The Day of the Lord – 11/6/11 – Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thes 4:13-18

This past week the Huffinton Post carried a short article with the title: “Harold Camping apologizes for faulty rapture predictions and retires.”  You may remember that Camping had predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21st of this year, which would involve believers being caught up to heaven followed by a time of great suffering on earth for those left behind, moving along toward God’s day of final judgment.  This made for all the elements of a perfect news story and was picked up by the major news networks.  When this did not come to pass, the updated date was October 21st of this year, a little over two weeks ago.  As far as I can tell, this did not make the national news in the same way, which is a positive sign.  The article on the Post this week gave a brief review of these facts and mentioned that Camping is now stepping down from his radio ministry at Family Radio Stations, Inc.

Harold Camping takes his place alongside other faith leaders who have given precise dates for when they believed Jesus would return to earth and claim believers as his own.  Lest we feel too superior, we can recall that the Anabaptist steam of Christianity of which we are a part, has also had its share of such leaders, one of the more famous perhaps being Claas Epp, who led a group of migrating Mennonites into central Asia to await the Second Coming of Christ which was to be on March 8, 1889.  He too then rescheduled the rapture to a later date, which, needless to say, was also not correct.

Like it or not, if you call yourself a Christian, or identify with the church in some way, part of the package is this vein of apocalypticism that runs through our scriptures and our history.  Today’s readings are a case in point.  Amos the Hebrew prophet speaks of a dark and terrible Day of the Lord.  The Apostle Paul speaks of a time when believers will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” a key passage for rapture theology.

What one believes about all of this matters.  What a community believes about this matters.  One’s view of the end affects how one lives in the present.  If the world is going down the drain and will only be rescued with divine intervention to draw us out of the world, it affects how one thinks about one’s relationship with this planet earth.  If God’s ultimate job is to separate the good guys from the bad guys, it affects our view of those bad guys, since, if there’s one thing we are certain about, it’s that we’re the good guys.

If one believes that we are participants with God in redeeming the earth, if one prays, with Jesus, that God’s kingdom come “on earth, as it is in heaven” it affects our view of ourselves, the earth, and how we approach our purpose in life.

What I’d like to do is to look at both of these texts and see what they have to say.  They are, in many ways, strange and wild texts, coming at us from another time, almost another world, and they are one of the many examples of the importance of understanding a text in context – how it draws on the current understandings of the people to whom it was originally addressed.  I would like to push it a little further than that and get to where we are asking what all of this means for us, what we make of this supposed Second Coming of Christ and how it affects us in the present.

So, we’ll start with Amos.  If you’d like to have the text in front of you you’re welcome to turn to Amos chapter five.

Let’s come at this passage by looking at it backwards, starting at the end and working our way back to the beginning.  The end of this passage 5:24 is one of the great prophetic utterances of all time, one that has found resonance with those who work for justice.  “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  When I hear that, I hear coming out of the mouth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The reason Amos calls for justice and righteousness to roll down like mighty waters is that they weren’t.  The people of Israel had a lively worship life, complete with song and ritual and liturgy, but it was void of justice.  This is what is mentioned before, starting in verse 21, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”  This statement most likely would not have made Amos all that popular of a guy when he stood up and shared it during the Joys and Concerns portion of worship.

Before this, starting in verse 18, we have the earliest prophetic reference to “the day of the Lord.”  “Alas, for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light.”   It’s the first time this concept appears in the prophets, but it’s pretty clear that Amos is referring to something already present within the consciousness of his people.  A day in which God would set things right in the world.

Prior to this, it seems, there was a prevailing notion the Day of the Lord would be the day when God would finally take out Israel’s enemies.  God would destroy the enemies and save Israel, the covenant people.  Reward the righteous and punish the wicked.  If you’re on the side of the good guys, you’re safe.  If you’re a part of the enemies, you’re in trouble.  So bring on the Day of the Lord, say the people.  Amos’ words here reinterpret the meaning of the Day of the Lord and note that Israel is not exempt from this judgment.  They will be judged by the same criteria as all the other nations – justice and righteousness – and the actions of worship in and of themselves do not somehow make them superior.

