Sunday, December 21, 2008

THE MYSTERY NOW MADE KNOWN










I.
Any number of the most enjoyed holiday films are built to some degree around familial idiosyncrasies or dysfunction, a nice-ish way of saying that some families are pretty crazy, and it’s a rather permanent condition. I realize that such disorders are beyond your comprehension and experience, but maybe you can press yourself to imagine with me this morning what family holiday dysfunction would be like.
The reason the dysfunction becomes so centralized at Christmastime revolves around the fact that family members who are no longer together every day under one roof come under one roof for a few days or several days to celebrate Christmas--the hap-happiest of season of all. Issues that were not resolved because this one and then that one moved away don’t disappear; instead, they faithfully come back to haunt like the ghost of Christmas past. It must be a good enough experience to repeat because most of them are going to try it again next year regardless of the results of this year’s get together.
The child who left home as a rebellious child may return every Christmas as still something of a rebellious child. Parental controls may never have been resolved. The parents’ ever-crumbling marital relationship keeps crumbling, and the years and years of deterioration show up as a feeling of utter chill even amid a beautifully decorated room that is, in fact, quite toasty. The sibling rivalry that wasn’t settled before the kids became adults may still not be settled, and it rears its ugly head in around-the-table conversation.
I watched a movie the other evening called “Fred Claus.” It’s about the ultimate Christmas rivalry--the rivalry between Santa Claus and his older brother, Fred. From the time Nicholas was a small child he was saintly; he was selfless and concerned about others--especially those less fortunate than he. The mother of Nicholas and Fred was enamored with her younger son and fell into one of the traps that sensible and sensitive parents never fall into--comparing the children to each other. In her frustration with the older son’s, Fred’s, messing up and acting out, Mother Claus began to say to Fred, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?!?” Fellow parents, if those words or any like them ever tumble out of your mouth, even once at a low point, they will come back to haunt you; somewhere, somehow, likely when you least expect it--maybe long years later--you’re going to get stung.
There’s a perfect answer to that kind of parental question that surely some sharp and gutsy kid has been able to toss back at a parent goofy enough to ask it: “Because I’m not my brother. I’m not my sister. I’m me. All I can be is me. Faults and all, all I can be is me!” You know, now that I’ve been a kid AND a parent during the rearing years, maybe I should write a book of responses kids could offer their parents when asked awful or impossible questions. Have it printed in big type, bound in loud colors, and sold in the older children’s and teen’s sections at Borders and Barnes and Noble. Build an online teenie bopper market for my work on Facebook. That could really go somewhere. Of course, the first time a kid used my published responses to rebut her or his parents and got backhanded for having a smart mouth, I’d probably get sued. So, maybe not a great idea.
Carson, my younger son who is a bookseller at Borders, keeps telling me that if I want a really comfortable retirement with plenty of money to pad his bank account, enhance the Silverside endowment fund, and seriously spoil my future grandchildren I should write trashy paperback romance novels. “With my hopeless love life?” I asked.
He said, “Sure! Dad, you have a GREAT imagination!” He says I’ll have to come up with a catchy pen name--that David Farmer just doesn’t have the allure to make people want to buy a trashy romance. He said that I perhaps should take my first name and make it my last name, changing the emphasis from the first syllable to the last: DaVID. He says alliteration, he’s really thought about this!, works well so my first name in the pen name should also start with a D--something like Davon. Davon David.
To cap it off, Carson says that my first effort should be set in a church and should be given the title, Sanctuary Sensuality or Parsonage Passion. Who knows what I might do on Christmas break!
OK, back to Fred Claus. Sure enough when the boys are grown men, the tension and rivalry between them hasn’t gone away; obviously, it’s more pronounced on the side of the older brother, Fred, the one who never felt that he could measure up to his kid brother in anyone’s eyes, especially in the eyes of their mother. You need to see for yourself how the rivalry is finally resolved in this humorous, not knee-slapping but humorous, modern Christmas tale starring Paul Giamatti as Nicholas Santa Claus, Vince Vaughn as Fred Claus, and the always on-target Kathy Bates as Mother Claus.
Now that my talk of family fiascos and sibling rivalry has helped you anticipate even more than you did already the upcoming Christmas gathering and feast, let me move on. I’m sticking with the sibling rivalry theme.
One of the many contributions that Jesus made was planting the seed of human unity. He developed this principle in his own reaching out not just to Jews, but also Gentiles; not just to other subservient people like himself but also to certain Romans, Rome having put them in subjection.
The Apostle Paul has caused so many problems for the Jesus Movement that we don’t want to give him across-the-board praise, but on some key issues Paul, though he never knew Jesus personally, led the early Christian communities to see some pivotal truths growing out of the seeds that Jesus had planted. And I don’t know of anyone who doubts that Paul’s drive and zeal--along with his burning desire to undo somehow the abuse he had inflicted upon Christians before he became one--were singularly responsible for Christianity’s institutional success. Bottom line, Paul was to the Jesus Movement what Karl Rove is to the Bush administration. If not for Paul, the chances are very great that you and I would never have heard of Jesus from Nazareth.
One of those issues about which Paul was absolutely right is the one I just mentioned--human unity. Every female living on the face of this Planet is my sister. Every male living on the face of the Planet is my brother. We all know, nonetheless, that the greatest problem in human history has been sibling rivalry; siblings have been willing to do whatever it takes to outshine or dominate other siblings. If that has meant killing off a siblings or several of them that has been taken as OK; the end has justified the means.
Paul had a lot to say on this subject, and one of the most compelling snippets found its way into his letter to the Christians at Galatia. In Jesus the Anointed--that is in communities built around his teaching and influenced by his example--there is no silly, chauvanistic, classist, racist categorizing of sisters and brothers in the human family. Those who dare to live by the teachings of Jesus put away separationism and exclusion. In a community built around the legacy of Jesus the Anointed there is no Jew versus Greek or Gentile. There is no free person versus enslaved person. There is no female versus male dichotomy. And that kind of unity that SHOULD BE established in the Christian community is passed along to the wider world outside the church.
Paul helped us see the dream, the goal of the oneness of humanity. We must thank him for that. Now, if only we could, if we would, live by Paul’s understanding of where the teachings of Jesus logically lead, the world would instantly become a better place and stay that way.
Among other things we’d see is that sibling rivalry would be gone for good. That would stop destructive conflict. Wars would cease, and there would be no more nasty undercurrents between siblings or other family members at the Christmas table! Imagine!


II.
From Paul’s cultural and theological perspective, he believed that the whole of humanity could be divided up, in terms of how history had gone, into two groups. You know a little something about what that’s like, don’t you? Many of us do that to some extent.
If you’re a true musician, you might be apt to think that there are TRUE MUSICIANS in the world and others--you know, the non-musicians. If you’re a sports fanatic, well, you know, there are those in the world who understand sports and those who don’t. If you’re one of those avid readers who always reads the latest acclaimed titles, there are the well-read like you in the world, and then there are the illiterate. If you’re an editor, as I have been more often than not for the last quarter century, there are people who meet deadlines in the world and those who don’t; it’s as simple as that.
If you’re a member of the KKK, there are white supremacists like you in the world, and all the others who should get a cross burnt in their front yards. If you’re a vegan, there are non-meat-eaters in the world, and then there are all the two-legged carnivores. If you’re Rick Warren or one of his devotees, there are those whom they permit to be loved by God, which just happens to be the group all of them are in; and, naturally, there is the other group whom God doesn’t care for, which includes non-evangelical Christians, homosexuals, poor people who are so afflicted because they don’t know the Warren formula for prosperity, and Jews. If you remember that Jesus was a Jew, keep it to yourself! Can’t wait to hear that inaugural invocation!
OK. OK. So, Paul saw the world as being made up of two groups of people: Jews and Greeks or Gentiles. This wasn’t his unique perspective; he had largely inherited it, and until mid-life he had lived by the doctrine of Jewish exclusivism, which by the way is not at the heart of the Jewish religion by any means. Much more than Judaism’s monotheistic siblings, Judaism has written into its core a willingness to embrace those who are not Jewish as still a part of God’s larger family.
We can’t say for sure that Paul had none of that inclusiveness in his theological world view, but when it came to Christians, those who peopled a sect that broke away from Judaism, Paul--then called Saul--believed they had to be stopped, and if that meant some of them had to die, well that’s the way the pita crumbles. Thanks to Paul’s personal contribution, many Christians were imprisoned and some put to death because he portrayed them as a threat to either Rome or to a growing movement of Jewish nationalism.
Ironically, when Paul converted to Christianity--that’s a whole other story and a major one--he carried the Jesus Movement out of its Palestinian place of birth and over into the Greek world of blatant polytheism. He did very little after that to try to deal with the growth of Christianity within Judaism, that is as the sect it was. He tried to plow completely new ground among those who knew little or nothing of notions of a single deity. Those people out there in Greek land were the Gentiles.
From there, he began to change his view that the world as made up of his own kind, Jews, now including the sect of Christianity; and the much larger group in the world--everybody else, Gentiles. I don’t think we can be certain exactly where Paul had come down on the issue, but there was a minority within Judaism who believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people to the exclusion of others. Now, the non-Jews weren’t hell-bound, but they still could never be full members of the family of God; they would forever have been second-class latecomers.
To Paul’s great credit, he insisted that that wasn’t the way things were, and if things had ever been that way, God fixed the problem by creating one new humanity in place of two; in so doing God made the basis for peace between the two groups that had been perceived as completely separate form each other. Even so, and oddly, he treated the news that in God’s eyes there weren’t two groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, as a mystery, something that took people reflecting on the teachings of Jesus to understand.
Paul closes his composition to the book of Romans with a reference to this mystery. You heard this read a few minutes ago; let me refresh what we read: “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus, the Anointed One, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed...” (Rom 16:25-26a NRSV adapted). That’s a mouthful. Paul would never make it in our text-messaging world; “cya” wouldn’t work for him at all!
It’s very interesting to me that Paul refers to the gospel he is preaching as HIS gospel--not God’s gospel, not Jesus’ gospel. I don’t make a big deal of that, but it certainly catches my eye. I think it may have been Paul’s owning of a point of theology that he had made a cornerstone of how he presented the message of Jesus. What Paul presented to the Roman Christians, based on what Jesus himself preached, if embraced by those who heard it and/or read about it, would be a catalyst for divine strength.
Perhaps you recall that when Paul first began his missionary activity--carrying the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, those who knew nothing of Judaism or practical monotheism for that matter--the Greeks or Gentiles who wanted to join the Jesus Movement had to become Jews first. There was no such thing as an “instant conversion” whereby a person could immediately become a Christian unless she or he were already Jewish; the person was required to become first a Jew and then a Christian as a part of the Jewish sect of Christianity. So this mystery about which Paul wrote and the new humanity at its core meant, among other things, that Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews on their way to becoming Christian.
Let’s tip our hats to Paul again. He provided the leadership in getting the early Christian community to let go of Judaism as the entry doorway for all who wanted to follow Jesus. Of course, it was a tough period for surgicenters whose adult circumcision cases dropped to almost nil east of the Aegean Sea. Paul’s pressing of Greeks to get circumcised in order to be able to show their love for God had been a major source of income for those places. Oh well, a new market for reverse circumcisions was born, even though the health insurance companies wouldn’t pay for it.
On the side of Jews, who would later be portrayed by some of the early Christians as the killers of Jesus, this mystery revealed that there was nothing inherently wrong with being a Jew either. A Jew did not have to hang her or his head in shame because of Jewishness as the means of being accepted into the Christian community. Self-affirmation was in; groveling was out.
Now I have to tell you that I think Paul, for all the good he has contributed to the matter on which we focus today, was in places putting a spin on this matter of how human inclusion was in and human exclusion out. Jesus’ ministry and message were great gifts to humanity, but God’s plan for the ages went back to the beginning of time. It was never God’s intent that groups of people--religious groups, ethnic groups, economic groups--would be in conflict with each other, opposed to each other, estranged from each other, willing to kill each other because of the damnable sibling rivalry. Jesus’ contribution wasn’t God’s doing a new thing, but rather God’s clearest object lesson that humanity was never intended to have been divided up into groups antagonistic with each other. The mystery wasn’t really a mystery at all. It was a secret, and there’s a huge difference between “mystery” and “secret.” It was a secret because those who knew the truth did their best to keep it from each other and the wider world. Many people still today who are beneficiaries of God’s love try to claim it first for themselves and their kind and secondarily if at all to others outside their group.
If you want to give a real Christmas present to the world, pass around the news that God never had favorites and today has no favorites. Let it be known that everyone is beloved by God, and that little baby boy born in Bethlehem of Galilee so long ago grew up to catch on more readily and more clearly than anyone before or since.


