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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 Does God Speak to us Today?

January 5, 2014   Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 Does God Speak to us Today?

Is God still speaking to us? We hear the word of God in Scripture, but do we hear the voice of God today? Not exactly the way Matthew tells in today’s gospel: Most of us don’t dream of angels giving directions. But prophets, men and women of our own time, remind us of the simple checklist the Old Testament prophet Micah gave us so long ago: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Are we listening to the prophets of our day? What are they saying?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  Archbishop Desmond Tutu

"Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones". The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“ . . . my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’” Pope Francis I

“If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one.” Mother Teresa

“God cares about human pain, God cares about it in this world now.” The Rev. Richard Rohr, OFM

“Christians should emphatically be campaigning for justice for the poor . . . “ The Right Reverend Rowan Williams, retired Archbishop of Canterbury

“Any gospel that isn’t good news to the poor isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Jim Wallis, Sojourners

“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

“We are the Mandelas, we are the Gandhis, we are the Kings.” Leymah Roberta Gbowee, co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

Sunday, December 22, 2013

John 1: 1-18 The Work of Christmas Now Begins

29 Dec. 2013... John 1:1-18  -   The Work of Christmas Now Begins

There is an old song (circa 1969) that goes like this:

1.            When the song of the angels is stilled,  When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home the work of Christmas is begun!
2.            To find the lost and lonely one,  To heal the broken would with love
To feed the hungry children with warmth and good food, To feel the earth below the sky above!
3.            To free the prisoner from all chains, To make the powerful care
To rebuild the nations with strength of goodwill,  To see God’s children everywhere!
4.            To bring hope to every task you do,  To dance at a baby’s new birth,
To make music in an old person’s heart, and Sing to the colors of the earth!

CHORUS:             I am the light of the world!  You people come and follow me! 
If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.

The work of Christmas is to believe in Jesus Christ; and to embrace his purpose by finding the lost and lonely, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, freeing the prisoner and making the powerful care.  While our striving for justice is crucial to learning to engage the mystery of what we were meant to do and be, it is the chorus of that song that gets emphasized by being sung five times.  Notice that the chorus is about all of us together, not each of us as an individual.  The work of Christmas is about God appropriating humanity - binding us together.   Doing the justice described in verses 2-4 has everything to do with seeing through those issues to the real people who are living those issues and going to them to stand with them person to person - seeing all persons as neither problems nor issues, but people who are good creations of God.  When we can choose to stand together, then the force of God's love can bind us as family and the work of Christmas can begin to bring peace and justice to our world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Matthew 11:2-10

Matthew 11:2-10

What kind of good news could Jesus have been giving to the poor? Whatever he said, it had an effect as dramatic as giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.   This good news causes the poor no longer to act like the poor are expected to act, but to throw away their impediments and stand tall on their own, just like the lame who heard it and now walk without a crutch.

Even in jail, John realizes that this good news to the poor is what he has been waiting for. Now poor people are transformed into people empowered to change the world. They too can make demands and Jesus says he hears them.  What a scary thought for those who are living in comfort!

Jesus identifies John as one who does not live in comfort, who is imprisoned for being on the side of those for whom this news is thrilling. How about us? Are we one of those offended by the poor and socially marginalized being assertive and self-respecting, responding to the respect that Jesus has shown them? Do we listen to what they say for themselves? If we are not frightened or offended, but rejoice to announce respect by and for the poor among us as the best of good news, Jesus calls us blessed. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Matthew 3:1-12: Prepare the way of the Lord

How can we prepare the way for the Lord’s coming? Little gestures of repentance are obviously not enough, even for well-behaved, church-going people like us. The Pharisees and Sadducees tried that, and John the Baptist rebuked them, warning them (and us) to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Luke’s version of this story (Luke 3:1-14) adds more specific instructions, which all seem connected with economic justice. Those in powerful positions, like tax collectors and soldiers, must resist the temptation to enrich themselves by unjust dealing. Those who are prosperous must share their abundance with the poor.

Thus John’s preaching identifies selfishness and injustice as major roadblocks that hinder the Lord’s coming into our lives and the communities in which we live. Can we devote some time during this Advent season to dismantling those roadblocks, which divide us from our neighbors as well as from God? Can we prepare straight paths for the Lord by helping to feed the hungry, provide safe housing for the homeless, and stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed? If so, we may share in the sweet promise of restored, reconciled humanity that follows the prophet’s call to prepare the way of the Lord: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5).

Monday, November 25, 2013

tMatthew 24: 36=44

Matthew 24:36-44 – “Be Ready”

The Christian Community at the time of Matthew lived in chaos.   The few thousand followers of Jesus were caught between an oppressive government and a Jewish majority which wanted nothing to do with them.  Poverty was rampant under the domination of Rome who had recently destroyed the Temple.

