Have you seen the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” with Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey and Sidney Poirtier? Or the remake of “Guess Who” with Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana? It’s a story of a family shocked by whom their child brings home for dinner one night, showing off their new love to the family. It is a family dinner as in the original, an African-American man dates a white woman in 1967…and the remake is an African-American woman brings home a Caucasian man in 2005. It challenges the family in several ways, like who exactly is acceptable to eat at the family meal.
In this week’s gospel text, Jesus has such an experience. He is invited to dinner at Simon’s house, who is a Pharisee. It is quite important that you know that Simon is a religious man as the term “Pharisee” is used three times to drive home the point. Later, a woman shows up and she is identified as his polar opposite, a sinner. As this woman lives with carrying the label of a sinner, she tends to cleaning and anointing the feet of Jesus. Simon is shocked! His ideals of what the Prophet Jesus must be do not add up to how Jesus is acting.
You see, Simon was quite pious. He was the kind of guy who always did what was right. He took morality very serious. His righteousness is not questioned. In fact, his type of righteousness is not easily attained. He worked hard at self-control, being disciplined, continuous self-observation. We should not despise him or others who are righteous. In traditional Christian view, the Pharisees have become representatives of everything evil, but in their time they were the pious and morally zealous ones. Their conflict with Jesus was not simply a conflict between right and wrong; it was, above all, the conflict between an old and sacred tradition and a new reality which was breaking into it and depriving it of ultimate significance. It was not only a moral conflict, it was also a tragic one, that questioned exactly what was worth keeping as the law of God in their time.
Simon the Pharisee is into outward appearances, rules, regulations and legalism. But, he is curious and invites Jesus for dinner and conversation. The dinner is interrupted by a woman who breaks every rule and could care less about outward appearances. What she does have is a wide-open broken heart and she seeks freedom from her bondage and freedom from her guilt. Simon grumbles about Jesus’ acceptance of “that sort” of woman, and guests are incensed when Jesus affirms God’s forgiveness for her. The woman leaves Simon’s home a free woman as Simon and his guests sink deeper into bondage.
By Simon’s judgment, a true prophet of God should know sinners and avoid them. To Simon, that is what it means to be a person of faith.
Simon just could not handle Jesus associating with the woman. Can you imagine Simon’s horror when Jesus reveals that this woman (whose sins were many) had already been forgiven?
The thing that Simon thought made her an outcast had already been removed. Jesus could tell by the way she loved. Simon, on the other hand, was a different story.
It was clear by Simon’s behavior towards both Jesus and the woman that he had much to learn. What is clearer, however, is that Simon needed this woman to be and to remain a sinner. Why? In order for Simon to be “Simon the Pharisee”, he needed this woman to be “this woman the sinner.” Without sinners, it is hard to distinguish the “I have no need to be forgiven” righteous people.
In the end, Simon’s ideology revealed itself. He knew the right answer to Jesus’ question following the parable. He just lived a different way. He needed this woman in sin in order to maintain the image of the righteous.
Do “Good Christian People” need sinners in order to be “Good Christian People”? If so, forgiveness is not something to be celebrated, but something to be feared.
This story must cause us to pause and think about our own time. How does the story of the pious, law-keeping, righteous ones show up in our own church? As many of you are aware, there is a small team in this church, dedicated to seeing transformation in this church. We are at the very beginning of this transition and recognize that now is a great time to celebrate who we are in the Body of Christ. We are questioning what our mission is. We are tackling the tough questions of who is God calling us to be. Who is God asking us to serve. Where do we see our church in God’s blueprints of building the kingdom? Where do we see ourselves in five years, ten, fifteen, twenty years? How do we change from outdated business models of church that demand we live in fear because we just don’t have enough, to running to a God whose arms are open wide, showing us that there is nothing to fear because God promised us abundance. We are a group that believes it when Romans 12:2 states: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. We believe that this applies to our church. We believe that change happens, but God is calling us to be intentional and be transformed.
This group cannot carry the whole of the church through transformation though. In working through this planning stage, we must all buy into the life-giving, life-sustaining promises of God. If we are to be a part of God’s purpose for this world, we must go where God leads us.
But do you get it? Do you understand that God is calling us to love, acceptance of all, compassion, and grace upon grace upon grace? This transformation calls us to take a hard look at our traditions. Are they helping or hurting? Are we sitting in Simon’s seat at the dinner table, judging what is right and wrong? Are we holding on to outdated traditions? Are we going to hold on to the old ways, the old “unwritten” laws of this church if it is hindering the building of God’s kingdom? If we are going to insist on keeping everything the same, I can only pray that God shuts the doors as soon as possible and our resources be given to someplace else that will do the work of God. We have the opportunity right now to enter into a time of discernment, to struggle together, to try some new things.
We will make mistakes. Good! So be it! We will learn!
We will challenge the status quo. When we hear ourselves say, “but we’ve always done it like this”, and we will say it, we must laugh at ourselves and find the grace to be open. Because just like the woman in the scripture, we are already forgiven before we even entered the building.
There’s this funny thing about having a giant table in the center of our sanctuary. It’s an obvious symbol that communicates we place a high importance on it. It is a place, big enough, for many, dare we say ALL, are welcome to it. This table is a place where we reconcile to God and reconcile to each other. This is the place for everyone, no exceptions.
But guess who is coming to dinner?
Our grandmas are welcome here, our children are welcome here, the abused, the abusers, the poor, the drug addicted, the single mom with 5 kids by three different dads, our gay sons, our transgendered daughters, broken families, dad’s new girlfriend, the transient passing through, the woman needing just enough gas money to get to the shelter, the migrant worker, the gang member, and you.
May we find at this Table, a place for all, without the shaming and judging labels of “sinners” but instead, the forgiven. All praise, glory and honor to God who gave us Jesus.
The scripture from Philippians 2:1-11 is a section of a letter Paul wrote to one of his beloved churches. As many of you know, this was a time of persecution for those who claimed Christ as the ruler over their lives and not Caesar as their ruler. The church in Philippi was in partnership with Paul, financially and in living the gospel. Paul wrote this letter for a number of specific reasons. One reason, Paul extended thankfulness for a gift from the church, for their support of him. He also wrote the church because he received word that there were possible issues of disunity. We are not certain exactly what was going on in the church to cause a disunity. Perhaps the church board was at odds with the worship committee in the song choices. Perhaps they thought the order of worship should be rearranged, or that more inclusive language be used during the liturgy. Perhaps the Stewardship committee disagreed with the Building and Property committee that funds were better used in purchasing a new organ, or a new projection system, or better mics for the choir…or that the Hospitality Committee thought there should be a coffee and donuts gathering before church. We just don’t know what the divisions in the Philippian church were. What we do know is that Paul calls the church to unity and appeals to the humble nature of Christ. Specifically, Paul challenges the church to “do all things without murmurings and disputes” and to “be of the same mind”. And even though there is great suffering in Philippi because of the Roman persecution of the church, Paul also calls upon the members to look to the example of Christ, to come unity, suffer for the cause of the gospel, keep strong under persecution, and to live a life where Jesus Christ is their King and not Caesar.
