Wednesday, June 7, 2017


Pentecost.   The Holy Spirit coming to the disciples!

Jesus Just before he left them he opened the disciples to a New Vision.    He preached to people about a New Way.  He showed people what this New Way looked like.  

A New Way – A New Vision…   In contrast to what they had seen and knew. 

A New Vision – A New Way – A New Kingdom – A New Empire…

                Not like the Roman Empire – or for that matter ANY empire they’d ever known…   one that wasn’t based on force      or strength     or occupation        or submission        or fear      or privilege       or preserving inequality- and magnifying inequality.

Jesus showed his disciples!   He showed them what this new way could look like.  “You have to watch this… because I’ll be asking you to commit your lives to this!”   Jesus preached that all people were God’s children.   Jesus reached out to the marginalized, and the outcasts, and the rejected; those that were beyond the reach of society’s short grasp… outside the bounds of religions short laws.
Jesus pulled the lepers in – those with skin diseases, and ailments, and pulled them into community again.  They were pushed to the margins because this was how society in his day dealt with these types of diseases. 

I had a classmate at seminary who had a severe case of eczema.  She had spots and blotches of dry skin visible on her arms.   And she mentioned that had she lived back then in the land of Jesus, she would have been among the excluded.  

And exclusion meant not only being outside the community, but also outside the grasp of God’s grace!  

The texts say Jesus dined with “prostitutes” and “tax collectors”.  That may sound relatively benign to us 21st century American Christians, but in its day, dining with these people was a profoundly radical act!   Our reaction to “prostitutes” might more be based on moral grounds…

   – For us, “sins” are pretty much centered around moral issues; for us, a “sin” tends to be defined as some kind of moral failing.  But for that era, “sins” were more often than not less a mortal issue and more a ritual cleanliness issue.   A sin was something that “defiled” a person ritually, something that hindered or prevented someone from being able to approach the presence of the Lord in the temple or otherwise.  

Prostitutes were ritually unclean in that respect – they could not “approach the Lord” so long as they did not repent and go through the proper (cumbersome and expensive) ritual cleansing process.   And tax collectors were reviled perhaps even more so than anyone else; they not only made their money by extorting from their very own people, but they did it for -and in the name of- the Roman occupiers!   And that obviously did not sit well with most Jews at the time living under Roman occupation. 

Eating with someone back in that time – as with many cultures in the Middle East still – meant more than just sharing some table space.   It was an intimate act of familiarity.  So eating with them… dining with them… with prostitutes and tax collectors… meant he was telling the world he accepted these people!  It meant he saw these people as part of his family! 

The prostitutes and tax collectors didn’t change because of social ostracization, or social rejection, or from the sense of contempt others felt for them.   They were indeed well aware of how others felt about them… and those feelings others had for them in no way helped them change.   In fact, these things kept them away!    They changed because of the act of love – of acceptance – Jesus showed for them. 

He met them on their turf, where they were.  Then he called them back, reminding them they really were part of the community, and to come home.   This goes to the Luke story of the son who leaves his family.  The one that asks for his share of the inheritance early –before the father dies-   basically saying he wished his father were dead.  So he leaves for a far-away land, and spends his money on “sex, drugs and rock & roll” kind of stuff.   The money finally ran out – and when it did, so did his friends. He was left alone with his poverty of his financial resources.  So he gets a job feeding pigs.  Pigs of course were taboo for him as a Jew, but there he was… feeding an unclean animal.  And they were eating better than he was.   So he recognizes at this point the poverty of his character and spirit… and decides to return.  This in AA is the “bottom”… feeding unclean animals that eat better than he does… he couldn’t see a worse bottom than that.  

So he heads home repeating to himself what he was going to say to his father; that he wasn’t worthy to be called his some any more, that he’d pretty much shamed himself, his father, his family name, everything he once held in value; that he wanted to come back home even if it was just as a hired hand- at least he’d have a safe place to live, a clean place to sleep and some food.  

As he gets close to the house, his father sees him “while he was still a long way away”, and runs to greet him.  Before the son even has a chance to get his words out, the father has wrapped his arms around him and begins to talk about the party to celebrate his return.   Jesus wanted to show that people are better loved back into community, rather than shamed back.     

