Alive in Creation: Finding Freedom
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 30, 2016
Exodus 32:1-6; Matthew 22:34-40
I am taking a quick poll this morning. It is about which of three classrooms in which you would prefer to study; all of which by the way are real classrooms that I have been in. I will call the first class room, the chaos classroom. The children are running all over the room with none sitting at their desks. There is trash on the floor and everything is in disorder. Larger children are taking things from smaller ones. The teacher is engaged in an argument with one child while all the rest are going wild. That is classroom one. The second class room I will call the Trunchbull’ classroom (remember the book Matilda?). The classroom is silent. The kindergarteners are in their desks, all looking intently at the teacher and the wooden ruler in her hand. As she walks around the classroom not a word is uttered unless a child raises their hand and is called on. Any extra sound results in the quick “thwack” of the ruler on their hands. That is class room number two. The third classroom I will call the organized but fun classroom. The room is relatively quiet. Everything is in its place. Some children are on the floor reading. Others are speaking with the teacher. There is a sense of organized, but caring calm. So, which will it be? Classroom one with total chaos, classroom two with the ruler or classroom number three with a sense of calm and learning? OK, most of you chose classroom number three, which would have been my choice; which is what makes our Exodus story this morning so interesting. They chose the classroom of chaos over the other two. Let me explain.
The Israelites had been slaves for four hundred years. God, with the help of Moses had set them free. They traveled into the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. Once they arrived, Moses went up on the mountain and received from God the first portion of the Law. This first portion contained the Ten Commandments among other laws. Moses read the rules, if you will, to the people and the people signed off on following them. So far, so good. Next, Moses needed to return to the mountain to get a new set of laws. While he was gone, the people began to get a bit itchy. Even though Moses had a substitute leader in the room, Aaron, the people began to get out of control. Finally, they demanded that Aaron make them a new God, which he did. In the process they ignored all of the laws or rules, which Moses had brought from God. Then they went wild. The word in the text is that they partied or reveled. The Hebrew makes it clear that this describes a scene of utter chaos, very much like classroom number one. So the question becomes, why did they make that choice? Why did they choose chaos over order?
What I want to offer to you this morning is that I believe that they did it because they wanted freedom. Again, let’s return to the overarching story. These people had been slaves for four hundred years. They had had people telling them what to do every day of their lives. There were rules about when to get up and when to go to bed. There were rules about how long they had to work, how they had to work and what they did after work. In a sense it was like being in prison where there are rules that govern virtually everything you do. Suddenly though, they were free. God had sprung them from their prison and set them on a path to freedom and adventure. You can imagine how this was both thrilling and frightening; thrilling they were free, and frightening, what do we do now. But then almost as soon as they were free, Moses brings down these new rules; new rules from a God they had never really known. Rules that once again appeared to tell them what to do and how to do it. They were tired of rules. They were tired of being told what to do. So the instant they could throw off these rules they did. In so doing they believed that they would finally be free; free to live and die as they chose. The only problem was that throwing off God’s rules didn’t lead to freedom, but to chaos, which believe it or not has its own set of rules.
The reality of life is that there are always rules. Sometimes the rules may be written down, such as classroom rules. Other times the rules are simply social norms that insure society functions; like my parents insuring my brothers and I learned to say “yes sir” and yes ma’am.” The issue then for the Israelites, and for us is under which set of rules will we choose to live.
First we could choose to live under the rules of chaos. Remember I said chaos has rules. Those rules are: Only the strong survive. Every person for themselves. The stronger dominate the weaker. The mob has the power. No one is safe. This was the choice that the Israelite people were making. They were returning to the Book of Genesis; to Cain and Able, to the people before Noah, to the tower of Babel. They saw it as freedom, but in reality they were choosing classroom number one; a place in which there was fear, uncertainty, bullying and very little personal growth. While on the outside it may look appealing (look, we are free to do what we want) the end result is a place in which few of us would really want to live.
Second, we could choose to live under Pharaoh’s rules. These were the rules under which the Israelites had lived for four hundred years. Those were the rules of domination, in which one person, or one class, the ruling class, made all the rules and those rules benefited no one other than the rule makers. Those rules were intended to insure not only the dominance of the rule makers but the utter de-humanization of the Israelites. The Israelites were not to be treated as human beings but as things to be used. They were to be referred to as slaves and not a people. They were like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, where he had no name but was simply prisoner 24601. The issue here for us is not only that we might be treated this way, but we may end up treating others this way; through how we refer to them (those people) or treat them (hey you…as if they had no name). Though this set of rules is not one under which most of us would want to live, it is one that is still prevalent in the world today.
