Archive for January, 2011

I Will Make you…What?

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

January 23, 2011
Matthew 4:12-23
Mary Hammond

One of the most compelling moments of President Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Service last week came as he spoke of the youngest shooting victim, nine-year old Christina Taylor Green. She reminded me too much of a couple of my own children at the age of 9: completely fascinated by politics like Sarah; buoyant and upbeat like Rachel. Christina exemplified the innocence and trust of children, exploring the world around them with joy, wonder, and promise.

The President challenged all of us to honor the dreams of children like Christina by seeking to live up to her best hopes for our nation. Who will carry on this little girl’s dreams for a better world? Will it be you and me? Will we conduct ourselves with more civility and treat others the way we want to be treated in the political sphere? These are the questions that penetrated my soul during the President’s speech.

When evil acts snuff out or attempt to snuff out the dreams and promise of a life, a void is created that yearns to be filled. Who will take up the mantle and do that?

The Gospel of Matthew reports this sequence of events: “When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee.” With his cousin in prison, Jesus has a lot to think about: ‘Herod went after John…am I next? Is it time for me to pick up where John left off?’

Jesus makes a strategic move, leaving his hometown of Nazareth and heading to Capernaum, located in the territory ruled by the very king that put John in prison. It’s a bold move. Fishing there along the Sea of Galilee is big business. In ancient Israel under Roman occupation, this is not free enterprise, though, as our western constructs might lead us to assume. Instead, it is state-sponsored labor. Run by families and cooperatives, it supports the greater structure of the Empire and those who benefit most from that structure. A complex, crushing system of tariffs, tolls, and taxes keeps the peasants oppressed while feeding the coffers of the elites (for more information, see http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html).

Jesus’ simple invitation to “Come, and follow me” is enough for four fishermen, working at the sea. I’m always flabbergasted by that, because I didn’t drop my studies and jump into Jesus’ boat when I felt him calling me at the tender age of 18. I thought it over for a couple weeks before casting my net with him. Months earlier, rather rusty in the praying department, I even bargained with God because I really really wanted to win a concerto competition at college. When I did win, I promptly forgot my bargain, even though God did not.

Why do you think these four fishermen respond so immediately? [Congregational reflection] They see something in Jesus that they cannot resist, even though they don’t understand what he is about and won’t, really, for a long time.

And why doesn’t Zebedee come along? Is he too tied to his family responsibilities, too attached to the fishing business? Or does he surrender enough when he releases his sons from their tasks to follow this itinerant preacher?

Jesus promises to make Simon, Andrew, James, and John “fishers of men and women,” a phrase that sometimes makes us cringe in the ways it has been appropriated over the centuries. Sadly, many of us have seen it used to collect souls for Jesus, putting more emphasis on counting warm bodies than counting the cost of discipleship.

There is another way to understand this invitation, though. Jesus takes what is most fundamental to the sense of self and purpose that these fishermen experience. He uses and transforms that in ways they never previously imagined.

My dad always envisioned me as a concertizing pianist when I grew up. He was always “generically supportive” of my adult decisions, because I was his kid, and he loved me. Yet, I knew that, in his heart, he was disappointed that I didn’t do more with my music, after thousands of hours filled with practicing, lessons, rehearsals, competitions, recitals, and performance degrees, beginning at the age of 5 and culminating at the age of 23. In fact, he chauffeured me to a lot of those and shelled out significant sums of money in the process.

Sometimes the paths we take cause tension within our families. Sometimes that tension evokes questioning and self-doubt in our own lives. One day when I was pondering these issues, I saw Jesus’ call to the fishermen at the Sea of Galilee in an entirely new light. It was as if Jesus pulled me away from my Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, tugged at my piano-playing sleeve, and said, “Mary, come, follow me. We will make a different kind of music together—the music of Christian community.”

Gradually, I began to frame one understanding of my pastoral role as that of an orchestra conductor. Here we are together today–the orchestra! It’s a dynamic organism, this orchestra of Christian community. New players come along. Old ones retire or move. Some arrive who have been playing a long time in other orchestras. They know the music by heart. Others have never played before, and they need to start with the basics. Some count in rhythm, and others have trouble sensing the beat. They may feel a little ‘off kilter’ in Christian community.