But this doesn’t make much sense to me. Caesar, a strong and powerful ruler, lives a life of luxury because he exerts his authority over others. When I think of a King, I think of someone like Caesar. But Paul reminds us that it is Jesus Christ who is the King. And Jesus isn’t powerful or wealthy or ever lived a life of comfort, let alone luxury. No, Paul said that Jesus was obedient and humble. Paul claims that the problem the church in Philippi was having was because they were not unified. Paul says that we must treat each other better than we treat ourselves because that is the example Jesus gave us. Are these two words we really, really want to model? Humble? Obedient? We value independence and to be strong. We live in a society that teaches us that we are supposed to look out for ourselves, to get what we can, to buy the bigger house, drive the newest car, definitely not the old minivan, and that as an American, we are to value rugged individualism. How many times have we heard, “You just need to pick yourself up with your bookstraps”? How many times have you heard, be strong, guard yourself, never let them see you sweat? We think that to be strong is to not make mistakes, but if we do, fix it before others find out. We need to be perfect. And if we are perfect, maybe, just maybe we can keep others from judging us, criticizing us or being blamed by others. We desperately strive for perfection. We even hear our own voices saying, “If our church was just big enough…or if we could just get the wealthy family in the city we could have enough…or if our pastor was just lived closer…or if the church’s music was just more contemporary or traditional enough…or if our church had better facilities we could attract more than enough…or if we could just work a little harder…or if we could (fill in the blank - whatever) everything would be perfect.” Well, here’s the problem. In trying to be perfect, seeking out security, or trying to be invincible, we are actually causing damaging by using shame. When we try to do everything on our own, all we are doing is causing guilt and shame to take over. It has been said, that wherever perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust. And worst of all, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, shame can ravage our church before we see one outward sign of a problem. Shame is not obvious. But it can look like blaming, gossiping, favoritism, parking lot committee meetings, excluding others, name-calling, and harassment. Shame can only rise so far before people disengage to protect themselves. When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring. When churches shame people enough, they just stop showing up.
Christ teaches us, the church, how to live in community without shame, guilt or blame. This is done when we decide to put the good for all before the individual good of oneself…to change our individualist mentality, to one where we think of the community. In Philippians, Paul calls upon the church to reflect upon Christ and to live in unity with one mind and one spirit. The church in Philippi, beloved by Paul, is struggling during their formation of finding unity. Paul calls upon them to remember it is Christ who exemplifies how unity is accomplished within the church. This can only be achieved when the good for the community is valued higher than the need of the individual. The spirit of humility by emptying oneself brings unity, for the greater glory of God. Paul’s use of repetition emphasizes exactly what he calls the church in Philippi to do to become unified. He tells them they are to comfort, encourage, fellowship, have affection and compassion for each other. Paul tells us that we must be “in one spirit, in one mind”, “thinking the same things”, “having the same love”, “united in spirit”. We are not to have selfish ambition and conceit, but to be live humbly and treating others better than ourselves. We must consider other people first.
But how in the world can we do this? According to Paul, we must follow the example of Christ. Christ is in a high place (Heaven) and moves to a lower place (Earth), dying a humiliating death on a cross. But then, God does something amazing with Jesus’ humility. God takes Jesus from the lowest of the low and moves Jesus an even higher place that before, from death to Earth then Heaven
The salvation act of Christ and the giving of his physical body also is a model for the church in how they will enter into the new kingdom, and this is all for the glory of God. Paul is saying that the action of giving of oneself moves the church from being comprised of individuals to a place of a unified body with one mind and one spirit as in Christ. By acting as a church in this way and by Jesus as the obedient servant, God is glorified.
There’s a game Sophia likes to play. She throws her blanket over her shoulders and runs through the house, yelling that she’s a Super Hero. The beauty of her imagination is that she loves to pretend to fly, but keeps running into things like the sofa, tables, even the dog. She made me think, no one is perfect and shouldn’t be expected to be. That’s just an impossible expectation for anyone. So, in our family, we have all made up our own, less than perfect, Superheros. Cousin Reece, is called Super Reece, the protector off all things stuffed. This includes teddy bears, pillows, and family members after one of mom’s home cooked meals. Cousin Moriah is Super Moriah, the girl who can keep the balloon from touching the ground. Grandpa is Super Grandpa, the man whose laugh cannot be heard. Grandma will be Super Granny, the grandma who hugs too much. Sophia is also known as Super Sophia, the girl who can dance without music. Our little Justice League of Super Heroes is one you’ve probably never seen before.
But if you think about it, superheroes are not invincible, no they all have some imperfection. Superman has…kryptonite and Wolverine has a temper. But they also have an amazing gift for putting others first. Superman is willing to jump tall buildings or stop a train to save others. Batman is willing to fight criminals to save the citizens of Gotham City.
So I challenge you today church to become a Justice League of Superheroes. Not to be invincible, no one can do that. Rather, to think of others. That means we must not shame each other. Rather, our superpower is to be vulnerable and open to others. To be a superhero, you must be vulnerable. You must be willing to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand them better. You have to be brave enough to ask for help, to admit mistakes, to learn from failures, to support each other. We need church superheroes who want to learn, want to connect with others.
We need Superheroes who know that being vulnerable and authentic with each other is worth it, because it leads to love, belonging, joy, creativity…all things that give purpose to our church. Being a part of our League of Superheroes at this church is to be in relationship with each other, a relationship of openness and honesty, where the needs of each other are expressed and we find connections with each other. We must live as a whole-hearted people, striving for love and connection.
Do you want to join the Justice League of Superheroes? It’s pretty simple because we already have our model of what a true superhero is, Christ. Be humble, be obedient, be vulnerable with each other as Christ taught us. Those are all superpowers, with all glory going to God.
In light of the mass killings in Newtown, CT this week, I find it very difficult to speak on joy this week, the theme of the 3rd Sunday of Advent. I find it incredibly unfair, unrealistic, and disrespectful to pretend that the world is perfect and that Christians should ignore this tragedy. I come today with a heavy heart and will not fake a delusional happiness. Dropping off Sophia this weekend at her dad’s house was difficult, but I know he loves her too and needs to give her as many hugs and kisses as I did.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to hear many stories of families broken. The hopes they had for their children. The hopes this town had for their school teachers and administrators who worked so hard to build the future for the students. What happened was wrong. God is weeping with us.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to hear debates about gun control and mental health access. We are going to sit in the seat of judgment of the shooter and his family, questioning what, if anything, could have been done to prevent this. We are going to desperately try to find answers and make sense of it all.
In the scripture that was read from Matthew, we heard the story of what is called the Massacre of Innocents. After Jesus was born, the Magi came to visit. The Magi, searching for the newly born king of the Jews after following the star in the East, are directed by King Herod to Bethlehem. Herod asks the Magi to let him know who this new king is when they find him. The Magi find Jesus, but an angel tells them not to let Herod know who it is. The Magi leave and return home by another way.
King Herod realized that he was duped by the Magi and decided to have all the male children killed, hoping to keep the new king from taking over Herod’s throne. Herod was known to be so power hungry and paranoid that he killed his own family, including his own children, if he even thought they would try to overthrow Herod. His court was one of fear, death, and abusive power.