Third we could choose to live under God’s rules. These were rules based in God’s infinite love for the people whom God had called. These were rules that gave boundaries for living; rules that protected the weak and vulnerable; that insured that God’s good gifts were fairly shared; that called upon people to help their neighbors; that called upon people to orient their lives toward God, not out of abject fear (remember the teacher’s ruler) but out of response for the love of God that set them free from slavery. These were the rules that allowed the people to grow and flourish. These were the rules that insured that every human being was seen as someone in whom the image of God lived. These were the rules of freedom. And it does so because the law becomes not simply a set of rules, but a life orientation in which every human being can grow and thrive because they are loving God and loving neighbor.
If you want to know what it looks like to live under God’s rules you have to look no further than what took place at our church yesterday. Yesterday was church clean-up day. And as with every church clean-up day we were joined by people who had been required by courts to spend time in community service. One of the frequent comments from these people was how much they enjoyed working with us (not for us). They enjoyed working with us, they said, because we treated them like friends. We learned their names. We fed them lunch. At other churches where they worked they were treated, in their words, “like criminals.” This is how God’s rules work, that we see every human being as a child of God in which the image of God is present.
We choose. Each day, we choose which set of rules we want to live under in our lives, in our church and in our world. Jesus invites us to choose the way of God’s rules; the rules that can be summed up in loving God and loving neighbor. For it is in these rules that we find our freedom; our freedom to become the people God has made us to be. My challenge to you on this day is to ask yourselves, how am I finding freedom by loving God and neighbor?
Alive in Creation: Freedom?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 23, 2016
Exodus 3:1-12, Luke 4:16-21
I want to begin with a multiple choice test this morning; a test consisting of only one question. Here is the question. When was slavery outlawed in the United States. The possible answers a) is with the Emancipation Proclamation b) when the House and Senate passed the 13th Amendment c) when the states ratified the 13th Amendment or d) none of the above? So let’s see a show of hands. How many of a), b), c) or d)? for those of you who voted for d), you are correct. The answer is none of the above because slavery was never completely outlawed in the United States. I say this because the first clause of the Amendment reads this way. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Note, slavery still exists as a punishment for crimes. And what this means is that every prisoner within the United States is a slave of the state, and as we will see is used as a slave by major corporations within our nation. Let me explain.
When people are arrested and become prisoners of the state they lose the vast majority of their rights. And one of the rights is the ability to say no to work. That being the case, prisoners are forced to work. If they do not they can be, and usually are, placed in solitary confinement or lock in their cells 24/7. And when I say work I don’t mean, work to cook in the kitchens, or clean up the prison. I mean they are forced to work for for-profit corporations who have contracted with the prisons for convict labor. A brief list of those corporations include Microsoft, Nike, Honda, AT&T (call centers), Whole Foods, McDonalds (sew uniforms), and Wendy’s (package meat patties). Wages generally range from 4 to 74 cents an hour. Some states, such as Texas, do not pay anything at all. In addition, there are no rules governing the safety of the work environment. One state had slaves, or inmates if you prefer, destroying CRT monitors with hammers, exposing them to all of the harmful chemicals those monitors contain. Let me be clear though, the corporations who use prison labor did not create the system; there was no grand conspiracy to find free labor. So the question then becomes this morning; how did we get here?
As a nation that prides itself on freedom; in a nation that professes to be people of the Book, the Bible; in a nation in which more than 90% of its population checks off the “Christian” box, how do we still have slavery? I would argue that there are several reasons, the first being that the scriptures are really OK with slavery. This becomes apparent when we follow the Exodus story that we began reading this morning. God has heard the cry of God’s enslaved people. God calls Moses to go and set God’s people free. The people are freed through God’s mighty acts. Then the people make slaves of other people. We know this because the Law which is given to Moses on Sinai is filled with rules and regulations about slavery. Thus, slavery was OK. We might expect that when we move to the New Testament, things will change. But they don’t. The Apostle Paul never advocates for the release of slaves. Instead in several of his letters he tells slaves to be obedient to their masters, serving them like they would Christ, and for masters to be kind to their servants. Which, by the way, is why the Southern States believed that slavery was OK, because it was OK in the Bible.