We are also living in chaos.  As a community, we are deluged with dire predictions about global warming, the global economy, water and energy shortages, and terrorism.   As individuals, we are faced with a sense of being overwhelmed by the poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, job loss, disease, addictions that appear to be coming more, not less, rampant. 

“Therefore you must be ready.”  The core question is how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in the midst of chaos – just what do we do when we find ourselves in a bad situation?   How can we learn to seek the good rather than place blame?  How can we learn to banish our fear in order to step out and work for justice?  How can we respond to the needs surrounding us and not succumb to the psychic numbness and hostility the can result from exposure to human misery on a mass scale?  How can we keep dreaming the dream of beating swords into ploughshares?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Luke 6:20-31

 Luke 6:20-31   Standing with All the Saints

In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle, S.J.  wrote “Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered as ‘Blessed are the single-hearted’ or ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ or ‘Blessed are those who struggle for justice.’  Greater precision in translation would say, ‘you’re in the right place if  ... you are single-hearted or work for peace.’  The Beatitudes is not spirituality after all.  It’s geography.  It tells us where to stand.  Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about standing in solidarity with them.  If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased.  ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”

I have spent a great deal of time and energy over the years “doing my homework” – gathering reliable data and studying scripture so that I could take the “right” stand on issues.  Boyle suggests that striving for justice is less about taking the right stand then it is about standing in the right place – with the outcast, the marginalized and those whose differences frighten us.   How can we stand with the homeless becoming ever more numerous at the head of State St?  How do we stand with those increased numbers becoming increasingly dependent upon food pantries to make it through the month?  How do we stand with our African American children, less than 50% of whom graduate from the Madison schools on time?  How do we stand with those who distrust us?  Boyle reminds all of us that it's easier to let down the barriers and stand with “the other” once we start seeing them as individuals “who are exactly what God had in mind when God made them.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Luke 18: 9-14

Justice Reflection for October 27, 2013
Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Every time I read this parable I laugh out loud because inescapably my first thought is "God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee who thinks he is not like the tax collector," and my next thought inevitably is "God, I thank you that am not like those people who think they are not like the Pharisee who thinks he is not . . . ". You see where this is going?  The endless internal jockeying for a morally superior position.  Moral superiority lets us feel we are more worthy than some others.  Moral superiority lets us think we deserve all the benefits we have and they do not -- they can't have been trying hard enough.

Deep down, we know it's not a level playing field.  What might happen if it were leveled, just a little?  The ten-year-old Odyssey Project is finding out.  Disadvantaged people in South Madison can volunteer to spend a year at the Park Street branch of the public library studying a rigorous program in the Humanities through UW-Madison.  At the end of the year, they -- and their families -- are transformed.  A common comment: "I didn't think I was smart enough to understand Shakespeare" or Plato or Beethoven.  Here are a couple of excerpts from a poem written by Odyssey graduate Madison Police Officer Anthony Ward, the father of five, and a UW student majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership:

"I am persuaded to move to prove
That the knowledge I gain will add to the groove.
The groove that is God, and the songs that he sings
Are more than just lyrical but bring miracles that ride on angels' wings.

"My journey has been played in a lot of different keys,
Some major, some minor, all kinds of melodies.
Not Bach, or Beethoven, but inspired by such,
Composed by Plato and Shakespeare, a non-conservative touch.

"My voice, my song, my music, will never be just mine
Because I've learned, heard, and seen for myself
That all I am is because of those who made music before me.

"Can you hear that sweet, sorrowful, happy, sad, inspiring,
Liberating, literate, compassionate, angry song?"

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Luke 17:11-19

Only one of the ten lepers in this story returns to Jesus to give thanks for his healing, and Jesus commends him. Does this mean we should condemn the nine who did not? Was Jesus wasting his time and God’s grace when he healed all ten, with no strings attached? Should he have revoked the healing of the other nine, to teach them (and us) a clear, unambiguous lesson about the importance of showing gratitude?

I believe the answer to all these questions is no. Like other stories from Luke that we have read in recent weeks, this Gospel lesson shows the amazing inclusiveness of Jesus’ love. Instead of shunning lepers or pretending not to see them, Jesus pays attention to them and responds to their needs. He doesn’t ask questions first about their nationality or orthodoxy of belief or personal morality, or demand that they perform acts of devotion afterward. He simply heals them all-- the nine who did not come back to praise God as well as the one who did. Jesus doesn’t limit his loving care to those who seem to deserve it.