The opening chapters of Amos give the same message.  He starts out with this litany of naming all these different nations that God will judge.   He lists Damascus and tells about their sins, then Gaza and the bad stuff that’s going to happen to it, then Tyre, and Edom, and the Ammonites, and Moab.  All the enemies of Israel.  One can almost see the people of God getting more and more gleeful as Amos goes down the list of most despised nations and tells of their demise.  But it’s a total set up.  The next nations Amos mentions are Judah, and Israel, who, shockingly, aren’t exempt from the call to do justice.  For Amos, anyone would do well to think twice before wishing the coming of the Day of the Lord.

That’s the twist that Amos gives to this.  “It’s not what you thought it was.”  Amos teaches that only a small remnant of people will be restored on that day.  Later prophets also speak of the Day of the Lord.  The prophet Joel speaks in terms of cosmic signs, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (2:31)  Good times.

The notion of the Day of the Lord persisted, with various interpretations, throughout Jewish history, right into the mix of first century Palestine.

This is where things get really interesting.  For those first followers of Jesus, those who had heard his teachings, those who had witnessed his healings, his love for the poor, his justice and righteousness, his death on an instrument of Roman capital punishment, his rumored resurrection – for these followers, the Day of the Lord had happened right there in front of them.  The Lord had come, the sun had been turned to darkness, judgment had been made, and salvation had been made available.  When the gospel writers narrate the scene at the crucifixion, they are sure to include many of those apocalyptic signs of darkness and earthquakes, cosmic shifting that was associated with the day of the Lord.

The early Christians, like Amos before them, spoke of another twist in the Day of the Lord, another reinterpretation.  It’s not what we thought it was.  Rather than this day being one in which God’s wrath was violently unleashed against a guilty humanity, the day turns out to be a time when humanity’s wrath is violently unleashed against an innocent agent of God.  God had come to God’s people in the form of a peasant rabbi.  To confuse matters, he had made friends with the bad guys, the outcasts, and called for a love of enemies.  The coming had happened.  The day was at hand.  And rather than God judging and condemning humanity, humanity had judged itself by unleashing its destruction against a nonviolent, loving, forgiving, representative of God.  Big twist.

This is the tectonic shift that happened through Jesus that still hasn’t worked its way into our spiritual consciousness.  The Day of the Lord has already happened.  Judgment Day has already taken place.  And it throws off all of our ways of making sense of the world.  We are all enemies of God, and none of us are enemies of God.  We’re all guilty and innocent at the same time, our own victims, our own judges.  Christ is our judge, and our defense lawyer, defending us against ourselves and forgiving us before we even realize we’re guilty.  Everybody is saved whether they realize it or not.  Yet only a remnant, a small group of people from all cultures and religions and philosophies, lives out this salvation in the pattern of the loving, forgiving Christ.  Everything is partially realized.  We live in a post-apocalyptic world and we’re still picking up the pieces of the mess that Jesus made of this world that we thought we knew.

This is what the early church was coming to realize and scrambling to understand.  Early in the Book of Acts Peter quotes the Prophet Joel about these being the last days, a time when the Spirit would be poured out on all people.  Everybody, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young shall prophesy.  Christ is available to everyone in this supernovae of spiritual richness.  Christ is currently coming in the lives of all people.  An ongoing present tense coming.

So there was this sense that the day had arrived, yet this sense that it had not yet fully arrived.  That it was not yet here in its fullness.  Rather than being post-apocalypse, it’s more like the apocalypse just takes a very long time, a time that we’re still in.  There was, it seems, an anticipation that Christ would come to be more fully present with people.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but scholars mostly agree that the earliest writing of the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s letter to the group of believers in Thessalonica, this capital city of the Roman province in which it was located.  It’s kind of remarkable to think of this letter as existing before there were any gospels written, but that’s what scholars believe.

Just as Amos spoke to the people about their pre-existing notions of the Day of the Lord, the Apostle Paul addresses the pre-existing notions of Christ’s return.  He does this in chapter 4 verses 13-18.  The pastoral concern that Paul addresses is that some members in the community have died.  Verse 13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  So the crisis is that everyone had expected Christ to come and be more fully present in their lifetime, yet some people had died.  Were they going to miss out on this coming?

This hope for in my lifetime might give us a little more compassion for our brother Harold Camping.  He is 90 years old and, no doubt, more aware than ever of his own mortality.  If we have a generous spirit toward him, it can make sense that he has a longing for things to be set right in his lifetime.  To put an end to these days of partially realized salvation.  Perhaps he has some things in common with this community in Thessalonica.  But the rapture idea of leaving earth, based on this part of Paul’s writing, would be foreign to Paul’s intentions.

