Tuesday, July 19, 2016

ripple effect

Amos 8:1-12/  Luke 10:38-42

Mike was born in 1961 in the segregated south.  I didn’t know him personally but I imagine he experienced firsthand what racism felt like.  It was just the way things were.  He lived during the height of the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment where African American men were given syphilis and never treated.  He lived in the time of Freedom Rides, lynching and the death of Martin Luther King Jr.  He was treated differently because of his race.  Who knows the pain, resentment, anger, fear and distrust that permeated his life?

15 years ago all this came to a boiling point.  His grandmother was admitted to the hospital the same week my friend’s wife, gave birth to their second child.  Mike’s grandmother had diabetes which had gone unmanaged.  As often happens, the doctors decided the way to save her life was to amputate her leg.     

When Mike arrived at the hospital, he was shocked and devastated to see her leg gone.  How dare the doctors remove it!  Surely there was another way.  The more he thought about it the angrier he got.  40 years’ worth of resentment, dealing with people who may not have given him the time of day all came to a head.  Who knows what interactions he had with doctors himself, but whatever he was feeling meant he did not trust the doctors.  Mike left the hospital distraught to say the least. 

My friend and his wife were oblivious to the drama that was unfolding in the hospital.  They were busy with the new baby holding and feeding her and bonding as a family.  It was dinner time so they decided to leave for a few hours and enjoy a nice quiet meal and relax from the day. 

As they left the hospital, they witnessed a man driving erratically in the parking lot.  The man stopped and Don asked him if he was ok.  It was Mike. 

The earth shook and the lights went out as Mike, in all his anger and resentment, pulled out a handgun and shot my friend.  Mike intended to take his anger out on the doctors but instead took it out on the first person he saw.  In his haste, he loaded the gun incorrectly and the gun jammed, preventing him from taking another life.                 

My friend died two days later. 

My friend had never met Mike; never exchanged words, never argued.  He wasn’t to blame for the way Mike’s life had turned out, how he and his family had been treated.  My friend was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A victim of Mike’s anger, a victim of all those who had mistreated him.  A victim of Mike’s resentment, mistrust, and fear and centuries of degrading, racism.  Mike may have thought taking his grandmother’s leg was earth shaking but it was nothing compared to spending the rest of his life in prison. 

The earth shook, the sun went dark, there was weeping and life as many knew it would never be the same.  You see, the consequences of our decisions in this life, don’t just affect us and only us.  Because we are so intertwined when the earth shakes we all feel its effects. 

We never know the impact of our actions or how we treat people; the power of systemic violence and corruption. 

The Israelites in Amos’ day were doing business as usual.  It had become the norm to alter the weights and charge more money for less product. Much like companies today will market an item as new and improved only to find out that now you get less product for the same price. 

It had become expected to have people work off their debts but constantly lending them more so they would need to work longer.  The way some of our migrant workers are treated- taking so much from their pay for housing that they don’t have enough to buy food.  Or the way our manufacturers charge more for healthy foods then blame the poor for being obese. 

We might not be directly responsible for this but Amos reminds us complacency matters.  We know it happens and do nothing about it.  So the ripple effect continues.  Those who are too poor to buy healthy food are also too poor to pay for healthcare so their unhealthy choices lead to increased healthcare costs for everyone else through premiums and taxes.  We may not cause it but everyone feels the pain. 

We see the effect of this ripple as we watched the news of the events in France this week.  The people killed were caught up in a tidal wave of decades of segregation, oppression, desire for cheap oil, abuse and terror spreading throughout the middle east, into Europe and across the globe.  Decades of war, mistreatment of refugees, hostility towards foreigners and the list goes on and on.  It has become the norm.  We no longer cry when we hear of bombs exploding whether they come from NATO tanks or a suicide bomber.  Most attacks, most murders never even make the news. 

We don’t think there is anything we can do, so we default to apathy, protectionism and isolationism.  We decide that we can’t fix it so we shouldn’t try and we continue to be complacent and complicit.  Making the waves bigger.  We try to ignore it, blame others and pretend we don’t contribute to the problem.   This forces people to yell louder to be heard, cause more chaos to be seen, and the ripple continues. 