The inclusiveness and patience of Jesus’ love makes me wonder if we worry too much about distinguishing “worthy” from “unworthy” recipients of assistance in food pantries, shelters, and welfare programs. Are any of us really worthy of the blessings we have received from God? It’s easy to recognize myself in the nine lepers who didn’t show their gratitude for God’s gifts. And yet He hasn’t given up on me– or on any of us. Can we stop giving up on each other? Can we become so grateful for our own blessings that we can even give thanks for the blessings bestowed on “the undeserving”?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Luke 17: 5-10

6 October  Luke 17:5-10  --  Standing for Justice

I went to see the movie “The Butler” a month ago.  I could identify with the son, Lewis Gaines, as he actively worked for justice by sitting at lunch counters, riding Freedom buses and getting thrown in jail multiple times.
 As I watched the father, Cecil Gaines (the Butler) live his life of invisible service, I began to see a strong connection between faith as mustard seed and the writing about the slave in Luke’s Gospel.  I began to think about the huge leap of faith it requires to serve with no thought of recognition or reward.  How can I work for basic human rights expecting to have no impact that I'll ever see? How can I serve the poor and marginalized with no expectation of being recognized or thanked for my service?  How can I dismiss any thoughts about whether those I am serving are deserving of my service or behaving with appropriate gratitude?  How do I simply see “the other” as real human beings who will reveal God to me?

Maybe justice is about both being Lewis Gaines who expresses and acts in righteous indignation against injustice, AND being Cecil Gaines who found honor and esteem as he served freely without thought of reward, simply “doing what ought to be done.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Luke 16: 19-26

 Luke 16: 19-26

The chronically mentally ill person on State Street raves and rattles a sheaf of papers at passersby. Some of us feel afraid and cross the street, looking in an attractive store window to soothe ourselves. We wish the police would do something. A woman walks past the bleary-eyed stranger and says hello, asks how his day is going. He stops ranting and says hello back, asks her if she’ll buy a newspaper. She agrees, pays takes the paper, wishes him a good day, is off to work. He begins ranting again, but his voice is softer now. In today’s gospel, the author of Luke continues to show us how to see others. The poor man, named Lazarus, lies at the rich man’s gate, prepared to receive any crumbs the household would brush his way. Scholars tell us that the name Lazarus was probably chosen for its meaning as the servant of Abraham and Sarah, our forebears. Could Luke be asking us to think of Lazarus also as the representative of the poor and humble everywhere? The rich man leaves his gate and steps over Lazarus, poor, hungry and sick, probably disgusting-looking, and goes off to his destination. This is when I begin to squirm. How often do we hurry on our way to a meeting or the grocery store, failing to see those around us? We clutch our resources close, our money and our time, and scurry on, living in a self-centered mentality of scarcity.

Often the suffering and needs of others are visible in areas of desperate poverty and in war zones; sometimes the needs are less visible, as in the case of discrimination against groups of people. Luke reminds us first to see, then to have compassion, allowing our hearts to be melted by our vision. In that transformed state, we are asked to act on behalf of those who need our help. Crossing the road and looking away from the beating victim, stepping over and not seeing the beleaguered Lazarus, leaving the widowed woman alone to perish; these are all examples of stepping over the outcasts Luke calls us to consider. Who are the outcasts we overlook today? Quickly name to yourself the groups of people, the situations, you’d rather not notice. How do we keep our eyes open, see and be transformed through compassion, and act? What small actions may make a difference?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Luke 16:1-13 Forgiving Debts

Luke 16:1-13     Forgiving Debts

In this parable, Jesus tells about a dishonest manager. We don’t know whether he
embezzled from his employer or overcharged customers and pocketed the difference.
We can’t tell whether he was doubling down on his dishonesty by writing off legitimate
debts, or canceling the portion he had added to bills. Jesus doesn’t say; he must think
it doesn't matter to the point of the story. What matters is that the manager recognized
that what was good for the debtors was good for him.

The King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer says “And forgive us our debts, as we
forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). (The original Greek word in the passage means
just that: debt.) Many in our society are struggling with indebtedness: medical bills and
no health insurance, college loans, unemployment and underemployment, low wages, a
ragged social safety net. What is Jesus telling us about our dependence on even those
who are barely surviving? How might their well-being be good for us? How are we

being faithful to his message? As individuals? As a society?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Luke 14:25-33

(Gospel for Sept. 8)

This gospel lesson is painful to read because it confronts me with the half-heartedness of my efforts at discipleship. It forces me to recognize how far I am from making the kind of total commitment that Jesus is demanding. I still use family responsibilities as an excuse for my cowardice. I have not given up my possessions, either. In fact, I am so attached to my own comfort and sense of security that I have not even tried to follow Jesus very far.

However good my intentions, I tend to chicken out when faced with the hard and risky work of discipleship. When I'm concerned about hunger or homelessness, I usually just write a check. It would take more time to volunteer at a pantry or shelter, and what else might I feel obligated to do if I actually got to know some folks who live in poverty? When I read about injustices in the prison system, I sometimes get indignant enough to post something on Facebook or discuss the problem with like-minded people, but there my action stops. What might happen if I were brave enough to try becoming an advocate for prison reform, or visiting prisoners, or helping an ex-offender find housing or a job?