Many scholars today speak of Herod’s mental illnesses. His paranoia caused many to die. It was very dangerous for those around as Herod had a deadly mixture of mental illness and power. We have seen this week just how much damage one person, who needed help, instead found power, this time behind a weapon. It also ended in a massacre.
But how do we reconcile this time of Advent, anticipation and joy when the world is so shattered and in deep grief? Where was God when all the young boys were killed by Herod in Bethlehem? Where was God Friday morning in Newtown? Did God leave or was God there weeping with all the teachers and families? We cry out, screaming “WHY?” Advent teaches us to be watchful, hopeful, and to be so very much aware of the brokenness in our world that only God can mend. Advent reminds us of God’s promises of redemption and of the reality that we live in an “already but not yet” world where the fulfillment of God’s promises is not always readily apparent to us. We sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” We live these last days of Advent 2012 in lonely exile as we grapple with the reality of a society in which the slaughter of the innocents has become all too routine.
My heart is breaking for the families of Newtown, Portland and Aurora. These families were more than likely preparing for Christmas. I cannot imagine how there are presents already wrapped with a child’s name on it that the parents now must decide what to do with.
The joy of Christmas morning was ripped away from these parents, grandparents and loved ones.
As much as I desperately tried to ignore the news reports, I just couldn’t help but be moved. Other than the day of Sophia’s birth, I don’t think I kissed and snuggled her so much as I did on Friday. For me, Advent and Christmas will never be the same. “Unto us a son is born” will now not only be a time of celebration but also one a time of loss.
As a mother, it’s too awful to think how fragile and unfair life is, too heart-wrenching to imagine any child’s life torn away like this. Christmas is a time we are supposed to feel good about peace on earth and being generous to everyone around.
We all have heard that “Christmas is for the kids” but that has changed this year. We live in a world where we hope for these things, but reality reminds us that we are still so broken.
There’s no getting around it: Matthew’s “slaughter of the innocents,” as the church has called it, is a god-awful text. Some of us may remember being taught “the Flight into Egypt” as children, usually in a matter-of-fact way, sometimes as an adventure story designed to make Mary and Joseph heroic, when in fact they were simply refugees. But where was God when all the other children died?
God was there, weeping with Rachel. Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31 and gives an image, rich in Hebrew tradition and history. As the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and marched families off into exile, Jeremiah writes of this time of death and desperation. Rachel’s weeping occupies a key turning point in Jeremiah, when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to promises of hope. “Keep your voice from weeping … there is hope for your future … your children shall come back.”
Matthew, in turn, invokes Rachel in the midst of this story of God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save. God’s salvation may seem far off and inadequate to the mothers who mourn, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time. The threat of this Herod passes for a time, only to be replaced by another Herod, yet another ruler with abusive power. But when this child of Rachel returns to Jerusalem as an adult, God enters into the fate of every doomed child and every bereft parent.
For Christians, the birth of Christ can and must remind us that there can be no cheap comfort for those who mourn their children. Cute pageants and pious carols do nothing to stop the devastation of those who have lost a child—for any reason. Toys for Tots and even our best legislation for child health don’t make that big of a dent either. Only something deeper, God’s entering into this world of sorrows, will accomplish the depth of healing, the salvation we need.
This is not a cheap kind of sympathy, a soothing cliché that it will all work out in the end. Mothers still wail, daily. But if God is with us, then perhaps we can bear to listen to the cries of sorrow and pleas for justice of our time too, knowing that all our weeping is gathered up by the one who will turn it into dancing. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from our children, our parents, and loved ones. Nothing, not even a bottomless pit of grief or the intractable legacy of injustice, shall keep God away from being with us, yes, from saving us.
I don’t have all the answers, but the only way I can experience joy in this moment of tragedy is to know in my heart that God is walking in the midst of those who grieve and are hurting at this moment. I believe that God will “heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds”. And I pray that I will have the wisdom to let go of the burdens that threaten to consume us to the God who will bring true peace to our lives, and as we do this, then we can find the spirit of gentleness we’ll need to tackle the challenges of the moment and of the future.
In the midst of our grief and our anger, my we all find a place of joy – always and forever.
These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. This is where we find our hope.
And so, join with me and be brave. Dare to speak this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn. Rejoice! For God is near. God is in our midst. God promised to turn our mourning into dancing.
And may you hear the angel voices this season saying, “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
And for these promises I say, Thanks be to God.
The Top Ten Reasons I will not come back to your church after only one visit…Paul Shaffer, can we get a drum roll please!
10. You lack a Safe Sanctuary Policy. If you expect me and my family to attend, you really need to have a policy that protects my kids, your church and your members of the church. You must really have guidelines of how you will honor God and God’s children when people cannot seem to control themselves. I mean, aren’t you guys the group of people “known” for hurting kids? So aren’t you the ones who should be fixing this?
9. No one greeted me without the body language of judgment. A church needs to be a place for learning. I felt judged from you. Perhaps next time I should wear a three-piece suit instead of my studded-leather dog collar. Hey! To each their own!
8. It’s a shame that Sunday mornings have to follow Saturday nights. The church was dark and it took everything in me not to fall back asleep. Open some windows, turn on some lights. Convict me of this hangover I still have.
7. I noticed that if I wanted to bring my wheelchair-bound sister to this church, you might think we are playing crash-dummy obstacle course. No, we are not stunt-people from the show Jackass, we are just trying to use the restroom and find a place to park in the sanctuary. What if my sister wanted to eventually serve in the church? Should we try to jump the stairs leading to the table? That might be fun. Bet we could sell tickets to that show. It might be one way of getting people in the church.
6. If you really want me to show up, tell me where to go. I drove around the block several times before I could find the parking entrance. Once I parked, I had no idea what door to use. I chose door #2, fully expecting Monty Hall and a donkey to appear. Instead, I walked around looking for people. What I got was the door that led to the FRONT of the sanctuary. Nothing feels more welcoming than when everyone is staring at you!
5. Did I smell freshly baked goods and coffee after church? I like coffee. Is this coffee only for the “elect”? I’m new here, invite me.
4. Psst. I happened to think Bertha’s singing was beautiful and from the heart. If you’d like to insult her, please save it for after church for when a visitor is not sitting right behind you. And, I’m pretty certain that Agnes would prefer you not whisper about her ex-husband’s new girlfriend. I’m sure Agnes would prefer I not know this about her. I guess she trusted you when she told you about the pain. I won’t make that same mistake.
3. The worship felt like I was in a time-warp. I did feel nostalgic when all of my grandma’s favorite hymns were sung. And I’m certain she would have loved the sermon that came straight from the social issues of 1950. She would have really related to the message. I could not.
2. Ignoring me when we are supposed to be passing peace does not fulfill the calling of actually passing the peace.
And the number one reason I will not visit this church again…
If you expect me to learn from you, the least you could do is learn my name.
*disclaimer - I believe as a responsible citizen, it is our duty to vote. Many people fought and have died so that all of us have this right. Many people today are still fighting for their right to vote as it is of importance. Please understand, I am not saying not to vote.