III.
The great Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the year 70, was a key part of the lives of both Jesus and Paul. Both men worshipped there at least on the high holy days of their faith.
That Temple was laid out structurally in an interesting way--the most holy place in the interior moving out rather incrementally toward the outside and the least holy places--the holy of holies in the inner most space, the most protected and the least accessible place, all the way out to the most wide open and least restricted space called the Court of the Gentiles. Anybody could come in that far, but only Jews could go further inward, and the powers that be meant business about that.
A little over a hundred years ago archaeologists digging around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem discovered parts of this dividing partition, and they found this inscription that I understand was placed every few feet on the partition that kept the Gentiles from going any further than the Court of the Gentiles. Listen carefully because the message of the inscription was very subtle, and you might otherwise miss its intent: “No one of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure round the Temple. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.” Do I need to read that again to make sure you picked up the nuances? Of course not. How could they have been clearer? Gentiles who cross this line will be killed, and they will have themselves to blame.
Now, I don’t know how the Romans allowed this to work since the Jews, as subservient to Rome, couldn’t pronounce the death penalty. Practically speaking, I’m sure that it all boiled down to who an offender was.
You can bet that Paul had spent some time in the Temple during his days as a zealous Jew watching that wall, just daring a Gentile to cross the line. Later, after having identified himself as a follower of Jesus, things really turned around.
Paul was seen near the Temple or maybe in the Court of the Gentiles with a Gentile, presumably a convert to Christianity, some of those who watched that partition and who crossed the line yelled out that Paul had brought a Gentile too far into the Temple.
By this time, Paul wasn’t loved by the Jews because he had become a part of the Jesus Movement, and they accused him of no longer teaching the true importance of the Torah. Some of the Jews at the Temple that day wanted to have Paul killed for insulting their religion and watering down their spiritual perspectives. This is the story as told in Acts 21:

They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul (Acts 21:27b-32 NRSV).


Paul was arrested and taken in for questioning. I’m not karma person; nor am I the type who believes that “what goes around, comes around”; but I do point out the paradox of Paul having been one who tried to hurt those who differed with him on theological grounds now being beaten by those who had inherited his brand of religious zeal. Another interesting twist is that a Roman commander, a Gentile, saved Paul from the angry Jews.
Keep in mind that the angry Jews didn’t by any means represent all Jews. One of the practices of which most of us are guilty is generalizing; instead of saying, “...some Jews,” it’s easier to say, “Jews.” Instead of saying, “...some radical, extremist Muslims,” it’s easier to say, “All Muslims.” Instead of saying, “Some African Americans,” it’s easier to say, “The Blacks.”
In our responsive reading earlier, we read some selections from Ephesians, chapter 2, and one of the points that Paul made when he wrote to the Ephesians was that Jesus, after getting over some of his own initial anti-Gentile sentiments, gave his life to bring all people together--Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Jews. Jesus called both groups, said Paul, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Now you know from where Paul drew that image of the dividing wall. There was a literal dividing wall. It had very nearly the same meaning as signs near public restrooms years ago that said, “White only,” and, of course, we all know of those much more dangerous invisible lines that the wrong people had better not cross if they want to live.
When I lived in New Orleans, I became rather familiar with the French Quarter, but don’t get too many wild ideas about what I mean by that. I was a happily married family man, and a Baptist pastor to boot; not that I’d have lived the wild life even if those facts were absent.
I did learn from those who had been there long before I arrived that Bourbon Street really was as wild as its reputation held, but other parts of the French Quarter weren’t nearly so wild. As far as Bourbon Street was concerned, there was a place, the further one went away from the center of the city, called the lavender line. There was really no line there, but any local knew about it. The lavender line marked the “straight” end of Bourbon Street from “gay” end of Bourbon Street. Sad to say, back in those days--in the late 1980s--gay bashing was not unheard of, and there were skin heads then who made sure it was practiced from time to time.
I remember one horrifying story about a couple of businessmen, tourists, strolling down Bourbon Street one night, and they crossed the lavender line with no awareness of it because, again, there is no visible lavender line. They walked around on that end of the street for a while and didn’t find what they were looking for so they headed back toward the straight end of the street. When they did, some skin heads came out of no where and beat these two mean nearly to death only because they presumed them gay. Had they been gay, that would have been, should have been, just fine--especially in the French Quarter. But had they been presumed straight, they’d never have been beaten up.
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”

Long time ago
You were born
Born in a manger, Lord,
Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean, Lord,
Treats me mean too,
But that’s how things are down here
We don't know who you are.


One of the most compelling aspects of Jesus’ life to vast numbers of people in his own time and in the present is that he was a not-so-rich, not-so-popular commoner who lost his life to violence. A sadly large number of people can identify with that, and the bonus is that God was so powerfully evident in Jesus. People say to themselves if left to their own ponderings, “If God is there for that outsider, God may be there for me too.”
My dear friends, that’s a large part of what Christmas should be about. This business of trying make Jesus kingly and majestic with a halo glued to top of his head misses the point entirely. Jesus was a part-time preacher from Podunk who was born as far from regality as could possibly be. The smell of fresh hay wasn’t the only aroma filling his nostrils in his first hours of life.
As an adult, he lost his life for simply trying to get rid of sibling rivalry in his proclamation of God’s love for all people, Jews and Gentiles. Paul again: God created one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.
It’s not a secret any more. This is how God intended it from the beginning; Jesus caught on to the truth.
Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

GOOD NEWS TO THE OPPRESSED















I.
In order for oppression to exist, the available power in a given context has to be divvied up in an inequitable way. There has to be at least one group whose privilege is diminished, giving another person or group proportionally more power. The clear end result is that one group or some few groups end up with noticeable power over another group or groups; and if things don’t go quite so far as to see anyone having real muscle over anyone else, there is still the loss of opportunity for the group or groups away from whom power leans. Again, I stress that in order for oppression to exist, someone has to be a winner, and someone else has to be a loser.
Etymologically speaking, “oppression” connotes weighing down. The power people weigh down the unempowered in hosts of ways. To the credit of Hebrew and Christian scripture at their best, there are very easy-to find expressions of concern for the oppressed and clear directives to care for, minister to those who are oppressed. Though religion has often been one of the key tools for creating and sustaining oppression, there are lofty places in the history of those who produced what we, today, call scriptures wherein oppression is clearly condemned.
While oppression can exist in very small-scale contexts such as within a single family or within one classroom in a school, we are most aware of oppression raised to broadly cultural and national levels. One of the questions that would-be followers of Jesus’ way must continually ask themselves is, “Am I an oppressor?”
In my mind, there’s a clear distinction between what I think of as oppression and what I take to be abuse. Oppression stops short of out and out abuse; however, attitudes that lead to oppression are frequently the basis for abuse. What I’m saying is that oppression quite often leads to abuse, and without oppression as a foundation there would likely be no abuse in many cases.
Oppression prevents people from realizing their full individual and human potential for reasons related, often, to inherent personal qualities such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality although personal choices as well as circumstances beyond one’s control may also become the basis for being oppressed. In the latter regard, I have in mind such commitments as religious affiliation and economic status. For example, a stronger religious group and/or a non-religious political group may oppress a group of people because of their religious identification, and certainly the rich as a group may--and frequently do--oppress the poor as a group. So let me toss out some more specific examples of oppression because keeping the concept abstract will not allow us to confront it face to face.
In our own democracy, there are still vestiges of gender oppression. Men still wield much of the power in the work place, and women don’t get paid as generously as men doing the same jobs. There are many places where being female limits how far up the organizational ladder and the pay scale a woman can move.
None of the “Big 3” auto manufacturing CEOs are female. Did you notice that? Several weeks ago, Congress interviewed five of our country’s richest persons who are connected to the financial industry. I think I saw five of them in the few news clips I caught, and I think they were all men. Do you suppose we might not be in as many financial messes as we are if women were in those top jobs? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I wonder. I do know this, though, as long as gender comes into the employment picture at all, there’s the possibility for gender oppression.
Gender oppression reveals itself not just in the first world’s employment picture. Some of you probably know about the organization called “CARE.” Here is a part of this organization’s mission statement:

CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. We place special focus on working alongside poor women because, equipped with the proper resources, women have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty. Women are at the heart of CARE’s community-based efforts to improve basic education, prevent the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water and sanitation, expand economic opportunity and protect natural resources.

