Archive for Justice

Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

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Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.

2015 Lent 15

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by timtrue

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Jeremiah 5:1-9

Speaking of his people, the Israelites, God tells Jeremiah (among other things), “They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.  Shall I not punish them for these things?” (vv. 8-9).

How do we humans get to this point?  And here I don’t mean just the particular sin of adultery, but acting well-fed and lusty, more like beasts than humans.  How do we get so fixated on our own passions that we lose all sense of rationality–the characteristic above all others that distinguishes humans from beasts?

A few days ago I wrote about an old high school friend who’d recently spent some time in jail for doing things he and I had never dreamed of doing in high school.  How did he get to the point where he either doesn’t value or care about the law–or even himself?

Then two days ago I explored an issue I really don’t know much about but nonetheless recognize as a horrible injustice: human trafficking.  How do humans become so calloused to the dignity of other human beings that they end up perpetrating such injustice?

How do we humans reach a point of such brazen disregard for God and humanity?

And then there’s this: when others do such things, oh, then it’s clearly, definitively, black-and-whitely wrong; but when I engage in them, somehow it’s all okay–or at least not so identifiably wrong.  When my opponent lies it’s, “No way!  Did you hear that malicious slander?”  But when I lie it’s, “Oh, come on; I was just bending the truth a little bit.”

It’s beastly.  It’s lusty.  It’s irrational.

I don’t know how we get to this point, exactly; but we do.  And when we do we have a knack for convincing ourselves that, somehow, in my case it’s not so bad as it seems, really.  It’s my story, we tell ourselves, and so I’m the only one who really understands it.

To which I say, yes, it is your story.  And, yes, you’re in the midst of it.  So it feels justifiable.  But have you tried to remove yourself from it, to step outside of your own narcissism for a few and look at it from an outsider’s point of view?  Maybe then it will look a little less justifiable.  Yes, no one else really understands.  Maybe you don’t really understand either.

Whatever the case, the truly loving person is the one who comes along, sees the wrong, and cares for the wrongdoer anyway.  The loving one sympathizes, sees through the wrong, finds the dignity, and even advocates, arguing on the wrongdoer’s behalf if need be.

Doing so–sympathizing, seeing through and beyond the wrong, advocating–doesn’t mean the loving one condones the sin.  A parent still loves her eight year-old after discovering a stolen teddy bear in her bed.  A loving parent sympathizes and advocates without condoning the act.

But neither does the loving one want harm to come upon the wrongdoer: what loving mother would allow harm to come to her thieving daughter?

Loving discipline requires much wisdom, wisdom that is rational.

And here is the true tension between justice and mercy: wise, loving discipline.

This tension, though, is not a dichotomy: either justice or mercy.  Rather, with love, it’s both justice and mercy.

Surely Jeremiah understood this tension.  Which is why he advocates, even to the point of arguing with God.

Surely we rational humans understand this tension too.  Which is why a loving mother disciplines her daughter appropriately.

So, to bring it back home, how do we get there?  I don’t really know, as I already said.  But maybe, it seems to me anyway, the trouble comes when set aside our self-discipline, when we allow our beastly passions to trump our rational humanity.

2015 Lent 2

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by timtrue

Israelites

Deuteronomy 7:6-11

Yesterday I suggested it’s okay to argue with God.

One of the modern-day arguments our culture takes up with God is his apparent exclusivity in the Old Testament.  The Israelites are God’s chosen people.  So where does that leave the Canaanites, the Jebusites, the Hittites, and all the other -ites that oppose the Israelites?  Well, it means destruction for them, according to the Old Testament anyway.  The walls of Jericho come tumbling down, remember; and the Israelites attack, totally razing the city.  (Except for that prostitute Rahab and her family.  What’s that all about?)

The argument goes that, since the same God who loves Israel exclusively also brings destruction upon all the opposing nations, God therefore cannot be a good and loving God.

Or at least the God of the Old Testament can’t.

