Friday, August 16, 2019

"Jesus said..."


Jesus Said . . .
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
When he spoke these words either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he was telling his followers something very important, something that we need to know in this time of crisis, when the earth itself is weeping for us. The ice caps and glaciers are melting and the seas are rising and fires are burning and scientists are warning that the time is short. Either we will change the way we life, or change will be forced upon us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. We have been told too often and for too long that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It’s a simply-minded half-truth. Guns are frequently the means of choice, especially when the killers intend to inflict maximum pain in the shortest time possible. Nine people were killed in Dayton in 30 seconds, half a minute. Today we grieve for the people of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, knowing that next week it is very likely that we will have a new cities and new communities to pray for. There have been 255 mass shootings in the United States already this year--in the first 8 months--and we have four more months to go.
        Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. Bullet proof backpacks are the newest item for parents to buy as they prepare to send their children back to school, where they will learn active shooter drills.
We don’t want to remember, but I cannot forget that Stokely Carmichael once observed that “violence is as American as apple pie.” As if to memorialize this quote, the governor of Tennessee recently honored the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacist groups have been encouraged by our political climate, changing demographics, and economic stress.
Economist Paul Krugman says that the central story of US politics today is the rise of economic radicalism championed by the wealthy who want to reduce their taxes and shred the social safety net. Privatization is the name of their game. Think of this, the newly appointed acting head of the Bureau of Land Management is the poster child for privatization of federal land. He was a leader in the “Sagebrush Revolution.” The goal of that revolution was to privatize all the national parks and other federal land. The very man who led that effort is now the head of the Bureau of Land Management. He has responsibility for overseeing our national parks.
 I recite these events because, as Wendell Berry has said, we need to be clear-eyed. The news is not so good. The Center for Disease Control tells us that life-expectancy is a snapshot of our nation’s mental, spiritual and physical health and well-being. Over the last few years there has been a decline in our average life expectancy. According to the CDC suicide and drug overdose are two of the leading causes contributing to this decline.
In this toxic environment of fear and intimidation, let us hear and heed the words of our leader. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he knew something really important. Or, maybe it is because he had his head in the clouds he was able to see the world not only as it, but also as it might be for in the next breath, Jesus tells his followers, “Be dressed and ready for action.” These are not the words of someone who is willing to settle for the status quo, or accept the counsel of those who tell us: There is no alternative. Jesus’ words are a call to action.
Howard Thurman, a famous teacher and preacher and author wrote, Jesus and the Disinherited: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [Jesus of Nazareth] appears as a technique for survival for the oppressed.” Let us declare with the author of the gospel of John: “In him was life, and his life was a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
        Let us admit that the weight of the Christian movement is often on the side of the strong and the powerful. Establishment Christians have fallen in line with the politics and policies of racism and division. Let’s admit it. If you have not already done so, in the future you will hear establishment Christians talking about “public religion.” What they mean is that they want a Christian theocracy to replace our liberal democracy. The problem, as they see it, is that we have too much democracy. They contend that what we need is public religion, a puritanical code of conduct. Do not be fooled. Those who speak of “public religion” are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
 When Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your mother/father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Take no thought of your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; not for your body and what you shall put on. Your life is more than meat and your body more than raiment.” he was casting a vision of a new society; a society that is inclusive and open.
We live in a retributive society that believes in an eye for an eye. As a nation we want to reserve the worst forms of punishment for people whom we believe have committed the worst forms of crime--- those whom we label terrorists. Historically and in the present too often we, white people, are inclined, consciously or otherwise, to equate whiteness with goodness, and terrorism with everyone else. I will give you an example of how this works.
        Today in Louisiana and North Dakota and elsewhere people like Water Protectors, who organize to block pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline, are legally classified as “domestic terrorists.” Protesters, water protectors, are labeled terrorists subject to arrest, fines and in some cases jail. Meanwhile, according to the Brennen Center for Justice, only 10 percent of our states report any hate crime persecutions.
We need legal reforms, but even more we need more public discussion, not public religion. We need to break down religious, racial and gender barriers. The good news is, we are. Our nation is becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and more open.
When hatred and fear stalk the land, when the logic of the strong replaces moral judgment, when those who walk the corridors of power and occupy seats of privilege are eager to declare open season on any person or group or city that they perceive as weak or vulnerable--be it immigrant communities, cities like Baltimore, or people of color, or women, or children, we need to know two things.
First, we have to recognize that the most effective way that those who have power can hold on to power is to inject fear into the body politic. This was Machiavelli’s advice in his political manifesto, The Prince, a book that is often regarded as one of the first books on statecraft in the modern era. Machiavelli famously counseled the prince that it is better to be feared than loved.
Once this disease of fear has infected the body politic there is no simple way to eradicate it. There is no easy way to regain health. But there is a way. And this is the second thing that we must remember. There is a way. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” A kingdom founded not on fear, but on love. Love is a strategy for defeating fear.
Such love requires building relationships, confessing wrongs of the past and mapping out plans and pathways leading toward the restoration of justice--right relationships. Only in this way can we create a society in which people can live without shame or humiliation. Together we can build a society that is beyond thick walls of intimidation.
       Simply put to love one another means that we value and respect each other enough to look for strategies that will remove deprivations and emphasize human capabilities and capacities. Sitting Bull, a great leader of the Sioux nation, said to his assassins shortly before he was killed, “Come, let us put our minds together and see how we can make the world a better place for our children.” Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is a kingdom and a kin-dom strategy.
I submit that love is the strategy chosen by members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who were recently attending a church-wide assembly in Milwaukee, Wis. In the spirit of Martin Luther, who posted 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, five hundred members of ELCA assembly marched into the ICE office in Milwaukee and posted 9.5 theses to the office door declaring the ELCA is now a sanctuary church. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created a national agency called the Accompanying Migrant Minors and Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities ministry. When these church delegates marched into to the ICE office they declared: “This is what love looks like.” It looks like a ministry to protect, advocate for, and represent the most vulnerable members of our community.
           Jesus said: “Your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is the key to this kingdom. Love is the strategy used by a group of Roman Catholic peace activists known as the Kings Bay 7, who one year ago, in August 2018, broke into the US Navy Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base to protest war. They were arrested, as they knew they would be. Some have been in jail for a year waiting for their case to come to trial, which it recently did. What is particularly interesting about this case is that in their defense the Kings Bay 7 cited the same law that Hobby Lobby successfully cited in their challenged to the government’s contraception mandate. The Kings Bay 7 argued that they acted on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs. The judge who heard this case has yet to issue a verdict.
Love is a strategy for change and transformation, this is what we need to know. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe gained notoriety two years ago when Water Protectors led the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Now they have opened up a new front line of struggle and hope. Today the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has the largest solar farm in North Dakota, demonstrating their commitment to renewable energy based on an ethic of respect for the earth. Other indigenous communities in New Mexico, Nevada and elsewhere are also investing in renewable energy.
Friends, now is the time to believe that it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Now is the time to proclaim release to the people held captive by fear. Now is the time to set at liberty all people oppressed by poverty and discrimination. Now is the time to proclaim this is the year of the Lord’s favor. To borrow a phrase from Habitat for Humanity, now is the time, “to put love in the mortar joints” of our communities.
   When Jesus told his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother has been pleased to give you the kingdom,” he may have had his head in the clouds, but he also had his eyes on prize, which was to create a community that would embody love and create strategies that would build on everyone’s capacities and capabilities, so that together we might see how we can make this world a better place for all children. So be it. Amen.
Rev. David Hansen, Ph.D.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Living with the Change

         I used to think our island was a place of relative immunity when it came to the many and stressful social ills that are so abundant on the mainland.  Neighbors care about neighbors.  We can still leave our homes unlocked.  It is not unusual to stop by to visit someone and find no one at home, doors and windows wide open, a vestige of an era long disappeared from so much of our country and culture.  It used to be the same with the various churches and the synagogue too.  Open doors, easy access for a moment of quiet reflection in a sanctuary, office personnel ready to welcome and provide assistance.

But we are living with change.  As the local Congregational Church prepares for a guest preacher from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the deacons meet to learn how to evacuate the sanctuary in the event of a crisis.  Police presence is considered. With rare exception, church doors in the community are locked with entry codes provided to church members.

There is police presence in the synagogue for Shabbat services now.   The doors are locked when services begin.  Latecomers must be admitted by an armed officer.  We are living with change - change initiated by fear as assaults on civilians by individuals armed with devastating weapons  happen with increasing regularity.  As happens with every unspeakable event, the outcry against gun violence and the urgency to "do something!" surges across the nation...and very little effective action is taken at the highest levels of government to insure the safety of human beings in this country.

Our pastor challenged us with her passionate preaching last week.  She spoke about privilege, economic and white: The problem with privilege, particularly economic privilege, is that it gives us a false sense of accomplishment.  It disregards whose shoulders we stand upon, and obscures the labor and struggle of those who have paved the way. Privilege inches us further and further away from our vulnerability , and our vulnerability is a key ingredient to our humanity...privilege inches us further and further into isolation and away from God, the Creator and Provider.

There is another type of privilege that requires just as much, perhaps even more, self examination, internal monologue and prayer, and that is the privilege of being born white, or  identifying as white.  The great sins of our nation, slavery and segregation, are painful and powerful and they remain unaddressed.   Since we dare not discuss such sins in public, they get twisted up inside of us in the form of racial prejudice and racial bias.  We all carry bias, the burden of our nation's sinful past, within us.  It's our societal inheritance, and it's a barrier to realizing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  (Rev. Cathlin Baker)

I sit with her words and realize once again that the gun violence that we experience across the country is but one symptom of a national and collective "soul sickness" arising out of the failure to address the sin's of the past. This is an enormous work, clearly not yet undertaken.  It is hard to hear "I'm not a racist" being shouted thru the national bull horn when the confession needs to be "Yes - I am a racist. Confession and repentance and truth and justice are part of the healing that I will work for across this nation."   This is the subtle melody I yearn for as the election rhetoric ramps up. Will we be able to identify and elect a leader who understands the sick soul of this country - one who can bear the pain of consciousness, who can confess, and repent and seek justice - one who will "lead us in the paths of righteousness", one who will inspire rigorous self examination and humility in us in the face of the enormity of the task of truth telling and healing and reconciliation? 

       Our pastor's closing prayer was this: May we be vigilant in our self examination, allowing God to illuminate the privileges that escape us.  May self-awareness disarm our prejudice and draw us into consciousness.  May we each reflect the virtues and values required for peace and justice -generosity over greed, compassion over coarseness, decency over denigration, humility over hubris.  AMEN 

Vicky Hanjian








 

Friday, August 2, 2019

As a Great Chorus of Inclusion



              In the video and sound recordings of the rally in Greenville, North Carolina, it was hard not to hear echoes of “sieg heil” in the frenzied chant of the crowd. It was hard not to imagine raised arms in Nazi salute; not to feel the psychic fear carried within us as Jews when venomous hatred is directed at one who is deemed different, regarded as other, and therefore unwelcome. I do not know the legal definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense. I do know when a moral line has been crossed in a leader’s cynically conscious effort to divide people from each other.

In the way of the Torah’s search for wholeness amidst its own narratives of brokenness, a poignant affirmation of diversity follows the violence of zealotry in whose grip the weekly Torah portion Pinchas (Numb. 25:10-30:1) opens. 
At the end of the preceding portion, Balak, Pinchas has slain two human beings, an Israelite prince and a Midianite princess. Now given names, Zimri and Cozbi are made real and become known to us as people. All victims of violence have names. However fraught the context of their killing, as though polemics and politics can justify, the dead are real people who loved and were beloved.

Tasting the bitter residue of violence throughout the portion, violence is challenged in ways both subtle and direct. At the outset of Pinchas, just after the zealot has done his murderous deed, in what seems to be an absurd act, God says, Lo! I shall give to him My covenant: Peace/hi’n’ni noten lo et b’riti shalom (Numb. 25:12). When translated correctly, we hear God’s prayerful hope that Pinchas shall rise to the challenge of peace. God has not given him a “covenant of peace,” as commonly translated, but simply “My covenant,” adding the word shalom, as though to say, “so may it be, peace…!” It is a covenant that is meant, in the view of one commentator, the Ha’emek Davar, to redirect the residue of violence that remains within Pinchas. In the word shalom that carries God’s hope, the vertical letter vav is traditionally written in two halves, upper and lower with a space or a line in between, the only place in the Torah of such orthographic teaching, a broken letter that becomes its own prayer for wholeness.