Judeo-Christian scriptural traditions have decisively contributed to the oppression of women within each of those religions, and as foundational movements upon which Islam developed so too did and does the oppression of women continue in that monotheistic stream.
Eve is charged by the writer of one of the stories included in the early part of the book of Genesis as the one who first disobeyed God’s directive not to eat any fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden. Adam didn’t hesitate to follow suit, but Eve was the first, and as some interpreters kept looking back on that story it gave them some basis for saying that because Eve succumbed to temptation before Adam did, she and all her daughters after her will be/must be subservient to men. Notice that Adam did exactly the same wrong Eve did--just a few minutes later. There was not a qualitative difference, merely a chronological one.
I do not read in that story the storyteller’s bias against Eve as the main culprit; rather, I see in a touch of ancient Hebrew humor the writer making fun of Adam for trying to blame Eve as a way of making his offense seem less serious than hers. Patriarchal eyes through the centuries have seen evidence in the story that women are more inclined to give in to sin than are men; sorry about the rhyme. And, yet, in either a casual or a close reading of history, I can’t seem to find evidence that males are going out of their way to eradicate sin. Maybe I just don’t know how to read history.
I cannot be a part of any movement--religious, political, social--that practices the diminishment of women. I don’t care if it’s sugarcoated and sweet; if women come out as subservient to men, I’m going to be against it. I don’t mean that groups who practice from this perspective have lost the right to exist; indeed, freedom of expression is one of those precious inalienable rights. But I am saying, even so, I could never support them, and when I say that in monotheistic context, it is exceedingly broad-based because many branches of conservative Christianity, some branches of Judaism, all of Roman Catholicism officially, and all of Islam officially limit the rights of women within the practice of the religion itself. I call this oppression, and I call oppression contrary to God’s design.
There are many Christian pulpits in this country where women are forbidden; they can’t even come to a pulpit to make an announcement, much less to preach. These groups might explain/rationalize by saying that women should have all the freedom they want in being mothers as long as they are subservient to their husbands in the process, but it’s empty-sounding nonsense to my way of thinking.
On the more conservative end of Judaism, women can’t pray with men or read from the Torah. Someone has estimated that two-thirds of the mosques in the world require women to sit behind partitions or in separate worship rooms to separate them from men; in those mosques where neither of these options is available, women occupy the rear seats or mats while the men sit in front. In Roman Catholicism, the highest ranking and most experienced female who takes vows for a life of religious service will always be subservient to some male in the ministerial hierarchy.
There is no way to get around the fact that these practices are oppressive to women. The only way the oppression can be removed is to guarantee that any woman who feels called to take leadership within a congregation including the call to preach be given exactly the same opportunities to follow and practice this calling that any man would get.


II.
Our emphasis on Fair Trade coffees here over the last two-plus years is precisely one small way we have said as a congregation that we care about economic oppression of the third world coffee producers. For those of you who are relative newbies around here, the Fair Trade movement began several years ago and has largely been championed by religious groups concerned that those who create art and craft items and those who produce coffee, tea, and cocoa for the world be fairly compensated.
Our Fair Trade Coffee Shop here at Silverside began because there was a growing awareness that those who produce coffee beans for most of the world are poor farmers who have been increasingly disadvantaged through the years as coffee has become more and more popular, and coffee corporations have become the primary buyers of coffee beans--consistently decreasing what they will pay for coffee while regularly increasingly what they charge consumers who buy coffee from their retail sources. In addition, they have used strong-arm techniques to edge out competitors, telling these dirt poor coffee growers that they can either take the low rates offered by Starbucks or Folgers, for example, or get nothing.
Fair Trade groups remove oppression from the equation, and they make sure the coffee growers are paid enough to make a profit. Occasionally, the Fair Trade organizations also make small additional contributions called social premiums to enhance opportunities for education for the growers’ children as well as agricultural education for the growers themselves so that they may learn more effective ways to raise coffee in the future.
I know some of you already think of me as Scrooge at Christmas time. I don’t favor the traditional hymn words in worship. I keep reminding you that the wise men, the wise ones, are not a part of the Christmas story and didn’t make it to Jesus until he was about two years old. The worst thing I could do to earn the Scrooge award is remind you that when we buy and use chocolate that is not fairly traded, we are supporting the childhood slavery patterns in those few places in the world that can produce cocoa beans such as the Ivory Coast. It’s very easy to ignore the problem since chocolate is so readily available in the first world, and we don’t want to have to pay the substantially higher costs for Fair Trade chocolate--not to mention how much extra bother it is to find Fair Trade chocolate.
Nonetheless, it’s heartbreaking to read about what goes on behind the scenes of the cocoa production industries with the children who are often sold into slavery by their families because they can make more money selling their children to the powerful cocoa buyers than trying to produce the chocolate themselves given how poorly the big companies pay the cocoa bean growers. M&M/Mars is the worst world offender; Nestle is right up there too.
The problem was first made known in a world context in 2001 or so, and the filthy rich cocoa companies have steadfastly refused to do anything to correct the problem. Even so, the statistics speak loudly and clearly. The most recent statistics that I have been able to find come from the middle of this year, and in the Ivory Coast alone--that country being the number one producer of cocoa beans among the six countries that produce almost all the world’s cocoa beans--just in the tiny Ivory Coast, 109,000 children work in inhumane conditions to produce cocoa beans. Of that number, over 10,000 of them are doing what they’re doing because of human trafficking and enslavement.
This morning as you leave the sanctuary, our children are going to give you a piece of fairly traded chocolate. If you’re going to stay for our reception, and I hope you will, enjoy the chocolate with a cup of our Fair Trade coffee. No one has been compromised in the production of these refreshments; they are free from the taints of oppression.
I had a nice surprise this week, and I needed one. One of my former students forwarded me an op ed piece that has been circulating here and there since the recent presidential election. It turns out that the piece was written by one of my former parishioners from the years when both of us were in New Orleans, and now he, Dr. Andy Manis, is a history professor at Macon State College. What my student shared gave me an excuse to get caught up with Andy.
Let me share with you a bit of what Andy wrote to a newspaper editor:

How long before we white people realize we can’t make our nation, much less the whole world, look like us? How long until we white people can--once and for all--get over this hell-conceived preoccupation with skin color?  How long until we white people get over the demonic conviction that white skin makes us superior?  How long before we white people get over our bitter resentments about being demoted to the status of equality with non-whites? How long before we get over our expectations that we should be at the head of the line merely because of our white skin? How long until we white people end our silence and call out our peers when they share the latest racist jokes in the privacy of our white-only conversations?

Those are very unsettling questions, but they are definitely on target questions.
Tying all of this into the recent election of Barak Obama, Andy shared with the newspaper editor his own proposal for dealing with racism, and here are the three parts to his plan:


First, everyday that Barack Obama lives in the White House that Black slaves built I'm going to pray that God (and the Secret Service) will protect him and his family from us white people. Second, I'm going to report to the FBI any white person I overhear saying, in seriousness or in jest, anything of a threatening nature about President Obama. Third, I'm going to pray to live long enough to see America surprise the world once again, when white people can “in spirit and in truth” sing of our damnable color prejudice, “We HAVE overcome.”

Sixty years ago, this past Wednesday, the United Nations adopted a document, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that had been authored by a number of noted people--the most influential of the US Americans involved being Eleanor Roosevelt. The premises and directives of the document rest on the insistence that equal and inalienable rights belong to all members of the human family, each one having dignity and worth. It’s a lofty document that obviously has yet to be put into practice across the globe; nonetheless, its guiding influence is felt and harder and harder to ignore.
The full document has thirty articles. I want to call to your attention this morning only the first four:

Article 1 
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2 
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3 
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.

Article 4 
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

The world in many places is so very far from the aspirations that this documents has for us. Even in our own country, while the principles may be agreed to by most of our citizens, we’d also have to say that not all the principles of the Declaration are implemented. Just think of the large number of our citizens, for example, whose security is threatened--in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods. I have to tell you, I’m not sure, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentle Ones,” is the right sentiment for the season.


III.
The sabbatical year in ancient Hebrew religion was the seventh year in a seven-year agricultural cycle. It has a more glorious ring to the ears of modern tenured academics, but originally every seventh, or sabbatical year, was a year in which the planting grounds were to lie fallow. The Torah forbade that the farmers could plow there, plant there, or prune there! Any plants that lived on those lands, such as vineyards, could be watered and fertilized, but that was about it; and any fruits that grew on those plants during a sabbatical year were regarded as ownerless and could be claimed by anyone who needed or wanted to eat them.
The book of Exodus explained the basics in this manner:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

That wasn’t all.

Also a sabbatical year or shmita was a year of remission.

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed (Deut 15:1-2 NRSV).

Now after seven sabbatical years, there was to be an even more far-reaching change to the way things were typically done. The fiftieth year was a Jubilee year, and this Jubilee year was clearly in the mind of Third Isaiah when he spouted out what has made everyone since then uncomfortable. You heard it read earlier in our Gathering:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.