As a child growing up in church, there many Vacation Bible Schools I have attended. But with the church of my childhood, we had an odd tradition at the beginning of each VBS meeting. All of us kids would line up outside the sanctuary, marching in behind the American Flag, Christian Flag and a large Bible. We took our seats and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag, then the Christian Flag, then the Bible. I can still remember them today. But even as a small child, I questioned what purpose this served. Why the American Flag first? Why the American Flag at all in a church? Why place such honor on a flag when I’m being told that my allegiance should only be to God?
I still ask these questions. 30 years is a long time to never finding an answer. But as I grow older, there are more and more questions I’m asking. What does the Kingdom of God look like? If Jesus was running for President, how would he campaign? Would Jesus’ approval rating increase or decrease after a debate? You know, Jesus had a way of asking more questions than actually answering one directly. Would he have failed in our eyes if he just couldn’t answer the question? Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at Jesus’ kingly campaign.
Jesus was riding on a donkey on his way to Jerusalem. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut trees from branches and spread them on the ground. They shouted, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was not the welcome given to a mere religious leader. In that day, this was how you welcomed a liberator, a king, a ruler who would lift off the chains of oppression and free the people from Roman rule. This was the pomp and the circumstance. This was the brass bands, the flag-waving, the homemade political signs. This was streets jammed with cheering crowds as a long motorcade made its way to the convention hall for a rally.
But we are told that there was an unexpected stop along the way, just outside the city. Was this the meticulously planned impromptu stop of a politician, eager to show himself as a man of the people? No. As Jesus approached Jerusalem, when he saw the city before him … he wept. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace,” he said.
You see, the politics of God’s kingdom has a completely different basis than the politics of government. National and civic politics are about exerting social control, reinforced ultimately by violence or the threat of violence. The politics of Jesus is something altogether different. Jesus calls us to move deeper, into relationship with God and our neighbors. If what is hindering us from loving God and neighbor is money or possessions, Jesus said to get rid of it. Jesus called his followers to form a different kind of community, one that demonstrates living our lives together with the rule of the living God. Not a community that the wealthiest control all the decisions. Not a community that allows corporations with high-priced attorneys to sue so they don’t have to cover a pill that keeps people alive. No. God’s politics looks nothing like partisan politics. Partisan politics creates enemies of each other. It thrives on one-upmanship, manipulation, control. But when the Church operates under the politics of Jesus, it participates in the kind of politics that ends up with Jesus walking through the darkness of Passion Week, straight to the cross, instead of walking down a red carpet under bright lights, stopping off at a daytime or late night talk show, to take his seat in Jerusalem’s Oval Office. The political character that Jesus willingly identified with, during his march into Jerusalem as Messiah, were politics of openness and hospitality, of self-sacrificing love and compassion. He rejected the politics of combating violence with violence, of destroying others to save ourselves. He rejected cutting the funding for hungry people needing foodstamps, and rejected the use of drones that kill innocent people in foreign countries. He was a political Messiah, but with a kind of politics the people were not expecting. He proclaimed that in God’s politics, the first are last and the last are first.
But the strange motorcade in Jerusalem had stopped. The restless crowd grows impatient. We stand beside Jesus and we look at him as his donkey snorts and bucks. And Jesus is weeping. But why? Jesus looked on the beloved city of Jerusalem and saw a people who were lost and without a shepherd. He saw a people divided along all sorts of party lines, Sadducees, Pharisees, Republicans, Zealots, Essenes, Democrats, Herodians, Libertarians, a people who forgot what held them together, a people who lost sight of who they were, a people too confused about their identity to realize their biggest problem wasn’t Rome.
On that hill, overlooking Jerusalem, there was something different, unexpected. The long awaited redeemer of humankind wept. This was the mindset of Jesus, when he made his entry into Jerusalem. His face set like flint. He knew what he was called to do. He knew who he was called to be. He was the servant of God. And his job was to serve God’s purposes in the world. To bring good news to the poor, to free the oppressed, to heal the broken, to give sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Without regard to the coercive powers of this world. No, it didn’t come easy. As we know, he even prayed to be spared from it. But he knew what needed to be done, and called on his father for the strength to do it. Much as we may not want to hear it, that is also our calling.
The politics of Jesus, that shape us into a people who look first at our loyalty to God’s kingdom, and then to our national loyalty only as a distant second, that is not the kind of political stance that is well-received by the powers of this world. In his Messianic procession, Jesus invited his followers to sign on to a new and different covenant, not based on the claim of any nation-state—Rome or Israel or the United States. This new political entity would not be based on the power of the sword, but on the power of self-sacrificing love. So after his ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, it became clear very soon where the ride would end. At the cross. Where all the powers of the world converged, to squash the opposition. But where God also showed up, and began to fashion a new covenant people. This would be a people formed around a cross-shaped covenant, not a sword-shaped covenant.
Mourning is our response when we are able to see the brokenness in our world from God’s point of view. When we have learned to do that, we will look over at Jesus on the donkey, weeping over Jerusalem, and not have to ask why. Are we able to mourn like Jesus? Are we able to cry the tears that Jesus cried? Jesus pauses on the hill overlooking our cities. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”
Jesus calls us to grieve, a mourning that is one of repentance and with enough sincerity to change our way of life. This is not the way we normally think of repentance, or mourning for that matter. Normally, our confession and repentance are introspective endeavors, focused on me, my sins, my need for improvement, my relationship with God. And normally, our mourning is for losses brought upon to us, not by us. Without a doubt, there are places for that sort of repentance, for that mourning. But if our confession and repentance always stop there, isn’t that a symptom of the arrogant self-focus that Jesus condemns? When we sinfully believe that sin is something we do rather than a power that possesses us, we can continue with the party unaware or indifferent when everything else around us is going to hell.
We have much to mourn in our own country. Domestic violence, homeless children, Native American genocide, current politicians praising the goods of slavery. The failures of marriages. The violence on our televisions, in our streets, and in wars. The appalling way our veterans are treated when they do return home. The debate on whether torture is appropriate. Poverty. Crime. Abuse. Hardened children who have grown up way too soon. The list goes on. It’s not comfortable thinking like this, I know. But before we have anything to say about any of the things happening in our own country, before we are even able to cry the tears that Jesus cried, we must confess our own blindness and indifference to these things, and mourn as a sign of our own repentance. We must repent, for we have too often understood the church as a promoter of the American way of life, the keeper of American values. This makes us just as blind as the people to whom Jesus was proclaiming God’s word. We must confess that when we say that we live in a Christian nation, we are most likely talking about the United States and not the only Christian nation in this world – the church, the holy nation that laughs at our invisible man-made boundary lines.
We must confess that our voice as a church has easily been handed over to politicians who hijack us and use the Church for political gain. We must confess that we too often enjoy the fruits of the good life while being indifferent to the people who grew and picked this fruit, even the grapes and wheat represented on our Table. We must confess that we have too often stayed silent while our leaders have perverted the message of the gospel to support the vision and goals of our country behind the barrel of a gun. We must confess that we have too often believed them. And we must confess that when we hear words like these, we often hear them as reflecting a criticism or hatred of our country rather than a deep love for the church as the church.
Jesus said that at the time of the coming of the Son of Man, all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will mourn because they will see Christ Jesus coming with great power and glory, and they will know themselves for who they are and Jesus for who he is.
