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Sermon delivered by Rev. Bruce Ray on Sunday, October 3, 2021

Today, we are concluding our series “Creation is Waiting / La Creación Espera” with a recognition of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is best known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, and he is often depicted surrounded by animals of all kinds. He believed that faith and care for God’s creatures went hand-in-hand and he considered all of God’s creatures to be our sisters and brothers. Stories are told of how he would go into the forests and preach to the birds and animals and trees, calling them to love and praise their creator.

Every year on or around October 4, Christians throughout the world celebrate the Feast of St. Francis with prayers for creation and a blessing of the animals. We will follow this tradition later in our service.

I’m so glad that we shared the story, “The Tantrum That Saved the World,” with the children today. I think Sophia – the girl in the story – and St. Francis would be great friends. I think St. Francis would be very sad to see what is happening to our sisters and brothers because of climate change and the destruction of habitat for animals, birds and people. I think St. Francis would be angry that so many animal voices have been lost. One of those voices belonged to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was the largest species of woodpecker in North America. Its wingspan was 3 ft with a flaming red crown and two white stripes down it’s side. People would see the huge, strikingly beautiful bird in the swamps and bayous of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and would say, “Lord God!” It became known as the “Lord God Bird.”

There is only one video and audio recording of the Lord God Bird in existence. It was filmed and recorded in 1935.

The Lord God Bird doesn’t exist anymore. The woodpecker was last seen in Louisiana in 1944. This week, it was officially declared extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife service.

What happened? The Lord God bird is no more because human greed and ignorance destroyed its home. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, wrote a song “Lord God Bird” suggesting that the bird was sacrificed on the altar of the industrial god by a sewing machine. Yep. A sewing machine.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker was doing just fine until the industrial revolution of the 1800s. In 1911, the Singer Company purchased over 80,000 acres of old growth forests in Arkansas that was a prime habitat of the Ivory-billed woodpecker. The company cut down the trees to make the cabinets for their famous sewing machines. Conservationists warned that the logging would put the woodpecker in danger. But despite efforts to protect the bird and the land, Singer Company sold the land in 1937 to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company for more extensive logging. Within 6 years, there were no more ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Now a lot of people would say, “It’s just a bird!” But after reading the Scriptures today (Genesis 7:11-16, Psalm 104:24-31, and Matthew 6:25-33), I’m reminded that every bird, every animal, every tree and every flower is part of God’s wondrous creation—made by God at creation, preserved by God during the Great Flood, cared for by God throughout time. Human beings may be made in the image of God, but that does not diminish the worth of all other creatures. They too have a purpose in God’s plan. They too are made to display God’s glory and sing God’s praise.

And as God’s “Image-bearers” we have a responsibility is to do as God would do. That includes protecting all of God’s creatures from harm and providing for their well-being. It means preserving their voices and ensuring that they call fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. It means to loving them as God loves them.

While we (collective humanity) failed to prevent the extinction of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, dozens of species on the verge of extinction have been saved thanks to one piece of government legislation: the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Act identified threatened, endangered and critically endangered species for the purpose of protecting them and restoring them to sustainable numbers so they would no longer need federal protection.

For almost 50 years, dozens of species have recovered thanks to the Act including Humpback whales, American Bison, bald eagles, and California Condors. Chicago has participated in saving an endangered species too. We all know Monty and Rose, the beach-loving piping plovers who have returned to Montrose Harbor every year since 2019 to nest and hatch their eggs. This year, the pair successfully hatched 3 new little piping plovers, aiding efforts to ensure their survival as a species.

We’ve made progress, but there are hundreds of other species that need our protection. And progress is never guaranteed. Human greed and ignorance can reverse even the best environmental policy. So we must always be vigilant and watchful.

Creation is waiting. So on this day, let us rise up like St. Francis and pray a blessing over creation and then take action to protect the voices of our sisters and brothers. Let’s be the “righteous ones who take care of the needs of the animals” (Proverbs 12:10a). Let us pray for creation and bless our brothers and sisters, the creatures of the earth, and then go “throw a tantrum.”

Part 1 – Pastor Ray’s sermon on November 8

In 1990, psychologist Dr. Paul MacLean wrote a popular book called “The Triune Brain in Evolution.” In it, he described his theory that the human brain functioned on three levels that had developed over evolutionary history. The deepest (oldest) part of the core brain he called the “R-Complex” or “Reptilian” brain. This part of the brain is completely focused on survival and propagation of the species, and regulates behavior around a bunch of F-words: food, fight or flight, freezing up, and fornication. According to MacLean, the most developed part of our brain – the neo-cortex that controls reasoning and creative thinking – usually can control the reptilian brain, but there are circumstances that can literally shut down the higher brain functions so that we react impulsively out of the core. While much of MacLean’s theory is no longer accepted by neuroscientists, it remains a popular concept. It feels true.

We have all experienced moments when we feel threatened and we react. This year, we’ve witnessed people with reptilian brains at work. Maybe you have experienced being controlled by your own inner lizard. I’ve witnessed it when I see the empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle of Target. We’ve seen it in the threats against peaceful protesters. We’ve seen it in the rise of conspiracy theories. We felt it as election results dragged on and on and on. And honestly, I feel it rising in me even now. Even though the election has been called in Joe Biden’s favor, and even though he has declared victory and delivered an inspiring message of reassurance that we have turned the corner, and even though I have the same sense of relief that so many others feel, I also feel a nagging dread about what might happen next. I know that wounded animals are extremely dangerous. Bad things can still happen. My mind and body are still on high alert. The lizard brain in me is strong.

