"In heaven, will God ask for papers?"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A sermon on persistently seeking justice, and not trying to be a voice for those who already have a voice

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

As I read through the parable of the persistent widow, I couldn't help but think of the many determined individuals and communities I met during my time of studying in Central America. During my semester there my senior year of college, I met many people living out social change and responding to injustice in their communities. One group that practiced the highest level of persistence I have ever witnessed was a group of folks I met in the Nicaraguan capital city of Managua whose community was known as “Tent City.” (side note: I blogged about this here.)

This “tent city” was built when hundreds of Nicaraguans marched from their homes in the rural areas of Nicaragua some five years earlier. Traveling by foot 40 to 100 miles from their homes, most of these folks had worked on banana plantations whose presence filled the lush lands of Central America starting in the early 20th century. These plantations, which belonged to large fruit companies such as Dole and DelMonte, used a chemical pesticide known as Nemagon, which had been banned in the US in the 70s due to the harmful medical side effects that had been traced back to it. Nemagon continued to be used in Central America and was attributed to causing a variety of health problems among the campesinos working the banana fields – kidney failure, sterility, lung cancer, blindness, and much more. They themselves are living with cancer and disease, and have lost many loved ones. They had marched in protest of the use of the chemical, and built themselves these homes made of sticks and random pieces of wood that held up sheets of plastic. They established their community in silent protest right across the street from the tallest building in Managua, which houses the congressional offices. When we drove by, we could not miss the sight of the tall government building or the tent city right across the street. The community’s persistence has resulted in the loss of their homes back in rural Nicaragua, and some support from the government, including food supplements, medical attention, and even new houses being built for them in the city.

Although the government has responded, the fruit companies have not. Like the unjust judge, the companies did not have respect for people, at least not the powerless campesinos who worked in the fields. And like the persistent widow, the workers were not about to give up their fight for justice. They sought more than a handout or money, or even an apology. They sought a systemic transformation of unjust policies and practices that have resulted in the persecution of the most vulnerable of their population. They sought, and continue to seek, complete and transformative justice.

It is easy to see the vulnerable and powerless—the widows—in a new place unfamiliar to us, but we cannot deny the presence of the oppressed within our own nation, within our state, within our city; in our neighborhoods, at our work places, and even within our church. We cannot ignore the oppressed on this side of the border and on the other side of the fence. Just the fact that there are concerns about the government cutting back funding for programs like food stamps, and that mothers—probably including many widows—dependent on WIC have been suffering from the government dilemma about how to spend federal money. No matter your opinion about how much we ought to be giving to folks in poverty, the truth of the matter is that we have many widow-types living all around us. Those who are the vulnerable and the most powerless in our society are often the people who are also the most dependent on everyone else; and our political and social systems tend not to favor these folks and our policies often ignore them.

Often we label those who are living on the margins of society as the “voiceless;” and we, if we are truly concerned for the wellbeing of our oppressed brothers and sisters, must be a “voice for the voiceless.” But if Jesus’ parable shows us anything it is that the widows of society do, in fact, have a voice, and they are not afraid to use it. The widow in the story pesters and pesters the judge until he gives her what she demands. He grants her request probably out of annoyance; or more likely, as a man mostly focused on himself, out of fear of his own humiliation. The point is not that the widow does not have a voice and needs someone to speak up for her; the point is how she can get her voice heard. Shane Claiborne, a social activist and new monastic in Philadelphia states it well. He says, “Everyone has a voice…We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there drowning out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put their hands over their ears to drown out the suffering. Institutions have distanced themselves from the disturbing cries. When Paul writes in Romans 8 that the entire creation is groaning for its liberation…This is the chorus of the generations of seemingly voiceless people that we have joined. And God has a special ear for their groaning, regardless of who else is listening” (The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical). 
Everyone has a voice, and we do not have to be a voice for those who already have their own voice. But many  voices of many have been drowned out. God hears the cries of the oppressed and the vulnerable, but these same cries fall onto our deaf ears. How can we use our faith in this God who hears all who cry out, and open our own ears and hearts to empathetically hear the cries of the powerless and the suffering among us? How much more will our God respond to the cries of all, if even just one widow was able to stand up and receive justice from a powerful judge. Our good news is that we have a God who will respond even more promptly and in such greater ways to our pleas for justice as we wholeheartedly listen to one another and work for justice together.
In our fight for justice, we cannot forget the importance and the power of prayer. According to Luke, the reason Jesus told this parable was to highlight the need to “pray always and not to lose heart.” Our prayers can become support for another as we listen to each other and respond to unjust systems that are oppressing us and our neighbor. Our prayers can empower and strengthen us as we attempt to do justice, as the book of Micah suggests. And we can have confidence that our prayers do not fall onto deaf ears, rather that God hears our cries as we cry out together with our oppressed neighbor.
Jesus was known for prioritizing justice for the rejected and the most vulnerable of society. We witness this throughout the entirety of the Gospels, from the accounts of Jesus’ actions, to the stories that Jesus himself told, like the parable of the persistent widow. According to Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that address God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable. An example of modern-day persistence was manifested through the form of Jim Wallis, his Sojourners staff, and other Christians setting up camp across the street from the national Capitol building during the government shutdown. For over two weeks, they did not leave their podium and did not cease reading scripture in what they called a #FaithfulFilibuster. They read the 2,000 verses day and night until congress ended the government shutdown. They persisted their plea for our leaders to regard their poor and oppressed neighbors, and to consider how their actions affect struggling mothers, children, farmers, cancer patients, small business owners, military families, and any and all of those whose way of sustaining their lives was halted by the government standstill. 
Our persistence and our prayers can help us to not “lose heart” as we determinedly seek justice for our neighbors—and for ourselves—in an unjust world that continues to persecute, abandon, and ridicule. Our world continues to ignore the voices of the most marginalized. Our good news is that we have a God who listens to the cries of God’s children—who does not turn a deaf ear to our pleas for justice; and God calls us to help one another find our own voice, rather than try to be each other’s’ voices. I imagine God’s hope is for us to continue trusting in God’s holy presence and goodness as we continue to listen to one another, pray together, and empower one another to bring about justice. If Jesus tells us how a selfish judge can relent to the persistent pleas of a powerless widow, how much more will God respond to our requests for justice, and how much more promptly and in such greater ways. We can have faith in a God, who through the Gospel message of Christ, has revealed to us that God not only favors the vulnerable and marginalized, but that God offers new life that can overcome any powers of oppression. We have been given a message that would not only bring a selfish judge to submit to a powerless widow—but a message that has the divine ability to uplift, empower, and transform an unjust world. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"I wish God would have said..."