           Not with weapons, but with words, it is women in the portion who offer the most direct challenge to injustice. The daughters of Tzelophchad challenge Moses for the right to inherit following the death of their father, who had no sons. Engaging with God, Moses accedes to the rightness of their claim. This “squad” of women bravely stood forward and spoke truth to power. Perhaps moved more deeply than he realized, just after the claim of the daughters is made, Moses appeals to God with a name that is used only twice in the Torah.

Told of his impending death, Moses is reminded that he had struck the rock to bring forth water, rather than having used words as instructed. In a moment of selfless nobility, Moses does not argue for himself, as he does at other times, but pleads with God only that the people be given a leader who will, in effect, do justice to the holy calling of the people: yifkod ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/Let God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint one over the community who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will lead them in, so that the community of God shall not be like sheep that have no shepherd… (Numb. 27:17).

The poignant power of Moses’ plea is in the way he addresses God, ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/God, the God of the spirits of all flesh…. It is a name that melts the heart in the fullness of its embrace of all, in its universal import, in its affirmation of diversity. It sings of the importance of each one, uttering a sacred call for leadership that recognizes both collective and individual needs as two parts of one whole. In the appearance in one verse of ru’ach/spirit and basar/flesh, expression is given to the essence of what it means to be human, each of us a physical vessel containing God’s spirit as refracted through the uniqueness of who we each are. A link is made between each person and the breath of God that hovered over the face of the waters in the very beginning, ru’ach elokim m’rachefet al p’nei ha’mayyim (Gen. 1:2). Moses reminds God of the gentle essence that is God’s own breath that is breathed into each one at the beginning, our own beginning and that of the world.

God as the God of the spirits of all flesh is the name by which Moses addresses God only twice in the Torah. The other place is in the portion called Korach, (Numb. 16:22). Each of these contexts is a moment of transition, even of danger, concern for what will be going forward. In Korach, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces when God threatens to destroy the whole people. Pleading for God's mercy, they appeal to God with this most inclusive name, reminding God, as it were, of God's connection to all the people, to all people.

               Seen through the lens of Midrash, Moses’ way of addressing God at a point of transition following the violence of Pinchas becomes an affirmation of diversity, an urgent call to see all the people as part of one whole. None are to be sent away, home is right there, and all belong. A classical Midrashic work called Tanchumah draws from the diversity in God’s name as God of the spirits of all flesh an opportunity to reflect on a blessing for diversity, considering when we should say a powerfully beautiful blessing, Blessed are you God, our God, Sovereign of the Universe/m’shaneh ha’bri’yot/who makes all creatures differently.

In that spirit, the midrash goes on to suggest the nature of the leader Moses seeks to succeed him, the rabbis speaking then for Moses: appoint for them one who will bear each and every one according to who they are…. Continuing in that way, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the leader of a generation is one who is able to raise up all the words and the stories of the people of the generation/l’ha’a lot kol ha’dibburim v’ha’sippurim shel anshei doro…. Reflecting the tensions in the portion between the way of weapons and of words, of Moses’ call for a leader who will go out before them and who will come in before them, Rashi imagines a military leader going into battle at the head of the troops. Many centuries later, in the way of the Torah’s seeking its own corrective to violence, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch nearly screams out, going out and coming in by no means designates only the leading of armies in war…, [but] is accordingly the term for the general activity of one set at the head of a nation…, who is at the forefront going about as an example for public and private life…, as the activity of a shepherd is devoted to the thriving and welfare of the flock.

In the face of the violence from which this portion flows, so in the face of all the violence of those who would shout “send her back,” may new leadership emerge that begins with each of us. Calling on God as the God of the spirits of all flesh, may we bless our diversity, enriched in our hearing and holding the stories of each one. As a great chorus of inclusion that would sing away zealotry, violence, and hate, may we yet witness the gathered crowd calling out to the leader and the leader to the people, Blessed is the One who makes all creatures differently.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein