Sunday, November 28, 2010

In the Mind of Christ

I want to read to you something from the second chapter of Philippians: "Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross."

I am so glad that we can gather on this day and that it is raining! And I'm so thankful to my brother (Rev. Holsey Hickman) for talking about all the greed in the world. And I want us now to look inward. I want to think about what's happening in us, with what goes on with our own egos, to try to make a name for ourselves, to try to get ahead of others, to always ask, 'what's in it for me?' And instead, Paul says to be imitators of Christ, but we can't ever be imitators of Christ. All we can be is in the mind of Christ. That's the state of being in which we belong. It's a state of being that Paul tells us about where Jesus emptied himself. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, it's an "evacuation of the ego" to make room for the ego eimi (γώ εμι), the great "I Am." So as we leave this place, think about that "Great I Am" being within us, supporting what we do in the name of Jesus, not in the name of Diana, or Ruben, or Mark or Mae Jean or Trish, but in the name of Jesus.

Let us pray:

Oh, God, you are our God in ages past and our hope for years to come, even on this bad Friday that we now know is good. That you teach us that walking through the cruelty and the horrific experiences of life will not destroy what you have given us, but will take us through into the future on Sunday. Help us to remember those who need your help, and help us to do more than just talk. Help us to get on the phone to give a word of encouragement. Help us to write a letter this afternoon to state what we think is important for our country. God, be in our actions, in our state of being, in your mind, and we will give you the thanks and the praise. In Jesus' name, AMEN.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thoughts on Labor Day 2010

Ed Middleton has been the pastor of First Community Church of Dallas, an Open and Affirming, Just Peace congregation of the United Church of Christ, for the past thirteen years. He is a North Carolina native having graduated from Gardner-Webb College and Southeastern Theological Seminary both Baptist institutions. Ed is a member of the local Jobs with Justice Worker's Rights group, board member of the English Language Ministry, and has worked with the Human Rights Campaign in Dallas. He is married to Christine Sekerke and has three daughters.

It was the summer of 1972, decades ago, and yet not as long ago as some like to think. A textile worker sat at her sewing machine experiencing great discomfort. She was eight plus months pregnant on a 94 degree morning when her water broke. There were still three hours left on her morning shift, and she had agreed to pull a double shift beginning at11 p.m. later that day, ending at 3 p.m. the next day.

As she limped from the plant that morning in route to the hospital, her supervisor warned her, "If you don't have that baby and get back here by eleven tonight, don't expect to have a job when you return."

She did have that baby and at 11p.m. that evening she was sitting at her machine determined to pull a sixteen hour double-shift in order to save her job.

I have shared that story in sermons past and it never fails that someone asks me its locus. I report that it happened in a textile plant in southeastern North Carolina. It was not an exception to the rule, rather it was typical of the systemic inhumanity manifested in industrial plants across Flannery O'Connor's Christ haunted, but never Christ centered, south.

Company supervisors sat in pews with plant employees many Sunday mornings singing the pious songs of Zion, while pastors preached against alcohol, adultery, card playing, dancing, and gossiping. Deacons and Benevolence committees talked about how to help the poor at Christmas, but never was a word spoken about how a worker was worthy of his or her hire and deserved to be paid appropriately for her or his labor.

Civil observances regularly intruded upon the liturgical seasons with special Sundays like: Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July (Patriotic) Sunday, Community Thanksgiving service. Hardly ever was time taken on Labor Day to pay homage to workers, and never was anything said publicly about the determined workers across the decades who risked their lives to stand up for fairness in the work place.

There are many reasons for the conspiracy of silence that prevails throughout the American church when it comes to worker's justice. I believe that pastors, parishioners, church bureaucrats, church stock portfolios, and clergy pension stock portfolios are part of the enmeshment that is a way of life in most churches. We dare not get political in any way that threatens our already tenuous position in society, or our privilege. We also believe in the economic system because debate regarding alternatives has been suppressed time and again.

It is also true that most of us use what little time we have to think trying to figure out this love/hate relationship we have with work. We were raised in a culture still blessed or tormented (you can decide for yourself which one it is) by the protestant work ethic. Therefore some of us find our self worth bound up with work and how far we can rise in the system.

This has translated, I believe, into the consumeristic furor of the past three decades. I've got more stuff than you; I must be better. My stock portfolio is thicker than yours; I must be more righteous than you. I work smarter, harder, better. See, I'm a person of quality, a true American Christian. Now I can feel good about myself.

We've bought thousands of self-help books, taken courses on line, attended retreats with the latest spiritual guru (who, no doubt, will end up on a PBS fundraising program), and we still are unclear about the place of work and whether it's about feeding ourselves or validating who we are.

The early storytellers, who passed along the creation narratives, seemed to get that we would always have this ambivalence about work. You won't live in paradise and will have to work yourself to death, but life goes on and God continues to abide with you.

The prophets (I do so love Amos' anger and Jeremiah's whining) saw clearly that faithfulness to God meant faithfulness to justice in the market and the work place, as well as in the temple. The Jesus of the gospels showed himself not only to be aware of his Jewish tradition, but deeply connected to it. The gospel writers were marked by Jesus' stories about harsh masters and timid servants, day laborers who worked different sets of hours only to be paid the same wages, and a reaffirmation that what God requires of us is that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

People of faith are confronted by an abundance of evidence that the way things are is not the way God intends, yet we stay silent. In Dallas our privatized sanitation workers barely make minimum wage, but we stay silent. Texas is the most deadly state in our nation for construction workers, still we stay silent.

I understand that we haven't figured out how we feel about this work thing in our life, and why so much of our sense of worth is connected to it. But I am suggesting that perhaps the church needs to move beyond its comfort zone to deal with greater issues regarding work and justice. Isn't this present economic crisis an opportunity to seek out our sisters and brothers who daily face dangerous work for the lowest of pay, the unemployed who have given up on finding a job and who have lost hope, or our brothers and sisters in union halls to hear of their struggles, stand with them in their fight for a living wage, and find out what justice might look like through their eyes and what work means to them?

The struggle for justice is always hard, but it is most bitter when people who have received great mercy fail to be sources of mercy for others. As we approach and observe this Labor Day, what are our commitments to do justly and love mercy? Well?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Idolatry of the Worst Sort

The second of our four Good Friday Walk reflections comes from Rev. Holsey Hickman, a long-time active member of the struggle for justice in Dallas. He has worked on numerous issues, from education to police accountability, from peace to economic justice. Rev. Hickman is a member of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church.

I hope that my words find some place in your heart and in your mind on this rainy day.

It is good to be here to celebrate the hope that we have in Christ Jesus for the world. And I would like to lift up for your consideration some of my thoughts and feelings about the word that has come to infect and to be a virus in all of our institutions. That word is greed. G-R-E-E-D. Greed. It's not a new virus, for it's been with us down through the ancient times of man and woman. Greed has always been a problem for those who would follow God, who would carry out the will of God upon this earth. Greed has infected our institutions that are supposed to serve the life of human beings. It has infected our military institutions, and caused this nation to put more money into destructive, violent power than in health care. It has called this nation to put more money into destructive, violent power than in education.

Greed is something Jesus warned us about when he said in Luke 12:15 that man's life does not consist in the abundance of things.

We gather here guided by this day of judgment that the Bible speaks of in Matthew 25. My brothers and sisters, somehow we have to understand that the greed that infects our institutions is something that demands our attention. Greed is being expressed and has been expressed in our financial institutions and that greed has had a rippling effect down through the lives of millions and millions of people in this country, and not only this country, but in other countries. The greed that has infected our society is a greed that has some legal legitimacy, it has legal legitimacy. We hear people talk about paying these people in the financial world billions of dollars in bonuses, and to hear their claim that there's a legal contract that justifies that, at the same time public money goes to those institutions. That is destructive greed at work in our society.

Somehow we need to understand that economic justice is not to be reflected in our institutions as long as greed grows in those institutions. We see it developing in the institution of public education. Greed has wiggled its head into our public institutions and we hear all this talk about entrepreneurs having the answer to education. That's not to say that people who are greedy do not have some good ideas, but we can see the thrust of it as another institution that is coming under the power of greed.

And so it is that greed has not only a legal justification, a legal basis for it, but also finds some support from the religious institutions. All of this talk about prosperity gospel. Nonsense! Nonsense! To serve as a justification for those who want to and who will and who do practice greed.

The recent decision of the US Supreme Court about corporations-it shows, in my view, that we have reached a point of idolatry of the worst sort. When we would confer human attributes on a corporation and let those corporations do damn what they want to do, that is a form of idolatry. Corporations have no soul. Jesus did not die for corporations! He died for people!

Somehow we have to do something, my brothers and sisters. Or we will be a nation where the idolatry of worship of corporations. Somehow we have to work to stop that, to end that, to withdraw the legal sanctions for that idolatry, that our lives and that our children might have the freedom from the kind of oppression these corporations are guilty of. Not all of them by any means, but too many of them. We will see a deepening and a wider expansion of these corporations prostituting our democratic processes in this country.

There's somebody now in the eastern United States who claims that he's running as a candidate for a corporation. They have too much power over our elected officials now, but think what will happen when these corporations have their people in the House of Representatives, have their people in the Senate, have their people running our country even more than they do now.

And so it is, my brothers and sisters. Let us see and try to understand the depth of this virus of greed that infects our society and that infects the world. We as a nation have some excellent points, but we as a nation have a pattern of destruction and violence that has been unseen upon the face of the earth. Hundreds of thousands of people, innocent people were killed in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Thousands of people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us come to our senses. We pay $10 million for a tank that someone can blow up with $100 worth of material. Somehow we have to come to our senses, and in an organized, nonviolent way not yield to this force of greed in our community.

As we go forward, let us thank God that there was one who did not yield to those organized forces in the world in which he lived, those forces that were organized against the will of God. Rather he lived out his life to fight for obedience to God.

Yes, he was put on a cross. And yes, he was resurrected. If we seek to live out the will of God in this world we, too, may find ourselves on a cross. But that's all right! That's all right. Because in every case, Good Friday is followed by Easter.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"Who Do We Walk With?"

The first of our four Good Friday Walk reflections comes from Dr. Ruben Habito, a professor who teaches interreligious perspectives in spirituality and mysticism at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. Dr. Habito is the author of several books: Experiencing Buddhism: Ways of Wisdom and Compassion (Orbis Books, 2005); Living Zen, Loving God (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004); Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth (MKZC Publications, 2001); Originary Enlightenment: Tendai Hongaku Doctrine and Japanese Buddhism (International Institute for Advanced Buddhist Studies, 1996); and Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective: Contemporary Challenges to the Church, co-edited with Don Pittman and Terry Muck (Wm. Eerdmans and Co., 1996).

