Monday, February 29, 2016

How Long Will We Let Them?

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-5
Children’s Sabbath 2016
February 7, 2016
Chatfield UMC

I received word this week that an organization that has been working on behalf of children in faith communities throughout MN is ceasing to exist. iCAN, interfaith children’s advocacy network will be folded into the work of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. iCAN has been struggling because of lack of funding and therefore, lack of personnel. 
I am nostalgic about this because it was through this organization that I became aware of Children’s Sabbath.

Over 20 years ago I sat in a room at a Jewish synagogue in Minneapolis surrounded by strong women and a few men who were passionate about the struggles of MN children. We did what we could through congregational networks to make sure Children’s Sabbath was observed in as many places as possible.
As an aside, this is where I first met some of the UMWomen who would become beacons of faith for me. And I wasn’t even UM, yet.

Since those meetings, I have advocated that every church I serve, every organization that I work with and, even, the seminary at which I was staff, observe or support Children’s Sabbath.

I know that it is symbolic at best. I know that observing Children’s Sabbath once a year does very little to change the horrible statistics that reflect the lack of well being of our nation’s children. I know that one worship service a year will not stem the tide of poverty, violence or lack of health care that plagues our nation’s children.

Yet, I believe, with all my heart, that one hour on a Sunday morning, consistently observed year after year, can melt the hearts of one or two people who will make a change. I believe that one-hour on a Sabbath day observed throughout the US year after year, can influence the collective will of people of God. I believe that if even only one hurtful policy is changed, one decision maker is influenced towards a heart for children, one teacher or social worker or parent or policymaker is affirmed for their work on behalf of children, I believe that if even only one child’s life is changed for the better, then the yearly observance of Children’s Sabbath has made a difference.

As we see organizations like iCAN struggling to find the funds necessary to continue, and our nation’s children continue to struggle with lack of services and support we must cry out with the words of Habakkuk: We must be the voice that cries out with the words of Habakkuk: How long? How long?

On the steps of the Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, after the conclusion of the Selma march fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized that the question, “How long?” remained in the hearts of the faithful but weary children, youths, women and men spanning race, religion, age, and geography who gathered there. Dr. King, near the end of his remarks, said:
“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.....How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord....His truth is marching on. ...Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on. Glory, hallelujah. Glory, hallelujah. Glory, hallelujah. God’s truth is marching on.”

Dr. King also echoed Habakkuk’s voice, the divine voice of the prophet as he answered: It will not be long.

Dr. King believed as Habakkuk and all the holy prophets of God believed: God’s justice was inevitable. God’s justice was just on the horizon. God’s justice was ready to roll down like the waters, baptizing the earth with the righteousness of God’s ways.

Yet, today, the question from Habakkuk and Dr. King and all the prophets of God continues to echo through the generations. How long O Lord, how long?

And I answer the question with a caution: that depends. That depends on how seriously the people of God hear the word of God. That depends on how seriously the people of God want to find the answer to the question.

That depends on how seriously the people of God are willing to stand up to their neighbors and say: enough.

Enough. It is no longer acceptable that we claim to live in a Christian nation yet do not heed the word of God. It is no longer acceptable that we claim to be people of God, but do not do the Word of God.

Steven Colbert has famously said: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that Jesus commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”
If this is going to be a Christian nation. Well, that is beyond my circle of influence; however, I can, you can influence that place that we live. That place where we live that is given, by God, to us to influence.

Habakkuk writes with urgency that compels us to stop standing or sitting around. To stop reclining on our sofas of apathy. To stop putting our feet up on our footstools of indifference.

Habakkuk commands us to: “Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it.”
This little verse can mean one of two things, or both, actually. Write the vision you have for justice so big that a runner running by can read it. Or write it so clearly that you can read it while you take the vision out into the streets at a run.

Either way: whether you are the runner with the vision of justice, or the person running by reading the vision of justice, either way we are not doing the work of God sitting around on our recliners or sofas, we are in the running. We are getting out and about and doing it.

How long will it take for justice to roll down like waters? It depends on how long we sit around doing nothing. It depends on how long we wait for someone else to get up and start running with the vision.

How long will our children struggle with poverty, lead in their water, insufficient health care, violence in their homes, inadequate and antiquated classrooms? How long will our children live with injustices that we can do something about?
It depends on how long we are willing to let them.

The Poor Fig Tree

Luke 13,1-9
Chatfield UMC
February 28, 2016
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Figs are one of those exotic fruits that Minnesota folk are not familiar with. When we do encounter figs it is as dried fruit. Reminding us of dates or raisins, like in these gluten free fig newtons which we will enjoy together. Fresh figs are rare. Yummy but rare.

Figs are tender fruit. Soft on the inside. With a thin skin that can be purple, green or brown depending on the variety. They only last about 3 days after picking. And fig trees cannot tolerate temperatures below 10 degrees even with protection. So it is obvious why figs are not common here in Minnesota. They can only be grown in containers that need to be moved inside during the winter. And they do not travel well.

Where fig trees can survive they are fairly easy to grow. Like raspberries, to get new plants you just have to bend a branch down to the ground and keep it buried. A new tree will grow. Once they get growing, fig trees are easy. But that doesn’t mean that getting fruit from the fig tree is easy.

A fig tree doesn’t start producing fruit for at least 2-3 years after it is planted. And then if it is over fertilized or the weather has been stressful for the trees. Even if all things are perfect an immature fig tree produces small harvests for many years.

