Reflections on the Gospels from a Justice Perspective written for St. Andrew's Episcopal Church by members of the congregation

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dec. 30 John 1:1-18

December 30    John 1:1-18      The Word Became Flesh

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”

Those words always stop me dead in my tracks.  The news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is not only Good News, I find it to be mind boggling.  It’s hard for me to absorb just exactly how completely the whole world changed in that moment.   Jesus as the Word of God clearly announced that he was to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, to give sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free.   And then Jesus as the Word of God acted to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of god.  The Word challenged the systems and structures of the empires of his world in a way that threatened those in power enough to get him executed.  The universe stretched, and the impossible became possible.

Those words stop me dead in my tracks as this is the time of year when I am thinking about my New Years’ resolutions.  What should I be about this year to “make the Creator known?”  What can I commit to that will, in some way, enable those at the margins to be more visible, to find their voice, to take their rightful place as beloved children of God?  How can I work to make the systems and structures visible that keep folks marginalized, and what can I do to work for change?  What if, as a community, each of us committed to one ministry in our community that focused on the marginalized in our midst?  Would our universe stretch and our impossible become possible?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

December 23   Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)  -- Systems and Structures

The music reverberating in my head sometimes makes me forget that the anticipation of the Messiah's coming throughout the Old Testament was in the context of oppression and injustice. Folks were longing for redemption from the systemic evil of empires and the tyrants who governed them. Anticipation focused on a Messiah who would “scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, fill the hungry” and bring peace, justice and righteousness to the world.

Advent is the time when we can pause to become aware of the systems and structures that our own society has put in place to marginalize, to oppress, to destroy creation, to dominate by force.  For example, the high cost of housing in Madison means that we have many families where both parents are working AND the family is homeless.  I think about how my wonderful downtown condo has contributed to that reality.  How can we create a system that enables Madison both to enjoy the economic benefits of gentrification AND ensure that low income folks have access to safe, affordable housing?  Advent is our time to ask God to send people and situations into our lives who will challenge us to become aware of the systematic injustice and oppression that exist in our neighborhood, and who will challenge us to look for the root causes of those systems.  What better preparation could we undertake as we wait for the coming of Jesus who will stretch our categories, challenge our models and assumptions, and most importantly, our call us to radical compassion.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Luke 21:25-36:  There will be signs

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding."

Prophecies of global catastrophe always make me want to close my eyes and change the subject. But the words of Jesus summon us to face the possibility that such an enormous disaster may be coming. Nature itself seems to be warning us too. Those ominous signs--the distress among nations, the roaring of the sea and the waves, and the confused, frightened people-- are not just Biblical metaphors. We have seen them become terribly real this very year for our brothers and sisters in Haiti, in the flooded coastal areas of New Jersey and New York, and in the Pacific islands that are already being devoured by the rising sea. And scientists tell us that such weather disasters will probably go on increasing, as climate change affects more and more of our planet.

If God's good creation is actually in danger of being destroyed in our time, what can we do about it? If we believe the scientific consensus about the causes of climate change, we should at least take serious steps to reduce our own household's carbon footprint and help persuade our neighbors to do the same thing. Some of us might add political action, for example joining a campaign to persuade the US to adopt a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. Others might prefer to devote their efforts to assisting the victims of climate disasters. The only unacceptable option, Jesus suggests, is to remain so preoccupied with our own pleasures and concerns that we ignore what is happening to the world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

John 18:33-37

25 Nov.  John 18:33-37          Living in Competing Kingdoms

I would like to suggest that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "My kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he does understand Jesus. The world of empire is the world of achievement, position, power, influence, domination, access to resources. The truth to which Jesus testifies is the servant world of mercy, love, peace and justice of God. I believe that Pilate clearly saw the impossible tension between these two kingdoms and simply took care of eliminating (or so he thought) one of them.

It falls to us to live and make decisions in the reality of those competing kingdoms. The world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is. On the other hand, my heart aches for those whom the world of empire leaves without a chance – those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. In addition, there is increasing evidence that my comfortable world of empire is not sustainable – our fossil fuels are almost depleted, and climate change is devastating some parts of the earth and destroying others. There is increasing evidence that our children are inheriting our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world of empire will leave us without resources and without community in a hostile environment. *How do we live in the reality of these competing kingdoms and still make clear choices for mercy, love, peace and justice?*

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mark 13:1-8

18 Nov. Mark 13:1-8 –  Keeping Buildings in Perspective

The temple into today’s gospel is more than just a building in Jerusalem, more than the place of worship. It was the center and anchor of Jewish life and culture. It was the place where God lived. At the same time, the weak and the poor were exploited to pay for the building. We all build temples – personas, relationships, beliefs, institutions, roles, reputations, dreams - with the idea that these great structures will provide our life and world with meaning, direction, identity, security, value, and order. And as we build them, we have a tendency to build in systems and structures that oppress, exploit and marginalize people.

