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.