Thursday, October 18, 2018

Justice and Mercy

This scripture is often called one of Isaiah’s servant songs.  In them, Isaiah describes what the servant of the Lord will be like.  Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about who Isaiah is talking about. 
Some think he is writing about King Cyrus of Syria who was seen as a messianic figure because he allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
Others think Isaiah is describing the nation of Israel.  Those who were called, set apart to be God’s chosen people. 

And of course, Christians read them and immediately think of Jesus.  Jesus, after all, read from Isaiah and used similar words in Luke 4 to declare his life’s purpose as he said he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.     
Christians believe Jesus is the ONE, anointed by God, the chosen one who was called forth in the fullness of time to fulfill the prophecy of old.  And he is. 

Isaiah is foundational for all of God’s chosen people.  And some think this is why Isaiah is vague about who this servant is.  Jesus is the ONE but he isn’t the only one.
I learned this week that one of my heroes was canonized by the Catholic church.  Oscar Romero was the Arch Bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in the 1970’s.  He was selected because he was a quiet, unassuming presence.  He knew how to tow the company line and wasn’t one to make waves. 
Shortly after taking this position of power, he was introduced to other high-powered people. Not long after, he realized all was not as it seemed.  Corruption was rampant at all levels of society and he could tell the rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. 

In the streets he heard from women whose children went to work in the fields and never came home, there was gunfire in the streets, young girls were being raped and left for dead, people were starving and innocent people were being killed for not paying bribes or not being respectful enough to the government and sometimes, simply because they were poor.   
He saw the inequality, he tried to do the diplomatic thing. 
He tried to correct the misguided desires of the elite but quickly understood nothing was changing.  They said the right words, but their actions never changed.   He began to speak up.  He stood up when he saw government bullies and during his radio broadcast of Sunday Mass he read off the names of those killed that week.

He was imprisoned, tortured and watched as others were tortured for trying to provide work, food, and dignity to the poor.  He fought against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. He never advocated fighting back.  He simply held a mirror up to the powers that be to allow them to see the horrific nature of their actions and attitudes.

This is what Jesus did as he told the accusers of the woman caught in adultery for the one without sin to cast the first stone.  It is what he did when he pointed out to the religious leaders that they tithed cumin and mint but neglected the weightier things of Justice and mercy.  It is what Jesus did when he welcomed outcasts into his life. 

This is what a servant of the Lord does.  Oscar Romero was assassinated March 24, 1980, when two government assassins, walked into the sanctuary and shot him as he lifted the communion bread above his head. 
I don’t know if Father Romero fits the Vatican’s traditional definition of a saint, but he certainly lived and died like Jesus.  

The more I learned of him, the more I questioned myself.  Would I be that brave?  Would I be willing to live and die to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless and dignity to the scorned?

When we take our baptismal vows, we proclaim we will make the mission of Jesus our mission. We proclaim that we will be the hands and feet of Christ.   We promise to uphold and live out God’s vision for the world. 

Isaiah states that the eyes of the blind will be opened, prisoners set free and release offered to those in darkness.  The chosen ones will bring forth justice and the righteousness of God will rest upon them. 

Jesus heals the blind; allowing them to see the world and the glory of God.  Jesus opens the eyes of those blinded by the law, the strict code of right and wrong that often isolates the broken and snuffs out the spirit of those who long for more.  Jesus releases those who are imprisoned by physical and mental illness.  He casts out demons, heals the sick and welcomes the sinner.

God enfleshed in Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy and more.
The servant of the Lord will bring forth Justice.  Sometimes we see the word justice and think of court systems and punishment.  We think a just God is one who punishes the bad and rewards the good.   
In Jesus, we see a different justice.  We see a justice of equality where the sinner is just as valuable as the righteous.  We see Jesus raise the lowly, restore honor, hope, and dignity to those who are told their life circumstances were God’s punishment.  

Even those Jesus corrected he did so in a loving way.  He wanted the leaders to see past their privilege and the laws that kept some superior to others, to see the hearts of those they oppressed.  Those whom he corrected, he always gave a way forward with hope and love. 

