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

Monday, December 22, 2014

John 1:1-18

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) The land of deep darkness in Isaiah’s prophecy seems all too much like the place we ourselves are living at present. We are bombarded in the media with bad news about the state of our planet– melting glaciers, species threatened with extinction, disappearing farmland and endangered cities. And the state of humanity seems even darker and more hopeless, with civil wars and terrorist atrocities abroad and endemic racial division, violence, and injustice in our nation and our own community.

In the midst of all this darkness, what are we to do? The paradoxical good news is that  recognizing our own inability to solve the problems of the world is a step in the right direction, since it makes us likelier to recognize and welcome the light and hope that God sends to us. As Isaiah promised, God’s light pierces through the darkness to shine on those who walk there. As John’s Gospel proclaims, this light– unlike our limited human capacities– will not fail: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And this light, embodied in Christ, has become the true source of wisdom and hope for all people: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” In other words, the kind of wisdom that really matters is as likely to be found among those who are poor and powerless and ill-educated by human standards as it is among the upper classes and the educated elite. God has freed us all to teach and learn from each other by bestowing this light equally on everyone. For those of us who long to see the healing of the divisions and inequalities in our society, this may be the best Christmas gift of all.                    

Saturday, December 13, 2014

21 December 2014 Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38
21 December, 2014

Two thousand years have passed since Mary heard the words in this week’s gospel reading, and we hear them with very different ears than she did.  I try to imagine how an adolescent girl hearing these words in the 21st Century would respond.  I imagine it would go something like this:

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”

“Umm, we are taught the Almighty has been with us since we were slaves in Egypt.  But thank you very much.”  [Who is this guy?  What does he want from me?  How worried should I be?]

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

[Whew!  It must be okay.]

“. . . you will conceive a son . . .”

“What???  Wait!  I’m a virgin!”  [Uh, oh — he could be trouble.]

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you . . . “

[Oh, no, I’m not going there!  This is creepy.]  “You have to leave or I’ll call my dad.”  “Dad!!!”

How would you respond if you were confronted with an angel giving you this message?

What would it take for us today — sophisticated, wary, skeptical — to say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”?

And yet every day we are being sent the message that we have found favor in God’s sight — and he has a scary job for us:  Feed the hungry. (But there are so many . . .)  Clothe the naked. (I take our used clothes to thrift shops!)  Care for the sick (Oh, boy, health care politics again.)  Visit the prisoners. (Right.  Prisons are dangerous places!)

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Trust — perhaps trusting that God will be with us as we do the job he has given us is the hardest, scariest part of following Jesus.  But there really isn’t any other Way.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Matthew 25:31-46 Who is Worthy of Our Help

Matthew 25:31-46

Who are 'the least of these'?  Our minds often go first to underpaid workers, children not getting a good education, the unemployed and homeless, the sick: the ones for whom it's easy to feel compassion.  But some people seem more deserving of help than others:  Some create their own problems; some are unpleasant and we'd prefer to avoid them.  When there's only so much I can do, only so much I can donate, who should get it?

Jesus doesnt make exceptions about who qualifies, he identifies himself with all of them:

The son who demands his inheritance now, blows it all, and comes back begging forgiveness and help.

The troubled teenager who is facing court proceedings for possessing illegal drugs.

The single mother who is expecting another child, and lacks resources to care for her children.

The elderly man next door who is cranky and hard to get along with. 

The girl at school, uninterested in learning, who disrupts classes with unacceptable behavior.  

We dont get to choose who is worthy of our help and who isnt they all are the least of these, and Jesus identifies with all of them.  They are everywhere every day, and they are in need.  Look for them and you will see them.  What can you do to help them?

