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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who Is the Least?

Psalm 54.
            Almost the entire Bible is written from the perspective of poor and oppressed people, and Psalm 54 is no exception.  So when a Psalm like this one talks about “enemies,” we have to understand that this likely refers to people who have power who are using it to harm someone who has less or even no power, who then writes a poem that gets included in the Psalter. 
            Enemies are not someone the Psalmist is attacking; they are those who are attacking the Psalmist.  The Bible’s point-of-view is nearly always that of the recipient of violence and the object of injustice.  Rarely if ever does the text see things from the perspective of one who has wealth and power.  Even when the speaker is the King, he is the King of a small and weak nation whose enemies are brutal empires.  The stipulated situation of the Psalm is that David wrote it when he was hiding in the wilderness while being pursued by King Saul, who considered him a treasonous bandit.
            This is a hymn for people who have no other recourse than God for their grievances.  The normal channels of justice have proven to be inadequate, perhaps even corrupt.  If the system in Israel was anything like that in most countries, it was stacked against poor people.  Judges and lawyers and politicians and the wealthy are all friends who play golf together at the same country club.  They have never been very likely to render a fair judgment in favor of someone far below their social circle, unless there was something in it for them.  This is still largely the case, by the way. 
            The Psalm describes the enemies as “insolent,” or proud. Some translations refer to strangers or foreigners (because of a textual discrepancy).  And they are “ruthless.”  They do not pay attention to God or God’s law.  God’s law, of course, is mostly about lifting up and giving justice to the lowly.
            And we, as Christians, should not forget that the Psalms were prayed by Jesus, and refer to Jesus.  In many cases we hear them as prayers of Jesus.  When a person is lamenting about enemies plotting and doing harm, we hear Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus identifies with us in our affliction.
            The fact that we have enemies, strong people trying to exploit or hurt us, and that we are angry about this, is not always something we are comfortable hearing from the Bible.  But this is part of our existence.  And the lower we stand on the social scale, the more a part of our existence it is.
            When you are hounded by creditors, or when they come to foreclose on your house, when you are sent to prison for 3 years and a well-connected person who commits a much more serious crime only gets probation, when you are used as a stepping stone for the boss’s dimwitted offspring who is being groomed for power, when a gang is extorting money from you, when they place arbitrary obstacles to your exercising your right to vote… all these and more are examples of the insolent and ruthless acting against God’s law to afflict the powerless.

            It’s frustrating.  It makes you angry.  It makes you want to fight back with violence.  Maybe you harbor very satisfying retributive fantasies about this.  Maybe you even try to figure out ways to get back at the person.
            But God does not want you to do this.  God does not want us contributing to the cycle of violence that never ends.  Ask the people of the Middle East how well revenge is working for them.  “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”  In other words, vengeance is not your job.  Humans are too short-sighted, emotional, and supposedly smart to exercise vengeance in any fair way.  We always overdo it, or we show favoritism or bigotry. 
            When we exercise violence in revenge then we become the perpetrator, someone else’s enemy, just another insolent, ruthless, Godless abuser of power.  We allow someone else to sing this Psalm against us.  We separate ourselves from God’s Word, we reject the way of Jesus, which is always the way of non-violence.  We become as bad as the one who originally oppressed us, and we draw down upon ourselves the same consequences from God. 
            We have to identify with the sentiments and the emotion of the Psalm in which we put ourselves in God’s hands.  And we have to be careful that we are not recognizing ourselves in Scripture’s villains.  If the words that come out of your mouth and the actions of your hands look and sound more like those of Pharaoh, or Herod, or Pilate, or any of these “enemies,” then we are in trouble.  We will have become the enemies of God, the murderers of the Messiah.
            The Psalm says, “Surely, God is my helper; the Lord the upholder of my life.  He will repay my enemies for their evil.  In your faithfulness, put an end to them.”  It is God, not you, who repays.  It is God, not you, who administers the consequences of sinful behavior.  It is God, not you, who exacts punishment.  With God evil is not an unending cycle of viciousness.  God puts an end to it.  And God is trustworthy.
            And God does put an end to injustice and violence… just not always according to our timetable, and not always in a way that satisfies our lust for blood.  Much of the Bible is about God’s intervention in human history to put an end to the rule and oppression of the insolent and ruthless.  We continue to see it throughout subsequent history as well.   
            Injustice invites catastrophe like a lightning rod.  The disaster may be ecological or military or economic, but it always comes.  Systems based on injustice are not sustainable.  The insolent, the proud, the ruthless… they all fall.  As we read last week in Psalm 146: “When their breath departs they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