Which conflicts with the God of the New Testament.

And the God of Islam.

Etc.

So today I want to argue with the arguers.

Take yourself out of our postmodern mindsets, in which world peace is an ideal that we can actually imagine; in which pluralistic cultures are a daily reality; in which getting along with a neighbor regardless of beliefs and opinions is a necessity, and try to see things through the eyes of an ancient Israelite.

Here was a people wandering through an arid, hot, and dry wilderness.  They had only recently escaped the oppressive and heavy hand of slavery; not by their own powers either, but miraculously. Now they continued in their dependence on God for daily sustenance.  And out here in the wilderness they were hemmed in on all sides by hostile nations, xenophobic nations, prejudiced nations, exclusive nations.

No way the Israelites could ever have begun to imagine our postmodern ideal of world peace.  They continually worried for their own continued existence.

How wonderful, then, to be a people lovingly and protectively cared for by a strong God.  Their God–exclusive or not–was their only hope for overcoming the pervasive fear they dealt with on a daily basis.

Besides, that the Israelites viewed God as exclusive doesn’t mean that we have to.

That’s NOT not Fair!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]

“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”

McDonough’s right.  We know abundance.  And we feel as if we’ve earned it.  But we are glutting ourselves on it.

It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food.  It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons.  It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.

In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese.  We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient.  We want more.  We hoard.  And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.

Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history.  Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea.  Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!

Complaining?  Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery?  Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways?  Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey?  And they’re complaining?  Already?

Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining.  “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.  We’re hungry!”  The whole congregation, in fact!  Despite God’s demonstrated generosity!  And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!

So what does God do?  Does God say: “Fine!  Forget it!  I’m walking away.  I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to.  I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?

No, that’s not what God does at all.  Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.

But there’s a catch.  The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more.  Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday.  But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread.  They are not to hoard.

Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway.  They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration.  Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.

What’s going on here?

These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation.  Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.

But what happens?

When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.

And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more.  “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”

In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.

Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day.  And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.

Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.

And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.

Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday.  But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.

Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble.  “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat.  They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day.  Yet you paid them the same as us.  What is this?  That’s not fair!”

And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we?  “Yeah,” we say.  “You know, those grumblers have a point.  That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it.  What’s Jesus playing at?”

But, remember, we live in America.  We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information.  We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity.  This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.

But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.

Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable?  Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?

I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me.  And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.

But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has.  And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!”  I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.

Or I’m like the workers in the parable.  “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask.  “That’s not fair!  I work so much harder than she does!”  I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.

But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity.  We say, “That’s not fair!  That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person.  But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.

Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This question is what Jesus is playing at.

These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair.  After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God is asking us the same.  We see our world through the eyes of our times.  Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture.  And God has been generous to our culture.  But when does our desire for fairness become envy?

We are citizens of a new kingdom.  It’s time to search our consciences.  Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views.  And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?

__________________________________________

[i]               Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place.  Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/

God’s Christmas Gift to the World

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on December 25, 2013 by timtrue
English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Isaiah 9:2-7

Merry Christmas!

This morning I’d like to offer some thoughts about God’s gift to us, his Son, Jesus Christ, from the reading we heard from Isaiah.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” it begins; “those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

There is a contrast here between darkness and light.  What does this contrast represent?

Twenty years ago I would have said that the darkness here represents people who know nothing of Christ.  The Jews, to whom this passage was first written, why, they knew nothing of Christ because they had lived before his time.  As for the Gentiles all around them, well, they obviously knew nothing of Christ either: they weren’t God’s chosen people, the people through whom God would redeem the world.

Also, so my reasoning went, there are many people in our world today who do not know Christ.  Just think of all the world religions that claim that he is only a good teacher and not the Savior of the world.  These, I said, are the people in darkness today.  They need a light.  And that light is Christ.