Monday, October 27, 2014

2 Nov. 2014 Matthew 23:1-12 -- "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is"

2 Nov.  2014   Matthew 23:1-12  -- "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is"

My mother’s most consistent challenge to us as we were growing up was “put your money where your mouth is.”  She applied that challenge to everything from our learning to ride a bike to the Sunday school lessons she taught to our free expressions of how we believed the world ought to work.  In high school that meant her expectation was our participation in the youth group trips during Christmas to help create community centers, playgrounds or parks, or run after-school programs in inner city Chicago, St. Louis or Biloxi, Mississippi.  The message was clear – rather than expect the poor to conform to my Midwest expectation that “if you had two good hands and weren't lazy, you could get a job and support your family,” we were to do something to help reduce the stress on the lives of the poor in some way.  Our trips focused mainly on the stress on the children who suffered both from poverty and the absence of parents holding down the two to three jobs they needed to put food on the table and pay the rent.  In college that meant moving beyond either denial or verbal outrage at the Jim Crow South, to helping with tutoring children or voter registration and walking that bridge in Selma.

My mother’s challenge still rings in my ears.  I have chosen to put my money where my mouth is by becoming immersed in Christ the Solid Rock – working to build relationship between the Black and White populations of Madison.  Others have chosen to work with the Nehemiah Center which is focused on reducing the racial disparities in our prison system.  Still others are beginning to focus on the “cost” to our vulnerable populations of legislation that affects Madison and Dane County.  I think about how to find those groups who are working on the racial disparities issues in the Madison schools and wonder how this old former school principal could help.  Where are your skills and expertise and where can you use them to “put your money where your mouth is?”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Luke 15:11-32 - The Prodigal Son

Luke 15: 11-32   The Prodigal Son

Would the prodigal son story sound different if the father in the story were a mother instead? The father’s response to his wastrel son is more than just forgiving; he welcomes his child back with open arms and a joyous heart, showing just how much he had hoped for this moment of reconciliation.This is how our culture tends to imagine mother-love, rather than father-love.It doesn’t seem to be about discipline, obedience or even justice but the irresistible love that ideally is part of both fathers’ and mothers’ relationships with their children. In our culture, such love is often viewed negatively as offering a “bleeding heart” of unearned sympathy for the “worth-less” wastrels of our society.

This is understandable, since such father/mother love is hard on the older brother, who has worked hard to earn respect, love and gratitude for his conscientiousness. He hasn’t broken any rules, hasn’t wasted any of the family’s money, hasn’t made bad choices. He’d like to know that his work matters, and rather than just wanting his share of father/mother love, he wants to see that his goodness makes a difference, that he gets more of this generous love. But he doesn’t. And as a result, his heart does not go out to his brother.

We are reminded here how our sense of righteousness can easily spill over into hard-heartedness toward those who have indeed made bad choices, gotten themselves in trouble, wasted what was freely given to them. Unless they are punished, how can we feel justly treated? Such hard-heartedness, some economists suggest, is what lies behind current austerity politics. Even though debt relief and stimulus spending would actually help economies and households out of the downward economic spiral (since cuts in your spending are cuts in my income and vice versa), many are unable to see such forgiveness and generosity as “fair.”Why should Germany “forgive” Greece or the federal government “forgive” Detroit or a bank rewrite a mortgage at a lower rate? When our own budgets are squeezed, how can we give more to anyone else?

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”This translation of the Lord’s Prayer highlights the way that God’s justice is not “fair” but forgiving.We may feel rewarded for our righteousness if we see our wastrel brothers getting punished, but God reminds us that this perception is mistaken. “It is in giving that we receive and in pardoning that we are pardoned.”Even in the world economy there is a truth in generosity that our self-righteousness may make it hard to see.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

I’ve heard it said that charity means caring for our neighbors who have been beat up and left by the road, and justice means going one step further: finding out who or what keeps beating up our neighbors and trying to do something to stop it. Charity is almost universally praised, but taking that step toward justice can be controversial.

This past week a state-wide organization of faith communities called WISDOM organized a rally at the State Capitol to protest the overuse of solitary confinement by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Although the United Nations says keeping a person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days amounts to torture, our state DOC routinely punishes violations of prison rules by sending inmates (many of them mentally ill) to what it calls “segregation units” for periods of six months, a year, even longer. In such conditions– cut off from all normal human contact, kept for 23 hours or more a day in tiny windowless cells where the lights are never turned off and the noise from other desperate prisoners rarely stops– mental illnesses inevitably get worse, and even healthy prisoners have a hard time maintaining their sanity.

