This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Prophet Nathan on Benton Harbor.

“The Lord sent [the prophet] Nathan to [King] David.  He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.  He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.  He said to Nathan,  ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’  Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’”       (2 Samuel 12:1-7)
            The context, of course, is the sad story of King David stealing the wife of Uriah the Hittite and having him killed.  But the larger meaning is the way the rich always treat the poor.
            When the governor of Michigan dissolves the government of a poor local municipality and turns it over to an appointed boss whose main agenda is stealing the one valuable asset that city has, its beachfront park, so it can be turned it into a luxury golf course for rich people, the words of the prophet Nathan come to mind.  It’s called “Financial Martial Law.”  The city is Benton Harbor, Michigan.  The park is the Jean Klock Park, given to the city in 1917.  Do not expect this to end well if we allow those who already have too much to grab still more.
            In Naomi Klein’s remarkable and important book, The Shock Doctrine, the point is that powerful people use, generate, or even invent crises so they can come in and “solve” the situation in a way that benefits mainly themselves.  We see this over and over.  After the Indian Ocean tsunami, which wiped out many poor people who lived on and gained their meager sustenance from the seashore, the State found it profitable to solve the problem by giving the valuable beachfront property to developers.  The former shacks will be replaced by beautiful luxury resorts.  It looks like an improvement.  But what happens to the people who lived there who survived the tsunami?  Do they benefit?  Are they adequately compensated for their losses?  No.  Now they get to be underpaid bellhops and maids in an enterprise that makes rich people richer.  And we call it progress.
            This is also the strategy the powerful elements have for dealing with the New Orleans disaster.  People with money buy up the wrecked homes of the Ninth Ward at a fraction of their value.  They will no doubt build something there that will be too expensive for the same people to come back to.  When that happens you can bet they will be sure and make the levees more secure.
            The financial meltdown is another example.  The people who got clobbered by illegal and immoral practices were the poor and middle class.  They people who got bailed out, and who will also end up with most of the property foreclosed on are the people who deliberately out of greed and stupidity created the crisis.  It is not enough to have multiple mansions and private jets; they also need to acquire the starter home of a young couple in Albuquerque.
            Stealing from the poor to enrich the wealthy is not a new practice.  It is as old as sin.  We continue to allow it, and even celebrate it as a triumph of the “free-market.”  Of course, it is interesting that “free” markets are never actually free.  They are always heavily stacked to privilege whoever has the most money.  We should therefore not be surprised to hear the voice of the prophet Nathan addressing us: “You are the man!”  After all I gave you, God says through Nathan to David --- money, power, wives --- “Why have you despised the word of the Lord to do what is evil in his sight?”
            It’s a rhetorical question.  The answer is that power corrupts.  Not even David is immune.           
            There are consequences for this sort of thing.  There always have been.  “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house,” says the Lord.  We wait to see how that works….


Monday, April 25, 2011

Mary's Walk

This was my sermon yesterday.

John 20:1-18

            On Sunday morning, after the longest and most dismal, heartbroken Shabbat of her life, Mary of Magdala wakes up before dawn.  Or rather she gets up, for she had been awake for hours anyway.  She dresses herself without waking any of the others, puts on her shawl, goes downstairs, and walks alone through the narrow, quiet streets of Jerusalem.  She is heading for the cemetery, outside of town.
            There are times in our life when we just need to show up.  We don’t even know why.  In fact, it often seems pretty pointless.  We just have to be present, even though we have no good reason.  Even if it’s just going through the motions.  We can’t remain spectators on the sidelines.  We have to get ourselves up in the darkness and perform the inconvenient, difficult, painful, routine tasks.  We have to go to the grave, as it were.  From one particularly depressing perspective, our whole existence on this earth is just a long walk to a tomb.  But if we don’t start walking, nothing else can happen.
            When she arrives, she finds where the tomb had been carved into the rock… but the large round stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled away, leaving the tomb open.  This is not right.  She feels alarmed and frightened, and she immediately runs all the way back the way she had come.  She enters the house, goes upstairs and wakes up two of her friends.  One is Peter, the leader of their group.  We don’t know the other disciple’s name.  He’s just called “the other disciple,” but he was the disciple most loved by the man who had been executed three days earlier and placed in that tomb, Jesus.
            “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him!” she exclaims, breathlessly.  How did she come to this conclusion?  All she saw was the open tomb; it doesn’t say she looked inside.  And who was the “they” she suspected of removing the body? 
            At this Peter and the other disciple jump out of bed.   And they positively run to the tomb, their sandals slapping the stone pavement.  The nameless disciple gets there first and peers into the darkness, seeing the gravecloths on the shelf; but Peter, known for his impetuousness, recklessly runs straight into the tomb.  He sees the cloths too, but no body.  Then the other disciple comes into the tomb and looks around.  The text says quite simply.  “He saw and believed.”            
            The two of them go back to the house they were staying in, in the city.