            The sign of gratitude and faithfulness is the making of the prescribed freewill offering to God.  This is described in a couple of places in the book of Leviticus.  In addition to the offering of an animal, it also involved different kinds of bread.  It was not mandatory or regularly scheduled.  Rather, the freewill offering was an extra ceremony coming from a person’s heart.  It was not the fulfillment of a religious obligation.
            For us, it would almost be like saying: “When someone wrongs you, do not take vengeance.  Instead, leave it up to God, and take your family out to dinner to celebrate God’s faithfulness.”  Because that is what most sacrifices were: communal meals in which thanksgiving was ritually offered to God.
            In other words, don’t focus on your grievance.  Don’t dwell on the wrong that has been done to you.  Do not cherish your hurt and pain, your victimhood, and your loss.  Instead, turn your attention to the blessings you do have, and thank God for them.  Gather in gratitude and trust, celebrate life!  Share in the bounty of God!  Through your pain and grief, sing to God anyway.
            And our gratitude is not just for what we have received.  It is for God’s deliverance even in this situation of loss and pain.  We give thanks to God for the deliverance that we have not yet experienced, but know will come because we know that God is faithful.  Even in defeat – especially in defeat – we give thanks to God for victory.  Even when our enemies think they have won, and smirk about their winnings, even then we gather before God to look in triumph over them.  Because we know what their end will be.
            It reminds me of that wonderful scene near the end of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”  Remember how the Grinch, out of malice and envy, robs the whos of all their gifts and decorations?  And when they wake up the Grinch expects them to react in sadness?  Well, the whos do not react in sadness.  Neither do they turn to anger, resentment, revenge, or any of the emotions we might expect.  They gather in a circle and sing a song of thanksgiving anyway.  Their joy is not dependent on their stuff.  It is something they have that cannot be taken away by the insolent and ruthless. 
            We would say that their joy comes from God and is manifest in their communion with each other.  This is what the Psalm is also saying.  Even in your season of loss and pain, gather together, and freely celebrate the deliverance God has already placed in your heart.  This is your triumph over your enemies.  They can take your stuff; but they can’t take your joy.

            Jesus also continually asks us to put ourselves last and to bear the offenses of others rather than imagine we have to be like the insolent and ruthless and make ourselves the greatest by the world’s measurements.  He doesn’t just ask this of us, he does it himself.  He goes before us on the path of humility and loserdom.  He allows people to kill him, rather than stand his ground and become part of the problem.
            The disciples find it hard to figure this out.  Their minds are totally fogged by the standards and definitions of the world.  So much so that, right after he reminds them that on the agenda for their time in Jerusalem is his death (and resurrection), they start fantasizing about who is the greatest.
            So he has to sit them down and say: “Look, it’s not about greatness.  Being my disciple is not a race to the top.  It is a race to the bottom, in a sense, because it is about who can lose power, lose authority, lose wealth, lose popularity and all the other things society values.  Who can give these away?  You only truly have these qualities when you give them away?  See?  I wish you were arguing with yourselves about who is the least!”
            Somehow there is conveniently a child present.  Jesus calls her over, takes her in his arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  The way to God is not through greatness, which is always achieved by means of insolence and ruthlessness, you only become great by the world’s standards by rejecting God’s law.  God’s law says no one is going to be greater than anyone else; you are all one community.
            Jesus says a child-care provider, a babysitter, a nursemaid, a nanny… these are far more significant jobs in God’s eyes than, say, hedge-fund manager, CEO, or President of the United States.  The orderly who cleans the bed-pans is greater in God’s eyes than the Hospital Administrator.  The deacon working in the food bank is more admirable to God than the Senior Pastor, or Presbytery Executive, or (sorry, Neal) Moderator of the General Assembly.