The second way in which we got here was that we as a nation, and as people of faith, were more than willing to ignore the treatment of black Americans after the Civil War and into the present moment. When the Civil War ended the agricultural economy of the South was in tatters. They needed workers. Rather than hire freed blacks, the states realized that the 13th Amendment allowed them to use prisoners as slaves. The states then began to enact laws such as vagrancy laws, which allowed states to imprison blacks who were not employed and loitering laws, which allowed states to imprison blacks who were just hanging around. These black men were then leased out to private farmers who once again had virtually free slave labor, a practice that lasted until the 1970s. As Michelle Alexander documents in “The New Jim Crow,” over the years as some of these laws were struck down, others were implemented, including Jim Crow Laws, three strikes, mandatory minimum sentencing and truth in sentencing, meaning that once a person was sentenced they had to serve a large percentage of their time. What happened then was that the prison population, which had been stable from 1900 to 1980, climbed from 300,000 to its current 2.3 million, meaning that the United States which has 5% of the world’s population, houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, 86% of which are in prison for non-violent offenses.
This is where we are and the reality is that we got here by walking this road together. Democrat and Republican, rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, inner city resident and suburban dweller, we all willingly walked this road together. We walked this road with the news media and Hollywood that ramped up our fears. We all walked the road where we decided that the only way to protect ourselves was by creating a justice system that locks up one in seventeen white men and one in three black men. We believed that the only way to protect ourselves was to create a new slave class and a new class of second-class citizens; namely those who had been sent to and released from prison. Rather than making careful decisions about who really needed to be locked up, those who are true dangers to life and limb, we walked a road of mass incarceration, willingly labeling millions as criminals, rather than remembering that they too are children of God; remembering that in them, just like in us, the image of God resides.
The question for us this morning then is, is this the road we still want to walk down? Is this still the road upon which we believe Jesus is leading us? Is this the road trod by the Jesus who proclaimed good news to the poor? Is this the road trod by the Jesus who proclaimed release to the captives? Is this the rod trod by the Jesus who said he wanted to give sight to the blind? Is this the road trod by Jesus who said let the oppressed go free? Is this the road trod by the Jesus who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor in which all debts were forgiven and the world’s relationships were reset? Is this the road we really believe Jesus is calling us to walk down where one out of every seventeen white men will find their way to prison; where one out of every three black men will do the same; where one out of every twenty-eight children have a parent in prison? Is this the road, or is there another one Jesus would have us walk? I know the answer to this for myself, but I cannot make it for you. Each of us must choose the right road for ourselves.
Here then are my challenges to you for this week; First it is to learn. It is to do your own research into our criminal justice system and our own version of modern day slavery. There are great resources which will introduce you to this issue; books such as The New Jim Crow and the documentary on Netflix entitled 13th. In other words, don’t just take my word for it. Discover for yourselves and make up your own minds. Second, learn about the Sentencing and Reform Corrections Act of 2016 being considered by Congress. It is a bi-partisan bill, supported by national associations of police, sheriffs and District Attorneys. While not perfect, it is a start at helping us walk a different road. Third, I ask you to pray; to pray for the children of prisoners who are without their parents. To pray for the spouses and parents of prisoners who miss their loved ones. To pray for the prisoners that their lives might be made whole and they find freedom.
Alive in Creation: Rivalry or Reconciliation
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 16, 2016
Genesis 33:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
So what are we going to do when it is all over? What are we going to do when the ballots are counted and someone is named the new president of the United States of America. I ask that because during this campaign, as much as during any campaign in my memory, we have become a nation divided. We have become divided not only over policy but over words; people speaking of the other side as demonic or deplorable, of being unfit for office, of being liars and con artists, of lock her up and locker-room language of sexual assault. We have become a nation of angry people where someone this week said she was ready for a revolution if her candidate did not win. So what are we going to do when it is all over? What are we as followers of Jesus Christ going to do? I ask because it seems to me as if we have two choices. We can either choose rivalry or reconciliation. We can continue to be a divided people or we can work to come back together again.
The easiest path is the path of rivalry. It is easy because it is the default human choice. From Cain and Able to Jacob and Esau, rivalry has always been around. Now, when I say rivalry, I am not speaking of friendly rivalry; Michigan versus State; Coke versus Pepsi; or a rivalry that makes all parties better. What I am speaking about is the kind of take no prisoners, scorched earth, win at all costs rivalry. What I am speaking about is the demonizing of the other, and therefore we must destroy them kind of rivalry. What I am speaking about is the kind of rivalry that results inq mutually assured destruction, where anger is unleased and runs amuck. This is the kind of rivalry that destroys families, communities, nations and worlds. Even so, as I said, this is the easy choice because it is in some ways the pre-programed choice buried within our DNA.
