Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jobs, Justice, and God's Grace

"And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Becasue no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
                                                                                         Matthew 20: 6-7

I used to see them standing idle.

Like the laborers from Jesus' parable in Matthew 20: 1-16, they stood on street corners in Los Angeles, waiting for some contractor in his big Chevy pick-up to come and offer them a day's work. I was a middle school teacher, and as I drove to my own work every morning through the streets of LA's Harbor District, I'd see groups of about six or seven Mexican guys just hanging out, waiting. Maybe they'd get lucky and someone would put them to work painting a house or digging a trench. I'm pretty sure they didn't get paid union scale. My hunch is that many of them were illegal, just working for whatever they could to get by. If no one needed them that day, they'd go home with nothing.

I used to feel for those guys. Granted, I've never been out of work for too long a stretch myself, but I remember how it felt when I was a kid and my dad lost his job. I was about ten years old, and I came home from school one day to find my dad already home. He was never home before me. It felt weird. He and my mom were standing in the living room facing each other. People don't stand in living rooms, I thought. They sit on ugly, overstuffed 1960's era furniture and watch TV. Even as a ten-year-old I could tell that something was wrong.

"Daddy doesn't work for Douglas anymore," my mom told me (Douglas being the aeospace giant that employed half of our town). Unfortunately, Daddy didn't work  for anyone for the next fourteen months.

Fourteen months. Unemployment benefits ran out. Savings vanished. Debt. Food Stamps. Pride kicked to the curb. "Sorry, kids, we can't afford it."

And you only have to be out a short time to get a long ways behind.

For the next fifteen years, until he took his retirement, my father's work history was spotty: a couple of months here, a couple of years there, punctuated by lay-off notices and some outrageous and always unsuccessful self-employment schemes. It was very hard for a boy to see what that did to his dad. My dad was of the generation that believed that good, honest people worked for a living, and bums didn't. Being out of work made him feel like a bum.

When I read the story of the laborers in Matthew's gospel, I don't get too outraged over the indignant attitude of the one's who've worked an entire day for the same wage as the ones who've worked only an hour. Rather, I feel a tremendous sense of relief for the ones who have been left standing in the marketplace, fearing that they will go home with nothing with which to feed their families. How grateful they must have been to the man who gave them a job!

Jesus' parable teaches us about the Kingdom of God--the ideal of a world in which perfect obedience is given to the Lord of Creation. In this kingdom, mercy and grace are valued over our human ideas of justice and "fairness." The landowner gives each laborer the sum they bargained for--"the usual daily wage." Isn't this what we all bargain for when we ask, "Give us this day our daily bread?"

Indeed, the landowner was abundantly generous in rewarding those who worked for only an hour. To my way of thinking, however, his greatest act of generosity was that he allowed them to work at all. In so doing, he gave them more than their wages. He gave them their dignity.

Today the U.S. unemployment rate is rocketing towards 10%. President Obama has proposed a jobs plan that will cost this nation billions of dollars. The deficet hawks will certainly try to bring this plan crashing to the ground. But this old religious guy wonders if they ever consider what unemployment does to the soul of this country. Have they counted the cost to human dignity? To self-worth? What happens to our spirit when we are left standing idle in the marketplace?

This parable is usually interpreted to mean that God's grace is sufficient for all, and that it is not up to us to decide who is more or less worthy of God's bounty of forgiveness and care. For me however, it will always be a picture of compassion--of hunger, despair, and rescue.

Let me know what this story means to you, will you? And thanks again for stopping by.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Imam at Ground Zero

It's hard to believe that the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11 is already upon us. Certainly this anniversary and its terrible memories will find a prominent place in my Sunday masses this week. I will preach on its significance, and the congregation will pray for peace and for comfort for the families of those who were lost on that day.