            Jesus comes into the world divesting himself of his divine attributes, to live among us unworthy slugs, and be our servant, for God’s sake.  In so doing he doesn’t get a job as spiritual advisor to the top slug.  He hangs around the sick and poor, the slugs of the slugs.  The ones whom the privileged slugs call lazy parasites.  “This is where my Father is most present,” he says.  “This is where you will find God.”
            So when you find yourself oppressed and victimized by the Man, that’s when you are blessed!  That’s when you should go make a special thank offering in the Temple!  Because that’s when you’re closest to Jesus!
            As for the persecutors: God will take care of them.  They are not your problem.  The bigger and higher they make themselves, the harder and farther they fall.  And they do fall.  And when they do, we are blessed to minister to them as to any who suffer.
            The thank offerings and offerings of well-being in Leviticus are not ceremonies we still celebrate.  Jesus himself fulfills them in his own blood, his own life poured out in sanctification of the whole world.  Now we celebrate this deliverance every time we gather to share in his Body and Blood.  When we come to the Table and commune together in these holy elements, we do say thank you to God.
            Like the whos in that remarkable story, it is not about what we’ve gained or lost.  It is about our joy that we are here at all, that we can gather together, that we are sent into the world with a message of peace, and that we have a love from God that nothing can take away from us.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Psalm 116:1-9

            The essence of biblical faith is the truth of reversal.  God comes into the world, into our lives, for the purpose of changing us.  By God’s power we grow and emerge into new people, the opposite of the people we were.
            This reversal is expressed on every level of life, from the cosmic restoration and fulfillment of all creation, to the geopolitical liberation of the oppressed, right down to the personal.  And that’s what this Psalm addresses.  It celebrates the movement of a person from despair to hope, from disease to healing, from brokenness to wholeness, indeed, even from death to life.
            Sometimes I hear it cynically stated that “people don’t change.”  Almost never does anyone say this like it’s a good thing.  Usually it is a commentary on how people are mired in sinfulness, violence, anger, fear, and shame.  When we claim that people don’t change we are giving up hope.  We are justifying our own hiding or violence against others.  It is the sentiment that people don’t change that has conveniently rationalized much murder and incarceration over the millennia of human civilizations.  It is an expression of despair, nihilism, hopelessness, and surrender.
            In the first place, it is often aimed at someone else.  That person can’t change, therefore we have to take whatever measures we can to protect ourselves from them.  We control, restrict, medicate, prohibit, watch, or finally even kill those whom we decide can’t change.  And by changing we often mean changing to suit us.  This can be as serious as when science tells us that pedophiles are unable to change, leaving society few options to deal with them and protect children.  Or it can even be about children, to whom we are so ready to administer drugs if they don’t act like we think they should act.  If people can’t change, then we will have to change them.    
            But far worse, I think, is this statement when we say it about ourselves.  Because to admit that we can’t change is to finally consign ourselves to the despair and extinction of hell.              I don’t know about you, but the possibility that I can and will change is what keeps me going every day!  If I ever finally conclude that the way I am is the way I will always be, at least in terms of my own sinfulness and brokenness, then there would be little point to living. 
            People do change.  I have witnessed too many people changing to deny this.  How many of the saints of the church started out as miserable, violent, shallow, corrupted souls?  Somehow they were changed into agents of blessing and liberation, examples of God’s power in the world to overturn who we are.  I have immense respect and admiration for people who have been through twelve-step programs; they never get over their disease, but in their behavior and relationships and thinking they are changed people.