Professor Emeritus Ralph Klein of the Lutheran Seminary in Chicago is a Hebrew scripture scholar who says that this last part of the passage has been widely mistranslated and that instead of referring to God’s vengeance it really refers to God’s utter determination to keep God’s people free. By the way, if you remembered that Jesus used this very passage to define his own ministry, you get a gold star and, today, an extra piece of Fair Trade chocolate!
In a Jubliee year, all property was to be returned to its original owner. Hebrew indentured servants were to be set free if owned by other Hebrews, and prisoners were to be set free. This sounds rather risky--releasing prisoners! We have to remember, though, that the laws were often so strict that a fair number of criminals had already been put to death because of the stipulations of those laws. Murderers would have been put to death because of the eye for an eye rule. The prisoners who had terms long enough to make Jubilee release joyous were, more than likely, political prisoners. Think Nelson Mandella here, not John Wayne Gacy.
The prophet, preaching after the debilitating Babylonian exile in the reconstruction phase of life for the ancient Hebrews, claims the spirit of God is upon him--not some third person of a trinity, but a portion of God Godself, and that power of God alive within him anointed him. He was not anointed with holy oil here, but rather with an unquenchable call to action.
He didn’t leave his hearers to wonder exactly what he meant; he knew in great detail what his anointing would compel him to do. His foundational responsibility was to carry good news to the oppressed. We assume in context that the oppressed were his fellow Hebrews who had been taken from their homes and forced to live in Babylon until liberated by a new power, which didn’t leave them independent but certainly enhanced their situation. This new power was Persia, being led by Cyrus.
They were oppressed because their rights had been taken away. We talked last week about how some who observed and/or experienced that exile interpreted it as God’s punishment on the Hebrews. I don’t read that kind of condemnation here in Third Isaiah. The exiles had lost their human rights and had, for practical purposes, been enslaved; that made them oppressed people, and Third Isaiah knew his primary task was to bring those suffering, dispirited people--his own countrypersons and kin--good news.
If you were an oppressed person, what do you suppose would be good news to you? Yes, indeed! That you will no longer be oppressed. American women will now get to vote. President Lincoln has just signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Cyrus has just sent the Hebrews back to their homes and given them permission and encouragement to rebuild their Temple and to resume as best they are able their lives as Jews in their homeland. That is good news to the oppressed.
Everything that follows in this brief passage literarily, though with a slightly different emphasis, parallels this basic mandate for Third Isaiah, later for Jesus, and by association for those of us who dare to live and serve according to Jesus’ message and example. Jesus’ use of the passage showed us that it was much more than an ancient testimony; rather it was a mandate for ministry in any generation where seekers dared to preach God’s radical message of love for all people.
God had stirred Third Isaiah, later Jesus, and now us if we are willing to hear and respond to the challenge: bind up the broken hearted. I guess it was Friday morning when the Illinois governor who from all indications has been trying to make some serious money by offering the vacant Senate seat for his state to the highest bidder prayed with a number of clergypersons at his home before heading into his office. Both he and the clergy praying with him and for him came under some fire from the citizens of the state and from the press. One of the pastors who went to the governor’s home for this now-publicized prayer meeting defended himself and his clergy colleagues by saying that it wasn’t their job to condemn him or exonerate him. It was their job as clergypersons to comfort the troubled, and boy is that guy troubled! I think that pastor’s perspective actually is true. I like the image of binding up the brokenhearted; it’s sort of like putting emotional bandages on emotional wounds.
Isaiah was called to proclaim liberty to the captives; indeed, his sister- and brother-Hebrews were no longer living under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar in exile. Cyrus had liberated them! They needed to begin living as liberated folk.
This business of proclaiming release to the prisoners doesn’t mean that we open up all the jails and let all the prisoners go free. It certainly does mean, though, that we try our best to see that all who are imprisoned unjustly are set free.
The Jesus whose birth we celebrate this season came and lived precisely according to this liberating proclamation traced back to Third Isaiah. What I am wondering today is whether or not we are willing to live as those who would free people from all oppressions in world where oppression works too well to get rid of.
Amen.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

WHY CRY IN THE WORLD'S WILDERNESSES?










I.
When we hear the word, “wilderness,” today it usually has a very positive ring to it. We are saving the wilderness when we preserve lands in their undisturbed states or conditions. We are treating ourselves to a real retreat when we have an opportunity to spend time in the wilderness, away from all the pressures of life in the busy concrete jungles we have built for habitat and commerce; plenty of people pay big bucks to hire guides to help them maneuver through planned wilderness outings. Get all of those peaceful, undisturbed, paradise-like imagines completely out of your consciousness for today.
To understand what the biblical writers would have wanted us to understand, when we read “wilderness” in either the First or Second Testament, we should always think of places that cause people who travel to them, to the wildernesses, to be uneasy at the very least and more probably scared. The wilderness was way off the beaten path; often people in the wilderness were, more or less, lost. Wild animals could come upon you out of nowhere--not to mention robbers. The wilderness was typically the last place a sane person would want to be.
One commentator expanded on what I’ve just told you:

The wilderness is key to Israelite history. It was in the wilderness that God tested the people, and it was in the wilderness that they rebelled. It was in the wilderness that God saved them again and again, and the wilderness was the crucible where they became a nation. The wilderness was both a route to the Promised Land and a place of exile. It was a place where people sinned and where they also repented to restore their relationship with God (lectionary.org).

So the wilderness, though scary and unsettling, could also be a place of soul-searching and spiritual renewal.
John the Baptist selected the wilderness as his place of proclamation and ministry. That is exceptionally odd, it seems. Says the Gospel of Mark:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5 NRSV).

John may not have been as much of a solo act as most interpreters, including most of us, have originally thought. He may have been out in wilderness not living alone at all, but rather in a community that made its home in the wilderness--intentionally away from the distracting and corrupting influences of the crowded urban areas. If this is true, and I’m inclined to think it was, then John the Baptist or John the Baptizer, if you prefer--some of you, I know, get choked on the word, “Baptist”--was likely a part of a religio-political party, one of the established parties in first-century Judaism--called “Essenes.” You’ve heard much more about the two major parties, Pharisees and Sadducees, but there were others; and the Essene Party was one of the others.
There were probably several branches of Essenes that existed rather independently of others. The simple fact that they lived in communal isolation from all other groups virtually necessitated this lack of contact with others. Here are a few other quick facts about the Essenes.
They lived celibate lives. When individuals joined the community they gave all their property to the community and became voices in how what they owned collectively would be used. They promised not to take oaths, and they didn’t eat meat; they further rejected the ritual of animal sacrifice practiced by mainstream Judaism. Slaves or servants were not allowed in the community as they all agreed to be servants to each other. They committed to be channels of peace in the world, and they were essentially pacifists who agreed to carry weapons ONLY to protect themselves from wild animals and robbers. With the Pharisees, but unlike the Sadducees, the Essenes believed in life after earthly life. Initiates were confirmed as members of the community through a water ritual, which we could call baptism. If all of this sounds rather Jesus-ish, there’s a very good reason for it, and I’ll come to that in a bit.
In modern times, the most famous recollected Essenes are those who lived at the community of Qumran where, in 1945, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. By almost all scholarly accounts, those scrolls--some of them dating all the way back to 300 BCE--were core documents in the library of the Essenes who lived at Qumran.
Some of the fears of being in the wilderness were dramatically minimized by living in community out there. In any case, that was John’s place of ministry, and people from the safe cities were risking their lives to get out to the wilderness to hear John’s sermons, which would have called hearers to a way of life based on the Essene take on evolving Judaism. John would have called his sermon hearers to lives of purity, and as a sign that they were leaving behind morally impure lives--also known as sinful lives--John asked them to be baptized as the Essenes were baptized. We have to believe that a number of the people who went out to hear John preaching in the wilderness sought membership in the Essene community and stayed.
The wilderness could also be a symbolic place to where one traveled within her or his own self to utter loneliness and searching. I believe that one way of understanding Jesus’ 40-day wilderness experience is just this--seeing it as a symbolic place where he wrestled with all the powerful possibilities of being exactly the wrong kind of spiritual leader. Jesus was very frightened to be wrestling with a radical call to ministry in the first place; he was doubly frightened when he realized that he likely had the power to become a rich and famous spiritual leader with no connection to God whatsoever and that following that path would have been so much easier than being the preacher of God’s love to the outcasts to whom he was clearly being called. I like the notion of wilderness as symbolic.
Here’s another possibility to ponder, though. John the Baptistizer and Jesus were cousins. John was a little older than Jesus, and John had committed himself to a ministerial career long before Jesus did. The relationship between the two was likely very strong, and Jesus for a time was John’s disciple; John was Jesus’ mentor.
Many of the emphases from John’s Essene community get worked into Jesus’ core teachings. Something else we can now work into the picture is that Jesus’ spiritually exhausting 40 days in the wilderness where his own vision for ministry became painfully clear very well have taken place literally out in the wilderness in the vicinity of the Essene community with John his mentor nearby.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:6-8 NRSV).

John ate locusts and wild honey because he didn’t eat meat. He was an Essene. There came a day when he realized that Jesus could no longer be his follower. Jesus had both the calling and the vision to be a leader in his own right so John, in one of his wilderness sermons, identifies his former follower as a leader, as a preacher to whom the people should listen.
John, emphasizing both Jesus’ own ministry and the Essene-like emphasis on serving others, said that he wasn’t worthy to act as servant to this new leader who was so immersed in God that he could baptize seekers not with mere water but with the divine presence itself.