My individual temple was carefully built of hard work, achievement, education, competence, the church, and my European ancestry. My temple provided me with both position and power, and with an inordinate amount of voice and the ability to consume a huge amount of resources. Our country’s temple was built on the pillars of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At the same time, our economic system depends upon a certain level of chronic unemployment to keep wages low, and we are faced with the reality of systems such as institutional racism.

How can we choose to remember that God lives in human beings, not in buildings? How can we bear witness to the reality that God’s Kingdom is diametrically opposed to structures of exploitation and injustice, especially those built in the name of God? How can we use Jesus’ description of the temple’s destruction to remind ourselves and others that his way, the way of the cross, is so contrary to exploitative power structures that the two can’t coexist?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mark 12:38-44: 

"She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."


The poor widow in the temple obviously shows up both the rich people who contribute large sums and the smug, hypocritical scribes. But just what is the lesson that Jesus wants his followers to take away from this story?

I've always assumed that we are supposed to be inspired by the widow's example of sacrificial giving and ashamed because we ourselves are more like the rich folks who just give some of their abundance. But the notes in my Study Bible argue persuasively that Jesus's main point here is the injustice of religious authorities who exploit the poor, inducing people like this widow to donate all their meager resources to the temple. In other words, he is not pointing her out as a positive example of generosity, but as a victim of the scribes who "devour widows' houses" (verse 40).

Am I like those scribes? I don't consciously prey on anybody, but can I in good conscience accept all the systems in today's society that benefit me at the expense of my poorer neighbors? Should I try to do something about a tax code that places a much heavier burden on poor wage earners than on my retirement accounts? Lotteries that reduce my taxes further by exploiting the vulnerable poor? Stores and brands that give me the cheapest possible prices by paying their workers practically nothing? Don't I need to draw the line somewhere?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


John 11:32-44  Answering the Call.....

The story of the raising of Lazarus provides examples of two different ways we are called. In Mary's time of darkness, the death of her brother, Martha calls Mary to Jesus with the words, "The teacher is here and he's calling you" (John 11:28).  After they go to the tomb and roll away the stone, Jesus calls "Lazarus, come out!", and Lazarus emerges from the great darkness of the tomb. 

We are all being called to Jesus and by Jesus to come out of the darkness. Imagine being alone, bandaged and in total darkness, and hearing a call to leave that darkness. There are many times in our lives when we, those we love or those around us are in darkness-- either waiting for a call to the light or not able to answer that call.  Disease, addictions, depression, hardness of heart and other forms of isolation from God's light exist in and around us.  

The youth are reading the book The Shack, which is a fictional story about one man's call to leave "The Great Sadness" associated with a tragic event in his life.  Though many will probably discuss the theology of the book, the moral example of a person being called to address his darkness and being able to come to the light through faith should not be lost.  This character was led to reconcile with God and the person who had hurt him deeply in order to leave The Great Darkness. The story shows that our call to apply our faith justly begins with our own reconciliation with God, those who have hurt us, and those we have hurt.

At times our call is to be like Lazarus, the one who hears the call of our Lord and those around us to leave the darkness. At other times we need to be like Martha, the one who calls someone living in darkness to the light through our words, our prayers and our actions. How can we truly work for justice? Answer our own call to be reconciled and then help others reconcile. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mark 10:46-52


28 October 2012   Mark 10: 46-52   "Son of David, have mercy on me!"

The blind man Bartimaeus sounds like the kind of beggar whom most of us try to avoid on State Street. He's noisy, aggressive, and so insistent that he shouts all the louder when more respectable people tell him to shut up. And yet Jesus takes him seriously. In fact, Jesus interrupts his journey to Jerusalem for the sake of Bartimaeus, calling him over and listening to him, and then not only heals him but also strongly commends him for his faith.

What's going on here? What does the blind Bartimaeus "see" about Jesus? The disciples keep assuming that Jesus is going to claim the throne of Israel, but Bartimaeus seems to understand that Jesus is motivated by compassion, not ambition.

I think this story illustrates the importance of our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Even a loud, disruptive beggar is worth listening to, both for his own sake and because he may know more about our Lord than we do.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mark 10:35-45

Mark 10:35-35

The front-page story in "Street Pulse" grabbed my attention and kept it. The writer
eloquently described what she learned by living on the street for a weekend, voluntarily sharing the experience of homeless people in Madison. Her saddest discovery was the cruelty that more fortunate people tend to show toward those who are homeless. It's not just a matter of avoiding eye contact with folks who look poor and homeless and enforcing ordinances against them (though she experienced plenty of those reactions too), but that some of us more fortunate Madisonians deliberately abuse them. Here's part of her account: "I was told to sleep on my shoes and my backpack because people like to steal them and throw them in the lake or a dumpster to 'mess' with homeless people. . . . As the night went on, I heard it: the snickers, jeering, the loud [hostile comments]. Then one man threw a full beer can at us, another threatened to 'piss' on us. The next night another guy said to his buddies while he was walking by, 'Hey, let's beat up some homeless people!'"

