Sunday, January 26, 2020

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

“Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”
Leviticus 25:8-15
            The phrase “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is inscribed on our Liberty Bell.  When the bell was cast and the phrase inscribed, the liberty it referred to was political freedom from England, the country to which we had “belonged” for so many years.  Along with political liberty came economic liberty.  We no longer had to pay taxes to England or trade exclusively with the “mother country.”
            Originally, the phrase “proclaim liberty throughout the land” was part of the law God gave the Israelites in the wilderness.  When God brought them out of Egypt they were a ragtag bunch of recently freed slaves.  They had a limited history.  They remembered their patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but little else.  There had been no significant leader since Joseph died, and no significant event they could look back on in the recent past.  There was nothing they could point to and say, “This is who we are now.”
            God knew they could not function as a nation without a constitution, just as the United States would not have been able to function without a document that set down the laws for our citizens to follow.  So God gave them the Torah, a set of instructions which would govern their relationship with God and their relationship with each other.
            Of particular interest to God was equality of opportunity.  In the same way that our Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” God wanted to ensure that no one would be left behind in the prosperous land where Israel would settle.  For that purpose God instituted a plan for levelling out economic conditions.
            God knew that there would be hardships.  Crops would fail.  Families would incur unexpected debts.  Others would make bad decisions.  Some would have to sell land, or indenture themselves to someone more prosperous while they worked their way out of debt.  God would only control so much, so some provision had to be made to ensure these families would not be permanently debt-ridden or enslaved.
            Every fifty years the trumpets were to blow on the tenth day of the seventh month (the Day of Atonement) and the Year of Jubilee was to be announced.  There was to be liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants.  Everyone was to be freed from whatever debt they had incurred, and from whatever indenture into which they had sold themselves.  Every person was to return to his land and his family.  Indebtedness was ended.  Servanthood was ended.  They were free to start over again.  This was not a voluntary clearing of the slate.  This was part of the covenant God made with Israel:  “If you keep my commandments I will bless you.”
            There is no proof the Jubilee year was ever celebrated.  There was never a time when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.  The people did not trust God enough.  Land remained in possession of its new owners.  Servants remained indentured to their masters.  Those who were wealthy remained wealthy.  Those who were poor remained poor.
            We need a Year of Jubilee today.  Families have remained in poverty for generations, never being able to make enough to dig themselves out of the financial hole their predecessors fell into years upon years ago.  While we have no official slavery or indenture in this country, we might as well have, as people remain ensnared so firmly in debt that they have no freedom to move to better jobs or better living conditions. 
Can we institute a Jubilee Year such as God outlined in the Torah?  Probably not.  It is impossible to impose an agrarian system of reform on a technocratic society.  But something must be done.  God wanted Israel to avoid systemic poverty, and we must honor that desire. 
Subordinating moral and ethical interests to commercial interests is displeasing to God, and we must avoid displeasing God at all costs.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
Jeremiah 23:1-8
            In his book The Good Shepherd, Kenneth Bailey traces the biblical record of the good shepherd from Psalm 23 through the prophets and then through the gospels.  He shows how the concept remains the same and how it changes from time period to time period and author to author.
            It’s a powerful metaphor because sheep and shepherding are a vital part of the Middle Eastern economy.  From ancient times sheep have been important in that culture for all the ways they are useful to humans.  Throughout the region rulers were considered to be shepherds.  This was especially true in Israel, where God appointed kings to care for the people as a shepherd cares for the sheep—as God, the Good Shepherd, cares for God’s people.
            Lest we think this concept is only from ancient cultures, remember how much of this language is still used today, especially in our churches.  Ministers are referred to as pastors—a shepherding word.  Many of us refer to our congregation as our flock.  There’s even an expression for wooing members of another congregation.  It’s called stealing sheep.
In Psalm 23 David describes God as the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep, makes sure they have both water and food, and protects them from danger, enemies from outside the flock who would harm the sheep. 
One of Bailey’s stopping places is Jeremiah 23.  He focuses on the presence of evil shepherds (here the enemies of the flock) and the contrast between them and the Good Shepherd.  God has harsh words for the evil shepherds who have harmed God’s flock.  The sheep of Israel have been scattered, both through the inattention of the country’s leaders and through their deliberate hostile actions.  Because these shepherds, these leaders have not attended to their responsibility to care for the sheep, God will attend to them.  God isn’t specific as to what will happen to these wicked shepherds, but we know it won’t be good.
Once the shepherds have been dealt with, God promises to gather the scattered sheep from the lands into which they have been driven, or into which they have fled to escape the wicked leaders, and appoint good shepherds—good leaders—who will care for the sheep.
We must remember that this is still God’s world.  God is in charge, although it isn’t always evident, and the world will evolve in the way God wishes.  There have been many instances down through history of wicked leaders harming their people.  Eventually they are replaced by leaders who care for the flock.  It may not happen right away, but sooner or later, in one way or another, wicked leaders are eliminated and replaced with good shepherds.  This is true not only in the church, but in government and business as well.
When faced with leaders who do not have the best interests of the people at heart, we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, “We are doomed!  We can’t do anything about the situation.  They are in charge and will continue to be in charge.  We might as well shut up and give up.”  There are two things to remember.
First, the situation won’t go on forever.  God is still God, and the words Jeremiah delivered to the people are still valid.  The evil shepherds will be replaced, and the flock will be brought together and cared for once more.
But this knowledge doesn’t let us off the hook.  To the extent we are able we must work against wicked leadership to bring about change.  Wherever evil leaders exists it is our job to do what we can to root them out and see that good leaders are put in charge. 
God often chooses to work through human agents to bring about change.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Striking at the Root of Evil

Striking at the Root of Evil
Matthew 3:1-12
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”  (Henry David Thoreau)
            Choose any major problem:  systemic poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, immigration reform, education reform, inner city blight—any of these, or any other that I’ve overlooked.  Take a few minutes to consider how the problem you chose has been addressed during your lifetime.  You will find that the issue has been studied from every angle, analyzed down to the minutest detail.  Conferences have been held.  Congressional committees have met. Experts have been consulted.  Those on various sides of the issue have argued with each other.  Policy statements have been written.  Laws have been passed.  Everything possible that anyone could think of has been done.
            And the problem is still with us.
            In many cases, in spite of all the talking, all the attention, all the action, the problem has gotten worse, not better.  No solution has been found.  Families are still poor, generation after generation.  Racism, sexism, ageism still raise their ugly heads, condemning people to less-than-adequate jobs, salaries, and living conditions—not because of who they are but because of how they are labeled.  Many inner cities still look like war zones.  Our schools still fail to raise the educational level of too many of our children.  Our immigration system serves no one well.
            Thoreau wrote the words which begin this page well over a hundred years ago, and still we hack away, removing a branch here, a twig there, a leaf somewhere else, and no real progress is made towards solving the problems our society faces.
            John the Baptist understood.  He looked back over the history of God’s chosen people and saw the ground littered with leaves and twigs and branches, but his culture moved not one bit closer to solutions.  He wasn’t going to convene a committee, or propose a new law, or issue a policy statement.  He knew that until people repented—changed their direction, cleansed their hearts—nothing was going to change.
John wasn’t about to coddle the people who came to hear him preach. He had no kind words even for the religious leaders of the country.  He called them vipers, and told them they needed to repent as much as anyone else.  He understood it wasn’t enough to say you’re sorry for the wrong you’ve done.  He told them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  Give proof by your deeds that you have turned your life around.
            John warned, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
            No more hacking away at branches.  It’s time to attack the root of the problem, the evil that poisons every person, and therefore every institution of every society.  John was there to prepare the way for the axe, the one coming after him who would provide the solution, the one who would separate the wheat from the chaff.
            It’s popular to say that Jesus is the solution to all problems, but the slogan, “Christ is the answer” seems too simplistic to provide meaningful help in solving the problems facing society.  I won’t trivialize these problems by suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach.  I do, however, suggest that if we love as God loves, love as Jesus showed us how to love—all people, all the time, in all situations—we might be able to stop our useless hacking away at branches and begin to address the roots.  It’s worth a try.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Rules for the Road Ahead

Rules for the Road Ahead
Exodus 20:1-18
            As I write this, we stand at the threshold of a new year and a new decade.  It’s a good time to look back and look ahead.  What should we bring forward from the past?  What rules should guide us as we move into the future?
            I remember sitting in school in seventh and eighth grade and thinking about how old I’d be in the year 2000.  As weak as my math skills were (not any better today) I realized I’d be in my late 50’s—not really old, but seemingly so to a boy of twelve or thirteen.  Now we’re twenty years into the new millennium, and I’m well past any age I could have conceived of in those younger years.
            The Book of Exodus begins with the Israelites in slavery to the Egyptians, and ends in the wilderness with the construction and dedication of the tabernacle.  We know this is only the beginning of Israel as a nation.  They have miles and years to travel before they reach the land God promised their ancestors.  Many hardships lie ahead, many trials and many temptations, temptations to forsake the God who has brought them this far in favor of gods who are easier to serve, less demanding, but also less able to guide and provide for them.
            We believe God can see the whole of history spread out in a great panorama, and God knew the way ahead would not be easy.  God could see the hardships, the trials, the temptations.  What would help this young nation survive infancy and adolescence, and become a fully-fledged member of the community of nations—not only an adult member of that community, but God’s people, bringing the worship of YHWH to the world?  The answer was a series of rules for the road ahead—rules that would guide and protect God’s people.
God gave Israel a complicated list of instructions—instructions to assist in making the difficult decisions that lay ahead.  Like the framers of our Constitution, God tried to anticipate as many problem situations as possible, and to give as much guidance as possible. 
I think God understood how difficult it would be to remember and follow the whole code.  To make life easier God simplified the instructions into ten basic principles.  If Israel followed these precepts faithfully, the nation would be able to grow to adulthood and be secure both in its worship of YHWH and in its community relationships.  We know these rules. Perhaps we can even quote them—although possibly not in the correct order.
The first four instructions define the relationship between the people and God.  They are to have no gods but YHWH.  They are not to make any image that they might be tempted to worship instead of YHWH.  They are not to defile the name of the Lord God in any manner.  They are to remember that one day each week must be set aside for worship and rest.
It is not by accident that the first commandments are about Israel’s relationship with God.  The message is clear:  put God first and everything else will be in perspective.
The remaining six rules define peoples’ relationship with each other:  honor parents, don’t murder, don’t defile the relationship with your spouse, don’t steal, don’t tell lies about your neighbor.  The final rule is the one I believe sums up the way humans should live in community:  don’t covet.  Wanting what someone else has can lead to the breakdown of social relationships.
It’s easy to put ancient documents aside and say they have no relevance today, but so much of what is wrong with society is due to our failure to follow the rules that God set down so long ago.  Lets commit to following them this year and see if doing so makes the road ahead smoother.