II.
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest Gospel we have, the original example of this literary genre in world history, opens its terse version of the story of Jesus from Nazareth with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning is usually a pretty good place to begin telling a story; it’s not the only way to tell a story, but it’s definitely a reliable way to get it done.
So Mark’s opening isn’t a complete sentence; it’s more of a heading referring to the beginning of the gospel about Jesus. “Gospel” and “good news” are both first-choice translations of the word for the type of literature this is: euangelion. If you were to see the transliteration of this word written out in English, you would notice that the first two letters are “eu.” That’s a Greek prefix meaning “good.” It’s the same prefix that when added to the Greek word for “death,” thanatos, becomes our word, “euthanasia”--literally “good death.” When added to the Greek word, logos, the result in English is “eulogy”--literally “good word.” When added to pheme, the result in English is “euphemism”--literally, good speech. The word that we translate “gospel” or “good news” is the “eu” prefix attached to the word for news or message, angelion. The beginning of the good message about Jesus, the anointed--I prefer that translation to the word “Christ”--Jesus, the anointed, the child of God.
Mark claims to be quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, but actually quotes snippets from the prophets Isaiah as well as Malachi, with a little bit of the book of Exodus tossed in: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make the Lord’s paths straight.’” Literally, what Mark wrote from the three Hebrew Bible sources comes out like this: “Hey! I am sending my angel ahead of you who will prepare your way.” I remind you that in Greek, “angel” simply means “messenger.” There is no necessary connotation whatsoever that an angel is a heavenly being or winged or harp-playing; a bona fide human being is often an angel or messenger. I think there’s a fascinating, intentional correlation between “gospel,” good message (euANGELion), and “messenger,” angel (ANGELos).
Something else is very interesting in Mark at this point. Mark, using his three Hebrew Bible references as background, writes about the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” But in the prophecy of Isaiah itself, the reference is to a voice that cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Those are actually quite different images or admonitions. One has a voice out in the wilderness calling on all who listen to prepare the way of the Lord. The other has a voice crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the Lord’s way.” In Mark’s use, the voice belongs to someone who is out in the wilderness; in Isaiah’s original version, the voice isn’t in the wilderness at all, but rather seems to urge the faithful to go into the wilderness and prepare the Lord’s way.
Mark clearly wanted to use the ancient scriptural images to describe what he thought John the Baptist was doing. John the Baptist was, literally, a voice out in the wilderness, and he was preparing the way for God by getting those who listened to his preaching focused on the beginning of his cousin’s, Jesus’, ministry; up to that point, as I’ve said, he had been one of John’s followers.
Isaiah, with a very different concept in mind, has an unidentified voice speaking presumably to all who would be faithful, “When you find yourselves in the wilderness, even in that kind of terrifying place, prepare the Lord’s way...,” or, “Go out into the wilderness, and in those horrible, fearful places, prepare the Lord’s way.”
Set in original context, the wilderness crying imperatives were aspects of a broader call to comfort God’s people who had been in exile, and the prophet whom we call Second Isaiah heard God saying that the people had served their time; the punishment of the exile should now be ended. If you don’t know the call to comfort from the Bible directly, then you must surely have heard a tenor singing the recitative in Handel’s glorious oratorio. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isa 40:1-2a KJV).
It is terribly unfortunate, more than unfortunate, that too many people then and now interpret the tough times in which they find themselves as the will of God--more specifically, as some kind of punishment for sins committed. In scripture, eventually, we will find almost everything from the unpleasant to the tragic written up as being a punishment from God--everything from being on the losing side in a war to leprosy and from barrenness to blindness. This has become a damning legacy that lasts unto this day in the minds of many people influenced by all three branches of monotheism.
I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m sure it’s been spoken and written; someone somewhere is blaming our country’s current recession on God instead of on the carelessness of political and business leaders who were paid to take up, and otherwise morally charged with, the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of those who entrusted them with their roles. Of course, we rank and file types have to accept responsibility for electing people who allowed or even caused this crisis with so many levels of negative impact. But God didn’t cause it as a punishment on anyone. If God had eyes, God would more likely roll the divine eyes and say, “How stupid and careless and greedy for a wealthy democracy to get itself into this kind of situation!” I don’t speak for God; I’m obviously speculating, but I do know that God doesn’t use crises and tragedies to punish individuals or nations for their sins.
Regardless of that, God wanted the Hebrews in exile to know that even in their exile they were not Godforsaken, at least from God’s point of view. You know, we can always create a functional state of God-forsakenness for ourselves by blocking God’s presence in the midst of our struggles and crises. God never forsakes us, never turns away from us, never withholds the divine presence from us. We may reject it, block it, invalidate it, but that will never be God’s doing.
The Israelites were not in exile because God sent them there, and the United States isn’t in a recession because God thought it would be a good way to get us for our collective sins. The foundational context for proclaiming a coming of God into the wilderness is comfort for God’s suffering and struggling people--never gloating, never condemnation.


III.
John the Baptist was Mark’s voice crying in the wilderness, and John’s take on preparing the way of the Lord was to listen to Jesus, heed his teachings, and allow him, that is Jesus, to baptize or immerse you in the presence of God. Jesus can no longer do that in the flesh, but his example and his teachings remain so powerful that, following his lead, we can still find our way to that experience.
I’m more concerned at the moment with God’s call to comfort God’s people in their wilderness experiences and with the voice, God’s voice, calling all who would be faithful to go to the wildernesses in which people struggle, suffer, give up hope, and die, and cry out in the worst of them, “Prepare the way of the Lord. If you prepare for God, even in those awful places where you think you are suffering because God has willed it, God will come to you if you will allow it.”
It really isn’t fair for how easy it is for me this week to find contemporary illustrations relating to my topic. That’s supposed to be one of the keys of great preaching, one of the tell tale signs of sermonic art. The best preachers work diligently to find the perfect illustrations for their sermons, and often those perfect illustrations are hidden from the preacher; sometimes, they can be uncovered, and sometimes they can’t. Sadly, tragically, there is so much bad news hitting us these days that the wilderness places are too easy to point to; in this respect, I confess to you, that I was not challenged in the least. Example after example of wilderness places where hurting people need to be comforted and encouraged to make a place for God right where they hurt kept falling into my lap. There were more to use than I can work into a single sermon. While I worked hard on my sermon up to this point, the preparation process from this point on was a snap, a very sad snap, but nonetheless a real snap.
On Friday I stumbled across a disturbing headline: “Half-million jobs vanish as economy deteriorates.” That was in one month; that was the month ending last week. Christopher Rugaber reported: “An alarming 533,000 U.S. jobs vanished virtually in a flash last month, the worst mass layoffs in over a third of a century, as economic carnage spread ever faster and the nation hurtled toward what could be the hardest hard times since the Great Depression.”
We are touched by stories of children so strongly affected by what is going on in their families that they are not asking Santa for toys this year, but rather for a new job for mommy and daddy or maybe for a new house to move into when they have to leave the one they are presently in. That is heart-wrenching, isn’t it? I heard this week about Santas-in-training being prepared to hear these sad requests and being told not to make false promises to the kids who sit on their laps.
I saw my first sitting Santa of the season yesterday. He was set up in front of the foot care products at Walgreen on Kirkwood Highway. At first, I thought, “What a silly place for Santa!” Then I thought, “Wow, this may be the only place some parents will be able to dare to shop this year; maybe they won’t be able to get the malls who host the fancier, plumper Santas--some age appropriate with real white beards! This drug store may be the nexus of Christmas for these kids and their families this year, and the kids certainly didn’t care that the Walgreen Santa was skinny. Maybe a drug store Santa should be skinny to emphasize physical health.” So, good for Walgreen; forget Dr. Scholl and and athlete’s feet for a few days! Good for the parents who brought their kids there, and good for skinny Santa too.
Now I don’t think God gives two hoots about Christmas presents and who gets what or if anyone gets anything. I think God would like to see the human family created by God share the basics so that everyone is fed and housed. After that is accomplished, THEN we can talk about luxuries likes gifts. I do think, though, that God cares about parents being able to provide homes and food and health care for their children. I think that God cares about sick folks being able to buy or otherwise get the medicines they need in order to maintain their health. And I think that people who don’t have enough food or proper shelter or access to whatever they need to be as physically healthy as they possibly can are in wilderness places where they need to be reminded that God has not forsaken them or caused their suffering. They also need to be reminded--almost all of us do when we are in a wilderness--that shutting God out, as much of a tendency as that is when we are hurting or afraid, can only work against us.
The thought challenge you heard read earlier in our Gathering reminded us of the sad fact that genocide is still alive and well in our world. Darfur may be the most blatant current example. The passage that Kasia read for us ended with these words: “God's people are to be prophetic voices in a lost world. The suffering people of Darfur have no voice. You can speak for them. You can be their voice.” I agree with that absolutely, but I have something else to say about it. It’s easier to think of being a voice crying out to the world, pleading for help for these people, than it is to be a voice trying to tell these people in their unfathomable wilderness to prepare for the coming of God in fuller ways than they’ve ever been able to imagine.
I wonder how empty it would sound for a safe and affluent, democracy-based US American to say to someone from Darfur who has seen untold numbers of friends and relatives die because of their ethnicity that they should realize God wants to comfort them and that they should get ready for a more dramatic outpouring of God’s presence than they’ve ever been able to imagine before.
I think it could sound shallow and thoughtless to the point of being sickening, and yet I think that is the good news God’s people have to share. Too many of us have been taught, and have passed along the idea, that God fixes these powerful human problems such as housing shortages, war, genocide, grief, economic crises. God does this only indirectly. God doesn’t buy our new homes for us or any homes at all. God doesn’t start or end wars. God alone can’t make grief go away.
What God does do is offer God’s presence in the worst of circumstances, and in addition God lures the broader human family to make the world the right kind of place for everyone who lives in it. God cannot end the genocide in Darfur or create jobs for the parents of the kids who are begging Santa to help. God works through us to accomplish those things.
God’s presence is the greatest gift, and it is our spiritual nourishment. And so we say, becoming the voice in their wildernesses, to those in the hard places of life, prepare to receive, prepare to affirm God’s presence. Only you can that for yourself. But all the divine love in the cosmos doesn’t do what only humans can do. Only we can end exiles and sign peace treaties. Only we can see that no one is hungry or unhoused. Only we can do what must be done tangibly to bring people out of their wilderness places. In the mean time, God has tried to make Godself real to them in their crises and has done so if they have prepared the way.
Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE PERPETUAL PRESENT




















I.
Christianity, through no fault of Jesus, became early on a religious movement inordinately preoccupied with the future. Jesus was clearly not future focused; he very much lived in the present moment and pressed his followers to do the same. There was more to do “right now” than they possibly could have gotten done so why waste energy pondering the future?
One very memorable place where Jesus taught the futility of futurism was in what scholars now call his Sermon on the Mount.

...if God...clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”, or, “What will we drink?”, or, “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your God knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the reign of God and divine righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt 6:30-34 NRSV adapted).