To speak of Christ’s presence with this community in Thessalonica, Paul draws on both Jewish apocalyptic understandings, and protocol for a Roman ruler’s state visit, something that would have been a recurring experience in this capital city.  When a ruler would visit they would be preceded with loud calls and blowing trumpets.  Upon hearing these announcements in the distance, city officials were expected to come out and greet the ruler and join him in his escort into the city – a very dramatic entrance.  This event had been given a technical term – parousia.  Which could mean coming, or arrival, or more literally, presence.  Every time there would a parousia of a Roman official, this ritual would be reenacted.

Parousia is the term adopted by the early Christians for how they came to view the coming of Christ.  The presence.  Paul tells the Thessalonians confused about their dead ones, starting in verse 15, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the parousia of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

In keeping with the metaphor of the visiting ruler, the Thessalonians would not have heard this as an exit earth, don’t be left behind, experience.  They would have heard it as a picture of hearing Christ’s coming announced, of the dead and the living joining together in going “up” to meet him, and joining his escort, not out of the atmosphere, but back to earth, the place of visitation.  The presence of Christ is coming to be with them and no one is excluded for experiencing this presence, living or dead.  It extends beyond the grave and the dead are a part of this welcoming committee.  This, it appears, is Paul’s main point.

“Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

This speaks to some of these rapture rumblings of our time, and undoes the standard rapture and left behind narrative, for which there is no solid biblical basis – but doesn’t address all of our questions about the Parousia.  We, who live 2000 years after the beginning of the apocalypse, who get only partial glimpses of salvation, who live amidst justice not yet fully realized.  We look back at Amos and Jesus and Paul and everything in between and since.  We notice the twists, the reinterpretations, the new understandings that have turned previous understandings on their head, inside out, backwards.  We wonder if our notions of the coming of Christ might endure the same fate.  Does Christ come with a definitive loud call and trumpet blast, or does Christ come disguised as a peasant, someone we could pass by without noticing?  Is Christ’s coming a definitive end, or is it yet another new beginning?  Should we look to the skies, look to the earth, look to our neighbors, look to our enemies?  And what of our dead?  Our loved ones with us in spirit but not body?

We still live in this tension.  This uncertain time.  Christ is present with us, but we want more.  And we having a haunting suspicion that the more of Christ seeking to be expressed in the world is wanting to be expressed through us.  “Listen, I tell you mystery!  We will all be changed.  In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52)

 

 

MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail – Aspiring to be Free – 1/17/10 – Amos 6:1-7

On April 16, 1963 MLK Jr. was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was in August of that same year that King would make his I Have a Dream Speech in Washington DC which has become, in a sense, an icon of his life – the primary way we have chosen to remember his message.  The dream, as communicated to the nation that day, was one of racial reconciliation in which America lived up to its ideal to be a place where all people are born equal, where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  It’s a dream we continue to hold and which has captured the hearts and minds of many people.  For this we are grateful and thank God.

This weekend our nation celebrates King’s life and legacy.  I have to admit that ever since becoming more aware of the full breadth of King’s witness — a witness that included strong opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as beginning to connect the dots between racism, poverty, excessive materialism, and militarism – a witness cut short by an assassins bullet in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968…since trying to slowly become a student of King’s witness, I have been a little perplexed at how we choose to remember King and that he is so highly regarded in our society, a national hero.  The perplexity, the inherent tension in this honoring of King has played out on the national and international stage over the last year.  A little over a year ago, through the hard work of many campaigning volunteers, our nation elected its first African American president.  King’s legacy has been rightly cited as a major cause of what has allowed us to break through a massive barrier in this country.  A Pew Research Center poll released this past week noted that “African-Americans are dramatically more upbeat about their progress in this country than at any time during the past quarter century.”  All this is cause for celebration, the dream finding realization.    

But then, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, a stage shared by great peacemakers of history including King himself, President Obama chose to minimize the constructive roll that nonviolent movements can make on the world stage and to offer a justification for our present war in Afghanistan, laced with a healthy dose of American exceptionalism.  The economic crisis of our country and the lack of solid accountability for those who took huge risks with other people’s money for personal gain calls for a soul searching for which we are apparently not yet ready to face as a nation.  We can hail King the racial reconciler, but either openly rebuke or ignore King the champion of nonviolence and economic justice.  His word remains a hard word.       