There will be no prayers, however, at the ceremonies at New York's Ground Zero this year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has chosen to ban clergy participation at the memorial ceremonies (click on link to read article). In a way, I have to agree with the mayor's decision. This will be, after all, a public ceremony. As such, the constitutional separation of Church and State should be respected. The victims of this tragedy were of many faiths and some of no faith at all. As one who has performed hundreds of memorial services myself, I believe the emphasis at such observances needs to be on the wishes of the living; therefore, it is only right that the preferences of the victims' loved ones be honored. Similarly, if any faith is to be represented, it would only be proper that all faiths are represented.

Okay. I get that.

But there's a big part of me that wants to see an imam at Ground Zero.

Yes. I know. The presence of an Islamic cleric at the scene of an act of radical Islamic terrorism may seem to be an egregious offense. But what could be more offensive, more degrading to humanity, than the terror attacks themselves? I wonder if our fear of giving offense isn't hindering our ability to create reconciliation.

Let me explain. If you were to enter the Lutheran church building where I conduct services, you would see prominently displayed as the focal point of the room a cross. You can, of course, make a cross of gold or silver and wear it around your neck as a lovley ornament; however, Christians know that the cross was really an instrument of cold-blooded torture and death--a tool used by an oppressive people to punish, subjugate, and terrorize, the people they had conquored.

Yes, sick as this may sound, when we worship we look to the image of a man being tortured to death by terrorists. This man, in the midst of the worst pain, injustice, and abandonment imaginable, speaks words of comfort and forgiveness (See Luke 23: 32-43). When we see him in his great pain, we know he is also in our pain--our human pain. When we hear his great compassion and love, we have to believe that this can also be our compassion, our love.

In a way, I see 9/11 as America's Calvary. We survivors stood at the foot of the cross and watched helplessly as terrorists did their worst. We also witnessed sacrificial love as many first responders offered up their lives for strangers.

But it was not just America that was wounded on that day. Decent, observant, God-fearing Muslims around the world must have felt the wound--a terrible sting of shame for what some perverted minority did in the name of their faith. What pain must burn in their minds knowing that in the conventional thoughts of Westerners, Islam will forever be associated with unthinking, murderous evil.

Yes, Mister Mayor, you've made the right call. The expedient, politically safe call. But I am still looking to our American Calvary and waiting for the words, "Father, forgive them." I would long to hear a Muslim cleric, perhaps representing the many Muslims who also perished on that awful day, say prayers for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation on the anniversary of Islam's darkest hour.

Pleae let me know what you think. Thank you, my friend, for stopping by.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Love, Atheists, and the Wrath of God (With Special Guest Michele Bachmann)

Some years ago a friend of mine was asked by his young daughter if he believed in God. "Do you mean," he replied, "do I believe that there's some old man up in the clouds who you ask for favors and he gives you things? No. I don't believe in that."

Shortly thereafter, my friend was diagnosed with cancer. He endured a very serious operation to remove a brain tumor. The operation had the potential to leave him blind or otherwise impaired. I had the chance to speak with him once he was sufficiently recovered from his surgery to talk on the phone. He was still very weak and exhausted from the ordeal, but his eyesight, memory, and motor skills seemd to be intact. He could only speak for a few minutes. "I just want you to know, Owen," he said, "that when I woke up from the surgery, I told God I loved him, and that I knew he loved me."

I don't believe that my otherwise skeptical friend's reaction was the result of a "no-atheists-in-a-foxhole" sort of desperation. I really want to believe that he experienced the true and overwhelming joy of being, and felt the love of God flowing through that experience. I'd give anything to ask him if this were so, but, unfortunately, his cancer turned out to be more aggressive and he died several months after his operation.

Still, I rejoice that he found some relationship with God through his experience. When we know how awesome life and creation can be--possibly because we are at the risk of losing life--how else can we respond but with love? The author of the First Letter of John said it all: "Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:8)

I believe that God is loving us every day in millions of ways. The love of God takes the form of the colors we see, the wind we feel on our faces, the smells, the tastes, and the myriad relationships we experience. God is loving us in the affection we know from one another, in our intellects and imaginations. Why would we not want to love in return?

