Sunday, September 22, 2013

With Malice Toward None, Charity When Needed, and Justice for All

Texts:  Amos 8: 4-7;  Luke 16: 10-13

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives  “narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food stamp program . . .  that would slash about $39 billion in funding over the next decade, cut aid to about 4 million Americans in the next few years, and shift the burden of providing aid to some of the nation’s poor to state governments” (

I appreciate how complex and persistent is the problem of poverty. I understand that Americans, who are allergic to raising taxes, are simultaneously challenged to reduce poverty and the national debt.  I understand that welfare fraud exists and a few dishonest people inevitably manage to exploit any system designed to help those who cannot help themselves.  Some, therefore, believe that cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are justified. But surely we all see the great gulf growing between the rich and poor.  Meanwhile, we continue to prioritize the funding of our war machine and we continue to privilege the privileged.

So in times like these I keep hearing the voice of the outraged prophet Amos booming across the centuries and demanding that our national and state leaders care about the poor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” warned the prophet Amos in the 8th century BCE.  “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land,” warns Amos still.  “Hear this, you legislators, who play politics with the lives of the poor.”  “Hear this, you complacent church goers who think someone else is responsible for our political and economic systems.”

Hear this:  Poverty cannot be addressed by charity alone.  Poverty and other social ills require entire systems to be rearranged.  In Amos’s day, for instance, an unfair tax system was enriching the rich while driving the poor into deeper poverty.  In our day, regressive tax laws likewise intensify inequities. That is why we as a faith community need to consider that our response to poverty is not merely a matter of donating to charities or helping out neighbors who have fallen on hard times.  While the Bible certainly encourages alms giving, the Bible also presents examples of prophets who speak to those in authority about correcting unjust social and economic systems. 

Amos spoke to the rulers of his day.  You and I can address those in power today:  by voting, contacting our legislators, writing letters to editors, demonstrating peacefully, organizing groups to do likewise.  Our charitable dollars can go only so far and can sometimes simply shore up unfair systems by placing Band-Aids on problems that require major surgery. 

Charity is often about making me feel that I’m a good person rather than making someone else feel empowered and whole. 

Maybe you’ve known someone like a woman I’ll call Amanda.  Amanda is a middle-aged professional living in an elite neighborhood.  For twenty years she has employed another woman to clean her home twice a week.  For twenty years Amanda has donated bags of good, used clothing to the woman who meticulously cleans her house. Sometimes she offers her house cleaner used appliances when Amanda upgrades hers.  Amanda has always provided lunch for her “cleaning lady” on the days the house cleaner is working, and has remembered her employee at Christmas with a turkey or ham because she suspects the house cleaner’s family barely scrapes by.  Once when her house cleaner was hospitalized for a serious surgery, Amanda visited her in the hospital and brought a huge basket of fruit and flowers.  But Amanda also is proud of the fact that she negotiated exceptionally low wages for her house cleaner.  Whenever the house cleaner has asked for a raise, Amanda has usually convinced her to remain in her employ without a pay increase.  Amanda is pleased that she has only had to raise her housekeeper’s hourly wages twice in 20 years.  At the same time, Amanda is quite pleased with herself for always behaving so charitably toward her house cleaner. 

One potential problem with the charity of individuals and groups is that it often allows those in more powerful positions to feel better about themselves without having to change the fundamental inequities.  Charity is not always motivated by selfishness or tainted by smugness—but sometimes it is.

When I used to engage my college students in service-learning projects in the community, I was secretly pleased when they wrote in their journals about people they’d served who did not express gratitude.  Those experiences gave my students the opportunity to recognize they’d expected their efforts would be appreciated and praised. This realization helped them acknowledge that maybe one reason they wanted to serve others was to make themselves feel good, perhaps even superior.  Ironically, my students could realize they had in fact learned something important about themselves from those they were serving and thus had themselves been on the receiving end in what was thereafter a more mutual relationship. 

Real service in the name of justice equalizes relationships. Service in the name of charity is done to or for others, but service in the name of justice is done WITH others.  Charity, therefore, can deepen the divides, can be imposed onto those in need, can discount the wisdom of the one being served, can let the giver just walk away from the problem. Justice is the only ground on which authentic mutual relationships can be built.

