Between Here & There

Between Here & There

Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved.https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/9034449643/
Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Between here and there, I chewed gum and sipped my iced tea. Between there and here, I listened to an audiobook before streaming music on my smartphone.

Nearly here, I exited the freeway.

The hybrid engine shifted to electric as I slowed. Adjusting the volume of my music, I read the cardboard sign as I came to a stop. I looked at the man holding the sign. His beard was more brown and black than my red but it featured the same expanding grey.

I reached over to the passenger seat for my wallet. Having broken my twenty as I came across the toll bridge, a ten, four singles, and a five occupied my wallet. I clasped the five and handed it to the man saying, “Bless you.”

That was when I saw a human being.

“Thank you, God bless you,” he responded with appropriate courtesy. Then he looked at the bill and exclaimed with excitement, “Wow! Thank you! God bless you!”

Given the joy in his voice, I wondered for a moment if I’d handed him a fifty but I never carry that much cash.

Between here and there, I was reminded of the sin of economic injustice wrought by the myths of rugged individualism and making capitalism an idol. On the corner of there and here, Jesus sported a scruffy beard and held up a cardboard sign.

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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Ignore the Baby Behind the Curtain

The Baby Bird's head can be seen at the bottom of the image just left of center. Mama Bird is in the
Baby Bird’s head can be seen at the bottom of the image just left of center. Mama Robin is in the branch at the top of the image just right of center. Photo by Tim Graves

When I first approached the tree, I noticed Mama Robin feeding Baby Bird a plump worm. I switched on my camera but I was too late. Mama Bird had spotted me. Counter-intuitively, she abandoned her child and moved to a higher branch. She began to make loud noises to attract my attention. It was as if she were shouting, “Over here! See me! Pay no attention to the baby behind the curtain!” Presumably, this was her way of protecting her youngest.

In a rare moment, Humming Mama stopped moving. Photo by Tim Graves
In a rare moment, Humming Mama stopped moving. Photo by Tim Graves

I’ve observed a similar behavior with the hummingbird nest at my back door. When I open the door,

Humming Mama leaves Tot in the nest and buzzes around my head. When she has my attention, she moves to a branch in the nearby tree. She continues to attention seek until I go back inside.

Neither mother is close enough to me that I could harm them. Their behavior is designed to self-preserve while protecting their vulnerable and weak offspring. Their behavior safeguards the weakest member of their communities.

Maybe we could learn something from the birds.

 ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ Matthew 25:40b CEB

The Sin of Exclusion

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. (James 2:1 CEB)

Don’t show favoritism. Favoritism is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Favoritism is a sin.

If you like folks who get right to the point, you gotta love the writer of Sin of ExclusionJames. Unlike Jesus who tended to favor parables that often had to be explained to his disciples, James doesn’t mess around.

Don’t show favoritism.

***

Writing between the years 60 and 80, James is writing to Christians and non-Christians alike. We don’t know who he was for sure. The tradition that tells us he was Jesus’ brother is doubted by most contemporary scholars.

James’ primary audience included two groups: the extremely poor and the working poor. The extremely poor were the folks who barely survived. They had to beg just to eat. If no one took mercy upon them, they would die.

The working poor were the folks with jobs but not very good jobs. They were typically taken advantage of by their wealthy employers. When they were not paid wages due — which happened too often — they did not eat. Too many days without pay and they would be in the same position as the extremely poor. They, too, would be facing starvation.

In this passage, James is not speaking to the extremely poor. Nor is he speaking to the wealthy oppressors. (Though he will have words for them as we move through James’ letter.) James is speaking to the working poor. He’s speaking to the near-slaves or what Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias described as day laborers.

Hear James as he speaks to this group about their favoritism:

But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2:6-7 CEB)

James is appalled that rather than siding with the oppressed, the extremely poor, some of the day laborers, the working poor, are siding with the wealthy. In contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, they show favoritism to the wealthy. Recall, the wealthy are oppressing not only the extremely poor but the working poor as well.