Could Jesus' words in this gospel be calling me to take the kind of risk I've been avoiding? Could he be calling you too?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Luke 14:1,7-14

1 Sept.  Luke 14:1, 7-14 -  Radical Hospitality

There was a story circulating on Facebook this summer about a Pastor who transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000-member church where he was to be installed as the head pastor that morning.  After being ignored, glared at, asked to move to the back of the church, offered food and asked to leave, etc., he was introduced and raised the question of the meaning of disciple, and of the definitions of charity and outreach.

How can we recognize and affirm that our charitable acts of providing food, serving our homeless families, and gathering money for our various ministries are absolutely necessary, but not sufficient? How can we recognize, and affirm that "Outreach" revolves around those actions we take to acknowledge, proclaim and internalize that all human beings – especially the poor, the marginalized, the incarcerated – are children of God and members of one human family?  How can we choose discipleship by responding to Jesus’ call to us who are privileged to place others in positions of privilege; to stand in solidarity with those who our group culture says are of no account ?  How do we honor all human beings, invite them in, welcome them, worship with them, and learn from them?    

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

30 June 2013 Luke 9:51-62

30 June 2013      Luke 9:51-62 ---     Breaking the Rules

In his book, The Rules Are No Game,  Anthony Wilden says  “In every situation and in every trade there was a code of rules to abide by…  Bad luck aside, these rules guaranteed that you wouldn’t lodge a hook in someone’s ear, or lose your fingers to a machine, or blow your foot off…  Family rules were practical guides to a combination of respect for self, respect for others, and respect for quality…  These rules were no game.  They were all legitimate, and still are.  Some codes of rules, like some authorities, are legitimate, some are not.  The test of legitimacy is the actual effect of a rule in a real context.  Legitimate codes of rules enable people to express their creativity and to protect themselves and each other.  Illegitimate rules serve the tyrants who create them.  They drive people to destruction.”

Our rules become the tyrant when those things we believe we should do if we want to be considered respectable people prevent us from hearing the call of Jesus to follow him, or when they compel us to make serious compromises in how we follow him.  How does our own following of our cultural rules of what makes a respectable person make us resemble those who made excuses about the need to bury their dead or say goodbye to their families?  How does our own cultural definition of respect lead us to judge others as not respectable, or not worthy of our respect, or not worthy of our time, attention, resources or fair treatment as worthy and beloved creations of God?  How can we choose to become aware of, and set aside, any cultural rules that prevent us from standing in solidarity with all human beings? 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sunday 23 June 2013 - Luke 8:26-39

23 June 2013    Luke 8:26-39 ---   Facing Our Demons

There are times when life on West Washington St. is loud and contentious.  Those who show up at the homeless shelter drunk, high, or off of their meds are denied admission and often react vehemently as they stalk off to find a place to sleep exposed to the cold, the rain, and people who prey on them.  I watch people respond in fear - shy away, hurry around, attempt to ignore.  I watch fear happen when various groups proclaim their various issues on the Capitol steps – faster walk, crossing the street, citation issued.   I think it’s natural to want to shut these folks out– yelling and antisocial behavior, singing and slogan-shouting can be frightening.  However, I believe what really  frightens us is that all of these folks remind us of our fear of all of the forces (demons) that can tear any one of us from family, from safety, from community, from everything that makes the world make any sense or have any warmth.  Folks were afraid of Jesus.  When he named and confronted whatever demons kept folks from health and wholeness, he was changing their life and the life of their community.  The folks in today’s gospel were a lot like my good friend in Ohio who told me that she was going to continue joking her way through Bible study because if she took what I was saying seriously, her life was going to have to change, and she was not prepared to do that yet – fear at is most fundamental level.

The problem with fear is that it exacerbates the divisions among us.  We become “us” and “them.”   Our fear drives our de-humanizing of “them” into categories that we can marginalize or judge not worthy to be part of our community in some manner.  How can we choose to name and confront the powers that oppress and divide us?  How can we face our fears and choose to restore to community those whom we have shut out of it?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Luke 7:11-17: Raising the widow's only son

Like last week's Gospel story about the healing of the centurion's slave, the story of the widow's only son shows Jesus reaching across social boundaries to help a stranger on the margins of his society. The centurion was a foreigner, a Gentile, and a representative of the detested Roman army.  The widow occupies a very low rung in a patriarchal society, and with the loss of her only son she is likely to become one of the poorest of the poor. She has no claim on Jesus's attention except her desperate circumstances. Like the centurion, however, she obviously matters to Jesus. He responds to her grief and her need, even touching the bier (although such contact with the dead makes him ritually unclean), and restores her son to life.

