A Prayer for Today

Sacred Wholeness: 

Inspire our hearts, feet, & hands to be your expansive love in the face of hostility and hatred and fear. Help us to retain your essence of compassion and favor for those on the margins. May we embrace your calling of love and justice in “just such a time as this.” Amen. 

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Related Scripture Readings
Luke 12:22, 25, & 31
Micah 6:8
Mark 12:30-31
Esther 4:14

How Long, O Lord?

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people. And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated. And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him. (Read Isaiah 6 here.)

This is a discouraging story. The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements, their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path, and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor. I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer. I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile. Too often I felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children! My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history, and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights and personal safety are at stake now. One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!” An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work on public transit.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him. God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45). God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people! His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did. We must strive to manifest extravagant love. We must protect the vulnerable now and especially if our president-elect continues to empower hatred.

Isaiah said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  Isaiah 6:11 CEB

And I suppose that’s the Good News, even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up. As faithful people we must not give up either.

Does God Play Favorites?

Does God Play Favorites?
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.

Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!” 

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot.

We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.

***

The Bible.

There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.

That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us. 

We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.

By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God.  We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.

***

I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.

Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.

***

Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,

Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB

As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.

Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.

OR.

OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”

Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.

OR.

OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.

We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.

Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.

Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.

Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.

Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”  Matthew 19:21 CEB

I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.

And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.

Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.

If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?

Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.

***

Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it.  God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.

Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,

The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)

Listen again to the first two verses:

Praise the Lord!

    You who serve the Lord—praise!
    Praise the Lord’s name!

Let the Lord’s name be blessed
    from now until forever from now!

Psalm 113:1-2 CEB

As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.

This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.

The LORD is high over all the nations;
God’s glory is higher than the skies!
Who could possibly
compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB

Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.

God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy
from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB

As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine

suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)

Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.

***

Does God Play Favorites? Yes.

It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.

It means Jesus was serious.

We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.

Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.

This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.

We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,

“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)

Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.

Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.

But God calls us to radicalism.

Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)

In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,

the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?

Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities?  As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.

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A Prayer from Those Living in a Powerful Nation

God of all peoples,

We come before you today, a hardy but small group gathered in your presence, gathered to worship you and thank you for all that you have done and will do for your people.

We rely on you because you are a steadfast God. And, yet, God…

And yet, God, we turn on our televisions and read the news online. We hear of more violence and impending war in Ukraine. We pray that Russia does not escalate matters in the Ukraine but we know our righteous indignation is hollow.

As Americans we know we have intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations when it has suited our purposes. As beneficiaries of power and wealth, our nation has manipulated matters in places like Guatemala not as a matter of helping but because it suits our country’s needs.

Help us to hear the words of the prophet Micah through the ears of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian people as the prophet calls out,

Hear this, leaders of the house of Jacob, rulers of the house of Israel, you who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice! Micah 3: 9-10 CEB

Help us to hear the voices of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian and so many other peoples through the Psalmist who cries out,

“Don’t let the feet of arrogant people walk all over me; don’t let the hands of the wicked drive me off.” Psalm 36:11 CEB

Help us to hold our leaders accountable to your ways of love, your ways of justice, your desire for peace for all of your people not just those of us who live in powerful nations. Lead us toward personal and communal actions that respect and honor the dignity of all peoples within and outside our own nation.

In our worries, in our feelings of guilt, in our feelings of helplessness, we turn to the One through whom we know you best. We turn to you through Jesus.

Amen.

***

I offered this prayer at the Condon United Church of Christ on March 2, 2014.

Following Jesus Requires Opposing Economic Injustice

Following Jesus Requires Opposing Economic Injustice
A banner at Occupy Portland the evening before eviction. November 12, 2011. Photo by Tim Graves
A banner at Occupy Portland the evening before eviction. November 12, 2011. Photo by Tim Graves

Community capitalism, in which people make a fair profit while providing a service or product needed by the community, builds up community. In its concern for community, it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Community capitalism, however, is a very different economic system than the radical, corporatism that dominates us today.  The radical capitalism of the twenty-first century demands extreme profits while convincing people wants are needs and corporations are people. We each become, not a neighbor with needs that another can provide, but someone to manipulate to increase someone else’s power and wealth.