Jesus, without a doubt, has kicked into hyperbole here. Of course people who lack sufficient food and adequate clothing for the elements with which they must contend surely will wonder how those items are going to be provided for them and their loved ones. It’s nearly impossible, humanly speaking, NOT to wonder where the next meal is coming from. Jesus’ point is that being preoccupied with such matters won’t make them happen--especially tomorrow’s meal. If food is an issue, worry about it one day at a time. Worry about it today for today and not today for tomorrow.
Jesus certainly did offer a few comments here and there about how he, very generally, thought the present chapter of human history would come to an end or to a major transition, at least. Again, though, being preoccupied with the ways and means history as we know it would close down was an utter waste of time. Something out there was coming; things won’t always be the way they are right now, “but about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only God Godself” (Matt 13:32 NRSV adapted). Jesus makes it very clear that he and God are not one and the same entity, and he tells his followers that God knows; but no human being, including he himself, the Child of Humanity, knows how this chapter in human history comes to a close. How in the world could Jesus have been more clear than that?
Do you see in what I just quoted you from Jesus any impetus whatsoever, any mandate, any encouragement to try to predict when the end of the present world order will come to a close? No, you don’t, because it’s not there!
Even so, that hasn’t stopped Jesus’ followers including those who first heard him say this with their own ears from predicting the immanent end of the age. Here’s an interesting fact to keep in mind: not a single person who has ever attempted to predict the end of time as we now know it has been correct. No prediction of the end of time has in human history to date ever been correct. Human history continues.
Frighteningly, there have been and there are those who believed that they could force the end to occur and that they should do so because everyone could immediately begin enjoying her or his next world reward--no more waiting and no more struggling with the problems common to earthlings.
In the earliest days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan, feeling the constant nearness of “the football,” the plans and procedures that could instantly unleash nuclear attacks on a vast number of global targets, wondered out loud if he might be God’s instrument to bring the great battle of Armageddon to pass--essentially destroying the world and forcing God to end history as we now know it. I was scared to death when I read in a Louisville newspaper early one morning about what was going on in his head while Nancy was down the hall on the phone with her astrologer, getting guidance for the day. Robert Patterson, an Air Force major who carried the football during the Clinton administration, explained that the specifics of the football’s contents are, naturally, classified. Patterson confirms that the leather-bound satchel manufactured by Haliburton does, indeed, contain a handbook detailing options for unleashing U.S. nuclear weapons, and the military aide carrying the football would be expected to help the president implement the turning of Planet Earth into hell. Patterson told the press long after his tenure as football carrier had passed that everything one might imagine is in the 45-pound case, instructions about “...everything from firing a tactical nuclear weapon, one of them, to full-born Armageddon.”
It was well attested during Reagan’s presidency that he had a keen interest in biblical prophecy--particularly what he read in the Bible as end-time predictions. In Mr. Reagan’s personal diaries that were published, I believe, just last year, there’s an entry for June 7, 1981, and it reads, “Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq--nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near.” We’re lucky to have lived through those eight years, and the last eight, by the way. I’m not sure who told whom what, but the word is that the football was opened on 9/11.
I’m one of those non-eschatological and/or non-apocalyptic followers of Jesus. I don’t think God has ever or will ever make any plans for destroying the divinely-created world. I don’t buy for a second any theologically literal readings of the story of Noah’s Ark. I believe there may well have been a great flood and a Noah who managed to escape death with a handful of his family members. What I don’t believe is the introductory part of the story that gives as a reason for the flood God’s anger at humanity and God’s sorrow that God had ever created our forebears to the point that God was willing to destroy them, wiping them and most animals off the face of the earth.
That sounds like something a frustrated human being might do, but not God. Brilliant 18-year-old Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in that year of her life and had it published by the time she was 21. In her Gothic novel--and, by the way, the first ever sci-fi novel written in any language--Shelley has her Dr. Frankenstein become so disgusted with the life he has tried to create that he leaves the creature for dead with thanksgiving that the creature is dead; at least he thought the creature was dead. That callous and uncaring attitude would certainly come back to haunt Viktor Frankenstein, but at the time he made the decision he was happy with it; and we understood his feeling.
God, though, isn’t one of us. God could not create humanity and bathe us in divine love--making provisions for both our failures and our successes, our potential and our frailty--only to let the divine surprise and the divine anger at human rebellion fester and grow until it had to explode in a divinely-ordained death sentence for almost the whole of humanity.
This issue of whether God is fundamentally a God of love or fundamentally a God of angry judgement--and the two absolutely canNOT go together--has a tremendous impact on how persons of faith are able to view where God fits into human life past, present, and future. If God is capricious and arbitrary in the present and beats up on imperfect human beings in the here and now, I think there is every reason to believe that God will keep on being God, just this kind of God, in the future. If you’re not happy with the God of your present, you’ll likely not be happy with the God of your future.
Maya Angelou, a very wise woman, gives this advice, and I’m paraphrasing. If someone tells you who she or he is, you should believe it. I’d say exactly the same thing is true of God.
As most of you know, I don’t think God has a name and, therefore, never told anyone the divine name. The words we have for God describe God in some kind of way, but they don’t name God. The most famous of these descriptors is YHWH, four consonants eventually known as the tetragrammaton.
From the burning bush, God told Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, and Moses said, “Sure thing. What could be easier than that? I’ll do it today, but whom shall I say has given me my orders?”
God’s voice from the burning bush said, “YHWH.” It’s obviously descriptive of the Deity though not a name, and it means, of all things, something like: I will be (future) who I am (present).


II.
The Christian season of Advent, from which our Silverside season called Expectation evolved, is a season in tension. Advent is concerned with the past as well as the future; Advent prepares the faithful to re-celebrate Jesus’ birth, often referred to as his “first coming,” as well as his “second coming” or reappearing. There’s right much attention given at Jesus’ ascension to his returning to earth in the way he left. Certainly, too, the book of Revelation in one place pictures the once-crucified, now resurrected and empowered heavenly Jesus coming to earth to claim the souls of those who manage to live, with faith in tact, through the great Roman persecution of Christians at the end of the first Christian century. The problems with literalizing either or both of these sources, the ascension and any part of the book of Revelation, is that they are symbolically-based and were not intended to be taken literally, which remains at the heart of most of the major theological crises that presently and that have ever plagued the Jesus Movement.
The doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection answered some problems for some of Jesus’ first followers and created others--problems, that is. Resurrection meant that Jesus’ was not bound by death, that the cruel execution of Jesus by Rome wasn’t the last word on Jesus. If, however, resurrection must be bodily resurrection, which some branches of Christian theology demand, then you have the problem of what to do with the resurrected body that isn’t suitable to long-term earthly living.
The only Gospel writer who chose to wrestle with this problem was Luke, and Luke deals with Jesus’ so-called ascension both at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of the sequel to his Gospel, which we call the book of Acts. The version at the end of the Gospel of Luke is quite abbreviated:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:50-53 NRSV).

Since worship is for God alone, we’re not sure what Luke meant here by “they worshipped him,” but it was some sort of act of reverence. In any case, Luke, in this manner, got Jesus’ body off of earth and into heaven. One wonders why if God really wanted to make an impact with Jesus’ resurrection God didn’t resurrect Jesus in a body that could have functioned on earth indefinitely. Why the limited resurrection body? And why take Jesus off the earth when he clearly could have had so much more impact staying on earth and talking to people voice to voice and face to face?
There is no mention in the Gospel version of this story, in Luke’s account, of Jesus’ return to earth in any form; the subject simply doesn’t come up. In the fuller version of the story that Luke tells in his volume two, or the book of Acts, there’s much more going on, and there’s an explicit reference to an earthly reappearing, which may be a very important detail, but we have to keep wondering why none of the other Gospels mention it, not even mention it.
Here’s how Luke expanded upon his first account, his very brief Gospel account:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by divine authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6-11 NRSV, adapted).

This was their last shot to make Jesus their messiah, and he still didn’t bite. The reference to Jesus restoring Israel is exactly what good Jews expected from their messiah, and this effort Jesus had no part of.
They also had one last shot to ask him face to face what the future held regarding God’s plan for them, and Jesus--again refusing to let those who were his followers be preoccupied with the future--told them the future was God’s business, not theirs; and he meant that in the nicest possible way! What they needed to focus on, he told them, was the outpouring of God’s energy upon them in the here and now, which would allow them to serve God in the present. God’s energy would burst within all the faithful, allowing them to be God’s witnesses, telling the story of the God Jesus had taught them, all over the place; all over the inhabited world.
Then, as Luke told the story, there was this merger of elements of the stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection. Jesus’ resurrected body begins an upward movement, going skyward. As it does, it is enveloped in a cloud, as Jesus was when he was atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Then suddenly standing with the people, not flying through the air with Jesus, are two men in dazzling robes, reminiscent of the tomb-side messengers who explained the details to those who came to Jesus’ empty tomb. These messengers say to the handful of people gathered to watch Jesus’ ascension into heaven, “Why are you standing here staring up into the sky? Jesus will return the same way you have seen him depart.”
Ever since that story circulated, there have been some in Christendom--sometimes, lots; sometimes, not so many--who have been standing around looking up into the skies waiting for Jesus to come back the way he left in the ascension story. The problem, I say again, is that this story, which only Luke tells, is almost certainly not meant to be taken literally, and doing so creates problems. Another problem is that since this story was told, we have found out that heaven isn’t up there somewhere, that God doesn’t live separated from us, but rather right here; in us and among us. If heaven is where God is, then heaven isn’t up there at all.
In any case, the admonition by the men in dazzling robes is another mandate to get over a preoccupation with the future and get on with life now. What the men were saying to the sorrowful followers bidding their beloved Jesus an earthly farewell is, “Don’t worry. When he comes back you’ll know it; therefore, get on with life now.”
I used to require beginning preachers in practice preaching labs to choose the ascension story as one of a few that had to be covered in a term; meaning, someone had to take this text and use it to develop a sermon to be preached in front of her or his classmates. When I was teaching in Switzerland, Uwe Scharf, my former student who is now Dr. Uwe Scharf, Director of Pastoral Services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, ended up with this text. It was usually one of the least desired, and ending up with this story from which one had to write and preach a sermon was a lot like being the last person chosen for a softball or a dodgeball team.
Being the exceedingly conscientious young man that he was, Uwe--then only about 20 years old--finally went to his systematic theology professor for advice. The theology professor who became my great friend, Professor Thorwald Lorenzen, told Uwe that it was a silly assignment, assigned by a silly American visiting preaching professor and that good German Christians like the two of them knew better than to think much about a story like the ascension. Thorwald told Uwe to come back to me with a proposed sermon title for his ascension sermon: “What Goes Up Must Come Down.”
I said, “Well, I don’t hold out much hope for your sermon, but I will give Dr. Lorenzen an A for his creative sermon title.”


