A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Social Justice, John the Baptist, and Advent

Preparing a sermon for this Sunday, I alternated back and forth between worrying I was saying too much and thinking I was saying too little.  Was I putting people on defensive?  Was I not being bold enough, not speaking clearly enough?   I ended up speaking the words I thought I would find helpful if I were in the pews.  I also said some things my heart needed to say.  I thought I would say them here in this space as well.  The scripture read was Mark 1:1-8 about John the Baptist.  Advent is the season in the church year preceding Christmas when we anticipate the celebration of baby Jesus and anticipate the second coming of Jesus.  Here is what I said:

Advent this year has been overshadowed, for me, by other events:   conversations, studying, and sorrowing over social justice issues both those brought to attention by recent events and the ongoing injustice of poverty around the world.  These have been my focus due to a variety of circumstance.  Advent and Christmas, I have given little thought.  I suspect this is the case for many of us, whether news events are on our minds or tragedies and heartbreaks closer to home.  But as we hear today from a wild prophet called John the Baptist perhaps this is not an overshadowing of Advent but rather an embodiment of it. 

In talking of John the Baptist, Jesus says, “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet (Luke 7:26).”  “Prophet” means one who proclaims the will of God.  Throughout the history of Israel, one of the main duties of a prophet is to call the community back to justice, to call attention to injustice, to remind the people of God’s love and concern for the most vulnerable.  The book of the prophet Isaiah begins with a plea addressed to a “people laden with iniquity…(1:4) calling them to “…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:17)”   The prophet Micah laments oppression and injustice and then calls out “ … and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” 
We do not have an itemized list of the sins which motivated John the Baptist’s call for repentance.  However, in his position as prophet and considering the wide broadcast nature of his cry to repent, it seems likely he was addressing communal sin which was often a call to justice on behalf of the outcast, the stranger, the poor, and the widowed.

Amidst the bells of Christmas this year are voices ringing out a call to justice.  Banners of protest hang amongst the wreaths and garlands.   Our televisions, our computers and our conversations bring cries such as “Black lives matter.”  We hear warnings of increasing iniquities as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Creation groans under the weight of environmental degradation.   Cries, shouts, and tears for justice abound. 

Yet there is static which hampers our hearing.  The static sounds different for each of us and for each justice issue.  Sometimes our pride blocks our ears as we protest not all men are sexist, not all white people racist, not all police officers are bad.  Sometimes our hesitancy masquerades as uncertainty as we fixate on a particular incident and proclaim our ignorance of all the facts saying, “ We don’t know what really happened.”  Sometimes we complain of our neighbors’ methods of expressing their pain, decrying  riots and disruption of communities.  These grains of truth are thrown in the face of the larger picture and we fail to see our neighbors hurting, we fail to hear the voices of the oppressed, the voices of the poor, the voices of those harmed by the iniquities of our community. 

And so the voice of John the Baptist cracks through the static “Repent!”  Preparing the way of the Lord by calling us to see injustice. 

There are hurts and tragedies in our communities and our families which will never be on the news.  This time of year can make these hurts all the more poignant.  Yet as the call of John the Baptist washes over these hurts they become a reminder of our common humanity and become part of the stream which flows toward justice, flowing toward the one in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are met.

Advent is a season of waiting with anticipation.  Waiting with anticipation often means listening intently for the first sound, the first clue the one awaited approaches. Throughout scriptures Jesus repeatedly draws a connection between himself and those who are outcast, poor, and oppressed.   As we listen for the sound of Jesus’ approach, we can hear it best in cries for justice. Those voices ringing out a plea for equity, those banners waving in protest, and the aching of our own hearts mix appropriately amongst the twinkling lights and festive music for in them we hear the booming voice of John’s call to repentance and the gentle whisper of hope in the coming of the one who makes all things new, God’s love made flesh, Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Racism and New Ideas

Recent conversations have made apparent some major misunderstandings about racism. 

Being racist isn’t always about calling black people the “N” word.  Sometimes it is about making assumptions.  Imagine if a 12 year old blonde white girl was shot while holding a toy gun.  Would the comments to follow be about lack of parenting?  Would it be assumed there was nothing else which could have been done?  Would the phrases about “police just doing their jobs” be thrown around so liberally?  It is not all about the facts of a particular case, it is about the assumptions which are made and the effort we exert to find a way to blame the victim or the victim’s family, or the victim’s culture. 

I do understand it is difficult for police officers and police officers’ families.  As a farmer I am familiar with feelings which arise when people accuse one’s career.  I don’t appreciate it when farmers are blamed for destruction of the environment in a way which implies we are motivated by greed and implies we are poisoning people rather than feeding them food to sustain life.  It is not fair either to imply police officers are trigger happy bullies rather than people laboring at a difficult job trying to serve and protect. 

