Alive in Creation: The Power of Listening
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 20, 2016
Isaiah 6: 1-13, Matthew 9:9-13
I feel this morning a bit like Rod Serling, on the Twilight Zone. I offer this morning, two ways in which people have used scripture. The first is an interview of the senator who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee. The topic was global warming. “Senator, we’re going to talk about your book for a minute, you state in your book which by the way is called The Greatest Hoax, you state in your book that one of your favorite Bible verses, Genesis 8:22, ‘while the earth remaineth seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease,’ what is the significance of these verses to this issue (of global warming)? Senator: Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” In other words, there is nothing that we as human beings can do that would negatively impact the climate because the climate does only what God commands it to do.
The second was the way in which the people of Judah in the time of Isaiah understood the role of God in their nation. God was their protector. God was their defender. As long as the people carried out their sacrificial duties God would insure their success. It didn’t matter if the crushed the poor. It didn’t matter if they broke most of the commandments. It didn’t matter that the great Empires of Assyria and later Babylonia were surging toward them. They did not have to fear. They were God’s chosen people. And in their possession were the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant. God would never let them fall. God would never desert them. In other words, there was nothing they could do, or any empire could do that would negatively impact their lives because God would not let it happen. So the question for us this morning is how did the Senator and the nation of Judah come to these two rather remarkable conclusions? The answer is that they only listened to one voice in scripture.
What I mean by that is that scripture does not speak with a single voice. It is not like a novel in which the author offers us a consistent literary point of view. Scripture is history, and poetry, and theology, and parables, and prophetic utterance, and saga and well, I think you get the point. Scripture is contradictory and complimentary. Scripture offers us different views on holiness, and power and kingship and the role of the messiah. Scripture, is written across centuries and centuries, in different cultures, under different conditions. What this all means is that we can prove whatever we want to prove out of scripture…especially when we only listen to one voice; to one strand; to one tradition; to one point of view. The Senator believes in the strand of tradition that God will never abandon this creation. That God will save us from ourselves. Yet what he fails to do is to hear the writer of Revelation saying that God will destroy the destroyers of God’s earth; meaning there are consequences for the creation and for ourselves, of our actions. The people of Judah failed to hear Isaiah when said that their cities would lie waste without inhabitants, until the land is utterly desolate; which is was happened because the people refused to listen.
Listening to a single voice in scripture is like driving a car that only turn left at 90 degrees. You are driving along and see a pothole in the road. You make a slight adjustment causes you to swerve across oncoming traffic and end up in the ditch on the far side of the road. In other words, listening to a single voice is what gets us as human beings in trouble. Listening to a single voice is what led the church to persecute the Jews. Listening to a single voice is what led the church to demean women. Listening to a single voice is what led the church to ostracize members of the LGBTQ community. Listening to a single voice is what led to slavery. Listening to a single voice is what led us to the Crusades and the slaughter of tens of thousands. As I said a moment ago we can prove and defend anything we want by listening to only a single voice; a voice that agrees with all of our preconceived notions and prejudices. What we are called upon to do then is to listen to all of the voices; to listen to multiple voices that may or may not tell us what we want to hear, yet tell us what we need to hear. And if we are looking for an example, we need to look no further than Jesus.
In our morning’s Jesus’ story, we find Jesus out on the road again. He calls Matthew, a tax collector, to be a disciple. He then eats with sinners and tax collectors. In some ways this is one of those stories that we use so often that it loses its importance. Yet it is a place in which Jesus asks people to listen to a different story; a story that they may not have considered in a while. The primary story that guided many Jews in Jesus’ time was what I call the holiness story. This story called on Jews to be ritually pure by carefully following the rules and regulations of the Second Temple period. A large part of these rules had to do with having no contact with those people and objects which were ritually unclean. This would have included sinners and tax collectors. This is why the people around Jesus wondered why he was eating with such people. In response Jesus offers a different story. He quotes the prophet Hosea, who says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice”, meaning that what God desires is compassion for outsiders rather than judgment stemming from rules and regulations. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the holiness tradition, but instead adds something new to it, a call to love and compassion.
Hearing different stories. That is what we are to be about. The question then is how do we do this? There are many ways, but the one I would suggest this morning is to join one of our We Make the Road by Walking Groups. I say this for two reasons. First, the book itself offers us stories to which to listen that we might not otherwise read and consider. The book also offers us a particular perspective on scripture and its application to the world in which we live. The second reason I encourage becoming part of a group is that many of the groups, much like the two in which I participate, are filled with people of different ages, different political persuasions, different religious backgrounds and different ways of seeing life. What happens is that we listen to the stories. We listen to one another. We listen and we are enriched. We are enriched in our ability to consider what God is about in the world; what God wants of us in the world. We don’t answer all of life’s big mysteries. We don’t come out in agreement. But neither of those is the point. The point is that we listen to stories that we might not otherwise hear, so that we can be open to the full story of God in Jesus Christ.