We get so distracted by the waves coming towards us that it is easier to be swept up than to stand up. 

Part of this is the same problem in Amos’ day as well as Jesus day as today.  Our foundations aren’t strong enough to withstand the wave.  Our roots in God, our roots of faith are shallow.  Our desire for wealth, our desire to not make waves, our desire to go with the flow, our desire to go along to get along, our desire to keep the peace overwhelms our desire to be with God, to be the peace that smooths the waters. 

When Martha gets angry at Mary- she begins with resentment, ends with blame and tries to start a wave of discord.  Jesus tells her that all this stuff is distracting her from what matters.  Jesus calms the wave by refusing to entertain any idea other than love and compassion.  This is what calms our waves too. 

It is easy to allow the events of our world to distract us, to shift our focus away from what is important; living a life of faith, love of God and love of neighbor.  We forget that this is what made God angry in Amos-  they had allowed their roots to dry up.  Martha in our Gospel lesson had forgotten that the source of life was in her midst. 

Despite the barrage of waves coming towards us- we find safe harbors at the feet of Jesus.  Not in fighting back, not in feeding the wave of mistrust and fear but rooting ourselves in the word of God.  Finding our footing in the one that cannot and will not be moved. 

We shore up our own foundations, strengthen our root system by being in constant prayer, studying the scriptures, worship, and fellowship in Christ.  But we also do this by living our life of faith out loud, creating new waves of our own. 

Ann Lamont suggested in a post this week that we counter terrorism with a “show of force equal to the violence and tragedies”, not of hate but with “Love force, mercy force.

Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering” kind of force. Creating new waves of peace, kindness, calm and understanding.

By actually listening to people who see the world differently.  Loving our neighbors and our enemies.  Looking for common ground, understanding and learning empathy for those who feel oppressed.   Seeking to better understand how we contribute to a world where oppression is the norm and find ways to do this less and less.  Living a life where love of neighbor is the rule of the day not distrust and fear. 

When we do this, we will make a difference.  It makes a difference when you love, mentor and offer a safe place to a child who lives in a home where fear and violence are the norm.  It makes a difference when you have compassion for someone having a bad day.  It makes a difference when you see someone being bullied, picked on or judged unfairly and you speak up. 

It makes a difference when you offer help to the homeless and the hungry.  It makes a difference when you treat someone with dignity and respect-especially when you aren’t sure they deserve it.  It makes a difference when you refuse to contribute to companies you know are unethical.  It may not feel like it makes a difference but you are starting a wave that with the Holy Spirit will change the world. 

This is the model Jesus gave us.  Jesus never responded to evil with evil.  Instead his default was always love.  Even as people were seeking to take his own life, his response was compassion and mercy greater than the hate and disdain they had for him. 

His final act was not only to exchange our sin for love but to take the sin of the whole world so that we could not be distracted by evil but live into his compassion, mercy and love.

When Jesus lived and died, it may not have seemed all that earth shaking.  But the way he lived; offering healing to the sick, welcome to the lonely, love to the unlovable and forgiveness and mercy to those considered the worst of the worst started a revolution. 

This week I read a story about John Woolman, a white Quaker who in 1746 felt an urging from God that led him to believe in the equality of all people.  He spent the next 20 years going from one Quaker church to another talking, listening and convincing others of this.  He refused to wear clothes made by slaves.  When receiving hospitality, he refused to eat rather than consume a meal prepared by a slave.  And if he found out he had benefited from slave labor he would insist on compensating them for their work.  He started a wave that led many Quakers to participate in the Under Ground Railroad and eventually the end of slavery.  One person, followed Jesus, started a wave and made a difference.

I don’t know what happened after Don died.  If Mike’s grandmother lived a full life or how my friend’s family responded to this tragedy.  I hope they responded with love and forgiveness.  I hope they decided to counter this wave of resentment and anger with one of love and peace.  How they respond is not for me to decide and we each have to make that decision for ourselves.  How are you going to respond? 

