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Posts tagged ‘justice’

Emmanuel AME: Just Be. And Be Not Afraid

Mark 4:35-41

Emmanuel.jpegThis is an excerpt from an article written for the Huffington Post by Rev. Otis Moss, III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The doors of the church are [still] open.

The question running through the minds of many African Americans, particularly black church folks is where and when will we ever be safe? Earlier this week nine prayer warriors were massacred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina…

On Wednesday night, members of Emanuel gathered with their pastor in what should have been a safe place…Seated in their midst was a young white man who was a stranger, yet welcomed as a friend…The young man was seated next to the pastor, where he returned the church’s hospitality with unimaginable inhumanity.

The AME denomination was founded as a protest against racism [Yolanda Pierce]. This is true of Emanuel AME, affectionately known as “Mother” Emanuel. Its storied history dates back almost 200 years. Mother Emanuel endured despite being burned down, outlawed and destroyed by an earthquake.

Emanuel AME has been the target of racist attacks, legal harassment and arson. [Despite each [calamity] that stormed the doors of the church, [Emmanuel] was committed to teaching the south “a more excellent way” called love. Emanuel at every turn has responded with love rooted in justice by teaching literacy, producing leaders, protesting unequal treatment, fighting for economic parity and demanding the confederate flag be replaced by a symbol for all South Carolinians. Mother Emanuel exemplifies the best of our religious tradition–liberation, love and reconciliation.

This storm too shall pass.

Despite this breach, the black church will continue to serve as a sanctuary against racism and hatred. We are encouraged by the images of South Carolinians of all races coming together to mourn and remember the fallen.

When we see the faces of those who were lost and learn of their lives, we are devastated not just by the senselessness of the act but also because we know these victims. We know them–the civil servants, the recent graduate, the librarian, the track coach, the grandfather and the great-grandmother.

In honor of those nine souls and of the countless others who preceded them, we will continue to exist, to protest, to remain open, to stand, and to pray. The doors of the church are open.

So many of us mourn with the families, friends, and church members of Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. In Philly, Mother Bethel AME, led by my colleague Rev. Mark Tyler, hosted a prayer vigil for hundreds of people. And Rev. Tyler’s commitment to interfaith cooperation and welcome shined through. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and many others gathered at Mother Bethel for prayer, mourning, and healing.

In spite of the fear, confusion, and sadness—

Their doors were open.

I don’t have much to say about what happened other than it makes me sick, angry, and sad. So I cannot imagine what others feel. This kind of storm seems insurmountable. And where is God in all this?

So I suppose it’s appropriate to reflect on Mark’s Gospel story about some horrified disciples stuck in a boat in the middle of a storm while their teacher Jesus slept.

They were doing what they were supposed to do. They were listening to Jesus, reaching out to people who had been marginalized by religion, society, and government. They were in a boat going to the other side where others did not dare to go. And then, without warning, the storm came. They weren’t protected; they were vulnerable, exposed, afraid.

Jesus was asleep, unresponsive to their fears.

Until they awakened him and then he asked:

Why are you afraid?

Seems like Jesus was asking them why they had allowed their terror to overcome their faith—to lessen their commitment to journeying to the other side. And Jesus commanded:

Peace! Be Still!

This kind of peace was aggressive.
The disciples took notice. They were in awe. Jesus spoke peace to terror; love to hate; mercy to judgement; friendship to isolation; healing to sickness; forgiveness to resentment; justice to injustice.

And so they kept going in their boat…to the other side, well aware of the dangers ahead and that things would not be comfortable or perfectly ordered, or even completely safe.

During the storms, when we wonder where God is, how do we respond?

My colleague, the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, United Church of Christ National Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership, wrote this on Thursday:

waltrina.jpegWith deep sorrow, I write to share that my beloved first cousin was among the nine fatalities. Her death was confirmed this morning, and the unspeakable grief of this loss has knocked me and my family off-kilter.

Please keep my family, Mother Emanuel congregation and all those impacted by this rampant culture of violence in the center of your prayers.

Let us come together for such a time as this to the sacred clearing—no matter our faith or practice—and be of one accord in the spirit of love, hope, and healing to seek justice and peace for these and other victims of hatred and violence.

Let us put our faith to action and be more than empty drums that have long lost their melodies or arrangements. Let us remove our instruments from the poplar trees and call the people, the public officials, and, yes, the church to action to address the festering sores of racism, classism and militarism—as they intersect in this culture of violence. How can we begin to eradicate this evil without acknowledging the realities of racialized policing, hate crimes, and the disproportionate acts of violence against Black and Brown bodies?