As people of faith, it is natural for us to value the reassurance in stories like these, which demonstrate the great compassion and healing power of our Lord. But we are called to follow His example, not just accept His promises on behalf of ourselves and those we love. Since he recognized the human dignity and worth of the centurion, are we called to extend our respectful attention to immigrants, people of other religions, and others who "do not belong" in our community? Since he saw and responded to the widow's desperation, are we called to be attentive to the needs of our least powerful neighbors, and do what we can to stand in solidarity with them?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

John 16:12-15: "I still have many things to say to you."

Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth." (John 16:12-13, The Inclusive Bible).

What kinds of things does Jesus have in mind when he refers to truths that his followers "cannot yet bear" to know, but will be taught in the future by the Holy Spirit? From the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we can see his early disciples gradually being impelled by the Spirit to accept the radical inclusiveness of God's love  a love that insists on the equal value before God of foreigners, Gentiles, eunuchs, and slaves. From our own vantage point in history, we can see the Spirit's continuing influence in the role Christians have played in the long campaigns to abolish slavery, protect the human rights of women and children, and combat racism and homophobia.

But clearly the words of Jesus apply to you and me too. Do we really accept the radical inclusiveness of God's love, or do we still resist believing that there are no outcasts or second-class citizens in God's kingdom? In our heart of hearts, do we respect the equal human dignity and value of people with severe disabilities? addicts? undocumented immigrants? people with prison records? others who are shunned or marginalized in our society? Is the Spirit trying to guide us in this direction?

Monday, May 6, 2013

John 17: 20-26

12 May 2013   John 17:20-26 

A picture of some African boys seated in a circle with their legs straight out and their feet touching appeared on my Facebook timeline many times in the past few weeks. The accompanying story is that someone placed food some distance away and told the boys that the first one there could have it. Instead of racing against each other, however, the boys joined hands and ran as one person. They could not conceive of the idea that one of them should get something that the rest could not share.

We marvel at such stories and pass them on. We marvel because seeing ourselves as “one” is hard for those of us born into a culture of “rugged Individualists” who are supposed to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” in order to "attain the American dream.” While those core values have built a strong nation, the downside is that all of us, through our action and our inaction, live as if anything important is a zero-sum game. The rich can't get richer unless the poor get poorer. Goodness can't survive unless evildoers are punished or killed. I can't feel secure unless others are excluded. We reject negotiated settlements unless they are achieved at the expense of the other.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we seem to rule much of our behavior by a theology of scarcity. It is hard to love when we are competing for scarce resources.   When we cannot love, we cannot do justice.   Injustice is the inevitable outcome of a theology of scarcity.   Are those African boys actually wiser than we are in the ways that matter most?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

5 May 2013: John 14:23-29

"I get the Father and the Son, but could you explain the bit about the Holy Ghost?"

My Jewish nephew approached me with that question many years ago, when he was a  first-grader in an English church-affiliated school, and I've never forgotten my embarrassing inability to give him any coherent answer. I said that "Ghost" conveys the wrong idea and recent translations use the term "Spirit" instead, but that substitution didn't solve the real problems. Like "Ghost", "Spirit" seems mostly to suggest a being that lacks such essential aspects of human existence as embodiment and visibility, rather than a living, powerful presence. And it doesn't suggest anything about what the Spirit does or why it matters.

In retrospect, I wish I had remembered the Old Testament passages that portray the Spirit as the breath of God, by which He created the universe and gave life to Adam in Genesis, and the  means by which He continues to create and renew the life of all creatures (as in Psalm 104). I didn't even remember that Christians call the Spirit "the Lord, the giver of life" every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. And of course I didn't know that the 2013 theme for Vacation Bible School at St. Andrew's would be "Breathe It In: God Gives Life"! 

Is the Spirit of Life still teaching us today, as this week's Gospel suggests? If so, it seems likely that the Spirit is urging us to love the earth and its creatures as God does, and to do what we can to ensure their continued health and vitality. Besides caring for our fellow human beings, is the Spirit calling us to protect endangered species and threatened ecosystems? lower our carbon emissions? conserve and recycle as much as possible? lobby on behalf of stronger environmental regulations? take other kinds of action that the disciples in Jesus' time could not have imagined?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

28 April 2013 John 13:31-35 Loving One Another

28 April 2013  John 13:31-35   Loving One Another

I remember one year when we were doing a thematic Bible study of all of the various passages about who we were supposed to love – God, each other, our neighbor.   Some folks told stories designed to help all of us remember the breadth of this required love – stories that illustrated the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the going the extra mile.  Others’ stories questioned the depth of this required love as they brought up folks like Hitler, condemned child molesters.  Then from the back of the room came a voice that calmly said, “you don’t know my neighbor!  I can choose not to do harm to him, but don’t ask me to do the impossible and love him too!”   I remember we all sat speechless for a moment, then we laughed nervously, but we had no response to that revelation.