I think this writer for "Street Pulse" at least came close to what Jesus meant by becoming a servant of others rather than a status-seeker. She didn't permanently give up her own home and social status– and would it have benefited anyone if she had?
But she did take the risk of getting to know some of her poorest and most marginalized neighbors, recognized their humanity and vulnerability, and used her own gifts to raise awareness of the injustices they suffer. Couldn't you and I do something like that too?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mark 10:17-31

14 October   Mark 10:17-31   JustActing

I want everyone to know that I am solidly part of the 95% - I am not the rich young man.    But, reality is, by the world’s standards, I am, indeed, rich.  Like the rich young man, I do my best to keep the commandments.  I tithe, I give to charity, and I focus on responding to my call to ministry by using the gifts given to me at baptism to help make the Kingdom of God visible.  The hard reality is that my following the commandments and my acts of charity are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.  When I write a check I am not changing the poor’s lack of access to wealth.  When I give my time and talent to help the poor, I am not changing the poor’s lack of access to power – in fact I may be consolidating my power by offering my “abundant” gifts to those “less fortunate.”

I think today’s gospel is calling each of us to think and pray about what we’re called to do in this world with respect to poverty and wealth.  How can we choose to be aware by always looking for the systems and structures in place that prevent the poor from becoming self-sufficient?  How can we accept that we are powerful and influential because of the color of our skin, our level of education and our income and choose to use that influence to speak the truth to power in order to change those systems and structures that keep people marginalized?  For example, the movement to address the racial disparity in our prisons is asking folks like you and me to simply sit in court and observe as there is evidence that court proceedings are more egalitarian when we do that.  The Wisconsin Council of Churches sponsors an advocacy day each year to teach you and I to use our power and influence to shape policies that will overcome the systems of institutional racism or that enable the poor to work toward self-sufficiency.  How can we choose to act in a way that does not perpetuate unjust structures?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Mark 10:2-16

7 Oct    Mark 10:2-16      JustLiving

 "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." (Genesis 2:18)  When Jesus is challenged about divorce, he ignored his current cultural norm that allowed a man to divorce his wife (but not the other way around) if she turned out not to be “fruitful” or “faithful.”  Jesus reminded his challengers, and us, that the core issue is relationship.   Genesis says that the relationship with each other is a partnership, which the dictionary defines as common interest, equal status, mutuality, allies in a common enterprise.   Being created for relationship with God and each other rejects relationships that are one-sided or that use one partner as a tool or instrument to accomplish the purpose of the other.  Jesus’ rejection of divorce was a rejection of using people as a means to an end.

Reminding ourselves that we were created for relationship, for community, challenges us as a Christian community.  Are we modeling equal status, mutuality, allied in a common enterprise in our own households?  In our parish community?   How can we stand for relationship in the face of our culture’s focus on romance (or networking for success) as a means to an end; as permission to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop? (The Quakers have a discernment process that culminates in a couple marrying “under the care of the community” – an interesting concept.)    How can we stand for relationship as a measure of success and speak out when we see people being used as tools?    How can we be intentional about ensuring that everyone in our congregation is welcomed into relationship with the rest of us, especially those who are single? 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Matthew 11:25-30

30 September 2012 – Matthew 11:25-30       JustLiving

St. Francis has always been an intimidating factor in our family’s life.  We knew that we could never choose to discard family, possessions, and all of the security needs of housing, food, and clothing like St. Francis did when he chose to assume the “easy” burden and ‘light” yoke of Jesus that asks us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We finally realized that we COULD choose to figure out how to simplify our lives. If we could live more simply by using fewer resources, maybe we could free up resources so that our neighbors could simply live.