I'd like to offer some pointers for us to experience in a more enhanced way the significance of this event that we are participating in together.

This is Good Friday. Today we have an important image in our mind that you all came here to relive. So the first question I would like to offer for us to ask ourselves is, Who are we walking with in this Good Friday Walk? Who are we walking with in this way of the cross on Good Friday?

The cross is a symbol of violence, the violence that happens to us because we are vulnerable creatures. The violence that nature can bring to us, but also, most importantly, the violence that human beings bring upon other human beings. We are all victims of that violence. And there was a man two thousand years ago who bore the brunt of that violence in his body, and the violence continues now. This is indicated in the signs we are carrying. The 25,000-30,000 children under the age of 5 who die daily because of hunger or malnutrition and related causes, about 11 to 12 million per year, and that goes on. The people who are displaced from their homes because of threats to their lives because of military violence, or because of political, social, economic issues-those who are called refugees. People who are not regarded as human beings by their fellow human beings for many different reasons-race, color of skin, religion, or sexual orientation, they are on the cross today.

So we are invited to breathe with them and walk with them with each step. A couple of suggestions as we walk from station to station. This is a meditation, so as we do so, two points I would like to offer for our own attention. First, the breath. As we breathe in and breathe out, let us recall that each breath is a gift, from the same source that gave us this life. In our Christian vocabulary, that is espiritus sanctus. Espiritus is from espirare, to breathe, or the ruah of the Hebrew language, that breath that makes the earth what it is, the breath that all of our fellow living, sentient beings receive. So let us pay attention to that breath and we will experience more profoundly with whom we are breathing. And look at the signs again to see, to get indications of who they are we are breathing with and walking with.

Secondly, let us also pay attention to our steps. As we step, each step is a way of giving our bodily presence and walking with all of those that we want to represent: the 46 million without health care, those who are sick, those who lack access to clean water, the unemployed and underemployed, not just in the US but throughout the world. Let us have that global scenario in our minds and in our hearts as we walk each step.

And thirdly, and the last point I would like to offer as we go, last night, many of us may have joined in the Eucharistic celebration commemorating the institution of that precious celebration that we continue every Sunday and the central words offered there are, "This is my body given for you." That's an aspect that I would also like to offer as we walk together, perhaps in groups of two or three: "This is my body given for you." As Jesus offered his body for all of us, we are also invited to take that and resonate with that and make those words our own. This is my body given for you. For whom? For "I was in prison and you did not visit me," the one in 100 incarcerated. Those who are denied food stamps. Those who are in pain because of the way they are treated by their fellow human beings. Let us listen to them and respond: This is my body given for you. So I would like to recommend that we walk in that meditative way, so that we can experience the significance of this event. And I thank all of the organizers of this event and everyone who is here together so that we can really share in the bonding that this event on the cross brings to us.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Larry James: "You Stand There"

One of the nicer things to happen to me was the recent notification that I had been selected as the 2010 recipient of the Robert O. Cooper Peace and Justice Fellowship at Southern Methodist University. Frankly, I wouldn't have mentioned it here but for my profound respect for Bob Cooper, our past experiences reaching back well over two decades in the struggle for peace and justice in Dallas and the request of my board chair, Dave Shipley asking me to post my speech.

Bob Cooper served the Southern Methodist University family for years as one of the university chaplains. He also led students into deeper understandings of the place of ecumenism and the pursuit of peace and justice in any viable life of faith and authentic spirituality. I'm tempted to start telling stories here of some of our common experiences, but I will resist!

Bob Cooper has been a loyal advocate for truth, real community and fairness for his entire career. I was most honored to receive the fellowship and to present the lecture that follows here.

The Robert O. Cooper Peace & Justice Fellowship Lecture
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Southern Methodist University

I have regarded Bob Cooper as one of the most important leaders in our community for a very long time. His unflagging commitment to the work of establishing justice and realizing peace here and beyond have inspired us all across a generation.

So, I regard this award as an extremely high honor and I accept it with humility on behalf of all of our neighbors who still long for the realization of justice and the experience of peace in their own lives tonight.

It was suggested that I spend this time talking about my work at Central Dallas Ministries, and I expect I’ll do a bit of that before I’m done. But I want to broaden, focus and personalize our conversation this evening, if that is possible, to face some discomforting realities about our society, most of our faith communities and the manner in which we “do life” as a people today.

I’ve had the “advantage” of having spent most of my 60 years living in Dallas. This is a city and a state I believe that I know and know well.

I also know the faith community here in Dallas. I first met many of you while serving an embarrassingly short stint as Executive Director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches back in 1998.

I grew up in Richardson where I attended a very conservative congregation that was part of a fundamentalist denomination, a denomination locked in deep denial about its actually being a denomination. But, that is a subject we need not unpack tonight.

It is worth noting tonight that I thought and experienced my way out of fundamentalism thanks largely to observations I made and experiences I had relative to issues of justice and peace inside the little church where I grew up. Mostly my current views on faith and society grew up as a reaction formation to the experience I had in that church. I grew up in the 1960s and came to realize that inside that little Sunday morning box no word was ever uttered about how our nation was on fire literally or how a senseless war of fire waged halfway around the world stood against our best values and traditions as a people, to say nothing of our faith. I came to realize that my church was strangely, hauntingly irrelevant and disengaged from the real world.

I know that many, if not most of you, had a much more expansive view of faith relative to those revolutionary years, I’m grateful for that for you.

Yet, forty years later we find ourselves in Dallas facing some of the very same issues, especially those issues related to peace and justice. If anything, in many ways, we’ve moved backward, especially in regard to economic justice in our society.

As I said, I grew up schooled in a rather repressive brand of fundamentalism which meant that I read the Bible again and again. Now, I soon noticed that the people who attended our little church on Abrams Road were reading the Bible also, but not all of it and not with equal regard for all that it contained. It seemed that our hermeneutic could best be characterized as a "pick and choose" process. Pick what we understood, or what we were comfortable with or what had always been our patterns and tradition. Choose those requirements that justified our actions, choices and lifestyles, and leave the rest aside.

For example, I remember particularly that we spent a great deal of time in the Epistle of James. Evidently written by the brother of Jesus, this short letter addressed Christians in Judea and Jerusalem in some of the earliest communities devoted to following the Messiah. We were correct in valuing this message, but actually we never really got it because of our methodology and our presuppositions.

To be sure, in one short section of the letter we found a stated emphasis on the place of “works” versus “faith.” We used this tension in our debates with our Baptist friends and neighbors, as well as any other group that emphasized grace and faith. Of course, with this interpretive frame we missed the sort of “works” that James actually had in mind:

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (James 2:14-17)

What I discovered about the epistle of James is the simple and rather obvious fact that it was an economic justice tract from start to finish. To set James over against Paul is to misunderstand both thinkers.

For James, suffering is seen as an opportunity to grow (1:2-4): how often have I heard this rationale among Dallas’ urban poor? His advice is set against a backdrop of harsh economic injustice that affects the lives of the vast majority of those who first read and/or heard the words of his letter. The economic system that the poor members of these early Christian communities faced were established, championed and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful. The result for the poor of the day, the people of the land, was suffering and grave difficulty.

For James, like Jesus (see Luke 1:53-55), the structural reality and power nexus at work within the reign of God is characterized by a grand reversal of fortune among poor and rich (1:9-12). The poor should take pride in the high position they occupy in God's scheme of things, while the rich should take pride in their lowly position. Quite a reversal indeed.

James singles out the affluent, the wealthy as oppressors who create economic systems that produce the suffering that is clearly in mind throughout the letter. Hear these strong words:

"Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you." (James 5:1-6)

In my view today, most of our faith communities have been co-opted by our culture of the "consumer, financial industrial complex."

[To be sure, the military industrial complex is still very much alive and well. Have you noticed? We never really review the Department of Defense budget, no matter how large the federal deficit grows; and we always seem to be able to find some enemy to engage in protracted battle that costs billions we could use at home and around the world, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life on both sides of the battle lines and among civilian populations.]

But, the poor seem to be doing worse and worse and their numbers continue to grow, as does the amazing gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of our economy. It is also interesting that this continuing, worsening trend occurs at a time when the nation’s churches are in decline, but the American Civil Religion seems to be on the ascendency.

So, indulge me one more text from James, but allow me to broaden its application to the nation and our national response to the poor beyond the comfortable confines of the church.

"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?" (James 2:1-7)

And, it is true, isn't it?

As a nation and as citizens, over and over again, we say to our neighbors who find themselves trapped in poverty, “You stand there. . .” While at the same time we honor the rich, the successful from among whom we can identify the very ones responsible for creating and maintaining the systemic injustices that consign the poor and their children to lives of limitation, misery and despair for generations.

"You, stand there!" while your babies cry with hunger.

"You, stand there!" while your schools remain substandard and unlike anything we would allow to continue.

"You, stand there!" while your housing forms a slum due to absentee owners who get rich from your misery.

"You, stand there!" while we trim the housing, health and human services and education budgets annually.

"You, stand there!" in the Emergency Room waiting for hours to see a doctor because you have no health coverage and not access to public benefits.

"You, stand there!" to collect your pay check that reflects a pay scale far below living wage and is attached with no benefits.

"You, stand there!" in the pay day loan line with no banking services you can access, forcing you to pay outrageous interest rates.

"You, stand there!" in the line to get into the night shelter or stranded outside in the cold, propped up against a back alley wall or curled up in your broke down old car.

"You, stand there!" in the soup line or at the food pantry front door because there are not options for you that the community can provide.

"You, stand there!" No greeting for a life crafted in God's image, but the only directive you've come to expect from your fellows who control the current rules of the game of life.

"You, stand there!" nameless and problematic. Like Lazarus, invisible to the rest of us, the ultimate insult.

If you doubt my assessment, consider the findings of a study conducted by that liberal local rag, The Dallas Morning News in an editorial report on life in Texas for the poor and marginalized:
• Every 7 minutes a child is born in poverty.
• 25% of Texas children are born in poverty.
• 49th in the number of working poor (that is, Texas is second in the number of people who work and remain poor).
• $14,700--the average annual income of the poorest 20% of Texas families.
• $203,200--average annual income of the richest 5% of Texas families (13.8 times as high as the poorest 20%).
• 16% of Texans live with hunger or in fear of starvation, just ahead of New Mexico and Mississippi.
• 48th in the nation in state and local government expenditures for public welfare--$808 per capita.
• Second highest Gross Domestic Product in the U. S.
• Number 1 in cancerous emissions into the air and toxic chemicals into the water.
• Ranks 50th in the number of insured people in the nation--5.5 million Texans are not covered by health insurance or 24% of the population (compared to 15.7% for the U. S.).
• 1st in the U. S. in executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
• 2nd highest incarceration rate.
• 34% of Texas high school students drop out--8th highest in the U. S.
• 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math.
• Texas ranks 41st in per capita spending on students in public schools, compared to 25th in 1999.
• 8th largest GDP in the world--$1.1 trillion in 2006.
• 1st in number of shopping malls in the nation.
• 12th in church or synagogue attendance in the U. S
Here's how the editorial board of the local newspaper summed up their report:

"Hidden among Texas' great abundance--the booming businesses and mega-malls--are statistics that all of us would just as soon ignore. But the state can't afford to forget the faces behind those numbers. . . . No liberal blog or legislator is spinning these numbers. In fact, they aren't even new. They are simply compiled from statistics published by sources including the Texas state comptroller's office, the U. S. Census Bureau and other government agencies. . . . Looking at the statistics, it's almost impossible to comprehend how a state with such a healthy bottom line has crashed to the bottom in so many social areas. How many lives must be ruined before we get the picture?"

So, what do we do?

I'll offer a few suggestions for your consideration.

First, we must learn to partner with the poor as we seek change. The days of neo-colonial, one down, charitable approaches are long gone. We must move from charity to partnerships with poor folks taking positions as leaders and experts. We believe that people closest to the problems know and understand most about those problems. We believe that people can solve their own problems if given the opportunity and resources.

I've learned a long time ago that people don't need me. They need equity, justice, equal access and opportunity.

Second, we must speak the truth we know from our experiences in the community against forces that would blunt our message. Remember: the revolution will not be funded, nor will it be popular among the powerful. The arrival of new decision makers and influencers will create tension, a healthy tension that is long overdue.

Third, we must find partners in our sector and in the communities of distress who “aren’t playin’” and we must determine to work with and support them.

Fourth, we must recognize that we are in this together and, therefore, we must learn to work across the lines and categories that have been cleverly deployed and used to divide us in the past by those who wield unreasonable power and influence over public and private systems and resources. .

Fifth, we must energize, organize, mobilize and criticize to achieve the change we know will save us all.

Finally, we must commit to hold one another, our community and every public and private institution accountable for performance on these matters of life and decline.

Saying to a poor neighbor, “You, stand there!” is not an option for people seeking justice and peace.

Rather, the time has come for us to say to one another, “Let’s stand together for a just and peaceful society. Let’s sit down together at the table of fellowship and strategy to celebrate our progress and plan our next steps together.”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

God's Dream of Justice

Mary Clair Lowrance is Minister of Spiritual Formation at Northaven United Methodist Church. She is a graduate of Brite Divinity School at TCU and served as an ordained elder for over ten years in the Central Texas Conference in churches such as First United Methodist in Arlington and First United Methodist Church Fort Worth. This sermon was delivered during Lent 2010.

Without seeing you we love you. Without touching you we embrace. Without knowing you we follow. Without seeing you we believe.

We return to you deep within, leave the past to the dust. Turn to you with tears and fasting you are ready to forgive.

Without seeing you we love you. Without touching you we embrace. Without knowing you we follow. Without seeing you we believe.

Have you ever had a Jacob moment? You know Jacob don't you...that scoundrel who cheated his brother Esau out of his rightful inheritance and has fled to the mountain to hide. With nothing but a stone for a pillow he sleeps and experiences this amazing dream where God speaks to him and promises that God will be with Jacob and all his descendants and declares that all peoples on earth will be blessed through Jacob and his offspring...Jacob wakes up and declares: Surely the presence of God is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.

Jacob woke up with this moment of clarity where he realized that God loved him God was present with him and that God would always be with him...and lead him to greater opportunities as a precious child of God; it was this moment of clarity where Jacob began to understand that the things of God are bigger and grander than the eye can see or the mind can imagine...

So I ask you again, have you ever had a Jacob moment?

My most recent Jacob moment came last May on our trip to El Salvador. I was amazed and awed by the faith and determination of the people of Maria Madre de los Pobres and the Huisisilapa cooperative. I listened to stories of torture people endured on behalf of the poor and I observed how the church there today is attempting to erase the memory of Bishop Romero. You see, Romero would not allow the church to be fixed up and made all pretty when there were so many who had nothing. His passion was the inclusion and recognition of the least of these. When he was assassinated his beautiful monument, casket, was place in prominent place within the sanctuary; it was a place of pilgrimage for his followers. Plaques of sentiment were sent from all over the world. Over the years, his message has endured and the hierarchy of the church ordered his monument to be moved to a basement. The plaques have been removed and adorn his garage at his modest parsonage which is kept the way it was when he went to evening mass on the night of his murder. When we tried to see it on two different occasions...there was only a small amount of time and even then it was locked up...Ron asked if we could just go down there and we did, but no one was going to turn on the lights...

And now we come to the infamous second son of the prodigal child story. He is in the field and hears all the commotion and he looks into the situation. He soon finds out that his wayward brother has returned home and Dad is having a party. You heard Ron read it. He gets mad and his Dad pleads with him to join the celebration. But aren't you intrigued. I am because after the Dad shares with him, Son you are always with me...all that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. The son says nothing. I would like to believe that he experienced

And what does the second son say? Did he experience that moment of clarity where the mystery of God is bigger and greater than the eye can see and the mind can imagine...