I have thought about that day over the years.  How DO we learn to love one another?  I watch Jesus.   Jesus spent his life telling stories that invited us into a new vision, a new way of looking at “the way the world ought to work.”   He lived compassion for the poor, the weak, the outcasts, and the marginalized.  In his stories and in his living, Jesus strove to raise our awareness, our consciousness, of the universal brotherhood of all persons, of the interconnectedness of all things.   Compassion (L. com -, together  + pati -, to suffer) – our ability to suffer together -  comes from the  raising of our consciousness.  It is out of compassion that love flows.   What is the breadth and depth of that love?  Jesus watched Judas leave to betray him and immediately turned to the remaining disciples and issued the ultimatum – “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.”   Love became our Call when through his death and his forgiveness Jesus demonstrated that love can triumph over the worst of human destructiveness.   Consciousness – Compassion – Love.   When we can love, we can work for justice for all of God’s creation.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

John 10:22-30

This week's Gospel lesson presents a challenging and difficult message for the ancient Israelites, and for us as well. Jesus is being questioned by contemporaries who expected the Messiah to come as a conquering hero, a warrior like the Maccabees, who would lead a great uprising and overthrow the oppressive Roman government. Instead, Jesus comes as a compassionate shepherd who heals the victims of injustice and oppression, and he abhors violence so much that he would rather submit to an unjust death than protect himself or let his followers protect him by fighting back. What is more, Jesus claims that his example reveals the nature of God the Father: "The Father and I are one." In other words, he seems to be saying that the Israelites have been quite wrong to believe that God wants them to wage war against their enemies, or even to use violence in self-defense.

If this was Jesus' message to the Israelites, must it not also be his message to us? Do we believe in a God who condones or even encourages the use of violence to solve our problems? If so, have we replaced the Father of Jesus with an idol created in our own foolish image? On the other hand, if we know that our God abhors violence, can we honestly claim to serve Him if we aren't trying hard to do something about the pervasiveness of violence in our popular culture, the streets of our cities, and the foreign policy of our nation?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

John 20:19-31

Thomas made a good point when he insisted on seeing and touching the wounds caused by Christ's violent death. When violence deeply wounds the body of Christ, as it is doing in our own time, it demands our attention.

On the day after Palm Sunday about forty Madison Episcopalians participated in the same Way of the Cross liturgy that our bishop and other church leaders were enacting that day in Washington, D. C. Besides lamenting recent victims of violence in Sandy Hook and Chicago, we confessed the ways in which our own actions and inactions have contributed to our "culture of violence" and asked God to help us change. Here are some brief excerpts from the First Station:

"We are reduced to weeping silence [when children are massacred in their school], even as we breed a violent culture, even as we kill the sons and daughters of our so-called 'enemies,' even as we fail to cherish and protect the forgotten in our common life."

"Loving God, we beseech you to move powerfully in our body politic. Move us toward peaceableness that does not want to hurt or kill; move us toward justice so that the troubled and the forgotten may know mercy; move us toward forgiveness, so that we may escape the trap of revenge."

"Open our mouths to speak and our lives to act in ways that affirm, build up, and rejoice in every one of your children. Give us a voice to call for just laws, for an end to hatred and violence, for ready access to mental health services . . . Let us never wash our hands of any life lost and never cease to witness to your love until all are safe and living in peace."

Monday, March 11, 2013

17 March 2013 John 12:1-8

17 March 2013     John 12:1-8            Mad Acts of Extravagance

I find that harsh criticism of apparent extravagance is very common, especially among those of us who profess concern about the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.  I just read "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder – the story of Paul Farmer “the man who would cure the world.” Harvard-based medical anthropologist and physician Farmer is best known for providing “first-world” health care to “third-world” people, beginning in Haiti. Dr. Farmer and his colleagues have pioneered novel, community-based treatment strategies (especially for drug-resistant TB and AIDS) that demonstrate the delivery of high-quality health care in resource-poor settings. Critics of his work have used various terms. “Inappropriate Technology” was the phrase of the World Health Organization and various drug companies as he struggled to demonstrate that disease-resistant TB was, indeed, curable in the slums of Peru and the Central Plateau of Haiti. “The country can’t afford it” was another favorite criticism as he demonstrated that he could stop the spread of AIDS in Haiti. “You could save so many more” was the criticism when funds were spent to fly seriously ill patients to Boston for treatment. “Poor use of time and talent” was the criticism when Farmer hiked over seven hours to see two patients.