It always amuses me that the so-called "militant atheists" such as Dawkins and Hitchens don't have a problem with others experiencing God. It just seems that they don't want anyone to have an opinion about the experience. "Please!" they seem to say, "Don't relate to the experience. Don't express gratitude, and, whatever you do, don't celebrate corporately! That sort of behavior might be--dare we even say it..?--WORSHIP!"

But the love of God makes me want to worship. I want to build a magnificent building for the purpose of celebrating God. I want to sing, to write music, to tell stories and share feasts. I want to create, and to make my own life a work of art that responds to the glory of creation.

Ah. But this is where I hear you saying, "Well that's okay for you, Pal. But what about when your glorious 'phenomenon of existence' turns out to be ugly and destructive? What about earthquakes and tornados, and hurricanes, and stuff like that? Just how lovey-dovey are you feeling now?"

I should add that this is being written right in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene--who just breezed through my part of the US leaving billions of dollars worth of damage and not a few fatalities in her wake. The age-old question, I feel certain, is again being asked, "If God is love, how can love kill innocent people? And who would want to love a god like that anyway?"

That's a toughie.

Granted, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claims that natural disasters and mass devastation are just God's way of telling Washington politicians to reduce the size of government.

Okay. In fairness to the congresswoman, she did admit that she was just kidding when she said that. Nevertheless, information from the Association of Religious Data suggests that some 31% of Americans surveyed may believe that God acts as a punishing judge, and that natural catastrophes like Irene are signs of Divine Wrath. Here's what I think:

FIRST, like the ancient Hebrews, I do believe that all natural phenomena are, in fact, manisfestations of God. God is in the act of creating. The movement of tectonic plates (remember we on the East Coast were also just surprised by an earthquake in Virginia. I grew up in Southern California where earthquakes are common, so I didn't even feel it--even though it scared the living snot out of lots of other folks!) and the natural evaporation and condensation of the water cycle are what created mountains and rivers in the first place. The earth is constantly changing, and it's a good thing because we couldn't very well have survived under the same conditions in which the dinosauers thrived. What may seem destructive to our human interests today may, in fact, be giving rise to other forms of life. It's all in your point of view. In any event, the creative changing of the earth is constant, so it cannot be seen as a referendum on current morals or political philosophy. Sorry, Ms. Bachmann.

SECONDLY, nothing exists without its oppposite. Because we experience light, we will also know darkness. Because we love, we will also know the pain of separation and loss. It cannot be otherwise. This means that whenever we are threatened or bereft, we are reminded of the value of what we have lost or stood to lose. Moments of disaster are also moments of increased appreciation.

THIRDLY, when nature threatens, we are also given opportunity. At such moments we recognize our own helplessness and our own interdependence on our brothers and sisters. We have an opportunity for empathy, cooperation, compassion, charity, and gratitude. Our desperation makes us grow more human, and our acts of giving and receiving kindness--our acts of love--are also a form of worship. When we reach out to help strangers--even if we see ourselves as being more "spiritual" than "religious"--we are still performing a religious act. We are connecting with love. (Hey. Want to have church right now? Click on this link and reach out to Hurricane Irene victims!)

AND FINALLY (Don't you love it when a preacher says that?), if God is sending us any message at all through weather events like Irene, it is probably this: There's a lot more water in the atmosphere these days due to increased evaporation due to increased global temperature. This means bigger and stronger storms and more destruction. If the increased gobal temperature is the result of anything we are doing--like burning fossil fuels for example--then we better get our act together and find another way to make energy before we turn this whole planet into one inhospitable mess.

When I was a little kid, my mom taught me and my sisters a table prayer which began with the phrase, "God is great, God is good..." I believe that. Nothing I've seen in over 50 years on this planet has made me change my mind.

I LOVE that you took time to read my blog. Please let me know your thoughts.