Justice trumps charity for other reasons.  According to William Sloan Coffin, “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy.” No matter how generously individuals contribute to charities, they cannot give enough to correct an unjust system.  Charity can change an individual’s short-term situation, not a long-term or a wide-spread injustice.  In fact, charity can sometimes make an injustice more entrenched.  Regressive tax laws, inhumane immigration laws, unfair marriage laws will keep on disempowering  some people and enriching or favoring others—until the laws, the systems themselves, change.

Another important reason to work for justice is also quite practical. Again, as William Sloan Coffin explained, “Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes.” 

A well-known story illustrates this point well:

Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water.  They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.

One body was dead so they buried it.  One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital.  The third turned out to be a healthy child, whom they then placed with a family who cared for it and who took it to school.

From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river and, every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to hospitals, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead. 

This went on for years.  Each day brought its own quota of bodies, and the townsfolk came not only to expect a number of bodies each day but also worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them.  Some of the townsfolk became quite generous in tending to these bodies and a few extraordinary ones even gave up their jobs so that they could attend to this concern full-time.  And the town itself felt a certain healthy pride in its generosity. 

However, during all these years and despite all that generosity, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.  (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing--suggested by Lella Lowe).

Doesn’t it make more sense to prevent the problem rather than correct it after it has developed?  That’s why education, for instance, is considered such an important tactic for the work of justice. 

Can you think of societal ills other than poverty that might be prevented with excellent public education?

Responses from the congregation:
·        Better physical and mental health
·        Care for the environment
·        Reduction of crime

Other than providing quality public education, what are some other means of creating a just society?

Responses from the congregation:
·        Offering the public access to good nutrition, prenatal care, health care, mental health care
·        Caring for our environment
·        Providing good employment opportunities
·        Improving public infrastructures
·        Creating fair and affordable housing
·        Teaching peacemaking in our homes, communities, and world

William Sloan Coffin said, “Had I but one wish for the churches of America, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice."

Do WE see the difference between charity and justice?  (We make this distinction in our "Principles for Serving Others" that can be found on our website: This Tuesday we will participate in feeding and hosting overnight several families who currently are without housing.  Is our work with Family Promise an act of charity or justice?   

Congregation discusses reasons to name Family Promise as an organization doing justice.

Of course, charity is necessary at times as a stop-gap measure. An act of extraordinary charity might even change the entire course of one person’s life and therefore the many lives that person later affects.  Charity is usually a gracious giving of one’s self. 

But churches are sometimes reluctant to organize for social justice--partly because these efforts sound so political.  And they are.  But they need not be partisan.  Righting economic and social wrongs involves systemic change, and that requires socio-political action. 

We as a new church are supporting several causes of justice but may eventually identify one or a few causes of justice that will become especially dear to us. 

Let’s name some of the justice efforts we’re already supporting:
·        Immigration reform
·        Soul of Somanya
·        Justice efforts through the United Church of Christ
·        Befriending a refugee family
·        Environmental activism
·        LGBTQ rights through the We DO Campaign and others
·        Peacemaking

In 2 weeks we will contribute to a special offering our denomination collects to fund projects of justice created by our own UCC churches and organizations.  This offering, called Neighbors in Need, gives churches just like ours the seed money to begin projects that can address injustices and thus go “up river” to the root causes.  These projects emphasize justice over charity.  Let’s continue to pray about unmet needs in our city so that we can then envision a way we are uniquely suited to address injustice. 

In time we may identify or create a ministry especially well suited to our gifts and calling. This idea will bubble up from among us. And this project will change us, will galvanize us into action, will draw others to us in the work of social justice, and will deepen us all spiritually through our mutual endeavor and the inner reflection and deepening spirituality it will provoke.

In the meantime, we are even now in this moment being changed as we take time, on Sundays like this, to withdraw from the getting and spending game in order to remember that we "cannot serve both God and wealth," as Jesus put it.  Wealth can be a means, not an end; a way to serve God; not the thing we devote our lives to.  Here we set aside time that is not dedicated to acquiring things, or making money, or getting caught up in an economic system that will eventually chew us up and spit us out.  We need moments each week to recognize we are more than consumers, more than workers.  We are spiritual beings made to love God, to love the created world, and to love one another.  That is our highest vocation. 

