Monday, July 23, 2012

Overwhelmed By The World; Looking For The Kingdom

It's been 12 days since I last posted.  12 days that have driven me to a near numbness.  A dear friend struggles with a terrible illness; international situations of violence and poverty grow worse; and James Holmes plots and executes a mass killing in Colorado.

The most reasonable question I've heard has come from Mayor Bloomberg of New York who is asking the candidates for president to honestly address their opinions gun control.  The most cowardly responses have come from those who tell us that 'this isn't an appropriate time to address the issue'-translate that to 'we're gutless wonders and it's an election year.'

Even more amazing though are the responses of people like Rep. Louie Gohmert who wondered why there wasn't someone in the theater carrying a gun who could have stopped Holmes more quickly.  REALLY?!?  Comedian Bill Engvall used to respond to people who had made an absolutely stupid comment with the phrase, "here's your sign."  Well, Rep. Gohmert, HERE'S YOUR SIGN.  Do you really think that having a bunch of folks who've never been in a firefight, whose shooting experience has been limited to stationary targets on a shooting range, popping off shots in a crowd of terrified people in a packed movie theater with tear gas or smoke or whatever was in the cannister Holmes threw wafting through the air.....having them shoot at a moving target wearing protective gear (that means going for a head shot-a shot that any cop will tell you is one of the hardest to make in good conditions)......you think this is a good idea????!!!!!!

The responses that give me hope were the heroic ones of persons who shielded others with their bodies; who aided folks in getting through the theater to safety; who helped the wounded.  These give me hope that we will get through this tragedy.

The big temptation for me is to stay with my anger at the idiocy and cowardness noted above (both to the left and to the right politically).  Frankly, that's easy.  The hard thing is to ask the questions about where is the Kingdom of God.  See, I don't believe that the Kingdom, the New Creation, is something just waiting for us after we die.  I believe that Jesus lived to show us what it is supposed to look like, died to conquer all that stands in its way (including our sins), and inaugurated it in His resurrection.  The Kingdom is emerging now.  It will burst into full fruition at Jesus' return (something I also believe in, by the way)....but it's growing now; and as we pray "let Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is  in heaven," we're supposed to be acting as the leaven in the loaf to help in moving it toward that goal.

First of all, weeks like this force me to ask myself how much I believe what I've written above.  I believe that this is part of the human condition....to always be weighing our beliefs against the reality of the world around us.  But I also, still, believe that scripture points toward an alternative vision of what can be and calls us to be part of that vision's becoming the new reality. 

I can't, in honesty today, go much further.  I'm too numb, too angry.  But I remember, years ago, asking the theologian Shirley Guthrie, who was a professor of mine then, what we do in the face of horror and tragedy.  A member of the congregation I served had been attacked-stabbed repeatedly-and her three year old murdered.  Dr. Guthrie, with great wisdom, replied, "we affirm our faith."  He was right.  We lay claim to our faith.  We don't avoid the questions because it's expedient, we don't ignore the issues raised about social structure and mental health, and we don't encourage folks to go shooting up crowded theaters.  We affirm our faith.  We lay claim to an alternative vision.  We speak that vision through our anger and our numbness.....and out of that speech, out of that faith, out of the moving of Spirit.....we find the energy to search for ways to fix the brokenness that this incident reminds us is still a part of our world.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sabbath and Greed

Yesterday as I was driving home I was listening to On Point with Tom Ashbrook on NPR.  He was interviewing two visitors to his show on the issue of forced labor in America.  It seems that there is much, much more of it than you and I would like to think there is.  Part of their discussion was about a company in Louisiana (C J's Seafood) that had used threats against families, beatings, and locking workers into the building where they were packing seafood to sell to Walmart to produce their product in a cheap manner consistant with what Walmart would pay for it.  Most of the workers were alien (some, many perhaps, illegal). 

In Walmart's defense, their public position is that they suspended their contract with this company until the investigation into these practices is finished.