Dr. MacLean had one thing right. Human beings behave – often irrationally – due to external triggers. And one of the biggest triggers is uncertainty. Our “survival instinct” kicks into over-drive. We begin to “live by fear.” Fear is a powerful, controlling emotion. Fear is a necessary emotion for our survival, but when it becomes the dominant force in our lives, it is counter-productive to the very survival we crave. Fear drives us toward the things that diminish fullness of life – the abundant life that Jesus came to give us.

For instance, fear drives us into protectionism. Fear motivates us to build walls around ourselves (or our nation). Fear motivates us to buy guns and ammo in record levels. In fact, I just learned that there is a shortage of ammunition! Fear motivates us to view those around us with suspicion and mistrust. They are our competition and we live convinced that they will take away what is rightfully ours.

Fear also drives us into selfishness and greed. The parable Jesus told of the farmer is a story of greed. The farmer has too much and decides that the only thing to do is to build bigger barns to hold it all. We think, “what a greedy farmer!”, but I also think that fear is beneath the surface. People hoard because they are afraid that they will not have enough for themselves. Hoarding is a reptilian response to uncertainty and vulnerability.

Finally, fear drives us into forgetfulness and despair. How quickly fear erases the memories of God’s faithfulness and the gospel story of God’s salvation and replaces it with reliance upon the self and upon the resources of security the world proposes.

In a popular phrase, when we live in fear, we do not “live into our best selves.” At the end of the day, fear drives us from the things that lead to life: community, empathy, compassion, and generosity.

I have never seen the movie “How To Train Your Dragon,” but the title seems like an appropriate phrase for how we should approach our reptilian brain.

It’s unclear if we can retrain our lizard self, but we can restrain it. It is said that #16, President Abraham Lincoln, had a nasty temper, but it rarely was seen. When he wanted to tell someone off, he would write a letter to the person, pouring out all of his anger through his pen. He called them his “hot letters.” He would then put the unsigned letter in a drawer in his desk. Lincoln would return to the letter several days later and read it to decide if it should be sent. Most of the letters were never sent. He burned them instead. We could all learn something from Lincoln. How much harm we could avoid, if we stopped tweeting or posting our first reaction to everything that triggered us. How much more civil we would be if we filtered our words and thoughts through the filter of our faith. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” When the reptilian brain reacts, we need to take those thoughts captive and hold them so they cannot destroy relationships and community.

A second way that we can restrain the lizard is to do the exact opposite of what it tells us to do. This is the Jesus way. Jesus taught us to not return evil for evil, and to bless those who curse us. So Instead of saying “Screw You!” we say, “God Bless You!” So, when your lizard brain says “don’t trust people that are different from you,” you can choose to listen to their story and learn about them. When your lizard brain says, “build a wall,” you can choose to break one down. When your lizard brain says, “Hoard,” you can choose to give some of our resources to others. When your lizard brain says, “I won, sucker!” you can choose silence. When your lizard brain says, “Hold that grudge,” you can choose to remember your own need for grace. When your lizard brains says, “protect yourself,” you can choose trust in God’s protection and love.

We can restrain the reptilian reactions triggered by fear with acts of love that come from faith. When we do this, we show that we have passed from death to life and that we are led by the Spirit of God. It is counter-intuitive, but every act of empathy, compassion and generosity will actually create the community that will sustain us and lead us into the fullness of life. What is dominating you? Fear or faith.

God will not bless those who destroy God’s good creation.

Last week, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for over a year. Of course, our conversation quickly veered toward the pandemic, the plagues and the pestilence. We both agreed that it has been an unusual and difficult year. My friend predicted that the year 2020 would be used in the future as an adjective that will mean “horrific, dreadful, the worst imaginable. “

Q. “So how was your day?” A. “Work was a 2020 of a day.”

Q. “You don’t look so good. Are you OK?” A. “I feel like 2020.”

Actually, anywhere the word “Hell” could be used, we can now appropriately substitute “2020”.

He also suggested it should be an expletive, like what you might say when you smash your finger. “2020!” or “What the 2020?”

Yes. 2020 has been dreadful and horrific – worthy of an expletive. It feels like the earth is rejecting us. As you probably know, we ran out of names for tropical storms for the first time in 15 years. And the Hurricane season doesn’t end until November. If you’ve watched the news, you are aware that there have been more wildfires this year than ever before. We have watched the fires in California and Oregon destroy whole communities. But this year, there were wildfires in unusual places. Fires burned above the arctic circle in Siberia, Alaska and Greenland. In Siberia, the fires were fed by record setting temperatures. On June 20, it was more than 100 degrees in a small Russian town located on the Arctic Circle. Back in the US, it was 130 degrees in Death Valley on August 16, making it very likely the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere on planet earth. Despite the shutdown of factories and the quarantine of COVID, the levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere have actually continued to rise—a major factor in global warming. In May, it measured 417 parts per million (ppm), the highest levels ever recorded.

As temperatures rise, so do the earth’s oceans, impacting human and animal habitats. As temperatures rise, so does water temperature, causing more extreme weather conditions and the death of ocean wildlife. As temperatures rise, the ecological balance shifts, resulting in disruption of growing seasons, leading to famine. The earth is suffering. And when the earth suffers, we all suffer. And those who are poor suffer most.

There is no question that human activity has contributed to and accelerated climate change as we burn through fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal. Five years ago, leaders of 200 nations recognized the human factor and signed the Paris climate accord—a collective effort to address climate change through a reduction of greenhouse gases. The US signed the accord, but in 2017 our current president announced his intention to pull the US out of the accord. On November 4, 2019, he followed through on that promise. Since then, he has consistently acted to roll back environmental regulations to benefit fossil fuel industries. Clean air, clean water and even National Parks and National Forests are at risk. On November 4, 2020 – the day after the election – the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord will be complete. You think it’s bad now? Get ready, it may get a lot worse.

Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” But what happens when nations act as if the earth and everything in it belongs to them and they fail to protect it and care for it as God commanded? What happens when we fail to acknowledge God’s claim as creator of heaven and earth, and we steal the earth of its resources and pollute the air, and muddy the waters without any concern for the damage we do for future generations? When the earth thrives, we all thrive; but when we destroy the earth, we are destroyed. In the words of Hosea the prophet, when there is no acknowledgement of God in the land, “the earth itself becomes sick, and all who live on it grow weak; together with the wild animals and the birds in the sky, even the fish of the sea are dying.” (Hosea 4:3 CEB)

The earth is sick, and time is running out.

I just realized that this sermon has been nothing but bad news! Is there any good news to be found? Only one place. God, the maker of heaven and earth, is in the words of theologian N. T. Wright, “A loving God who wants to redeem a broken world, and has called us to make things new.” God loved the cosmos so much that God sent the Word, through whom all things were made, to announce the beginning of God’s new day. God defeated the powers of death and decay at the empty tomb, raising Christ from the dead, and seating him high above all rule and authority and reconciling ALL things in all of creation to God. And God has redeemed us to be the body of Christ, raised up in resurrected life to continue what Christ began. We are the children of God raised up in these days to make things new through advocacy for just environmental policy, through our votes, by changing our lifestyles and priorities.

God told the people of Israel, “See, I set before you life and death; blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 NIV). Today, life and death are set before us again. Will we be a nation of stewards that care for God’s good earth and everything in it or a nation of tyrants that plunder it for our own interests? Will we be a people who protect the planet and preserve the beauty and bounty of the earth for our children’s children’s children?

Our choices will lead to life or death. Choose life. Choose stewardship. Be the children of God, working by the Spirit of God to create and make all things new. Amen.

What happens when leaders listen to the wrong voices?

Every year for a century, Kimball Avenue church held an annual Thanksgiving dinner and fund raiser called “Harvest Home.” An offering was received at the meal in a wooden box with a hole in the top. It was referred to as the “Joash Box.” Some of you remember it. It still exists, stored in the parsonage basement, but it is falling apart.

It is called the “Joash Box” because according to 2 Kings 12:9ff, Joash, the King of Judah, set up a box with a hole in the top at the temple entrance to collect funds for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been neglected for decades. Joash took the funds that were placed in the box to pay for the materials and labor to repair the building.

When I hear about King Joash, I always think about the Joash Box and his commitment to the temple—not only to the building, but also to reviving the temple worship of YHWH. For years, God blessed the nation of Judah with peace and prosperity under the leadership of Joash. But what started out so well ended in the disaster we read about today in 2 Chronicles 24, when Joash ordered the murder of Zechariah by stoning. Zechariah was killed inside the Temple that Joash dedicated to the worship of God.

How did Joash go from a God-worshiper to state-protected murderer? It’s a story about leadership and who leaders listen to. Proverbs 11:14 says, “A nation falls where there is no wise leading, but it is safe where there are many wise men who know what to do.”

Joash became King of Judah at age 7. I don’t know any 7-year-old who is ready to lead a nation, but Joash was fortunate to have a wise advisor and mentor, Jehoiada, the high priest. With Jehoiada’s counsel and help, Joash was a good king and the nation was blessed. But after Jehoiada died, everything changed. A group of local leaders offered to advise Joash, and they counseled him to abandon the Temple and pursue idolatry. Idolatry always leads to injustice and oppression—acts God rejects. Despite warnings from God’s prophets, Joash refused to renounce the policy. The nation suffered. Finally Zechariah—the son of Joash’s childhood advisor, Jehoiada—was led by the Spirit to confront Joash and his advisors for abandoning God’s heart and God’s law. He announced God’s judgement on Joash and the nation. Zechariah spoke truth to power.

Because Zechariah spoke a truth that Joash had no interest in hearing, Joash took steps to silence God’s messenger. The leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and Joash gave the kill order.

That’s not the end of the story. Sadly, after Zechariah was killed, the nation of Judah declined. The peace and prosperity it had enjoyed disappeared. The nation was plunged into costly wars, economic collapse and political ruin. God abandoned Joash and the nation was thrown into chaos. And in the end Joash was assassinated.

What does God want us to hear from the story of Joash and Zechariah? The Apostle Paul wrote that the things that were written in the past, were written for our instruction (Romans 15:4). This story is a warning. When leaders listen to the voices of justice and righteousness, there is peace. Everyone thrives. However, when they listen to wrong voices, all hell breaks loose. When leaders surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear and use their power to silence opposing voices—especially those voices that call the leader to account and to doing what is just and right, the wicked are empowered to strut about. When leaders harden their hearts and close their ears and their eyes, the people suffer.

There are consequences to political arrogance and spiritual obstinance. Refusal to listen to the calls for justice and righteousness leads to destruction. God will not prosper the leaders that ignore the commands of God. God will abandon the leaders that refuse to seek God’s justice. God will bring judgment on the leaders whose hearts are hardened and who refuse to open their eyes and ears to the truth of God’s heart for the oppressed and afflicted. And ultimately, God will rise up and will depose the wicked and the proud and the arrogant who do whatever they please. It happened to Egypt and Pharaoh. It happened to Israel and Judah. It can happen now.

Like Judah, nations regularly come to a fork in the road – a moment of decision about what kind of nation we will be. Our nation is in a moment like that. There are voices that are advocating radically different futures for our nation. There are voices that advocate the revival of a glorious past that was built upon genocide, enslavement, oppression, militarism, racism, and unbridled greed. And there are prophetic voices calling for the establishment of a society built upon justice, equity, love of neighbor and morality. We can choose which voices we will listen to. We can also choose which future we will speak for.

