Christ, and later into English.  If we go back to the Hebrew scripture that Jesus is referring to, the 61st chapter of Isaiah, we find the word “meek” in the King James Version, but other translations read “poor,” “afflicted,” and “oppressed.”  How does it change our understanding if we read, “Blessed are the poor, afflicted, and oppressed because they will inherit the earth”?  What does it mean to someone who lives in an occupied country, or someone who lives in abject poverty, whose family land has been lost to heavy taxation by both the occupying force and the temple, to hear that he or she is blessed by God and invited to claim his or her inheritance.  Just how was that possible? 

          John the Baptist preached repentance as a way of reclaiming the Kingdom of God.  When he was pressed to explain what he meant, he replied,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John spoke to those in power, asking them to repent of unjust practices.  Jesus preached to the oppressed and taught them how to resist unjust practices without resorting to violence.  The earth and its resources belong to all of us, our very existence depends on it.  Later in his sermon, Jesus will describe ways of resistance that mirror John’s. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Again, the phrase that is often translated as “Do not resist an evildoer” is better interpreted as, “Do not fight back against.”  Theologian Walter Wink in his series of books about engaging the powers, demonstrates that each of the means of resistance that Jesus suggests is an act of dignity without resort to violence that reveals to the oppressor and any observers the injustice and evil of oppression.  For instance, if all you have left that is of value is your coat and someone is willing to sue to get that as well, take off your cloak and stand naked as a witness to the depravity of greed.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, it is a demonstration of contempt, a backhanded strike of owner to slave, one with power over one in subservience.  Do not cower, Jesus say, but “Offer the left cheek,” the one that is struck in a battle of equals. 

I found one definition of meekness that speaks to this dynamic of resistance: “Absolute power under perfect control.”  Meekness claims its power and dignity and resists without resorting to violence.  Absolute power under perfect control describes the self-control and assurance that made the civil rights movement so powerful.  The sight of force used on dignified marchers appalled the nation.  Those who marched and preached and sat in and boycotted, used non-violent ways to resist discrimination and oppression.  They were beacons of meekness as they claimed their inheritance. 

          There are other examples of meekness, non-violent resistance, in other parts of the world.  “Soul City” a TV soap opera in South Africa and community-based activities modeled constructive ways for communities and individuals to end [violence against women].  In one “Soul City” TV episode first screened in 1999, neighbors protested against the violent behavior of a husband by beating their pots and pans near the character’s house. Within weeks, pot-banging to stop partner abuse was reported in several communities in South Africa (Lacayo & Singhal, 2008. Pop Culture with a Purpose! Using edutainment media for social change).[1]

          There is a hymn that calls Jesus “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”  That’s the image of meekness that most of us have learned.   Jesus was gentle and non-violent, but his resistance to Roman occupation cost him his life.  He was understood by Rome as a resister, but because all of his actions were kind even as he resisted, the brutality of Roman rule was revealed to mock its self-proclaimed Pax Romana, Roman peace.  Meekness requires courage and self-control in the face of oppression and evil.  It is a means of non-violent resistance in the service of dignity and justice that can be passive or active, but is always non-violent.  Paraphrasing Ghandi, meekness is the non-violent sword that blesses the one who uses it and the one against whom it is used to make possible the Kingdom of Heaven.  Both the oppressed and the oppressor must be transformed to make the Kingdom of God possible. 

[1]UN Women: Campaigns for Behaviour Change, http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/1192-campaigns-for-behaviour-change.html, March 2, 2014.