Mourning is our response when we are able to see the brokenness in our world from God’s point of view. We mourn when we compare our brokenness and the brokenness around us with the glory of the coming of the Lord. The world cannot know of its brokenness and hopelessness unless a people exist who show an alternative way of life. The world cannot know that there is an alternative to violence, to war, unless a people exist who proclaim that alternative and practice it. The world cannot know that the weak and the vulnerable are cared for by God, unless there is a people that practice a different sort of economy. The world cannot know that the race to consume and acquire is not the way God intended human beings to live unless there is a people that keeps the Sabbath and practices simplicity as a discipline. The world cannot know that it is broken and becoming dismembered, unless there is a people that gathers at the table frequently and re-members the Body of Christ. When Jesus comes, the nations mourn.
But we know what follows mourning. Mourning is also an optimistic sign, a hope for a better future. God calls for a mourning of a people who grieve their own sins and mourn the brokenness of their country. It is the mourning of a people who desire nothing more than to look like Jesus. It is the mourning that results when broken people see Jesus in their midst, with great power and glory. It is the mourning of Jesus, on the hillside, overlooking Jerusalem. The mourning that led him to continue on his journey, down the hill, to the cross, and in the grave. And just like on that first Easter morning, it is the mourning that precedes God’s call for us to rise and walk in newness of life as one Body of Christ.
Today, I invite us to enter into a time of confession as one body as Jesus calls us to do. Let us use this time not to confess our sins as individuals, but to confess our collective sin of blindness or indifference to the hurting around us.
There is an Aloe plant up on a table as you leave. When you break one of the leaves of this plant, a gel pours out that is used to heal wounds on the skin. When we confess our brokenness before God and our sincere desire to re-member and reassemble the Body of Christ, that is when the balm flows from us to heal the world. If you wish, if you would like to make a public sign of your confession and repentance before God as a part of us, you may break off part of a leaf of this plant and then rub the balm from it into your hands or on your arms. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Adapted from Revs. Phil Kniss and Mark Schloneger
This week I was, yet again, outsmarted by a 2 year old. I have a make-up case and Sophia has a little obsession with it because it’s Mommy’s and not hers. As I was getting ready to go out, Sophia walks over to me and asks what is this, pointing to my make-up. I said that it’s Mommy’s. She said, no, what is it? I said this is a box. She looked at me funny and asked, rectangle? I said, yes, this side is a rectangle and the whole thing is a box. She said, no rectangle. Oh, ok Sophia, it’s a rectangle. She then said, 12 sides. I corrected her and said, no, rectangles have 4 sides. She said, no Mommy…12 sides. I said No…rectangles have 4 sides. She then closed the box and proceeded to count. She first started with the one side facing her, 1 side, 2 sides, 3 and 4. She then counted the others, 5, 6…all the way up to 12 to show me that there are definitely more than just 4 sides of the rectangle she was seeing. Outwitted again by the toddler.
Sometimes we need a toddler to show us that our point of view limits us to the whole picture.
I began to think about Stewardship in terms of the make-up box. When we hear the term stewardship, we automatically hear the word “money”. Many of us are happy to give and write a check. When we feel moved, we gladly donate, wish the workers well, and move on. I hope today to give us a little more idea of what Stewardship looks like outside of the one rectangle view of the box.
As several of you know, I was blessed to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina with Church World Services and Week of Compassion. Our job as seminarians was to be a part of a delegation to meet with various religious organizations, to observe the work of rebuilding a nation after the war. We learned how inter-faith partnerships bring restoration and reconciliation to the people. There were many heart-breaking and inspiring stories. Each person told his or her story with such urgency, warning us that the atrocities of war happen, and can happen, anywhere and to anyone.
Now this was a country, while being Yugoslavia, that was communist and had 100% employment. It was industrialized, even holding the winter Olympics just a few years before the war. Now after the war, their unemployment is still pushing 50%. I asked a man who served for Tito (the Yugoslav dictator prior to the war), who had tattoos on his arm showing his loyalty to Tito, how he compared his homeland while under communism versus how his life is now, living under a tarp on the side of a hill. He said that his life was much better now because he did not live in fear. I asked him what he did for Tito and what he does for work now. He said that he served in Tito’s army, but loves the job he has now much better. He lives in the most rural area with several, elder widows in the region, takes them food once a week and checks on them constantly. He isn’t paid to do this. He has to go to the soup kitchen for himself. While he is poor, he is tending to the poor as well. His story reminds us that while he is financially poor, he is living the abundant life. His faith is strong because he doesn’t live in fear any more. His calling in life is to tend to the ladies in the village with no other place to live.
The picture on the screen is from a memorial in downtown Sarajevo. Sarajevo is a city that sits in a valley surrounded by hills. And during the war, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city was surrounded by Serbian troops with tanks. These tanks treated the citizens like target practice. Many families, without food, water or medicine, ran through the streets to get what they needed, risking their lives to help others survive, hoping to find and bring back something, anything. The siege of Sarajevo lasted 44months and many of these people died. This statue is made of glass and is a memorial to the brokenness of the families that suffered from these deaths. The glass is separated from each other and that symbolizes the divide between mother, the larger section, and child, the smaller structure. This memorial is a reminder of the 1,600 children killed in Sarajevo during the siege. Those children that did survive the war were invited to leave their hand and foot impressions in the bronze base of the structure, symbolizing that those who died would not be forgotten by those who survived. It is of great importance to the people of Bosnia that we, including all people of all nations, never forget what war costs. One of the mothers of a child that died was at the memorial placing flowers at the statue. She told us that it means so much to her that people honor her son and all the other children by remembering them. Stewardship can also take the shape of honoring the people, and as we tend to the beloved children of God, we are also honoring God.
Before church started, I had Dave play music from a group called Pontanima, an interreligious choir based out of Sarajevo. If you were here a few weeks ago when Lizzy Beach spoke, you will recognize her as she is singing with the choir during their practice. In 1996, Sarajevo and all the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina were emerging from a war horrific beyond understanding. Massive ethnic cleansing and campaigns of terror had scarred the people and left them with little hope. In this environment the founders of the choir, a Franciscan priest and a musical conductor, gathered a small group of musicians to sing for mass in his church. Because they could not find enough Catholics, they invited people of other faiths. A name was chosen which combines the Latin words pons (bridge) and anima (soul). Pontanima chooses music representing all religious communities in Bosnia, Jewish, Christian Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic and Protestant. People from all these religious traditions also sing in the choir. By singing each other’s songs, members of Pontanima attempt to better understand and respect each other. The goal is to enter into the heart of what is different in order to receive these differences in the heart of one’s own being, to feed the soul with the highest spirituality of different people. This is a method of dialogue, and leads to ecumenism and creativity. Pontanima has faced many challenges. In the beginning, some of the choir members found it horrifying to sing the songs of their enemies. Singers have been criticized by friends who thought they were betraying their own people or religion. Bosnia is still filled with distrust, but this choir works at creating peace. There was also a member of the choir on his way to rehearsal, when he stepped on a landmine and died. That tragedy leads them to tell their story to as many people as they can. They have travelled throughout Europe and once performed in Washington DC. They have won numerous awards for their efforts in working towards peace. The choir members show us another great example of stewardship by using their time and resources to intentionally get to know their neighbors and to bring the spiritual music that heals and reconciles the people of Bosnia.