The closing speaker at the rally, an elderly minister from Milwaukee who once marched with Martin Luther King, reminded us of what Jesus said about caring for “the least of these”– including those in prison. And he invited us to share his own commitment to two basic premises of the Christian faith: Prisoners are people, and Every person is redeemable.

Can we give a wholehearted “Amen” to those premises, or do they seem too controversial, too risky, for us to embrace? Do prisoners count as neighbors for us? If so, can we care for them without questioning the conditions in which they are being held?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46 – Becoming the Cornerstone

Matthew 21:33-46 – Becoming the Cornerstone

Today we read yet another story in which the arguments between Jesus and the Temple leaders were most often not about religious practices, but about the temple leaders' collusion with exploitative economic and social policies of the Roman Empire, and later over different ways of negotiating life under that Empire in the church and the synagogue.  Today’s story of the absentee landlord and the rebellion of his workers focus us on some fundamental questions on two levels.

One level asks some fundamental questions of systems and structures; of our corporate decision-making.  Jesus dismisses all ideas of the old “vineyard” and talks about being the “cornerstone” of a totally new structure.  He raises fundamental questions about the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this age.  Rather, Jesus asks us to consider how to care for those whom the world disregards.  Here in Madison, a courageous new stand by our County Executive has now required that the consequences to the poor be calculated whenever more luxurious building plans are approved or the cost of public transportation is doubled rather than the cost of parking, or grocery stores are approved for particular locations.   How can we support that stand?  How do we begin to honor the peacemakers, and to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort – both physical and ideological?  In what ways are we like the sharecroppers, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right?   Do we think about the cost to generations to come as we escalate interpersonal and international conflict?

Another level asks some fundamental questions about how we choose to negotiate life within our current reality.  In what ways are we like that absentee landlord, dependent upon the exploitation of millions of people in order to support our standard of living?   Do we know where our food, our clothes, our energy, our coffee, our electronics, come from, and at what cost to poor people and the environments in which they live?  Do we know about the racial disparities, the poverty and the homelessness in our own community and the social and economic impact those realities will have on future generations? Are we willing to help be the cornerstone of those new structures that  will care for those whom the world currently disregards?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

7 Sept. 2014 Matthew 18:15-20 - Dealing with Difficult People

7 Sept.  2014  Matthew 18:15-20 -  Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult people have been a fact of life ever since human life began.  As human beings we know we are sometimes difficult ourselves. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the creation and each of us in it to God and to one another. Dealing with difficult people in the church is about getting all parties directly involved around a table that focuses on the unconditional love of God for every human being and on the reality that we were created for relationship both with God and each other. It is in that context that real conversation and real reconciliation can take place. Paul calls this process “speaking the truth to one another in love.” As members of the Anglican Communion, the Elizabethan Compromise reminded us to stay focused on God’s love in order to stay present even with the people we find difficult, speak the truth to each other in love, and learn how to agree to disagree. In the past few years, the word “indaba” was borrowed from Africa to remind us once again that dealing with difficult people (and ideas) is about gathering together to sort out mutual problems in a context where everyone has a voice and where there is an attempt to find a common mind or common story that everyone is able to tell – to remember that reconciliation is the common story we all share.

We are all called to the ministry of reconciliation. We are all called to assume responsibility for speaking truth to one another in love. That ministry can be specific – that difficult person who pushes our ability to stay present with them, to stay in relationship, to stay focused on God’s love of them (and us). Reconciliation can be more general – those difficult systems and structures that establish criteria for who gets to be included, how resources should be allocated and whose lives count more than others.  Justice can emerge when we can begin to see difficult people, difficult systems and difficult structures as an opportunity for doing the work of reconciling creation and each of us in it to God and each other.

Friday, June 27, 2014

29 June 2014 Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew 10:40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  Sayings about welcoming a messenger were common in the Mediterranean world; welcoming a messenger meant welcoming the person who sent the messenger.  If a king sent an emissary, the emissary was to be treated as the king himself.  Jesus quotes this saying in Matthew, Luke and John, giving his authority, granted by the Father, to his followers.  Too often this authority has been abused in evangelism, portraying God as threatening with eternal damnation and bribing with promises of eternal bliss.  No wonder Episcopalians shy away from the dreaded ‘E-word’!