So it’s appropriate for us now to listen to King from a place where he would very likely also be today, would he have been allowed to live a long life.  From behind the bars of a jail cell, King writes to fellow clergy, white, who are urging him to back off from his campaign.  It is a lengthy letter and we can only hear some excerpts – it’s well worth reading in full at least once a year, especially if you’re a white clergy.  We will listen together to some of the words of this letter, and I will interject some commentary, suggesting some ways that this letter continues to speak to us and propel us toward a dream that is still so far from being realized.  King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail starts in this way:

————————-  Reading from Letter

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

———————————–

One of those eighth century BC prophets that King mentions, the prophet Amos, preached this: “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mt. Samaria.  Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph (Israel).”  The words are the opposite of what has become a beatitude of our culture, “blessed are you who are at ease in your home, and those who have absolute security in the homeland.”  For Amos, ease and security is more a cause for caution than blessedness.  The picture of Rev. King sitting in solitary confinement in his jail cell, writing to the white clergy sitting in their homes and churches seems to carry with it the same message.  King is writing as one who has given up a good amount of ease and security in order to place himself in the struggle of his people.  He is being urged to slow down, back off, step back, by moderate clergy somewhat sympathetic to his cause but not comfortable with the uncomfortableness that this movement has brought about. 

It’s perhaps an understandable contension going on here.  If society as it is set up has always worked for you, always basically allowed you to get what you need and protected you from harm, why carry any sense of urgency?  Why upset the order of things too much?  King insists that even though one may have been dealt a hand that has allowed one to live a life of relative security, that one must never forget, to put it in the words of Amos, to “grieve over the ruin of Joseph,” to allow one’s life to be affected by the lack of security that others experience.  A danger of being at ease and having all that we need is that we may start to believe that the network of mutuality doesn’t ask anything of us.  Doesn’t demand sacrifice.  Doesn’t make us accountable to our brothers and sisters.    

——————————- Reading from Letter        

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

———————————

In the most recent issue of The Mennonite magazine, outgoing executive director Ron Byler cited this part of King’s Letter and urged us to be extremists for love, truth, and goodness.  Much has changed since King wrote this letter, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that being an extremist is a dangerous proposition.  It’s a word that is most often used now to refer to those whose extremism drives them to acts of violence and destruction.  As King describes, it’s a label he first shunned but then came to accept and even embrace.  There is only one form of extremism which adds to life rather than subtracts from it, and that is being an extremist for love. 

Part of my interpretation of Ron Byler’s essay is that he is encouraging the church to not give up what is most important to it.  We can be in disagreement about different aspects of theology, biblical interpretation, and the way we do mission, and these disagreements call for a form of moderation in how we relate with each other and seek to understand one another.  But there need be no moderation when it comes to love.  We are free to love to the utmost.  To be extreme lovers.

Being an extremist for love is different than being any other kind of extremist.  It’s not a democrat extremist, a republican extremist, a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim extremist.  No kind of extremist for any kind of partisan issue.  Love cuts a different way.  I’m still pretty certain that being extremists for love will get us into trouble, but it is the kind of constructive trouble that leads toward healing and wholeness. 

—————————- Reading from Letter

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows…

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

—————————–

“Things are different now.”  There’s a phrase that can get used in a couple different ways.  In this letter, King uses it as a challenge to energize the contemporary church to be what it is called to be.  The church was once a powerful force for good, driven by a love for God and neighbor…but things are different now.  The church is too easily a chaplain to the culture rather than the driving force transforming the culture.

The phrase can also get used this way.  Things were really bad back during the civil rights movement  when Martin Luther King Jr. preached his sermons and marched with thousands of people for freedom and justice.  But things are different now.  We’ve learned our lesson.  Things aren’t as bad.  Our time doesn’t call for that kind of action.

I think it’s fair to say that no time is ever the same as another, but our time has much more in common with past ages than what we might want to admit.  Things are the same now.

It is still a danger to be at ease in Zion and to miss grieving over the ruin of sisters and brothers.  It is still our divine calling as the church to be followers of Jesus Christ in a broken world.

This may really be the same message as last week.  Which is that this baptismal identity of ours, this ancient calling, lifts us up beyond ourselves and puts us in a place where our lives are lived not just for ourselves, but for God and for the world that God so loves.  When we give ourselves over to Christ, we are giving ourselves over to love and love will not only hold us tight in the womb of those baptismal waters, but also fling us out and lead us in ways we would otherwise not choose to go.