None of us question this about Jesus.  We find it admirable, we praise Jesus for this, we worship Jesus for all the loving and inclusive stuff we read about in the Gospels.   But we forget, in his day, this stuff he did and said was not only eye-opening for some, but too challenging for others. 

It was eye-opening for the disciples for sure too!  Jesus was teaching them a New Way!  They were taught to re-think what they knew.   This was indeed a New Vision!    The disciples didn’t really begin to seriously work on this themselves until after Jesus left them.

The story says he sent them the Holy Spirit.  Then they “got the Spirit”!   Then they got that New Vision!  And this changed them forever! 

The story in acts says they dedicated themselves to good work –like Jesus did, to calling the marginalized back into community –like Jesus did, to the poor –like Jesus did, to the hopeless –like Jesus did.  They became the voice for the voiceless.  They dedicated themselves to this New Vision… to this New Spirit!

This New Vision   New Empire     New Kingdom   was based not on coercion, but on a vision of mutual respect…   based not on the rule of the strong, but on a vision of justice, of doing what’s right, regardless of public opinion.  

Prostitutes and tax collectors became brothers and sisters when they felt included in community again!  Then they had the ability to see this New Vision for themselves!  

Jesus challenged the religious and political powers of the day.  He brought a mirror to their eyes:  Do not create injustice!   Do not perpetrate in justice!  Do not profit from injustice!     

We can see these things in Jesus’ story, and we admire what he did back then!   Jesus spoke the words of a New Vision to the powers of his day.    He spoke words of how the “Empire” abused the people!  He spoke words of challenge!    He spoke for the oppressed, for the voiceless, for the violated, for the outcasts.   We admire this, we say this is such a noble thing.   We praise Jesus for this…    but it was for these reasons he was killed by the powers of his day!  He was murdered through a twisting of justice, a warping of justice twisted to defend a corrupted political and religious system.   He was murdered by that system for the very things we say we admire in him!

In the mid 70’s in El Salvador, the leadership of the Catholic Church rested with the political leadership of the country.  And the political leadership of the country was at war with its people.   And in this war the people had virtually no power other than the power of truth.  But other than that, the state had the power; the money, the weapons, the media, and the support of the leadership of the Catholic church. 

It came time for the bishops in El Salvador to elect their leader… to determine who would be their Archbishop.   They elected a bishop known for his bookish, academic, intellectual bent.   Oscar Romero became Archbishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador in 1977.   Not long after this, he became more and more aware of the hypocrisy of the church, of the abuse of the power-system against the poor, the people who had virtually no voice in their own government.   And he began to speak out against this abuse and violence of justice and rightness.   In his weekly radio addresses he warned the political leaders that what they were doing to the poor was unjust in the eyes of God, inhumane in the eyes of civil society, and illegal in the eyes of the law.  He called on the perpetrators, those who were ordered to commit this violence -the soldiers, the police -to turn, to repent.  He encouraged the oppressed -those suffering under the yoke of this oppression- to remain strong and hopeful, to keep alive Christ’s New Vision!   And he was murdered by the corrupted powers of his day three years later.     

If we can agree that Jesus did the right thing in the name of God… and we admire his work at that time… if we can see the goodness of it back then… why do we have so much trouble seeing it today?

How do so many of us fall for easy demagoguery?   We hear what we want to hear.  We hear our anxieties, our fears, spoken out loud… lifted up.    And then we’re invited to step into those fears more, to inhabit the fears and anxieties;  to put them on, to wear them as if they were our daily attire.   We’re invited to fill our minds up with these fears and anxieties… to cloud our visions.   

How do so many of us fall for easy demagoguery?  Of blaming marginalized groups of people are hardly heard, except when some do violence.     To blame all illegal immigrants, all Muslims… for the acts of some… is politically expedient at best and easy scapegoating at worst.  It’s easier to do this than it is to delve into the complicated matters of our time.  It’s much more difficult – and less politically expedient – to invite others -to lead others- to take the time to process, to analyze complicated social, governmental and moral issues in a more serious and nuanced way.  That’s hard, and it takes more leadership to do this!  