Alas, it is morning and tear-filled dewdrops fall fresh upon my face, with eyes watching God and a soulful lament. Our hearts are troubled, but our faith remains steadfast, trusting and believing in the reconciling power of God for the brokenhearted and the oppressed.

Yours in faith and justice,
Waltrina

She has chosen to cry out to God, but she has also chosen to keep on going to the other side.

How about the rest of the families who lost loved ones on Wednesday night?
Have you seen the video from the courthouse?
As the terrorist thug who took so many lives stood there, grieving family members expressed their sorrow. But then they verbally told him:

We forgive you.

I don’t know if I would have been capable of such a thing during such a storm.
But even as they cried out, they forgave.

Peace be still!

The miracle is in the justice and love work that people still do while they’re in the storm or down in the depths.

I have no doubt that Mother Emanuel AME Church will continue to be the miracle it has always been, just like Mother Bethel AME in Philly—testifying to a counter-narrative. No doubt that they will testify to the Spirit working its own history of justice, of peace, of reconciliation for American people who have been ostracized, marginalized, and treated as imposters.

We are, and should be appalled by this hate crime. We should mourn with those who mourn and cry out. But as we have been shown by those directly affected by this tragedy, we must also stay in the boat and keep going to the other side. We cannot allow fear to paralyze us or to make us apathetic about things like gun violence and racism.

In short, saying nice words isn’t enough.
We have to act.
We have to make changes TODAY.

When storms like this occur, we are meant to join together with others. We are meant to cooperate, support, stand with, work for justice, replace hate with love, fear with faith, and we are meant to make peace ourselves.

Jesus woke up and expected the disciples to understand that this was their responsibility. They didn’t get it until Jesus himself spoke peace to the storms.

We should all keep in mind that Mark’s Gospel was written to assure people that God was present with them in their sufferings. And it should come as no surprise that this story in a boat follows the mustard seed parable. It’s emphasizing, once again, the freeness of God’s presence, the unlimited, uncontrolled Spirit in the world. And it’s focusing on us–on humans, and how we are afraid of this freeness and this uncontrollable Spirit. We are afraid to let go of control. We are afraid of change.
And sadly, if we grip tightly to that fear, we become obsessed with keeping all that we are afraid to lose—whether status, control, money, power, privilege, etc. We can even go so far as to commit acts of violence against others.

What is racism? Fear. What are acts of terrorism? Cowardly acts.

In Mark’s boat story, faith is letting go of fear–letting go of the belief that everyone in the world is out to get us and so we better control certain people and things in order to survive. Faith is about letting go of this.

And so, as we hear the cries of all those who mourn this tragedy, we must sit and stand with them and join them in their cries. But then, we must act. We must let go of any fears that keep us from fighting against prejudice, and gun violence, and racism and stop making excuses. We must stand up in the boat and say:

ENOUGH! PEACE BE STILL!

We must be the peace we so often hope for and talk about, in spite of the storms.

Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

Generosity Cannot be Measured

Matthew 20:1-16

I have mentioned before that four-year-olds ask the most questions…and constantly. Their brains are built to ask questions, and so they do. As we get older, though, for some reason, we ask less questions.

And sadly, many of us stop asking questions altogether.

But let’s not do that as we read scripture. Let’s ask questions!
Since today is a “parable” day, asking questions becomes even more important. So here we go…

In your opinion, what is justice?

Think about it. Come up with examples or your own definition.

Now, in your perspective, what is generosity?

Now that you’ve thought about it, let’s compare notes.

For me, justice is fairness and equity.

An example: I believe that all people deserve to have food to eat, a place to live, and safety. Justice, then, would be when all people have access to these basic needs—regardless of what needs to happen in order for that to be so.

And now, generosity.

In my perspective, generosity is sharing what one has.

An example: my friend has a garden with some kale growing in it. He shares the kale with me and others. We don’t pay him for it, he just shares it. Generosity.

How did our definitions and examples compare?

And-nowA parable of Jesus of Nazareth from the Gospel of Matthew.

A landowner, some workers.
And generosity redefined.
And justice turned on its head.

This parable story is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn’t it?
It redefines “fairness” and exposes an immeasurable generosity.

In the prodigal son story, the dad shows generosity to the younger son.
In this story, the landowner shows generosity to workers who only labor for a short time.

Of course, in both stories, someone isn’t happy about the generosity.