The discussion moved from the treatment of illegal aliens to the practices with folks on work visa programs to the treatment of domestic help.  The truth is that here is a WHOLE BUNCH of folks in this country who work and don't get paid (illegals who when they go to pick up their pay are told to go away or they'll be reported); who are cheated out of their pay; who work under dangerous, unsafe conditions; and/or who are being paid far less than a fair wage.

The commandment against greed: "thou shalt not covet," combined with the command to "keep the Sabbath" as a day of rest are both radical, subversive warnings against this kind of exploitation.

But we (and I count myself in the "we") so often either don't see, don't want to see, or ignore our role in the creation of a culture of greed.  I want the low cost food from the various cut rate stores.  Do I stop to think about the working conditions of those who packed it?  Or how my continuiing to buy certain items there participates in their exploitation?  Do we pay attention to the impact of cutting personnel to oversee enforcement of safety and labor laws on situations like those described above?

"Thou shalt not covet" isn't just a prohibition against wanting what other folks have (though that may well be involved); it's a commandment against building a cultural framework that uses our greed to justify exploitation and the crushing of other human beings so that my sneakers can be cheaper, my shrimp less per pound, the landscaping in my neighborhood less expensive.  It is a commandment against creating a hidden shadow population of workers who have no Sabbath-no rest, no safety, no protection from oppression.

It used to be (maybe) that we could think about this as just something that happened when jobs were shipped overseas.  But no more.  Here, on our soil, in "the greatest country in the world" we're fast creating a class of folks that live in a strata just barely above slave labor.  And God has forbidden this. 

Take a look this week (use an on line lectionary perhaps) at the ways that God has spelled out that we are to treat the "alien and stranger in your midst."  Now look at "widow" and "orphan."  These laws are aimed at how we treat the most vulnerable among us.  One of the things we're told is that they are to have Sabbath: rest, safety, protection.  God demands it.  And there is very little room for interpreting these passages in any other way, especially when the proponderance of them is weighed together.

Is this a complex issue?  Absolutely.  Does it have an easy solution?  Absolutely not.  BUT we are commanded to find one.  May be the first step is to open our eyes, look around, start being concerned and asking questions about what is happening.  According to scripture, somewhere tonight Jesus is being locked in to an unsafe building and forced to work a 24 hour shift.....when we look at it that way, maybe these commandments start to carry some more weight.....maybe the imperative for finding that solution becomes a little clearer.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Affirming Our Identity By Keeping Sabbath

In my last post I said that one of the marks of Christians is "keeping Sabbath."  This is hard for some of us to wrap our heads around....partially  because it was never explained to us properly.  I grew up hearing that "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy," meant that I wasn't supposed to do anything really fun.  Lots of us have those kind of memories.

But to the people coming out of Egypt, people who had been slaves to a production driven Pharaoh busy building store houses for his wealth, the idea of a day of rest was a radical thing.  Keeping Sabbath was subversive act that meant that they belonged, ultimately, to someone and something other than Pharaoh and his dominant ideology.  It was a 'shout out' to all the world around them that they served a God who cared enough about them to be concerned for their rest and well being; that they lived in another definition of what it meant-and means-to be human.

The famous line from The Great Gatsby about 'rowing on, boats against the current' is so descriptive of a world in which "he who dies with the most toys wins."  Think about it: we live in a world where banks are "too big to fail," but one has to be part of the "deserving poor" to get help.  There is clearly something wrong with this picture.  Many of us live in families where the parents both work multiple jobs just to get buy.  Or where the cultural definition of success as status and possessions has be bought into without much scrutiny.  Keeping Sabbath offers a counter-claim to all of that.

Keeping Sabbath is a subversive act against a world view that turns us into things that matter only when we can produce.  Keeping Sabbath claims that we are loved as we are, for who we are.  And we pause to worship the One who offers us that love.

I am neither an authority on, or even a great fan of, praise music.....though there is much of it that I like.  What I have noticed as I listen though is that it draws a focus away from where much of our lives are aimed.  It lays the claim that this world is not our posession, but God's; that control does not, finally, with the God is Ultimate in authority and reign.