            The truth that people do change, that humans are brought from death to life, and from evil to goodness, is the finest proof that God is real.  This is the movement of all of life: God is drawing out of the inanimate material of the universe the miracle of life and growth.  We see that all over nature, and also in our own souls and bodies.  The gravitational pull of fear, hatred, shame, and anger is very strong; it wants to crush us and reduce us to mere chemical/material beings.  But it is not as strong as God’s power to lift up, save, renew, and redeem. 
            This Psalm recounts the process of change in a person’s heart.  “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.”  The picture I get is of ropes or tentacles sprouting out of the ground to grab and person and pull them down, like in some horror movie.  And if you have any experience of depression or despair at all, this is kind of what it feels like.  Your thoughts and feelings are overwhelmed by a dense and inescapable negativity.  Your personal narrative in your mind falls into a dark rut of “Nobody loves me,” “this will never work,” “I never get what I want,” and “I will never change.”
            I am sure this narrative is different for each one of us.  But once you get into it, it is very hard to pull out of it.  For some perverse reason, we have learned to find a sour comfort, wallowing in our own psychological excrement like this.  We justify and rationalize our sin.  We defend our addictions.  We use violence heartlessly.  Maybe we hide, maybe we use hurtful words on others.  Maybe we take it out on the dog, or we blame some of our neighbors.  It has to be someone’s fault that my life isn’t perfect!
            My mother, society, the poor, the rich, my boss, those other people (insert name of scapegoat)… maybe it’s God’s fault!  Maybe God isn’t doing his job of keeping me happy and satisfied.
            The buck always stops with God.  All our frustrations and dissatisfactions with the world, even our pain, grief, and weakness… it is easy to conclude – even for those of us who have been conditioned to fear such a conclusion – that this is all God’s fault.  I know people who have harbored grudges against God their whole life.
            These are at least the honest ones.  The rest of us just don’t admit it.  But our bitter complaining is often just an expression of a lack of trust in God.  I say this not to place the blame for the horrors we face on ourselves.  But I am just suggesting that faithfulness and trust in God would change us, and better equip us to face these things.

            The turning point in this Psalm is when the person calls on the name of the Lord, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”  Now, that is not a magic incantation by which, when you mouth the words, God immediately appears like a genie and gives you three wishes.  It’s not like that insurance company commercial where merely reciting their jingle instantly transports you out of danger into the relative safety of their office.
            The words, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” are not merely spoken.  They have to become a description of your whole life.  “I will call on [God] as long as I live,” says the Psalm.  Calling on God is a lifetime-long project. 
            The story is that Martin Luther felt himself to be continually attacked by the devil, and he made a mantra out of the words, from Psalm 119, “Lord, I am yours; save me!”  He didn’t pray those words once and consider himself done, with the ball now in God’s court.  He repeated them.  Over and over.  Day after day.  Until those words came to color his whole approach to life. 
            And the thing about words like that, is that only after you pray them so much that they become second nature to you do you realize that they are true.  God does save you.  God has been saving you all along.  God will continue to save you.  Saving is what God does.  It is who God is.  It is in fact the meaning and trajectory of the whole universe.  It is all about change, reversal, redemption, and salvation.
            When we say, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” or, “Lord, I am yours, save me!” or “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!” or such words, we are first of all admitting that our problems are beyond our fixing.  In fact, this encompasses the first three of the 12 steps: we are powerless over whatever is possessing us, and our life has become unmanageable.  There is a God who can help us.  And we turn our lives over to that God.  That’s what “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” means.
            And it drives us to the rest of the steps of healing and transformation: the fearless moral inventory, the making amends, and the spreading of the word.  My point in making this connection is to say that healing does have to do with words, but not words alone.  The words have to bear fruit in actions, in the quality of our relationships, in how we live in the world. 
            This is why the last part of our reading talks about “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”  Healing is not just in your head, it’s not just mind over matter, it’s not about your opinions alone.  It’s not even just about your words.  It is reflected and expressed in how you “walk.”  Walk in the Bible is a metaphor for life.  It’s about how you live.