 As we began to focus on loving our neighbors as ourselves in the Spirit of St. Francis, we found ourselves recycling and washing napkins, cleaning rags, placemats and dishes rather than buying disposable paper and plastic items.   We were delighted to discover that our love of antiques meant that we were reusing and recycling and our love of wool oriental rugs meant we were using renewable resources in addition to creating heirlooms.  We began walking more, learned how to ride the bus, took our own bags to the grocery store and bought local.  We found a checklist on living simply and were surprised to discover that the list also included things like taking time for ourselves, knowing our neighbors, doing healthy activities and growing spiritually.  There are copies of the Simplicity Assessment in the Parish Hall if you are interested.
Have you ever considered trying to calculate your scores for recycling, carbon footprint, etc. to find ways of loving our neighbors better by simplifying our own lifestyle?  The following websites have various calculators that you might find useful:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

23 September Mark 9:30-37

23 September 2012 ---  Mark 9:30-37  --   JustActing
We’ve all seen those sentimental pictures of Jesus holding a sweet little child in his arms or welcoming several of them to his lap. But this comforting image should not blind us to the hard, unsentimental lesson in today’s Gospel. Children had such low status in Jesus’ time that he used them to symbolize “the least of these.” Here as elsewhere, then, Jesus was telling his followers to attend to the needs of their most powerless and vulnerable neighbors– those people who may have little value in human eyes but are precious in God’s sight.

Nowadays, most people instinctively respond to little children, but older children and teens from poor families receive much less sympathy, especially if their clothing and behavior conflict with middle-class norms. And yet these children too are precious in God’s sight. And they are terribly vulnerable, given the harsh penalties that can be inflicted on disadvantaged youngsters who get involved with drugs or gangs.

Is it possible that today’s Gospel might be calling us to care about children like these? Might we be called to join the current efforts in this community to shrink the achievement gap in our schools between white students and students of color, or to address the racial disparities in our justice system? Might we be called at least to volunteer with Schools of Hope, helping some eight-year-olds learn to read while there’s still time for them to catch up with their peers? or to befriend a troubled teen who needs another caring, responsible adult in his or her life?

16 September Mark 8:27-38

16 September 2012 - Mark 8:27-38      JustActing

I have been in retreat for the past two months – pulling back, ignoring everything that is going on in the world, shunning my usual responsibilities, focusing only on what I want to do on a daily basis.  I think I shared my status on Facebook as “apparently experimenting with Hedonism as a way of life.”  I winced when I read the question “Who do you say that I am?”  I winced because I know that I am part of the Body of Christ in this world.  Being part of the Body of Christ means that what I do with my life makes a statement about who Jesus is … but I am in retreat.
“Who do you say that I am?”  I am forced to look in a mirror and ask what it is that my life is saying about who Jesus is at this moment in history.  I have gifts that were given to me at my baptism.  In addition, there are promises that I make each time we baptize a baby – promises about proclaiming the good news, seeking and serving Christ in all people, striving for justice and truth and preserving the dignity of every human being.  I have been thinking about my gifts and my promises a great deal these past two months.  I wonder if justice in action has as much to do with asking questions as it does with doing stuff?  What are my gifts?  How am I using my gifts to act on my promises?  How am I being enabled to use my gifts to act on my promises?  How do folks see Jesus when they look at me and the way I am living my life? Maybe justice in action begins on retreat discerning the answers to those questions so I can come BACK from retreat feeling better focused and energized to do the work God has given me to do.

9 September 2012 Mark 7:24-37

9 September 2012 -- Mark 7:24-37    Just Listening

One of my mother’s ongoing exhortations to us when we became over-confident and all-knowing adolescents was “everyone in this world has something of value to say if you have the courage to listen.”  I have been thinking about that a great deal lately as it appears that listening is on its way to extinction in the face of the absolute certainty I hear on a daily basis. The Syrophoenician woman pushed for compassion and mercy in the face of Jesus’ certainty about what was right, he ended up listening, and was changed by what he heard.
How can we remind ourselves that God is love – a love that sacrifices to protect the value and worth of every human being?  How can we stand up for compassion and mercy toward everyone, even those we perceive to be unworthy because of the circumstances of their life or their own demonstrated ability to be merciless?  How can we remember that we have promised to protect the dignity of every human being and make ourselves heard?  How can we learn to temporarily put aside our own certainty in order to value others’ thoughts – even those with whom we disagree?  How can we make room to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear?  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2 September 2012 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

2 September 2012  - Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 –     JustPure
As I pondered that list of “evil intentions” that defile me, my first reaction was “but I would never steal from someone, much less consider killing them.  It is not in me to be greedy or wicked.”  And then I realized that the truth is that, while I would never do those things to those persons with whom I am in a close, loving relationship, I do indeed participate in theft and murder every time I fail to protest our government using tactics like assassination or torture to protect me from my enemies.  I become a model of avarice and wickedness every time I insist on paying the lowest prices for my food and clothing, ignoring the way workers are exploited in the production of those bargains.  If what this gospel says is true, that purity is about the thoughts and actions/inactions that come from my heart, it appears that, if I am not to become defiled, then I must not defile.  Since I do not defile those whom I know and love,  I must not only learn to live in solidarity with those the world has marginalized and preyed upon in some form or another,  but I also must figure out how to live in close, loving relationships with them as well – and that includes folks who would prefer to prey upon me.