Where do we fit in?  Do we accept that we are all in need of justice and are called to act on behalf of justice? 
How do we, who proclaim to be followers of Jesus Christ, the chosen people of God, fit into the mission of God that played out so perfectly in Jesus Christ? 

This isn’t an easy question to answer, especially in a culture where every action is seen with political motivation.  When standing up for the voiceless gets you labeled an enemy of one party or the other.  We live in a divided world where either you are for or against.  There is little middle ground.  Most people are scared to say anything. 
But this is exactly the Jesus type of justice we are called to advocate for.  We are called to give a voice for the voiceless.  It was Jesus who gave dignity to the woman caught in adultery.  It was Jesus who restored honor to the lepers.  It is Jesus who gave women and children a voice, a place of honor and sinners a place at his table. 

Jesus calls us to be people of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting the lonely, and providing for the orphan and widow.  But we are also called to be people of justice. 

Most of us will not be asked to give our life advocating for the voiceless but it is still our call as chosen people of God to act for and on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  Who has God placed on your heart?  There are many in this world who need someone to advocate for them. 

It starts by asking God to heal our eyes blinded to injustice, speaking up when someone tells an off-color joke or makes a denigrating comment about “those people”. 
It is about taking a chance on someone, giving them an opportunity to find hope and dignity.  And it is as simple as calling your waitress by name, asking about her life and leaving a larger tip than is expected. 
Unlike Mercy, Justice cannot be done from a distance.  We can pack backpacks, donate money, food and old things we don’t want.   Justice requires sacrifice, a willingness to be uncomfortable and to be open to loving those the world says isn’t lovable. 

While it is hard, God promises we aren’t in it alone.  Isaiah says we who serve the God of Justice will receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Lord who created the heavens and earth will take you by the hand and keep you. 
And through those who choose to walk in this path, the glory and light of the Lord will shine brightly for all the world to see. 

And in it we get to be like Jesus and intimately know the power of the God who transcends time and creation, to see hope restored, love lived and joy in the brokenhearted. 

Who doesn’t want to live in a world where faith, hope, and love are poured out for all.  This is the Kingdom of God!  Praise God for inviting us to be a part of it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