The seasoned players teach the new ones. Some instruments are quiet and melodious like flutes; others loud and forceful like tubas; still others sweet and compelling like violins. Some are distinct and noticeable whenever the orchestra plays; others blend in and almost remain unnoticed. Yet, their part is just as important to the whole as those of the stronger and louder
instruments.

Just when the conductor gets the orchestra playing together in harmony, in comes an enthusiastic beginner who needs to learn their instrument, or the tuba gets carried away, the violin is a tad out of tune, or the oboe had an emergency and couldn’t make the rehearsal. Every day is a new adventure!

With every challenge that arises, the music we make together in this amazing Christian community is heavenly. It is beautiful , profound, and unforgettable. No two performances are exactly the same. It is virtually impossible to get bored. Compositions are continually being learned, and we are writing new ones even as we gather together today.

When Jesus called men and women long ago, saying, “Come and follow me,” he didn’t offer them a list of doctrines, rules, and instructions. He invited them into the Realm of God, the government of God, when all the governments they had known before favored the rich over the poor, the elite over the commoner, the powerful over the vulnerable. He invited them into the Orchestra of God and said, “Come, make music with me!”

I do not believe that we are called once and that is that. If we are listening, we will discern numerous moments of “call” in our lives. We may be called to a new vocation, to care for a dying family member, to run for public office, to take better care of ourselves, to open our hearts in new ways. We may be called to lay down a pesky habit that has torpedoed our growth, or face a wound that has festered too long beneath the surface of our lives. Every day we are called to choose hope amid despair, faith amid doubt, trust amid confusion.

As we prepare to take up the Offering, I invite you to enter into a time of reflection on the callings of God in your own life. Where is Jesus saying to you, “Come to me, just as you are, with all your strengths and limitations, questions and struggles. Come, make music with me. Let’s see together where this journey takes us!” Amen.

Until Justice Rolls Down

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Carol Hunger
King Sunday 2011
Amos 4:4-24, John 8:31,32

It’s good to be here… One never knows where an offer of help will land one! It’s an honor to be asked to put together thoughts on something I care very deeply about.…legacy of ML King and civil rights movement, Jesus, justice, and how we are to live…

Some of us here can’t remember life without a King Day— this is the 25th year of national celebrations of King Day, (it was passed in 1983, but first celebrated as a national holiday in 1986). Some of us are old enough to have remembered the controversies and the excitement of our first national holiday to specifically honor someone who was neither a war hero, nor a president, nor white. The holiday remains a bit of an anomaly, however—we have “traditions” that tell us how we are supposed to celebrate most holidays: Christmas we are supposed to buy presents and the Fourth of July we are supposed to buy fireworks and Memorial Day we are supposed to buy food for cookouts and head to the lake. But King Day is different. For one, (rather remarkably) the economy hasn’t figured out yet how to consistently make money from it—Several southern states still include celebrations for various Confederate heroes (or like SC allow people to choose among several options which holiday to celebrate) while Utah calls it Human Rights Day. It took a tourist boycott of Arizona to convince that state to approve the holiday. I returned from Christmas in Philadelphia where posters everywhere encourage people to celebrate King day as a day of service. The Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service is apparently the largest event honoring King, but it also suggests a taming of the transformative fires of justice which required a willingness to risk arrest, jail and death as part of civil rights activism. We’re left with the irony that King Day is the federal holiday most shaped by states rights and local custom. So is King day a free for all to remember or not as one wishes? The original proclamation, (long forgotten) sets out a rather clear purpose for the day: “Let all Americans of every race and creed and color work together to build in this blessed land a shining city of brotherhood, justice, and harmony.” Sexist language aside, are we doing this? Can we build justice and harmony out of one holiday, while waging war overseas and war against the poor of this country 365 days a year, while justifying the use of torture and eroding civil liberties, while protecting corporate greed and tax cuts for the super wealthy? Certainly this mandate shapes the holiday in some very specific ways; but not ones we as a country are particularly practiced in doing. So here’s the challenge… I want to connect the words of those two prophets, Amos and ML King with a bit of what I know about US history and where we are today in such a way that we can develop strategies to live out God’s ideas of justice in building that shining city.