My challenge for you for this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I listening to stories that are different from the ones I already know, that I might be enriched as a follower of Jesus Christ?
Alive in Creation: What Do We Do Now?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 13, 2016
Psalm 146, Acts 1:1-11
So what do we do now? All the excitement is over. The future is uncertain. Our leader has left us. So what do we do now? I wonder if this is what the disciples were thinking to themselves as they once again watched Jesus be taken from them. Those men and women had been on a three-year campaign, where they crisscrossed the country, making friends, building coalitions and offering a new vision for the Kingdom of God. They had been there at the highs when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They had been there at the lows when Jesus had been arrested, tried and crucified. They were there at the highs when Jesus was resurrected and returned to them. Now, once again, they are at a crossroads. Excitedly they had asked Jesus if the moment had come to restore the kingdom. If the moment had come for God to make everything right in the world; to restore justice, to give sight to the blind and to let the prisoners go free. Jesus answer was, no, you have to wait. So what do they do now?
So what do we do now? What do we do now that the election is over, the votes are counted and there is a winner and a loser. What are we to do when there are protests in the streets, when there are youth at a middle school shouting, “Build a wall, build a wall”, when there are people being beaten and kicked because they supported Trump? What do we do when the nation is divided into two almost equal camps? What are we supposed to do now? Fortunately, we can find our answer in the 146th Psalm.
In this Psalm, the writer offers us two things we ought to be doing. And here they are. First we are not to trust in princes. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (vs. 3-4). The context here is almost self-evident; that we are not to put our trust in leaders whose plans come and go. Now at least we as Americans get to vote people in and out of office. The psalmist had to wait for people to die for the prince and all of his plans to vanish. So we at least get to change administrations every once in a while. But the thought is clear that if we put all of our hope in a human being, sooner or later that human being is going to be out of office. And chances are so much of what they put into practice may just vanish and go away with them.
The subtext here is that we are never to see another human being as our savior. So often as we listen to what was said during this election period was the candidates being lifted up by their supporters as saviors of America. But this isn’t new. This is what we always do. We always take these human beings and invest them with salvific powers. This person is going to save our city, our state, our nation, our world. But how many of you have ever been disappointed by someone you thought was going to be the savior. The subtext is that when we invest in people we will be disappointed because they are not our savior. During the campaign I had considered creating a t-shirt with pictures of Donald and Hillary on the front, with words that read, “I already have a savior and he is not either of these.” I say that because they are human beings involved in a fallible system that never works everything out in the right ways. We are not to trust in princes because they will always disappoint us.
The second thing that the Psalmist teaches us, is that we are to get busy being the people of God. He does so by reminding us of what God does. God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, watchers over the strangers, upholds the orphan and widow. These are the things that God does. God doesn’t do them by fiat. God doesn’t do them magically. God does them through God’s people. These are the things that the Torah commands God’s people to do. That’s how God accomplishes these things; through God’s own people. These are the marching orders that God gave to the children of Israel and by the way are the marching orders that Jesus gave to his followers. We are to be about these things. Now I want to be very clear here. I am not saying that there is not a role for government because there are important things that the government can and should do. But there are things that the government can’t do. It can’t teach people to love. It can’t teach people to be tolerant. It can’t teach people to forgive. It can’t teach people to be compassionate. It can’t make sure that every child can have a quality education. It can’t make sure every hungry person has something to eat, nor that every homeless person has a warm place to stay during the day in winter months. But you and I can and we are called to do these things. We are called to be light in the darkness. We are called to be a compassionate, loving, welcoming people. We are called to be that safe place in a dangerous and hurting world. We are to be God’s people.
What do we do now? That was the question the disciples asked themselves when they watched Jesus, well, be taken up in a cloud. And what they were reminded of was what Jesus had taught them. First that John had baptized them with water but that the Spirit was coming and that the Spirit was going to touch you and empower you and make you into a different kind of community. And when it gets there you are to go and be witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And witnesses here which is not just about telling people who Jesus is, but being that kind of community that the Roman Empire had never seen before. That kind of community in which there were men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, as an inclusive community in which every child of God was welcomed in and cared for. And so they fed the hungry, they cared for one another so that no one was in need. Everyone had enough. And because of that people flocked to the church and the church changed the Roman Empire. It changed the world.