And to wrap scapegoating inside patriotism makes me sick.

This isn’t only politically expedient, it’s also statistically inaccurate and logically inconsistent.  And on a faith level, it does violence to the Gospel we say we believe in!

I’m not saying there aren’t Muslim extremists – or that they shouldn’t be dealt with.  I’m not saying there aren’t criminal elements within immigrant populations – or that they shouldn’t be dealt with.  This is real and tragic for sure.    I’m saying that instead of closing our borders with the primary justification centered around the fanning of our fears, we should use a little more reason – and realize that people are leaving their own countries because they fear staying where they are – whether it’s Syria or El Salvador.  Or they are coming here because they are looking for the very same opportunities we believe we have here.  Some of them are looking for a better life… not unlike many who have been born and raised here.   While I don’t think becoming an American should be necessarily easy, the truth is, for those that can’t afford to buy citizenship, our immigration system is pretty broken; I don’t think most Americans born and bred here have any idea how long, cumbersome, and expensive the “citizenship process” really is.   I’m in line with others in saying our immigration system should be reformed.

It is wrong to believe in free speech on the one hand, but silence people for saying things you disagree with on the other hand!   It is wrong to stifle speech with violence of word or deed just because you don’t like it.  So long as the words of the Nazi’s on campus remain within the legal constraints of our First Amendment right to free speech, they have a right to speak whether we agree with them or not!

I remember when I was in college, a man used to come every spring, plant himself somewhere in front of the library and would preach for a few hours on how evil people were, and how God wanted everyone to live.    And as you’d expect, he gathered quite a crowd every year. 
Most would just listen for a while, find it interesting in some kind of twisted or illogical way, then walk away after a some minutes.   But some others would stick around for a little while, and get into the monologue by arguing with the guy.   They would respond verbally; either calmly or animatedly pointing out biblical or theological inconsistencies in his arguments – he would respond in his stoic manner, as if the Lord Almighty himself had already warned him he’d be facing a resistant world.   And I remember one year as I was walking by this guy and his misguided theological rantings, another student walking by from quit a distance away and yelled out “Why do you give him the ---- pleasure?”

Did he have a right to speak?  Sure he did.   He was stating his opinions about the bible, he wasn’t hurting anyone.   And it was our choice whether to listen to him or not.   And it would have gone against all we as a nation and culture stood for in regards to Free Speech!

But when words are used to incite violence…  to fan the flames of violent action…   to incite destructive actions based on hate or intolerance or fear…    to foment an air of violent retribution against opponents…    to condone or encourage violence on their behalf…   that’s not only illegal but wrong!

Both sides of the political aisle feed this!  Both sides feed the fires of separation and suspicion!

We need a New Vision!

If you think I’m picking on one side or other, that I’m unfairly criticizing your party or candidate only (or more than the others), pick the “unfairly criticized” words or actions, and replace the person saying or doing them with a person from the “other” party” and honestly tell me whether you’d approve of them, whether the criticism is justified in your eyes or not.  Would those words or actions –coming from the “other side” be as acceptable?        

We have to run all this through the test of reason, and not fall for the facile rhetoric of quick and easy blame.   Solutions to our national problems are much more complicated, and are far more intricate and difficult to solve than the easy blaming one group or other for these problems! 

This…  what we’re doing to each other…  on a national level, on a social level, on a face-to-face level…  is not okay!   Don’t I remember we’re better than this? 

We need that New Vision!      We need that New Spirit!      We need the Spirit of the New Kingdom…   that New Kingdom Jesus talked about!    Based on respect!   Based on Listening!    On Just-ness   and Right-ness!

If we admire Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels when he challenged the religious and political leaders of his time, when he spoke for the marginalized, when he included the unincludable, when he lifted up the trampled…    then by God it is okay to hear these same words in our day…  to us   as a nation   as a culture    as a country.    

Because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the future –
If we let fear and suspicion to rule us…    if we let hate and contempt to dominate our political and social language, then it will not be long before there won’t be much of a country left to fight for

We need the power of the Spirit or Pentecost!    We need the Spirit of Pentecost today!   We need to change our hearts.     We need each other.    And we need the Spirit!

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