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