20 August 2017

Justice, Kindness, Humility

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

“For the LORD has a controversy with God’s people…” (Micah 6:2). This is where we need to begin. Most of us are familiar with the inspirational words of Micah 6:8: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Maybe you’ve memorized these words, have them inscribed on your heart. Perhaps they’re on a fridge magnet or bumper sticker.  Micah 6:8 is perfect for a Tweet.  It’s a poetic verse, beautiful, aspirational. But the text must not be taken out of context. And the larger context is that “the LORD has a controversy with God’s people.”

Micah places us in a courtroom. Israel is on trial.  God is the plaintiff bringing a charge against Israel.  God is also the prosecuting attorney.  “Rise,” Yahweh says, “plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice” (Mic. 6:1). Mountains, hills, the foundations of the earth are summoned to be witness.  “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth” (Mic. 6:2). God is also the judge.  “For the LORD has a controversy with God’s people…”

Israel is asked to defend itself. What have they done? What’s the charge?  Boredom. They’ve become bored with God.  Their commitment to and interest in the work of God had become tiresome. God asks, God wants to know, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” (Mic. 6:3).  They’ve become weary of God.  Bored with God.

Boredom, of course, isn’t a sin; it’s not always a bad thing. We know there’s a connection between idle boredom and the ability to be creative.  When our lives, and the lives of our children, are overbooked with activity and overstimulation to avoid boredom, imagination and creativity often suffer. 

But boredom can also have a psycho-spiritual dimension; it can be a marker, a symptom that something is wrong in our relationship with God. The existentialist psychologist, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was “convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored.”[1] The main character in Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, says he, “…had been bored, that's all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama.”[2] A life full of complications and drama to avoid the void of boredom.  

There is also a connection between boredom and despair, despair of purpose, despair of meaning.  Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “Boredom is the root of all evil.”[3]  He even calls it “demonic boredom,” because it’s an expression of sin, and sin for Kierkegaard is related to despair, “the despairing refusal to be oneself;” despair is the defiant willing to be a self apart from God.[4] The refusal to be who we are is the source of evil in us and in the world, and so we fall.  And who we are, according to Scripture, is directly related to who God is and how we understand our covenantal relationship with God. To be weary of God, to be bored with who we essentially are is to be in despair, it is to be cut off, cast out of Eden; boredom can be a sign that we are alienated from ourselves, which is to be alienated from God. “In what have I wearied you?” God asks,  “Answer me!” (Mic. 6:3).

And so, God reminds them, I’m the one who “brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Mic. 6:4). I’m the God of your exodus and liberation from oppression. Listen Israel, you were given effective, courageous leaders to guide and shepherd you into the land of promise. I’m the God who delivered you from enslavement to alien gods and idols.  I was faithful, loyal, steadfast.  Instead, Israel, you’ve became bored with me, and you fell (again).  Your leaders are corrupt, petty, small-minded. Forgetting their obligation to care and protect the members of society, your leaders led you astray.  Forgetting your covenantal obligation, you forgot the source and power of your identity. 

So, God extends a word of judgment upon the nation, upon the leaders and upon the people. God doesn’t leave them there.  God calls Israel back into relationship. God reminds them of the covenant. God reminds them—again—what true religion, true worship looks like. God reminds them how we are to approach the Living God.

Speaking as the mouthpiece for God, both Micah and God ask, “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” (Mic. 6:6).  Of course not!  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, rivers of oil, or the offering of firstborn children to appease God? (Mic. 6:6).  Of course not!  That is false worship.

“God has told you, O mortal….”  The Hebrew is better.  “God has told you ’adam” (Mic. 6:8).  You, ’adam, the human one, God has told you what is good.  Only this is good.  This is the good work that you must do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly.  This is what is required of us.  It’s not negotiable.  It doesn’t get any clearer.  This is the work that must never weary you.  We should never be bored with doing justice, never weary of loving kindness, never tired of walking humbly.  And if you are bored by justice, kindness, and humility, then you need to do a critical self-assessment, because something is seriously disturbed in the core of your being. 

Micah 6:8 is the legal, ethical, covenantal requirement of religion. And religion is always coupled with action. Faith and action.  We can’t say we believe in God and then refrain from the work and will of God.

