Sunday, March 8, 2015

First United Church Bloomington (IN)

John 2:13-22

When I was a young fourteen- or fifteen-year-old 9th grader just beginning high school, I tried out for track. I had spent years running, trying to hide from my father?s blistering backhand swats aimed at me for any number of perceived faults I had, added to the reality of his just not being happy. I was hunting for redemption, actually. The problem was I had no interest in playing basketball.

That was a near criminal and certainly a cardinal sin where I came from. ?Rossville Jr. Sr. High has no football program so that basketball can be the top priority.?? But, I knew how to run. I turned out not to be good at running sprints. I was not swift and I was not coordinated. I did not run and glide like the wind. I was more like a bull in a china shop who did not stop until everything was broken. So, they suggested that I do long distance. I was strong and determined and not so very smart?my brain was a bit slow in developing of some the higher skills. I did not learn to read until junior high school; it just sort of clicked into place one day.

The absence of having obvious skills, like being able to play basketball, running fast, reading, having math and science skills?you know the basics for a successful school career and a job?interestingly, left me with a passion for perseverance, a need to develop patience, and a quest for truth. It struck me early on that everyone thought they knew the truth about nearly everything, including what I should do with the few skills I had.

Back in the summer, after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we came face to face again with one of the ugliest realities of my lifetime?the ongoing and persistent presence of our personal and societal racism in regard to blacks. I realize as I say this that by so stating I am leaving out that white America is just as biased racially toward Hispanics and Latinos, and oh just about anybody else that looks different, isn?t lily white. It staggers me still that we so don?t understand our personal and societal racism. I walk into nearly every encounter of my life knowing that I am sincerely caring, but biased and racist by the way I was taught. Such an understanding of my learned behaviors enables me at my best to counterbalance those realities to treat people fairly and to stand with them more easily in the face of unreflective and purposeful racism.

I hope you read the reports that came out of the Department of Justice this past week. If not, go back to whatever source you use for news and locate them and read them. Systemic, structural and personal racism hounds the police and court and legal systems in Ferguson, Missouri. However, the Justice Department did not find that the facts of the shooting of Michael Brown sufficient to demonstrate furthering a federal civil rights investigation and prosecution of the police officer who shot Michael Brown.

What they did find in the federal investigation is that to be black in Ferguson, Missouri opens the flood gates to power imbalances and radical abuse. Blacks are 67% of the population of Ferguson, Missouri, yet 85% of the vehicle stops were of cars driven by African Americans, 93% of the arrests made were of African Americans, 88% of the times force was used were used toward African Americans, 100% of the time police dogs were used was against black citizens. This is the reason that we continue to hear that there is no justice in black communities. They know they are picked on, not because of crimes that might have been committed, but simply because of structural, systemic, and personal racial biases. Blacks don?t trust the system because they know it is unfair to them.

Statistics do not prove racial bias, but taken together with other evidence uncovered by the federal probe, we can say easily and assuredly that the Ferguson police department was clearly and disproportionately targeting the African American community, and these realities mirror what minorities in all communities across our nation and here in Bloomington have been telling us for years.

It takes persistent pressure to bring about societal and personal change in regard to racial issues. If you took the risk back in the summer after Trayvon Martin was killed, and then Michael Brown, along with 1 African American make every 28 hours in our country?, then pull out your New York Times or your Christian Science Monitor and take the statistics to dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, or to the bar, and talk about the horror of knowing that these racially-based realities are happening in our land, amongst our people whom we care for and love. It is a long distance run that requires the greatest of perseverance to succeed in.

It is interesting to me that in the past many years we Christians have been made fun of and defined, rightly so, because of all the things that it was assumed that we were against–like anything fun. We were against alcohol, drinking it and buying it. We were against all but the most necessary sexual activities and then they had to be focused toward procreation. We were against Sunday sale of anything and against gambling. If we were Baptists then we were against Methodists, and all Protestants were against Catholics and vice versa.?? But, together we Christians were all against Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.?? We were against birth control, against being pro-choice and certainly Christians were against gay rights and marriage equality.

Sadly, we were best known for being against everything but our white Christian traditions and MOST SIGNIFICANTLY we were not for that which people know matters most?fairness, equality, justice, humility and forgiveness.

We are now in the 3rd week of Lent. We are headed with Jesus toward Jerusalem and his death. For the last 1,000 years of Christendom this journey to death has been so very significant, sacrosanct even. That Jesus was willing to lay his life on the line for what he believed was most important about living well, is very important. However, I don?t think for a second that Jesus risked his life as he did in order to die, nor do I believe that God desired Jesus? death. Death is sometimes what happens when we are living lives that are running in opposition to what the status quo says must be obeyed. In that regard, Michael Brown?s death has a great deal to teach us along with Jesus?. However, in both cases what is most important to notice is not their deaths, which were tragic, but what their lives encountered as they were seeking to live free and meaningful lives.

In this morning?s story Jesus goes to the Temple and does some significant street theater by overturning the money changers? tables in the outer court of the Jewish Temple, and exclaiming, ?You shall not turn God?s House into a market!? I have to assume that there were Girl Scout cookies being sold even then. They are so tempting and delicious (and I understand from my so-called Christian fundamentalist friends that the cookie sales go to promote a progressive, Hilary Clinton lesbian take-over of our country. Hearing of that agenda, rather than buying my usual two boxes, I bought four.

Here is where I hope to be going with all of this: as we turn the corner toward the finishing stretches of Easter, please join with me in avoiding and speaking plainly against the anti-Semitism that most us perpetuate without even thinking we are doing it. It is not easy to be perceived as part of the Christian majority while giving voice and strength against the virulent strains of racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia that our acquaintances, our family members, are assuming we agree with?because we are Christian.

Be amongst the first to tell others that there have always been hundreds of varieties of Christianity, if not thousands. All of them are interpretations and we ought to be very critical and careful of any that claim that they ?have the truth.? And, any of us that claim that Jesus went in to destroy the temple or invalidate the Temple are most likely being anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish. There is no need to make Jesus anti-Jewish because, if anything, Jesus was foundationally a strong and faithful Jew who was most likely interested in making Judaism stronger and more viable in the face of what he probably experienced as unnecessary commerce in the Temple, and Roman cultural overtones, that were taking away some of the Jewish sacred strengths that he and his cousin John the Baptist were seeking to rectify.

Jesus was not a Christian being critical of the Jewish establishment. He was a Jewish man, a rabbi, being critical of those who were using the Temple system to maintain abusive control over and further oppress the poor masses. Any Christian who wants to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is called to love and respect Judaism as Jesus did, and to require of our Christianity the same resolve to be worthy of being found emulating what God most requires of us?to love mercy, justice, and to walk humbly upon the earth with God as our loving companion and judge.

Last week our Congress invited the Prime Minister of Israel to speak before our legislature. That political statement was undoubtedly done because support for the nation of Israel is fading fast in our country, which gives Israel around 4 billion dollars in aid every year. Many in Congress are very fundamental Christians who believe the narrative that Jews have a God given right and necessity to be in their ancestral homeland of Palestine.

The same Christian fundamentalism also believes that when all the Jews are back in Israel, Jesus will come again and set all good Christians over the Jews and everybody else since Christians are the fundamental religious truth. Israeli politicians have long taken advantage of Christian congress people in this regard. The Israelis don?t believe Jesus is coming back again so they just keep saying, ?Yes, yes to congressional handouts and congressional leaders believe we have to support them to get Jesus back again. It is a circle of weirdness. I celebrate that we have an administration that is willing to look hard, negotiate, and lift up all the Middle East partners in looking for a more lasting peace than we have known in our lifetime.

I am not being anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic. Israel has a right to expect security. The other nations have a right to their own freedom of religion and to their nationalism. Israel?s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza remains reprehensible. The Palestinians are held in ghettos and treated much like we treat African Americans in this country. All of us should be ashamed, and working to bring release to the captives of our times, and I think surely God would be pleased. Judaism, Islam and Christianity would do well if we all lived up to our highest ideals and probably many of our conflicts with our neighboring countries would nearly cease to exist?as we practice, even you and me, compassion toward the differences in others that make us so uncomfortable.

Jesus got crazy in this morning?s Temple scene, I suspect, because, like all of you, you know that being in church is not what it is all about.

God wants justice.

God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and “men of vision” of this world launch their grand crusades, it’s still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That’s certainly the case in our country. We’re embroiled in a war FINANCED by cuts to programs serving those most in need?well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.

Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don’t think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world’s most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax.

No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone’s sins. We’ve got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.

It’s true that we’ve built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth’s resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can’t by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

But when we’re ready to cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” we have an answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” If we would but commit ourselves to the Ways of Jesus of Nazareth, we would find the peace that passes all understanding that would enable us to set free those caught in the spirals of racism. We would eagerly embrace doing unto Iran as we would like Iran to do unto us. We stop seeing this land as our land but that all the creatures of world need space and that sharing our wealth will indeed bring everyone to the table where we will celebrate the abundant grace and mercy of God for all humans and creatures.

The Lenten journey is not about what we give up nearly as much as what we take on?the Way of Jesus, our Christ.