As we journey through Lent, we come to today where we are invited to claim God's dream of justice. Justice for all. Distributive justice that guarantees everyone a place at the table of grace. The idea of God's distributive justice is bigger and greater than the eye can see and mind can imagine. But it is so worth our effort as Disciples of Christ. You see it is not a is the outcome. Distributive justice is an ideal that is closely linked to the common good and human dignity. It is an ethical principle that implies that society has a duty to an individual in need and the all individuals have a duty to others in serious need. Specifically, we must take care of each other; everyone must be treated fairly especially the least of these...

The parable of the prodigal son comes at a time when Jesus is really stirring things up. Not only is he acknowledging people who are the dregs of society, he is eating with the tax collectors and sinners...I mean to share a meal with someone in Jesus time is a big deal. It's not a chance meeting of being at the same place at the same time, sharing a meal is an intentional act of unconditional love, radical hospitality and extravagant grace. In its telling and teachings most of the focus is on the Dad's forgiving the prodigal son. Or the focus is on the bitterness and selfishness of the elder son. But the focus of the story today is centered on the encounter of the Dad and the elder son and the teaching regarding what is fair and what is just. And what is fair and what is just? That the son who was lost is welcomed home with a celebration and the elder son will receive everything he has been promised. And maybe, just maybe, as this Dad has shown that there is no line where mercy ends, his elder son will have a change of heart toward his brother who is in serious need.

This indeed is an unexpected lesson on justice, and during this season of lent it is a lesson we must consider seriously and intentionally.

Remember it is not just the process, it is the outcome.

In the book the Last Week, it is discussed at great length about how God views worship and justice. God does not want regular attendance in the Temple rather than equitable distribution of God's land. Under the oppressive domination system in play with collaboration with Rome, people lost their land and therefore their way of taking care of their families. There is an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not just on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. Throughout the Old Testament God reminds the people in Amos: take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Or this familiar text: God has told you o mortal what is good and what does God require of you but do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

In God's eyes being a people who simply want to worship God is not enough. God is just and the world belongs to God and worship cannot be separated from justice because worship or union with a God of justice empowers the worshipper for a life of justice.

Northaven gets it. But remember, distributive justice is not as concerned about the process as much as it is with the outcome. Think about it. Northaven became a reconciling congregation meaning it was not enough to get the word out that everyone is welcome...but a vote was taken. A stand was made...

We don't just send financial support to our ministries in Guatemala and El Salvador, we go and engage in conversation and do what we can to affect positive outcome whether it's building a clinic or making sure children have god parents willing to invest in their present and their future...

Every Christmas for the past several years, we send presents to the children of the Bethlehem center so that they know someone cares...

Why do we bother? Perhaps we have had a Jacob moment where there is clarity in the scope of God's dream. It is bigger and grander than the eye can see or the mind can imagine, but it is worth every ounce of our effort because we are worshippers who have been empowered to live a life of justice. Bishop Romero did not waver in his message that the poor must be acknowledged and deserve their rightful place at the table of grace and it was a message of justice that ultimately cost him his life.

We bother because we are disciples of Jesus Christ and in the life and teachings of Jesus we discover that God's dream of justice will require all that we have and all that we are.

Without seeing you we love you. Without touching you we embrace. Without knowing you we follow. Without seeing you we believe.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Texas Social Studies Standards

As Christians, we are appalled at the proposed changes to the social studies curriculum standards, both for what they promote and for what they omit. We want to add our voice to many others, including members of the Christian community, who are expressing their concerns on this issue and how, in many ways, these standards run counter to the Christian faith. Although our concerns about these standards are many, following we address the most troubling.

First, in regard to the teaching of American exceptionalism, we believe that this is contrary to the words found in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world…” To maintain that one country is blessed by God over others is blasphemous. We agree with Dallas Morning News writer William McKenzie when he states that “board members are bordering on idolatry by placing America on the same plane with Christianity.”

As people who believe it is an essential part of our faith to be in relationship with those who have been oppressed, the rejection of the proposed inclusion of Archbishop Oscar Romero from social studies textbooks is disturbing. Archbishop Romero was a Christian leader who “took up his cross,” as Jesus calls us all to do, and died for his love of all of his people. All Texas schoolchildren would benefit from learning about him, about his courage and his unwavering commitment to “the least of these.”

And finally, we are concerned that you have rejected the teaching of a fundamental freedom in this country which, above all, protects faith communities from the imposition of a state religion. We are disturbed that this omission opens the door to the possibility that a troubling ideology, which may call itself Christian, would attempt to impose its beliefs on others and persecute people of faith in this nation, contrary to our nation’s founding document.

Please add your name in support of this statement, and your denomination or church for identification only, by adding a comment. You do not have to create a profile but can simply add your information by choosing the "Anonymous" option.

Monday, March 1, 2010

William K. McElvaney: Lenten Meditation

Lent 2010

Justice is “in season” for all the seasons of the Christian Year beginning with Advent and concluding through Pentecost. Why? Because the God of both Hebrew and Christian scripture is passionate about justice as indicated in numerous texts in both testaments.

That said, justice and the season of Lent have a special connection. As Christians we identify Lent with Jesus’ suffering, usually referred to as his passion. Yet as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, it was Jesus’ first passion or dedication to justice that led to the second passion narrated in the suffering accounts in the New Testament gospels (Preface, p. viii). Furthermore, Lent reminds us that our faith is not about a smooth talking God who glosses over suffering; not a happy-go-lucky God who sells cheap prosperity with a preferential option for the slick and the easy way out. The God of Lent is a God of pathos who knows all about the suffering and injustice of the world and who initiates restorative justice on behalf of true community.

The Source and Priority of Christian Justice Vocation

Some Christians mistakenly believe that justice is simply no more than the agenda of liberal or progressive folk in the church. On the contrary, the church’s justice agenda is clearly the agenda of God and Jesus IF we take scripture seriously. Any spirituality or piety claiming to be Christian must be grounded in a vocation or commitment to justice. Biblical passages in Amos (5:21-24) and Micah (6:6-8) and Isaiah (58:3-12) make it clear that God insists on justice-related worship. God turns a silent ear to worship not based on justice but never the opposite. In other words, in scripture God never says, “You’re spending too much time doing justice and not enough time praising me.” It’s as though God is saying, “If your worship is detached from justice, don’t even bother me with it.” Can the church hear this?

Connecting Biblical Forms of Justice with Today

From the Torah, the prophets of social justice, and the New Testament, justice takes a number of forms. What better time than Lent to take a fresh look at our justice legacy and inheritance! When we scan the terrain of the 8th to 6th century B.C.E. Hebrew prophets, two very specific forms of justice become apparent. I like to call these the “brand names” of biblically inspired social justice. One has to do with a transparent legal framework, unbiased courts, rule of law, honest elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to vote. Frequently this form of justice is referred to as legal or procedural justice. For an example, check out Amos 5:7-12, a message addressed to Israel. Included in the passage are these words: “Woe to you who turn judgment into bitterness and do no justice in the land. You hate him who reproves in court; you despise him who speaks the truth. You persecute the just and take bribes.” These procedural concerns are expressed in the Torah and elsewhere among the prophets of social justice.

Amos 5 also provides a description of a second form of justice required by God: “You have trampled on the poor man and extorted levies on his grain . . . and have turned away the needy at the gates.” Here Amos calls for economic justice, often called distributive justice. What is a just division of a society’s goods, money, health care, and educational opportunities? Thus in this one brief passage Amos speaks to both procedural and distributive injustice, calling forth God’s judgment on greed and corruption.

I invite you to read Isaiah 58:3-12, one of my favorite passages. This text, like Amos, provides a narrative of both procedural and distributive justice in which God radically redefines Israel’s fast or worship. What strikes me about this Isaiah text is the remarkable range of concerns connecting with our society today just as it did in Israel some 2,500 years ago:

Workers’ rights and, by implication, fair wages and safe working conditions;
Justice for the poor, that is, the hungry, the homeless, and those without adequate clothing;
Indirectly, concern for adequate health care that is inevitably connected with working conditions, hunger, and homelessness;
Implications for a peaceful society based on just societal structures.

These themes of justice are also plentiful in the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament is a breeding ground for justice: the Magnificat in Luke 1; the Kingdom or Reign of God proclaimed throughout Jesus’ ministry; Jesus’ Mission Manifesto declared in Luke 4; the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and in Luke 6; Matthew 23:23 where Jesus upbraids the religious leadership for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, namely, justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus’ familiarity with the Hebrew prophets suggests that when he uses the term justice or points towards it in his parables, he likely has in mind their emphasis on procedural and distributive or economic justice.

Taking on Justice for Lent

When I first became acquainted years ago with the season of Lent, observance was considered to be a choice of what one might “give up” for Lent. For some this meant at least a temporary change in eating habits or perhaps a kind of short term forty day resolution to give up a long held grudge or some debilitating personal habit. Lent is also known as a time of reflection centering on Jesus’ final days leading to the crucifixion and perhaps a deeper insight into suffering and God’s healing presence. The latter has moved some Christians from giving up something for Lent to meditation that leads to action, namely, giving oneself to others in a new and challenging direction in the footsteps of the Vulnerable/Victorious One. How then, if we so choose, might we take on a fresh justice vocation for Lent, and hopefully, beyond?

To ask the question a little differently, how might the church go about the pursuit of justice, especially on the local level? In my experience the quest originates with questions like these: Where is God leading and prompting us towards justice? Where do we see Jesus at work in our community or area on behalf of justice? What injustice draws the strongest sense of passion and conviction from you and your justice group? Combining these questions, the composite might be – Where and how does our passion meet the need of the community or world as prompted by our perception of God’s initiative through Jesus Christ?

Gospel idealism invites and challenges us to step up and pray, focus, study, analyze, and begin sizing up nonviolent means for addressing a specific injustice to which we feel called. Local church realism means that only a very small percentage of a congregation’s membership will take on active and persistent justice seeking and doing.

Any group or congregation on the path of justice will need to make strategic choices to address a particular issue. The possible nonviolent strategies are many and include the following non-exhaustive list: prayers, letters and phone calls, dialogue and moral persuasion, petitions and silent vigils, newspaper ads, justice based social analysis, community organization, rallies and marches, lobbying, picketing, civil disobedience, personal influence, and legal action. Above all, seek out those who bear the brunt of the injustice you are hoping to correct. Ask them to be your mentors and guides as you act in solidarity for agreed upon strategies and goals.

These strategies can be exercised in a variety of ways. Choices can include local church action, ecumenical and/or interfaith cooperation, support of justice based organizations, programs, and government agencies. Learning on the job to discern and decide which of these means or combination thereof seems best in a particular situation is part of the ongoing learning and challenge of justice vocation. I have found it important to strive for a thoughtful blending of idealism and realism. When one overwhelms the other, naivete or despair is waiting to call your name.

