Sunday, November 24, 2019

Taking a Stand Against Corrupt Leadership

Taking a Stand Against Corrupt Leadership
Mark 11:18, 14:1-2
            John Adams said, “If ever the time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”
            Throughout the course of history this has been true.  Time after time, in country after country, vain, aspiring, corrupt persons (not always males) have risen to commandeer the highest seats in government.  One by one they have met their doom.  Their aspirations grew too great to be sustained, and they fell.  Dictator after dictator, evil king after evil king, corrupt politician after corrupt politician has risen to control a state, a nation, an empire, only to see it come crashing down, aspirations fallen into the dust.  Patriots either aided in the downfall or came forward afterward to help pick up the pieces.
                In his poem Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelly tells of such a leader.  The poet meets a man who tells him of a desert where two stone legs and a head lie in the sand.  Inscribed on the pedestal supporting the legs are the words:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!”

Nothing else remains except endless sand.

            Shelly’s Ozymandias believed his might was so overwhelming that he would rule forever.  He made the same mistake all others who have ruled from might, fear, and intimidation have made; they overestimated their strength.  In time, experienced patriots arose to overthrow them, or outlasted them and took control once they fell of their own weight, or met whatever fate divine forces had in store for them.
            Jesus faced the same situation.  Vain and aspiring men ruled in Rome, and exercised their power to control much of the then-known world.  They inspired other vain and aspiring men to take control of parts of the empire, including Palestine.  Pilate in his fortress, Herod on his throne, Judah’s religious leaders, each controlled their little part of the empire.  What were needed were patriots to rise up and take control again.
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only reason for Jesus to come to earth was to die, God could have dropped him directly from heaven onto the cross.  Jesus didn’t have to be born a baby, grow to be an itinerant preacher and healer, and suffer excruciating torture before his death.  God must have had some overwhelming reason for Jesus to live on earth for thirty-three years.
            I believe that, at least in part, Jesus’ life was meant to show us how to live.  “This is what it means to be a human being,” he said, with every word, every act, every step.  “This is what God intended you to be.  This is how you are called to live.”
            The main component of that behavior is love.  We are to love as Christ loved, not parceling out our love a little at a time to those we like and agree with, but to practice a love that extends to everyone we meet.  This love says “I love you no matter what.”  It says, “I forgive you regardless of what you’ve done to me.”  It demonstrates its abundance by standing for what is right no matter the cost.  It means being patriot enough to stand against the dictators, the wicked kings, the corrupt leaders wherever they may be, even if it means discomfort or death.
            Jesus showed us how to live and how to die.  To say, “That’s not right!”  To die to make others free, if that’s what is necessary.  To be the kind of patriot that brings about the end of vain and aspiring men no matter the personal cost.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
1 John 3:1
            Amy Peterson, writing for the devotional booklet Our Daily Bread, recounts the story told in the children’s book Nothing, by Mick Inkpen.  The central character is an old, worn-out stuffed animal.  He is so faded he can’t remember who he is.  He hears movers refer to him as nothing, and thinks that’s his name.
            Nothing meets other animals and begins to remember things about himself.  He remembers he used to have a tail, and whiskers, and stripes.  Eventually he meets a tabby cat who helps him find his way home.  Nothing finally remembers who he is:  a stuffed cat named Toby.  His owner gives him renewed life by sewing on new ears, a new tail, new whiskers and stripes.  Toby is restored to his original condition, and to his loving family.
            It is so easy for us to forget who we are.  The chapel in a music camp I used to attend had a sign over the pulpit which read, “I come here to find myself; it is so easy to get lost in the world.”  I read that sign many times.  Over the years it helped me redefine who I was, clarify my identity, and prepare me for adult life.  The days I spent in that camp setting may well have been the deciding factor in my decision to pursue a career in music education.
            It is easy for us to lose our way in the world.  The cares and worries of everyday life, the struggle to maintain our identity in the face of competing claims on our hearts, souls and minds, the many voices that call us to follow new, interesting, but sometimes dangerous paths—all these can lead us astray and make us feel lost and alone in a big, wide, often scary world.
            Once lost it becomes easy to forget who we are.  How can we know who we are when we don’t know where we are, or in which direction we should be heading?  Like the small child who has let go of his parent’s hand in a crowded store, we stand still, frozen to the spot, casting our eyes in all directions, trying to find something or someone familiar, something we can grasp hold of, someone we can cling to for comfort, security, identity.
            John the evangelist came from a secure family.  He and his brother James helped their father, Zebedee earn the family income through fishing.  They woke every morning knowing who they were, where they were going, and what each day would hold. 
            Then Jesus called them, and they followed.  There must have been times when they wondered who they were, where they were going, and what would happen to them that day.  They became so lost that they made a request of Jesus which was out of line for who they were and how they had been raised.  Jesus could have chastised them for their ignorance and impertinence.  Instead he treated them lovingly, gently reprimanding them and helping them find their path again. Still, it wasn’t until after the resurrection that they fully understood who they were and where their lives were headed. 
            John was the writer in the family.  Although we believe someone else wrote down the words we read in the gospel which bears his name, we have three letters he addressed to the early church.  In his first letter he said, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are!” (italics mine). 
            John knew who he was.  He was a child of God.  God had, in effect, sewn his missing parts back on, restored his identity, made him whole and beautiful.
            But John’s discovery of his true identity was only the beginning.  He extends the family relationship to all of us.  We are all God’s children.  We’ve all had our identities renewed and refreshed. 
When someone asks who we are, we can reply, “I’m not nothing; I’m a child of God!”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Caring for the Oppressed