Let's think closely about what Jesus is saying here, and what he said in last week’s gospel story.  He is talking about acting like God, not like gods.  We are each a picture of the God we believe in.  We resemble the master we serve.

What can we do this week, this day, this eternal present moment to show others that God is merciful, patient, generous, forgiving, always steadfast in loving-kindness?  What societal or personal broken relationship can we begin to mend?  Who needs to be blessed with the blessings God has entrusted to us?  What can we do to share God’s loving care in our particular spot on this earth?  Remember your English teacher’s advice about writing?  “Show, don’t tell.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

22 June 2014 Matthew 10:24-39 - “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear”

22 June 2014   Matthew 10:24-39  -   “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear”

In The Message,  Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Gospel for today is clear, direct and appears to be hard and harsh.  Peterson’s translation reads, “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy.  I’ve come to cut – make a sharp knife cut between son and father daughter and mother – cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies… 

These words are hard to hear.  They feel like a bludgeon is being applied to my closely held values of the importance of family.  As I become anxious about the idea that family members can be my worst enemy, I remember the classic song from the Musical “South Pacific” when Lt. Cable sings:

“You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year, It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!’’

Some of us may, indeed, have been taught to hate.  Most of us have been taught to fear – whether fear uses the word “pity,” “concern,” “careful,” “caution,” or “afraid.”  Fear can bring about avoidance and denial, especially when justice, integrity, wholeness – those qualities characteristic of Jesus’ work among us – might conflict with what we have been taught about “how the world ought to work”.  Fear has a tendency to make us blind.  We do not see that there are systems and structures in place that prevent other folks from enjoying the same quality of life that we enjoy.  Fear can make us both blind and deaf to those who are different from us.  I have experienced servers speaking to me but acting as if my Black friend was invisible – neither seeing nor hearing her -  when out to lunch together.  The biggest complaint of the homeless guys on the Square is that folks treat them as if they were invisible – as if they did not exist.  The Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters to break from their parents is that Christ has come to break us out of those old and harmful patterns in order that we might experience real love and real justice – finding both God and our true selves in the process.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pentecost 2014

What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? The quiet, private scene in John 20:19-23 is so different from the public excitement and clamor of the famous Pentecost events in Acts that the two accounts almost seem to be contradicting each other. But do they really?

At the beginning of the scene John is relating, the disciples are hiding in a locked room for fear of potential enemies. But Jesus appears among them, offers them God’s peace, and breathes on them– conferring the Spirit silently, with a gesture that recalls the way God breathed life into Adam in Genesis. Although John does not emphasize the miraculous aspect of this scene, it changes the disciples forever– transforming them into apostles, empowered by the Spirit to leave that safe little room and go forth to make known the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for all humankind.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts also testifies to the Spirit’s miraculous ability to heal human divisions, overcoming all the fears and differences that tend to keep us apart (language, ethnicity, race, immigration status, religious and political beliefs, etc.) With the guidance of the Spirit, we can grow to see each other as God sees us: as a single human family, all loved and redeemed by the work of Christ. And we too can be transformed, as the first disciples were, into instruments of God’s peace and love.

Monday, May 26, 2014

1 June 2014 John 17:1-11 - "The Words That Were Given to U"s

1 June 2014   John 17:1-11 -   "The Words That Were Given to Us"

 “…for the words that you gave to me, I have given to them, and they have received them…”    We have been given a lot of words from God through Jesus – doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and releasing the prisoner from his chains.  All of the words we have been given were summarized by Jesus when he said, “Love God with all of your heart, your soul and your mind and Love your Neighbor as yourself.”