Also, the Disciples of Christ partnered with Food Resource Bank, Church World Services and The Mennonite Church USA to respond to the hungry in Bosnia. They work to set up small farms to help a community to sustain itself. In the poorest community in Bosnia, we visited farms and families that received help to start small farms. One of the stipulations of having the seed money and receiving a small interest loan to start the farm, is a requirement to give back to the community. Families are to take what they need to feed themselves, but in turn to give a tithe back to help those without food or homes. The small farms feed many more people than just the one family. Let me show you what one packet of seeds did from 1996 to now. It grew to 13 greenhouses, 1 wheat field, and that old, bullet-riddled house? Well that now is a processing place where the wheat is converted to pasta in order to create food that’s sustainable and can feed even more people. The top floor was converted to a guest suite so visitors could stay and witness this mission. The remaining 2 floors would be used to make and store the pasta. The food from the greenhouses and field feed over 5,000 families every day. I consider this stewardship very successful. People coming together to empower the poorest people in Bosnia to build farms and feed each other.
Let’s step back a minute to the scripture to see how it is challenging us today to be good stewards. The scripture reminds us that the mission of the church is to take care of each other. We have seen today that caring comes in many forms. What are some of the things we do to become stewards in care? Sitting with a friend who is grieving, taking a meal to a new mother, cutting the grass for an elderly neighbor, organizing a fundraiser to help a child who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease. These things can be so uncomfortable to do. For me, going to a foreign country, not able to speak the language, not able to communicate, I was very uncomfortable with getting to know some of the Bosnian people. The scripture in Proverbs and James reminds us that our job as Christians is also to tend to the poor. We are aware of the poor just in this neighborhood. For those involved in this church outside of Sunday mornings, we are also aware of the poor who come by here. We often have visitors passing through, see the church along the way and ask us for some help. I can admit, I feel uncomfortable when someone stops in to try to find a meal or some money so they can continue on his or her journey. And this scripture really convicts me. When someone stops in during a Wednesday night Bible study, I’m happy to see they get fed but my comfort increases when they leave. And I can admit, the conversation I have with that person is very different than when a well-dressed, society-acceptable person visits a Bible study. The well-dressed people are asked more personal questions and we wonder how we can show them that we’d like for them to stay. We imagine them becoming a part of this church, hoping one day to grow, hoping they have kids and grandkids and bring them, hoping one day that this church will thrive and even survive.
But this is not our calling church. It is in James that reminds us that we must love both, the poor and the rich. But it is James that questions, to whom are we showing favor? We fall short all the time in answering the call of being church. God brings to us salvation and grace that forgives. Every day we get a chance to do things all over again. By grace, we are made whole and by grace may we find ways in which to bring reconciliation through our stewardship. By grace we can see the whole box rather than just one side. May we all find peace in God’s ever-flowing grace and share that peace with everyone. Be generous stewards of peace to all people.
The story of Bathsheba and David is one filled with religion, violence, sex, power, sin and forgiveness. The 2 Samuel narrative is fascinating and zeroes in on David’s perspective in such a way that David’s self-centered spiral into sin presses in on the reader even before David is aware of it. David is at home when he should be leading his troops. David is leering at the woman bathing. David sends men to bring back an object he has lusted after, then he takes what he wants. David lies with Bathsheba. David hatches a plot to cover his sin. David has Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. And right after the allotted days of mourning end, David collects Bathsheba and adds her to the many women of his household. He’s self-absorbed and saturated in sin, without regard for his God, his neighbor or his country.
This story is filled with tragedy after tragedy. But many of us today in the church think we know this story. At the end, we know the conclusion that the Prophet Nathan confronts David about this sin and informs him that David’s son will die soon after it is born.
But there’s so much more to this story than the beginning and the ending. This is a story of great power and privilege. It’s a story that one of the main characters, Bathsheba, is left with no voice. We have no idea what she thinks or feels about any of these matters because the text only tells us what’s happening to men, David and Uriah. The story begins and ends with violence in war and has the violence of power in between.
Look at all the people David used to pull off the progression of events. He used messengers to fetch Bathsheba. I’m certain that was a nervous knock on the door. Her husband is gone for war and she is visited by men from the King’s royal inner-circle. How much authority do you think she had to say no? And when Bathsheba heard of her husband’s death, her reputation and life were at stake. In those days, women who had affairs were stoned to death. Since she was at the place of bathing in order to become clean after her menstrual cycle, as required by her religion, it would be obvious that she had an affair since her husband refused to be with his wife out of duty to his fellow soldiers during war. Bathsheba, being pious and a faithful follower of her religion, was afraid for her life, all while grieving for the death of Uriah her husband. And when her son was born, he died, as Nathan the Prophet told David would happen as his punishment for his sin. What about Bathsheba and the pain she carried in the loss of her child? Where is the justice for her in the fury of David’s horrendous decisions? The father of her child was the murderer of her husband. Bathsheba suffered great punishment at the hands of this supposed godly king, David.
David’s punishment continued. Because of his abuse of power, David’s household was thrown into complete chaos. Soon after the story of the death of David and Bathsheba’s first child, Amnon, another one of David’s sons rapes one of David’s daughters, Tamar. And Absalom, another son of David, sets up a tent on top of the King’s palace and takes advantage of all of David’s concubines (wives). It’s safe to say that sexual exploitation was a family affair.
There may be some here today that think, “but that was then and women were considered property.” Let’s be honest, this is still a problem. Earlier this week I heard a story of 17 year old Savannah Dietrich. Last summer, Savannah went to a party, had some drinks, and passed out. Then, two acquaintances sexually assaulted her (rape), took her picture and video while doing this, and forwarded them to their friends. The news of the public assault tore through the Louisville, Kentucky’s high school. Savannah was always worried about who could have seen the pictures and videos and who knows about it. Last month, the public humiliation continued when the two assailants struck a plea deal on the charges of felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism. Savannah said it was just a slap on the wrist. Part of the plea deal, unknown to Savannah at the time, was an order that prohibited her from saying anything about it and was threatened with a $500 fine and 180 days in prison if she spoke. Savannah felt violated again. She took to Twitter and wrote the names of the two boys who raped her. She added, “There you go, lock me up. I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” Savannah said that she was assaulted personally and publically. She also added that she regretted reporting the rape because of everything that has happened to her in the courtroom. And public officials and victim advocates wonder why more than ½ of rape victims do not report the crime. Rape trials can be long, grueling, humiliating, stigmatizing, alienating and difficult to prove. This court, additionally, tried to take the voice away from this victim. Because Savannah’s story has hit the public news and social media, the Louisville court decided not to press contempt charges. The attorneys for the boys have not commented if they will press charges yet or take this to civil court.
The courts are concerned that the two boys will have to deal with this the rest of their lives. No one has considered that Savannah will too. These boys were caught. King David was too. David didn’t repent because he felt bad about calling Bathsheba to his bed. He didn’t repent because he was a “man after God’s own heart” and wanted to be in a right relationship with God and the Kingdom God gave him. David repents because he got caught. Nathan called David out on Ancient Israel’s Twitter. But David repents because he deceived and scammed and cheated and murdered a man, not because he exploited a woman.
