If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Driving by a Burned Out House

this morning I drove by the house
where a fire was set
the windows were shut
like blind eyes with running mascara
from a flood of tears
on the doorstep was a pile
of stuffed animals
toys for the children
engulfed in the flames of anger
offered by neighbors saddened
by the soot and sorrow and silence

a boyfriend, with "friend" being questionable,
released from prison for crimes of violence
came back to stalk and spew forth anger
from a strangled childhood
he lit a fire for a mother
and her sleeping children
a fire that would not burn away
the wood around his heart
the scales on his vision
but rather consumed
the sleeping occupants
of the house
leaving only
soot and ashes
and blind eyes

Monday, February 23, 2009

One guy outside the ark: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

The waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so you destroy the hopes of mortals.---Job 14:19

a sour stream runs through my life
it rushes through the canyons of my days
wearing my body thin, tearing up my roots
who can fight against the torrents of God,
against the headwaters of Yahweh's foul flood?

I am not Noah, nor one of his relatives
I am just a poor guy who missed getting into the ark
before the door slammed shut with a loud bang
the blood drained from my face
as the slow drip of water fell from the sky

The water is beginning to rise
and the boat begins to creak
I feel the wetness on my feet
I cry out and bang my fists bloody on the ark door
the water rises to my ankles, then my legs

my voice is going hoarse from the screaming
my knees are now covered in the mud and debris
It's up to my waist, my chest, now my neck
the churning waters try to pull me under

I stand on my tip toes and look up into the gray sky
shouting to the Noah-god as the water reaches my mouth
I gurgle to the heavens, "please open the door for me...
there is still room in the ark for one more...
open the door before I............

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins: Race, Religion and the Presidential Election

Last night I attended a lecture by Dr. Dwight Hopkins at Franklin and Marshall College entitled "Race, Religion, and the Presidential Election." Dr. Hopkins is a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School (http://divinity.uchicago.edu/faculty/hopkins.shtml) and an ordained Baptist minister. His books include Introducing Black Theology of Liberation, Being Human: Race, Culture and Religion, Heart and Head: Black Theology-Past, Present, and Future, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology, just to name a few.

Dr. Hopkins presentation was an excellent overview and contextualization of the controversy over Barack Obama's relationship to Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. I spoke to Dr. Hopkins after the lecture and said that I hoped he had opportunity to present this lecture to many audiences to provide a deeper context for the skewed and distorted media portrayal of Rev. Wright, Trinity UCC, and Black theology (See my article on Obama, Wright, and Racism in America: http://peace.mennolink.org/cgi-bin/m.pl?a=475).

In his lecture Dr. Hopkins began with the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright that erupted during Obama's presidential campaign. When the controversy broke through the news Dr. Hopkins, who is a member at Trinity UCC, was barraged by the media wanting to know about the black church, black theology, Trinity UCC, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He spent a considerable amount of time explaining and defending each against the distortions created by the media sound bites.

Methodically Dr. Hopkins explained to the audience of young F & M students, and a sprinkling of us older persons, the historical emergence of black theology during the 60's as a Christian response to the Black Power movement. Dr. Jame Cone was at the forefront of this movement with the 1969 publication of his book Black Theology and Black Power. I first came across Black theology in the early 80's in my exploration of a variety of liberation theologies. Dr. Hopkins proposes that Black liberation theology is not a radical, militant alternative for understanding and responding to the black experience in America, but can be found in the black slave narratives and the contemporary black church. Black theology grows out of the the Bible and particularly the socio-political ministry of Jesus Christ.

It was helpful to hear Dr. Hopkins present the differences between Obama and Wright. Wright was the descendant of slaves, generations of black preachers, was involved in the Civil Rights struggle, and personally experienced segregation. There is more "prophetic anger" in his addresing white racism. Dr. Hopkins spoke of Obama as being white, black, and multicultural. Obama grew up post-Civil Rights era in multicultural Hawaii, was raised by a white mother and grandparents, and had a father whose heart was in Kenya. I identify more with Wright's "prophetic" style and his approach to white racism than I do with Obama's. I've wondered whether or not it was a "stylistic" or generational thing. So, after the lecture I asked Dr. Hopkins about whether the different approaches of Obama and Wright toward white racism was an issue of their social or generational contexts or both. He sees Obama and Wright's differing approaches as being shaped by their historical, social, racial, familial, and generational backgrounds.

Dr. Hopkins also gave a more indepth look at Trinity UCC in Chicago. It was a small dying congregation that intentionally decided stay in heart of the city and to be shaped by an "Afrocentric" agenda, even before they called Rev. Jeremiah Wright to be their pastor in 1972. This is the church that Barack and Michelle attended for 20 years. One wonders whether they could have remained members of Trinity if there had not been the distorted media presentation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity UCC.

This lecture provided the context that most white Americans did not know or understand about the black church, black liberation theology, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his personal, generational, and vocational differences from Obama, and their connection at Trinity UCC. Or possibly did not want to know. An open understanding of these contextual issues might still serve as healing balm for the wounds inflicted upon Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Trinity UCC, the black church, and even the Obamas.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A scratchboard of Edwin Starr for my M.U.S.I.C.: Musicians Undermining Social Injustice series by Leo Hartshorn

Just finished this scratchboard for my M.U.S.I.C.: Musicians Undermining Social Injustice Creatively series. Edwin Starr is known for this song War, which decries the Vietnam War. His signature song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and backed by the Funk Brothers. It is a powerful antiwar song with a driving, soulful rhythm, which was only released as a single by Motown after repeated requests. The song was originally on the 1970 album Psychedelic Shack by the Temptations, but Motown deemed it too controversial because it might alienate conservative fans and risk marring the image of one Motown's most popular soul groups. Edwin Starr heard the about the debate over the song and volunteered to re-record it. War became one of the most succesful antiwar songs in the history of popular music. In 1999 Edwin Starr's War was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Terrorism of the Righteous: Disarming the Violent Heart; a reflection on Luke 9:51-56

What would you call a threat or an act of violence used to intimidate or harm people that you considered enemies? Wouldn’t you call it “terrorism”? Is “terrorism” an appropriate term to describe the intended actions of James and John, two followers of Jesus? Were there followers of Jesus who were terrorists? Terrorism doesn’t sound like something we would associate with Jesus’ followers. Well, the truth is, James and John threatened to command fire to come down from heaven to incinerate the civilian population of a Samaritan village. In our day and time if someone from the Middle East threatened to send fire from above on an enemy, they would most likely be arrested as terrorists. How is it that those who claimed to follow Jesus could be considered in the same category as terrorists?

Since 9/11 terrorism has brought insecurity and fear into the hearts of many people not only in the United States, but all over the world. Terrorism and the fear it has produced in the American people played a small role in the recent presidential elections, as it has to a greater degree in the past. We are so fearful of that day when terrorism again strikes within our nation that we were willing to spend billions upon billions of dollars on a pre-emptive war and on national security in order to avoid the possibility of another first-hand experience of terrorism. Terrorism is considered by some to be an effective form of threat and intimidation for political and religious ends. Whether or not it is effective, there are those who would justify terrorism or the use of violence simply because it has a “righteous” cause. The biblical text from Luke 9:51-56 challenges Jesus’ followers to question terrorism and any form of violence as a means to some “just“ or “righteous” end.

Terrorism will be part of our national agenda for a long time to come. There is a need for Christians to move beyond an understanding of terrorism as only something that “others” do against “us.” Terrorism, understood as the use of threat, intimidation, or violence against civilians, is not something limited to one particular people, religion, or so-called “righteous cause.” Terrorism has many faces in many cultures. Jesus calls his followers to self-reflection amid cultures of blame. Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers in the midst of terrorism. Jesus calls his followers to disarm their hearts of violence. Jesus’ way stands as a rebuke to anyone who would justify their own brand of terrorism or violence based upon the “righteousness” of their cause.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus had his face set towards Jerusalem, the city of destiny. The city represented the seat of political and religious power. Jesus’ was determined to go to Jerusalem and confront the “principalities and powers in high places” and the fate lying before him. Before they set off for Jerusalem the disciples got into an argument over who was going to be greatest in the kingdom. I can imagine they were thinking of God’s kingdom as an empire that would overthrow the Romans and install Jesus and his disciples as heads of state. They wanted to know where they ranked in the political hierarchy. President. Vice President. Congressman. And on down the line. They didn’t get what Jesus was all about. They never seemed to get it!

As they made their way to Jerusalem, Jesus sent a couple of his disciples ahead to prepare lodging in a Samaritan village. Maybe it was the Holiday Inn. The Samaritans didn’t seem to be too hospitable, though. They didn’t put out a welcome mat. Maybe it was because Jesus had his face set toward Jerusalem. So, the Samaritans treated Jesus like an American in France. You see, the Jews didn’t call Samaritans “good” in those days. They were miffed at each other. Different histories. Different cultures. Different religions. Past conflicts. You know how it goes. I wonder if the Jews poured Samaritan wine in their streets, refused to eat at Samaritan restaurants, and changed the name of Samaritan fried potatoes to “freedom potatoes” or “kosher potatoes,” something like that. The Jews and Samaritans were at odds with one another and shunned public association.

Jesus challenged the social boundaries that separated Jews and Samaritans. He once spoke to a Samaritan woman in public place (John 4). Risky business, Jesus. He told a parable in which a Samaritan was the “hero” of the story, kind of like telling the story of the Good Muslim (Luke 10:39-37). Watch out, Jesus. He even healed a Samaritan leper and recognized his faith (Luke 17:11-19). O, my God, Jesus affirmed the faith of someone who wasn’t a Jew or a Christian! Ouch! It’s interesting to note that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts place a special emphasis and positive light upon the Samaritans.

In Luke 9, the insult from the Samaritans incited the anger of James and John. For this breach of hospitality these disciples suggested to Jesus that they collaborate, work together on a common project---not in an act of peacemaking and reconciliation, but in a miracle of vengeance. That would show the Samaritans where they ranked in God’s kingdom! James and John wanted to execute revenge upon the Samaritans by calling fire down from heaven to destroy the village, kind of like old prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:20-40). Elijah called down fire from heaven before the priests of Baal to consume an animal sacrifice. He did it to prove that his God was the real God and the god of Baal was big fake. Forget that religious tolerance nonsense. Elijah had the priests of Baal slaughtered. Jesus refused to be a prophet like Elijah. He was not going to call down fire from heaven to slaughter the Samaritans. Rather, Jesus rebuked James and John, like he had earlier rebuked an unclean spirit. He would have nothing to do with their “theology of vengeance.”

Why did Jesus even need to rebuke his own followers? Hadn’t they learned anything from him? His disciples should have known that Jesus wasn’t going to buy into any of that Kill-a-Commie-for-Christ or Jihad-for-Jesus nonsense. What were James and John thinking? Where did they get their “moral values” anywhoo? Surely not from Jesus. Maybe they were just good old boys who loved their leader and his kingdom. If someone insults your leader or your country, you don’t turn the other cheek. You label them “unpatriotic.” You call them “Samaritans” with a sneer. You call down fire from heaven in a pre-emptive strike. Lord, have mercy.

Maybe James and John missed out on Jesus’ new disciples class. I wonder if they were off golfing in the valley when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount? Maybe they were in the back pew and couldn’t hear him when he said, ”Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” Who knows. Maybe James and John were fiddling with their bulletins and missed it when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God?” Possibly they were discussing what they were going to have for lunch when Jesus taught them…Do not resist an evildoer…turn the other cheek…go the second mile. Could James and John have dozed off during the part of the sermon when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? Come on. You can’t expect Jesus’ followers to remember everything they hear in a sermon, can you? Most likely they were utterly convinced that they were still following Jesus when they asked him to send fire from on high upon those poor, unsuspecting Samaritans.

I wonder if James and John would have wanted to send fire from heaven if they had really spent some time looking around that Samaritan village? Meet some of the people. Look into their faces. See how much they were alike. Could they have commanded fire from heaven if they had walked through the village and had seen the two giggling children playing tag on a dusty road? Would they still have been so callous if they had looked into the eyes of the old Samaritan woman with her tooth missing selling fruit in the marketplace? Would they have wanted to firebomb the village if they had heard the pregnant woman humming a tune while cooking for her husband, who was coming home from working in the olive orchards? Fire from heaven? God forbid! Who do you think you are, James and John? Who are you following? Who made you Judge and Ruler of other peoples and places? Who made you Lord of life and death?

James and John wouldn’t have been able to see the victims of their violence because of their distance from the village when the fire rained down from heaven. They wouldn’t have had to hear the screams of the pregnant woman. They wouldn’t have had to taste the tears of the husband returning from the olive fields to his demolished home. They wouldn’t have to see the charred bodies of the children. Distance has it’s advantages. I wonder whether Jesus pictured the faces of the Samaritans in his mind and heart when James and John called for the fire? I wonder.