Are you going to continue to go with the flow, allow the evils of the world to ripple by and go unchecked, growing with each new action?  Or, are you going to ground your life in a relationship with God?  Are you going to start your own wave of love, compassion and mercy?  Are you going to go along to get along or will you stand up for your neighbor in need, stand up for what is right, firmly planted in the knowledge of the love of God in Christ?  The choice is ours to make. 
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent. 
John Woolman story written by Parker Palmer

Monday, July 11, 2016

crumbling foundations

 Amos 7:7-17

We as Christians don’t normally spend a lot of time hanging out with the prophets like Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah.  Their message always seems so crude and angry.  They say a bunch of stuff no one wants to hear and only in the end do they offer some sliver of hope.  It’s not usually fun, light reading.  It is definitely not the type of book you’d want to take on vacation as you try to relax.  But they are books we should read. 

When we do read them and hear their angry words of judgement, it is easy to brush them off as something written thousands of years ago for someone else.  It is easy to point the finger to Israel and Judah and judge them alongside the prophets.  Shame, shame, shame, you should have known better, God gave you fair warning.  God gave you so many chances and you refused to listen.  You got what you deserved.  It’s like someone refusing to evacuate when they know a category 5 hurricane is coming.

Before we go down this road, lets first define what a prophet is.  In Old Testament times, there were a few different types of prophets.  Some were paid employees of the King.  Their job was to read the tea leaves so to speak and predict the outcome of war, the future of a child, and the success of the king. 

Then there were others who were career prophets.  They studied and worked hard to not necessarily see the future but to see the writing on the wall.  They were perceptive about current circumstances and people often sought them out for advice and guidance. 

Then there were those like Amos and most of our biblical prophets who were called by God through visions and spiritual means to speak truth to power, to help God’s people see the error of their ways and encourage them to get on the right track. 

They weren’t there to punish but to help people see the potential consequences of their actions. And how they as individuals and as a nation were straying from right relationship with God.  They were called by God to express God’s displeasure, the consequences of their choices and to share God’s plans to use those consequences to get them back on track. 

It is no surprise then that these prophets, were not liked very much.  Most of them were jailed, ran out of town or worse.  No one likes the bearer of bad news; even when it’s true. 

When I first read through this scripture, especially the chief priest, Amaziah’s, response to Amos, I flashed back to a girl I knew in college.  She hated bad news and difficult conversations.  One day we were driving down the road and we were trying to talk to her about what all college girls talk about, boys.  A guy she had been dating had begun to be abusive, cheat and was an all-around jerk.  We were trying to help her see the light but instead, she responded like a child, literally putting her fingers in her ears and saying “la,la,la,la, I don’t want to hear it.”  She, like Amaziah, wanted us to go prophecy somewhere else to someone else.    

Amos had come to town in order to help the Israelite people to see the error of their ways.  They had broken their covenant with God to love and worship God only and to love their neighbors and were showing no signs of remorse or attempt to repair it.  They may not have even realized how far from God they had strayed.  This was a time of peace and prosperity from the King’s point of view.  They were between battles.  There was food and water, gold and power.  Low gas prices, low interest rates and low unemployment.  All signs of what they and we often think means God is pleased.  But it was kind of like putting lipstick on a pig.  Just because it looks nice doesn’t mean it is.

Jeraboam, the king of Israel was living the good life but they weren’t worshiping God, they were worshiping success and prosperity and they had gained prosperity by taking advantage of those less fortunate.  Their 1% were thriving while the 99% were being oppressed, paid unfair wages and barely able to care for their families.  But on the surface it felt like progress.  It had gotten so bad that the chief priest referred to the temple at Bethel (the center of the worship of God in Israel) not as the temple of God, but as the temple of the king. 

The one person whose job was to make sure God was being worshiped correctly was actually worshiping Jeraboam, and the power and influence the king gave him. 

Along comes Amos, criticizing and trying to tell them that what they think is a strong foundation is crumbling around them. 

Sometimes it is hard to see the cracks in our own foundation.  The foundation of Israel, our foundation, is in God and when we decide to build our lives on something else, it is doomed to fail.  As anyone who as ever bought a house knows, one of the things you always look for are problems with the foundation.  Are there cracks in the foundation itself, are there cracks in the walls where the house has settled over time?  Is it just a sign of age or is it a symptom of a much bigger problem? 