We can come to accept our unease as a divine gift, an awareness of the dis-ease of society and an ever-present urging of the Spirit to place ourselves alongside the sick, the dying, those who have lost their home through the shaking of an earthquake or the explosion of the bombs of warfare, or those in our own zip code who have lost their home to foreclosure or for whatever reason are without a home.

I have a strange prayer for you today, one you may not want to have prayed for you, but one I’m going to offer anyway.  And that is that even while we are given rest and grace in the love of God, that we would also be disturbed by the prophets of God, who refuse to be quiet until all experience the peace and security that God intends for all of us.  Our time is not an exception to others.  The words still haunt and move us.  May we listen with open hearts, and act with sure hands.

——————————- Reading from Letter

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Navigating the Great Chasm – 9/30/07 – Luke 16:19-31

We’re probably all familiar with a few jokes that play on stereotypical images of the afterlife.  One of the more popular formats involves people who have just died having a conversation with St. Peter in front of the pearly gates.  There are also plenty of jokes that take place in hell.  Here’s one of my favorites: So three friends die in a car accident and they all arrive right outside hell and are greeted by a devil.  The devil says, Look, I don’t like giving second chances, but you each have one last shot of staying out of here, depending on how you answer the following question: “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” The first one says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a superb doctor of my time, and that I helped many people live longer, healthier lives.” The second one says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful mother and school teacher who made a huge difference in the lives of countless children.” The last one replies, “I would like to hear them say…….LOOK, SHE’S MOVING!!!!!!!!!

Gary Larson who wrote The Far Side comic made good use of folktale images of heaven and hell.  One comic shows a picture of two people sitting on a cloud in heaven sort of twiddling their thumbs.  One person says to the other, “I guess I should have brought a magazine or something.”  Another comic shows a line of people filing their way into hell and they’re given the choice of walking through one of two doors, respectively labeled “damned if you do,” and “damned if you don’t.”  Another strip shows a person at a coffee bar in hell complaining that everything here is hot except the coffee.

Jokes like these work not because they aim to be theologically correct but because they use a stereotypical image of the afterlife to make light of an everyday reality.  They catch our attention not because they provide a blueprint for life after death, but because they provide an insight into life as we experience it before death.

In Jesus’ time there were also folktale images of heaven and hell that had developed in that culture – Hades – from Greek mythology, tormenting flames, and the place of bliss in Abraham’s bosom.  In today’s gospel reading Jesus uses these images to tell a parable about extreme wealth and grinding poverty and the great chasm that exists between the two.  He accesses popular notions of the hereafter to make a point about the here and now.  And as it turns out, for Jesus, issues of wealth and poverty are no laughing matter.

It’s hard for statistics to do justice to a human crisis, but here are some recent numbers on the gap between the rich and the poor.  Faireconomy.org reports that in the US in 2001 the top 1% owned 32.7% of total wealth and the top 5% owned 57.7% of total wealth.  The bottom 50% owned 2.8%.     

Internationally the numbers are more staggering.  A United Nations study that claims to be “the most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken” notes that “the richest 1% of adults (in the world) alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000 and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total.  In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.” (Click here for link.)  However we interpret them or feel about them, these are the facts.  There is a large gap, a great chasm, between rich and poor.  As people with wealth seeking to live lives of justice and healing, how might we navigate this great chasm?  Perhaps we can start by taking a look at the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.    

In the same way as last week’s parable, this one begins, “There was a rich man…” and in the same way as last week’s parable, it is the second character introduced, opposite the rich man, who is the hero.  The rich man and Lazarus are intentionally described in such a way so as to provide as sharp a contrast as possible between them.  The rich man is extremely wealthy, signaled by his being dressed in purple and fine linen, the status symbol of the day.  His table is always full as he feasts…sumptuously…every…day.  Lazarus, however, could not be in a more desparate state.  His body is full of sores and his stomach is empty of food.  Instead of getting a chance to gobble up even the scraps falling from the rich man’s table he’s getting treated like a piece of raw meat by these obnoxious neighborhood dogs licking his sores.  These men could not be farther apart in power and status and general well-being.  They represent the top and bottom, up in the high rise tower and down in the dumps, on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum.  But for as much distance as there is between them in their personal net worth, they actually live quite close to each other.  Lazarus hangs his hat, if he has one, right outside the gate of the rich man’s residence.  So close, yet so far away.  Something is not right with this picture.

As little as we know about these two individuals, we do know something about Lazarus that is unique.  He is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who gets a name.  He is not just a generic poor person on the street, not just a statistic, and not just another faceless member of the huddling masses.  Jesus gives him a name, which elevates his status as someone of worth, worth knowing, worth remembering, and worth honoring.  When introduced to people we tend to put more effort into remembering the names of the important people, the ones really worth knowing.  We don’t want to disrespect anyone and embarrass ourselves by forgetting an important name.  By telling the parable of Lazarus and the rich dude Jesus is playfully suggesting a different kind of balance for how we divvy out respect and honor.

This is not the first time in Scripture a different kind of balance in respect distribution and wealth distribution has been suggested.  The prophet Amos had a few things himself to say to those who were at ease in Zion, who were lying on their beds of ivory, lounging on their couches, feasting on the best of the flock and being mindlessly entertained by the latest tunes to be composed on harp.  He wasn’t just picking on people who had done well for themselves in the booming economy.  What’s wrong, after all, with a little financial security, with having a comfortable bed and couch to relax on after a hard day’s work, to enjoy a good roast lamb with some wine and good music?  The prophet’s cry isn’t against the good things of wealth and comfort.  It’s against those whose wealth had caused them to lose the ability to feel the pain of their poor neighbors.  Alas for those who have great wealth “but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”  They’d forgotten how to grieve, how to be spiritually and morally affected by others’ needs.  Amos, and the other Hebrew prophets were deeply troubled by the tendency of wealth to numb the conscience — to seriously damage one’s capacity for empathy and concern for justice.  And so Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and the crew become the voice that embodies that grieving for their people.  Their sharp speech isn’t intended as a guilt trip, but as a wake up call — often aimed toward those whose investment portfolios were rising through the roof, but whose ability to empathize with those who were suffering was hitting rock bottom.  To folks who had plenty of surplus wealth but who had a serious compassion deficit. 

It is in this prophetic tradition that Jesus continues with this parable.  Both men die and the story continues on the other side of the grave where the fortunes are reversed.  Lazarus is finally comforted, rockin’ his soul in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is getting a heavy dose of Lazarus’ sufferings – and he’s not enjoying it one bit.  He calls for mercy, just for some small relief from suffering, just a glass of water, just if Lazarus could dip his finger in a glass of water and he could get the few drops that drip down to cool his parched tongue.  The rich man is beginning to feel what he couldn’t feel before, and it hurts like hell. 

Lazarus has been transformed, the rich man has been transformed, and another key prop has been transformed.  The gate that once separated them, barely separated them as the rich man would have opened it each day to walk out in the town, crossing in front of poor Lazarus — this gate has been transformed into a great chasm – a chasm that can’t be crossed.  The enormous gap between rich and poor just got a whole lot more tangible.  In the world of parable, metaphors take on a life of their own.     

  Throughout the rest of the story the rich man makes several other requests for help, but unfortunately nothing is possible here that was possible before.  That darn chasm is just too great.  That gap between poor and rich just can’t be bridged.  There’s no ifs ands or buts about it.  How could it?  It’s enormous, it’s huge, it’s impossible…isn’t it?  Lazarus can’t even go back to warn the rich man’s family to be more generous with their wealth.  The final words of the parable:  “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  It’s a lost cause.  Not even the mysterious power of resurrection can heal a rift so large.  Right?  It’s all pretty hopeless.  The statistics are overwhelming.  Everybody’s stuck on one side of that great chasm and we’re powerless to do anything about it.  It doesn’t quite qualify as a Far Side comic, but it is a tongue-in-cheek ending to a provocative parable.

For us who realize we are still alive, it is indeed possible to cross that chasm.  Not only is it possible, it is a divine commandment, spoken by Moses and the prophets, and the resurrected Christ who still speaks in a thousand different ways in our world.  “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” 

This chasm does take on new characteristics in our setting.  Because of our globalized culture and the wonders of technology we read about and hear about it and see it nearly every day.  We don’t have just the poor of our city or neighborhood out at our gate, we have the poor of the world inside our homes – Lazarus shows up sitting with us at the breakfast table when we read the morning newspaper – undocumented immigrants being rounded up and shipped home, millions of US children not getting adequate health care; Lazarus is in our living rooms when we watch the evening news; AIDS in Africa, the homeless in New Orleans; Lazarus is inside our car riding shotgun during the daily commute with our dials set to NPR – refugees fleeing towns in Iraq, water shortages in Palestine.  Everyday the story of Lazarus gets beamed into our lives via modern technology reminding us he’s still here, there, and everywhere.  Information overload can lead to a mind numbing headache.     