The word “terrorism” is an incendiary word. It sparks the flames of fear. It kindles deep emotions. And it ignites frightful images. Collapsing towers. Car bombs with black smoke rising up into the air. Crimson-spattered bodies being carried away. Videotaped beheadings. Our eyes have been seared with a barrage of images of terrorism. Even though we try to remind ourselves that not all Muslims are terrorists, the image of the terrorist that has been etched in our brains is the image of a radical Muslim. But, is this the only image we can conjure up that fits the word “terrorism”? This inflammatory term raises many questions that need to be addressed, lest our vision be obscured from seeing the whole truth.

A U.S. Army manual defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence against civilians in order to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature... through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” If that is a correct definition of terrorism, then what would you call the threats, intimidation, coercion, torture, drowning, beheading, and burning at the stake of sixteenth century Anabaptists? What about the Christian Crusades against the Muslims and the intimidation and assaults on Jewish communities throughout history? Could that be called “terrorism“? Can we talk of the conquest of America and white European treatment of Native Americans as a form of “terrorism”? What about the Puritan witch hunts in the early colonies? Was that a form of terrorism against women? Or the Jewish Holocaust? How about slavery, Southern apartheid, and Jim Crow in the United States?

I wonder. Is “terrorism” a term that only applies to our contemporary world? If that is the case, then does the term fit the racist ideology and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups who have committed repeated threats and violence against African-Americans and Jews? Was Timothy McVeigh the “Oklahoma City bomber” or an “American terrorist“? How about those extremists who threaten or kill abortion doctors or those who verbally threaten or physically attack gays? Are they terrorists? Have you ever noticed that we never hear of “white” or “Christian” terrorists in the media?

Our definition of terrorism raises more questions. Is terrorism a “weapon of the weak,” as some have described it? Or can it be used by powerful states? The word has never been used to describe the military violence of Israeli forces against Palestinians, though it has been pointed in the other direction. What do we call U.S. acts of aggression and violence against innocent civilians? Some call it “collateral damage” or “low intensity warfare.” But, what about when civilians are the direct targets of threat, intimidation, and violence? What do we call Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Does our continuing use of nuclear threat against other nations and their civilian populations fit the definition of terrorism? What about when the U.S. “rained down fire from heaven” on villages in Vietnam or backed paramilitary groups who terrorized and slaughtered civilians in Central America? Is that “terrorism” or simply the unfortunate byproducts of war? Who’s in charge of making that distinction? For God’s sake, will someone let me know.

The questions begin to form a stockpile. If a dominant power forces its political and economic agenda upon a people and they fight back, is their counter-violence considered “terrorism” or “resistance”? It probably depends on who is using the terms and whose political or religious ideology is being supported. For instance, Nelson Mandela’s African Nationalist Congress was once labeled as one of the world’s worst terrorist groups. Were the acts of the ANC “terrorism” or was the apartheid system and its violent enforcement in South Africa itself a form of terrorism? How we answer all these questions will determine how and why and for what purpose we use the word “terrorism.”

I will not defend violence in any form for whatever political, religious, or ideological reason. But, as you can see, the use of the term “terrorism” can be selective and itself be used as a rhetorical weapon in an ideological war. To project the image of “terrorism” upon those we label as “enemies,” while absolving ourselves of any association with the word, is to be dishonest. It becomes an attempt to manipulate language in order to rid ourselves of the evil connotations associated with the term. They are “terrorists.” We are “freedom fighters.” They use “terror tactics.” We use “military strategy.” But, here’s the problem when we tell the truth about what we do in the name of our nation or our God. The word “terrorism” can become a rhetorical weapon whose barrel can just as easily be pointed back at us.

The evil, horror, and pain of terrorism is real and not simply rhetorical. For that reason, we must be truthful about violence, regardless of who uses it and for whatever political, religious, or ideological purpose. To try to absolve ourselves of the term “terrorism,” while we commit acts that fit the definition, is a futile attempt to wash our hands of our own violence. Truth and honesty calls us to take a second look at what we define as “terrorism.” We need to scan our own histories and place in the world to form a clearer and truthful perspective about the acts of violence we have committed as a people. Before we would judge others, we can check our own eyes for those logs that might obscure our vision. It seems like I once read that kind of advice from a wise teacher, who had to rebuke a couple of his own followers.

Behind Jesus’ rebuke of James and John was Jesus’ whole way of life. When he was born the heavens rang with the message of “Peace on earth.” God was in Christ reconciling the world. Do we really believe that? Through Jesus flowed God’s love for the whole world----Jew and Samaritan, male and female, rich and poor, old and young, well and sick, friend and foe. Jesus defined the center of his mission as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberation to the oppressed. Jesus welcomed the stranger, the foreigner, and the marginalized. He ate with tax-collectors and sinners, society’s rejects, those we label as “second-class citizens.” Jesus included into his circle the outcast, the leper, the impure and poor, the helpless and hopeless. Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation to become a Messianic ruler of a conquering empire that would subdue all the nations of the earth, even when it meant for God’s own interests. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who curse you, love your enemies, no exceptions. Ephesians says that Christ came proclaiming peace to those who are near and those who are far off. But, his word could be sharp. Jesus said that we will be judged not by our political affiliation or national loyalty, not by our doctrine or moral values, but by whether or not we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

When Jesus finally reached Jerusalem, the city of destiny, he rode through those gates, not on the horse of a conquering king, but on a lowly donkey to dramatically fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy of a peaceful ruler.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you…
humble and riding on a donkey…
He will cut off the chariot…
and the war horse…and the battle-bow…
and will command peace to the nations. (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Jesus’ followers have no other ruler than this Prince of Peace!

When captured by the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter grabbed a sword to fight off the enemy. Again, Jesus had to rebuke the violence of a disciple. His words to Peter echo across the sands of time, “Put away the sword.” Rather than call down the armies of heaven to defend himself, Jesus died on a cross, like many Jews who resisted the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. The cross was a means of threatening and terrorizing God’s people. Shamed, humiliated, spat upon, insulted, and mocked with a crown of thorns, he did not call down fire from heaven on his enemies. Instead, on the cross he spoke a word of forgiveness----“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Risen from the dead Christ breathed on the disciples, those who did not always understand his way of peace. From his lips he breathed the essence, the spirit of his life with the words, “Peace be with you.” And before he ascended to heaven, Christ sent his disciples into the world not as conquerors, not as terrorists, not as the world’s police, but as ambassadors of reconciliation. To this day Christ’s followers confess “Jesus is Lord!” That was the earliest and most basic Christian confession. It was a pledge of allegiance for citizens of God’s kingdom that stood over against the pledge of allegiance to the Roman empire----“Caesar is Lord.” Jesus followed God’s way of healing and wholeness, reconciliation and peace for the whole world all the way to his death, even death on the cross, that ancient instrument of terror.

Therefore, God has highly exalted him,
and has given him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus,
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God!
(Philippians 2:9-11)

Instead of fire from heaven, Jesus offered a new word, a new way, a new world. We read in the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, that right after the incident with James and John, Jesus sent his disciples out into a violent world. He described the disciples going out with an image that is strikingly similar to an image from a recent political ad on T.V. In that political ad our world was portrayed as being threatened by wolves, which could symbolize terrorists. Jesus sends his vulnerable sheep into this world full of wolves. Lord, have mercy. And they are to simply go forth with a word, a message----“Peace to this house.” And when they come upon someone who shares that peace, it will rest upon those who welcome the message. So, go forth, followers of Jesus, with this same word of peace. May we welcome the word. And may God’s peace rest upon us all, until the day when that new world comes, when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Look Toward the Heavens: The Art of He Qi

Life is too short.
Art is long.
Life is also too hard and suffering for me,
but still I would like to share my gladness
with people around the world.
We are living in a time where there is much violence.
There is little peace.
We need to listen to the voice of heaven.---He Qi

His paintings look like stainglass windows. I first noticed He Qi’s paintings on a number of books I bought on postcolonial readings of the Bible. I was drawn to the brilliant colors and the non-Western depictions of biblical scenes. Recently I purchased a book of his paintings entitled Look Toward the Heavens.

He Qi’s (pronounced huh-cheee) art is bright, colorful, energetic, biblical, and inspiring. His paintings are a mixture of Picasso’s cubism, Marc Chagall’s playfulness with images, and Van Gogh’s brilliant colors with an Asian twist. An inner experience one feels from observing his work is one of peace.

He Qi’s first painting was of Chairman Mao. During the Cultural Revolution he was sent into the fields to perform hard physical labor. After winning a painting competition he was relieved of field work. He was mentored by Nu Sibai, an artist and educator in China. His teacher had him painting Renaissance works in the evening, while he painted Chairman Mao during the day. In the later years of the Cultural Revolution He went to Tibet and worked restoring temple walls that had been destroyed.

In 1993 He wrote his dissertation from Nanjing Art Institute while he was studying medieval art at Hamburg Art Institute in Germany. He was the first person from mainland China after the Cultural Revolution to receive a Ph.D in religious art. Asked why he paints only Bible scenes He Qi says, “There are two ways one may become a Christian in China. One is through parents and grandparents and their teaching. The other is a journey to find peace and truth. I found both in the Gospel message.”

He Qi’s paintings communicate the peace and truth of God. One example is his painting Peace Be Still (above) a depiction of Christ stilling the storm. The turbulent, serpentine waters contrast with the peaceful, horizontal lines running through Jesus and the rowing disciples that provide stability amid the storm. Above Christ’s head is the dove of peace with extended olive branch. Christ’s command "Peace, Be Still" is the voice from heaven to which we need to listen in a world of churning violence.

He Qi has found the peace and truth of the gospel he paints so brilliantly and exhibits in his life.

He Qi was professor at NanjingUnion Theological Seminary. Currently he is artist-in-residence at Yale and is working on the He Qi World Bible.

God is in the midst of the city: Psalm 46:5

where buildings kiss the cobalt sky
and cars squeeze through concrete canyons
and the homeless sleep on park benches
and grey suits scramble for appointments
God is present

where a few blocks separate rich from poor
and handguns don't separate men from boys
and murals splash the building walls with color
and freeways feed downtown like veins to the heart
God is present

where youth struggle to make it out of the projects
and flowers grow up through the cracks in the sidewalk
and cathedrals echo with their empty pews
and a mother prays as she sends her child off to school
God is present....still

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

God's Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31

The present ecological crisis is enough to put the fear in anyone. Scientists and politicians have warned us about the effects of global warming caused by the depletion of the ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere. The cutting and burning of tropical rain forests, expanding urbanization, the pollution of our land, air, and water with toxins, the destruction of whole ecosystems, and the extinction of animal species paints a nightmarish scenario for the future, not only of plant and animal life, but human life on this planet.

In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in which she contended that unless DDT and other pesticides were banned from use, the planet would be unfit for all life(1). She dramatically predicted that our springs would be silent, because all the birds that are a part of the food chain affected by the toxins would fall victim. But, who cares about what happens to birds?

In Matthew 10:24-31 Jesus addresses the potential fears of his disciples as they prepare to take Christ's mission to their world. Knowing that his followers will face a hostile environment as they take the message of God's reign into the world, Jesus assures them of God's care for them, just as God cares for the sparrow. Within the simple words of Jesus are some profound implications for a Christian understanding of ecological and human value.

The order of creation has a different value within the human eye than it does within the divine eye. How we human beings value non-human creation depends upon how we view its relationship to us. We have tended to value the created order according to its benefits for us. Creation has been viewed primarily as a utilitarian object, as something to be valued according to its use by human beings. The greater the benefit to humans, the greater the value. The lesser the benefit, the lesser the value. Jesus indicates the value placed upon sparrows in his day: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" A half-a-cent per sparrow. That was the monetary value placed upon sparrows. Sparrows, which could be easily bought in the marketplace, were the cheapest meal a person could buy; cheaper than McNuggets! Now, a camel was of greater value because of its benefit for human travel. As a sheep was of greater value because of its wool for cloth. Sparrows were part of the created order which was considered to be of little human value. Then, as now, the value placed upon certain parts of creation depended upon their benefit to humans.

The insignificant value placed upon sparrows can symbolize for us today the increasing tendency toward humanity's devaluation of God's creation. By that I mean, the created order, including sparrows, has been viewed as being of little value to humans outside of its utilitarian benefits; that is, as something to feed, cloth, house, add comfort, produce goods, or bring material prosperity to human beings. Science, industry, technology, and capital have become the center of our value system, often to the detriment and destruction of land, water, air, and animal life. Because our values have been placed in that which produces human benefit, we have neglected to value and therefore care for God's creation in and of itself.

A worldview which places human beings and their consuming appetites at the center of the cosmos lends itself to the devaluation of the rest of creation. We see God's creation as having value only in so far as it is serves the ever-increasing needs of the human as a consumer of goods. From this perspective nature only has utilitarian value. This viewpoint can leave us with a jaundiced eye toward creation. It can lead us to the view not just sparrows, but the entire animal realm, as of value only insofar as it benefits some human need.

Our devaluation of animal life has led to the extinction of whole species and to unnecessary cruelty to animals. What if we reworded Jesus' saying about sparrows and updated it a bit? Are not monkeys sold for a few dollars and too often needlessly subjected to cruel experimentation? Are not elephants considered of no value when they are slaughtered just for their ivory tusks? Are not whales considered of little human value, when they fall victim to human over-consumption? Are not birds worth very little because we don't consider their cost when they are destroyed by our oil spills? Who cares about animal life and the environment as valuable in and of itself? According to the eye of human values, are not two sparrows sold for a penny?

God looks at sparrows, animal life, and the whole created order with a different eye than we do. God values the created order differently. It was not God who placed the value of sparrows at half-a-cent. Who among us takes notice if a sparrow falls to the ground or a squirrel drops from a tree or the polluted streams kill the fish or toxins cause birds to have thin-shelled eggs that crack too soon? Who really cares? On the scale of human values they're insignificant. But, what did Jesus say about how God looks at those parts of creation, which are of little human value? Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father. God notices, cares, and values what humans consider of least value in the created order! The tiniest of birds does not come to the end of its life and drop from the sky without the awareness and consent of God. The Creator of billions of spinning stars, planets, and galaxies has an eye on the tiny sparrow.

We may not have an eye that can watch every sparrow. But, we humans can reflect God's awareness and care for creation. We can treat God's creatures either with callousness and cruelty or with reverence and respect. I have a memory from childhood stuck like a splinter in my head. It's the time I watched as a neighbor boy, considered the school bully, shot a sparrow down to the ground with his bee-bee gun. And as the poor bird was fluttering on the ground I shuttered with pain as he, for the fun of it, pumped a rifle full of bee-bees into the bird until it lay on the ground lifeless. He walked away without a second thought. Why should he have cared about that bird? Isn't a sparrow just worth half a cent?

Have you ever nurtured a fallen bird until it could fly again? I remember a sparrow that once flew smack into my window where I was working and knocked itself silly. I picked it up, wrapped it in a warm cloth and laid it down to rest. After a while the bird regained its senses and flew to a tree limb. In this simple act I felt like I had done something significant. We can treat creation with respect, as something of intrinsic value, or we can treat nature with disregard or even cruelty.

In the summer of 1979 a widely publicized event occurred in the central English village of Brant Broughton, when a "chirpy" sparrow got trapped in the rafters of St. Helen's Parish Church and broke into song during a guitar recital being recorded for a radio broadcast. Reverend Robin Clark, the church rector, asked the congregation to leave, summoned a marksman with an air gun, and had the offending sparrow shot. The killing of this sparrow became big news in England, the U.S., and all over the world, with the front page of the London Daily Telegraph announcing, "Rev. Robin orders death of sparrow." Editorials and public opinion strongly condemned the act and many were reminded of the Psalm that says that sparrows are welcome in the House of the Lord (Ps. 84:2-5). Maybe those who thought the act offensive were in some small way mirroring God's care for the sparrow.

Now, I'm not going to say all hunting or killing of animals is evil. I'm not advocating vegetarianism. I am saying one should respect and honor God's gift of creation. My point is human disregard and lack of care for nature does not reflect God's view of creation. God watches over the tiny sparrow. At least this means sparrows, animal life, and the whole created order, down to its seemingly insignificant parts, are under God's caring eye. God values the created order in its minutest detail. According to Job 39-41, God also cares about hawks and horses, hippopotamus and crocodile. After the flood God made a covenant not only with the humans, but with every living creature. The Ten Commandments include a admonition for the rest of animals on the Sabbath. God's values are reflected in Proverbs 12:10, which says: "the righteous care for their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel." "The Lord is good to all, and merciful, and his compassion is over every living thing." "O Lord, you preserve both humans and animals." These words from Scripture reflect God's values. God is aware not only that whole animal species are disappearing at a rate of one every twenty-five minutes, but notices when one sparrow falls. You may not have thought of it in this way, but God is a most skilled bird watcher!

God's watchfulness and care doesn't mean that God stops every sparrow from falling, anymore than God stops the hairs from falling from our heads or trees from being felled in the tropical rain forests or his disciples from falling into persecution. Jesus didn't promise his disciples that God would keep them from hostility or martyrdom as they prepared to go on Christ's mission. Neither are we promised that, because we are God's children, we will not fall or be hurt or endure pain or die. And yet, God is aware when the smallest of sparrows falls to the ground.

If God notices, values, and cares about a tiny sparrow, then how much more must God notice, value, and care about us. So, why should we fear? That's the whole point of Jesus' argument. God notices, values, and cares about the tiny sparrow that falls to the ground. So, don't be afraid, for you are of more value than many sparrows. Why, even your hairs, those tiny, insignificant strands of protein on our head, are numbered! Some of us men who are getting older know that truth experientially! I think numbers 1,038 through 1,050 fell from my head just yesterday. And when we get older and thinner on top, it is not just God who counts the number of hairs on our heads and notices when one falls to the ground! If God notices the fall of sparrows and the individual hairs on our head, then surely God knows and values us. So, we have no need for fear or worry.

Remember what Jesus said concerning worrying about our lives? The birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not of more value? Look at the lilies of the field and the grass. God cares for them. Are you not more valuable? Yes, God values creation, the whole ecological system, but even more so, God values human life.

Some environmentalists want to place everything within the created order on an equal level of value; spores and sparrows, humans and humpbacks. Biblical faith makes a distinction between the values of animal and human life. Someone has said that "the notion that a mosquito has the same value as a human being is simply incredible and without foundation in either Scripture or reason. Reverence for all life, yes. Equal reverence for all life, no." If you had the choice between saving a sparrow, or even a flock of sparrows, or a human life, which would you save? How we answer reveals where we place greater value.

The biblical distinction between animal and human life is grounded in the belief that we, male and female, are made in the image of God. This doesn't give us license to exploit nor exhaust nature, but rather to be stewards of creation. To be in God's image doesn't mean we view creation as of little value except as it benefits us. This perspective will only cause us to dominate the created order in an abusive or exploitative way. To be in God's image is to care about creation. We might remember that in many ways we are the same as animals. As physical creatures we share a commonality with animal life. As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

…with regard to human beings, God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all, have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals...(Ecclesiastes 3:18-19).

And yet, even as we acknowledge our commonality with the created order and its value in God's eyes, human life is still of immense value to God.

So, just as we should reverence and value nature, even more so we should reverence and value human life. And because nature, animal, and human life are interdependent, care needs to be given holistically, just as God cares both for the sparrow and the human creature. To value human life, as God values it, will mean being good stewards of the environment of which we are in integral part. To value human life as God values it will mean ending the violence in our land and reducing the money and energy that fear spends clawing for a handful of security by amassing weapons of human destruction. To value human life as God values it will mean changing the political and economic policies that exploit and oppress the poor for the benefit of the few and the wealthy. If God cares about the tiny sparrow, then surely God cares about the least of these our brothers and sisters on this planet.

If we take Jesus' words to heart, we need not live in fear of a hostile environment, martyrdom, personal tragedy, family disruption, national conflicts, ecological disaster, or an apocalyptic end of the world at the turn of the millennium. But rather fear the one who made all things great and small and live in trust that God cares about us and all of creation. Our task is to reflect the divine care and value God places upon even the smallest part of creation, as well as upon human life. We need not fear. Rather, we can say with confidence: I will not fear. For God's eye is on the sparrow, so I know God watches me.

(1) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 1962.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Isaiah 55:1 and the Corona commercial

A couple in bathing suits lie in mesh hammocks under a palm trees. The clear tropical waters gently splash on the sandy shore. The endless sky is without a single cloud. The horizon stretches out for miles. On a crate between the relaxing couple sit two yellow Coronas with lemon slices dripping with cool moisture. Don’t you just want to be there on that island heaven sipping on a cool one?

Television commercials seek to create desire and need. Clever marketing agencies use words and images to fashion an invitation that cannot be resisted. How many times after watching a commercial have you felt an urge to go out and buy a shrimp meal, a toilet bowl cleaner, a new gadget, or even a car? Commercials work. Otherwise companies wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on them. They can create desire, even when there is none there. I don’t drink Coronas, but when I see that commercial I feel a desire to be on the beach with a cool bottle in my hand.

Someone observed that average American is exposed to sixteen thousand commercial messages, symbols, and reminders every single day. Commercials and marketing are the lifeblood of our consumer Capitalist culture. Our culture thrives on the insatiable desires of the American people to buy and consume. Remember the advice the president of the United States’ offered after the devastation of September 11 in order for Americans to return to normalcy? Go out and shop! Desire for more and more things is the normal state of affairs in our culture.

The words of the prophet Isaiah boom above the clamor of our culture of desire like a policeman stopping traffic. Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! (55:1). The prophet offers a drink from eternal springs that quench the emptiness of the soul. There is spiritual food for those who have not been satisfied with a glut of possessions. Even the poor can sit at this banquet table. It is the feast of God’s reign, here and now and in the age to come. Can’t you just see it? Justice drips like sweet honey. Peace gently laps on the shore. The smell of the bread of compassion wafts through the air. Mmmmmm. Don’t you just want to taste it?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tales of the Rat Fink: Ed "Big Daddy" Roth

Today I watched for the second time the wacky documentary Tales of the Rat Fink: The Legend of the World's Greatest Kustom Car Builder Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Ed Roth was a beatnik hero for many youth in the late 50's and early 60's. I was one of them. Like his iconic drawing Rat Fink , which was an anti-establishment alternative to Mickey Mouse, Roth was a counter-cultural figure that drew me into his rat hole. Starting in the early 60's I ordered his t-shirt catalogs, bought prints (which I still have), wore the Rat Fink hillbilly "crash helmet," and built Revell car kits based on Roth's custom cars(the Outlaw and Beatnik Bandit were so cooool!)

Roth was my inspiration to start airbrushing t-shirts of monsters in hot rods when I was 14 years old. I used to do them for myself and friends. I was a fan of Roth into my high school years when I cruised A Street, the "fishbowl," in my brother's loud, yellow hotrod Falcon, raced it on the back streets of Oxnard, California, went to the drag races in Palmdale to smell the nitro, and read Hot Rod magazine. The Kustom Kulture of Southern California in the late 50's and early 60's was symbolized by Roth's wild t-shirt and car designs.

Tales of a Rat Fink, narrated by John Goodman as Roth, shows just how influential Roth was not only upon a young generation, but also upon popular culture. Young people who wear rock t-shirts or t-shirts with other images or messages can thank Roth for starting this trend. In the 50's no one thought of putting drawings on t-shirts. It all started with Roth doing car club pictures with an airbrush on t-shirts because the heavy jackets used by car clubs elsewhere were not as appropriate for sunny Southern California. Roth's t-shirts sold like hotcakes. Today you can find Kustom Kulture artwork by some artists who worked for or were inspired by Roth in fine art galleries.

Roth was one of the first to fabricate his own custom cars through the use of fiberglass molding making his roadsters into sculptures. He was creating designs like nothing anybody had ever seen before. Roth was a master at pinstriping, which he picked up from another countercultural artist and car designer, Von Dutch.

Roth believed that his talents were a gift from God and that he was to use his gifts and share them with everyone. He attributed his car designs to God. He claimed God put him on earth to accomplish two things: build cars and promote Rat Fink! Amen!

For those interested in Roth I suggest Douglas Nason and Greg Ecalante's Rat Fink: The Art of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (Last Gasp, 2003) and Pat Ganahl's Ed "Big Daddy" Roth: His Life, Times, Cars, and Art (CarTech, 2003) or watch Ron Mann's Tales of the Rat Fink. For me it was a trip...back in time.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Pastoral Visit

she sits locked in her broken prison of flesh
hands gesture with no word crossing her lips
her black maid is her voice having been
her right arm for years

On the rocking chair I share with her
the latest news of church and children
draped in blanket and silence she listens
I pray my presence fills the air
more than my words

with skin touching skin, young and old,
black and white, we pray together
for strength, peace, patience, comfort
in spoonfuls, grace sufficient for the day

leaving I sit in my car and cry
for life unfair as a robber
stealing her voice, but not her gentle spirit
on the freeway a sign shouts
LIFE IS HARSH! (your tequila shouldn’t be)
And I drive home drunk on it’s half-truth

Monday, February 2, 2009

Greg Boyd Speaks at Mennonite Gathering in Pittsburgh

This past weekend I went to Pittsburgh with my wife to visit the Andy Warhol museum. While I was there I played drums for the worship sessions at the board meetings of the Mennonite Education Association. Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills church in St. Paul, Minnesota (http://www.whchurch.org/content/page_1.htm), a theologian, well known author, and President of Christus Victor Ministries, was a plenary speaker for one of the worship services I played drums for (Greg is also a drummer).

In his presentation Boyd spoke a "prophetic word" to Mennonites concerning the "treasure of their tradition" (http://www.gregboyd.org/blog/random-updates/) Prophetic speech is nothing new to Boyd. In 2006 he lost 20% of his 5,000 member congregation for preaching a series of sermons on "The Cross and the Sword" against mixing nationalism and Christianity (see my PeaceSigns article on Boyd's prophetic preaching at: http://peace.mennolink.org/cgi-bin/m.pl?a=321). His nonviolent, kingdom theology has made him an admired speaker among Mennonites. He speaks the language of Anabaptists.

That's why Mennonites in Pittsburgh welcomed and revelled in his "confrontational prophetic word." Boyd proclaimed that this was a defining moment for Mennonites. The theological distinctives of Anabaptism (i.e., Jesus-centered, peacemaking, service, community, kingdom-shaped), which have been around 500 years, are being embraced by young people, people looking for a new way to be Christian, and new emerging groups within the church. Boyd said that Mennonites must hold fast to their theological distinctives and be "scandalously flexible" with their "cultural distinctives." Only with this stance can Mennonites welcome those searching for an Anabaptist-shaped faith and have a future as a church. Otherwise, they will become a "geriatric society" and their churches "museums." In essence, Mennonites should embrace their theological distinctives, which are really the core teachings of the gospel for everyone, and let go of their cultural baggage in order to survive.

Was this a new word among Mennonites? prophetic? or just a powerful presentation of what Mennonites already know? I may have heard the message with different ears from those who grew up Mennonite. I am a Mennonite by choice, having become a Mennonite in 1987 through the influence of baptist theologian Dr. James Wm. McClendon Jr., a former member of my congregation in Alameda, California, who taught Anabaptist history at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I embraced Anabaptism because of its theological distinctives and practices.

Boyd's prophetic word was about issues that I and many others from backgrounds other than the Mennonite tradition have taught, preached, wrote about, conversed and argued about for many years. I have preached and taught on these issues for my 22 years as a Mennonite (recent example, my article on "When is a peace church no longer a peace church: http://www.mennoweekly.org/2008/7/21/when-peace-church-no-longer-peace-church/?print=1). The issues Boyd raised have been part of ongoing conversations for as long as I have been part of my department (7 years), U.S. Ministries within the Mennonite Mission Network, which is composed predominantly of people from backgrounds other than Mennonite.

So, for me, what Boyd presented was "old hat." I, and others, have often said in Mennonite meetings and congregations where I was pastor that in order to survive and thrive Mennonites must "let go" of some of their cultural baggage. I, and others, have proclaimed that we have a treasure (in the Anabaptist tradition) that others are searching for, while many Mennonites are leaving the theological distinctives and buying into a generic, Evangelical theology and practice.

Still, Boyd's message in Pittsburgh could still be considered a prophetic word in that it confronts and challenges Mennonites, with another voice from the "outside," from another angle, with issues that some in the church have lived and proclaimed for years (though it makes me wonder why voices from within are not as readily heard). Still, I welcome Boyd's word and the word of new Anabaptists among the Mennonites and the voices of those who reflect Anabaptist distinctives outside the Mennonite denomination. I agree with Greg Boyd when he says that in the Anabaptist tradition there is a treasure. But, as the Bible reminds us, "we have this treasure in clay jars" (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Illustrations for Readings for Radicals: a peace and justice lectionary by Leo Hartshorn

A Day is Coming: a poem and illustration by Leo Hartshorn

a day is coming

when wars will cease
nations will rejoice
hope will spring forth

a day is coming

when death will be no more
pain will be healed
tears will be dried

a day is coming

when love will reign supreme
joy will overflow
peace will fill the earth

a day is coming

when the old will feel young
the young will be wise
and the wise will be heard

a day is coming

when guns will become shovels
tanks become merry-go-rounds
and the soldier and peacemaker will ride together

a day is coming…

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Salvation has come to the house: Reconsidering the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 9:1-10)

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. If we remember anything about Zacchaeus, it is probably the fact that he was a “wee little man,” a shorty, a shrimp, a squirt. And we know how “wee little people” get the “short end” of the stick. With tongue in cheek Randy Newman reminded us of the prejudice against short people, when he sang:

They got little hands
and little eyes
and they walk around
tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
and tiny little feet
They wear platform shoes
on their nasty little feet

Short People got nobody
to love

Zacchaeus, whose name means “just, pure, innocent” is not remembered as one who lived up to his name. He was a despised, rich tax collector, who had dinner with Jesus and practiced a radical form of economic redistribution. And yet, after 2000 years we remember him as a “wee little man.” Randy Newman may be right. Short people got nobody to love.

Zacchaeus was not just a short person. He was chief tax collector. A chief tax collector would have had to make a bid to the Roman administration to collect local taxes through other tax collectors that he employed. So, right off the bat Zacchaeus would have been seen by the people as a collaborator with the Roman empire, their oppressor. And in the process he would have needed to collect enough in taxes to make a profit. Roman taxation was an extreme burden upon the people in this peasant society. The tax system was easily abused through cheating and extortion. Some chief tax collectors got rich off their economic abuse of others. It’s no wonder that tax collectors and sinners were grouped together as being among the society’s most despised and marginalized persons.

As the story goes, Jesus was passing through Jericho. A crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of this wonder-worker, this prophet among the peasants. Zacchaeus wanted see this itinerant celebrity as much as everyone else. But being the little person that he was, Zacchaeus had a hard time seeing over the heads of the taller people. So, ran over to a Sycamore tree and shimmied up the trunk and sat on a branch to get a good view. Well, Jesus noticed this small person perched on a limb like some hungry crow and called him down…by name “Zacchaeus, come down…”

I wonder how Jesus knew his name. Had they met before? Jesus was a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” If so, why would Zacchaeus be climbing up in a tree to see him? Had Zacchaeus’ reputation preceded him? Gossip travelled fast and far in those days. Who knows. Anyway, Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus. He invited himself to Zacchaeus house for dinner. Zacchaeus scooted down the tree trunk and was delighted to host Jesus for dinner.

This did not set well with the crowd. They grumbled, not because Jesus was eating qiwi with a pee wee, but for having dinner with sinner. The dinner table was a microcosm of who was in and who was out in society. Remember the Jim Crow years in the South, who you ate with was defined by race. Blacks were forbidden to eat in the same dining rooms or drinking from the same fountains as whites. Whites might be contaminated, become unclean. It almost sounds like Old Testament purity codes, but there it was. The dinner table reflected the social system.