But racism these days is not often about people who would shoot someone just because of the color of their skin.  It is about systemic realities and attitudes which increase the likelihood of a young person being shot if that young person happens to have dark skin.  These things do not happen in a bubble.  In Ferguson, for example, the context is a community divided by race.  It is only logical this shooting would raise suspicions in such a context and anger would result when those suspicions were not given the honor of a complete trial. 

I am a privileged white person living in a rural area so I am no expert on racism.  However, I have heard comments such as “We would be better off if we didn’t have that black man as president.”  If one person can have such an abhorrent attitude is it really such a stretch to imagine a police officer being a little more frightened, feeling a little more threatened when the one the officer is confronting is black?  Is it such a stretch to imagine there might be some individuals who value a black person’s life less,(though I would not assume this of the police officers)? 

If overt racism like this still exists how much more must more subtle racism exist?  Most often these days it is not about name calling or ignorant denigrations based on skin color.  Now it is about larger systems, our assumptions, and the fear these systems and assumptions beget. 

I am glad for the conversations I have seen taking place regarding racism.  Many are frustrating and some even hurtful but at least we are talking about race issues.  Now what is the next step?  Protesting brings attention to the issue but the powers that be have become too proficient at making protestors look like violent hooligans or fringe nut jobs.  I am praying now for compassion, understanding, and listening and also creative leaders who will find new ways of educating and inspiring for change.  Any ideas?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Don't Be A Bridesmaid

I recently gave a sermon on the parable about ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).  I thought it would be fun to share it here (I'll let you decide if reading this counts as church :)).  So, here it is:

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a confusing one for modern folks.  It refers to traditions quite different from our own. Bridesmaids waiting with lamps is no longer part of our custom.   Yet even if we take into account the unfamiliar traditions we are still left with many questions.  Why seemingly reward the “wise” bridesmaids for refusing to share their oil?  Why is such a harsh punishment leveled at the “foolish” bridesmaids who simply did not anticipate the bridegroom would be delayed so long?  None of them stayed awake and none of them gave up and went home.  Why such a disparity in treatment for such a small discrepancy? 

But, notice the concluding statement which Jesus makes: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour..”  Jesus’ concluding statement is not “be prepared” or “be patient” or “be wise” but rather “keep awake”  which is something NONE OF THE BRIDESMAIDS DID.  This indicates to me, despite wise vs. foolish labels, we are not being called to emulate any of the bridesmaids but rather to do differently than all of them. 

Why this call to keep awake?  Well, what might have happened if the bridesmaids had remained awake?  Would they have sat there and watched their oil running out?  Would the “wise” bridesmaids have simply gloated in their oil supply?  Would the foolish bridesmaids have done nothing more than beg?   Or might they all have noticed they were getting low on oil, taken steps to conserve oil, shared what they had while they still could, sent a few for more oil with plenty of time to return with it?  Perhaps the point of this parable is not to be like any of the bridesmaids, either being shut out or watching your friends be shut out.  Perhaps we are being called rather to work to together so all may enter the kingdom.  

It may also be helpful to remember “the kingdom” is not only about what happens someday but about what happens now.  Several times in the Gospels it is written the kingdom of God is among us or has come near.  The life and death of Jesus brought the kingdom near and following Jesus means continuing to work toward the kingdom of God.  When we refuse to share, when we leave the “foolish” to their own devices we attempt to reserve the kingdom for a few, we try to shrink the kingdom.  Jesus calls us to expand the kingdom to keep awake to the needs of others, to make preparations for ourselves without neglecting the preparations of our neighbors no matter how clever we feel or how foolish they seem. 

I have often wondered at the fact it seems acceptable in our society to view foolishness or lack of intelligence as a capital offense.  If you make unwise decisions  about finances, family planning, chemical use, or sexual partners it is sometimes seen as acceptable to then let you reap consequences even if those consequences are as lethal as hunger, malnutrition or lack of health care.  It speaks volumes about the church that we have so often interpreted this parable as calling us to be like the wise bridesmaids, and have interpreted that as meaning believe the right things, go to church, think a lot about the coming of Jesus and then you will be lucky enough not to have the door shut in your face like those other people. 

But Amos 5 tells us something about what God thinks about such attitudes saying, “… I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Let us look towards the kingdom of heaven by, keeping awake to the needs of our neighbors, making sure the door is not shut upon anyone in this world and to trust in God to be merciful and full of grace for the next. 

Following Jesus is not about being wise and too bad for the foolish.  Following Jesus is a calling to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Staying awake is not about some artificial hyper-vigilance we are somehow supposed to have sustained for thousands of years but rather simply about staying awake to God at work in the world, seeing our neighbors as children of God, reaching out to those in need, and working to keep the door open for all people.