From a biblical perspective, a human being is a being in relationship with God.  To live apart from this relationship, to not be grounded in God, is to lose one’s humanity.  Our humanness, our relationship with God requires listening and obeying.  Walter Brueggemann reminds us that humanness “means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defying, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Yahweh for justice and holiness.”[5] Justice is one of the most beautiful, most important words in Hebrew, difficult to translate into English.  It is righteousness, right-living, right-relationship, steadfast love, wholeness.  Justice is not simply keeping the rules or getting even when someone’s broken the law or inflicted harm.  That is about retribution, which is a superficial, unbiblical, non-theological, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian understanding of justice.  Justice, says Brueggemann, “consists in the venturesome enactment of positive good.”[6]  The venturesome enactment of positive good.  It means doing good, working toward the good for others.  It requires protecting the good.  

Want to measure the level of goodness in your life?  Ask yourself: Am I doing justice?  Loving kindness?  Walking humbly with God?  You can’t pick out the ones you prefer. Sometimes Christians like to talk about being kind and humble, but ignore the call for justice.  I’ve had people say to me that Christians should not be engaged in social justice, we should focus on “spiritual” matters.  Such a view can’t be supported either biblically or theologically.  It’s often said by people with power and privilege.  Social justice is not optional.  It’s integral to faith.  And you won’t find the word “spiritual” anywhere in the Bible.

Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” As God’s people, we’re being called these days to use our legs, to walk, to move, to act. Social justice, social well-being, social wholeness is where faith lives in the public square.  We can’t talk about God’s love and not have that love enacted in society. Cornel West reminds us that “justice is what love looks like in public."

Given the events of this last week, it’s clear that justice-love is having a tough time in the public square these days. There’s an enormous struggle underway for the moral center of the nation and the church.  Noted conservative Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, said last week, “We’re at a hinge moment in the public witness of American Christianity.”  As a self-identified evangelical, Wehner wonders how, wonders why evangelical leaders haven’t been more critical of the president. “Either by their public defense of Trump or their self-indicting silence,” he says, “certain prominent evangelicals — including Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed and James Dobson — are effectively blessing a leader who has acted in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with a Christian ethic.”[7]

Wehner wrote this before the evil witnessed in Charlottesville, before the comments made by the president last Tuesday, in New York.  We know that corporate leaders have resigned and distanced themselves from the president this week, so did the President’s Arts and Humanities Council.

With a strong, steady, clear voice the Church of Jesus Christ must say—again and again until there’s no doubt: racism is sin.  White supremacy is sin.  The KKK and neo-Nazi fascists are anti-Christ.  Racism is evil.  White supremacy is evil.  How difficult is it to say this?  All of it is antithetical to the Gospel.  It’s abhorrent.  An abomination.  Anathema.  Even non-Christians know that Jesus isn’t cool with this.  And, still, there are evangelical religious leaders who have failed to denounce what happened in Charlottesville or the president’s reluctance to condemn white supremacy, the KKK, or neo-Nazis.  Only one pastor in the president’s Evangelical Advisory Council, also known as his evangelical courtiers, has resigned. Wehner is correct, “We’re at a hinge moment in the public witness of American Christianity.”

Mark and I were in Charlottesville last Friday and Saturday. We just happened to be there, visiting friends.  We didn’t attend the interfaith worship service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, on Friday evening, which was surrounded by Tiki torch bearers on the way to the UVA lawn—although I wish I was in that sanctuary with those religious leaders, many of whom stood against the hate and violence of the KKK members and neo-Nazis the next day.  On Saturday, we did encounter two “regiments” of white supremacists making their way to McIntire Park, after the assembly at Emancipation Park was declared unlawful.  There were about 100 of them, angry, waving the Rebel flag.  Then I saw a flag with black swastika on a field of red.  I have never seen that before. I was disgusted. It was extremely disturbing. Something very destructive and evil has been unleashed in our society.

With last week’s rally, the events of the week, with Confederate statues coming down or being removed, including here in Baltimore, and yesterday’s march in Boston, we are being forced to confront issues that should have been faced long ago: the sin of slavery, America’s original sin; along with the sin of racism, the sin of white supremacy, and all the sin that has been and is being done because of white privilege.  Deborah McEachern, pastor at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, posted this question on her Facebook page this week, “Why does it take a fight between a bunch of white people to really get the country riled up about the injustice toward black and brown bodies that happens all around us all the time?”

The church is called to act. And, yes, the church is called to be political—not partisan. Jesus is neither Democrat nor Republican, and judges both parties.  We need to take our cue from Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) who said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.  It must be the guide and critic of the state, never its tool.”

