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Monthly Archives: August 2020

“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.