This is in essence what Amos is telling Israel with his vision of the Plumb line.  A plumb line is used to see if a wall is square.  Is it perpendicular to the ground?  Is it leaning in or leaning out?  Is it showing signs of a shifting foundation? Is there a potential that it might fall?  Is it safe or does it need to be torn down before someone gets hurt?


God is telling Israel that their foundation has shifted.  There are people and institutions that need to either shape up or be torn down.  And Amaziah tells Amos plainly- we aren’t changing anything.  We like things the way they are and we refuse to look for the cracks in our own foundation.  So, Amos tells him, there will be consequences for this choice.  Israel will go into exile, they will be forced to serve other kings, there will be many to die in battle, and their land will be divided up and given to foreigners.  One way or another, life is going to change whether you like it or not. 

This is the message of God to Israel through the prophet Amos.  

Ok, so what are we supposed to do with it?  The question we are always called upon to ask of scripture is how does this apply to us?  This is scripture written thousands of years ago, to people very different than us at a time very different than ours.  How is God speaking through Amos to us today? 

God continues to call us to a time of self-reflection as individuals, as a church and as a nation; especially one which claims to be a nation under God.  A time when we are to look at our own foundation and look for cracks. 

What is it about the way we live our life that brings honor or dishonor to God?  What is it about our lives and the world we live in that causes us to prefer to put our fingers in our ears than address the problems in the world around us? 

Maybe it is the worship of money that is degrading our foundation.  The desire to find the best deal, buy the cheapest clothes or cheapest food; despite the fact that the price of the item reflects the wages of the person who made, produced, harvested or sold it.  The desire for a cheap power bill that leads us to strip mine mountains, pollute streams and send dangerous chemicals into our earth to find more fuel to burn. 

Maybe it is the God of convenience.  It is inconvenient to spend your valuable time volunteering to help others.  It’s easier and faster to run to Wal-Mart than wait until Saturday to purchase something at the farmer’s market or wade through labels to find things responsibly made. 

Maybe it is the god of fear that you worship; fear that you won’t be liked, fear that you won’t be in control if someone else gains a little power.  Fear of being vulnerable, fear of investing yourself in the life of someone who might take advantage of you or let you down. 

Maybe it is the god of nationalism that chips away at your foundation or the god of partisan politics.  The god of being right, the god of choosing freedom at the expense of others, the god of prejudice or maybe even the god of pride.  There are a multitude of gods who distract us from the one true God.  This is only a few of them.

Amos is calling us to hold a plumb line up to our own lives and our own hearts.  Where is God calling us to shore up our foundation?  Are there parts of our lives that need to be torn down before they hurt someone?

The symptoms of a failing foundation are many and broad.  The symptoms are hard to deny if we will take our fingers out of our ears long enough to listen.  The events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Orlando and Charleston are symptoms.  The issue of immigration and migrant workers being treated more like disposable rats than human beings.  The fact that despite African American’s making up only 13% of the population, make up 37% of our jails.  The issue of drug addiction in our nation, the issue of homelessness, unemployment and underemployment.  The issue of poor funding of education. The disappearing of the middle class the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The fact that we would rather pay high wages to those entertaining us than the doctors, teachers or police who actually impact our day to day lifew.  The issue of healthcare and inadequate mental health care are all symptoms of a nation and a people who have for too long chosen to ignore the fact that the foundation was crumbling because the furniture looked nice. 

Throughout the Old Testament we see this image of God who is angry and judging; always smiting someone, sending the Israelites into exile, sending famine and storm.  But as we read the prophets, we realize this isn’t God punishing people for doing wrong.  God tried to warn them that their decisions were leading them down a dangerous path.   God doesn’t want our world to fall apart.  God doesn’t want our foundations to crumble but we have to accept responsibility for building on a solid foundation of loving God and loving our neighbors.  We have to pay attention to the symptoms, the cracks and the pieces that are being chipped away and we have to be willing to do the work of repairing our relationship with God and all God’s children. 

Ignorance is not bliss; it is simply denial.  How are we being called to open our eyes and our ears to our own hearts and our own deficiencies?  How is God calling us, begging us, to love God the way we are loved?  To not hoard our blessings but share them, to care more about God’s children and God’s creation than we do ourselves.  God’s desire is for us to love and be loved let us live into that solid foundation that can withstand any storm.

The events of this week, this month, this year, this decade, are a wake-up call to each and every one of us and louder than the voice of Amos.  Are we willing to listen?  Are we willing to change?  Are we willing to shore up our foundation in the love of Christ and love of neighbor so that God’s love can be known by all? 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Breaking the law?

Matthew 5: 17-20 and Adam Hamilton’s “half truths”

Exodus 20:8 says “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  It is one of the 10 commandments and we have all heard it before, but what does it mean to you?  Does it mean you go to church or that you get to sleep in?  Does it mean you don’t work on Sunday? What about people who have to work on Sunday?  Is it ok to choose another day as your Sabbath?  What about church meetings on Sunday afternoons?  Is that work? 

When we ask these questions we are beginning to do the work of interpreting scripture.  We ask the question.  What does this mean?  What was God’s intention?  What did it mean to the people whom it was originally given and how do I apply it to my life today?

When I was a child, keeping the Sabbath meant that the grocery store was closed and Dad wasn’t supposed to mow grass on Sunday.  We were to get up and go to church and spend the rest of the day relaxing.  This was all well and good except Mom still had to cook Sunday lunch.  And of course, my sister and I still had to wash all the dishes!  The real interpretation was more like, go to church and don’t let strangers see you work on Sundays!

In early biblical times, Sabbath was intended and created to be a day of worship of God but also a day of rest.  A way for God to help us remember our blessings come from God and not our own efforts.  A time to remember to not be a workaholic, to not wear ourselves out and to remember that those people who work for us need rest too- including the animals.  It was God’s provision for self-care; teaching us to respect God, respect others and respect ourselves. 

Not too long after the 10 commandments were given to the Israelites, people decided that the principle of rest and worship weren’t specific enough and because people are often not willing to respect God

and respect themselves, they needed more instructions.  In order to truly apply it to their communal life and enforce it, they needed to define it.

They defined Sabbath as sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  Then they set out to define “work”.  Israel’s religious leaders, the Scribes, came up with all kinds of ideas including: doing nothing that caused or needed a flame like building a fire, lighting candles or lamps, no cooking and eventually, no electricity.  They weren’t to drive, lift, write, or even provide medical care.  They continued to interpret the word of God contained in the law of Moses in such a way that it became impossible to fulfill it and it lost its true purpose and meaning.

It became work in and of itself just to try to remember all the things you couldn’t do. 

No wonder Jesus caused such a raucous!  Not only did he purposefully, publically and continually break the Sabbath by allowing the disciples to pick grain and healing on the Sabbath but he broke a slew of other laws as well like, not ceremonially washing his hands, eating with sinners, not fasting and touching people who were considered “unclean”.   Jesus broke the law, or at least rebelled against the way the religious people had always interpreted and understood the law.

And yet, in our scripture today, Jesus tells us that the law will be in effect until heaven and earth pass away.  He even says anyone who breaks the law or teaches someone else to break the law will get into big trouble. 

Ok, so this gets me a little confused.  Jesus says the law is still in effect but yet, he is constantly breaking the law.  Can he get away with it because he’s God?  Is it like a parent telling us to do what I say and not what I do?  No, of course not!  But it is a clue that we are supposed to think about it, ask those questions again and interpret the scripture. 

What does it mean?  What was Jesus trying to tell us?  Why did he say it and to whom was he saying it?  Our clues come from the next set of scripture verses that we didn’t read this morning.  Matthew 5: 21-48 consist of a series of teachable moments for Jesus.  He takes the laws and cultural ideas of the time concerning murder, adultery, divorce, keeping promises, retaliation and who we are to love and reinterprets them in new ways.  Jesus isn’t breaking the law but He is breaking from the traditional interpretation of the law. 

He spends these 27 verses teaching us that it isn’t about just following rules and holding others accountable for following those rules.  It is about being in relationship with one another.  When you are angry- your family bond, your bond of friendship or whatever the relationship, is broken.  When we are angry we often disparage someone’s character and cause enough social and emotional damage that they may be as good as dead in a community or as we have seen in instances of bullying it may lead someone to take their own life. 