                                          Caring for the Oppressed     
Zechariah 7:4-14
            The Exodus and 40-year wilderness experience formed Israel into a nation.  From slavery to freedom, from disunity to unity, from a leaderless people to God’s chosen people, the Israelites grew—haltingly, two steps forward/one step back, sometimes kicking and screaming, but they became a nation—God’s nation.
            With the gift of the Torah—God’s instructions for living together as a people—God established rules the Israelites must follow if they wanted God’s blessings to be showered upon them.  A major ingredient in the Torah was how foreigners and the poor were to be treated.  Exodus 22:21-27 gives instructions for both these groups.  Sojourners are not to be wronged nor oppressed.  Israel is to remember it was enslaved and oppressed in Egypt.  Instead of paying the evil treatment forward they are to behave towards the stranger as God has behaved toward them.
            The poor are not to be oppressed nor mistreated.  They are God’s children, and must be treated by their fellow Israelites as God would treat them—lovingly, with dignity and justice.
            A reading of Israel’s experience in the Promised Land reveals that, for much of its history, the people didn’t follow God’s instructions.  Strangers were seldom welcomed with open arms.  True, many of the peoples surrounding Israel tried their best to conquer the little nation.  Israel’s suspicion of foreigners was well-founded and understandable; but we have no record of Israel extending hospitality even to benign outsiders.
            As for the poor, the prophets make it clear that the less fortunate were taken advantage of, mistreated, and kept in poverty.  It appears the Year of Jubilee and the Sabbath of the Land were never observed, especially the cancelling of debts and the return of land to its ancestral owners. 
            Amos tells Israel that sacrifices and worship are not enough.  Justice and righteousness are what will assure God’s favor for the nation.
            Micah reminds Israel that God requires God’s people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  There’s no room here for oppression or mistreatment of the poor.
            Through Zechariah God says, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
            These are not the only prophetic words against oppression; but this is enough of a sample to show that God does not want anyone to be oppressed.
            Criticism of oppression does not end with the Bible.  It continues today.  Nor is it enough not to oppress.  We are reminded to take a stand against oppression wherever we find it.
            Elie Wiesel, who knew oppression firsthand said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
            Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Bishop of South Africa, suffered oppression under apartheid.  He said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
            Nor will God.  God always comes down on the side of the oppressed.  Any system, any government, any individual which chooses to oppress any people, or refuses to stand with the oppressed to end oppression, will not win God’s favor.  It does not matter whether the oppressed is a brother or sister, a fellow citizen, or a sojourner/foreigner in our midst.  God will surely remember both the oppressed and the oppressor, one with favor, the other with judgment.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Recipe for a Lasting Peace

Recipe for a Lasting Peace
Amos 5:21-24
Micah 6:6-8

            O how we love rules!  We love them for two contradictory reasons.  We love them because living within rules is easy.  When we have a situation that requires making a decision, all we have to do is remember the appropriate rule, apply it, and we’ll be sure we are doing the right thing.  No need to think through the problem.  No need to worry about the appropriateness of our action.  We’ve followed the rule.  End of discussion.
            On the other hand we love rules because they give us something to work against.  If we don’t like the rule (obeying speed limits, paying taxes, stopping at stop signs) we can break it with impunity and feel like we’re above all regulations.  We’re getting away with something.
            We love rules because they make tough decisions easier.  We love rules because breaking them makes us feel defiant, in charge.  In both cases, we choose to deal with rules in the wrong way for the wrong reason.
            Dwight D. Eisenhower was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He rose through the ranks to become the commanding general of the United States Army in Europe during World War II.  His success in that assignment propelled him to the presidency of the United States.  As a military man he knew the necessity for rules.  As both a general and a president he faced difficult decisions.  Sometimes the right decision went against the accepted rules or the most commonly used strategy. 
            I imagine there were times when Eisenhower agonized over decisions, trying to determine what was the right course of action.  What strategy would win the battle with the loss of the fewest soldiers.  What path would most benefit the country he had been chosen to lead.  There must have been sleepless nights and worrisome days as he tried to determine which course of action would be best.
            As a commander he understood the use of force.  He knew how effective force could be in winning the day.  I suspect he also knew when force would lose the day, when other approaches would be more effective.  Perhaps it was this knowledge which led him to say, “Though force can protect in an emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead [human beings] to the dawn of eternal peace.”  With these words he echoed two of the Hebrew prophets. 
            Amos quoted God when he said, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”  The political and religious leaders of Israel were sure that if they followed the rules, if they performed their religious rituals correctly, they would be on God’s good side.  All they had to do was offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate times and all would be well.  But God saw their hearts.  He knew this was only surface obedience.  They were neglecting what God really wanted from them; the deeper obedience of treating people the way God wanted people to be treated.  Instead of following the rules of worship, God wanted them to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
            Micah addressed the same problem.  He determined that God would not be pleased with “thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil.”  God would not even be pleased with the offer of a firstborn child.  Micah asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
            We will never please God until we find the deeper meaning behind the rules, until we achieve lasting peace through justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation.