Friday, December 9, 2022

Now is the time...

 There were some sights and sounds that will always stick with me. They enter my consciousness whenever I hear government officials talk about nuclear weapons and their possible use.

 

The sight was standing in the chapel at Ellsworth Air Force Base and looking up toward the ceiling. There was a sign that would begin to flash to warn of an incoming threat, likely a nuclear armed missile from a Russian submarine off the west coast of the U.S. It meant all those airmen sitting in chapel at worship had about twenty minutes to get in their nuclear armed bombers and get them off the ground for retaliation before the base was decimated.

 

 

 The sound was listening to the Commander of the Ellsworth Missile Wing. At that time, Ellsworth was surrounded by 150 minuteman missiles, each with a one megaton warhead. Someone in our tour group of peace people asked the Commander what he would do if it were clear an incoming Soviet missile was headed for the base. I can still hear him shouting, “I will be standing right here and all our missiles will go.” My God! That’s 150 megatons of nuclear explosives, while Hiroshima was only about 15 kilotons (15,000 tons of TNT in explosive power). Try 1,000,000 tons of TNT with those Ellsworth missiles, times 150. I’m sure the Commander knew he would be a shadow in an instant should only a small tactical nuke hit the base. A barrage would create a firestorm all the way to Brookings and beyond.

It’s been estimated by scientists at Los Alamos since shortly after World War II, that it would only take in the neighborhood of 10 to 100 of the types of nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia, to destroy the entire planet. That’s an amazing statistic seeing that one estimate is the U.S. in 2021 had 3,750 nuclear weapons; 4,178 with the U.K. and France. It’s estimated Russia has more, perhaps as many as 6,000.


It’s also no wonder that much of the rest of the world is alarmed by these statistics. Many countries have signed the United Nations treaty declaring nuclear weapons illegal. The text of the treaty, that went into effect after being signed by fifty nations on January 22, 2021, reads:“Nuclear weapons are, as of now, unlawful to possess, develop, deploy, test, use, or threaten to use.”

The U.S. has enabled several countries to “deploy” nuclear weapons: Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. Since the Ukraine invasion, Poland wants to be included, although the U.N. treaty outlaws the transfer  of nuclear weapons and forbids signatories from allowing any nuclear explosive device to be stationed, installed or deployed in their territory.

The Pentagon calls all these European deployments “defensive” theatre nuclear weapons. They only have 11.3 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. If the U.S. was ready to face Armageddon because of the threat of Russian missiles in Cuba back in the Kennedy era, we must recognize Russians might feel a bit nervous about all those nukes we’ve placed in their neighborhood.

Of course, no nuclear weapons state has signed on to the U.N. Treaty and already since its passage Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons and the U.S. has come close in response. The President recently declared: “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. We’ve got a guy I know fairly well. He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.”

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that the globe sat at “dooms’ doorstep.” The Doomsday Clock is at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to “doomsday” since the creation of the clock in 1947.


The military budget request for 2023 is $813.3 billion. $50.9 billion in the bill is earmarked for nuclear weapons. In 2021, the total budget for the State Department and USAid was 58.5 billion. Obviously, talking, listening, negotiating, working out our differences and aiding those who suffer, is less critical to our “security” than updating our nuclear weapons systems. As Wendell Berry writes, “We should recognize that while we have extravagantly  subsidized the means for war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness.” What if we put our money where our mouth is, when we talk peace?

MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) has been our nuclear weapons policy now for most of my lifetime. Some would claim it has kept us from armageddon. Clearly, MAD has not deterred hot wars in places like Vietnam and Ukraine. MAD has not deterred authoritarian rulers, at home and abroad, from sending a clear message nuclear weapons are acceptable and usable in their ‘defense;” even first use. For myself, MAD has not deterred anything. For me, it is only the grace of a loving God that has saved us from destroying ourselves.

Pope Francis, speaking as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West he was not bluffing about possibly using nuclear weapons, said on Wednesday that thinking of such an act was "madness". “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.” 

Worse, preparing for and threatening nuclear war is a crime against the spirit of creation and the creator. It’s an invitation to hell on earth; opening the door to the devil incarnate. Nuclear weapons have been declared immoral and illegal. Now is the time to eliminate them!

Carl Kline




Friday, December 2, 2022

A Dangerous Little Book Part 2 "A Prophet, a Rock and a Car"



This is the second of my two part blog on the prophet Habakkuk. We learned last time that he lived in a time of grave danger. The Babylonians would soon descend upon Jerusalem and utterly destroy the city. In the face of this threatening violence, Habakkuk asks the Lord, “How long will you make me look upon this violence? How long must I cry out and you will not hear?”

As the scene unfolds, Habakkuk declares, “I am going to stand my watch. I am going to climb the ramparts, take my place on the watchtower, and see what God is going to say to me.” What will the Lord say about this tidal wave of violence that is going to fall upon us? 

 God tells the prophet: I am going to give you a message, a vision. Write the vision and make it plain. For the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end–it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come. The one whose soul is not right will surely fall, but the righteous shall live by faith. Later, in another time of conflict, Martin Luther picks up this phrase during the Protestant Reformation: the righteous shall live by faith.

Going back to God’s message to Habakkuk, the Lord says: The treacherous, the arrogant, shall not abide.Their greed is as wide as Sheol, the home of the dead, like death they never have enough.They are never satisfied.” Then there follows a series of judgments.
Woe to those who plunder many nations, for the remnants of the people shall plunder you for the blood of men and the violence to the earth.
Woe to you who get evil gain for your house, for the stones will cry out from the walls, and the beam from the woodwork will respond.
Woe to you who build a town with blood.
Woe to you who make your neighbor drink the cup of your wrath. Your own violence will overwhelm you. But the righteous shall live by faith.

 

The righteous shall live by faith- the assurance of things unseen. Rabbi Heschel says that “living is what we do with God’s time.” Knowing this,Habakkuk goes up on the ramparts and makes his stand, takes his watch. Violence will not have the last word. He will not surrender to the cynics.He will not join the fatalists or the nihilists.  The vision is not a lie.
Today we need people like Habakkuk because violent winds are blowing strong. We see the rising tide of violence most dramatically in the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. After the attack Speaker Pelosi read Ehud Manor’s poem, “I Have No Other Land.” It reads in part, “I have no other country. Although my land is burning . . ., here is my home. I will not be silent. . .  I will not give up on her. I shall remind her and sing into her ears, until she opens her eyes.”

 
During election week people went to the polls in record numbers in spite of threats violence. Theywere standing on the watchtower. More than 700 people trained in methods of nonviolence were at polling places in10 key states to protect the rights of votes. When institutions of democracy are under attack, those of us who believe in democracy must counter people who have no faith in these institutions with our own deep faith in democracy.

 

 Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “Our capacity for justice makes democracy possible, our inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”  He also said that “love is a matter of justice.” Abuse and neglect negate love, care and affirmation are the foundation of love. Love and justice have to walk together. Write the vision Habakkuk. Make it plain. It is not a lie.

Dr. King famously  told us that the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice. In that same sermon he warned that justice does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We have to want it and we have to work for it.

I just finished a book called The Sum of Us (One Word, 2021).  The author speaks with the voice of the prophets. Her name is Heather McGhee. She lays her hands on a basic contradiction in our soul. It is a contradiction that threatens our well-being. She says there is a part of us that believes the magnificent words enshrined in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted . . . deriving their just powers from the governed.” That is an article of faith for us. That is in our creed. 

At the same time, McGhee says, we harbor the notion that in reality we live in a zero-sum world.In a zero-sum world there can only be winners and losers. More for some of us means less for the rest of us.  These are our two realities–we are created equal, and we live in a zero-sum world.

This is how these two belief systems work and don’t work for us. We recently saw the play, “We Own This Now,” is a play about the doctrine of discovery–the quasi-religious doctrine that says since White people discovered this land, it is our Promised Land and we are a Chosen People who by right of discovery now own it. We are the winners, Indians are the losers. But now we have to ask ourselves, “What does it mean for us to live on stolen land?” How do we reconcile this history with our faith? 

Interestingly, the authors of the play chose to use a car as a symbol for the United States. Both a man and a woman had legitimate claims to the car.The play did not try to solve the problem, only to present it. Using the car as a metaphor, the issue is distilled as being about private property and ownership and rights. But before the play began, we learned about a sacred rock that had been stolen from the Kanza people more than one hundred years ago, and is now being returned to them. We did not talk about the return of the rock in terms of winners and losers. We talked about the rock in terms of restorative justice. It is worth asking why we define economic issues in terms of winners and losers, and cultural issues in terms of restorative justice. Is this the best we can do?
     
Let me turn back to the book The Sum of Us. Toward the conclusion of the book , McGhee tells the story of what happened on a cloudy June day in the Oregon State Senate that should be a lesson for all of us today, even though it happened in 2019. As she retells the event, the leader of the Senate, a Democrat, was prepared to bring up a bill to combat climate change. Though there was a Democratic majority, they did not have enough members to constitute a quorum. On that day in June, 2019, the Republicans refused to show up. Without a quorum the Speaker could not call for a vote. He asked the Governor to send out sheriffs to find the missing lawmakers and bring them in for the vote.

 A Republican state senator told the governor, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed.. .  I am not going to be a political prisoner in the State of Oregon.” Paramilitary militia groups chimed in that they would storm the Capitol building (p.196). It was a preview of events to come.

That’s zero-sum thinking, the politics of winners and losers. It sounds surreal., “Can this really be happening?” How long, O Lord, will you make me witness this violence?” The Lord answers, “Write the vision, make it plain.” The culture of death begets death. The graves are never satisfied. The stones in the walls cry out, and the beams in the woodwork answer.” The righteous shall live by faith. Write the vision Habakkuk and make it plain. It does not lie.

Now it falls to us to write the vision. Write the vision that we live in solidarity with each other, across lines of color and class and gender and sexual orientation. In this vision we will all experience a new birth of freedom. We will know that when love and justice walk together, when we honor one another as people loved by God, the earth and all the people will rejoice. Write the vision. Make it plain. It is not a lie. 

Rev. David Hansen
 


Friday, November 25, 2022

A Dangerous Little Book Part 1

 

The book of Habakkuk is short. Just three little chapters, that’s all. It has no big words. It’s not hard to read in that sense, but there is so much here that I will divide it into two blog posts.

Scholars generally think Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem sometime between 610 and 587 BCE.  His name means “embracer” or “to embrace” or “one who struggles to enfold.” He is a prophet who embraces his people and all their pain, their struggles and their fears. Habakkuk gives meaning to the word “solidarity.”

 

As the book opens, he is the voice of a people who have no voice. They are drowning in an ocean of violence. The Babylonian Empire is on the rise and is mercilessly dismantling the old Assyrian Empire. Think of the worst scenes you have seen from the war in the Ukraine or elsewhere and you have an idea of what Habakkuk sees as the sun rises on a new day. It is a scene of violence and death as far as the eye can see.

In 587, just a few years after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem and completely destroy it; burn it to the ground. They will reduce the Temple and the whole city to a pile of ashes. Habakkuk can see what’s coming. He calls on the Lord for help:  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!” and you will not save? How long shall I wait?   “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”

In a polite version of Chapter 1,verse 4, Habakkuk says, “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth, The wicked surround the righteous, so justice is perverted.” In the raw translation Habakkuk says, “Justice is raped and no one is held accountable. There is no justice.”

 Members of the Supreme Court have lost their moral compass and people in high places are all for sale. In our own time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “we will perish not for want  of information, but for want of appreciation.” William Sloan Coffin has said that “we have the ability to destroy civilization and make the earth uninhabitable, but not the authority. The madness of war has eclipsed all sense of normality and morality.”

In the 1960’s, during the Vietnam War, Barry McQuire had a popular anti-war song called “Eve of Destruction.” One line of that song says, “the whole crazy world is just too frustrat’n.  And you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”

Habakkuk did believe it. He saw what was happening. And he cried out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear my voice? Or cry violence and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise…the earth groans. The stones cry out.”

It is really almost too much torment to bear. There is no relief in sight, absolutely none. The mad momentum of war cannot be stopped. Speaking to our time, Coffin writes, “the irrational love of loveless power has gripped our hearts and minds.” It is lunacy to talk of victory. With no place left to turn, Habakkuk calls on God, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

God answers and the news is not good. God tells Habakkuk: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told”...“I am rousing the Chaldeans (aka Babylonians), that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth and take nations to seize habitations not their own. Dread and terrible are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves. . . Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence; terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand.”

They gather up captives like sand. It is beyond our comprehension. We hear the words but cannot comprehend what our ears are telling us. God is choosing the Babylonians, and sending them to utterly destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity where later they will write in Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow there we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

The Chaldeans, who scoff at kings and make sport of rulers, and laugh at every fortress, and who sweep by like the wind… God is telling Habakkuk that God has loosed this hell on earth. This is God’s will.

Habakkuk refuses to back down. He refuses to become a cynic or a nihilist or a fatalist. He goes up on the ramparts, he takes his place in the watchtower, and he declares before God and everyone else, “I will take my station. I will see what God will say to me.” 

 Before I end this first installment, I need to make a couple things clear. First, according to the text, God raises up the Chaldeans, but God does not excuse Chaldean cruelty. There is nothing in the text that blesses barbarism or war. The text is very clear. Speaking of the Chaldeans, God declares that “their might is their god.” The Babylonian military-industrial-political-homeland security-empire-complex is their pride and joy, and it will be their downfall. Emphatically the text does not condone war or militarism. What the text is saying is that war and all the evils that it visits upon us and all humanity is not accidental. Wars do not “just happen.”

There are two ways to deal with the issue of evil in history. One is to blame God, ie It is God’s will that the Babylonians should wipe out Jerusalem and slaughter some of the people and take others captive. This is a fatalist view of history. What can we do? Nations have always been at war with each other. It’s too bad, it’s unfortunate, we wish it were otherwise, but that’s just the way it is. Love is just the driver of the hearse rushing from one tragedy to another. There are whole schools of theology and political theory built around the idea that people and nations are locked in a never ending struggle for power and security and we have to accept that. This is not what Habakkuk is saying. 

 He is saying that our actions have consequences and we have responsibilities. Heschel says some people are guilty but everyone is responsible. This is what Habakkuk is telling us. He shoulders responsibility for his people, because of his unfailing love for his people and an unshakable belief in God. This is why he takes his place on the watchtower. He climbs up on the ramparts and waits for God. O Lord, how long will you not hear me? How long? These are not the questions of a fatalist.


It is worth remembering that in 1940, the Nazi’s banned the book of Habakkuk because they knew it was a dangerous book. The apartheid government of South Africa did the same banning Habakkuk, because they knew it was a dangerous book. People in our time who want to ban books might soon look to Habakkuk and other prophets and try to ban them.

This is a dangerous little book. It is only three short chapters. But in these chapters Habakkuk is telling us that injustice does not “just happen.” War does not “just happen.” It is intentional. It happens because people who have political, and economic, and military power want it to happen, or they are willing to let it happen. President Kennedy was right when he said “If we do not want war to put an end to us, we need to put an end to war.”

Habakkuk stood on the ramparts, he stood in the watchtower, because of his love for God and his love for his people. He stood there because there was no other place for him to stand. He stood there because he could not be a silent witness to the cruelty he was witnessing. He is remembered by history as a witness to resistance to authoritarian governments, and as witness to a world beyond war.  

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, November 18, 2022

"Take up your cross..."

 

Alvaro Enciso needs help! In order to complete his chosen task, at the present rate of four crosses a week, he will need to live to be 127. And that is only to fulfill the requirements of the past. Each day adds more lives to remember and liturgies to hold.

No, I’m not talking about Ukraine. Although those pictures on the evening news of the host of crosses in among the trees where Russian troops once roamed were horrifying. These crosses are closer to home. I’m talking about our southern border. Alvaro is remembering the forgotten dead of the desert, trying to reach the “home of the brave and the land of the free.” 