How many of you have visited the civil rights memorial built at the Southern Poverty Law Center headquarters in Alabama where the Amos verse we read today is carved in granite on a 10 foot wall? Created by Maya Lin, the same woman who designed the Vietnam memorial, it features an elegant, round, black marble table etched with the names of those who died from 1954-1968 in the struggle for freedom (38 names) Behind this is a huge wall with the words …”until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The words are attributed to King on the wall—King of course knew full well he was quoting Amos—King’s full sentence which is taken from his famous 1963 March on Washington speech commonly referred to as “I have a dream speech” is “We will not be satisfied…until justice rolls down like water… King understood well the context of the prophet—look again at what has Amos so upset: v.7 There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground; v 10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in the court and detest the one who tells the truth (why is truth teller PFC Bradley Manning in solitary?) v. 11 You levy a tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain//livelihood. (US taxes work income (how we make a living) at two and three times what it taxes income from wealth—capital gains etc., which is why billionaire Warren Buffet pays 17% tax rate and his receptionist pays 30%) Therefore though you have built stone mansions you will not live in them (Perhaps the mortgage is more than the house is worth) v.12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in courts ( in the US today 20% have no access to justice; and of those who do, wealth and race are significantly correlated with arrest, sentencing and time served (World Justice Project “Rule of law index” )). And the admonition that follows “seek good, not evil, that you may live” comes with a rather startling condition. THEN God will be with you, just as you say he is. i.e. you are deceiving yourself by proclaiming God is with you if you are not doing justice. The point is repeated in v 15 in case anyone missed it “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” Followed by yet another striking conditional. PERHAPS God will have mercy on the remnant. These folks are in trouble

Note especially the prophetic, repeated calls to justice, particularly in the so-called justice system, the courts. Both prophets, Amos and King named the injustices they saw and called their people to address them, King perhaps most eloquently in his 1967 address to Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church called “A Time to Break Silence.” After outlining his seven reasons for speaking out against the war in Vietnam, and five concrete steps to take, he places the war in a larger context, calling it “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit…” He exhorts “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” He goes on to say “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. …A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. (King saw only the tip of the iceberg here. Between 1979 and 2005, the after-tax income for the top 1% increased by 176%, compared to an increase of 6% for the bottom quintile.[23] King continued: With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “this is not just.”” A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” And he concludes in a line frequently quoted in peace circles, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But always the pastor, he reminds his listeners, even today, we have a choice: “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” And as his often did, this message closed with his quoting two full verses of the James Russell Lowell hymn that meant so much to him: Once to every [soul] and nation comes the moment to decide…”

So how do we celebrate this holiday to make it one that fulfills King’s “until justice rolls down? Just as King put war in the context of a greater national malady, so I would like to put King’s words in a larger context of US history in order to better understand why this issue of the need for justice has remained so persistent a theme. I’m limiting myself to three all too briefly exposited examples: the revolution, civil war and the civil rights movement… In each of these pivotal points in history, the dominant narrative handed to us is that freedom moved forward. But… does the movement pass the Amos test? Does justice roll down?

Our country had the misfortune to be part of a global colonization movement by Europe that had at its economic basis, for the first time in world history, racialized slavery. Slavery as you know is as old as the Bible, but slavery based on race and African ancestry became the norm in the 17th century for a whole complex of reasons. The legacy of racialized slavery, that is, structural and personal racism, is clearly not the only injustice in this country—King you remembered identified triplets—implying they were born together and grew up together. His triplets are racism, militarism and materialism and their interconnectedness is as old in this country as the American Revolution and the writing of the constitution.

Now I know the political rifts in this country are so extreme that it seems only the pundits can offer us a modicum of sanity, but did you catch that the Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on how to read the constitution? The Republicans red what is in force now. The Democrats complained that they should have read the full original text—which includes amended gems like the 3/5 compromise (slaves count as 3/5 of a human for purposes of taxation and population ) a fugitive slave law and protection for the importation of slaves (all without using the word slave—it was persons bonded to service) The Republicans argue slavery is over—it’s not an issue now; how can we move forward if we stay stuck in the past?