In Jesus day eating with outcasts, the marginalized, tax collectors, and sinners was taboo.By intentionally inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, Jesus was transgressing a major social code of his day. His dinner with a sinner wasn’t just about being a nice person or a private preference for making people feel welcome. It was a public social statement about should be included and treated with respect within the wider society. It would be like a white person publicly sitting down to eat with a black person in Nashville, Tennessee in the 50’s and 60’s. Dinner becomes politics.

Jesus was going to eat with a person the crowd stereotyped Zachaeus as a “sinner.” Was Zacchaeus a “sinner” because he was tax collector or because he was “a greedy little man”? A lot of us have not only stereotyped Zacchaeus as a short person, but as a greedy person, because he was chief tax collector and he was wealthy. Like those in Jesus’ day, we may believe that because he was wealthy, he must have been cheating people out of their money. Wasn’t Zacchaeus spiritually and economically converted in his encounter with Jesus?

It all depends….on the translation of the Greek tense of two words in Luke’s text. Their translation means the difference between Zacchaeus repenting and providing reparation for his evil deeds in the presence of Jesus or publicly stating his radical economic practices. The two words of Zacchaeus are most often translated as future tense. Thus Zacchaeus says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Actually the two key words are in the present tense in Greek, which connotes present, continuing action. I am giving to the poor. I am paying back four times as much. The verb tenses of these two words change the whole character of Zacchaeus and the end of the story.

Assume with me that the two words should be translated according to their tense in Greek. Then, we have Zacchaeus proclaiming the character of his name “just,” “innocent.” And against those who would stereotype Zacchaeus as a “sinner,” Jesus proclaims that salvation, wholeness, shalom, has come to the house of Zacchaeus. He is not a sinner. He is a beloved child of Abraham, a welcome and equal member among God’s people. His faith is manifest in his practices of economic justice.

According to this interpretation Zacchaeus was a tax collector who practiced a radical form of economics. He gave away half of his possessions to the poor and paid back anyone he cheated 400% of what he overcharged them. Now, that’s amazing! And even if we take the traditional interpretation that Zacchaeus was converted in his encounter with Jesus and changed his economic practices, what he proposed to do is still amazing! Either way, Zacchaeus practiced a radical form of economic justice.

It’s rather curious that this story is found in Luke, which stresses care for the poor, welcoming the marginalized and outsiders, and economic justice. In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, we find the story of the early church’s radical economic practice of communal property. Acts 2 says that the early church sold their property and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. It was redistributed to the community. No one had any need.

This makes me think of the Anabaptists and their practice of mutual aid or the Hutterites and their practice of the community of goods. These were radical forms of economic justice. Some might call it “communism.” Other might call it “socialism.” Most of us living in a capitalist economy would call it “nuts.”

That’s what most people thought of St. Francis of Assissi, a nut case, a man for the birds. He not only gave up his military career. He gave away all of his possessions to the poor, another form of radical economic redistribution. Such economic actions are viewed as “cultish” or for the lunatic fringe of the church.

St. Francis makes me think of Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Millard was a self-made millionaire at the age of 29. Ill health and a rocky marriage caused Millard to renew his Christian commitment and to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Millard and his wife, met Clarence Jordan, the leader of Koinonia Farms, an inter-racial, Christian community in the ‘50s that practiced communal sharing of goods. They decided to move to the farm in Americus, Georgia. Clarence was working on building homes on a non-profit, no-interest basis. His influence on Millard caused him to expand on Clarence’s idea and create Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes around the world for those who could not afford to own them otherwise. Former President Jimmy Carter, an avid carpenter and longtime Habitat supporter, says "Millard Fuller is an inspiration to all of us who have joined him as volunteers and his faith and perseverance have made continual progress possible." Millard called his philosophy of providing housing without profit or interest “the economics of Jesus.”

Zacchaeus, the early church, the Anabaptists, Hutterites, Francis, Clarence and Koinonia Farms, Millard, and others have practiced different, and yet, radical forms of economic justice. Don’t worry I’m not going to call on you this morning to give away half, let alone all of your possessions, and give the money to the poor or pay back 400% on any bad checks or to join a commune or practice community of goods like the Hutterites. That would be too radical.

I don’t think most Christians who live in a consumerist, captitalist, free market economy are even near the point of thinking about economics in radical ways. Just remember back when Clinton was president and Hillary opened a public discussion on socialized medicine. From the public reaction, which included Christians, you would have thought she was trying to resuscitate the dead corpse of communism. Providing health care for everyone, irregardless of their economic class, flew over like a led balloon. Radical economics? Why, just try practicing a more just economics and see what reactions you get.

Look at how slow, long, and hard the work has been for Jubilee 2000 and subsequently by Jubilee USA and other similar national reorganizations. Jubilee 2000 was a coalition of over 40 countries seeking the cancellation of unpayable debts incurred by so-called Third World countries to wealthier nations, like the U.S. The hope was to break the perpetual cycle of indebtedness and poverty. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. The work, which still continues, was modeled after the year of Jubilee, a Sabbath year, found in Leviticus 25, a time when every 50 years slaves were freed, land was restored to its original owners, and debts were forgiven. Another form of radical economics.

Bringing together the Sabbath and economics reminds of an organization my friend, Ched Myers, helped found. Ched is author of a seminal book on a political reading of Mark’s gospel entitled Binding the Strong Man, and director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Ojai, California, near my hometown. The organization he helped start is the Sabbath Economics Collaborative. It is a faith-based organization committed to economic justice. It seeks to be a resource for engaging in the struggle for sustainable economics and poverty reduction. Sabbath economics points toward radical economic conversion.

So, what do we do with this jagged story of Zacchaeus and his radical economics. Its like a cactus. It has stickers on it and is hard to hold. Most of us aren’t ready for any radical changes in our economic practices. So, maybe we simply need to start with working at more just economics practices, avoiding consumerist consumption, living more simply, sharing our worldly goods, buying fair trade products, educating ourselves about the relationship between wealth and poverty, economics and spirituality, globalization and multinational corporations, and examining what we buy, how it was made, and where it came from, or by advocating for more just economic policies. We need salvation, economic conversion, to come to the House…and the Senate. Just doing some of these kinds of things may seem to us to be as radical as what Zacchaeus did as a tax collector.

Remember Zacchaeus? Not the “wee little man” who climbed up in a Sycamore tree. Not just the man with whom Jesus ate dinner. But Zacchaeus, the just man, who practiced a radical form of economics, possibly even before he met Jesus; Zacchaeus, to whom Jesus said, “Today salvation, wholeness, shalom, has come to this house.”