Using a GPS tracking device and a database provided by Humane Borders, Alvaro and his companions go to the sites in the desert where those seeking sanctuary have died. They dig a hole in the desert floor, add cement and water and plant a cross. A liturgy is shared! Prayers are offered! The deceased is re-membered!

The database at the time I read Alvaro’s story includes 3,600 recorded deaths. The deaths continue, and will, till we find the will and the way to change our immigration system. Making it more challenging for those seeking to immigrate by building walls, separating children from their parents or busing them to unprepared locations, will not stem the tide. Present policy simply supports the large number of coyotes, semi-truck ovens and crosses in the desert on our southern border.

Then there is the question of immigration from Ukraine. The administration found ways to allow 100,000 refugees from Ukraine to quickly enter this country. More than 22,000 were admitted along the US-Mexico border. It’s a modest number given the millions who have fled the devastation in their homeland. Certainly our borders need to be open to them. But the question remains for many, why this distinction? Many from the global south are also fleeing violence and destruction in their countries.  

One laments how the billions spent on weapons of war destroying Ukraine, might better be spent on making homelands habitable for refugees; making their own countries “homes of the brave and lands of the free.” One laments the backlog of 500,000 immigration cases stalled in the system, unable to shake funding from the weapons manufacturers for the asylum resolvers. But this is a lament, not recognizing many Gandhis in the Kremlin or advocates committed to nonviolent social change in the halls of the U.S. Congress.

A friend on Marthas Vineyard wrote me the other day, as their island was at the top of the news. She remarked: “As you can see from today’s news, we have had a little excitement on the island in the last 72 hours. Most of the folks have been transferred to Joint Base of Cape Cod which is set up for disaster relief support for large numbers of people who are suddenly without resources. The response from the island and beyond was overwhelming. The emergency generosity has set in motion the establishment of a fund that will be used for emergency migrant support going forward. Sadly, this could happen again.”

It is sad! It’s sad that governors will use human beings as political pawns in their commitment to partisan political positions. It’s sad that Congress can’t get its act together on sound immigration policy and enforcement. It’s sad that governors and lawmakers in Texas and Florida and Arizona don’t have a Statue of Liberty in their state. They might be more likely to reflect on who we once were as a nation and what we stood for to others.


“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 
And for the Christian:

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say, ‘When I was hungry you put me on a bus, when I was thirsty you booked me a one way plane ticket,’ or ‘when I was a stranger you treated me like cargo and shipped me off for political gain.’” (Author Unknown)

Carl Kline





Friday, November 11, 2022

Prayer For America

 

Compassionate One, fill our hearts with love and compassion for each other, that in truth we might be one nation indivisible. Bless our country, its government, its leaders, and its people. Bless the vision that is America and help us all to make it real. Help us to be for each other a mirror in which to see the best we are, and when we stray give to each one the courage to remind, speaking truth to power when need be. 


Of qualities that built this land, help us to distinguish between their light and shadow sides, and to know the upright way, that good not be twisted into evil. Take the violence from us, so much part of what has been; and lead us on a new path to the Prophet’s vision fulfilled, of swords turned into plowshares that we shall at last learn war no more. Let not our confidence become arrogance, nor might the measure of right; mature enough in our independence, may we celebrate with all nations the interdependence from which a greater good will come. 

 


Thirsting for peace, help us to sing an anthem now, not of bombs bursting, but of amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties; the beauty of this land we love, your blessing manifest, not of destiny, but of goodness spreading out from sea to shining sea; and not upon us alone Your blessing bestow, but upon every nation and people in the world of Your creation. 


Help us to see that we the people are America the beautiful, in all the grandeur of our colors, and in the symphony of faiths and tongues by which we sing to You and call each others’ names; in the pilgrims’ pride of roots diverse, each one of us from other lands have come, not only of a Mayflower on the sea, but of steerage passage and in chains and through sweltering desert sands, wretched and poor yearning to breathe free; let us be the strength of heart and mind to sustain the hand of she who lifts her lamp beside the golden door. 

 


In our caring for the earth, the sky and water, may we honor those who first dwelled upon this land, and in small measure so atone for all the wrong done to them. 


With liberty and justice for all, that freedom not ring hollow, help us to insure that health and knowledge, bread and roses, be the birthright of every child born, each one free to be and become, dreams deferred no more. 


Bring near the day, soon to rise, when in rainbow chorus we shall sing, we have overcome. 

 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, November 4, 2022

A Revolution of the Heart


Luke 18: 9-14

In Luke’s gospel Jesus and the Pharisees bump heads at every turn. The gospel writers portray the Pharisees as the foil, the gang that can’t shoot straight. They never seem to be able to do anything right. If there is an opportunity to take the wrong side of the fight, you can count on them to take it.


 Jesus is teaching and healing. People from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem are gathered around him. It’s a big crowd.  Some people who are carrying a paralyzed man on a mat show up. The crowd is great and the only way they can get to Jesus is to climb up on the roof of the house, cut a hole in the roof, and let the man down to where Jesus is sitting.  Jesus sees their faith.  He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”  The Pharisees and teachers of the law think to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The battle lines are drawn.
 

Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees begin to ask what they are going to do with this fellow Jesus.  Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites”--religious pretenders. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. 

A Pharisee and the tax collector are in the Temple. The Pharisee stands up and prays about himself, “Thank God, I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers, tax collectors.” 


 In reality, the Pharisees are not bad people. We might be happy to have them as our neighbor. They are law-abiding, upstanding, respected members of the community. But in matters of religion, they are more concerned with the law than they are with having a good heart. They wear their religion on their sleeve. Show and tell religion. Religious pretenders. But before we write them off completely, we ought to remember that they were the religious liberals of Jesus’s time. The Sadducees were what we would call the strict constructionists of the Constitution. Original intent is their motto. The Pharisees were the liberals. They admitted to the use of reason and the principle of interpretation of the law. Still, Jesus calls them hypocrites – who stand in the Temple and look askance at the sinner standing over there, and thanking God that they are not like him.

The tax collector is no angel of goodness and mercy. He robs from the rich and the poor alike. He has a license to steal. Like Shylock in the Shakespeare’s "Merchant of Venice," the tax collector calls money his daughter. Greed rules over compassion. Money is the measure of value. But now he is standing here, in the Temple, making his confession and asking for mercy. 

Commentaries on this parable uniformly agree that this parable is about prayer and how we should pray. The contrast is drawn between the self-righteousness of the  Pharisee and the contrition of the tax collector, who is justified before God because he humbles himself. I think this interpretation misses the point. The contrast between false pride and genuine humility is there and it is real, but the parable is also about the weightier matters of “justice, mercy, and faith” (Mt. 23:23), and commentaries often miss this point.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us that the problem of our time is the spirit of our age, the denial of transcendence, the vapidity of values, the emptiness in the heart.  “The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, how to resist the deceptions of the pretenders.” Elsewhere he says that “the source of prayer is not emotion, but insight.”

We don’t know what happened, but something brought the tax collector to the Temple that day. He is in the Temple because he has been given fresh insight into the reality that his wealth is directly tied to the impoverishment of others. The deck is stacked against the poor, whom he exploits with impunity. But now he is asking God for mercy.

In the "Women for Kansas" meeting that was held here yesterday we talked a little bit about Payday Loans. These loans can carry an interest rate of 700 percent. The average interest rate on a Payday Loan is 391 percent. What we learned yesterday is that some of the people who write the laws that allow Payday lenders to charge these rates are also directly benefiting from these laws. This is not true of all legislators but  some legislators benefit from this unregulated market. The loans put money in their purse. People are not poor, they are impoverished. They are made poor by laws like this. And now people in faith communities around Kansas are working in alliance with others to change this situation. We want to put a spotlight on what is happening.

We don’t know what happened to bring the tax collector to the Temple that day. Something happened to make him aware of his complicity in the poverty of others. So he came to the Temple to pray.

Heschel teaches us, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must be a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” The tax collector came to pray that kind of prayer.

