Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 2, March 7th, 2004, dedicated to John and Ann Aeschbury and their family, to Brendan Matthew Hughes in honor of his baptism, yesterday and to his mother, brothers, and family who love him, and always to the glory of God!
(Part III of VIII in the Lenten Series:"The Heart of Christianity")
Genesis 15:1-12; Luke 13:18-30
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
"The claim that the Bible is political and that the God of the Bible is passionate about justice is surprising, even startling to many Christians" (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity Harper and Collins, NY, NY, 2003, p. 127). Every Sunday, as we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray for the coming of God's Kingdom and thus, the end of the reign of human kingdoms as we know them to be. The Gospels tell us that Jesus' vision of God's kingdom coming is expressed as both a transformational experience of heart and mind within a person AND the transformation of the social order. Changing my spirit and your spirit AND changing our economy and social order so that injustice against God's Earth and against all the other children of God with whom we share God's earth were both focuses for Jesus' ministry. Unfortunately, they are not BOTH focuses for Jesus' ministers and disciples who have followed him and continue to proclaim his message.
Let's be honest - when it comes to the transformation of souls or systems, where has the church pitched its tent? You know the answer. The church has focused on saving souls almost 100% exclusive to the focus of transforming social systems of injustice. Most preachers in America today can't stop talking when it comes to plans and designs for saving your soul and offering you a purpose driven life. But, most of my colleagues in pulpits across this city and this nation are mute when faced with injustices created by unilateral war, a collapsing health care system in which the numbers of uninsured and under-cared-for grow daily while doctors struggle to maintain malpractice insurance to their own economic detriment and the detriment of most of their patients, a public education system which leaves all too many children behind (especially boys and young men), a constitutional amendment plan designed for further exclusion of gay and lesbian people in the so-called defense of marriage, and an economic system in which the gap between rich and poor grows steadily every day leaving a shrinking class in the middle, a growing class of working poor, and a happy class of super rich. Whose kingdom are we advancing when we are silent in the face of such injustice? Certainly not God's.
This almost singular focus on the salvation of individual souls to the almost total abandonment of transformational social structures has been going on since the middle of the third century. When faced with battle, Emperor Constantine saw a vision of Christ in the clouds. After he led his troops to victory, the Emperor declared that Christianity would become the religion of the state. In this moment, the kingdom of God became the exclusive right of soul savers and was forsaken by those who believed Jesus was also about changing the society. While that's simplistic, it is also true.
For Jesus, it is never a kingdom without God and it is never God without kingdom. In the words of New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, "God's kingdom is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not." How would God in Jesus Christ, run the world if God was on Caesar's throne and not Caesar - or Hussein, or Aristide, or Bush, or Kerry, or any other human leader of any other nation?
When Jesus continues his prayer, he calls for "God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven." In the kingdom coming business of God, we all know that heaven's in great shape and earth is where the problems are. On earth, people (and nations) don't have daily bread. On earth people (and nations) are sunk deep in debt (although many would prefer to focus on trespasses and sins, for these also sink the human condition). If we read scripture, we know that God is always about the work of building justice, equality, and dignity. God is about righteousness rolling down, not trickling down like a drip of water.
God's justice is deep in the heart of our Judeo-Christian faith. About one hundred years ago, a Christian activist named Vida Scudder, a contemporary of Washington Gladden in the Social Gospel movement, listed three ways Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct philanthropy, social reform, and social transformation. Scudder said, "Direct philanthropy means giving directly to those who are suffering, social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care, and social transformation is about justice - changing society so that the structures do privilege some and cause suffering for others" (Ibid, p. 201).
The first two are about charity. The third is about justice. All three are important. Charity is always good and will always be necessary, but historically Christians have been long on the first two and short on the third. One reason is that charity never offends, a passion for justices often does offend. To paraphrase Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Helder Camara from Brazil, "When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why there are so many poor they called me a communist" (Ibid, p.201).
Charity means helping the victims. Justice asks, "Why are there so many victims?" and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is the way the system is structured. Justice is not about Caesar increasing his charitable giving or Pilate increasing his tithe. Justice is about social transformation. But how do you get to transformation in a church and world which works against it? I contend you get there one conversation at a time. You get there by talking and listening to others about the reality of their lives. In so doing, you will hear their stories of pain and where injustice has torn their soul and empowers them to act for change. (Ibid, p.201).