The more difficult path is reconciliation. It is more difficult because it is costly. It is costly to both the ones who have harmed others and to the ones who have been harmed. It is costly to the one who has harmed others because they have to admit that they have indeed harmed others, that they have been wrong, that they were inappropriate and by so doing they have to be open to both asking for forgiveness, whether or not that forgiveness comes. It is costly to the one who has been harmed because they have to be willing to accept the admission of guilt from the other, to set aside their anger and desire for revenge and to forgive. It is costly because reconciliation is more than simply dismissing what has happened, or pretending that no harm or hurt was done. It means acknowledging the depth of the pain and out of that pain, being open to the approach of the other.
So what are we going to do? Which will we, as Jesus’ followers, choose?
If we are to believe the Apostle Paul, there is only one choice, reconciliation. The church in Corinth was a hot mess. It was a church that was divided in as many ways as a church could be divided; rich vs. poor, Peter followers vs. Apollos followers, Jew vs. Gentile. In Paul’s first letter he deals with their divisions and rivalries. He calls upon them to have the same mind and to be of one mind rather than being torn apart by the competition in the church for power. Unfortunately, these rivalries were not simply contained within the church. They extended to the relationship between the church and Paul, where they were critical of, or rivals with Paul. So in this second letter, Paul reminds the church members of their calling in Jesus Christ, which was to be agents of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (vs. 18). The logic for Paul works like this. We were estranged from God because our lives were not rightly lived. God loved us too much to allow us to be estranged, so he sent Jesus into the world to restore our relationship with God. Through Jesus costly work on the cross (there is the costly aspect of reconciliation) it became possible for us to be in right relationship with God once again. As Paul puts it, “…that is in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them…” (vs. 19). In Jesus, God reestablished a right relationship with us, and then sent us out with this message of reconciliation; a message of reconciliation not only with God but with one another. Our task then is to become those who work toward reconciliation and not rivalry…and fortunately the Jacob and Esau story offers us a template to use.
The first step in reconciliation, is for the one who has harmed or offended to attempt to freely bring the relationship back into the balance it was to have had all along; and in so doing be open to whatever response they might receive. Let me explain. Jacob and Esau were brothers. Jacob was the younger and Esau the older. As the older brother Esau was entitled to the birthright and blessing of his father. Jacob stole both of these through lies and deception; deceiving both his brother and his father. In essence Jacob had stolen the most precious inheritance Esau was to receive. So when Jacob begins his process of trying to reconcile with his brother, he acts to freely bring the relationship back into the balance it was to have had all along. We see this in Jacob bowing to Esau, thus giving Esau what was due to the elder brother. Then we watch as Jacob insists that Esau take from him gifts that Jacob had sent on ahead; gifts that would have been Esau’s had Jacob not stolen the blessing. And when Jacob initiates this process of reconciliation he does so without knowing how he will be received. He just knows it is the only Godly way forward.
The second step in reconciliation is for the one harmed to freely accept the appropriate rebalancing of the relationship; and in so doing complete the resetting of the relationship. This is what Esau does. Esau hears that his brother is coming back home. Esau has no reason to forgive him. In fact, Esau had pledged to kill his brother because of what he had stolen from him and by the customs of the day, he would have been right in so doing. Esau goes out with four-hundred armed men; enough to kill Jacob and take all that he had. Yet when he sees Jacob coming forward bowing, rebalancing the relationship, Esau embraces him instead of killing him and gives him the kiss of greeting. And even though Esau had more than enough, he receives from Jacob the gifts of animals and people that had been offered. He does so because he knows that that is what reconciliation demands. It must be costly, if it is to have meaning.
This is how reconciliation works; the one offending freely attempts to rebalance the relationship and the one offended accepts the rebalancing. What is interesting about the division in our country, and perhaps within our own families, is that in many cases people on both sides are both offenders and offended. So how do we reconcile? We do so by answering the last question of the second presidential debate. To say that debate was contentious would be an understatement. But then, at the end, a gentleman got up and asked this question. “Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” Stunned, you could see the mental wheels turning in the candidates. Then they each offered a compliment to the other and received the compliment offered. Then, they shook hands. Granted, the kind feelings only lasted till they got off stage. But it was a start. It was and is a model for what we are to do. For you see we are not called to agree with those who hold opposing social or economic views. We are not called to agree with someone else’s choice of a leader or the values they espouse. But what we are called to do is to be agents of reconciliation; willing to initiate the process of healing by seeing in the other a child of God and seeking to rebalance human relationships regardless of our differences.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourself, how am I being an agent of reconciliation in my circle of influence?