The working poor have turned away from their Jesus-taught obligation to God’s justice. They have instead turned toward the values of this world. Writes scholar Aaron Uitti,

“Their favoritism for the wealthy aligns them with the world and places them at odds with God (4:4)… [but] it is not possible for them to have it both ways—to claim the faith of Jesus and to discriminate against the poor.” (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1578-1584)

In the words of James,

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:8-9a CEB)

***

There’s a bumper sticker. (I used to have one on my car ten to fifteen years ago.) The sticker reads: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

James should make us squirm.

If the western church doesn’t squirm, we’re not paying attention to James’ indictments. In James’ age, the church was still made up primarily of the poor: the extremely poor and the working poor.

It makes sense when you read the gospels. Jesus and the writers of the gospels lift up the dignity of those at the edges of society and offer hope. One out of every ten verses in the first three gospels deals with poverty and social injustice. In Luke, it is one out of every seven verses. (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1657).

Theologian Elsa Tamez reminds us that,

“For James poverty is the result of a scandalous act of oppression.” (The Scandalous Message of James, p. 23)

If the Bible is the authority through which we primarily hear God, then it is clear that we ought to be more concerned about poverty and social injustices. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, that means more than believing the “right” things. It means heeding the lure of the Holy Spirit and being Christ and doing God’s work in this place.

And, frankly, I don’t think American Christians in the twenty-first century are doing such a hot job: We worry about saving our old buildings. We worry about our denominational structures. We worry about attracting young folks and the right folks.

We worry about those inside the church more than those outside.

 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin… (James 2:8-9a CEB)

We favor ourselves at the expense of the poor and those living on the margins.

Consider that how we spend our resources — our money, our time, and other wealth — reflect what we value. For example, in this very church, we spend thousands and thousands upon thousands for building maintenance and heating.

We spend thousands on a building that is empty most of the time and we sent less than $250 to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Yes, we do other things. We gave land for the memory care unit. We open our building to AA. We sent seven emergency buckets to Church World Service. We open our building at minimal cost for the Senior Meal and more.

This example is not the whole picture but no matter how we slice it, our expenditures imply we are more concerned about maintaining the institution known as Condon United Church of Christ than we are about anything else.

If you’re not squirming, you’re not paying attention.

While I know that not every one in this room lives in the lap of luxury and some of us do struggle financially, I also know that there are plenty of folks in this community who struggle under significant burdens of class and poverty who are not here.

Where are they? Where are those of poorer socioeconomic status?

We are not totally homogenous in this room but we are far from reflective of the demographics of Condon or Gilliam county.

Somehow, we are sending the message that we are not as open and welcoming to the poor and near-poor as we’d like to think we are. I have had more than one non-middle class person confide in me that when they’ve visited here, they’ve felt uncomfortable and excluded.

Now, I know that you all are loving and caring folks. Absolutely.

I feel it. You feel it. That is real.

I am not implying that we mean to exclude others…

Somehow, however, we are not always as welcoming to everyone as we mean to be. Somehow, we favor those like us more than those different from ourselves. Somehow, we have at times inadvertently excluded others.

If we are to respond to James’ indictment to avoid favoritism, something has to change.

For starters, We must confess that we have sinned. We have excluded others — whether intentionally or unintentionally. And we need to pray about it, talk to one another, and begin to reach out to those who make us uncomfortable.

There are plenty of organizations that reflect the values of the world but we are called to reflect God’s values. The church — Christ’s church — is called to be a reflection of God’s realm on earth. As church, we are called to reflect the diversity of God’s people in this place.

We live in a very different world than the first readers of James’ letter. Still, James’ God-inspired words have something to say to us. God uses James to speak to us across the millennia.

The question is how will we respond to those words?

Amen.

___

I shared this sermon with the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 18, 2014. The text for the sermon is James 2:1-13.

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.

SNAP: Two Dimes & A Penny

SNAPChallenge_Layer-1I’ve stood behind folks arguing about twenty-one cents on their grocery order before. Adamant, they don’t back down while others wait behind them. Clerks are often not very helpful looking with disdain at the person who bickers over two dimes and a penny. I admit sometimes I have been impatient when standing behind this scene.

Today I empathize with the panic of those who argue over small change.

With three dollars and fifty-four cents left in my food budget for 2-1/2 days, I went to the market in my small town yesterday. I was thrilled to find that there was an abundance of bananas left and, since this was the end of the week, they were only thirty-three cents a pound. I would have fruit!