It appears that we, in Madison, are being given some specific words about loving our neighbor at this moment in history.  The National White Privilege Conference was held in Madison this spring.  A panel was convened at the Unitarian Church to talk about racism in Madison in light of the Casey Foundation report that labeled Wisconsin as the worst state in the nation for Black Children.  Dr. Alex Gee’s Justified Anger Coalition (on the cover of the Isthmus in January) is attracting hundreds of supporters.    The cover of the May 16 Isthmus has a startling close-up of our County Executive, Joe Parisi with the title, “Joe Parisi’s Race Problem and Ours.”  The article talks about the harsh statistics in the Dane County report on Racial Disparities published in October 2013 that verify that a Black child has more chance of success in Mississippi or Alabama than in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes on to describe how Parisi has built his 2014 budget on a theme of “An Investment in Our Values” which contain a number of new programs aimed at helping African Americans.

This is a time when our eyes and ears are being opened to what is, and has been, happening to Black children in Madison.  There are many issues of disadvantaged folks calling for our attention in this city - homeless people, undocumented workers, returning prisoners, battered women.  It appears that, at this moment in time, we are being awakened to the extent of the specific problem of racism in our community.  How can we best receive these words we are being given?  How can we link arms with our County Executive, with each other, and with our African American neighbors to begin the work of leveling the playing field?  How can we begin to build those relationships of trust with our African American neighbors that will enable all of us to genuinely see each other as neighbors?  How can we focus our collective voice to begin the work of changing the systems and structures that have made Madison such a difficult place for Black Children to thrive?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

25 May 2014 Luke 12:13-21

25 May  2014    Luke 12:13-21

When I read today's story in Luke, a song from the opera Porgy and Bess runs through my head.  The more we have, the more we have to fear, to worry about, to take care of.  Do we trust that God will provide our daily bread?  Do we heed God’s words to Moses about not gathering more manna than we need for the day?  If we do, we can live a more free life.  Accumulating more than enough in investment accounts, large homes, personal possessions, creates a life of worry and stress -- for us, and especially for those whose daily needs are not being met because we’ve hoarded the abundant crop of God in our big barns.

Oh, I got plenty of nothin’ 
and nothin's plenty for me. 
I got no car, got no mule, 
I got no misery.
The folks with plenty of plenty 
Got a lock on the door —
'Fraid somebody's going to rob 'em 
while they're out a-makin' more. 
What for? 
I got no lock on the door, 
that's no way to be. 
They can steal the rug from the floor — 
that's ok with me 
'cause the things that I prize 
like the stars in the skies 
all are free. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gospel for May 18.. John 12:1-14

John 14:1-14

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

We are five weeks past Easter, and two thousand years past that first momentous time about which John and the other gospel writers tried to tell us. It’s reassuring that humans perhaps haven’t changed much; we may recognize the insistence from Jesus’ followers, Thomas and Philip, to pony up the proof. It gives me some compassion for us, hundreds of years later, that we struggle to believe the wonder of God’s love, as demonstrated by Jesus’ life, when people who actually spent time with didn’t believe him easily either. But Jesus offers us reassurance in the attempts he made repeatedly with Thomas and Philip. He told them, and still tells us, how he comes again and again and again every time we act in ways that he lived. He lived humbly, accepting everyone, seeking and seeing the value in every person. Is he telling us it’s as easy as learning to see the God-like element in every person? Is that how he comes again to us? By engaging compassionately with everyone, no matter their class, color, or wealth, we can reunite with Jesus by following his ways, and thereby remind ourselves of God’s abundant love overflowing for us. In relationship with each other we mimic Jesus’ example and come close to God. We don’t need to let our hearts be troubled. We just need to relate to each other with equal regard. And therein we find our connection to the divine. Helping the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the uneducated, the mentally ill isn’t about earning heavenly points. It’s about luxuriating in God’s love. Why would we resist?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

John 20:19-31 - Being “Out There”

 John 20:19-31  -   Being “Out There”

I have always liked Thomas.  Unlike the other disciples who locked themselves in a room in fear, Thomas was “out there” somewhere.  Thomas reminds me that, if I truly want to touch Jesus, to know that God is real and alive and at work, the best place for me to be is “out there” – showing up and sitting with the disenfranchised in my community,  touching the pain I find, doing what I can do to participate in works of reconciliation and healing. When I try to sequester myself and my children away from the world's pain, I am hiding in that room in fear right along with the other disciples.