            Later in this Psalm it is stated twice that this healing and the thanksgiving for it is something that happens “in the presence of all [God’s] people.”  In other words, it does not happen to us in private or as isolated individuals.  Healing and transformation have to do with the community.  They happen when we gather with others, others who are also broken and bound by various forms of sin and disease, others who may even be ahead of us on the journey. 
            The whole context of the Psalter itself underscores this.  This is not a collection of personal prayers to be said to yourself at home.  Only the extremely wealthy could afford their own copy of a Psalter.  No.  The Psalter is the hymnal of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  It contains songs that the people of God would sing when they assembled together for worship. 
            When John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” he did it to reflect and express his own personal transformation from the captain of a slave ship to a disciple of Jesus.  Now when we sing that hymn together we are sharing in his experience and relating it to our own.  For if God can save such a spectacular and monumental sinner as John Newton, God can certainly save those of us whose sins are comparatively trivial, we have to say.  We can only sing that song with the consciousness that we are a gathering of wretches; we once were lost but now we’re found, were blind but now we see.
            Through the support, encouragement, challenge, and even criticism of the community, our words – “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” – become effective and real.  It is the community that holds and keeps and shares the stories of God’s saving love.  That is how we even know there is a God and that this God is about salvation.  That is how we even know that there is a regime of life and that we may participate in it. 
            When we sing this Psalm together we realize that there are other people who have gone through the same struggles we have, who have failed in the same ways we have, who have found deliverance in the same God we are looking to, and who are there to share with us the way of salvation, reversal, change, and redemption.  When we sing this Psalm we realize we can change, because we are surrounded by people, and stories of people, who have changed... people who have been changed by the power of the God of life… people who have been delivered from death and despair and defeat… people who gather together to give thanks that God has brought them on this journey.               

            That’s why we gather here every Sunday.  To bear witness to, and express our hope in the truth that, people can change.  People do change.  We can change. 
            In the gospel reading for today we hear Jesus say that we have to take up our cross, follow him, and even lose our life.  Make no mistake, this is what change means.  We’re not talking about some modifications, some tweaking around the edges of our personality, some minor adjustments in our behavior.  The kind of change that God brings into our life is nothing less than dying.  And believe me, that’s just about what it feels like.
            If change were easy everyone would line up to do it!  If it were easy no one would imagine it to be impossible.  Our situation is so dire that change necessarily involves a passage through the valley of the shadow of death.  To face your own diseases, your own shortcomings, your own violence, selfishness, and corruption honestly, and to share that deepest, darkest dungeon of your soul with others, is like dying.  It is like running into a fire without the certainty that you will emerge on the other side… or that you even want to be the person who emerges on the other side, with your sins burned away.  Will I even recognize myself? we may ask.
            The gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ has to be a place where we know we will be accepted, no matter what we have to get rid of, no matter what the power of death and Sheol is using to bind us in darkness, no matter how deep our shame and guilt.
            We are not a gathering of perfect people.  We are not a bunch of people who have made it.  We are not successful, and if we claim to be, we are probably in the wrong place.
            We are like an assembly of disintegrated caterpillars all at different stages in the process of becoming what we truly are: beautiful, soaring butterflies.  We are like a bunch of broken acorns, in the process of sprouting into tall, strong oak trees.  We are broken people helping other broken people find wholeness.
            And we find that wholeness, of course, in Jesus Christ.  He who was crucified and suffered the depths of our human pain does not remove us from the cauldron of life, but gently carries us through.  His cross means we only find true life on the other side of death.  Our old existence must die, so that his new life may be born in us.
            And it is born in us!  Our redemption has always been a part of us!  It is encoded and embedded in our very nature! 
It is who we are originally!  So when God brings us through, God is really bringing us home.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Moral Coercion.

            A friend sent me this interesting and very helpful article.  It is written by Antony Davies (a professor of economics) and Kristina Antolin (a Catholic theologian). If you want to read it for yourself, it’s at:            I feel a need to respond to it, even though I am certainly not an expert on Roman Catholic social teachings.  My response is as a Christian and a citizen.  The article raises significant questions about how to be that: a Christian and a citizen.