Then to my joy was a new rack of Braeburn apples sale priced at 79 cents a pound. I would have apples and bananas to supplement my beige noodles and rice at home. Yes, I would have fruit! I couldn’t afford any more vegetables and all I had left at home was a quarter of a zucchini but, by golly, I was going to have fruit.

My order totaled $2.50 but since I am new to this living so very close to the edge, I didn’t realize a mistake was made. I was charged for one Braeburn apple at the 79 cent a pound and one Fuji apple at $1.49 a pound. That thirty-seven cents overcharge matters to me this week. It will buy a baking potato if I can find a small one in the pile.

When you’re poor and living near the edge every penny counts. When you’re days away from pay day or a refill on your food stamp card, of course, you argue over two dimes and a penny.

The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place. Jeremiah 22:3 CEB

Related Articles
Opening Our Hearts to the Hungry, Condon United Church of Christ website
SNAP Challenge, um, Maybe Not Today 11-19-13
SNAP: Getting Serious, Getting Anxious 11-20-13
SNAP: The Veggie-Noodle Balance 11-21-13
SNAP: The Glop That Plops 11-22-13
SNAP: Ouch, Ouch, Ouch 11-23-13

SNAP: Ouch, Ouch, Ouch

I came across this blog from Rebecca Barnes, who is also taking the SNAPChallenge this week. She is including her family in the experience. I teared up reading this c

omment from her blog,

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.27.16 AM“Last night, I actually pretended I couldn’t read my sweet girl’s pantomime of wanting a drink from the snackbar, during her second game of the evening for which she was working hard as a cheerleader. I thought, I should have made her take a water bottle. I should have planned better, even though earlier she said no, she didn’t want to take her water bottle. I can’t afford to go buy her a drink. But, she’s standing there, thirsty, and I’m looking away. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.”

I’m not teary because of this child; we know that the SNAP Challenge her family is taking is a contrived learning and advocacy experience. I cry because too many mothers and fathers and too many children live like this every day in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?And, that, THAT is a sin for which we are collectively responsible. Luke 11:11-12 CEB

When we place mothers and fathers in the position of giving their children scorpions when they need fish, we sin. We live in the wealthiest country on the earth. When children are hungry, we have failed. All of us. We have all sinned.

Related Articles
Opening Our Hearts to the Hungry, Condon United Church of Christ website
SNAP Challenge, um, Maybe Not Today 11-19-13
SNAP: Getting Serious, Getting Anxious 11-20-13
SNAP: The Veggie-Noodle Balance 11-21-13
SNAP: The Glop That Plops 11-22-13

SNAP: The Glop That Plops

SNAP: The Glop That Plops

I came home last night a little after eight. I was ravenous. I’d intentionally skipped dinner, planning to eat after my 6:30 meeting.

SNAPChallenge_Layer-1

I looked at the ninety-three cent box of macaroni and cheese. It was going to take too long. (I was ravenous, remember.) The instant rice is running low and besides I’d had rice at lunch. I looked at my remaining baby carrots but turned away from them. I’m rationing what fresh vegetables I have. I ended up with a cup of leftover tomato soup poured over a slice of bread. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. 

It wasn’t enough.

Wanting more soup, I went back to the fridge and found the leftover condensed mushroom soup. It kinda just plopped into the pot. I warmed it up. It kinda plopped into my bowl. I ate it. It kinda plopped into my stomach.

I was full now but felt like, well, I felt like crap.

***

Reflecting this morning on my mistake — eating that condensed mushroom soup — I am thinking about my mindset at the time. I was hungry. My belly was empty. Without healthy choices available to me, I ate what was available.

I think about how these kind of food choices effect children’s learning and adult performance on the job. Yes, many folks on SNAP are the working poor. I know how I feel this week. I know it is effecting my focus and efficiency.

I am not hungry this week. I have enough food to eat, at least so far. But it is not enough to assure folks have enough to eat. Adults and children alike need to have healthy, nutritious food to learn, grow, and strive. 

***

Related Articles
Opening Our Hearts to the Hungry, Condon United Church of Christ website
SNAP Challenge, um, Maybe Not Today 11-19-13
SNAP: Getting Serious, Getting Anxious 11-20-13
SNAP: The Veggie-Noodle Balance 11-21-13