Alive in Creation: Redefining God
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 9, 2016
Genesis 22:1-14, Acts 17:22-34
It was a simple experiment. They were to count the passes. The subjects of the experiment were asked to watch a video in which two teams, one in black shirts the other in white shirts, passed basketballs back and forth to each other. The subjects were to see if they could keep track of the number of passes made by one of the two teams. After the video was shown, the researches first asked about the number of passes; most people got about the right number. Then the researchers asked if the subjects had seen anything unusual. Almost half said that they did not. Those who saw nothing unusual were then asked to watch the video again, this time looking for the unusual. As the subjects watched the video again they noticed a gorilla, or someone in a gorilla costume, walk into the frame, stand around, then walk out of frame. Many of the subjects argued that it was a different video. It was in fact, the same video and the subjects had simply missed the gorilla (you can watch this video on YouTube. It is called the Invisible Gorilla Experiment). They missed it because most human beings see what we expect to see and don’t see what we don’t expect to see.
I would argue that the same could be said of Abraham, when it comes to God. He saw the God he expected to see. Let me explain. This story, the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is one of the most disturbing in the Old Testament. Whenever I have taught on this text, people struggle with the concept that God could ask this. They also struggle with the fact that Abraham went along with the request. Why, people ask, would Abraham be willing to take the life of his only son without so much as an argument? After all he had already argued with God to spare the city of Sodom. Why not argue for his son’s life? The answer I want to offer is that the God he saw asking for the sacrifice was the God he expected to see. What I mean by that is that the gods of the ancient near east were capricious and blood thirsty. Those gods relished in death and destruction. They relished in the sacrifice of children. Those gods could and would change their minds at the drop of a hat. A promise made was not necessarily a promise kept. So when God came to Abraham and said, “Take your son, your only son that you love and sacrifice him,” this meant that this God who had called Abraham was no different from the gods Abraham had known. He saw what he was expecting to see.
What I hope we will realize this morning is that Abraham is not alone in seeing the God he expected to see. We do the same. We do the same because we are human beings who have been raised with a particular view of God and usually, sometime around the age of ten or eleven, we lock in an image of God and we stick with it. We stick with an image of God that might be loving, or one that is always angry. We stick with an image of God that might be forgiving or one that might be judgmental. We stick with an image of God that is distant and removed or a God who is nearer than our breathing. We stick with a God who is full of love for all human beings or we stick with a God who hates all of those who are not like us. We stick with a God who is grace filled or a God who is legalistic. In other words, we lock ourselves into an image of God that shapes our faith and our life in the world. But the question becomes, what happens when we meet a God who is wholly different from the God we thought we knew; the God we were sticking with?
This is what happened to Abraham. Abraham thought he knew this God who had promised to bless him with land, children and wealth; who had promised to make him a blessing to the world. Abraham thought he knew this God as he had known other gods. They were all the same; selfish, self-centered, capricious and blood thirsty. Yet in a moment that forever changed not only Abraham’s view of God, and would ultimately change the view of much of the world, Abraham met a God he had never really known. This was a God who kept promises. God had promised Abraham offspring and would not deprive Abraham of his only son whom he loved. This was a God who cherished life, including the lives of children. Children were not to be cast aside. Children were to be cherished and loved. This was a God who did not take but gave. This was a God who did not want Abraham to give up what little he had, but instead provided for Abraham a ram to sacrifice. We know this because Abraham names the place God will provide and he professes that God will continue to provide. This was a radically new kind of God; a God worth following and believing in.
It is this same radically new God; a God worth following and believing in that the Apostle Paul presents to the Greeks in Athens. Paul, or as he was known in his younger days, Saul of Tarsus, had been raised with and had stuck with a particular image of God; one that was legalistic; one that only loved the Jewish people; one that demanded absolute legal perfection; one that demanded anyone who disagreed with these views was to be punished. Then one day on the road to Damascus, Saul had an encounter with Jesus, with God. He would never be the same. He discovered a God of grace, compassion, humility and love that desired that all persons know that they were loved and cherished. It was this message that he brought to the people of Athens. They too thought that they knew the gods; capricious, often angry, never trustworthy, powerful, yet at times, not all that powerful. And so Paul offers them a new vision of God. One who is above all and in all; one who is over the earth and yet near at hand; one who has the power to raise the dead. The responses to his message came in three forms. Some scoffed and left. Some wanted to know more. Some believed and followed.
The question for each of us this morning is which of these will be our response when we hear about or encounter God in a way that challenges our preconceived views. Will we be open to seeing God in new ways? Will we be willing to question our preconceived notions? Will we be ready to redefine God if the evidence presents itself?