            What did the disciples see, exactly?  Nothing.  An empty hole in the earth.  They do not find what they expect to find.  They find at first... nothing.  A mystery.
            But finding nothing, while it is disturbing, could be better than finding what they expected, which was Jesus’ dead body.  Finding nothing opens up possibilities; it ignites the imagination.  The disciple Jesus loved is the one to whom it occurs that this might actually be a good thing. 
            It is like when the doctor comes and tells you after a battery of tests that they didn’t find anything.  Often that’s a relief.  Yeah, maybe you’re still wondering why you feel so rotten, but finding nothing is usually better than some of the things you were afraid they might find.   
            Mary had followed them to the tomb, and when the two men go back to the house in the city, she stays in the cemetery by herself, weeping.  She bends over to look inside the tomb.  This time she sees “two angels in white,” sitting where the body was supposed to be.  Why didn’t the other two disciples mention the two angels?  You’d think that would be important. 
            They ask her why she is crying.  And Mary finds herself strangely in a conversation with… angels.  “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says, in confusion.  We still don’t know who “they” are.
            She turns around looking back out the door of the tomb and sees a man, out in the cemetery.  She thinks he’s the groundskeeper, coming to work.  Finally, maybe here is someone who can explain all this.  He says to her the same thing the angels said: “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” 
            “Sir,” she says, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”  She thinks he has moved the body for some reason.  She offers to fetch and carry the body somewhere… herself?
            Mary is showing signs of stress, at this point.  She is living in the tension and confusion of a transitional, disordered place in which her old understandings and expectations have broken down.  She doesn’t know what to believe.  She is knocked off her foundations.  She is still trying to cram this increasingly weird and anomalous set of experiences into her old mental categories.  It is very scary and difficult, when our world stops making sense, and we have to get our mind to expand to grapple with new things.

            And then the man, who is Jesus himself, calls her by her name.  “Mary,” he says, gently.  He knows her.  She recognizes his voice.  She realizes that Jesus is alive!  He is standing right there, now.  And he calls her.
            Mary answers, recognizing Jesus as her beloved and respected teacher.  “Rabbouni,” she says.  And this whole bizarre morning begins to reorganize and sort itself out and become intelligible, but transformed.  It is a new world now, a world in which death did not have the final say anymore.  A world where betrayal and denial, miscarriages of justice, and political chicanery don’t work.  A world in which the Romans kill someone and they don’t stay dead.  This is good news!  This changes everything!    
            Jesus’ living presence reveals and proves that life is way bigger and stronger than what we experience.  It proclaims the good news that love always wins.
            Just as he calls Mary, Jesus calls us.  By our name.  Dead people don’t do that; that’s how we know he’s alive.  Not only does he call us, but he changes us.  He liberates our deepest, truest selves.  We find ourselves, we come to ourselves, in him.
            He calls us from death to life.  Instead of a world permeated with death and loss, guilt and failure, fear, shame, and anger, when Jesus calls us we are delivered to live lives of purpose, hope, justice, and love.  Now the most substantial force in our existence, death, is neutralized.
            And he gathers us into a community, and he sends us on a mission, to witness to God’s love in all we do.
            Jesus tells her not to cling to him.  Now is not the time for grasping, possessing, owning, keeping, and comprehending.  This is not about creeds and doctrines.  Jesus is not to be grasped; he is to be followed.
            He tells Mary to go to the other disciples and tell them what has happened.  Because seeing alone is not enough; this is not about her private experience.  Like Mary, we must also tell; and not just in words.  Jesus comes to transform our lives and our world.  Mary returns to the disciples, to the community, and the community now bears witness to the world what she has experienced.  It bears witness by being the new community of resurrection and living according to the values and standards revealed in Jesus.
            Now he shapes our lives, beginning in the new community of the church, according to his values of love and peace, goodness and truth, hope and beauty, healing and forgiveness.  We live in a new world now… if only our minds would catch up with this truth.  If only it were reflected and expressed in our behavior, all the time.  Still, we proclaim with Mary what she learned that morning: This mortal existence is not a fearful, defeated mope to the tomb, but the joyful dance of everlasting life.  +++++++    

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Suffering Servant

This was my sermon for Thursday night.  I originally wasn't going to preach at this service, but I felt led by the Spirit to grapple with this text.  The "suffering servant" passage from Isaiah is often used to defend and justify the "penal-substitutionary" theory of the Atonement.  In this theory, God is honor-bound to punish human sin, but instead of wiping us out he puts the sin of humanity on Jesus and annihilates it there.  This theory makes several errors, one of which is that God is somehow bound to some higher law that says the only way to deal with sin is by "punishment."  It also assumes that God's holiness requires someone's violent death in order to be appeased.  It also appears to apply a division in the Godhead between the Father who inflicts punishment and the Son who bears it.  This corrodes both  the love and unity within the Trinity.   Isaiah 53 is frequently rolled out to explain this Atonement theory.

The penal-substitutionary Atonement theory is not universal in Christianity.  The Eastern Church doesn't know it.  It wasn't finally codified until the 11th century, which means the early church didn't know it either.  Unfortunately, it is for many in the West synonymous with the Atonement itself.  The "God punished his Son in our place" theology has had a disastrous effect on Christianity.  I am trying to counteract it.  

Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
            Christians have always understood these words from Isaiah to refer to Jesus.  We see Jesus as the servant of God by whose suffering and death we are healed.  What is happening in this passage could also be said about the poor. 
            Jesus comes into the world identifying with the poor and defeated of the Earth and advocating their cause.  We see this first in the very circumstances of his birth, which could not have been more humble, and in the words of his mother even before he is born, that he will turn society upside-down.  Jesus sets the tone of his whole ministry when he quotes another portion of Isaiah, about his mission to heal, liberate, and “bring good news to the poor.”  Jesus clearly teaches that the poor, the grieving, the gentle, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are blessed.  He explicitly says that to serve the poor and deprived is to serve him.  These passages and many others indicate that the Messiah came to be poor and to advocate for the poor; that was an essential element of his mission.
            Isaiah is trying to get his people, the exiles in Babylon, to see the bigger picture, which is that, as Jesus says and embodies, it is the poor, the common people, the victims of history’s machinations, who inherit the Earth.  These are God’s people.  It is not what you have, but the wealth and power you don’t have that make you a child of God.
            Isaiah’s  description talks about those who grow out of the dry ground of poverty.  They have no importance or glory; they are not particularly attractive.  They are “despised and rejected by others,” they are people “of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.”  They are held of no account by the people in charge, who even think God is cursing them.  All these things are also true of Jesus, as well as of the Jews in exile, who had lost everything.
            Isaiah notices that they do not suffer on their own account, but because of the actions of others.  The infirmities and diseases of their whole society are dumped on them. The lowly are wounded because of the transgressions of the powerful, crushed due to the iniquities of those who run things.  Jesus embodies and represents this. 
            Because those at the bottom are bearing these consequences, the people at the top reap the benefits; a fact that would have been obvious to Isaiah, whose people served the Babylonians.  In the larger scheme of things, who profits because of the low wages, the horrible working conditions, the crushing unemployment, the theft and ravaging of the land of poor people all over the world?  Jesus takes on the life of the impoverished when he allows himself to be kicked around by Roman authority, even crucified.
            Isaiah then diagnoses the root of the problem that has generated all this misery: “All we like sheep have gone astray;
 we have [each] turned to our own way.”  In other words, people have rejected the good of the community and disregarded their responsibilities for each other.  He echoes the end of the book of Judges, where it is sadly stated that in those days everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  When this happens, the social order gets perverted.  It creates iniquity and lays it on the poor.  Their suffering reveals the selfishness and isolation that afflict the whole society.
            Because we have each turned to our own way, because we demand to be able to do what is right in our own eyes, we create a society in which innocent people get crucified… every day.  This philosophy guarantees that the rich will get richer and everyone else poorer.  It depends on and spawns violence; and it makes injustice and inequality inevitable.  It guarantees that Jesus would be treated the way he was.
            So what Jesus suffers is not punishment from God.  When we read that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” it means that God, of course, knew what the consequences would be of entering this human life with good news.  He would be punished by powerful human forces.  He would be a victim of human iniquity.  He would intentionally absorb the evil that the poor deal with all the time.  God is not the source of this punishment; people are. 
            In Jesus, God is taking on the consequences of the violence we have embraced, taking on our poverty and powerlessness, even taking on our death.  It is the final movement in God’s self-emptying in becoming one of us.  God takes all this on in Jesus, and transforms them, transfigures them, transmutes them in himself into a blessing.  Jesus reveals and establishes that these things can kill us, but they can’t hurt us.  And in the end they don’t even kill us….    
            Isaiah writes about the servant: “When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.”  In other words, when people finally realize what Jesus is showing us, that his blood, the blood of the poor, has been shed for all of us, then Jesus shall see us, his offspring, the ones whom he empowers and feeds to be his people, the ones who continue his ministry on the Earth, energized by his Body and Blood.
            We are his offspring when we follow him.  And we follow him by identifying with and advocating for the poor people of the Earth.  Through us the will of the Lord, which is always for justice and love, prospers.
            So, if Isaiah 53 is about Jesus, it is also about the poor… but at the same time, it is also about his “offspring,” the church, the gathering of his followers, whom he sends into the world on a mission: us.  What Jesus does he does as a “pioneer.”  He goes ahead of us so we may follow.  We are not spectators, or the audience, or the inert beneficiaries.  He demonstrates what to do, then he tells us to do it as well.  Jesus shows the apostles that such suffering leads to life, giving them the strength to suffer as well, and even die, as a witness to God’s love for the world.  Which they did.
            In the next little while [the Tenebrae service in which we read the Passion narrative] we will be following him in spirit through his last hours.  We will be doing so already infused with his life, shared in the Sacrament.  God’s Body and Blood are already infusing and becoming every cell of our bodies, as we sit here.
            As we listen to this story, let’s reflect on what it is going to mean to follow him, to take up our own cross, to embrace his life of giving, healing, losing, sharing, and teaching, as he represents us up there, on the cross.  And let us also hear ways in which we can be made open to his new life of liberation and power, which we receive in his resurrection.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Let America Be America Again

 Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air
we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Langston Hughes