 Farmer's response to all those criticisms was that the “preferential option for the poor” (the guiding force behind all his actions) simply requires us to do the right thing. He constantly repeated, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” He pointed out that we always ask the wrong questions. Why don't we ask questions about making drugs less expensive, or compare the $100,000 salary of a doctor against the $20,000 cost of treating a Haitian in Boston? Farmer asks us to re-frame what we commonly see as mad acts of extravagance. How can we begin to view everything through the lens of “all lives matter” and “it’s the right thing to do”?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Luke 13:1-5-- Reacting to the Misfortunes of Others

"Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?"

It is dangerously easy to draw the wrong lessons from the misfortunes of others. I don't believe that those who lose everything in natural disasters have been singled out for punishment by God, but I find it easy and comforting to assume that most victims of misfortune have done something wrong– made some error or yielded to some temptation that explains and justifies their suffering. When I encounter people who are homeless, I automatically suspect them of laziness or other character flaws. When I hear about people whose kids have become involved with drugs or gun violence, my first thought is that they must have been bad parents. Do you tend to make such assumptions too?

What if other people's misfortunes made us realize our own failings instead of blaming the victims and feeling superior? That seems to be what Jesus is suggesting when he warns his listeners in Luke 13:1-5 to repent of their own sins, lest they all perish like the victims they've been talking about.

What positive changes might occur if we accepted the victims of misfortune as our brothers and sisters, our moral equals in Christ, and got to know them as individuals? What if we stood in solidarity with the homeless people on our streets, or with at-risk kids and their parents? If we worked together with them, how might we start making our community fairer, more welcoming, and safer for everybody?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Luke 13:31-35 Stereottyping

24 Feb. Luke 13:31-35      Stereotyping

I was surprised by today’s gospel.  The Pharisees actually came to warn Jesus.  I am so used to conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that I have come to assume that Pharisees are “the enemy” with few to no redeemable qualities.   In short, I have transformed the persons called Pharisees into a stereotype of all that is arrogant and self-serving.   Now might be a good time to reflect on stereotyping and the injustice that emerges from our being both afraid of that which we do not know, and unwilling to obtain all of the information we would need to make fair judgments about people and situations. 

While stereotyping helps us understand our world in many positive ways, it also leads us to develop some prejudices, many of which we are not even aware.   When we find ourselves judging people and groups based upon our prejudices and stereotypes, we begin to treat them differently - we are engaged in discrimination.  Some forms of discrimination are obvious.   We are all aware of the pressures which were used to discourage minorities from living in various neighborhoods. Women and minorities have experienced discrimination in employment, education, social services, and their presence is missing from high echelon positions in the business world.  More subtle forms of discrimination separate “us” from “them” in our theology, in our politics, in the civility of our discourse.  Even more subtle forms revolve around all of the ways we choose “those just like us”  - from hiring practices to accepting volunteers on our committees.

How can we remember that we are not made God's people by our thinking alike or behaving alike? How can we remember that our response to the unconditional love of God must include  that unconditional love that is focused on preserving the minority opinion alongside the majority?  How can we love enough to choose to come together over and over again,  hang our certainty at the door and argue?  How can we love enough  to treat each other as colleagues who disagree rather than as adversaries… and argue?  How can we love enough to agree to keep coming back to the table, to  agree to disagree… and to keep arguing?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Luke's Transfiguration story (Luke 9: 28-36)

     I always empathize with Peter when I hear the Transfiguration story. Who wouldn't want to capture that moment of shining glory and certainty on the mountain and live there as long as possible? But the story is full of reminders that Peter is missing the big picture. Moses and Elijah are not congratulating Jesus on a victory already won, but talking about "his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem"– that is, his suffering and death. A week earlier Jesus himself told the disciples that the Messiah must be rejected and killed in order to fulfill his mission (Luke 9:21-22) and that his followers must take up their own crosses. Now the voice of God confirms the message: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

     The Transfiguration is more than a temporary respite on the way to the cross, however. The memory of this shining, transcendent assurance of God's presence and grace must have sustained Peter and the other disciples during the hardest periods of their lives. Knowing the story can sustain us, in turn, as we embrace the work that God has given us to do. Like Peter, we are called to follow Jesus down from the mountain, back into the everyday world of struggling, confused human beings that he came to redeem. If we can see the glory of Jesus's example through the eyes of faith, we should be able to respond wholeheartedly when he calls us to share in his mission of redemption. If we can hope to be gradually changed by grace into the likeness of our Lord, we should have enough strength and courage to keep working against systemic injustice, undaunted even by big, complicated challenges like gun violence, global poverty, and climate change.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Luke 4:21-30 On Being a Just Community

3 Feb.  Luke 4:21-30       On Being a Just Community

Jesus’ prophetic ministry challenged his community.  In a community that believed so strongly in a God that was so far “above the fray,” that His name could not be pronounced, words that announced that the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing had to have been presumptuous.  In a community used to following a rhythm of prayer and worship that was constant, predictable and respectful of tradition, Jesus’ words had to have shaken their sure foundation.  And in a community that knew it was the chosen people of God, Jesus’ words about God sending prophets of Israel to minister to Gentiles had to be incendiary.    In short, Jesus threatened what Harold Garfinkle would describe some 2000 years later as “a moral order defined by the rule-governed activities of everyday life.”  According to Garfinkle, folks will do what it takes to restore their sense of moral order -- justice is usually not part of that restoration.