One of the first steps in navigating the chasm is maintaining our ability to grieve.  To resist numbness and to welcome feeling the feelings of the suffering.  Walter Brueggeman says  “The capacity to grieve… is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.  Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right…and as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.” (The Prophetic Imagination pp. 20,21)  Brueggeman also believes that grief is what prepares the way for resurrection.  Grief and weeping acknowledge that what we are grieving over must come to an end.  He says, “Weeping permits newness…Weeping permits the kingdom to come (pp. 60,61).  Blessed are those who mourn.

Another reality of our setting involves things we have learned over the last number of years about the most effective ways to bridge this wealth gap.  The poor, we are finding, are actually quite resourceful and creative.  They don’t need a hand-out as much as they need a hand-up to start creating a sustainable life for themselves.  One of the most important discoveries along these lines has been the effectiveness of small loans to empower the poor to make their own investments.  As it turns out, if Lazarus can get some health basic care for his sores, get some food in his stomach, and get a small loan to invest, he may just have what he needs to start a dog-training business for all those dogs he has made friends with over the years, and he can begin to live an economically sustainable life and even begin to create wealth for his neighbors.  $100 may not seem like much to us, but to a woman in Afghanistan or Bangladesh, it may be enough to buy a new stove for baking and selling bread, or a second loom for making rugs.  Organizations like Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Economic Development Associates are working to offer these types of small loans to people who otherwise have no real way of obtaining credit.  Money given to one of these programs will go directly to finance and invest in a small business of someone in poverty.  It’s proving to be one of the most affective ways of enabling people, especially women, to lift themselves out of poverty.       

As relatively wealthy people, navigating the great chasm that continues to be wide, let us remember that guilt is not a fruit of the Spirit.  Guilt is another of those numbing, paralyzing feelings that keeps us away from the life God would have for us.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  The Spirit enables us to grieve as we remain alert to the real pain around us.  The Spirit enables us to be creative and wise with our generosity, tapping into the creative potential in every human being.  The Spirit calls us to be chasm-crossers, with the privilege of sharing wealth, compassion, and prayers across the gap that separates the rich and the poor.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Prophet of America – 1,14,07

After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the prominent Jewish philosopher and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel said this of him: “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us…his mission is sacred…I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”One of Heschel’s most popular writings is simply called “The Prophets.”  In this work he says that A prophet is someone who can feel the feelings of God and the feelings of humanity.In Martin Luther King Jr. we have certainly seen a modern day prophet.  He felt deeply God’s pain and God’s joy as well as the pain and joy of his people.  And he came to see “his people” as eventually including all people.  His witness remains as powerful and relevant today as it was 40 and 50 years ago.  It remains to be seen how his influence will shape the future of America. 

A prophet has a deep sense of calling.  A sense that their life purpose and what they have to offer the world is coming from a power far beyond themselves.  Given that prophets are speaking against the grain of society, this calling provides an internal sense of rootedness in solid ground in the midst of storms of criticism and resistance and hatred.     

 

The prophet Jeremiah is said to have received this calling at a young age.  It is described this way in Jeremiah 1:4-10. 

 “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’  But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, I am only a boy: for you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’  Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth: and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’” 

The calling of Jeremiah — one who would be a voice for justice and hope through one of the most difficult periods of Israel’s history, the capture of Jerusalem and exile of the people into Babylon. 

 

Martin Luther King experienced a calling early on in his ministry.  Like Jeremiah he was quite young when he became a public figure.  At the age of 26, Dr. King was fresh out of graduate school, beginning as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, and was asked to be president of the organization spearheading the bus boycott in town.  Rosa Parks had already taken the symbolic action of refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger and as the movement gained momentum there was a backlash from some members of the white community.  King received a number of threatening phone calls to his house, telling him to leave town or else.  One night, he received a particularly hate-filled call and couldn’t go back to sleep.  This is how he describes that night: 

 “I hung up but I could not sleep . . . I got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God.  My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud:  ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left. . .I can’t face it alone.’  

“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced God.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.’  Almost at once my fears began to pass from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.  Three nights later, our home was bombed.” 