So what are we supposed to do now? Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the Spirit. The Spirit is here now. We are a Spirit filled community. We are not simply a community of likeminded people who get together for great music and to see our friends. We are a Spirit empowered community. The Spirit of God is in our midst. The Spirit of God is in each one of us. And the Spirit is bringing forth gifts in us, both individually and collectively for us to do the work of God in the world. And God does that so we can execute justice, feed the hungry, set the prisoners free, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over strangers and care for the orphan and widow. This is what you and I are called to be and to do. To be God’s people as witnesses to the love and grace and mercy of God in the world.
This then is our challenge, to not get caught up in the hatred, the anger, the blaming and the recrimination. We are instead to be the hands, arms and voice of God in the world as together we help to change this city, this state, this nation and this world. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I using my gifts to help change this world that it might look more and more like the Kingdom of God with each day that passes.
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 6, 2016
Deuteronomy 7:1-11, Matthew 15:21-39
I’ll admit it: I clicked on it. I followed the link that came up in my Facebook feed. It was just too tempting. The title read: “50 groups/individuals Jesus says you can hate.” Curiosity got the better of me.
I’ll spare you from the same fate I suffered: it was an eye-rolling disappointment. After introducing the list as a scripturally-founded compilation of all those people we are not required by Jesus to love and show mercy toward, after giving us permission to scorn, deride, demonize, and condemn everybody on this list, the piece culminates in a numbered list, 1-50, with nothing but blank space next to each one.
The first thought that came to my head was, “well, duh.” Big surprise. We all know Jesus taught us to love our enemies, bless those who persecute us, welcome the stranger and the outcast, care for the poor and the widow. All Jesus talks about is love and expanding the circle of God’s love to those who would seem to be outsiders. But then we read today’s text, and it seems that maybe there is one person, at least, who it seems might be on this list of people Jesus says it’s okay to hate.
Jesus and his disciples have just entered the district of Tyre and Sidon. Now, these names don’t mean much to us today, though they are still port cities in Lebanon. But for Jesus and his disciples, this would have been like entering New York City, or the Hamptons. Or, maybe Birmingham and Bloomfield. These were regions of wealth and privilege. They were major trade cities on the Mediterranean Sea, a channel for goods from Macedonia and Egypt, all of the known world, to the inlands of first-century Palestine.
And just as Jesus and his crew hit 14-mile and Woodward, this woman comes along, let’s call her Sally, since scripture seems to have trouble remembering women’s names. Sally has a child possessed by a demon, a child with special needs, a child who doesn’t behave, a child who says bad words, a child who is addicted to drugs, who abuses alcohol, who is mentally ill, who is a bully, who is gay, who is transgender. Sally has spent her life concealing her daughter’s condition, apologizing for it, spending vast sums of money on phony physicians and experimental remedies. She’s learned to be her daughter’s advocate and defender, even as this has caused her to lose friends and become alienated by her family.
This woman is not Jewish. The gospel of Mark calls her Syrophoenician, a description from the first-century landscape. But Matthew labels her a Canaanite, tying her to the people-group driven out of the Holy Land when the people of Israel arrived. She probably looks like a Syrian. She might be the ancestor of Muslims. Maybe she worships the Canaanite gods Baal, Ashera, or Melkart. Or perhaps under the influence of the surrounding cultures she worships the Roman emperor, or the Greek pantheon. Or maybe she’s an atheist. And maybe that’s why Jesus feels like he can ignore her, call her names, dare I say, hate her. Calling someone a female dog in ancient Aramaic is not any nicer than it sounds in 21st century English.
Maybe Jesus had his reasons to hate and insult this woman, but isn’t this the same Jesus who taught people to “love their enemies” and to value mercy over legal technicalities? Didn’t he welcome women and tax collectors, sinners and outcasts into his tribe of followers? Where does this exclusionary and offensive behavior come from? It is totally inconsistent with the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Plenty of preachers and commentators have attempted to explain this scene as Jesus acting within the context of his culture. He might be divine, but as a human, he is still subject to human cultural norms. And his poor treatment of this woman is overshadowed by the fact that in the end he changes his mind and heals a person of Canaanite decent. Isn’t that radical?
But I’m sorry, I can’t believe in a Jesus who would ignore and insult any woman who has a child with special needs begging for help. There’s no excuse for that. There’s a lot I don’t understand about God in Jesus Christ, and today this just has to be one of those things. I can’t excuse or explain what Jesus does here and turn it into a feel-good after-school special about inclusion and compassion. I just have to sit uncomfortably with this episode.