Some of us, through the grace of God and the wisdom of many mentors, have come to think of seeking and doing justice as among our deepest experiences of God, a coming home to God and to our truest and deepest selves for others. The season of Lent invites us deep into the heart of a justice passionate God.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Haiti and the Body of Christ

Rev. Eric Folkerth, Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church, formerly worked with mission teams from Highland Park United Methodist Church as they traveled to the community of Petit Goave in Haiti. A member of a team from Highland Park, Jean Arnwine, died as a result of the injuries she received during the recent earthquake. Rev. Folkerth delivered this sermon just over one week after the death of Jean Arnwine and two other members of the United Methodist community.

There was a part of me that really hated to be gone last week. In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, I felt the pull to be here, to just BE here in community. To experience the power of community prayer, community singing, community gathered together. The POWER of the gathered Body of Christ. The power of the church, the connectedness of the church. The Church, when it is most being what it is supposed to be. A Body Together.

That feeling reminded me of today's reading:

"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one spirit. As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

Can you not think of the passage in Corinthians from Paul and not understand the existential truth of this phrase?"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

And so we come to the Body of Christ. The church. That most imperfect of all bodies. It is an organization that you can structure like the best of corporations, but it is always going to function like the worst of families. Doesn't matter what kind of church it is.

This gets me back around to Haiti and that pain I was feeling last Sunday and that is still with me, even today. The sheer volume of the human suffering in Haiti completely boggles the mind: 2000 dead. Perhaps up to 2 million persons now homeless. Without question, one of the largest humanitarian crises in modern history. The scale of the disaster seems incomprehensible.

Having traveled to Haiti five times in the late 90s and during 2000, this crisis hits me hard because, you see, I can envision the scene. In fact, for almost a full week after the earthquake, I honestly had to turn off the television when scenes of Haiti came on. Not because I didn't want to see what happened, but because I was already seeing it. I had seen Haiti on good days in which the entire country felt like it could fall apart in an hour or two. We now know, all too horrifically, that this is true.

I did not need Anderson Cooper’s pictures of collapsed houses. I knew those houses would be collapsed because I’ve seen them. I did not need the accounts of how the Hotel Montana had collapsed, trapping many Westerners. I have stayed there, and I knew instinctively what the carnage of that would look like, and that many would not survive.

Even more close to home, the team I used to help lead was in Haiti at the time: the eye clinic team from Highland Park United Methodist Church here in Dallas, and five of the folks I have traveled to Haiti with previously were potentially trapped inside the country.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Add to the almost incomprehensive human loss of 200,000 Haitians, the sacrifices of at least three United Methodist mission personnel who died of their injuries suffered in the earthquake:

• Sam Dixon, the head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief
• Clint Rabb, the head of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission
• Jean Arnwine, a member of the current Highland Park United Methodist Church mission team who died of injuries suffered when the very clinic I worked I for perhaps a month of my life collapsed on top of her and five others

This tends to take it down to the very personal, and to the level of the personally horrific. And these are deaths that we learned about almost in slow motion.

These losses are our losses, too. Lest we forget, our own church has its own international missions to El Salvador and Guatemala. And lest we forget, El Salvador is also one of the poorer countries in the world, and is also a country that has recently experienced a devastating hurricane. Many of us in this room have been to Guatemala and El Salvador. Many more of us have been to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi where we were aided by staff of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, through both their established infrastructure and their expertise. Many more of us have given money to support these missional efforts of our church.

And so, which we might not have ever been to Haiti, we know and understand the challenges of being in mission in this kind of place, and this tragedy affects us viscerally as well. We are led, as Christ’s body, to ask, What are we to do? How are we to live? What is our mission as Christ’s body?

There is something of an answer in the Gospel Lesson from Luke today, a passage in the Gospel lesson that is something of a “mission statement” for Jesus the Christ. In this Gospel of Luke, it’s the very first time Jesus speaks publicly about his ministry, his purpose, and his mission in the world. In his hometown of Nazareth, and they hand him a copy of the scroll of the book of Isaiah. He opens it and read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He gives them back the scroll and tells them that this very day these words of prophecy are finally being fulfilled.

Now Biblical scholars will tell you that these words Luke has Jesus say are almost word-for-word the same as the Septuagant version of the Book of Isaiah Chapter 61, down to the passage about “recovery of sight to the blind.” So what is Jesus’ mission—and by extension our mission—in the world: bring Good News to the Poor, proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, free the oppressed, proclaim the Year of the Lord.

An observant preacher friend noticed something about this passage this week. She went back and read Isaiah, Chapter 61, and she noticed that Jesus/Luke cut of the words he says at a very interesting point. The last line Jesus reads in Luke is “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But my preacher friend noted that actually Isaiah says something else, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for our God!” Jesus, we might assume, then, does not find the concept of a “day of vengeance” to be a helpful part of his mission statement. I wonder if anybody reminded Pat Robertson of this? He clearly has no idea what he is talking about. He clearly is not a person who knows Haiti, and I’m not sure anymore he really fully understands the grace and compassion of God.

Pat Robertson took what was a Haitian folk myth—something that arose from the people like the Boston Red Sox’s “Curse of the Bambino”—and treated it as if it was historical fact or theological truth. But it’s neither. I’m not angry with him. I’m just absolutely certain he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And I really feel more pity and sorry for him than anger. I hope you will join me in continuing to pray for him.

The God I know, love, and serve does not rain vengeance down upon the poor and the suffering.

The God I know is especially present with them.

The God I know and love has a mission statement to BE with the oppressed. The suffering. The poor. The outcast.