In early 1997, I was blessed by a visit to my office from The Rev. John Aeschbury, a Dayton-based UCC pastor and church-based community organizer who asked me what made me angry? He wanted to know what I was passionate about. Although I was very reluctant to follow this guy because he seemed too smooth and too sure of his path toward justice, I eventually became one of the founding pastors of an organization in Columbus called B.R.E.A.D. B.R.E.A.D means "Building Responsibility Equality And Dignity." For the past seven years, BREAD has built the power of people of faith to work for justice. Through a unanimous congregational vote in January 2000, First Church joined BREAD.
In that Spring of 1997, John Aeschbury, now a member of First Church and BREAD's Lead Organizer, got Christians and Jews in this city talking to each other in a way I had never seen before. We had one-to-one conversations. Sitting down, with one person at a time, I listened and I talked about things other than the weather or when I was saved by Jesus. I talked and listened to the stories of others. I heard about the things in their lives that made them angry or drove their passions. And I told them I was passionate about children who were poor, forgotten, abandoned, left alone, abused and neglected. I learned a lot in the Spring of 1997. From those conversations, I learned from folks whose lives were much different than mine that they cared just as deeply about children and many other places and people where injustice had crossed the threshold of their homes or homeless shelters.
With a look searching deep into the pain of his memory, one of my African-American colleagues shared how his brother had been gunned down at a young age and how drugs and crime had claimed the lives of other family members and friends on Columbus' eastside. For him, drugs and crime were death, justice was life. Violence was visceral. Evil was his real enemy. I listened to a member of my church tell me how he survived the Great Depression, WWII in European theater, and his own personal lifelong battles with depression. With great passion and directness he said to me, "Tim, no man should ever be denied work and the opportunity to feed his family. I saw what it did to my father. I know the struggles I faced for my family. Fighting for the equality and dignity of each working man is worth the battle!"
Since those early days, thousands of people in Central Ohio have crossed racial, religious, socioeconomic, and theological lines to share with total strangers how they feel about crime and drugs, public education, housing, jobs and transportation, and eventually housing and health care. One-by-one, people of faith have joined together to gain strength and power in the struggle for justice.
I know that many of you are passionate and angry about injustices which have deeply affected your life and the life of your family and friends. From many of your life stories, I know you believe we need the coming of God's kingdom for social transformation. There is also a lot I don't know about your lives.
I have heard some of you share feeling that the BREAD organization is neither spiritual enough, nor focused on the right issues, or focused in the right way on the right issues. As Co-President of BREAD, I am fully aware of our shortcomings and our blemishes. Perhaps more than anyone outside of the BREAD organizers and staff, I wince when we don't say or do something as well as we could, or others would like us to do. Facing our shortcomings, I also feel that BREAD is the most amazing organization I have ever been a part of. BREAD brings together women, men, and children who are rich and poor, black and white, Pentecostal, Unitarian, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant, Jewish and Christian, suburban and urban, gay and straight, young and old.
Do you remember that WWII vet who never wanted to see another person suffer from poverty and unemployment? When I buried him after his death in 1999, the sanctuary was filled with black and white sisters and brothers who had been inspired by this diminutive fireball to work for justice in this city. Choirs and pastors came from other BREAD churches to eulogize and celebrate this man. One by one, folks stood and gave testimonials about how this former car parts salesman had encouraged them to his dying breath to persevere in the work of justice. Do you remember that African-American colleague I mentioned? He now calls me his brother. My wife is his sister. My children are his nephews and niece. Our families have spent time together growing in love. Through BREAD, my relationships with clergy are meaningful and they inspire me and encourage me to speak out and stand up for justice for their children and mine; and against crime in their neighborhoods and mine.
BREAD may not be perfect. I hear that a lot. But, BREAD is rising. Our homemade loaf of justice may not be the prettiest BREAD you've ever seen, but it is the tastiest. It will fill you with hope. It will inspire you to share your story, to listen to others, and to work for transformation in our times.
If the kingdom of God is to reign within your heart and within our society, BREAD of Columbus, Ohio most certainly will serve as leaven for the loaf of God's coming reign! Speaking of BREAD, I want you to take your bulletin insert today, write your name on the bottom of it, tear it off and stick it in the offering plate indicating that you will come tomorrow night from 6:30-8:30. And speaking of BREAD, I invite you to turn your heart and mind to the meal of compassion and sacrificial justice, the feast of transformation, the Lord's Supper which awaits us and will inspire us to become candidates in transformational work of God's kingdom - within and outside of ourselves. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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