How do I participate in Jesus’ work of reconciliation and healing?  What can one person do? I don't know. I can choose to leave the locked rooms and gated communities that are my perceptions, my judgments, and my fears about people who are different from me.  I can choose to see them – actually see them rather than pretend they do not exist -  as people rather than as issues or problems. I can choose to take a deep breath, and begin to “show up” in those places in my community where the marginalized and disenfranchised live (or attend school) simply to get to know them, to build a relationship.  I can choose to love and respect “the other” as good creations of God.  I can choose to listen to their stories.  I can choose to practice deep, respectful listening, and let any actions I take emerge from my authentic listening rather than my perception of what they need.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

John 11: 1-45: "Unbind him, and let him go."

After Jesus summons Lazarus from the tomb, he asks the witnesses to complete the miraculous resurrection by unbinding Lazarus and setting him free. Writing about this story in a recent issue of the Christian Century, Stephanie Jaeger connects it with our own calling to help liberate our neighbors both from the bondage of personal sins and from "systemic sins" like entrenched poverty and injustice.

Rev. Jaeger, who lives and works in Chicago, emphasizes the urgent need for such “unbinding” in her own neighborhood: "It’s a place where race and class matter. If you are an African-American man on the South Side of Chicago, you have a better chance of going to jail than you do of going to college. This is a sin that binds all of us, whether we realize it or not."

If we’ve been paying attention to recent statistics and news stories about racial disparities in education, job opportunities, and the justice system here in Dane County, we know that Rev. Jaeger could be describing Madison as well as Chicago. Should we despair over this realization? Do we believe it is God’s will that all our neighbors should be released from the bondage of endless poverty and injustice? What part might God be calling us to play in his wonderful work of healing and liberation?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

30 March John 9:1-41

30 March   John 9:1-41 -- Justice Reflection on the Gospel 

‘As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”’

The early Hebrew people thought God would punish generations of children for the sins of their parents (Exodus 20:5). Later the prophet Ezekiel writes (18:1, 20): ‘The word of the Lord came to me: “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent . . .” Ezekiel reveals a God who does not punish the innocent.

In responding to the disciples who are stuck in old ideas about God, Jesus goes further yet: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.” And then he heals him. Jesus is the perfect revelation of the God of love.

Today some people blame the parents for the problem of child poverty, claiming that poor parents are irresponsible and undeserving, and that assistance for their children perpetuates a culture of dependence.

When Jesus says “We must work the works of him who sent me,” he appoints us his agents on earth. We sometimes hesitate to claim this role; it can put us in uncomfortable positions.

                     Are we called to speak prophetically, as Ezekiel did, when our leaders oppose assistance for poor families?

                     Do we fear offending or rocking the boat? When should we confront mean- spiritedness?

                     Are we reluctant to proclaim God’s unconditional love out of concern it would encourage irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior?

                     What can we do here and now to advocate for a more just and loving society for God’s children of all ages?

Monday, March 17, 2014

John 4:5-42 The Samaritan Women of Dane County, Wisconsin

23 March  John 4:5-42     The Samaritan Women of Dane County, Wisconsin

The woman at the well takes me immediately back to those promises I make every time we baptize a baby.  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

I think about all of the Samaritan women who surround me on a daily basis- all those women we tend to look down on at our very best and to make outcast at our worst.  I watch myself shaking my head in both sorrow and irritation at the young, single teens who have gotten themselves pregnant (72/1000 young Black teens and 58/1000 young Hispanic teens in Dane County).  I find myself both cringing and rolling my eyes as I listen to women talk about trying to “get clean” so they can get their kids back (Heroin being the drug of choice in Dane Co.).    I grind my teeth when I learn that 1300 students in Dane Co, identify themselves as gang members, of whom 24% of those are young girls.  I attempt to ignore the fact that a large, well-known house of prostitution is just out my back door, one block over.   And mostly, I have a tendency to push the “denial” button in my brain – I do not want to admit that such sin exists in this city we think of as approaching Utopia.