And this may be the only time you ever hear me say this, but it is unfortunate that many churches model Jesus’ behavior in this situation. We’ve all heard that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America, and there is good reason for that. Because we are modeling Jesus’ behavior. We are the church for those who look like us, believe like us, behave like us, belong to our tribe. We are sent only to the educated, the suburbanites, the English-speakers, the literate, the sober, the gainfully employed. We are sent only to the white, or the black, or the Latino. We are sent only to the Catholic, or the Chaldean, or the Baptist, or the Presbyterian. The church does a spectacular job of narrowing the scope of her mission. Well done in following in the footsteps of Jesus.
And so the miracle that takes place in this text is not the healing of Sally’s daughter. The miracle is that Sally sticks around long enough to demand it. When she is excluded and insulted, she doesn’t storm off in a huff and bad-mouth Jesus and his followers. She doesn’t return evil for evil, ignoring or insulting Jesus in response. She turns the other cheek. She humbles herself. She models the kind of behavior we’d expect from, well, Jesus.
And she uses the same kind of rhetoric and wordplay that we see Jesus use throughout his ministry and teaching. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She is not asking to be included. She is not offering to convert. She is not hoping to be anything more than a dog to Jesus.
The faith that Jesus commends in her is not a conversion to Judaism or to a not-yet existent Christianity. Her faith is not belief in Jesus as the Jewish messiah.
Sally’s faith is the trust that with Jesus, even Jesus at his worst, things can get better. It is a faith that Jesus can do better. It is a faith that stands up and demands mercy, justice, and truth. It is a faith that does not slink back into self-pity. It does not run home and vent about “those people” and post on Facebook about how we’ve been wronged. It is a faith like Jacob’s that wrestles with God and demands a blessing, even if we get injured in the process. It is a faith that will not accept absolutes and status quo and “that’s just the way it is.”
I don’t know if this woman changed Jesus’ mind, or if this was all a set-up for her to demonstrate her faith. But I do know that after this encounter, Jesus heals and feeds a crowd of thousands of non-Jews. There is no more of this “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" business.
We’ve got an election happening this week, folks. And plenty of churches around this country feel like they are the church only for Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or people who think we shouldn’t vote for anybody. I hope we don’t model Jesus’ behavior this week.
Instead, I hope we model Sally’s behavior, which in this case happens to be more Christ-like than Christ’s. I hope we demonstrate a faith that believes that the Body of Christ, even at its worst, has the power to heal, to make things better. A faith that looks past our political parties and tribes and divisions and demands mercy and justice and truth. A faith that doesn’t walk away hurt, that doesn’t respond in kind to wrongdoing, that doesn’t ignore offensive behavior. Let’s have that kind of faith this week. Let’s be that kind of church. Because that is the faith that leads to healing.
If you want to join me on Election Day this Tuesday, I will be here from the time the polls open here at the church until they close. This is my polling place, my community, my church. And we will be showing hospitality, handing out coffee, fostering conversation, encouraging kindness and patience, promoting mercy and humility and peace – all day long. We will do this as we plead and pray for healing.
And we will invite the whole community to come together on Wednesday evening here in the sanctuary to pray for healing and hope for our nation. Like the Canaanite woman, we will witness to the truth that God’s blessing, God’s healing, God’s promises are not exclusive. With humility and reverence, with courage and perseverance, we will pray that God heals this country possessed by fear and partisanship, hatred and anger and contempt. We will demand scraps from the table if we must, but we believe that the Body of Christ can cast out these demons and restore us to life.
Because we are Everybody’s Church. And we do believe that the list of those we are permitted to hate is blank. And when we behave to the contrary, we are grateful for those who remind us to see that everyone is welcome at Christ’s table, and everyone is worthy of God’s healing, and everyone is a child of God. Amen.
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: 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?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 28, 2016
Genesis 1:1-2:4, Matthew 6:25-34
The scene from The Lion King opens with Pumbaa, Timon and Simba all lying on the grass, after dinner, looking at the stars.
Simba, “I’m stuffed”
Pumbaa, “Me too. I ate like a pig.”
Simba, “You are a pig.”
Pumbaa, “Oh, right.”
They all sigh.
Pumbaa, “Have you ever wondered what those sparkling dots are up there?”
Timon, “I don’t wonder. I know.”
Pumbaa, “What are they?”
Timon, “They’re fireflies; fireflies that got stuck up here is that blueish-black thing.”
Pumbaa, “Oh Gee, I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.”
Timon, “Pumbaa, with you, everything is gas.”
Pumbaa, “Simba, what do you think?”
Simba (hesitantly), “Well I don’t know…”
Pumbaa, “Oh come on…give, give, give. We told you ours.”
Simba, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past were up there watching over us.”
Timon, “Really. You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?!”