Prayer begins in the heart. But prayer is not an effort to impose our will on God. Our prayers are not instructions to God. We cannot tell God how to be a better God. Prayer begins with a desire not to impose our will on God, but to impose God’s will on us. This is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  Every week we prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy kin-dom come, thy will be done on earth, that is, in us and through us. 

In the parable the Temple is a house divided. Certainly that is true of the church in our time. It is not entirely clear to me if religion is a source of division in our society, or if social forces are creating divisions within the Christian community. Some of both I suspect. Today we can see the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple, looking askance at each other, saying under our breath, “Thank God I am not like that.” We have to acknowledge that the Christian church is divided today, perhaps more clearly than at any time since the Civil War, when Northerns and Southerns split over slavery and both sides threw Bible quotes at each other. 

One hundred years before the first shot of that war was fired a Quaker, John Woolman, made house calls on Quakers who were slave owners. He did not scold them or argue with them, he just asked them a question: What does it do to your soul to own another human being? These were kitchen table talks. One hundred years before the Civil War began, there were no Quakers who owned slaves.

It is hard for us to imagine such a revolution of the heart today. Yet, as I read the parable, this is what it says. If this parable is really about prayer and  social justice, our task is twofold. We have to be open to having new conversations–sometimes with people we agree with and sometimes with people we don’t agree with, but need to have some new conversations. And we need to keep ourselves grounded in prayer that matters. Prayers that are subversive. Prayers that overthrow oppression and exploitation and systems of injustice.


Prayer: Lord, we pray today for our nation. We are standing on the eve of an important election, poised to decide which way we will go. Our choices will give shape to our future and to the future of new generations to follow. We pray that we may each find ways to lend our voices and our votes to securing a more just and a more inclusive society, a society, a nation that lives up to the vision that all people are created equal. Amen.

 
 Rev. Dr. David Hansen

Friday, October 28, 2022

"Tensions in Whoville"

 I was sorting through a stack of books about to be discarded by a friend when I came across Mary Oliver's  Red Bird, a collection of her poems that I had not read before.  Her poem "Of The Empire" grabbed me and has been gnawing at me ever since:

We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the 

many.  We will be known as a culture that taught 

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

 people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity.  And they will say that this structure 

was held together politically, which it was, and

 they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of 

the heart, and that the heart, in those days

was small, and hard, and full of meanness. 

Oliver published this in 2008.  It put me in mind of the Dr. Seuss story of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" - - the heart thing.  The Grinch's heart was two sizes too small - hard and full of meanness.  In the well known classic, the Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas and all its trimmings from the town of Whoville. Disguising himself as Santa Claus, he cleans out the town  - the presents, the food for the feast, the Christmas Tree - all in the attempt to extingish the joyful noise of Christmas in Whoville that has annoyed him every year for 53 years.

As the mid-term elections loom in another couple of weeks, it is hard to get the "grinchiness" - - the small, hard and mean-heartedness of our politics out of my mind.  So much of what we value in our much threatened "Whoville" seems destined for the Grinch's sack - abortion rights, safe and honest elections, voting rights, sane and clear thinking legislators in congress who put the wellfare of the country and our democracy above their own greed for power at the expense of truth.

In the story, the Grinch takes his fully laden sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit and prepares to dump the stolen belongings into the abyss.    A harrowing thought as the mid-terms draw near.  Children's stories simply must have a happy ending and when, on Christmas morning, the still joyful sounds of the people of Whoville reach the Grinch's ears, he is transformed - his heart grows 3 sizes larger - he joins the population of Whoville in their celebration of Christmas.   It was their heartfelt and joyous singing that did it. 

Of the ending of the story, author, Ted (Seuss) Geisel wrote: I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism... Finally in desperation... without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the 'roast beast.' ... I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that. 

He got the Grinch out of the mess.  Whole hearted, full throated, joyful singing brought down the mean spirited Grinch - the one with the spiders in his soul.  The Whos and the Grinch sat at table together.

I wonder...could "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" be a parable for our time? The mid-term elections are approaching. The loaded sack is nearing the edge of the abyss.  Are there enough of us  singing?



Vicky Hanjian