True wisdom

James 3:13-4:8

Several years ago I bought a t-shirt for my brother that says “beware of stupid people in large numbers”.  I thought it fit his sense of humor and that he would get a kick out of it… although now that I think about it… I never saw him wear it…
Anyway- the problem with thoughts like this is we always assume we’re the smart ones and the stupid people are someone else.  I haven’t met very many people who didn’t think they were smart, that they had the right answers. 
This isn’t about formal education or even street smarts.  Most people, given the opportunity to say so, think they have the answers.   Get a group of friends around a dinner table and before you know it you will be solving the world’s problems.   
Whether it is unemployment, health care, drug addiction, how to run the government, how to withdraw troops from the middle east, trade wars and farm subsidies to more personal things like how your spouse should treat you or how to raise your kids, how to do your job better or the best recipe for chili. 
We know it is complicated…. but what you need to do is…. And if they would just do what we tell them, life would be so much better. 
This is the way we think because this is how the world teaches us to think.  Fake it till you make it.  If you say it with enough confidence, they will believe you.  If you don’t’ know guess.
And if someone dares to challenge you, get angry and they will leave you alone!  When you fail, find someone else to blame. And, if you succeed make sure to take all the credit. 
After all this is what our heroes do. 
A quick search of the internet told me that the most admired people in the world are Barak Obama, Donald Trump, Bill gates, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Xi Jinping the President of China and Vladimir Putin.
All people who have power, influence, money, beauty, popularity and often are seen by the people who agree with them to do little wrong. 
But power, influence, money, beauty, popularity, strength, and knowledge are not the same as wisdom.  All these things can be gained by less than honorable means.  Al Capone and Charles Manson both had many of these qualities.
So how do we know who is wise and who is just fooling us and leading us astray by the image the world sees and values? 
James tells us we know by the fruit of their lives.  What do they leave in their wake?  Are their works gentle, peaceful, willing to yield, are they willing to listen to the thoughts and needs of others? 
Are they merciful and impartial towards any one person, group or issue and do not sow hypocrisy?  Do they seek harmony and peace? 
Or do they seem to just want what they want, getting angry, bitter and envious when things don’t go their way? 
Do their gifts seem born out of ambition or a desire for earthly possessions?  Are they boastful about their accomplishments or do they give credit to others?  Do their lives promote order or disorder, chaos or harmony? 
True Wisdom is not something we get from a university or through wealth.  It is a gift from God.  It is simply the awareness of and desire for God living in our lives. 
The Old testament often personified wisdom as part of the triune God, calling us to right, peaceable, careful living.  Here James describes it as a gift from God that comes through prayer. (HCSB NRSV)
The true comparison is when we look at some of the most admired faith leaders of our time.
Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Tich Nach Han, Pope Francis, and Billy Graham.  How do their lives, attitude, actions and fruit compare to the list of world leaders? 
Which group do we want to follow, imitate and be like?  Maybe that seems like a silly question. How does who we admire affect how we live?  Who we admire, who we strive to be like, who we look up to, who we want to represent us and make decisions for us matters.  Because it reflects and affects what we value. 
Do we strive for Godly things or worldly things? 
I have met way too many people whose family has been destroyed over arguments about inheritance.  One person got more than another or got the one thing they wanted, and family relationships were killed.
We send our children to fight wars which are primarily over property disputes, pride, power and wealth. 
Black Friday is only 2 months away.  We have all seen the fights over cheap items, people pushing and shoving just to be first in line. 
We argue over power, money, having the right things, who is smarter, prettier, or more athletic.  We fight over possessions we cannot take with us and the opinions of others that don’t matter.  We argue over who gets to make decisions and who gets credit or blame depending on how it turns out. 
Where there is conflict; whether it is in the family, the church, the nation or the world, we know there is earthly, devilish and selfish desires. 
Just admitting we have a problem is the first step.  We are selfish from birth to death; it is a constant source of pain and something we must continually fight against. 
We must constantly question our motives and our desires because the worldly ones are so much easier to access and look so much more attractive and shinier than Godly ones. 
And Godly desires seem counter intuitive to the barrage of marketing and messaging about worldly success which surrounds us. 
Our emotions are a huge clue to our motivations.  Why are we hurt or angry?  Why do we want the things we want?  Are we willing to damage relationships and experience conflict to get it?  Is it for some higher good or just because we want to feel important?  How often are we saying—I deserve… more money, more attention, more respect….?
Do we jump to conclusions and make assumptions or are we yielding, listening, showing mercy, and seeking compassionate justice?  How often are we putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, trying to see life and the decisions we make from someone else’s perspective? 
This is a constant work in progress.  We as humans are so influenced by our moods, our whims, our attitudes and the attitudes of others that we are constantly moving back and forth away from God then close to God.  Away from worldly desires then closer to them. 
The more we envy, are selfish, ambitious, irrational, impulsive, and participate in chaotic and disordered life, the further we are from God.  The more we seek to live in peace, calmness, selflessness, seeking God’s approval instead of others, the closer we are to God. 
The Bible tells us to ask and we shall receive.  With what attitude are we asking?  What is the underlying desire behind our prayers?  How often is our prayer- Lord let me have what you want me to have?  Or, Lord let my wants be your wants. 
God is always there, offering true wisdom to us.  We just have to want it.  God is always there, no matter how far away we go chasing our dreams and desires that aren’t God’s.  God is always there wanting to give us the peace of Christ, the comfort of the Holy Spirit. 
When we compare the two- the effects of earthly wisdom and the effects of Godly wisdom, isn’t it clear which is better, which makes life better, more peaceful and abundant?  Why would we want what the world has to offer when we can have the better part?  The part that looks, lives and thrives in this life and the life to come. 
God gives us the grace, the role models, the ability to seek the better way if we only look for them.  God provides all we need to live a beautiful and abundant life and to offer that love and life to others. 
When we look for heroes, people to admire and aspire to be like.  Let us look to Jesus who even in the face of torture kept silent, choosing submission and peace over violence and war.  Who, shelved his power so that we might know love, surrendered his life so that we might have eternal life. 

Do you need a hero?  Let us look for those who look more like Jesus and less like the world.