(Written on kitchen wall of display in Civil Right Museum, Atlanta, GA) – Do not read

 

Fortunately King and his family were out of the home at the time and no one was physically harmed.  This kitchen experience of calling, ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth,’ these simple words, felt deeply, sustained King in the years ahead, much like Jeremiah’s calling sustained him throughout his life.

 

A prophet feels a sense of calling from the Lord, but is often critical of how God’s name gets misused and how religion often serves to uphold the status quo, rather than challenge it.  Prophets speak out against religion that fosters apathy.  Maybe it’s too focused on getting into the right spot in the afterlife.  Maybe it’s just lost touch with the real needs of the world and keeps it’s members in a kind of stupor, comforted enough to keep on living, but dulled enough to remain separate from the pain of others.  The prophets remind us that true religion is not about going through the motions of ceremony, but about being propelled to daily go through the motions of compassion. 

The prophet Amos lived in Israel during a time when some members of society were experiencing extreme abundance at the expense of those in poverty who had little power.  He took time out from his day job of herding sheep to speak against this kind of dangerous religion.  Amos 5:21-24 says this:

 

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

King often quoted this last line from Amos.  He lamented a church that had become complacent with the world as it was.  In the spring of 1963, King sat in solitary confinement in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, arrested for marching in a demonstration that local courts had deemed illegal.  The goal of the marchers was to desegregate the business sector of the city.  King and others were criticized by local moderate white clergy who felt that the demonstration was asking for too much too fast.  King wrote back to these clergy in what has come to be called Letter From Birmingham Jail.  In part of the letter, King laments the lack of support of the white church as they “remain (ed) silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”  He goes on to write this:

 

“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church.  How could I otherwise?  I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers.  Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.  There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.  In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

 

Like the prophet Amos, Martin Luther King Jr. called on religion to be a mighty flowing stream of righteousness instead of a stagnant pool of numbness.

 

A prophet feels a deep sense of calling, laments the unfaithfulness of religion and society to be what God desires it to be, but also provides a vision for how the world could be, for what God wills in the world.  Throughout the book of the prophet Isaiah, a number of such visions are given.  Isaiah sees nations beating their swords into plowshares: instruments of war being turned into instruments of harvest and abundance.  He also sees all of the skies and the earth being renewed.  From Isaiah chapter 65:

 

“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating: for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”   

 

King is probably most famous for his dream of racial harmony that he shared with the American people during the March on Washington in 1963.  He also spoke often of the Beloved Community, a global vision where racism, poverty and militarism were no longer tolerated and people lived together in respectful relationships.  On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, he gave an address in Riverside Church in NY City against the war in Vietnam.  In that address he also spoke of a positive vision for the world:

 

“This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all humanity…  When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response.  I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…”  

 It is fairly easy to praise King.  He was a remarkable man.  But it would be a disservice to what he stood for to merely marvel at his profound words or be in awe of his witness.  Unfortunately, this is in large part what our nation has done with him.  As a way of bringing this reflection to a focus, I would like to read the poem printed on the back of your bulletins, by Carl Wendell Hines: Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
Carl Wendell HinesFor us to be true to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., we must see ourselves as somehow a continuation of his witness.  Which means we must believe ourselves to be a living thread in the prophetic witness going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets and up through our time.  We must be witnesses to the reality that everyone in the world is our neighbor, that extreme poverty will not be tolerated, that we live lives of stewardship that do not destroy our fragile earth.  After the service today we will be looking over the proposal for a new CMF covenant.  And in closing I would just highlight here one of the lines in the covenant: “As Mennonites we are committed to bringing peace, justice, and reconciliation and the Good News to each other and to the world around us.”  I believe this provides an excellent summary of what it means for us to be a prophetic community.  To be faithful to this prophetic calling, we must learn all the more to feel the feelings of God.  God’s joy and God’s pain.  And we must learn all the more to feel the feelings of humanity with its joy and pain.    Please join me now in reading this response printed in your bulletin and please stand.Congregational ResponseLeader: In the small, nearly invisible things that we do, may we join with the prophets in compassion for all of life.People: In the large, public things that we do, may we join with the prophets in a desire for righteousness.Leader: Like Jeremiah, may we hear God’s call.People: Like Amos, may we strive for a religion of justice and peace.Leader: Like Isaiah, may we see new possibilities emerging out of the old.All: Like Martin Luther King Jr. and the prophets of our day, may we be so filled with the Holy Spirit that our words and deeds become a living witness to the all-embracing love of God.Response Song “Lift every voice and sing”