Well the answer to that certainly depends on how you remember the past. For many of us the American Revolution is a glorious tale of the underdog upsetting the might of empire in a successful bid for freedom and independence from British tyranny. But let’s look at the triplets. Clearly racism is present both as institutionalized racialized slavery and as the proscriptions it placed on free blacks in the colonies. Racism is also present in the important but seldom remembered fact that our first naturalization act made being a “free white” a requirement for citizenship. Militarism is rampant and celebrated –our founding story sets us as a nation on the path to believing good things come from violence—we won our freedom and independence by fighting for it. We of course are not encouraged to ask are we any freer than our neighbors to the north in Canada who didn’t fight a war with England? The third triplet, materialism, tends not to draw attention to itself—but it is no less strong. It’s buried in stories of land speculation in places like here in Ohio (Geo Washington was one of them) and anger against the British proclamation line preventing land speculation and settlement west of the Appalachian mountains; It’s buried in forgetting that the hated sugar and tea taxes were ones that only the wealthy paid since those commodities were not ones the poor could afford; it’s buried in John Locke’s, “life, liberty and property” with slaves as the most valuable property of the colonies, leading the founders to write a constitution that sanctioned slavery, even though in the revolutions that followed by other colonies in the New World, (mostly against Spain) slavery was consistently outlawed. (and a constitution that in spite of Abigail Adam’s pleas, did not “remember the ladies” but then King’s triplets would become quadruplets and that’s another sermon!) And finally, materialism (as King gently called greed and capitalism) is buried in the fact that after opposing Britain’s taxes to pay for the French and Indian Wars, the new nation passed regressive taxes on the poor to pay for the Revolution and left many veterans unpaid. So, did the revolution and constitution, as sacred as they are in American memory, pass the Amos test of letting justice roll down?

Ah, but there was the Civil War—didn’t that correct the injustice, at least the injustice of slavery? How one remembers the civil war, or even whether you call it by that name, depends a lot still on what part of the country you were raised in. But it is probably safe to say that the dominant memory acknowledges the war as yet another important marker in our nation’s story of freedom. In 1863 Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation moves freedom forward and all slaves in states in rebellion to the US are set free. Like much progress in this country, it’s a strategic war measure, but it is also a step in the right direction. Two years later the 13th amendment eliminates slavery (except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted) nevertheless, Freedom bells are ringing. But did the years known as Reconstruction and following pass the Amos test? Was there justice for the former slaves in the reign of terror started with the founding of the KKK, lynching with impunity, or the passage of the so called black codes, which by the end of the century had been codified into national law in the Plessy decision (1896) as legalized segregation, or in the overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 a mere eight years after its passage, or in confining the majority of freed people to a debt peonage as tenant farmers and share croppers, rather than offering public lands for self sustaining farms as some small reparations for years of building the nation’s economy for free? Yes, the slaves are free, but did the country pass the Amos test? Did justice roll down?

50 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, the nation went all out appropriating millions of dollars to pay for a national “Peace Jubilee” to be held on the Gettysburg battleground. President Woodrow Wilson flanked by a still living Confederate and a Union soldier spoke effusively, saying, (and I quote) “How wholesome and healing the peace has been . We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer,…the quarrel forgotten except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another… The Quarrel? forgotten? A quarrel that cost 600,000 lives in a population of 30 million? A quarrel that ultimately hinged on whether humans could be held as property or were free? The nation was united and life could go on. No matter that NO black veterans were invited, in spite of the fact that numerous respected historians have suggested that the union was saved only because of the presence of black soldiers and the self emancipated slaves known as contraband who did much of the manual labor of hauling supplies and digging trenches for the Union army. No matter that this country couldn’t pass an anti lynching law. Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” re-conceptualizing the nation without its original sin of slavery, a reconstructed nation based on birthright and equal citizenship was trumped by the so-called “reconciliationist vision” (let’s forgive and forget and be reunited as a nation and go on to new and better things) But it was the few, mostly African Americans, along with a minority of whites who understood the need for a major transformation of the nation, a “revolution of values” as King called it, “to save the soul of America” as SCLC’s mission states, who truly understood “injustice for one is injustice for all,” that made possible the civil rights movement of the 20th century ending legal segregation and extending voting rights.

So in the 1960s, we as a nation made another advance for freedom and struck down the American system of legalized apartheid and put in
place a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act and President Johnson declared war on poverty and it looked for a shining moment like justice might really be served and then someone got the idea that that Ho Chi Minh who had appealed to the US for help on the basis of our own Declaration of Independence was a communist threat to the US that had to be stopped, and someone got the idea that with all those riots breaking out in northern cities and with Native Americans, Chicanos, women and gays all clamoring for rights in the 1970s that maybe it was time for some good old fashioned law and order and so we started building a prison industrial complex, the likes of which the world has never seen. The US with 5% of the world’s population now houses 25% of the whole world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate is 40% higher than our nearest competitors, (Belarus and Russia) “Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens.” (Glen Loury, Race, Incarceration and American Values p 5) And as most of you are aware, the prison system embodies the greatest racial disparity of any arena of American life today. Blacks may be twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and have only 1/5 the wealth of whites, but while the incarceration rate for young whites is ~1 in 67) the incarceration rate for young blacks (in 2000) was a staggering 1 in 9. Almost 8 times more!! Among black male high school dropouts age 24-40, 1 in 3 were locked up on any given day in 2000. (Loury, 23), Locked up—out of sight, out of mind…Just as few attending the Gettysburg 50th anniversary commemoration missed the African Americans, few today are commenting on the missing African Americans 50 years after the civil rights movement brought an end to legal segregation. Justice is being denied in the courts. Is anyone hearing Amos?