As Bathsheba’s voice wasn’t heard in the scriptures, Savannah’s voice wasn’t heard in the courtroom. Perhaps you or someone you know has had their voice taken from them when they have suffered from the abuse of another person. Perhaps you or someone you know has been in the position of David or the two boys. Perhaps there have been mistakes made, abuses of power, decisions that have hurt others. Well I’m here to tell you that God cares…for all. God cared for Bathsheba. She was set up in David’s kingdom and not violated again. She gave birth to the greatest of king of Israel, this time without shame, Solomon, that God showed favor on to build the Temple. Even more interesting, in Matthew 1:6, Bathsheba was noted as an important part of the genealogy of Jesus, even mentioned by name, seated among others in great worth and value. Bathsheba became a survivor.
But what about David? Can someone like David and all his abuses of power be forgiven? Of course. Growing up in church, whenever I heard the name “David” my brain immediately finished the sentence, “a man after God’s own heart.” David was caught and he repented. But not only did David repent, his actions completely changed. He began to seek God’s face and lead the Israelites once again.
This story of grief and forgiveness is true for all of us. God cares and dreams of restoring all of us from the brokenness and fragments for the abused and the abusers. When we can admit to what has been done and what we have suffered, we can begin to heal. We find that no sin is too big for God to forgive and no grief is too deep for God to comfort. There is hope for the abused and abusers. Let’s ask God what God dreams for all of us.
Isaiah 5:1-7 NRSV The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard
Isaiah 5:1-7 NRSV The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard
5Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Nothing brightens my spirit more than when someone says to me, “Let’s go shopping!” No matter how tired or busy I am, everything in my world stops. It’s as if a fire alarm bell has rung and I need to get out the door as quickly as possible. I hear in my head, “DING DING DING…SHOPPING! and I’m out the door!
Today, however, we are going to stop by Jerusalem and pick up our good friend Isaiah on our way to Walmart. Isaiah is a good man, sometimes he’s kind of a downer, but he always has something inspiring to tell us. He also has great taste in music and will make the ride enjoyable.
Let’s all go pile in the mom van and pick up our buddy Isaiah. Now he’s the kind of guy who likes to pick out the music, so we’ll let him ride shotgun. As Isaiah climbs in, he decides to play a love song. This particular love song quickly turns sour. This song starts out being sung by the prophet andquickly becomes a bitter duet with God. In music, we call this dissonance when the music sung just does not quite sound right. During choir practice, whenever I see the musical term dissonance on the sheet music, I fully expect that section of the music to be practiced several times because it is difficult to hear and difficult to have it leave our mouths. This love song Isaiah decides to play, and ultimately sings along to is the same, very difficult. The song of God’s vineyard is a complex parable with strong figures of grapes and their production tied to the community and their work of justice and righteousness. The song is about a vineyard, of the love and tending God does for people. The betrayal God receives from the beloved is so painful that God cannot sing it and must be sung by Isaiah on behalf of God.
As this song ends, Judah is indicted for the crimes of what has happened to the land God so tenderly and meticulously created. The walls, terraces, soil, and choicest vines are all left to be trampled.
Isaiah used the Hebrew language in an interesting way when he was singing along with his song in the minivan. For instead of Mishpat, the Hebrew for “justice”, how God hoped we would treat each other, God saw Mispach, the Hebrew for “bloodshed”. And instead of Tsedaqah, the Hebrew for “righteousness”, God saw Tse’aqah, the “cries of distress”. With just a slight change of the words, Isaiah really drove his point home. In his song, I was expecting to hear Mispat (justice) but instead heard Mispach (bloodshed). But so was God.
So I turn to my good friend Isaiah and say to him, “Geez, man. We are on our way to go shopping. Relax a little. What’s got you so riled up?” So, Isaiah told me his story.
During his time in Judah, there was a long period of peace during the reign of King Uzziah in the 8th century BCE. There was great wealth and prosperity, but only for the ruling class and the merchants. Isaiah’s people, for generations, owned inherited land, passed down from father to son. But these outsiders took over their country and used their power to take the land of the families. These wealthy people set up a highly sophisticated system, with the support of the court system, and accumulated all the land around family homes and farms, by closing in on them and taking their property. Not only was the land taken that kept the families fed, the families then had to pay the powerful for overpriced food. It created a loan system that the poor just could never repay. The courts worked against these people and sided with the land-grabbers. The only way people could pay off the loans was by selling the only collateral they had; their homes and farms. This system was not just taking over a family’s land; it also included growing urban centers and requiring people to work there, taking them from their homes. During this time, the government also began military campaigns, additionally taking working men from their families and placing them in the service of the king. And with the expansion of trade and commerce, the poor were further exploited and unfair market conditions hit the small farms the hardest. These governmental actions furthered the debt of the poor; and along with the exploitative creditors, oppressive debt collectors and an unjust judicial system, the number of poor and displaced people outrageously grew in number. And what was even more disgusting, the elite were very public in their flaunting of wealth, dining on the food surpluses while families starved. The elite paraded their leisure and luxuries, showing off their material trinkets from expensive imports. Everything started to stack up against the working poor of Judah. From losing their homes to foreclosure, to the constant debt collection calls, to overpriced groceries and cuts in the food stamp programs, to the courts declaring that these corporations exploiting them are now considered people too, Judah was poised to lose everything to support the King and the elite. Justice has been denied as God could only see the blood being shed of the poor. The cries of the hungry are now louder than the voice of righteousness. For instead of Mishpat, or “justice”, God saw Mispach, or “bloodshed”. And instead of Tsedaqah, or “righteousness”, God saw Tse’aqah, the “cries of distress”
Isaiah turns to me and asks, “Now, you tell me, do we live in a day and age like this? Where those who have much power and money keep it from others? Do we live in a time that power and money dictate the laws that affect the people with no power or money?
That Isaiah…he really made me think. After listening to his song and hearing his story, I wondered if we were in a time like Isaiah. I wondered if God heard bloodshed or justice from me. Am I contributing to the system of justice or to the system of death? While I don’t have much money, I certainly am responsible to how I do use the portion that keeps Sophia and me afloat. I shop for the discounts, most months desperately maximizing my minimal funds. I, like all of you, must purchase gas for the vehicle, groceries to live, insurance for protection. At the end of every month, I always wonder where the money went. I realized that the majority goes to Walmart.
I turned to my old pal, Isaiah and told him that I am happy to see Walmart company offer fair-trade coffee and their initiative to reduce their energy usage by implementing “green” programs. But is that the whole story or the one they choose to tell?
You see, recently, we have heard in the news about Walmart and the allegations of bribery with our southern neighbor in Mexico. It is reported that the New York Times held information about Walmart and the allegations of the bribery. Walmart, being pressured from what the Times knew, came forward to the government, stating that this supposed bribery happened six years ago as the law has a five-year statute of limitations. Instead of being reprimanded for large-scale bribery, Walmart is spinning the allegations of the crime to say that they did their own investigation and found that it was already fixed by putting in new policies, just beyond the timeframe from being prosecutable. Instead of going after the unethical actions of Walmart, the New York Times turned their attack on the laws that could charge the original bribery, claiming the law is going too far.
