Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 October 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 34 – 46. This has been edited since it was first posted.
Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, in other cities around the country and around the globe? I will be honest; I didn’t think there were enough people in this country willing to come to New York City or elsewhere and make a statement about the way life is going in this country. And the truth be told, if the situation would allow it, Ann and I would probably be down there.
The sad part about this protest is that there are too many people who should be there but aren’t, not because they cannot be there but because they do not understand that they should be there. The issues facing this country affect each and every one of us but there are some who are either unwilling or unable to see what lies before them.
Moses climbed to the top of the mountain and glimpsed into the Promised Land knowing that he would never set foot there. Of course, no one in that first generation of Israelites who left Egypt entered either; they weren’t even given the opportunity to see the goal they had sought. For the benefit of those who aren’t aware, the people had come to the Promised Land once before and sent spies into the land. While all twelve spies returned and confirmed that the Promised Land was indeed a land of milk and honey, ten of the twelve exaggerated the power and force of the people occupying the land. While two of the twelve did report the truth about what lie in the Promised Land, the Israelites choose to believe the other ten. And for this, God punished the people for their lack of faith and rebellion. It would be another forty years before the people would be given the opportunity to complete the journey called the Exodus.
We are at, I believe, a similar place in time. We see the truth before us but we seem to fear what we see. We seem uncertain and hesitant to cross over the River Jordan into the Promised Land because we aren’t certain about what lies there. We are dominated by a mindset that says that what we have right now is better than what might lie on the other side and we are unwilling to risk what we have in hopes of a better life.
I grew up in the 60s hearing those in power proclaim that we needed to maintain the status quo even though that meant maintaining inequality in this land. And yet, that decade started off with John Kennedy pushing this country to go beyond not only the boundaries of this country but the boundaries of this planet. But as we entered into the 70s and we fought a war in Southeast Asia, the cost of exploring the universe became too great. And I can only say that I think it was our fear of failure in Viet Nam that kept us from seeking a better world. And we have kept that mentality up until this day.
Our politics have become the politics of fear and hatred. Our fear has moved us backward in time. We seem bound and determined to return this country to a time when there were only two classes, the rich and the poor. Our middle class is shrinking and will in a few years, if nothing else changes, disappear.
Many of our churches, faced with shrinking populations, are unwilling or unable to see the mission opportunities outside their front, actually their back door. They have turned inward, holding on to what they have with the idea that yesterday was better than today and tomorrow only promises to be a disaster.
Many who call themselves Christian today hear the words of the Bible to treat the immigrant as a friend, not a stranger, because they, the people of the Bible, were once immigrants as well. Yet, while they hear those words, they either do not understand them or ignore them. They would rather build fences and walls that keep others out rather than let others in.
Many who call themselves Christian hear the words of the Bible that say to give comfort to poor and the needy yet often wish that the poor and needy would just accept their lot in life and go away. The 18th century notion that wealth is a sign of righteousness is alive and well in the 21st century. But while righteousness perhaps should imply a certain degree of sharing, the wealthy today want to keep what they have and actually want more. It seems they can’t get enough. It makes one wonder if they plan on taking their wealth and riches with them when they die.
One of the big debates in Jesus’ time was the same as today, taxes. And I would be willing to bet that the Romans imposed a flat tax on all of the citizens of Israel during that time. It is no wonder that the tax collector was one of the most hated persons in the community, especially among the lower classes. The rich weren’t hurt by the tax like the poor were and probably were able to get out of paying taxes most of the time.
And yet, with history telling us that flat taxes are regressive, i.e. hurt the ones with the least, we still seem fixated on the idea that a flat tax will solve all of our problems. I am not saying that our present tax code is that great but I also know that the alternatives before us are worse than the present situation.
I am reminded of a proposal made back in 2003 for a fair tax, one based on Judeo-Christian ethics. As I wrote in “Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?”, in 2003 the state of Alabama had and probably still has one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Besides topping out at 5%, the state also has a 4% sales tax. And communities are allowed to add their own sales tax to that 4%, creating in some places a sales tax of 10%.
Susan Price Hamill proposed a new tax code that would have been fairer than the present code, which placed an unfair burden on the poor while benefitting the middle and upper classes. Opposition to her proposal came from some of the places that you would expect (the rich, the land owners, and those who have to pay more in taxes). But opposition also came from the Alabama Christian Coalition who tried to say that Christians have no obligation to take care of their neighbors. And when that interesting piece of Christian theology failed, they resorted to slander.
There comes a time when we have to look at where we are and decide if it is better than where we might be or where we were. The Israelites chose a path that kept those who began the Exodus from ever entering or seeing the Promised Land. It would be the next generation that would be able to enter.
The church of today does not have that luxury; its policies and attitudes have driven most of the next generation away. Those who have stayed have stayed with the promise that they would be the leaders if the policies never changed. These individuals are so hungry for power that they are willing to hold onto the past, even when they see that what they will inherit is dying.
The youth of today, the hope and promise of this country are occupying Wall Street. Surprisingly, the things that they are doing are very similar to the beginnings of Christian communities two thousand years ago. But they don’t know that this is the way the church started because they don’t see it as a church. Rather they see it in what they were taught in Sunday School; they remember what Jesus did.
The Pharisees come to Jesus, again looking to trip him up with a theological question; but, as before He sees through their attempt. Referring to the Ten Commandments, they want to know which is the most important. It is an interesting question because each one of the commandments is different from the rest and you have to use all of them collectively rather than individually. And Jesus states that we are to love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and then to love others as well as we love ourselves. The rest of the law comes from there.
Just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the Promised Land but were unwilling to trust in God and fearful that their individual abilities would do them little good, so too do we put our reliance on the collection of laws and not what the laws are meant to do. We would rather make more laws that restrict than work from the basis of the laws we have. We would rather tell people what they cannot do then try to live as we are supposed. In the end, we would much rather stay where we are than try and finish the journey that we have undertaken.
If we are who we say we are, that is, if we are to be called Christians in today’s society, then we must finish the journey that was begun two thousand years ago. If we cannot love others as we love ourselves, then we will find that journey to be difficult.
We need to hear the words of Paul to the Thessalonians again, how what was said by Paul and Silas was not meant to cover things up or make things easy but to speak the truth. Paul and Silas didn’t come into Thessalonica with the airs of a television preacher, proclaiming the truth as they knew it and the people were to believe it. They did not just give the Message to the people, they gave their hearts and the Love of Christ.
We stand at the top of the mountain overlooking the Promised Land. We are being called to finish the journey but to do so we must leave the baggage of our fears and our hatred and exclusiveness behind. We must take on the mantle of Christ, to love God with all our passion, our prayers and our intelligence. And we are to love others as we would love ourselves. If there is to be a tomorrow in this world, it will be because we finished the journey that is expressed in our love for others.
Are you ready to finish the journey?