Sunday, September 30, 2018

Walking in Someone Else's Shoes

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
            There was an article in the sports section of our paper recently about Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League.  If you’ve been paying attention to sports news during the past year or two you are aware of the controversy over players protesting during the national anthem.  These protests take several forms, including kneeling on one knee (“taking a knee” in football lingo), sitting on the bench, or remaining in the locker room. 
            These actions have angered some and pleased others.  The angry ones see it as a slap in the face to those who are serving, or who have served in the armed forces, especially to those who have died defending their country, although there is not an exclusive connection between the national anthem and the military.  Our national anthem belongs to all Americans, not just those in the armed forces.  Those who support the actions of these players see the protests as a means to call attention to the inequities that exist in American society, especially those connected with race.
Unfortunately, both groups have hardened their positions so that dialogue is difficult if not impossible.  The actions of some in power, both in professional football and in government, have hindered rather than helped communication.  No problem is ever solved when talking between opposing sides becomes impossible.
Roger Goodell is white, privileged, and part of the establishment.  One doesn’t become the commissioner of a major sports league by being a radical and an outsider.  That is why his actions a few weeks ago are so interesting.
Commissioner Goodell spent almost nine hours in New Orleans attending a “Listen and Learn” event sponsored by the NFL Players Coalition, an organization formed to help coordinate players’ social justice efforts.  Players, league officials and team officials were invited to take part in sessions aimed at a more complete understanding of the problems facing minorities in dealing with the criminal justice system, police organizations, and educational and economic structures.
Commissioner Goodell was an active participant, taking notes, asking questions, and attending a bail hearing for a young man who had been arrested on a robbery charge.  The author of the article, Nancy Armour, said Goodell came without an entourage; did not hold a news conference; and did not let his phone interrupt his concentration.  Instead he gave his full attention to the proceedings.  For the entire nine hours he remained mostly unrecognized.
Paul talks about becoming “all things to all people that by all means I might save some.”  I understand the situations are not exactly parallel, but there are connections.  Paul was so concerned about the state of people’s souls in the first century that he sought to understand everyone’s situation and point of view.  He wanted to be able to tailor his message to a wide variety of people.  He tried to understand Jews, Greeks, those inside and outside Mosaic law, and those who society considered weak and unimportant—all so he might help them be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
I am not trying to place Roger Goodell on the same plane with the apostle Paul, but Commissioner Goodell was in New Orleans to listen to and learn the other side of social issues.  He wasn’t only concerned about the players in his league, although I assume he wanted to understand why some of them felt the need to protest.  He was trying to understand the issues facing young men who the system was failing, football players or not, athletes or not.
Isn’t this what Christ calls us to do—he who became poor that we might become rich?  If he felt the need to walk in our shoes so we might be reconciled, shouldn’t we do the same for those who stand outside society’s doors of privilege?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Chasing the Rabbit

Chasing the Rabbit
Matthew 11:28-30
            I have some strange habits—not awful or antisocial, just strange.  Most of my friends know my strangeness, tolerate my strangeness, and, I suspect, some even appreciate my strangeness.  A few of my strange habits I keep to myself.  While my friends accept my strangeness, I’m not sure how they’d respond if they found out I was downright weird.
            When I’m walking the track at the athletic club I look for someone ahead of me who is moving slower than I am.  I make that person my “rabbit.” 
Some of you understand the term.  On tracks where greyhounds (dogs, not busses) race, there is a mechanical rabbit attached to the rail.  The dogs are trained to chase the rabbit.  It moves faster than they can, so their chase is futile.  It does get them to run their fastest, so it serves its purpose.
            The difference is that I choose a rabbit I can catch, pass, and try to catch again.  It may be strange, but it keeps me walking at a fast pace.  It’s helpful, and as far as I know, it’s harmless.
            Modern society has borrowed the expression chasing the rabbit from greyhound racing.  When someone overworks himself for a raise or a promotion, we say he’s “chasing the rabbit.”  When someone continues to run for higher and higher elected office, we say she’s “chasing the rabbit.”  Any time anyone seems to obsessively pursue a goal we use this expression.
            We don’t mean it kindly.  Comparing a person to an animal futilely chasing an unreachable goal is not a positive.  To say someone is running so singlemindedly that he/she has no time, energy or desire left for anything else is not a compliment.  We may be criticizing, or making fun of such a person, but we’re certainly not being complimentary.
            The world Jesus entered in the first century may not have had as many rabbits to chase as we have today, but overworking was still a problem.  Many people of Jesus’ day carried burdens they could not put down.  These burdens were placed on them by society.  The working poor found themselves overextended trying to provide for their families.  Those in professions considered unclean were expected to overextend themselves keeping every jot and tittle of the law.  Those whose illnesses or conditions caused them to be shunned by society overextended themselves just trying to live.  Even the rich and powerful overextended themselves trying to maintain or improve their position or their wealth.  They were the ones chasing the rabbit.
            Into this overworked, overextended, over-stressed world came Jesus, inviting all who could not find peace to come to him and rest.  You can hear him saying these words, his voice calm, his body language relaxed, his manner inviting, reassuring, welcoming.
            Jesus calls us the same way today—calls us to stop chasing our particular rabbit, lay down our unbearable burdens, and find rest in him.  Unfortunately, we have become so conditioned to our busyness that we find it difficult to respond—just as, I imagine, his listeners did. 
But what choice do we have?  It’s either pursue our goals slavishly and endlessly, always hoping the next raise, or the next position will satisfy our souls, or come to the one who promises soul-satisfying rest—and can deliver on that promise. 
It’s time we let the rabbit win.
            We won’t be out of work.  Elsewhere Jesus tells us to labor for the kingdom, and to lay up treasure in heaven.  We’ll still have plenty to do; but his yoke will be easy and our burdens will be lighter.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

How do You Deal with Bigots?

How Do You Deal with Bigots?
Deuteronomy 32:34-36
Romans 12:17-19
            “The doctrine which, from the very first origin of religious dissensions, has been held by bigots of all sects, when condensed into a few words and stripped of rhetorical disguise is simply this:  I am in the right, and you are in the wrong.  When you are the stronger, you ought to tolerate me, for it is your duty to tolerate truth; but when I am the stronger, I shall persecute you, for it is my duty to persecute error.”-Thomas Babington Macaulay.
            Several years ago, our then-church secretary picked up a voice mail message.  The woman who left the message said something like, “I just wanted to tell you that your church is going to hell because you do not believe in God the way I do.  There!  Now I can sleep well tonight because I’ve delivered my message.”
            What prompts people to say things like that?  How can they be so rude?  How can they be so sure they are right and everyone else is wrong?  How do we respond to statements like this?
            I’ve thought about these and similar questions both before and after hearing this message.  I’m not sure I have all the answers, but I’ve come up with a few things that make sense to me.
            One of humanity’s biggest problems is insecurity.  We’re afraid things won’t work out for us, so we cling desperately to the little bit of truth we think we understand, and make it—for us—the whole truth.  Then, because we’re still insecure, we feel we must make it the truth for everyone.  This is especially damaging when it comes to religion, for the situation has eternal implications: “I must be right,” we say, “because if you’re right, then I must be wrong, and that means I’m the one who’s going to hell, and that can’t be!” 
            And so we argue over minute points of doctrine and individual words in Scripture, not allowing ourselves to realize that none of us have the whole truth, because each of us only understands a part of what the Bible—or, for that matter, sacred texts of any religion—means.  We’ll never understand everything until the whole truth is revealed to us, and that won’t happen in this lifetime.
            This is especially damning for Christians, who say our religion is based on a loving God.  The underlying theme of all Scripture is that God is love.  God loves the universe and everything in it—including all humans.  It must grieve God deeply to see us disagree so vehemently over what Scripture means, and to condemn others to eternal punishment because they do not agree with our interpretation.
            At root, we are all ignorant.  We don’t even know how much we don’t know.  This becomes especially dangerous when we achieve a position of power.  As Macaulay says, our inclination is to punish those who disagree with us because they must be in error.  As James Baldwin said, “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
            This, at least for me, explains why people condemn others’ beliefs so rudely, and punish them—when given the opportunity—so violently.  But how can we respond to this anger and this rudeness?
 Leave it to God.
            Paul, in his letter to the Romans, quotes Moses’ words to the Israelites when he tells his listeners to remember that, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  Paul also tells us to, so far as it depends on us, live peaceably with everyone.  Not easy to do, I admit, especially when they are attacking not just what we believe, but us.  But Paul is right.  Let God sort it out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

What Is Your Compassion Quotient?