There are 15 people in the Justice Department that focus on business fraud. Fifteen. We have communicated through our laws and legislation that companies can get a free pass for unfair labor practices, as long as you stay out of the radar of just 15 people. The New York Times later reported that the law is unnecessary because companies are willing to settle out of court to resolve the issues and there is no need for judicial oversight. Isaiah looks over at my speedometer and asks, “Aren’t you driving slightly over the speed limit?” I respond, “well of course I am, but just a little.” He laughs and asks, “Are you going to turn yourself in and pay for a ticket? It’s not like you have been caught. Wouldn’t you, out of good practice for others, admit your mistake before any officer or judge catches you?”
Of course not.
Now I bring up the company of Walmart because it hits home for all of us. I’ve ran into many of you shopping there. I’ve heard several people say the old joke, “if I’m not at home or church, I’m at Walmart”. It’s a way of life for many of us. We socialize there, we get the necessities of life. Walmart, for many of us, defines how we are consumers. And Walmart defines how we spend our money. We all participate in the low-cost savings that Walmart supposedly passes on to each of us. But allow me to point out the system we are in the middle of with little or no other options. Walmart claims to be consumer-friendly, driving the workforce and, in many states, by being the largest employer. But the facts show how detrimental Walmart really is. For every two jobs created by Walmart, it destroys three local jobs. Manufacturing has greatly diminished as a result of the cheap imports. Our local workers make an average of $8.81 an hour; that is less than 70% of the poverty line for a family of four. Also, do you think anyone can afford a 120% healthcare premium increase, as the employees of Walmart were expected to pay, on only $8 an hour? And how does our government reward Walmart? By giving them $1.2 billion in tax breaks, free land, and additional subsidies. In St. Louis, they gave $31 million. That’s $31 million taken away from schools, firefighters and police…all MAJOR struggles the city and surrounding areas of St. Louis just cannot seem to fix…and adds to the continued destruction by keeping it in the top three of most dangerous cities in the United States. In Illinois, our government decided to give $100 million in subsidies. Folks, as citizens in the Land of Lincoln, we are all aware that we are a state ridiculed by others for our inability to pay our bills. We are the Greece of the United States.
What are we teaching our children from our spending habits? Are we teaching them that purchasing cheap, disposable junk leads to happiness? And what kind of landscape are we leaving for our kids when just one Supercenter covers over a million square feet in concrete? This affects water quality, air quality, the draining of energy to maintain a store, and quicker filled landfills with broken and cheap goods. Are we really willing to turn a blind eye to all of this? Our government officials are, especially when $3.9 million goes from the hands of Walmart straight to the congress men and women who have the lowest voting records in environmental issues. We are rewarding those who have the power to sustain our future for our children when they purposefully are destroying the vineyards.
One of my favorite conversations in seminary is “If Jesus was here in this time, who would he be?” When I think about that question, I think of how Ancient Palestine was a vassal state of Rome. The lands that Rome ruled fed money, wealth and goods into Rome to create the Pax Roma, also known as the time Rome had peace because all the vassal states supported it through their oppression by the Romans. The Romans lived well, while the Israelites suffered greatly to keep Rome happy.
I imagine that if Jesus was here today, he might be a person in China, exploited by his employer for cheap labor, feeding the needs of consumers in other countries similar to how Rome lived off of the lands they controlled. Perhaps the United States and other countries that are controlled by their consumerism are the ones in power who are continuing in the socially accepted oppression.
That Isaiah, he’s a good friend, but really makes me think. I asked him, “Isaiah, is Walmart the enemy?” He responded, “ I don’t think so.” And as I realized last night at 10 o’clock that I was out of printer toner, I cannot in good conscience say an absolute “NO” to Walmart when this sermon is printed with its ink. We participate in a culture that is okay with companies that want toexpand profit and make their share-holders happy. Walmart is definitely not the only company to do this…most, if not all, are like this. I am using Walmart as the example only because it is the closest to home and we know a lot about them; but what other systems do we contribute to? How do we spend money? Where do our dollars go and who is getting rich from us, all the while, exploiting us to their greed? What are we sacrificing when we blindly give our resources to the greedy? Are we listening to Isaiah when he asks us ‘Does God see righteousness and justice from you or is God witnessing bloodshed and distress? Where are we heading?
But as we know, we believe in a hope. We believe in a salvation that frees us from the systems that surround us. Specifically, what are some tangible things we can do right now? As Christians, we have the tools. During Lent, a few of us applied the spiritual discipline of fasting from our over-consumption. We recognized that Walmart has become an addiction. We vowed to take a break for 40 days from going there to shop. We studied, together, to more about the responsibility of stewardship of our personal finances, stewardship of the earth, but more importantly, stewardship towards all of God’s beloved children. Please understand me, it is not a calling for a boycott of Walmart, rather it is a time-out to reflect upon our dependency on their system and to see what God is calling on our lives. Is God pleased when we support justice or when we participate in society’s acceptable oppression? How can we honor God and God’s children? We found ourselves looking for local companies with higher labor ethics. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Kicking the habit of Walmart resulted in having money at the end of the month. The cheap products that we found ourselves constantly repurchasing, such as replacing alarm clocks or disposable razors, came to a halt. We realized that these disposable items, which Walmart is happy to manufacture cheaply to keep us in their cycle of purchasing, are how they view our money and how they view store employees and foreign manufacturing employees. We are disposable to them. Well, I know a God who doesn’t call any of us disposable. I know a God who finds value in all of us.
I turn to my friend Isaiah and say, “You’re right. My money needs to reflect my honor to God. And honoring God is to honor God’s people. But how do I live this life? I still need food, paper products, ink toner?”
That Isaiah…ask him a direct question, and he’ll answer you. “You call yourself a Christian don’t you? Look to Jesus.”
You see, Jesus lived a counter-cultural life that called out the injustices of the social system and emphasized compassion. Compassion calls all of us to see that we are all equal and beloved children of God. We are called as Christians to follow Jesus. Just like in Isaiah’s song, we live in a time of dissonance. It is painful to hear the stories of how our socially acceptable, and even encouraged, shopping habits are hurting others. It hurts to realize that we are not honoring our neighbors in Collinsville by expecting them to work below the poverty level, or how we expect goods as cheaply as possible, bringing a new type of slavery to our neighbors in Asia. This song is not easy to hear and even worse to sing. We can work towards peace and equality. That is what Christ demands of us when we lay down our crosses and take up his. We do this for equality for all of God’s people. We are to show compassion as we live in community. As long as our community has now expanded through globalization, our compassion grows along with it. What systems are keeping us from compassion for God’s people? What system are we willing to stop participating in to follow the Christ who calls us to love God and our neighbor with everything that we are? I admit, I can’t give up Walmart all together. For many of us, it’s the only option we have. But we have chosen to live a life of faith, and Jesus never promised it would be easy.
As we pull into the parking lot at Walmart, Isaiah says one last thing, “You’ve had your wake up call, now there’s no need to buy another cheap alarm clock.”