And just as blinded people of good will, believed one could have democracy and slavery at the time of the Constitution, or that the Civil War brought unity, a blinded people have believed that the civil rights movement brought equality.
The revolution, emancipation and the civil rights movement, each remembered as an advance for freedom were also each undercut by a failure to combine freedom with justice. Freedom, like democracy, is one of those powerful and signifying words in US oratory, a national holy word. But we use it in inconsistent ways, depending on who’s using it. For the old North Carolina regulators, many of them Baptist and Quakers, one aspect of freedom was freedom from paying taxes to the established Anglican Church. For others at the time of the Revolution it was freedom to make money without British regulation. And not surprisingly, African Americans heard the language as freedom from slavery and second class citizenship and women heard it as freedom from male hegemony. Both north and south during the war between the states claimed they were fighting for freedom— one meaning freedom from federal tyranny; the other freedom from slavery. Both sang a popular tune called the “Battle Cry of Freedom” but one sang “down with the traitor up with the star; the other down with the eagle up with the cross….a sentiment that those of us with relationship to Christianity ought to take very seriously in these days of anti-government tea partiers and Christian right politics. Those most closely involved in the civil rights movement always framed it as a freedom struggle. Their songs are full of freedom language, as are the books written about the movement. Freedom language permeates the current war: we fight to preserve our freedoms, we fight for the freedom of others from dictatorship—the whole invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom…and we hear corporations fighting for freedom from tyrannical governmental control and oversight…

John reminds us you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. What is this truth that bring true freedom? The truth embodied in Jesus, the one who taught “love your neighbor as yourself,” and your neighbor is the one in need even if your culture teaches you otherwise, the one who taught the measure of a community is how it treats the least among it. In other words, freedom, to be truly freeing, must be linked with justice. False freedom comes at someone else’s expense and with the suppression of truth and our country has had too much false freedom. (King’s “How Long?” speech) In King’s language, the triplets of racism, materialism and militarism will never be conquered until human values are more important than property values. The freedom of slaveholders was a false freedom—it offered freedom from manual labor and the freedom to accumulate wealth; but a freedom that made masters slaves to fear—the fear of slave insurrection and slave rebellion. The freedom of materialism and wealth is a false freedom—one can buy freedom from many of the discomforts of this world, but if it comes at the expense of exploited workers who don’t know any comfort, and are living with inadequate housing and health care, it is not a true freedom. The freedom of militarism is a delusion of power and a false promise of security. King nailed this when he called the US “strange liberators” of Vietnam as he named poisoned water, millions of acres of crops napalmed and destroyed, villages burned, and spoke of how we were making enemies in the world, not creating a safer world. Militarism is indeed a false freedom.

True freedom comes with justice. Our country is not yet truly free because justice is not rolling down. When both prophets (Amos and Martin) in their oratory rise to the crescendo of “let justice roll down like water,” the image is not God pouring justice down like a magic elixir, it is clear that God, Amos and King expect changed behavior on a massive scale, King’s revolution of values. We are responsible for creating justice, by living justly and establishing and maintaining just institutions. Those who want to believe this country is Christian would do well to heed Amos’s warning about the conditions under which God promises “I will be with you.”

How do we celebrate this holiday to make it one that fulfills King’s “until justice rolls down?” We make justice as holy a word in the national lexicon as freedom. We insure that when we are working for freedom, we are working for true freedom, not a false or exploitive freedom. King reminds us that “if we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.” (“A time to break silence”)

May we go forth to change King’s poignant “until” to a resounding “because.” May we live to see the day when we, and Amos, and King, and even God will be satisfied BECAUSE “Justice is rolling down like waters.”