Radical capitalism (corporatism) diminishes the value of human community. In its disregard for communities and the people who live in them, it is inconsistent with Christianity. Community living and the Imago Dei (image of God) within every person, are core values taught and lived by Jesus.

Just as the early church struggled to practice and maintain these values in the face of external pressure, particularly from the powerful, the twenty-first century church faces pressures from a contrary culture. When we allow the values of radical capitalism and endless acquisition to ooze into the church we have lost our way.

We too often fail to call-out the sins of the economics that diminish our kindred in our own communities and communities across the globe. We have feared alienating members who rely on an unjust system for a living and have kept our mouths shut. We have compromised ourselves into irrelevance.

The only economics followers of Jesus should be committed to are those that build up the unfolding realm of God (sometimes called the Kingdom of God). Radical corporatism does not build up the realm of God. Responding to others in love and grace with all of ourselves including the sharing of financial resources is consistent with the biblical witness, especially as reflected in the early church (see Acts of the Apostles).

Though not easy in a contrary culture that idolizes things and power, we must focus on the teachings of the one we claim to follow and be open to the voice of the Spirit who continues to speak. Doing so, requires us to give up sacred cows and think in ways that feel uncomfortable. It means taking social risks when we stand with the oppressed, with the poor, and with the powerless.

The church is not a building. It is a people, a community, concerned about striving to be God’s extravagant love in every moment. It is a humble love that calls out and actively opposes injustices within and outside itself. I pray for a resurrection in myself and the church that we might be a part of the unfolding realm of God, that we might speak and act in love and justice, whatever the risk may be.

He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 CEB

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8b CEB

Related Posts:

Capitalism & Christianity

Ignoring Jesus & Injustice

Talk Love, Not War

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

The language we use frames our worldview. We choose the language we use. We can frame fog as a bad thing that obscures our view or as a thing of beauty as the clouds gently kiss the earth. Photo by Tim Graves

Contrary to this childhood chant, language matters. Words break more than bones, which are relatively easy to heal. Words can critically maim a person’s spirit and emotional health. Words define and interpret what is happening around us.

The language we use frames our worldview. We choose the language we use. We can describe fog as a bad thing that obscures our view or as a thing of beauty as the clouds gently kiss the earth.

Likewise, when faced with the ups and downs of life, we can describe low points as attacks or as challenges. If we consistently refer to them as attacks we begin to perceive the world as a hostile place. However, if we describe them as challenges we are less likely to feel overwhelmed. If we describe ourselves as “a train wreck” when we make a mistake, we begin to think of ourselves as flawed in some fundamental way. Talking about our struggles instead of demeaning ourselves, however, helps us to maintain our integrity as people created in the image of God.

And, so, when followers of Jesus use militaristic language to describe sharing the Good News, we begin to think of other human beings as objects to be conquered. For example, in a recent Facebook post the death of a church member was noted this way: The “Church is saddened to report the passing from the church militant to the church triumphant of our brother.” Likewise, I grew up hearing the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” sung with vigor. Even some contemporary Christian music spends a little too much time using bloody or militaristic metaphors.

The language we use frames our worldview. We choose the language we use. We can frame fog as a bad thing that obscures our view or as a thing of beauty as the clouds gently kiss the earth. Photo by Tim Graves

The problem is this is not a war. The militaristic metaphors of the past created the colonial church, the inquisition, and many other sins. We are called not to kill and conquer but to love others, to seek justice, and be Christ’s loving arms and hands in the world (Micah 6:8)

It is time to renounce militaristic and aggressive language of the past, so that we can more fully love. Jesus did not come riding in on a white horse leading an army. The upside down savior came into an imperfect world as a baby, grew up in that world, but still breathed in the divine and breathed out love.

It’s time that our actions and language reflect the One who loves extravagantly. It’s time for followers of Jesus to follow Jesus. Perhaps then others will see Christians not as hypocrites but as people who love with abandon.