They all begin to laugh and the scene fades.
The Lion King makes it clear what Pumbaa, Timon and Simba saw when they looked at the stars; when they looked at creation. So what is it that we see, or perhaps what is it that we are supposed to see when we look at creation. I ask because just like these three friends, human beings across the last ten-thousand years or so have seen many different things when they looked at creation. Like Simba, many saw gods, goddesses or ancestors living in the sky, the sun, the moon, the trees and the plants. Others, Like Pumbaa, looked at creation and saw a mechanical universe which was like a pocket watch, all wound up and running eternally on a set of mechanistic principles; principles that today we learn about in physics such as gravity, electromagnetism, strong force and weak force. Still others, like Timon (who saw the stars as his food source) saw creation as a giant piggy bank of minerals and materials waiting to be exploited for the money that could be made, regardless of the consequences. And the materials were not simply what one could take out of the earth, but were the human beings that were to be enslaved, used up and then cast aside. Others saw only awe and beauty, a gift to be explored and about which one could write great music and produce amazing works of art. But what is it that we, the people of the Book; the people of God in Jesus Christ are to see, when we look at creation? The answer is twofold, and both answers can be found in this morning’s lesson from the opening of the chapter of Genesis.
First we are to see creation as God’s creation. The writer of Genesis 1 makes it clear that the universe and everything in it is God’s. Now to be clear we as Presbyterians are not Creationists. We don’t believe that Genesis either explains the mechanics of creation…the actual how it was made, or give us an exact timeline for the creation event. Even so, what it affirms is that God was somehow mysteriously behind all of this; all of creation; all of life. Whether that life came through God casting a seed of energy at the Big Bang that was filled with the potential and possibility of life, or whether God insured that the potential for life became the reality of life doesn’t matter to the writer. What matters is that God is the creating force behind this creation. The writer also reminds us that God created all that there is but that God cared and cares for all that there is. God said that it was good and very good. In a sense whatever God creates, God cares about. When we look at this creation then the first thing we should see is that it is God’s; that it is God’s very good creation.
Second, we should see it as our creation. When I say that I don’t mean that it is ours as a possession. Even though many people have and will read Genesis that way; that we are to have an exploitative dominion over creation, that is not the essence of the Hebrew. The original wording of dominion refers to the dominion of a king who guides and protects his people. It is the dominion of a shepherd who cares for the sheep. Walter Brueggemann implies that the image we ought to use in understanding dominion is that of Jesus who lays down his life for his sheep. In other words, the dominion we are to have entails a responsibility for the creation; so it is our creation because we are the ones whom God has tasked with taking care of it. This is in fact the meaning of the image of God. The image of someone, say a king, referred to the authority given to an individual who was commissioned by the king to serve in the king’s place when the king could not be present. Thus when God addresses humanity in these opening verses of Genesis, God is saying that this is our creation to care for, nurture and assist in becoming the wonderful, awe filled place that God created it to be.
These understandings lead us to two conclusions. First they lead us to become those who care for and appreciate the environment, which is appropriate this year as we celebrate the Centennial of our National Parks. This is in some ways an obvious outcome. The second is a conclusion that we might miss; but fortunately Jesus points it out to us…and that is that we get to live a life of “hakuna matata”, or a life where there are no worries here. (And by the way, even though most of you probably heard this phrase first in the Lion King, it is a phrase used by Kenyans). We hear Jesus saying this to those who had gathered around him for what we call the Sermon on the Mount. He asks them why they worry about life, clothes or food and then implies that they need not worry. This is a remarkable ask considering how difficult life was in the first century. People were small farmers scratching out a living. They were day laborers hoping to get hired in order to feed their families. They were small merchants who were heavily taxed and who might be robbed at any turn on the road. So how could Jesus tell them to live by Hakuna Matata? He could do so because this is God’s and our creation. Jesus reminds them that in God’s creation God not only takes care of the birds of the air and the grass of the field, but God takes care of those who are made in God’s image. Jesus says, “Are you not of more value than they?” Thus Jesus says, God will take care of the needs of human beings and so they do not need to worry.
In our study book, We Make the Road by Walking, the author speaks of the awe and wonder that we should experience when we view God’s creation. Like many of you there have been many times in my life when the beauty around me has left me virtually speechless. Yet for me, the greatest aspect of awe and wonder, is that the God who created the heavens and the earth, cares so deeply for this creation and for all of us in it; for every bird, and tree and human being who draws breath, that God will work that we have all that we need, now and always.
My challenge for you then for this week is this, to ask yourselves, where do I see awe and wonder in God’s creation and how am I fulfilling my role as one who has been created in the image of God?