Even though I'm hired to do youth ministry at Peace Lutheran Church, I still help lead the youth group at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey - a bilingual, mostly immigrant, church in a much poorer and more central neighborhood of El Paso.

Last night at Cristo Rey we started our youth group lesson (about "who" wrote the Bible) with the question, "What is one thing you wish God said?" The kids' responses were simple and beautiful:

"I wish God would've said if all religions were the same or not."
"I wish God would say for my doggie to have puppies."
"I wish God said your grandpa is looking down on you."
"I wish God said 'question your authority.'"
"I wish God said 'freedom for ALL.'"
"I wish God said that there wouldn't be no problems in the world."
"I wish God said go to school 4 hours daily only."
"I wish God would've said: 'You are precious.'"
"I wish God said there shall be no borders."

"I wish God said that everything is ok."

We then proceeded to talk about whether or not God has already said these things and began our discussion about if the Bible was written by God or humans.

Their responses simply remind me: Young people are a Divine gift.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

“I’m gonna make this place your home”

I wrote this brief article for Peace Lutheran's most recent newsletter.

This week, I have talked about the same thing with almost all of the high schoolers with whom I have chatted: HOMECOMING.
It’s that time of the year—all of my young friends have just finished Homecoming festivities, or are getting ready for them. Some are most excited about the dress-up days, some the football game, others the Homecoming dance. No matter their social standing or what they think of school, they seem to be thinking about Homecoming.
I have wrestled a lot with the concept of “Homecoming.” I haven’t been back for Homecoming at either my high school or university, even though part of the point, in my understanding, of Homecoming is for alumni to “come back home.”
You see, it’s hard for me to pinpoint where my “home” is. I grew up in Iowa, attended college in South Dakota, have spent time throughout Central America and traveling throughout the US, and now live in El Paso. I have spent time at many different churches, workplaces, and houses. When I think of “home,” I don’t just think of my hometown, my high school, or even El Paso. I think of all the places where I have lived, visited—where I have experienced life—and the people who influenced me during my time there. I do think of my surroundings—the view of the Rock River in Iowa, the campus of Augustana, the smell of Managua—but I also think of the smiling, beautiful faces and the warm embraces of the people I have met, and the countless things I have learned about the world, about other people, and about myself.
One of the most important “homes” for me was my church in Rock Rapids, Iowa, where I attended for the first 18 years of my life.  That church community supported me for the first 3/4ths of my life, and continues to support me even while I live 24 hours away. The Immanuel Lutheran community of Rock Rapids will always be a home for me.
And this is what I want for our young people here at Peace. I want to give them a space they can make their own (hence the painting overnight!)—where they are free to explore their faith and grow as a community together. I want them to feel supported by the rest of the church community, no matter the age, background, or experiences of other members of Peace. I want them to see the beauty of El Paso and see what they can learn from our larger community by serving together.
I want this to become one of their “homes.” A place where they can feel safe, supported, and, most importantly, loved.