The older son in the prodigal story is ticked off. He stayed and was loyal to his dad, worked hard, and didn’t squander his dad’s money. The younger son wasted his dad’s resources and messed up. The older son is mad.

In the other story, the workers who labor the whole day are ticked off, too. They stayed the whole time working the land and were paid a day’s wage. The other workers only labored for a few hours and were also paid the same. The all-day workers are mad.

Seems that both the older son and the all-day workers wanted justice—or at least justice as they defined it.

Look at what the landowner in the story asks the workers who are mad:

Are you envious because I am generous?

Again, questions are important.
The landowner’s question is a translation of an idiom in Greek.

The question should be: Is your eye evil because I am good?

In this Greek-speaking culture, the “evil eye” signifies an issue within a human being. Jesus said that the eye was the lamp of the body. If the eye was healthy, the body was full of light. It seems that in this story, the evil eye is the opposite of generosity. Perhaps greed or jealousy.[1]

Imagine if the all-day workers in the story had reacted differently? What if they would have said: We got what we deserved—a day’s pay. And as for these other workers who labored less time than we did—good for them, too. We ourselves are not hurt by the landowner’s generosity, and besides—apparently, the landowner has plenty to spread around.

But that’s not how they responded.

And that’s probably good, because this is the real world.

Most of us react most of the time like the all-day workers.
We want justice [at least our definition of it].

We prefer our justice over someone else’s generosity.

So the point of the parable, at least for me, is to change the question.

The question that we should not be asking is: who deserves this and that, and who doesn’t.

The questions we could be asking are: when and where do I catch a glimpse of generosity without limits? When and where have I experienced this generosity in my life? When and where can I participate in that generosity in the lives of others?

Because let’s be honest: justice is basically a joke.

A lot of people living in the U.S. have jobs and homes and food to eat.
And yet, the world we live in includes all kinds of unfairness for workers and especially immigrants from other countries who come here because of violence, political oppression, poverty, or manipulation.

What is “fair” when there are migrant workers who cut grass and trim hedges; fill assembly lines at factories; clean bathrooms and office complexes; wash dishes at restaurants, all the while looking over their shoulders and receiving the lowest wages?

These workers in service industries are fueling the banks, corporations, and companies of our Western society. They labor so that our technology-obsessed countries can get the newest phone, computer, or TV—or so we can eat any kind of food at any time of day and in a moment. So we argue about minimum wage increases; meanwhile, workers cannot earn above the poverty line while working 2-3 jobs. But if we all work and receive pay accordingly, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that justice?

No, it’s not.

In a just world, things would be better than they actually are, and for everyone, right?

The Jesus of Matthew does not ignore the unjust nature of the world.
Some who deserve a full day’s wage do not get it.
Others who deserve the same actually receive a TON more than they should.

This is why the world is out of balance.

And so, the last need to be first and the first need to be last.
Everyone needs to return to balance.

But that will take a serious overhaul!

We’re not given a solution in the parable, but we are given a hint.
Generosity without limits.

The landowner, who obviously represents God, shows generosity without measure. Everyone gets a full day’s wage—regardless of where they started or ended up. Anyone disadvantaged still receives the same opportunities as those who began with advantages. Wow, can you imagine if this actually were true in the world?

If there were equity, for every person, regardless of where and how she/he grew up?

This type of great generosity of the landowner [God] seems so beyond our human capabilities, right?
However, maybe generosity holds to the key to justice.

Because I admit to having experiences in my own life in which someone showed me generosity that was too big to understand. I didn’t even ask for help or support, but I received it and so much so, that it overwhelmed me. That handful of people appeared in my life and then disappeared. They did not ask for anything in return. They just gave to me—whether it was money, or time, or kindness, or some talent that they could pass on. I cannot measure their generosity.

It changed me.

And I’ll never pay them back.

So I have and will pay it forward.

This is where, to me, generosity spills over into justice.
When generosity is not measured or controlled it can have a ripple effect.

When someone is the recipient of true generosity, that generosity spills over and out of that person and into the lives of others.
And generosity can bring balance.

Friends, we can spend our whole lives making a list of the crap that people have done to us or said about us, or the ways that society has hurt us, etc., etc. We can try to “measure” justice and come up with what is “right” and “wrong” and who deserves this or that.

But it will just cause us more suffering.

Generosity, though, isn’t measured.
It’s not limited.
And it can spill over into justice.

We started with questions; I end with one:

Will generosity flow out of you into justice?

[1] Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies, Messiah College, Grantham, PA, Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

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