What Is Your Compassion Quotient?
Mark 6:30-44
            For those of you who only remember the word quotient from math classes, there is another definition, one I recently became aware of.  It can also mean, “a degree or amount of a specified quality or characteristic.”  That’s the sense in which I’m using it here.
            Compassion is not the easiest characteristic to deal with.  Most of us have some compassion for those near and dear to us, but widening our compassion circle is difficult.  We tend to look at those who are not close to us through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.  We keep them at a distance.
            Nowhere is this truer than in our attitude to the poor, especially the multigenerational poor.  Their poverty must be their fault.  How can someone continue to be poor year after year, generation after generation?  Surely there is something they can do to change their position!  Perhaps if they got some help organizing their finances, or denied themselves things like new TV’s or cell phones, or learned to shop for food more economically.  Can’t they put a little something away every month, build up a nest egg, so that when disaster strikes they’d have something to help them get through difficult times?
            Last week I quoted Herman Melville, who said, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” 
This is where I was heading with that quote.  Those of us who have enough—even if it’s barely enough—can’t understand why some people remain mired in poverty.  They not only lack the money to get out of poverty, they lack the means of figuring out how to change their status.  They have been poor so long they’ve come to believe that it is the only way they can live.  No amount of telling them how to make things different makes a difference.  Even if they have a windfall they don’t know how to use it to help them change their financial condition.  Those who have studied the poor and worked with the poor will tell you it is almost hopeless to expect them to turn their lives around.
Jesus understood those society had oppressed.  He was born into a blue collar, working class family.  Mary may have had relatives from the priestly class, but Joseph worked with his hands.  No matter what we see in Renaissance paintings, Jesus did not live in a palace surrounded by fine things.  He lived in an ordinary house, in an ordinary village, among ordinary people.  This is why he was rejected by his neighbors when he returned to Nazareth claiming to be the Messiah.  They believed he had gotten above his raising.
Jesus felt so much compassion he gave up needed rest and decompression time with his disciples to teach those who followed him to a desolate place.
Jesus felt so much compassion for these same people that he fed them rather than sending them away hungry as his disciples suggested.
Jesus felt so much compassion that he healed people on the Sabbath, even though it upset the religious leaders.
Jesus felt so much compassion for humanity that he gave his life for them on the cross to provide a path to reconciliation with God.
So…what’s your compassion quotient?  Christians say we are called to be like Jesus.  Are we?  Do we have as much compassion as Jesus had, not just for our nearest and dearest, but for those far away—even for all humanity?  Can we claim to be Christians if we don’t share Jesus’ compassionate love for everyone—and then do something about it?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"There Shall Be No Poor Among You"

“There Will Be No Poor Among You!”
Deuteronomy 15:1-11
            This sounds like an order, but it is a promise.  Actually, it’s both.
Moses is making his farewell speech to the Israelites.  They are preparing to enter the Promised Land, but God has told him he will not be making the journey with them.  He will die and be buried in the wilderness.  As his final gift to his people he summarizes God’s commandments.  He wants the last thing they hear from him to be God’s law.  If he reminds them of God’s instructions perhaps they will take them into their new homeland, be governed by them, and teach them to their children.
            About halfway through his address Moses reminds the Israelites of God’s commandment concerning the sabbatical year.  Every seven years all debts to fellow Israelites are to be forgiven.  This allows everyone to begin anew.  There will be no multigenerational poverty.  There are to be no poor among the Israelites, for God will bless them all abundantly.  That’s the promise—and the command.
            But what if there is a reversal of fortune?  Someone’s land is flooded, or there is too little rain and too much sun—drought conditions—or a person’s house burns and everything in it.  What happens then? 
            Moses deals with this in vv. 7-11.  No matter when disaster strikes, those who have are to lend to those who don’t have—to lend even if there is no possibility of being repaid.  What happens if your neighbor needs help in the sixth year?  “I’m not going to help,” you say.  “If I do, I must forgive the debt at the end of this year, and I’ll never see that money again.  That’s not fair to me.  It’s his tough luck.  He should have been more careful.”
            God (through Moses) deals with this directly.  “As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.”  Or her.  Or them. 
            God promises (v. 6) to bless the Israelites, “if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all the commandments that I [Moses] command you this day.”  Not much wiggle room is there?  We are to care for the poor, help the poor, forgive the debts of the poor so that there will be no poor.  Only if we fulfill our obligation to help those less fortunate will we be blessed.  This is the catch to the promise.
            So…does that mean we have an obligation to help even if it’s their fault they’re poor?  That’s the way I read this passage.  Herman Melville, the great American author, said, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”
            He said that over one hundred years ago.  We still have poor.  We still haven’t listened to God’s voice saying, “There will be no poor among you.”
            Why haven’t we heard these instructions?  Because we don’t want to.  “But,” you say, “such a system of wealth distribution isn’t possible.  How could we redirect wealth from the rich to the poor in any meaningful way?  That’s socialism—communism even.  We certainly don’t want to be that kind of country.”
            First of all, neither did Israel.  To the best of anyone’s knowledge the sabbatical year never happened.  They couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
            Second, we’re already a socialist country.  We have social security.  We have Medicaid.  We have Medicare.  I don’t believe we would want to see those social programs end.
            Eric Hoffer said, “The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon.  No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government.”
            Sounds like Moses speaking God’s words, doesn’t it?