III.
To ponder the future is really the privilege of the safe and settled. When all is well, we may, as a luxury, ponder the future, but when we are seriously threatened we can only think of today or even the present moment. In a survival mentality, the only part of the future that matters is having one; we are trying to live through the hour or the day. A healthy, choice place to be is one where we are not threatened and where we intentionally choose to concentrate on the present.
In recent months, we in the United States have felt more threatened than we’re accustomed to feeling. The presidential election was a luxury, a time when a democracy could make an investment in the future by voting for a leader who would help get us to where we want to be, where we hope to be, where we need to be.
Aside from the election, though, we have felt under economic siege, and in that survival mentality we generally haven’t thought a great deal about the future. Our hard-earned money; invested for our future, for our retirement years; lost over a period of months tremendous value. Only a handful of our citizens are wealthy enough not to have been bothered wondering or worrying about how we might pay for our children’s educational expenses or how we might be able to live independently in our twilight years. Tons of our fellow citizens began losing their jobs. All of us knew of someone who lost her or his home; others are on the verge.
The US financial strongholds in the minds of the average citizen--the big investment companies, the big mortgage companies, and the big auto manufacturers--were all suddenly in danger of going under. Suddenly, it seemed to us, the future had to take a back seat to the present. We had to approve bailouts for all of these failing business entities--one after another. No wait! No one asked us; they promised our money away without asking us. They promised our children’s money away without asking them or us. They who? Oh yeah. “They” are the elected leaders whom we elected to watch out for our best interests; that’s who.
The horrors in Mumbai this week remind us that terrorism is far from a thing of the past--in places we know about and in places we don’t. One Associated Press report put it this way:

It took just 10 young men armed with rifles and grenades to terrorize this city of 18 million and turn its postcard-perfect icons into battlefields until security forces ended one of the deadliest attacks in India’s history early Saturday.

When we need to worry about keeping safe today, thinking too much about the future just doesn’t work, just doesn’t make sense. Some of our fellow Americans were among those murdered and injured, but we grieve for all those lost to the terrorists for all are a part of the one and only human family.
Black Friday is supposed to give the retail world an indication of how much US citizens who have money to spend are going to invest in Christmas shopping in any given year. For people in this economy to let go of any of their money is a sign of optimism that the economic problems are going to be solved. So, day before yesterday was supposed to look pretty good according to what I’ve read, and yet clouding any reasons to rejoice is the story of the Walmart employee who was stampeded to death by shoppers rushing into the store at opening to buy what to them was worth more than the well-being, yeah the life, of a fellow human being. I’m willing to bet that when the stampeders, aka murderers, are singled out, some of them will have church affiliations and were headed in to buy gifts to exchange in honor of the baby Jesus. How can we feel good about ourselves as a people or hopeful about the health of our nation when something like that happens? My heart breaks for the man who died and his family; by the way, he was a temp a Walmart spokesperson said, someone not very experienced with store openings sent by the manager to open the doors to a mad mob. Local union critics from the Long Island area are slamming Walmart, saying that with the right preparation and supervision this could have been prevented. I tend to agree with that, but even so it’s the people behaving as rabid animals who are ultimately to blame.
You know, we have many truly hungry people in this country, and not a one of them went to any such lengths to get food, the need to be fed being a much more basic need than the need to get a Walmart bargain. That is powerfully telling to me.
Jesus believed that there would be an ending to the present world order and that God would be in charge of that ending or transition. He believed that the signs of this ending or transition would be clear to anybody who knew enough about the world to read the changing of seasons. He also believed that no one knew when this would happen except God Godself.
Let me get back to something I tossed out a few minutes ago without developing. We want to be able to get to the place where we focus on the present, the perpetual present, not because we are threatened in some kind of way forcing us to concentrate on getting by in the present. The future shouldn’t be either an escape for us so that we can avoid dealing with serious problems in the present or what we get to think about because we’re so well set in the present that we believe we have a right to claim our place in that future out there. Christianity has been guilty of pushing people to think in both of these wrong ways about the future. On the one hand, when life is good, it teaches that things will only get better for the faithful. On the other hand, when life is rough, Christian futurism has been escapism; it has been a counting on Jesus’ return or God’s intervention otherwise to bring human history or at least this chapter of it to a close.
The bottom line is this. The future, whether our escape or our paradise, may or may not come to us. All any of us really has is the present. We have today, or more precisely right now. The best connection to the future is a well-lived present, a well-invested present. Oddly enough, the season of Advent taught the faithful that the end of time, signaled by Jesus’ visible return to earth, was to be celebrated even though the end of time by most reckonings will be sparked by an angry God who takes what Noah’s God did to the world near its beginning and repeats it except more violently and more broadly. I can’t find a single thing to separate in that.
Our church’s Season of Expectation is a season of awareness of all the ways in which God makes Godself known--the beautiful ways, the wonderful ways, the loving ways. Jesus taught us that this is what we can expect from God so I invite you to celebrate that God with me and the Jesus who taught us about this God.
The world as we know it will end when it biologically and chemically self-destructs or when we crazy humans destroy it and each other. The first of these we can’t do anything about unless it is to take better care of our Planet; the latter of these we can do much about by living out and promoting the God of love whom we have learned about through Jesus.
Therefore, let’s concentrate on the present where we know for sure we can make a positive contribution to God’s people and God’s world. Now. The present is perpetual.
Sir Winston Churchill didn’t get heavily pious about his perspectives of the future. He said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” And Mark Van Doren, the poet and educator, put it this way:
There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give all our attention to the opportunity before us.

Amen

Sunday, November 23, 2008

SILENCE AND SPEAKING














Pastor Martin Niemoeller




I.
You know these now famous words from Pastor Martin Niemoeller, but you may not have known that they were his words since, for some odd reason, they are often quoted as having come from an anonymous source.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
There was no one left to speak out.


The Holocaust was a tragedy in response to which no human words are adequate. One of the most comfortable responses for Holocaust survivors to their captivity as well as the horrors they both witnessed and endured has been to keep silent--as much as possible, simply to let the abuses and the utter inhumanity remain in their past. While there is no cure for damage to body and soul inflicted on Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals as well as the physically and mentally handicapped, keeping silent toward the end of reclaiming any personal wholeness for those few fortunate enough to have escaped rarely worked. Various reasons are given for the silence, but some Holocaust survivors say that one of the major reasons they kept quiet for so long was that no one wanted to hear what they’d been through. Others said reliving those experiences was too painful for them.
Most of them kept silent for some thirty years after their liberation. There were exceptions, but not many. Otto Frank published his daughter’s, Anne’s, diary in 1947. Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, came out in English in 1961. One historian suggests that the pivotal event that caused society to be willing to listen to survivors was a 1978 television miniseries entitled, “Holocaust.”
There was the first official gathering of Holocaust survivors in 1981. This meeting took place in Israel, and younger Israelis along with journalists in attendance were stunned that there were no recoded accounts of what the survivors had endured and witnessed. Things began to change.
One of the most important ways for the Holocaust survivors to validate themselves as humans after having been under the control of people who treated them as subhuman was to speak out. No more time for silence.
The poet in Ecclesiastes chapter 3 says, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to speak and a time to keep silent.” The question is, “When?” When are people who are trying to live as closely as we can to the example of Jesus supposed to speak up, and when are they/we supposed to keep silent?
The Reverend Dr. Marilyn Sewell, in a blog, gave this answer to the question:

We speak when we have the power to save a life--or even to redeem a situation that's going downhill, to the detriment of the group (of whatever kind). And we speak when we are called upon to speak--because of time and place and historical moment--to right a wrong or to remove one of the claims of injustice. Yes, to speak up and be wrong is sometimes embarrassing, sometimes hard on the ego. But to wind through one's days never taking the risks set before us is to really not live at all. What are we trying to do--to be safe? What a fantasy that is! No one of us in mortal form is ever safe. We have only this moment, only this hour, this day, to live with integrity and passionate love. Don't waste another minute with idle reflection. It is always too risky to be silent when anything wrong can be set right, and you have the power to do so.


Pastor Niemoelloer’s famous words remind us that very often the persons being abused or mistreated aren’t able to speak up for themselves. The mandate to speak up isn’t by any means simply to be an assertive American so that other Americans and especially the business sector doesn’t get another one over on us. Assertiveness training was popular several years ago precisely because too few people were speaking up for themselves and were routinely, therefore, getting run over by others and the system. There may still be a few people around who need assertiveness training, but many fewer need it than used to.
It is precisely those who are not directly affected by some injustice, therefore, who must speak on behalf of those who are. Those who wear the faddish bracelets these days and appear to wonder WWJD, what would Jesus do, really don’t have to wonder at all on this count. A correct and immediate answer to that question always is, “He would be speaking up on behalf of the abused and downtrodden. He would be defending the rights of people at the periphery to be treated like human beings--deserving of justice, compassion, and love.” In other words, that question, “What would Jesus do?”, leads at once to a second question, “Who in our community, nation, or world is being treated inhumanely?” As soon as an answer has been formulated, we speak and act in their defense, in their favor.
For whom should those of us with more power than most any other citizens of the world speak out?


We should speak out in favor of anyone whose opportunities to be fully human are diminished or restricted. Women’s rights, gay rights--all such designations are in actuality synonyms for human rights. There isn’t any need to give a certain group of humans its own name and its struggle for rights a special name. Doing that, in fact, is, in and of itself, racist, ageist, sexist, and so on. There is no such thing as full human rights until all humans have full human rights.


We must always speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Children and elders who are abused and unable to speak for themselves will always need advocates who won’t be quiet until they are safe. Sadly, there are those sick people in any society who will express their pathologies by hurting those who can’t defend themselves. Whatever it takes for little children and frail older people to be safe from harm has to be done. We can’t be silent about this at all.


All Americans deserve access to the best available health care, and those of us who have such access must not become complacent about those who don’t. The poor are not less deserving of opportunities to be free of pain, to be free of disease, to be whole than are folks with funds. Since few power people listen to the poor, however, someone else must break the silence and demand health care for the poor.


I think we humans increasingly have the responsibility to speak up for the rights of animals whom God designed to inhabit the planet with us. There is no acceptable reason whatsoever to abuse any animal. Someone has said, compellingly I believe, that a country’s level of civilization can be determined by how its citizens treat animals. The brilliant physician/musician/theologian, Albert Schweitzer, once wrote: “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: ‘I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.’” In another place, Dr. Schweitzer wrote: “A person is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him [or her], that of plants and animals as well as that of,,,fellow [humans], and when he [or she] devotes self helpfully to all life that is in need of help. Only the universal ethic of the feeling of responsibility in an ever-widening sphere for all that lives-- only that ethic can be founded in thought.”



