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

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?