The same goes for adultery, divorce and breaking promises.  All these break relationships, break communities and do not show respect for God or for neighbor.  It isn’t just about following the rules, it is about our community and our interconnectedness as children of God and respecting others as people who are created by and loved by God. 

Matthew likes to tell the story of Jesus in a way that shows Jesus as the ultimate Rabbi and teacher.  The one who knows the intended meaning of scripture and is the authority on how to live our lives in a way that holds us most closely in line with what God intended. 

Matthew repeatedly, tells us that Jesus said things like “ you have heard it said…. But I say….”.  Jesus is constantly interpreting scripture differently than what was traditionally understood as true. 

Let’s get back to the topic of Sabbath keeping.  The law says “Keep the Sabbath holy” but in Mark ch. 2, Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath isn’t about being able to follow the rules it is about re-centering our lives on God and giving us space to rest our minds and our bodies while also giving us space to build and nurture our relationships with God and each other. 

All the time, I hear people complain about kids having sporting events on Sunday and when I was a waitress I constantly heard people chastise me for working on Sunday- even though they, my customers, were why I was working on a Sunday.  In their eyes I and the kids on the ball field are breaking Sabbath by working on Sunday.

It isn’t that soccer games on Sunday are bad.  It isn’t that restaurant employees and grocery store employees are breaking the rules for working on Sunday; as long as they are taking time off to rest, to spend time with their family and friends, and to worship their creator.  Where the Scribes got it right is that often times we don’t do it on our own.  We push ourselves too hard, we become too focused on accomplishment and quantity over quality.  We need rules to help us live into the principles that God teaches us.  But it isn’t just whether or not we can follow the rules but can we apply the principle behind the rule to our lives. 

What we also have to remember is that it is up to all of us to read and ask these questions of scripture.  What does it mean when the Bible says X?  Why would God tell us to do this or not do that? 

What is it about this scripture that brings me hope, encourages me or challenges me?  How can I apply this to my life? 

It isn’t enough to just say “The bible says it and that settles it”.  Because each one of us uses our experiences, our traditions; what our parents, grandparents, and church have taught us and we use our minds and our ability to reason to understand what scripture says and how we apply it to our lives.  And because understanding and interpreting are based so much on our life perspective, it is difficult to look at scripture and definitively say this is what it means and there is no other right understanding.  This is very challenging for those who need scripture to be black and white/ right and wrong/ clear and unwavering.

But, the Bible is the living word of God.  It is constantly teaching us, guiding us, convicting and encouraging us in new and exciting ways and in the present context of our lives.  It is amazing that when we read scripture in a prayerful way we often feel like it was written for us and our current situation.  We are constantly interpreting scripture and applying that meaning for our lives. 

Usually when we read scripture if we don’t know what it means, we look for foot notes, we look to see what others think it means and we pray about it and ask God, how God wants us to apply it to our own situations.  While it is simple, it is also complex.  When we don’t understand or wonder what it means for our lives, we can look to Jesus and ask not just What would Jesus do but What would Jesus say about this text?  How would Jesus have me apply this text to my life? 

When we look to Jesus; his mercy, compassion, grace and his great desire for us to be in relationship with God and each other, telling us to not just love those who love us, but love our enemies, telling us to not just refrain from murdering but to live with kindness not malice in our hearts. 

When Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself this gives us a lens in which to interpret the rest of scripture. 

Yes, the bible says it- so how can I learn from what the bible says so that I can be in a better relationship with God and with my neighbor?  How does this lesson help me to love God more, love my neighbor and love myself? 

This is the crux of scripture.  Not something to put on a bumper sticker, not something to be used to put others down and judge what is right or wrong for someone else, but how can I dig deeper than just following the rules?  How can I, a broken person, living in a broken world, with others who are broken, find wholeness and holiness in Christ?

Thanks be to God for giving us Jesus to show us the way!  Thanks be to God that Jesus is our way, our truth and our life!  Thanks be to God that we have scriptures, we have the ability to read or listen and to ponder and pray for meaning and guidance to apply them to our life.  Praise be to God that words written thousands of years ago are still alive and breathing meaning and purpose into every corner of our lives.  Praise be to God!