Today’s gospel reminds us that striving for justice is not only “out there,” but also “in here” in the midst of our own community.  How are we doing here at St. Andrew’s?  Are we truly a Just place to be? Do we have any circled wagons within which we are defending our truth against all comers?  Are we being intentional about creating room for others’ experience or input?  Are we creating a community in which people know one another well and who tell one another the truth in love?  How are we doing at hanging our certainty at the door and choosing to engage the questions?  How are we doing at treating each other as colleagues who disagree rather than as adversaries?  How are we doing at holding up our own assumptions for critical examination?   And most importantly, what are we teaching our community to do with those who don't agree with us?  Jesus recognized the difficulty of being a prophet in the community in which he was raised. We too need to be careful who we lead to the cliff only to have them slip away.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

27 Jan - Luke 4:14-21

27 Jan.  Luke 4:14-21      Our Mission Statement

Consulting with organizations to think clearly about their purpose, their reason for being at this moment in history, and then figuring out how to articulate that purpose in a clear, concise way has provided me with a good income over the years. The first question I always ask is, "Does your current mission statement still work? Does it still clearly and concisely articulate your reason for being at this moment in history?"

For you and me as members of the Body of Christ, the answer to that question is a resounding, “yes.” In today’s gospel, Jesus offers us his Mission Statement - “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” Because we are the Body of Christ, it’s the mission we are also called to engage. We have been chosen, anointed, and given the gifts to care about, and advocate for, the poor and the marginalized in our society.

Continually calling people to the mission of the organization is a fundamental principle in all leadership development. What if we took that principle seriously? What if, at the Peace, we would turn to one or two people and, prayerfully and with eye contact, say, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor?" What if we were dismissed from worship with the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor... He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor?" Most importantly, what if we put that mission on our own bathroom mirror, to see at the beginning of our day as we make decisions throughout our day? "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Luke's gospel asks us to see the connection between baptism and the fearless prophetic calling of John the Baptist. John was so outspoken and so effective in challenging the ruling powers of his society that they saw his growing influence as a threat. In fact, the verses omitted from the middle of today's lesson (Luke 3:18-20) tell us that Herod decided to silence John, shutting off his dangerous truth-telling by locking him up in prison. Later, of course, Herod would have him killed. In this context, just think how frightened people like Herod must have been by John's promise that he would be followed by a much more powerful prophet, one whose followers would be baptized not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Clearly there was something revolutionary about baptism at that time– and there still is, if we stop to think about it. Our baptismal vows demand that we take sides, pledging allegiance to Christ's Lordship above the claims of all other leaders and power structures. When we promise to "follow and obey Him as our Lord" and to "put our whole trust in His grace and love," we commit ourselves to follow in His dangerous footsteps (and those of John the Baptist), speaking out against injustice even if that puts us at odds with the powers-that-be– or with our own families, friends, and neighbors. We can do this with courage, for we have been "sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Matthew 2:1-12-- Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

A joke making the rounds a few years ago suggested that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have known enough about childbirth to provide dinner for Mary and Joseph, wash the dishes, and sweep the stable. And they would have brought useful baby presents– diapers and baby blankets, for example– rather than the strange, exotic gifts mentioned in Matthew's gospel.

But were the gifts of the wise men really so useless to the baby Jesus and his parents? In the January 2013 issue of Sojourners, Martin L. Smith cites a medieval interpretation attributed to St. Bernard which assigns a surprisingly practical purpose to each gift: the gold was to relieve the family's poverty; the incense, to alleviate the stench and bad air of the stable; and the myrrh, to soothe the child's skin and drive away vermin. In other words, Smith explains, "the Magi's gifts are not exotic luxuries, but practical relief aid." The holy family is living as many poor peasants still do today-- in cramped quarters shared with animals and their excrement. The baby's health is at risk in these unsanitary conditions, and he "has a rash because the manger is crawling with fleas."

As Smith points out, this Epiphany story urges us to see Christ's kinship with the millions of poor children today whose lives are at risk because our social order is not just enough – even 2000 years later– to meet the basic human needs of every family for economic sufficiency, adequate and sanitary housing, and basic health services.