Sunday, January 31, 2021

America's Caste System


America’s Caste System

Luke 22:24-27

            In her book Caste:  The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson tells of a 1959 visit to India by Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The visit occurred shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott.  Reverend King had long dreamed of visiting the land where Mohandas Gandhi had led the nonviolent protest that brought India its freedom from British rule.  King was an admirer of Gandhi and his methods.

            The Kings were welcomed with open arms.  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited them to stay for a full month, during which they were able to see much of the country.  King was especially interested in seeing the Dalits—the Untouchables, who occupied the lowest level in the Indian caste system.

            In the city of Trivandrum the Kings visited a high school where the students were from the Untouchable caste.  The principal introduced Reverend King by saying, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

            King was surprised.  He had never thought of himself as an untouchable, and was disturbed by the introduction.  He did not see a connection between himself and the Indian caste system.  He said, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.”

            Then he thought of the lives of the people he was fighting for, those he wanted to see raised from the lowest rank in American society.  He realized, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”  He realized that America had imposed its own caste system on its people, that he was living under that system, and had been his whole life.

            How easy it is for us to fall into the trap of caste, to consign people to a level of society based on the color of their skin, their income, the work they do, their religion, or other factors that should not determine their place in society.  There’s a wonderful line from the musical My Fair Lady.  Professor Henry Higgins sings:

                An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,

            The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.


            Whether it’s speech, or dress, or walk, or the music one listens to, or some other characteristic, we label people, categorize them, and dismiss them.  “Job done.  That one’s taken care of.  We know precisely where to place her in the pecking order—what caste she fits into.”

            Jesus had a different idea of caste.  First, like his Father, he believed in complete equality.  No one person was greater than any other.  In Matthew (11:11) Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.  Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  That creates a completely level playing field.

            In Luke (22:24-27) Jesus goes further.  His disciples argue over who will be greatest in the kingdom of God.  Jesus tells them that the greatest will be the one who serves.  Since there was no difference in the first century between servants and slaves, he is telling his followers that to succeed they must become slaves.  Jesus points to himself as the example.  He did not, as he says elsewhere, come to be served but to serve.

            Perhaps we in America need to study this concept further.  Perhaps we should redefine our caste system.  Perhaps there should be no untouchables, because the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and through that cross God has touched us all.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

We Need a New Myth


We Need a New Myth

Acts 10:1-48

            In his book, The Cry for Myth, psychologist Rollo May argues for the necessity of myth for the well-being of society.  In essence, he says we are only as good as our myths.  Myths tell us who we are—who we ought to be.  If our myths are positive, our society will have positive goals.  If our myths are negative—or, worse, if we have lost our myths—society is in for troubled times.

            For the past several years, America’s myths have been troubled.  They are myths of divisiveness, of separation, of one group or class of people attempting to be superior to other groups.  As a result we have, among other problems, protest groups turning to violence, resulting in death and destruction.  In words of one kind or another we hear voices warning us that our society—our nation—will disintegrate if we cannot find ways to overcome these divisions, ways of coming together to achieve the more perfect union for which this nation was founded.

            We cannot even find unity within the Christian Church.  In his prayer at the Last Supper Jesus petitions his Father, “that they may all be one even as we are one;” (John 17:21) that unity among Christ’s followers might mirror the unity he shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  We are confronted daily with proof that we fall far short of that unity.

            John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”

            Humanity is all of a piece.  We have scientific proof.  Geneticists have shown that my chromosomal makeup is essentially the same as every other person’s—over ninety percent the same.   Like the Christians who argue vehemently—sometimes to the death—over tiny bits of dogma, so the human race argues—sometimes to the death—over less than ten percent of our genetic makeup.

            Peter had been raised to believe that every non-Jew in the world was inferior—unclean.  He lived his life accordingly, shunning all contact with Gentiles.  Jesus sent both a vision and a Roman centurion to teach him otherwise.  In words written in red in my Bible, Jesus says to Peter, “What God has made clean do not call common.”  Peter learned his lesson, and as a result, Cornelius and his family became followers of Jesus Christ.

            We need to reactivate the myth we created in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are       created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This myth says all of us are entitled to the same rights as each of us—no exceptions.  Peter, with the vision still fresh in his mind, with Christ’s words still in his ears, stands before Cornelius’ household and says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality…”  Peter was referring to God’s call to all people to become followers of Christ; but we know these words apply to all areas of life.  God shows no partiality.  We are all God’s children, all created by God, and all entitled to the same rights.

            In the final chapter of his book, May writes about the astronauts of Apollo 7, who saw the earth from a different angle than any human had ever been able to experience.  From that distance, as they circled the earth, they could see no national boundaries, no lines of division between countries or people.  The earth, to them, was one unified whole. 

            May says that is the myth we need to adopt as our guiding principle.  We are all one people, connected by our humanity. 

            From God’s viewpoint all divisions disappear.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Winning Strategy


A Winning Strategy

Acts 26:1-29

            Today’s reading is much longer than those typically chosen for a devotional.  Remember, no time spent in Bible reading is ever wasted.

            First, a little background on this Scripture passage. 

            Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem after being accused (falsely) of bringing Gentiles into restricted areas of the Temple.  The arresting officer has placed him in protective custody for fear of what the incited Jews might do to him.  Although he would have most likely been released once tempers had cooled, he was accused by the Jewish leaders of causing riots.

            Paul was held to appear before Felix, the Roman governor.  Felix heard Paul speak several times.  He did not release Paul, but kept him imprisoned for two years.  At that time a new governor, Festus, was appointed.  Paul appealed his case to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen.  This meant further imprisonment and further delays.

            Finally, Paul appeared before the king, Agrippa, and made his defense.  That defense is the subject of today s reading.

            Two responses to Paul’s appearances before Roman officials are worth noting.  The first (Acts 24:25) is by Felix, who, on the occasion of their first meeting said to Paul, “Go away for the present.  When I get an opportunity, I will summon you.”

            The second response is from Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s defense says, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”  So says the translation in the English Standard Version.  The King James Version gives us a different slant.  Here Agrippa says, “Paul, almost you persuade me to be a Christian.”

            One day, Satan called all his minions together.  He said, “We’re losing the battle for human souls.  It’s clear our present strategy isn’t working.  We need fresh ideas.”

            One devil spoke up: “We could tell them that this Christianity business is all nonsense.”

            Satan said, “We’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.”

            Another devil said, “We could point out what a good time they will have on earth if they follow us.”

            Satan said, “That hasn’t worked either.”

            Many suggestions were offered, and one by one Satan discarded them.  Finally, an old, experienced devil said, “We could tell them just to wait awhile.  No hurry.  They can enjoy life now and make a decision later.” 

            Satan said, “That’s it.  That’s the strategy that will work.”

            We hear the same message when someone proposes sensible gun control laws after a mass killing.  “This is not the time for knee-jerk responses.  Let people mourn awhile, then we can talk about gun legislation.”  But that time never comes.

            We hear the same argument when many want to hold our political leaders responsible for criminal actions.  “Now’s not the time.  It will only inflame the country and lead to more violence.  Let’s let things settle down; Then we’ll study it.”  But that time never comes.

            Felix says, “I’ll call you when I have more time.”

            Agrippa says, “You almost persuade me to be a Christian.

            Too many people say, “Wait awhile.  No need to rush to judgment.”

            Satan says, “That’s the strategy that will help us win.”

Sunday, January 10, 2021

New and Improved


New and Improved


            There are certain Scripture passages I find myself returning to often.  This is one of them.  Every time I find myself back on familiar ground I discover something new, something I haven’t seen before.  Here I am again at Isaiah 43.  The words are the same, but like v. 19, I’m finding a new thing.

            The backstory for this passage is familiar.  Israel hasn’t kept covenant with God.  God has allowed Assyria to invade the northern kingdom and destroy it completely.  The southern kingdom—tiny Judea—didn’t learn from the experience, so once again God allowed a nation to invade and conquer.  This time it was Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, took Judea’s leaders captive, and caused many of the people to scatter.

            God’s prophets, in some cases the same ones who foretold doom and punishment, are now telling those in captivity that God will not be angry forever.  There is still a price to be paid, a time of sorrow to be endured, but eventually, when the debt has been satisfied, the people will return to their land.

            The most encouraging of these prophets is Isaiah.  Things will get better, he says.  Conditions will improve.  Wait for it; it will happen.

            Isaiah, speaking God’s words, reminds the people who God is.  “I am the Lord,” God says, “your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your king.”  God is the Holy One of Israel, the One to whom the people owe thanksgiving for all their blessings.  God is their Creator, the One to whom they owe their very existence.  God is their King, the one to whom they owe not merely obedience, but obeisance.

            Then God promises them release from captivity.  “Forget about all that happened before,” God says.  “I’m going to do a new thing—something you haven’t seen before.”

            If God went no further than this we would have encouraging words with which to begin the new year.  This would be true of any year, but even more so of the one just past.  Over the last twelve months we have experienced a major health crisis as well as unprecedented political upheaval, and increased racial tension.  How wonderful to hear from God, “Forget all that, I’m doing something new.”  How welcome those words are!

            But God promises more.  God tells the people that not only will they be going home, but the way will be easy, unlike the Exodus. 

            Israel had never forgotten their escape from Egypt.  Throughout their history this was their touchstone.  God had led them out of captivity—slavery—and taken them to the Promised Land.  But the journey had been long, difficult, exhausting, and had cost the lives of everyone who had been an adult when they left Egypt.

            Now God says, “Forget that journey.  Remember it as part of your history, of course; but this time the trip will be much easier.  Yes, you must go through the wilderness, but it won’t take you forty years, and you won’t have to eat manna and drink water from a rock.  There will be streams in the desert, running water for you to drink.  You will have straight roads and enough food.  It’s beginning—do you see it?”

            New and improved.  How often have we heard those words applied to a product that manufacturers have tweaked a little—or not at all; perhaps just added a new ad campaign.  But with God it’s really true.  Things will be new—and improved.  God is doing a new thing.  God is always doing a new thing.  Do you see it?