II.
I am so moved by much of the story of the great prophet Elijah. One of lessons we learn in a most unlikely circumstance is that God Godself occasionally has chosen to be silent. Elijah has the high point of his ministry on Mount Carmel, no pun intended, and he expects because of what happens when, at his request, God shows up the prophets of Ba’al, the praise of people and of God. He gets the praise of people with no trouble--most people anyway. His queen, Jezebel, was a worshiper of Ba’al, and she took the showing up of her god and the subsequent execution of prophets who served Ba’al as a personal offense, which she intended to avenge by killing Elijah.
No one could protect Elijah from Jezebel; the only thing he could do was to try to run from her, and he did. He did, but he wasn’t happy about it at all. Elijah believed that having served God so well, God owed him protection from the likes of an evil, pagan queen--as he thought of her. From all indictions, there were no such provisions. Elijah ran as hard as he could, and the more he ran, the more angry at God he was and the more depressed he was about his plight. He finally found his way to a cave where he was making an art of sulking when whom should he hear calling his name but God Godself.
God asks Elijah what in the world he was doing out in the middle of no where in a cave. As I’ve told you before, when God asks a question like that it’s always a trick question; I encourage you to refuse politely to answer if God tosses one of these your way. It’s the same kind of question God asked Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden after they’d eaten the forbidden fruit, “Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. Well, that led to a very messy answer, and an incriminating one!
Elijah bites though, and he says to God, “Well, God, if you really want to know that truth, it’s mostly your fault. I do all these great feats in your name, and you still allow me to be subject to the powers of an evil, pagan queen. What’s up with that? All these years I’ve been operating under the impression that people who serve you get nice rewards, not life-threatening situations to deal with. I’m faithful to you like no one else, and look where you leave me? Look how long you waited finally even to speak to me.”
God said to Elijah, “Oh, I’ve been speaking to you all along. You just haven’t been listening. After the big display of divine power on Mount Carmel, you had in your mind that I speak exclusively in the grand and dramatic, and you should have known that this isn’t the case.”
Elijah said to God, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Come out of the cave and stand on the side of the mountain here.” Elijah did so.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12 NRSV).


God was speaking in the silence when Elijah demanded that God’s voice be boisterous. God doesn’t bend to our whims, though. If Elijah wanted to hear God, he would have to listen to the silence.
Mother Teresa once said,

We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature--trees, flowers, grass grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.


If you’ve ever taken the time to read the Gospel of Mark or listened attentively while someone else read key portions of it to you, you encountered the strangest thing. Early twentieth century New Testament scholars referred to the phenomenon as the “messianic secret.” Those who seem to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew hope, which is certainly the conclusion that a number of early Christians wanted others to see, are shushed by Jesus himself. They are told to shut up, to keep quiet, to keep their observations to themselves.
Here’s an example, from right in the middle of the Gospel.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8:27-30 NRSV)
.

What? Why would he do that? Isn’t that supposed to be the right answer in the minds of a number of early Christians? Shouldn’t Peter be getting a pat on the back for a change? Shouldn’t Peter who often had said the wrong thing and had his foot in his mouth as a rule, shouldn’t he get some accolades this time? “People have more speculations about who you are than we can keep up with, but if you ask me,” Peter says, “I’m willing to go on record saying that you’re the messiah.”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” Jesus responds. “Keep your mouth shut about that, and I mean it.” The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus sternly ordered Peter and his colleagues to be silent on the subject of Jesus’ identity. If they didn’t have the freedom to answer frankly, wonder why Jesus asked so open-endedly?
Here’s another one:

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him (Mark 1:21-26 NRSV).


These are especially strange stories, these where the demons whom Jesus exorcises name Jesus as the messiah only to be shushed by Jesus. Looks like even a demon who tells the truth has to be affirmed for that much good. Not so in the Gospel of Mark so either what they say isn’t true for Jesus--meaning he realizes he isn’t the hoped-for messiah--or there is some other reason unclear to the rapid reader of Mark.
Scholars have been intrigued with these passages in Mark, and there are several of them, at least since the earliest parts of the twentieth century. Why would Jesus have responded the way he did to demons and to people who were at least trying to tell the truth?
Dr. Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a highly respected scholar among progressive followers of Jesus, says that there’s no need to make a big deal about it, that Jesus is generally misunderstood in the Gospel of Mark; this would mean that Dr. Ehrman does not see Jesus as the messiah.
William Wrede, the first scholar, a German, to give this matter--the so called messianic secret--major attention, said that Jesus shushed the demons and Peter and others because it wasn’t time for his identity to be made known; there would be a time for proclaiming Jesus’ messianic identity, but it seems never go have come in his lifetime. If at all, this becomes clear at Jesus’ death.
I don’t know what all to make of this, but I think it says something about the importance of keeping some of our theological speculations to ourselves--at least until we’ve had plenty of time to test them and ponder over them. What we take to be certain, what others may have convinced us to be correct, may--still--not be correct at all; this may especially be the case when some new experience tests what we are presently thinking. Unless tested over the long haul, our early hunches may not, after all, be suitable in the least. When it comes to some of the great mysteries, times to keep silent may well be the order of the day.


III.
There a story from the life of Jesus as the Gospel writer Luke tells it, and I love this story; it’s very stirring to me. The story is a part of the passion/palm Sunday narrative. Jesus is riding along on the little donkey colt--in stark contrast to Pontius Pilate’s mighty military entrance on the other side of Jerusalem, as we have recently learned from Dr. Borg and Dr. Crossan.
As Jesus rode along, some of the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for the celebration of their great festival--certainly not all or even most of them, but some who had seen one or more of his miracles--spread their cloaks, their outer garments on the ground, carpeting the path over which the little donkey would walk. This was a sign of respect done in response to one whom they sensed was a great person; the placing of their cloaks in the pathway of Jesus’ donkey is what many pilgrims would have done had official royalty ridden by them.
We are not surprised, then, that those honoring Jesus began to call him a king, “Blessed is this king who comes in God’s name!” This may have signaled that some of them took Jesus to be the messiah Israel had been hoping for and looking for since ancient times. Jesus, of course, wasn’t that messiah, and the clearest of signs that he wasn’t had to do with his refusal to gather troops to take on Rome. Still, many people hoped for an individual, personal messiah, and at that moment, given group mentality, Jesus looked liked a good candidate. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of God,” some of those pilgrims yelled out. “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” That was an odd thing to add, don’t you think? A wish or a blessing for peace in heaven? Was heaven, they place they thought of as God’s abode, not at peace? Had heaven ever been in any state other than at peace?
The Pharisees had, as usual, some reps watching their nemesis, Jesus, and they objected to even the slightest implication that Jesus might have been the messiah so they tell Jesus to make the pilgrims shut up. Jesus responded, “These people are praising God; you know, if I tried to get them to shut up, the very stones would break their silence and shout praise to God” (Luke 19:40 preacher’s paraphrase).
Technically, the Pharisees didn’t mind people praising God. What concerned them is that being in the presence of Jesus prompted them to praise God. This made the Pharisees uneasy since they wanted only devotion for the ancient law and the God who could be experienced in those laws to prompt people to praise God. Jesus as an impetus to praise God was an especially frustrating and frightening reality for them to contend with.
Those pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem may have been wrong about the messiah thing, but they weren’t wrong to praise God and to connect Jesus to God. Neither were they wrong to keep Jesus and God as separate entities. Jesus is not to be praised; only God is. Jesus is not to be worshiped; only God is.
Thanksgiving is upon us. If at no other time of the year, I think that this national holiday gives Americans the perfect opportunity to break the silence and speak out thanks for our blessings. I realize that many Americans don’t feel very blessed at the moment, and we all know why. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise. Unemployment has spiked. We had the first halfway decent news in the stock market on Friday that we’ve had in months; investments are still in danger, and those who are living on fixed incomes truly feel the pinch.
Fully aware of the intense struggles faced by many of our sister- and brother-Americans, and similar or worse struggles faced by sisters and brothers around the world, many of us still have been blessed to the point of amazement, and if at no other time let’s not be silent about that. We have to be careful not to sound like the Pharisee that seriously ticked Jesus off who thanked God in public that he was superior, and another worshiper, a publican, wasn’t.
The last thing we need to do on Thanksgiving is to thank God that God has blessed us while, at the same time, God has willed others to struggle and suffer and be hungry and have no place to live. With any advantage any person of God has ever realized, the only acceptable response has been to share out of abundance so as we speak our gratitude for our good fortune, in the same breath, we articulate how we will use what we have to help others. Thanksgiving is not a haughty holiday, and Thanksgiving is not a hoarding holiday.
The ancient Hebrew prophet, Habakkuk, was railing against idols in his prophecy, and this is what he had to say:

What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it—a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!”; to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. But the Lord is in the holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before God! (Hab 2:18-20 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).


For Habakkuk, to be in the presence of living God is impetus for being driven to silence.
Here’s an interesting challenge to keep in mind. Habakkuk thought the presence of God was generally exterior to human beings. People encountered God at holy places, such as at a shrine or, especially, in the holy of holies of the great Jewish Temple. We have learned since Habakkuk’s time that God may indeed be beyond us, but certainly, in addition, God is within us--within each of us. If the presence of the living God drives God’s people to silence, what does that say to us? The Apostle Paul, for that matter, says that our bodies are God’s temples so what does that say of the drivenness to silence in the presence of the living God?
Obviously, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, being in the presence of God called forth a variety of responses, not just silence. In fact, being in the presence of the living God has prompted God’s people to praise God and to celebrate loudly and, not infrequently, ecstatically!

Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary; praise God under the mighty firmament! Praise God for mighty deeds; praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord (Psa 150).

In our public religious lives and in our private religious lives, there is a time to speak up and a time to keep silent. There’s a time to kick it, and a time to sit in utter silence, a time to sing a communal hymn with great gusto and a time to stop making any joyful sound whatsoever.
Silence is tough for us. We live in a culture that tells us silence is a bad thing while some kind of noise is a good thing. If you’ve noticed, even in informal conversation we’re uneasy with silence so at pause points in the flow of our talk we fill in sounds. Beginning public speakers has a tremendous problem with this issue these days; they are petrified of silence. They’re afraid silence makes them come across as uneasy or unprepared or just plain lost so they fill in the sounds of silence with vocalized fillers--repetitive words such as “well” or “now.” Or they fill in with wordless sounds such as UHM or AH.
Despite modern western resistance to it, silence can still be golden, as long as it isn’t doesn’t stem from either copping out or carelessness. Jean Arp said,

Soon silence will have passed into legend. Humanity has turned its back on silence. Day after day people invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation... tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the human ego. Anxiety subsides. Inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.


Amen.