So, twenty years ago, in my youthful zeal to serve God—not to mention in my youthful conviction that I had unlocked secret truths of the scriptures—I was ready to sell all my worldly possessions and move to Botswana, or Myanmar, or China, or Russia; to somewhere, anywhere, that was in need of Christ’s soul-saving light.

Fortunately, Holly wasn’t ready to make such a move with me.  She keeps me grounded.

Now, however true all that stuff may be—that there are many places in the world that could benefit from the soul-saving light of Christ—twenty years later I see that this is not what Isaiah is saying after all.  Not at all!  For the rest of the passage—even all that familiar stuff we hear sung year after year in Handel’s Messiah—is all about politics.

Listen to just a sampling of phrases:

  • “You [i. e., God] have multiplied the nation”—Isaiah was addressing a national issue, not just one about an individual’s salvation from sins.
  • “They rejoice . . . as people exult when dividing plunder”—plunder is the wealth that comes from military victory.
  • “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken”—yoke, bar, rod, burden, oppressor: these are words conveying slavery.

This whole passage is politically charged.  It is about a specific kind of liberation: not about one individual being freed from his or her own sins, but about one nation being freed from the domination of another, like when God freed the nation of Israel from the oppression of Midian.

Remember that story?  It involved a certain judge named Gideon.  The nation of Midian—a distant relative of Israel in fact—was bullying Israel.  Israel would plant crops.  And just when the crops were ready for harvest, numerous Midianite troops would move onto the Israelite fields, consume the crops for their own purposes, and trample what was left over.  In this way the people of Israel went hungry and cried out to God.  He raised up for them a judge named Gideon who miraculously delivered Israel from the bully Midian’s hand.  Read all about it in Judges 6-8.

Point is, this is the type of deliverance from oppression Isaiah is talking about.  It’s corporate.  It’s relational.  It involves one society against another.  It’s not individual—as I once believed, and as a good part of evangelical America believes today.

So, what are we supposed to do with this information?  Isaiah tells us that Christ came into the world to deliver one nation from the oppressive rule of another.

That mold certainly fit with what was going on in Jesus’s day.  The strong and mighty Romans ruled far and wide.  The ragtag Jewish nation in Palestine felt Rome’s presence continually.  They longed for deliverance, for the day when once again there would be a king like David, a man after God’s own heart, on the throne, ruling with justice, peace, and righteousness.  It was a nice dream for them, sure!

But what about for us?  We live in a day, by and large anyway, when nations cooperate with one another.  America doesn’t overwhelm, suffocate, and suppress other nations.  What does Isaiah’s Christmas message have to do with us?

I remind you, this is a good problem.  It wasn’t so long ago that a political man was trying to establish a world-wide tyranny.  That man’s name was Adolf Hitler, and he liked to refer to himself at the Kaiser.  Kaiser, by the way, is the German derivative of Caesar, itself an idiom for emperor.  Adolf Hitler fashioned himself as emperor of the world.  The world has made a lot of progress since WWII—progress for which I am grateful, and progress to which I give Christ all the credit.

But what we see here, in a word, is injustice.  God’s gift to the world, according to Isaiah, is to bring justice where it is lacking.  And regardless of whatever else we can say about our world today, there’s more than enough injustice.

Injustice happens at global levels, as it did with the Roman Empire, and as it did during WWII.

But it happens at smaller levels too.  This word we’ve heard several times today, nation, gets translated into English in other ways.  It can also mean people—as in, my people and your people—or race, or tribe, or clan, or even family.  Does injustice ever happen at these levels, between peoples, between races, between tribes, between clans, between families?  Let’s take it a step further.  Does injustice happen between individuals?

Of course it does!  And putting a stop to this—to injustice at every level—is God’s Christmas gift to us.  Shouldn’t you give the same gift whenever and wherever you are able?  It doesn’t matter if you live in Botswana, Myanmar, China, Russia, or right here in San Antonio.  Spread the Christmas gift of justice whenever and wherever you find it lacking; and in doing so you will spread God’s Christmas gift to the world.