            On the one hand, Jesus himself rejects government power when it is offered to him by the Devil.  And legislating morality almost never works.  Thus, some Christians have refused to participate in democratic politics.
            But on the other hand, as a citizen of a democracy I am part of the State and responsible for it.  Like any other citizen, I want my government to represent my values.  My values, based on Scripture, are that inequalities and injustices in society be reduced, that poverty be mitigated, the hungry fed, the sick healed, and those in bondage be set free.  This is what Jesus teaches. Not only is reducing social inequality a good thing to do Scripturally, it is also a matter of national well-being.  History shows that nations that allow injustice and inequality to flourish do not last. 
            To vote is to participate in government and therefore to exercise “coercion” in imposing our views on others.  Perhaps these writers are saying that Christians, and others who follow values different from theirs, should not vote.  Only people who agree with them are encouraged to use coercion?  The rest of us should consider ourselves too morally pure for such an approach?  So only immoral people should vote?  Is voting itself immoral because it is coercive?
“Government is not community.  Government is one of community's tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.  But that word—voluntarily—is key….  Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary.  Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral.”  
            First of all, why do rich people have to be “coerced” to adequately fund programs that help people?  Why aren’t they writing checks voluntarily and enthusiastically to address poverty?  Why aren’t they positively proud to support government programs that meet human needs?  Why are they not eager to pay good wages, give good benefits, protect the environment, produce safe products, and so on?  Why do they require “coercion” to do things merely required by common decency and moral responsibility?
            Perhaps it is because they understand “the moral obligation to help those less fortunate” in a different way than simply, you know, giving.  That is way too simple for them, and, they insist, counter-productive.  Maybe they think that investing in businesses that hire people is a better way to address poverty.  Maybe they think that giving poor people money only fosters irresponsibility and dependency.  These are the kinds of arguments I have heard, anyway.
            That may work in terms of economic theory.  In real life, though, the application of these ideas has never functioned to produce full employment or eliminate poverty.  What is more corrosive of responsibility than allowing someone who has not worked a day in his life to inherit millions of dollars?  Yet these writers would be content to allow that.  Businesses don’t hire people out of charity.  They hire workers because they make a profit off others’ labor.  And they will hire the cheapest workers they can, anywhere in the world.  And they will not care one bit about whether the wages they offer are sufficient or fair.  No doubt this sometimes happens in the case of small, local businesses.  But multinational corporations?  Are you serious?      
            And who says coerced acts cannot be moral?  Is God not using coercion throughout the Bible in warning of the consequences of disobedience?  Do parents not use coercion to get children to behave and learn?  Is not life full of such “coercion?”  The key word here is actually “charity.”  Helping those less fortunate is reduced to “charity,” while apparently giving money to the Pentagon to buy an aircraft carrier is something that may justly be coerced because it is not “charity.” 
            The point is not getting individuals to be more charitable, it is building a just, equitable, and peaceful society.  The government does not provide services for the poor out of a beneficent, charitable heart.  It does this because a society with a large gap between rich and poor, which has an increasing underclass of people without money, health care, or hope, is not sustainable.  It falls into violence and chaos. 
            Look: we don’t have these social programs because of some great liberal conspiracy to create a dependent class.  We have them because of the atrocious abuses of power that happened back the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Back then, when we did rely on the charity of rich people, millions starved to death or died from preventable and treatable illnesses.  Men, women, and children were working long hours, 7 days a week for next to nothing in pay.  Old people were left destitute.  And so on.  Unbridled Capitalism led us directly into a series of economic downturns culminating in the Great Depression, and wars that never seem to end.
            We have the government social programs we have today because Franklin Roosevelt and others realized that it was either modify and regulate Capitalism or face an even more comprehensive collapse of the economy and/or violent revolution.  No self-respecting Modern nation or global community can sustain the levels of poverty, ignorance, disease, and environmental destruction that result if you leave Capitalism alone.    
“If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution.”
            The “moral component” is not stripped away when people are coerced to help those less fortunate; but it is non-existent when the less fortunate are not helped, and people are not coerced to pitch in.  In what sense is a having a small class of very wealthy people sit on their assets while millions suffer “moral?”  With the rich it is apparently always about them.  Their “freedom” needs to be protected; their “charity” needs to be encouraged.  What about the rest of us who have to live in a society crippled by their injustices, violence, selfishness, and greed?  These writers understand morality in an exclusively individualistic way that is utterly alien to the Bible.  In the Bible we are responsible for each other, and it is societies, not just individuals, that are moral or not.  How can “income redistribution” be immoral when God commands it?  Or are these writers more moral than God? 
            The real moral poverty is when there are poor at all and a nation is doing little or nothing to lift them up.  We are far more impoverished morally when we use the same coercive power these writers complain bitterly about to fund weapons of mass destruction, or give subsidies to wealthy oil companies, or when we deliver massive tax breaks to the wealthy.  Let’s solve these real moral crises first; then we can address the “problem” of having to coerce rich people to be decent human beings.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Overturning the Princes.