Perhaps we need to find new ways to talk about Sabbath.  Maybe we need to find new ways to claim it.  But holding on to the truth that God's vision for creation is the real picture of what life is about-not that of our modern day Pharaohs is an important task of living out our faith.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

5 For The 4th-Expressing Alternative Baptismal Identity

I want to drop back to my post on "baptismal identity" and pick up there.  I think that this is particularly important on the 4th of July.  My reasons will, hopefully, become obvious as we go along.

Scripture...all scripture....is notable because it was written (and the stories told prior to being written) in the shadow of oppression.  To those who encountered the written or oral stories of the Exodus; those who were present at the teachings and life of Jesus-or heard His story; and those to whom the various epistles by Paul and others were written the shadow of various oppressive regimes (we'll just call the bunch of the "Empire") lay heavy on the landscape.

One way to look at these writings, then, is that they are an attempt to describe an alternative world view, an alternative identity, an alternative way of living in opposition to the values and demands of Empire.  To say, "we are different and this is what our difference is."

[In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I need to say that during the current time between pastoral endeavours I'm doing in depth study of two biblical theologians: Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright.  Those familiar with them will see some of their thought reflected here.  I recommend both highly.  But like all disclaimers, I take responsibility for my own processing.]

So back to Empire.  All Empire has some common features.  Empire runs on fear; fear of what it can do to us; and fear of what it wants to make us believe it protects us from.  The Romans in Jesus' day had this down to an art form.  Roads lined with crosses reminded folks of what happened to those who rebelled; and the "Pax Romana" was the Roman Empire's statement that things were 'just fine...look at how calm things are under us.'

Empires make heavy demands for production.  One need read no further than the Pharoah's demand for "more bricks" to build the storehouses in which grain taken from the people was kept (the role of Joseph in the creation of this Empire is one of the dark stories of Israel and a warning that even our best efforts, if not weighed against the demands of Alternative Identity can lead to oppression).

Empires dehumanize the neighbor.  Empires thrive on making some persons or group 'less than.' Imagine the tremendous power of "Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" on an Empire that wants to keep people seperate and competing with each other.

In our day I believe that Empire has become, perhaps, less easy to see because it is not totally rooted in the rule of some party.  We are not (by classical definition) an oppressed people.  But I will maintain that the signs of Empire are all about us.  And we are surrounded, as people of faith, by a whole lot of folks who know in their hearts that it just isn't working....things are broken.

Let me offer signs of our Alternative Baptismal Identity that are not the property of any religious or political group-to the right or to the left, are do-able (though not without effort), and mark God's people as different in the midst of Empire:

Keep Sabbath (for people who had been slaves in Egypt and forced to labor, the freedom to rest is incredibly powerful.)
Practice Hospitality
Practice Generosity
Do Not Covet
Refrain from Violence and Revenge

Each of these marks of Alternative Baptismal Identity find expression in the Old Testament, in the life and teachings of Jesus, and in the writing of the New Testament letters.

These were some of the primary signs that were going to draw the whole world to God's people because they were so different.  The passages in Isaiah about folks from "north and south, east and west" streaming to the mountain of God for that huge banquet.....this is part of what draws them....this radically different people.

I believe that we as Christians are called to be that radically different people-even when surrounded by Empire.  For those who believe that America is called to be that radically different people, I would maintain that if that is true, it will not be because of military or economic might.  It will be because America practices an alternative identity.  What might happen if we as a nation committed ourselves to Sabbath, hospitality, generosity, refrained from covetousness and violence?

Whether America choses to do so or not is irrelevant, at one level, for those of us called to follow Jesus.  To the degree that it does not, America becomes Empire.  To the degree that it does, America becomes "a city on a hill."

So on this 4th, I offer these five signs of Alternative Baptismal Identity.  We'll look at each of them moving forward.  Are they the only signs one might name?  No.  But they are a start, and they are a way to operationalize Jesus' command that we "love our neighbor as ourself."

Shalom,
Stephen