So this parable is troublesome. The tree is only a few years old, Three years! Yet, the owner wants fruit and the owner wants it NOW.
But the farmer knows the fig tree isn’t ready to produce fruit.
And the farmer knows that cutting down the fig tree NOW would ruin a perfectly good tree that is just on the cusp of bearing fruit.

So the farmer pleads the fig trees case: Lord, he says to the owner, let me give it more fertilizer, let me care for its root system, let me nurture it for one more year. Let me do my job so that the tree will have a chance.

The farmer knows the ways of fig trees. He knows that it needs a little more time. The farmer knows that the land owner is ignorant of the ways of fig trees but doesn’t want to offend the land owner so he diplomatically gives the land owner what the land owner wants, control over the fig tree.
Knowing that the only thing that truly controls the fig tree is time.

People listening to this parable would know the folly of the landowner. They know how long it takes for fig trees to mature. They know that cutting down a 3 year old fig tree would be foolish. They know that sometimes, if someone doesn’t intervene, foolish people will do foolish things and it isn’t the fig tree’s fault. Foolish people will do foolish things and it isn’t the fig tree’s fault.

And the only person who looks foolish in these cases are those who act rashly because of their own need for instant gratification or control.

Like Herod, who had innocent Galileans killed while they were honoring their God. Or the person who built the tower of Siloam whose faulty building techniques condemned innocent bystanders to death.

Rumors were flying around that these people deserved what happened to them, that it was God’s will for them because surely they had sinned, surely they hadn’t produced the right kind of fruit in their lives. Surely they were more sinful than those who had sacrificed without getting murdered by Herod. Surely they were more sinful than those who had walked beside the tower of Siloam not more than an hour before.

It is what we want to do when disaster strikes, we want to blame the victim. Because it can’t be random or without cause. Or it can’t be because the system doesn’t work right. It can’t be because the ruler isn’t just and fair. It can’t be because the builder was a shoddy worker.
It has to be because there was something WRONG with the victim. They deserved to be cut down.

Jesus says, you have to change the way you think. You have to change the way you judge others. Because if you don’t, when you become a victim of a system you will not receive the justice you deserve. You will die just like the Galileans or the innocent bystanders, blamed for something that wasn’t your fault. Your legacy will be tarnished. Your reputation will be ruined.

We are hearing a lot of finger wagging and finger pointing this election season.  This group of people are responsible for the economic woes of our country. That group of people are the cause of the breakdown of marriage. Those people deserve to be sent back where they came from. They deserve to be kept out of the job market. Anyone who needs public assistance is just lazy. One of the candidates has publicly ridiculed war heroes, Barbara Bush, those with education; he routinely calls people stupid, loser and dummy. This would be laughable except that he is winning at the polls. Because most of us aren’t part of the groups that are being targeted we sit back and let the finger pointing continue. We allow others to be called less than or not worthy or sinners by their own associations because as long as we aren’t getting singled out what does it matter?

Jesus would say to us: unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. Because eventually it will get around to you.

On Wednesday evening we watched a film called Theologians under Hitler. We were reminded about how the rise of the Third Reich was directly tied into the work of the church on behalf of the hate filled philosophy of Hitler. Church leaders, clergy and theologians blessed Hitler’s scheme to produce a superior race of people by getting rid of those who didn’t fit the profile. White and German came to mean righteous and holy. Anyone else was considered a sinner. And thereby expendable. And the church was complicit, even vocal in support of Hitler’s evil schemes. We saw pictures of the Nazi flag draped on altars, of the cross with the Nazi swastika emblazoned on its center, a clergy shaking hands with Hitler and raising their arms in salute.
It was sobering and frightening.
And the question was asked, “Could it happen again?” Could such a thing happen again?

This is what frightens me the most when I hear the finger pointing and name calling by any public figure who is finding a following. By anyone who is saying: Those people are sinners who deserve what they are getting. Who don’t deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Because it could happen again. Fig trees can always be cut down by foolish land owners. Fig trees can always be destroyed by those who think their needs outweigh the future of others. Fig trees can always be dug up by foolish, foolish people who are afraid that their hunger will not be satisfied.

We need farmers, wise farmers who stop the foolish landowner. Who say with diplomatic but firm words: wait, let me care for the tree. Let me do what needs to be done so that the tree can have a chance to bear fruit. Wait. Give me a chance.

It is hard to be the farmer who will stand up to the land owner. It takes courage and wisdom and love and grace. Because what is the worth on one fig tree. It is important enough to risk your career over? To risk your life for?

Jesus thought so. Jesus died for the one fig tree that doesn’t seem to be doing quite enough, for the one person others wanted to destroy, for the one person who others said wasn’t worth it, for the one person who others said of what they get they deserve. Jesus risked his life, his reputation, his life for each and every person who others would say, the risk for me it isn’t worth it. Jesus risked it all. For all.

There is another parable written by Martin Niemöller a German pastor who admits he was an anti-semantic. Yet, he spent the last seven years of the war in prison because he could no longer be silent. He famously said:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Jesus said: Unless you change you hearts and lives, you will die just as they did...Because in the end there will be no one left to speak for you...

Thank God Jesus died for us so that we can have powerful voices. Let your voice speak words of grace: let the fig tree grow. I will nurture it. I will tend it. I will see that it produces much fruit.