Last week, a representative from a group known as Catonsville Indivisibles called me.  She asked if we would host a vigil, in response to events in Charlottesville, here on church grounds.  I had never heard of them so I looked them up online.  Their website is clear.  They are working to counter the Trump agenda.  And so, I said that it would not be appropriate for CPC to host this event, given their overtly partisan identification, even if I, and many others in the church, share their hopes.  They did invite me to speak at the event, if they could find a place elsewhere. I said I would pray about it and get back to her.  Later that night, I heard from a church member that someone from this organization, learning that I said no to hosting them, said that I was a Trump alt-right nut job and that the entire church is pro-Trump.  I thought that was really funny, and then I was mad. I called their rep the next morning to share my disappointment.  I don’t think I’ll be talking at their vigil.

The church walks a fine line.  Presbyterians are not afraid to bear witness to the gospel in the public square.  We engage society and people with power, lovingly, critically, prophetically, we hold them accountable.  And we speak out against sin and social injustice.  We work for the good:  we do justice, love kindness and mercy, walk with humility, not arrogance, with God.  The forces swirling all around us at the moment are intense, which means we need to be clear about who we are and whose we are and what God is calling us to do. This is no time to be cautious or silent—or, for the sake of all that is good, this is no time to be bored with the work of God! 

The Talmud (303) says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justice, now.  Love kindness, now, Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Image:  Religious leaders counterprotesting against hate, Charlottesville, VA, 12th August 2017.  Credit:  Sojourners, www.sojo.net.

[1] Erich Fromm, The Dogma of Christ (Henry Holt & Co, 1992), 150.
[2] Albert Camus, The Fall (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 37.
[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
[4] Kierkegaard, Either/Or; see also The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
[5] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 460-461.
[6] Brueggemann, 461.
[7] Peter Wehner, “Evangelicals, Trump, and the Politics of Redemption,” Religious News Service, August 11, 2017.

06 August 2017

Loving the Strange(r)

Fr. Robert Lentz, Christ of Maryknoll

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Did you know that close to seventy Bible verses summon us to care for the refugee, the alien, the sojourner, and the stranger?  It’s true.  Most of the references are found in the Old Testament, but the New certainly has its share.   A classic example is found in Deuteronomy 10. 

Here in our text, we learn that a replicate of the original stone tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments or Decalogue) was placed in the ark of the covenant.  You’ll recall that Moses smashed the original tablets in a fit of rage (Exodus 32:19). With a new version of the original Decalogue, representing the covenant between Yahweh and the people Israel, it was a time for Israel to reaffirm its relationship with Yahweh, and recommit to the obligations that come with the relationship.

“So now, O Israel, what does Yahweh require of you?”  In other words, what have they agreed to in the covenant?  Fear Yahweh; that is, stand in awe before God.  Walk in the ways of God.  Love God.  Serve God with all your heart and soul—that is, serve from the core, the depth of your being, with all your passion—and keep the commandments.  And why does God require this? It’s there in the text: for your own well-being.  The covenant, the commandments were not given to make their lives more difficult, they were all given in love, for their own well-being!

There’s one more thing to do.  The God who calls us into covenantal relationship is a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, loves the stranger, providing for them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).

Israel has a responsibility to care for the weakest, most vulnerable members of society, such as the orphan and the widow, because they know what it’s like to be absent parental love and support, they know what it’s like to be alone in the world.  And Israel has a responsibility to the stranger, the sojourner, because they know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, in Egypt.  They know the hardships of being landless, without country, far from home, in an alien country, surrounded by an alien religion, unwanted, scared, used as slaves, used for cheap labor, used.  They know what that feels like.  Therefore, they shall have compassion toward the stranger, the resident alien. 

This is the biblical, theological mandate to God’s people, to Israel, and to the Church.  Despite the laws of any given nation, whatever the country might be, God’s people (you and me) have an obligation to care for the refugee, the stranger, the alien. We have a sacred obligation to execute justice—meaning, fairness, wholeness, healing—on their behalf.  We have to protect them, provide for them, provide sanctuary, safety, help.  We risk caring for them for no other reason than that they are vulnerable and need our help.

All of this sounds oddly relevant today, doesn’t it? As we know, immigration and refugee policies are politically and emotionally charged issues in the United States these days.  You know the story: we have proposed travel bans, the construction of a wall on the Mexico border (which will cost around $12 billion dollars, although estimates are as high as $21 billion dollars).  This past week a new immigration bill was introduced that wants to restrict legal immigration to English-speaking, skilled workers and to cut the number of legal immigrations by fifty-percent, to so-called “historic levels.”  According to the Migration Policy Institute, there were “1.3 million immigrants in 1907, about a quarter of a million more than in 2015.  Immigration relative to the US population peaked in 1890, when immigrants made up nearly 15% of the population.” Immigration numbers have ebbed and flowed, especially during times of national crisis.  Whether we like it or not, the words of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) remain part of our narrative: 

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[1] 

We must be very wary of those who want to separate this vision from what we mean by liberty. The progressive-evangelical pastor/writer, Rob Bell said recently, “When a nation of immigrants starts putting up travel bans, you have officially lost the plot.” 