Psalm 146.

            Psalm 146 is one of the most beloved pieces in the psalter.  It has been used regularly by God’s people for thousands of years.  Many Jews and many traditional Christians say this psalm every morning as part of their morning prayers.  In the eastern church, Psalm 146 is chanted at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy nearly every Sunday.
            The Psalm praises God for the way God helps us.  First, we are advised not to put our trust in “princes,” that is, in human leaders and powers. 
            We are in the middle of an election year.  I don’t need to remind anyone of this.  We just completed two weeks of propaganda spectacles called National Conventions.  In about six weeks, we will have big decisions to make.
            I know there is a wide divergence of opinion in our congregation concerning whom to vote for.  We are citizens, and we are called to express our faith by means of the political decisions we make.  I know we will all make our choices prayerfully, responsibly, carefully, and faithfully.  That is what is important. 
            But no matter who gets your vote, remember that in no case are we electing a Savior.  This is not about who will be our Redeemer or Deliverer or Liberator.  Not even our best Presidents were perfect and worthy of complete allegiance.
            Neither do we require or even expect perfection or holiness from our President.  If you want someone perfect you can write in Jesus’ name, but Jesus rejected such power when the devil offered it to him.  In other words, he wouldn’t take the job. We’re not even looking for a saint.  There are no saints among our Presidents, historically.  The ones who came closest to being saints did so only after they were out of office. 
            A Presidential election is a contest to see who will be the alpha dog in the strongest street gang on the planet.  All our choices are wildly imperfect.  All are flawed.  All have compromised with the power of evil.  That’s how they got where they are.
            That doesn’t mean we don’t vote.  It means we don’t “trust in” people to ultimately lead us.  Humans are mortal.  And our mortality, our liability to death, our temporality, which is to say our subjection to time and space, makes us imperfect.  By nature we cannot see clearly.  Our perceptions and understanding are breathtakingly limited.  We are so radically self-centered, that our every thought is tainted, conditioned, twisted, and biased.  Objectivity is impossible for us.
            In addition, every leader, especially in a democracy, has to compromise even a lot of whatever goodness they do have in order to get things done.  Politics is the art of settling for the lesser evil, and the lesser good.  Politicians will not bring about, or even witness to, the Kingdom of God.  They can’t.  They wouldn’t get elected if they did.

            Once that is clear, the Psalmist goes on to talk about God’s ultimate trustworthiness.  Human leaders are undependable; but we may rely upon God.
            First, it is important to indicate which God we are talking about: it is the Lord, the God of Jacob.  Israel’s God, in other words.
            This God is first of all the Creator, who made heaven and earth and all that is in them.  God is trustworthy because God made the earth, and all the patterns and laws and intricate balances of life are all from God.  The fact that God is the Maker means that there is purpose and integrity and coherence to what God has made.  There are certain things we may depend on.  The laws of physics and thermodynamics.  Gravity. 
            Most of all we may depend upon the truth that the planet was made for life and life always triumphs in the end.  Life always finds a way.  No matter how awful the catastrophe, extinction never has the final say.  Life always bounces back, recovers, and thrives.  God is the God of life.
            This means that even in our own little, temporary existences, life will always win.  Even if death ends our time on the earth, we still confess that God’s life transcends the biological life of the body.  Even death is a victory for life, according to our faith.  “God keeps faith forever.”
            The triumph of life over chaos, entropy, and extinction is also visible and tangible in the kinds of things God is always doing in the world. 
            The Psalmist tells us that this God is the redeemer, liberator, healer, and judge of humanity.  This is the God whose work it is to turn our world, our standards, our values, our prejudices, our whole society upside down.
            In spite of what our “princes” have made of this world, with their injustice and violence and exploitation and waste, God is always in the world, the world god made, to reverse trends that try and reverse God’s will.  When we invent systems that militate against God, God intervenes to correct it.  God restores the balance that life needs. 
            We can trust in this action.  God will bring light into our darkness, and God is always coaxing life out of our death.  The gentle will inherit the earth; the kingdom of God belongs to the poor; those who have too much will meet God’s redistributive justice.  This is happening so regularly and frequently throughout the Scriptures that it constitutes perhaps their main story-line.

            So we hear that God executes justice for the oppressed.  And for God, justice is not necessarily what we would call fair.  For God, justice means restoring the equality and balance needed for life to thrive.  The lowly are raised up and those who exalt themselves are brought down.  It doesn’t matter to God how they managed to raise themselves up.  It doesn’t matter if they say they did a lot of good along the way while they were raising themselves up.
            God feeds the hungry.  And that is the only qualification necessary to be fed.  There is no other means-test.  God made this planet perfectly able to feed everyone.  If that’s not happening, God will intervene to make it happen.  If you are empty, God will fill you.  If you are thirsty, God gives you something to drink.  Those who have nothing receive, and those who have everything lose.  Our God is a God of reversals.  Humans, especially those “princes,” try to make society in their own image.  They have to turn God’s world upside down in order to do this.  God comes into the world to turn it back over to right-side up again.
            To us, God’s world is a kind of “oppositeland.”  Whatever the situation is now, as created by the powers and principalities, God overturns.  He sets free prisoners; he shows how those who think they are free are really in bondage.  He makes the blind to see; he shows how those who think they see very well really perceive nothing.  He lifts up those who are bowed down; and he shows how those who think they are so high and exalted are really subjects, crushed under weights of their own making. 
            “The Lord loves the righteous!”  Righteousness is also something defined by God and exemplified in Jesus Christ.  The righteous is one who lives in and witnesses to these reversals of our standards and orders.  The righteous obey the original justice and balance of God.  They participate in God’s overturning the overturning of God’s will done by human leaders.
            God watches over strangers and aliens.  No one is a stranger or an alien to God.  God’s people know what it is like to be aliens from the days in Egypt.  We now recognize no one as alien, undocumented, illegal, or a stranger.  These are human categories imposed upon us by “princes.”  Neither God nor God’s people have anything to do with them.
            God upholds orphans and widows, those whom our societies and economies leave in the dust, without support or income.  And if God upholds them, that means God’s people uphold them, which is the point.  This is not about standing around and waiting for God to feed people.  It means being God’s people by doing God’s work in God’s name, as Jesus does.

            All these things that are God’s responsibility become our responsibility.  We are not spectators.  We are God’s agents.  All these things in verse 7 through 9 are things God empowers us to do.  In Jesus Christ we are God’s hands in the world, when we obey God in selfless humility.
            God will bring the way of the wicked to ruin.  But the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord loves those in whom God’s Word is real and active.  The Lord loves those who do the work and live the life we are given in Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
            May our lives, and the life of our church, also reflect and express God’s Word and will.  May we support each other in this project, knowing that God has given us the power, and we need only to get ourselves out of the way and allow God to use us.