The story of King Joash has a hero. His name is Zechariah – a man who boldly and publicly rebuked King Joash for abandoning his spiritual and moral responsibilities and leading his nation down a path of destruction. Though he lost his life for his boldness, his name is held up in honor. Jesus honored Zechariah as a hero and defender of God’s truth.

Our time has heroes too. Some names are familiar to us like Martin Luther King, Jr, who – like Zechariah – was silenced through murder, and John Lewis who survived attacks and refused to be silent. In the midst of a pandemic, we have heroes like Dr. Anthony Fouci who speak the truth while leaders lie and distort and deceive. In the midst of state-sponsored police violence, we have heroes like Bryan Stevenson and Black Lives Matter who speak justice while leaders use “law and order” rhetoric to maintain the status quo. In the midst of environmental destruction, we have heroes like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, protecting the water. In the midst of economic greed, we have heroes like Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir dancing on Wall Street. In the midst of political corruption, we have heroes like George Blakemore in City Hall, daily speaking truth to power.

Our nation is going to hell. But God is sending the prophets. God is calling the church to stand up, speak up and get in good trouble. Maybe yet, God will have mercy and deliver us from evil. If we will only listen.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the spirit is saying to the churches.

God’s Solidarity With Workers

In 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama, delivered a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she made the memorable statement: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Immediately, there were people who challenged her statement about slave labor, and fact-checkers rushed to get to the truth. It turned out to be true. The White House Historical Association released a statement affirming that slave labor was indeed involved in every aspect of the construction of the Executive Mansion, beginning in 1792.

Using slave labor to build an executive mansion is not a new thing. As you can see from the reading from the prophet, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:14-17), God condemned Judah’s King Jehoiakim for using forced labor to build his palace. Jeremiah added that refusing to pay his “neighbors” for their work was the equivalent of literally building injustice into the walls. Jeremiah makes it clear how God feels about withholding wages from those who do the work.

But lest we think that this issue of slave labor and God’s condemnation and things of the Biblical past or early American history, we need to consider that our nation is still using forced labor to build wealth.

But you may object and say, “But we don’t have slaves anymore! We abolished slavery and involuntary servitude with the 13th Amendment.” While it is true that the 13th Amendment ended slavery officially in 1865, there is a significant exception that was written into the amendment. Let me read it for you, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

As director Ana DuVernay has shown in her documentary, “13th”, this exception was immediately utilized after the amendment was ratified. In 1866, Southern states passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to criminalize freed slaves. These laws made everything from talking loudly in the company of white women to walking besides railroad tracks to not having a job a crime, and acts that were formerly misdemeanors were turned into felonies with prison sentences. According to historian Khalil Muhammed, the “Black Codes” resulted in an explosion of the prison population. In Alabama, for instance, the prison population shifted almost overnight from 99% white convicts to 85% black convicts. And because of the 13th Amendment exception, convicted freed slaves could be forced to work through “convict leasing.” Convicted freed slaves were leased back to their former owners to work the plantation fields—without pay.

We no longer have “Black Codes,” but convict leasing and convict labor is still big business. Every state except Alaska has “prison industries” or a convict leasing program. Convicted prisoners do everything from building church furniture in Iowa to making Victoria’s Secret underwear in South Carolina to putting eggs in cartons in Arizona to making Honda car parts in Ohio. The average wage nationally for convicts is $.87 an hour. But four states–Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas—pay convicts nothing. No wonder author Douglas Blackmon has called convict leasing “Slavery By Another Name.”

Convict leasing is just one way that workers are denied wages. Undocumented workers are often exploited with low pay and wage theft. Workers are routinely misclassified as “contract workers” so that employers don’t have to pay benefits. And during the COVID pandemic, essential workers have had to strike for hazard pay and proper protection, and unemployed workers have watched their income evaporate especially since the federal unemployment extension expired (and has failed to be renewed). In some states, unemployment benefits are less than minimum wage.

Low-wage workers are suffering during the pandemic, but the richest people in America have gotten richer—amassing an additional $685 billion since the middle of March.

This Labor Day is literally a matter of life and death. In 1931, union activist Florence Reece wrote a song, “Which side are you on?” God has chosen a side. And we must too. God’s law is clear, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) James wrote to wealthy employers, “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4-5) God doesn’t tolerate exploitation.

God always stands on the side of fullness of life. God stands with workers. And so must we. Just as God could not bless King Jehoiakim because of his exploitation of workers, God will not bless the nation that is built upon and maintained through worker exploitation and oppression. However, as Jeremiah reminded Jehoiakim that God blessed his father, King Josiah, because he gave justice to the poor and needy, there is hope that God will bless the nation that ensures that all workers the dignity and justice and the living wages they deserve, because workers should always be given what they need (See Matthew 10:10)

So, on this Labor Day as people of God, do something to stand on the side of worker rights and worker protection. Here are some suggestions:

Participate in Labor Day Moral Monday sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign online at 2:30 pm with Rev. Dr. William Barber.

Pray for Essential Workers – especially Chicago teachers and staff as they prepare for the first day of online school. Also remember child care workers, postal workers, farm workers, undocumented workers, and first responders.

Watch a documentary on worker justice and the origins of Labor Day. Here is one on the Haymarket Affair.

“The Kids are NOT alright”

The story of the 16-year reign of Ahaz in Judah (2 Chronicles 28) is a cautionary tale. In a list of Judah’s kings, Ahaz would be listed as one of the worst – if not THE worst – king in Judah’s history. It is the story of a leader who chooses to worship pagan gods and the consequences of his actions on the nation.

Under his leadership, Judah was led into the worship of the Canaanite deity named Molech. Worship of Molech included the sacrifice of children as a way of gaining the favor of Molech so that Molech would provide economic prosperity and more children. This sacrifice, known as “passing children through the fire,” was specifically forbidden by the God’s Law. In Leviticus 18:21, we read, “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the Lord.” However, despite the law, the Israelites began to practice Molech worship first under the influence of King Solomon, who built an altar to Molech on a high place in Jerusalem to accommodate worship by his foreign wives. (see 1 Kings 11:4-8). The altar remained in place until Solomon’s great-grandson, Asa, tore down the high places and restored the worship of God. However, within 2 generations, worship at the high places resumed and under the leadership of Ahaz, an altar to Baal and Molech was built in the Valley of Ben Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. There, Ahaz offered his own sons in the fire and led the people of Judah to do the same thing. In Jesus’ day, the valley was known as Gehenna. We know it as Hell.

What was God’s response to the sacrifice of children to Molech? The nation of Judah suffered. Over the reign of Ahaz, the nation of Judah became weaker, losing territory to foreign invaders and influence. Aram attacked Judah and took citizens to Damascus as exiles. The northern kingdom of Israel attacked Judah and took citizens to Samaria as slaves. By the end of Ahaz’s rule, he had shuttered the temple and the nation was in ruins. God’s prophets, Micah and Hosea, had spoken God’s words of warning, but Ahaz refused to change his ways. Ahaz died at age 36 completely powerless and dishonored. In the end, God ultimately abandoned Ahaz and Judah.

Be sure of this: God will judge nations on the basis of their treatment of their children—the most vulnerable among us. Nelson Mandela said it. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” And the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey said it. “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” I believe the truth of these statements. How we treat our children reveals whether our values and morals are in alignment with God.

Our nation’s current treatment of children and our nation’s currently willingness to sacrifice the well-being of children for the sake of economic revival and profit reveals fundamentally that our nation is morally bankrupt despite all of the talk about being pro-life and the commitment of many religious folk to protect the lives of the unborn.

Many people of faith read the story of Ahaz’s sacrifice of his children and extrapolate that the practice of abortion is the equivalent sacrifice of our children to Molech. However, those same people who will use every means possible to shut down Planned Parenthood will be strangely silent when children are murdered in their classrooms or when children as young as 3 months are taken from their parents at our southern border or when leaders cut funds for children’s health insurance. As Sister Joan Chittister reminds us: “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.”

Government policy to separate children from their parents at the border is nothing less than child sacrifice. The threat to withhold funding from schools that do not reopen in the midst of a pandemic is nothing less than child sacrifice. The threat to reduce SNAP benefits for families, the refusal to extend benefits to unemployed parents and protect them from eviction and foreclosure is nothing less than child sacrifice. One in 3 black children and 1 in 4 brown children live in poverty, and there are over 16,000 children in Chicago Public Schools that do not have a permanent home. Our tolerance for such conditions is nothing less than child sacrifice. Shifting the weight of taxation from the wealthy to low-wage families is nothing less than child sacrifice. The desecration of the environment for profit that future generations will pay for is nothing less than child sacrifice. It is no different than Ahaz passing his children through the fire in order to secure the economic provision of Molech.

God cannot and will not bless the nation that rationalizes away the hunger and poverty of the little ones who are most vulnerable. God will remove God’s hand from the nation whose leaders treat children as if they are expendable and disposable. In the words of Jesus to those who would cause one of these little ones to stumble, “It would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

But God can and will bless the nation that treats its children as precious gifts from God – worthy of protection and provision, worthy of the fullness of life, worthy of our investment and worthy of dignity. And if God so values the life of children, then we must also value them and sacrifice FOR them—including holding our leaders accountable for the well-being of the littlest among us. God will leave no child behind. Neither can we.

In less than 3 months, we will choose our leaders. Before November 3, open your ears and your eyes; listen and see through the lens of God’s commitment to the protection and preservation of children – not just those in the womb, but those who are being sacrificed in life. And then, like the prophets of Ahaz’s time, sound the warnings and call for justice and righteousness. Maybe yet, God will bless this nation.

Leaders Matter

 

There is a long history of using songs to make political statements. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had its own soundtrack. The war in Viet Nam was accompanied by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.  But with the current state of affairs in our nation, there has been a resurgence of political protests songs, laments and calls to action including “March” by the Chicks (formerly known as the ‘Dixie Chicks’), “I Cry” by Usher and many others.  Even Neil Young has updated his “Lookin’ for a Leader” for 2020.

Long before Dylan and even Woody Guthrie, there was another songwriter named Asaph that wrote a stinging protest song. We know the song as “Psalm 82.” We read the lyrics today. Let me “sing” it for you.

It takes place in a courtroom.  Hear ye, hear ye, this court is now in session, the Honorable Almighty God presiding. The case before the court today: God vs. “the gods.”

Who are the defendants? The word translated “gods” or “heavenly beings” is “Elohim”, a name or title used almost exclusively in the Bible for Yahweh God. But several times in the book of Exodus, the word “elohim” is used as a designation for the rulers or judges of the people of Israel. These judges were responsible for carrying out the intention of the law. Most scholars believe that Asaph is using the word “Elohim” to referring to these human rulers–the judges, the policy makers, the kings and their advisors, the teachers of the Law without naming names.

God lists the charges against these “gods”

Count #1: Showing favoritism to the powerful.
Count #2: Perversion of justice.
Count #3: Failure to uphold the cause of the poor.
Count #4: Failure to defend the weak.
Count #5: Failure to rescue the needy.
Count #6: Failure to deliver justice to the oppressed.

The rulers have failed to do what God expects and what God demands. This song makes it clear that leaders matter. Political leaders are supposed to defend the weak and the fatherless, uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed, rescue the weak and the needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked. The evidence is in. The rulers and their governments have been weighed on the scales and have been found lacking. Case closed.

The Verdict? The “gods” are guilty on all counts. The rulers have failed. Their governments have failed.  What was true in Asaph’s day was true in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, when the Lord announced judgement on the politicians of Judah. Like those described by Asaph, the leaders of Judah had failed to provide for God’s people and lead them to safety. Leaders who fail to do what is right will be declared “guilty” and will be sentenced. And the sentence is harsh.

Asaph declares, “You will fall like every other ruler and you will die.”

Here were are more than three thousand years after Asaph, and his song feels like it was written for our times. The “gods” of our day are also failing to do what God expects and what God demands. One need only look at the growing wealth inequality in the world and the blatant disregard for those who are most vulnerable to see the evidence. And it is not a partisan judgment. It is not just Republicans that have failed. Democrats are guilty too. Corruption and using power for self-interest comes in all flavors.

Asaph ends his song with a prayer: “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth.” We have seen the evidence. Our leaders fail and disappoint. Our prayer is that God will intervene and enact justice for the oppressed—and indeed, sometimes God does. The plagues of Egypt were in direct response to Pharaoh’s arrogance and hardness of heart. King Herod’s death (Acts 12) is attributed to God—a response Herod’s arrogance and belief in his own superiority and deity.

But let’s remember that God didn’t write this politically charged anti-government song. Asaph did. God didn’t speak from heaven to confront the oppression of Judah’s rulers. Jeremiah did. And throughout the ages, God’s people have arisen to give a message to the “gods”—the “titans of industry” the “oligarchs” the “oppressor class.” Today, more than ever, it is imperative that God’s people rise up to declare God’s legislative agenda, hold our leaders accountable, use our voice and our vote to elect those who will stand in solidarity with those who are to receive God’s justice, and remind them that they will be judged by Almighty God for what they do with their power.

Let us arise and sing. Let us lift up the voices of those who are so frequently silenced. Let us use our voices to declare God’s will for justice and love and call out the leaders who fail.

Hear the new Asaphs like Argentinian “Latingrass” band, Che Apalache, who call us to “sing about a better world, where new paths will soon unfurl. Of a land where freedom rings.” (From “The Wall”)

Listen and pray.  Listen, then sing. Listen, then stand up for leaders God can bless.

 

“The Wall” Lyrics by John Lawless of “Che Apalache”

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths have been unfurled
Of a land where freedom rings

From way up high on a mountain side
One can see the wide world over
From way up there it’s plain to see
Regardless of one’s race or creed
In our hearts we’re all the same

Come sisters, brothers gather near
For we’ve come to share our worries
We fear what some folks have been saying
About Latin Americans
The truth’s been misconstrued

There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall
Down along the Southern border
‘bout building a wall between me and you
Lord, and if such nonsense should come true
Then we’ll have to knock it down

‘Cause that idea won’t fly so high
As a wingless bird in a rock hard sky
So, no siree, we won’t comply
We’re going to stand our ground

To love thy neighbor as thyself
Is a righteous law to live by
But leaders sing a different song
They break us up so they stay strong
And ignorantly we’re strung along
Until we meet our doom

Yes, our leaders are so ripe with sin
They feed us chants to rope us in
But someday soon we’ll find, my friends
That we’re penned against The Wall

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths will soon unfurl
Where no man’s blood shall stain the soil
Of a land where freedom rings

Defending the Poor

 

When Barack Obama was running for president the first time in 2008, he almost didn’t survive the early primaries after a video of his pastor surfaced. Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, preached a sermon on April 13, 2003, entitled “Confusing God and Government.” In it, he went through a long litany of the ways that the United States had failed to do what was just and right. And then he said something that was the equivalent of dropping an F-bomb. He said, “We’re supposed to sing, ‘God bless America?’ No, no, no. Not ‘God bless America.’ ‘God damn America.’”

Dr. Wright was immediately branded a leader of a dangerous hate group and vilified by the press. Barack Obama distanced himself immediately from Dr. Wright and the message, saving his candidacy. This week, I listened to that sermon again, and it seems as relevant today as it was in 2003—maybe even more so. And I heard it echoing in my head and my heart when we heard God’s word spoken through prophet Malachi this morning. Let me read it again. “You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me.” Malachi might as well have said, “God damn Judah.” Malachi was probably vilified too.

But why was the whole nation under a curse? Why couldn’t God bless the nation? Because the nation had failed to bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there would be enough food in God’s temple.

Now, the thing you have to remember is that God had commanded in Deuteronomy 26:12 that the tithes of every third year were to be “given to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.” The storehouse was similar to  the Chicago Food Depository. The food was donated and then distributed to the Levites (who had no land of their own) and the poor and at-risk groups. It was like a food pantry. But because the people had failed to bring the tithes, these at-risk people were suffering. The people were cheating God because they were cheating God’s people of their God-given rights.  And as a result, the nation was under God’s condemnation.

The principle here is that God cannot – and will not – bless a nation that doesn’t make sure that the rights of the poor are protected and defended, whether that nation is Judah or Israel or the United States.

And let’s be honest. Our nation doesn’t do very well taking care of poor people. Just this week, in the middle of a surge in the cases of COVID-19, our government leaders showed their true colors when they let the $600 federal unemployment benefit expire for over 30 million people and when they let the moratorium on evictions expire. Without the additional unemployment benefits, every unemployed person in Florida will receive $250 a week OR LESS in state unemployment benefits at a time when businesses are being shut down due to the virus. Experts are warning of a “tsunami of evictions.” Without federal protections, more people will fall through the cracks and end up without a place to live.

While people are out of work, facing eviction, and being disqualified for SNAP benefits, the wealthy continue to amass wealth. On the day Illinois shut down due to the pandemic, Forbes published its annual Billionaires Report. On March 18, 2020, the 15 wealthiest people in the US were worth 2.95 trillion dollars. Four months later, Forbes reported that these same people are now worth 3.66 trillion dollars—a 24% increase. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in America, saw his worth increase 60% since March 18. And for the record, he is now worth $181 BILLION dollars. (see https://americansfortaxfairness.org/billionaire-people/)

But while our elected leaders walked out of Washington on Friday without offering any assistance to the poor and vulnerable, they never once discussed rolling back the tax breaks given to the wealthy last year.

If God were speaking to our nation through Malachi, would God say, “God bless America?” or would God say, “When you steal from the poor you are stealing from me! When you have cheated the immigrant, the widows, the orphans, the Levites of their rights, you have cheated me! Bless you? No, I cannot. I can only damn you!

I don’t believe God wants to damn the nation.  God wants to bless the nation.  God says through Malachi, “Bring in the tithe.” God promises abundance for the nation that will distribute the abundance justly. God wants to bless, but God is waiting for us to do what is right for the poor and oppressed.

This week, we buried a civil rights icon: Congressman John Lewis. From the time he was 21 years old, he was a prophet, calling the nation to change its ways. For 60 years, he lifted his voice. His efforts resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed the right to vote for every citizen. But he didn’t end there. He became what many people called, “the conscience of the nation.” As a congressman, he was arrested 5 times for advocating for justice for the poor and oppressed. Even in death, he raised his voice. On the day of his funeral, the NY Times published John Lewis’s final word to the nation, written just two days before his death. Entitled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of the Nation,” he expressed his hope for continued change.

 

You are the next generation in line to carry the baton and run the race. In less than 100 days, you and I will have the opportunity to use our vote to make a powerful statement about the change we must have in this nation—a change in the way that we treat the poor – especially those without homes and without jobs;  a change in the way we treat immigrants – especially children and families at the border; and a change in the way we distribute wealth. We must take up the mantle of John Lewis’s prophetic life so that the sick are healed, the hungry are fed and the poor and the oppressed are liberated. Maybe yet God will bless this nation.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

 

“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, uttered the phrase in 1992, pointedly reminding voters that under current President George H. W. Bush, the economy had gone into a recession and their lives were much worse as a result. The phrase hit a chord in the American public and Bill Clinton easily won the election for President.

The economy is God in the U.S.  Everything revolves around the “Almighty Dollar.” The economy has its own Bible, the Wall Street Journal. The economy has its prophets and priests. The economy is America’s Idol.

This has been true from the beginning.  The first settlement at Jamestown, VA, established in 1607, was an economic venture called the “Virginia Company.” It’s goal was to make money. Period. Slavery was brought to this county to provide free labor to ensure that landowners made money. Our nation is built on the foundation of capitalist pursuit of wealth.

In a series of sermons delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr. identified “money” as America’s false God.  Initially, his civil rights work focused on voting and access to education, but after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act were passed, King shifted his attention more and more to the ways that American worship of the false God of money was at the root of the evil of oppression.  The capitalist economic system was the noose tied around the neck of poor, the low-wage workers, the migrant farm workers, and the chronically unemployed.  This belief led him to form the Poor People’s Campaign to demand an “economic bill of rights” that included the right to full employment, the right to a guaranteed annual income, and the right to affordable housing.  We know what happened next. The prophet was killed.

Since his death on April 4, 1968, the economic disparities in America have only widened and the worship of wealth has only increased.  We see our national devotion to the god of wealth and money clearly in the midst of the pandemic.  The economy is the giver of life. The economy is the sustainer of the American way of life. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the prophets of the economy cry out.  “If the economy fails, we will all die,” the priests of the economy warn. “We must reopen the economy and make the sacrifices required,” say the acolytes.  And so we reopen schools and sacrifice our children. We reopen factories, sacrificing low-wage and immigrant workers. We sacrifice our grandparents. We sacrifice communities of color. We sacrifice the air we breathe. We sacrifice the water we drink. We sacrifice the land.  And we make the sacrifices because the Economy demands it.  In return, the Economy promises to make a few worthy people excessive wealth, and the rest get just enough to survive.

It was true in 1607. It was true in 1953 and it is true today. And all the while, we print “In God we trust” on the currency of the economy. And we say, “God bless America.”

But God does not bless idolatry. The prophets of the Bible again and again speak of God’s curse on the people who turn away from YHWH, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and their deliverer. But again and again, the people turn to the worship of false gods with names like Molech, Baal, and Astarte.  These gods were economic gods. The people trusted in these gods to grow their crops and improve their lives and protect them. The people sacrificed whatever was expected–including “passing their children through the fire” to get the promised benefits. This is the nature of idolatry. It is what believe to be the source of our   survival and wellbeing.

The Biblical stories of the people of Israel show us that idols ultimately fail to deliver. The power of idols is limited and temporary. They cannot save. They will ultimately disappoint and we will look back and realize too late that all the sacrifices we made were wasted.

God did not bless the people of Israel for their idolatry and God will not bless the people of America.  Every Old Testament prophet condemned the economic oppression they saw in the nation. From Amos to Zechariah, the prophets spoke against the economic systems that deprived the poor of life.  Their words are relevant to us today at a time when the economic systems are designed to create and maintain income and wealth inequality and when our leaders legislate for the interests of the profiteers over the poor.

But prophets also offered a word of hope and encouragement.  For instance, while God announced a curse on those who put their trust in human strength, military might, unjust gain, and any other false god through the prophet Jeremiah; God announcer blessing on those who make the Lord their hope and confidence and calls them to return to God for healing.  The prophet Jesus called us away from pointless accumulation and worship of things that are temporary to the pursuit of things that are eternal, treasures in heaven—treasures that come out of pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Jesus’s words call us to decision: which God will we trust? Which God we will worship? Which God we will devote ourselves to? Our choice is between Jehovah-Jirah and Capitalist Economy; between the Provider God of community and justice and the enslaving “god” of oppression and exploitation; between God’s economy of grace and the world’s economy of greed.  Our future will be determined by the God we choose and we cannot choose both.  Blessing comes when we “seek first the kingdom of heaven and God’s justice and all these things will be added to you.”

Let us be the prophets of the true God in this time. Let us call out our nation’s idolatry that is ruining us, and call our leaders to a new economy that puts people above profit and the environment above wealth.  Only then, will we be like the tree planted by the river that will survive and bear fruit even in the midst of a drought. Let us renounce the old “god” and trust in the true God who calls us to the beloved community where God’s abundance is shared by all.  Let it be. Amen.

“How God Feels About Foreigners”

 

Last Sunday, I led you in expressing grief over how the church in the United States—specifically the white church—has historically provided the theological support for slavery and white supremacy. Together, we confessed this sin and made a commitment to challenge patriot pastors and patriot parishioners by raising our prophetic voice.

This week, knowing that God is also grieved by this co-mingling of white nationalism and faith, I found myself asking, “What would be required of a people to receive God’s blessing?” As I was asking the question, I heard more disturbing news from our government that just added fuel to my grief.

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was in the news twice.  First, the news reported that ICE had changed the rules for international students, announcing that students enrolled in schools that will only offer online classes this fall will lose their visas and will be required to return to their home countries. If they don’t leave, they will be subject to deportation.

And while the news media was busy reporting about at-risk students, ICE quietly sent out letters to Chicago area citizens, inviting them to enroll in a pilot program called, “Enforcement and Removal Operations Citizens Academy.” The 6-session academy curriculum will introduce participants to ERO staff and give them an understanding of ERO processes.  In addition, AND I QUOTE,  “Attendees will participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization, and targeted arrests.”  Thankfully, some immigrant organizations got copies of the letter and raised the alarm!  The Interfaith Committee on Latin America posted, “This program trains citizens to perpetuate race-based violence and further normalizes hate crimes that already devastate our communities.” Other groups expressed concerns that ICE could use these trained citizens to spy on their neighbors and alert ICE about anyone who may be suspicious.

I have to tell you, this is upsetting.  And for those who are already at-risk, it is terrifying. It added to my grief, but my grief led me to Deuteronomy 10—a word of hope and a word of challenge that was read this morning.

Deuteronomy 10:18 says clearly says that God “shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.”  Hear that loud and clear: God loves foreigners. God provides for foreigners.  In Deuteronomy 10:19, God commands his people who were once oppressed foreigners themselves: You must love the foreigners too.  In Leviticus 19:34, God commanded the people, You must treat the foreigner as you would treat one who is native born. You must love them as yourself.  God does not tolerate the abuse and oppression of foreigners.  For God, there is no exclusion and no division. God rejects the language of “us” and “them.” God commands equal treatment. Jesus confirmed the command when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  TO CARE FOR THE FOREIGNER IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.  TO ABUSE THE FOREIGNER IS ANTITHETICAL TO THE LOVE OF GOD AND IT IS A REJECTION OF THE COMMANDMENT OF CHRIST.

Hear this: God, the God of gods and the Lord of lords; God, the mighty and awesome God; God, the deliverer is our God. OUR GOD DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THE AUTHORITY OF ICE, AND OUR GOD WILL NOT BLESS A NATION THAT MISTREATS AND OPPRESSES THE FOREIGNER. 

Back to Deuteronomy.  God says in Deuteronomy 10:12, that God requires those who fear the Lord to live according to God’s commands.  Jesus said that obedience and love are connected. Our love for God is evidenced through obedience,  And Jesus promised a blessing: The father and I will love them and make our home with them.  (John 14:23) God’s blessing is contingent upon just treatment of those made in God’s image. God will bless the people who liberate the captives, defend the vulnerable, and protect the foreigner. But be sure of this: God will oppose the people who exalt themselves and use their power to exclude and abuse.

While this news is challenging to our status quo, put your faith and hope in God.  God will rise up to protect and provide for the foreigner.  Indeed, God is rising up!  God is demolishing the dividing walls built on the foundation of arrogance.

And God is doing it…literally.

On January 29 this year, shortly after the President stood along his dividing wall and praised its beauty and declared that it would stand forever, a strong Santa Ana wind blew over a section being constructed near San Diego, CA.

Then, on July 2, The Texas Tribune published pictures of another section of the wall along the Rio Grande that was completed just months ago that is on the verge of collapse.  The pictures reveal gaps forming under the foundation due to rain runoff and soil erosion. Engineers that have inspected the wall say that it will eventually fall into the Rio Grande.

Are these just coincidence or is the God of the whirlwind and the God of the storm making a statement?  Is the God of gods and the Lord of lords speaking out of the wind and the thunder reminding us that nations are not blessed when they trust in militarism?  Is the God of Liberation announcing to Presidents and Pharaohs and kings: “You can build, but I will tear down?  Be assured of this: If the wind can blow away walls; If the flood can erode the foundations, then the fire of God’s justice has the power to melt ICE.”

As God rises up, so God’s people who fear the Lord and love the Lord with heart, soul and strength and obey the command of the Lord, also rise up to resist evil.  We have the power to rise up and speak. We have the authority to tear down the strongholds and break the chains.

This year, our power is in the census—making sure that every person counts.  This year, our power is in the election—making sure that our vote speaks our voice. This year, we must vote God’s values. This year, we must vote God’s heart for the oppressed, the vulnerable and the foreigner.

Let the walls fall down! Let the walls that divide us fall down! Let the walls built by arrogance and white supremacy fall down! Let love destroy what hatred builds. Let love welcome and protect those whom God welcomes and loves.  Let us tear down the strongholds by the word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit, and let love grow and bear the fruit of the beloved community and peace.  Amen.