Yes, all that I just shared about immigration and refugees is politically charged—and it’s complicated.  But, I want to return to the plot.  Not the nation’s plot, but the plot of the church, our story, our mandate, our obligation, the work that we’re called to do within the body politic.  If the church’s work to care for the immigrant and the refugee is politically charged, don’t blame the church for being “political.”  If our mandate puts us at odds with society around us, then so be it.  We don’t really have a choice, if we say we’re in covenantal relationship with God, then we have an obligation to act.  We are called to act justly.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, “Yahweh’s justice does indeed have a preferential inclination for the poor and the marginated.  This preferential option that is mandated to Israel is rooted in Yahweh’s own practice and inclination, so that in the practice of justice Israel is indeed to imitate Yahweh.”[2] Israel has an obligation to the poor and those pushed to the margins.  God assumes that the wealth and social resources of Israel do not belong to them in a privatistic or acquisitive way; the “common resources…are to be managed and deployed for the enhancement of the community by the enhancement of its weakest and most disadvantaged members.”[3]

“The command to justice,” Brueggemann insists, “is understood as marking the polity of the community of Israel.  That is, justice is not charity, nor is it romantic do-goodism.  It is rather a mandate to order public policy, public practice, and public institutions for the common good and in resistance to the kind of greedy initiative that damages the community.”[4]

Yes, God commands us to do justice for the most vulnerable, toward the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Actually, we are called to “love the stranger.” Why the stranger?  Yes, Israel was once a stranger in Egypt (Deut. 10:19).  But there’s another reason. Did you catch it?  “God loves the stranger!”  That’s a remarkable declaration.  It’s a window into the heart or being of God.  God loves the stranger!  This means that God’s people love the stranger too!

How do we begin to fathom this aspect of God?   How can we love the stranger when we’re taught to be afraid of strangers and the strange?  How can we love the stranger when we never put ourselves out there to encounter the stranger?  The strange, the different, the other often scares us (and sometimes for good reason).  Still, we prefer to stay with the familiar, the known, the safe.  It’s tough to know how to love the stranger if you’ve never known what it’s like to be viewed as a stranger or strange.  That’s tough to do if you spend most or all of your time as part of the dominant culture.  

Is there a time when you were considered strange, odd, different other?  (O, perhaps you’re still considered strange, odd, or different.)  A time when you were in the minority, when you felt that everyone was looking at you suspiciously because you looked different, dressed different, spoke different, smelled different?  How did you feel? A time when you felt vulnerable and unsure of yourself because you were in unfamiliar territory, a neighborhood, a country with different customs and languages and religion, where you felt displaced?  A time when you were considered strange because you thought or believed differently, that you loved differently from the dominant culture?

Instead of avoiding or being wary of the stranger or strange, we discover, from a biblical perspective, that God loves the stranger and God loves the strange.  If you think about it, an encounter with God is always “strange” for us; Abraham and Sarah, Moses had no idea what to make of Yahweh.  The first encounter is always strange.  In fact, the strangeness of God is part of God’s divine holiness, the divine is always other.  God encounters us as strange and remains, in many respects a stranger to us. God can never be “absorbed into our categories of experience,” we can’t manage God’s strangeness or even remove it.  In fact, our encounter with the strangeness of God, that is, our relative ease in the presence of God’s strangeness, being comfortable with the strangeness of God, “prepares people for the new and unexpected.”[5]   

I’m grateful for the work of German theologian Theo Sundermeier, who has explored this theme of strangeness.  The strange God comes to us in Jesus Christ, yet Christ is always a stranger to us.  Christ is the “strange guest,” the one who came to his own, as the Gospel of John says, but was neither recognized nor accepted (John 1:10-11).  According to Luke, “Jesus is the strange guest in the house of the tax collector” (Luke 19:1-10). “Christ is the stranger who welcomes all strangers as his friends.  The gospel is essentially concerned with hospitality, with a company of strangers who are the friends of God and thus of each other.”  The German word for hospitality, Gastfreundschaft, literally means, “friends with guests.”  “The gospel declares to people who are estranged from God and from their fellow human beings…that they have a right to live, and grants them a space to live.”  The estranged of God become friends, because God loves strangers.  And then Jesus, in his life and teaching, intensifies the command to love the stranger, because according to Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself with the strangers of the world.  He places himself in the strange and the stranger, so that the “stranger is indeed the Christus praesens”—the presence of Christ.[6]  And he invites us to love him through loving the stranger.  We love Jesus by loving the stranger.  “Come, blessed of my Father…I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt. 25:33, 35).

I was reminded this week of a contemporary icon, known as Christ of Maryknoll.  It was painted by Br. Robert Lentz, a Franciscan.  You see a dark-skinned young man with piercing eyes, wearing an olive-drab t-shirt.  There’s barbed wire in front of him and he’s trying to lift it, as if to get through.  It could be any man, but then you notice his hands: they both have wounds, they're the wounds of the Christ.  Br. Lentz worked for many years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and cared the people seeking refuge.  He was inspired by Matthew 25, “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did to me" (Mt. 25:40).  

Lentz explains, “Our earth today is crisscrossed with our walls and fences. Our intention is to keep out undesirable people. If we took the time to gaze into the eyes of these people and recognize their humanity, we might be as surprised…to find in them Christ.”  Like most icons, this one is multi-dimensional, unsettling, even a little strange.  Jesus has pleading, piercing eyes.  You see the barbed wire in front of Jesus, but you can’t tell whether he’s trying to come in, but the barbed wire is keeping him out, or whether he’s fenced in and wants to be set free.  Have we put up the fence and imprisoned Christ? Or have we imprisoned ourselves?  Lentz says, “Ironically, our fences imprison us. In the eyes of every person we try to exclude, Christ asks us ‘Why?’ Will we avert our eyes in discomfort so that we escape his gaze?  Perhaps, even worse, will we find some way to scratch out his eyes? When even our religion becomes a fence we use to protect ourselves from people who are different from us, when we stop seeing in one another God’s image and likeness, that is precisely what we do.”[7]

We are the strange strangers that God loves, called to love strangers and the strange.  For the “strange God meets us in the strange neighbor.”[8] This is a strong, sobering, demanding message for us today.  But, as we know, this is what compassion looks like. Despite the political storms swirling all around us, as Christians, we know what we must do.  We Choose Welcome.

At Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we are reaching out to the stranger, the refugee in our midst.  We are serving Christ in our neighbor, it doesn’t matter if our neighbor is Muslim, because we are all created in the image of the same God.  You’ll have to talk to the members of the Refugee Relief Group to hear all that this church has done in the last three weeks.  Two weeks ago, I shared that we are caring for a family that lost everything in Aleppo, then lived in a refugee camp in Turkey for several years, and then came to the Catonsville area, knowing very little English, with little money, looking for work.  The children have been bullied.  Their daughter, Aya, was assaulted in school, leaving her with a serious concussion.*  It’s not safe to play in the streets where they live.  They are being picked on for being other, strange, different.  Through generous donations and help from our Child Care Center, the children are participating in our summer program.  They love it here at the church.  They love playing in our playground.  Last week, a teacher stopped by my study to tell me something that happened that day.  One of the teachers asked Aya if she liked America.  She replied, “No.”  She said people had been mean to her and her family.  But then she said, referring to the Center, being at the Church, playing in the playground, “This is my America.”  At the end of that week, Aya's mother baked bread for the teachers of the Center.

I’m grateful that Aya discovered “America” here, on this corner of God’s Kingdom.  America, yes, but even more, I like to think that she’s experienced again (or maybe for the first time), something of God’s grace and love for her, expressed through the teachers of the Center.  I like to think that after so much trauma and fear, hunger and suffering,  she knows, through us, that God loves the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the resident alien in our midst.  Those that love God can do no less.

 + + + +

*Not her real name.

[1] Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus. These lines appear on a bronze plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, placed in 1903. The sonnet was written in 1883 and donated to an auction, conducted by the Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty, to raise funds to build the pedestal.
[2] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 422.
[3] Brueggemann, 422.
[4] Brueggemann, 423.
[5] Theo Sundermeier, Den Fremden verstehen: Eine praktische Hermeneutik (Understanding the Stranger: A Practical Hermeneutic), (Göttingen, 1996), 207, cited in David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 48-49.  I’m grateful to Congdon for introducing me to the writings and theories of Sundermeier.
[6] Citations from Sundermeier (208-209), see Congdon, 49.
[7] Fr. Robert Lentz. See also.
[8] Congdon, 187.