How is it possible to seek and serve Christ in these people or to preserve their dignity when it appears that they have none to preserve.  This story provides us with one of the most powerful lessons in all of Scripture.  The Samaritan women, and all of those Samaritan women in Dane County, do not, indeed, see themselves as persons of worth and value .  Jesus’ ministering to those outcasts of Jewish society reminds us that all people are valuable to God.  We learn to seek and serve Christ in all persons as we learn to finally see, and then demonstrate love to,  the outcasts in our midst.  We strive for justice and preserve human dignity as we choose to actively work to care for our Samaritans, to constantly let them know that they are people of value to God and to us.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

2 March 2014: Matthew 17:1-9

Today’s Gospel gives us a memorable story about the transcendent glory of God, made manifest in the radiance of Christ on the mountaintop. But what I really love about this story is the human fallibility of the disciples who witness the miracle, especially dear impetuous Peter. When he sees Christ’s dazzling brightness and the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah beside him, Peter falls all over himself with eagerness to do something and starts babbling about building three shelters to preserve the moment. The scene is especially funny in Matthew’s version, where he is still talking when the cloud appears and the voice from heaven cuts him off, telling him almost literally to shut up and just listen to Jesus. As soon as they hear the voice of God, Peter and the other disciples collapse on the ground in terror, unable to move until Jesus touches them and tells them there is no need to be afraid.

Such stories about the disciples’ weaknesses can inspire as well as amuse us because they urge us not to write anybody off. Each human being has more dignity and worth in God’s eyes than our worst moments, or even our worst decades, might suggest. When we are tempted to give up on ourselves or someone else, we might ask ourselves how much potential we would have seen in Peter, who babbles in this story, sinks when he tries to walk on water, and wimps out so completely when Jesus is arrested that he denies knowing him three times in a single night. And yet this is the disciple whom Jesus calls “the rock” on which He will build His church, and who emerges after the Ascension as a wise and courageous leader of the early Christian community. His transformation is a wonderful illustration of this blessing (from the end of Evening Prayer II in the BCP): “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to Him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Matthew 5:38-48 - Martin Luther King on Justice

Matthew 5:38-48 -   Martin Luther King on Justice

 Today’s gospel was a core text used as part of the training for all of those of us who were actively engaged with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement.   These stories rooted the non-violent resistance that ultimately succeeded in de-segregating many of the long standing institutions in this country deeply into the life and teaching of Jesus.  We are reading these gospels in February – Black History Month – so it is appropriate that Dr. King write the justice reflection for this gospel passage.  He said:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”    “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”   “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” 
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Dr. King went on to say:   “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.”   “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”  “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

And finally:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”   How can we choose to stand for love and forgive, even those who would do us harm?  How can we choose to stand up and speak out in clear affirmation that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere?

16 Feb 2014: Matthew 5:21-37

If we read this Gospel lesson in isolation, we might think Jesus was determined to make his hearers feel very guilty and afraid of God’s judgment. What other reason could he have for arguing that angry words are akin to murder and lustful thoughts are like adultery?

Last week’s lesson from Matthew, which immediately precedes this one, insisted that strict adherence to the law is not enough; like lamps on a lampstand we must mirror and extend God’s love to our neighbors. This week’s lesson also seems to be addressed to people who put too much emphasis on literal obedience to the law, mistakenly believing in our own righteousness if we haven’t flagrantly violated any of the commandments. Jesus forcefully reminds us that we cannot be reconciled with God unless we are reconciled to our brothers and sisters, and that we should never think of ourselves as righteous. We have all sinned in our thoughts and words, if not also in our deeds. So we have no right to treat any of our neighbors as “sinners” who do not deserve our respectful attention and God’s love.

If we can let go of our foolish belief that God expects any of us to be perfect, we will be freed not only from the compulsion to judge our neighbors, but also from continual anxiety about our own moral standing in God’s eyes. His love and mercy extend to us all. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2 Feb. 2014 Luke 2:22-40 All Are Our Children

2 Feb. 2014  Luke 2:22-40    All Are Our Children

Luke’s words portray a picture of hope, innocence and adult concern for the infant Jesus.  This child, Jesus, received a strong start in life through the faithfulness and practices of his parents and others.    My children received a strong start in life – loving parents, loving grandparents, god-parents who have been intimately involved in their lives, a congregation that baptized and adopted my two children as their own.

I have watched other parents, equally loving and equally full of faithfulness and practices.  Like Simon, my heart hurts as I think about swords piercing the mothers’ souls at some point.  In the United States, 1 in 5 children will struggle with hunger.  Closer to home, sixteen percent of children under eighteen in Dane County live in poverty -  a total of 16,129 children who are likely to be hungry -  75% of whom are African American.   1 in 45 children in the United States will experience homelessness, almost 800 of whom attend the Madison City Schools.   Of the 70,000 young children who will be incarcerated, 2305 are young Black children who live in Dane County.  Each year 1.2 million children from all over the world will become victims of child trafficking or child slavery with the United States being a top destination – trafficked and enslaved children have been found in all 50 states.

These statistics about this wonderful community in which we live are hard to read since we like to think of Madison as a “child friendly” place.   How can we choose to become consciously aware of the reality in which too many of our children live?  How can we remember that all of the children in Madison are our children by virtue of their presentation in the Temple?  How can we, as individuals, take on the role of “faithful Godparents”  to support all of our children -  especially our African American children whom Madison treats the most harshly (54% in poverty, 86% not proficient in math by 8th grade, 47% of whom will be arrested)?  How can we link arms as a faith community to work together and utilize our common resources to protect and support so hopes and expectations can be realized for their flourishing?  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Matthew 4:12-23 Fishing for Men

Fishing for people is an odd sort of job description that Jesus offers.  Often we associate this with the sort of proselytizing that stands on street corners and proclaims hell fire and damnation to all who stray from a certain vision of the straight and narrow.  But suppose we think of fishing for people as more like catching them under the arms and lifting them up out of whatever sea of troubles they may be in?  Then fishing for people would be more like what the gospel says that Jesus does – proclaiming good news of the kingdom and curing people of their ailments.  Fishing for people might still happen in places like streetcorners and community centers  as well as our workplaces and coffee shops, in fact anywhere where we encounter people awash with difficulties, drowning in sorrow, cast adrift from relationships that had sustained them.  And what are we to do with these people? Jesus says “catch them”: reach out a hand, or even extend both hands, to offer support for them in troubles we can’t alleviate and do what we can to pull them out of those heavy seas. Offer good news that is directly connected, as Jesus’s words were, to the heavy lifting involved to cure what ails them.  Jesus doesn’t just give us fish and meet our own ongoing need for his curing power, he also shows us how to fish.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Matthew 3:13-17: The Baptism of Jesus

This is a puzzling story at first sight. What has happened to John the Baptist? Earlier in the same chapter of Matthew, he was fiercely denouncing the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers and demanding repentance from everyone, but here he meekly submits to Jesus, confessing his own unworthiness to baptize him. Stranger yet, Jesus (the only human being who truly doesn’t need baptism, since he is completely sinless) quietly insists on having John baptize him nonetheless, and John consents to do it.

One point being made here, I think, is that John and Jesus represent two completely different ways of dealing with sinners. John (like most people in our own culture) tries to make distinctions, treating the worst sinners most harshly, ordinary sinners less so, and putting the sinless one in a completely different category. But Jesus refuses to cooperate with this system of moral judgments. As theologian Jennifer McBride points out, “he begins his public ministry by being baptized with sinners,” and he remains identified with sinners right down to the end, standing in solidarity with them (and us) instead of claiming the position of superior righteousness that was his due.

Jesus’s refusal to separate himself from sinners scandalized many of his contemporaries, as the Gospels demonstrate, but for us it is a great gift. His inclusive, non-judgmental love frees us both from the fear of damnation and from the need to make moral distinctions among our neighbors, so that we can simply love them all (as Jesus does) rather than trying to judge what each of them “deserves.” Thanks be to God!