PRAYER:  God of the poor, come to our poverty—a poverty that might be material or spiritual.  Enrich our lives with a diverse and loving community that refuses to believe that harmful systems can’t be changed. Amen 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Guided Meditations: "When God Gets Mad" and "When God Changes God's Mind"

First Reading: Exodus 32:1-6                                  
While Moses was with the Holy One, the impatient people of Israel were seeking other gods: 1When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

QUESTIONS FOR SILENT REFLECTION                                           

Pascal believed there’s a “God-shaped vacuum” in each of us that “cannot be filled by any created thing.”  Have you ever tried to use a “created thing” to fill the vaccum in your life?  Worship is one way we weekly recommit ourselves to that which is most worthy of our lives.  What is the golden calf in your life right now that is diverting your energy and love from The Ultimate in Life? 

Second Reading:   Exodus 32:7-10
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

GUIDED MEDITATION       “When God Gets Mad”
This is one of those Old Testament stories that evidently got past God’s PR agent.  In this story God is jealous of phony gods, is almost as fickle as his fickle followers, and is mad enough to exterminate the people he has just named his chosen ones. Stories like this one fuel the fiery evangelists who tell groups of people that God hates them. Stories like this one help us justify our own prejudices and hatred.  Stories like this give the Church a bad rap. 

So we might be tempted to jettison these wrathful scriptures.  Maybe we wouldn’t actually rip chapter 32 of Exodus from our Bibles, but we could simply not read it, not talk about it, not preach from it.  I could have chosen another text for today’s reading.

Yet to ignore these Angry God stories entirely is to let the literalists control them. I want to talk about the Angry God in this story.  And in doing so I have to talk about the Angry Me.

I’ll begin by telling you one way I do NOT try to explain away the anger of this God we meet in the Moses saga.  I do NOT make the case that the Old Testament God is violent and the New Testament God is compassionate.  Because that distinction is not true.  The Hebrew Bible brims with images and stories of a God of tenderness, mercy, and compassion, and the New Testament has its own share of images and stories of a God who is angry.  John the baptizer foretells of God’s coming wrath, the book of Romans speaks of God’s ire, the book of Revelation bursts with violent images, and the Gospels mention at least a couple of times when even Jesus was mad.  We Christians must be careful not to imply that the Jewish scriptures simply don’t have the nicer version of God that we do.  You can catch God having a hissy fit in both Testaments. 

So the distinction I make is between who God is and who the Bible says God is.  The Bible is a library of stories, poems, laws, and theological musings composed over hundreds and hundreds of years.  Often a single book of the Bible was composed and edited over hundreds of years.  Within this library are many different understandings of God.  And none of these stories, poems, and other writings were written by God.  They were written by fallible human beings reaching for words to express their varied impressions about and experiences with the Sacred.  Even if human beings COULD fathom the mystery that we call “God,” our language would fail us—as language is always limited, always straining to capture a reality we perceive imperfectly.

it seems to me that God’s wrath emerges in Biblical stories when human beings have felt an injustice and have sensed that if THEY were God in that situation, they’d have been mad and perhaps have used godly might to smite the bad guys.  In trying to imagine a Holy response to some atrocity, human beings have ascribed anger to God.  What these writers might be saying is that here’s a situation that is not holy, that is counter to the way of Love and Life and therefore should be repudiated as such. “God is angry” is a way of describing a situation that, based on our understanding of what is holy and good, should not be tolerated. So we personify the sacred in these stories and say, quite metaphorically, that God is mad. 

I’m not saying that the early writers of Exodus were always self-consciously composing metaphors.  I’m saying that I understand the impulse generating these stories metaphorically.

We use our own metaphors today to express our frustrations and angers with injustice and drag God into them.  My favorite is from writer Anne LaMott, who expresses her frustration about a situation this way: “It’s enough to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish.”   

The writers of Exodus were right to imagine anger as a holy response to the Israelites.  Moses told the people to remain prayerful some distance from Mt. Sinai while he ascended to commune with God.  Instead of using this period of time for stillness and silence that would have strengthened them spiritually, the people became distracted, gave up their silent waiting upon God, and commenced a project on the assumption that some new shiny object—a golden calf—could fill the void.  God’s resultant anger was a narrative way of expressing some sense of what is sacred and what is not. 

I think there ARE times we are supposed to get angry.  I can imagine God angry at things counter to sacred living, at things that harm me or others.  However, I don’t think godly anger leads to violence.  And I don’t think God has favorites.  I know I’m capable of creating a God who conveniently sides with me and is mad at the people I’m mad at.  I have to be wary of ascribing anger to God because I know how easily anger can arise within me and I very much need to justify it.

Does your God get mad at others?  When?  Does it ever happen in response to superficial, accidental slights against you?   


How do you know what would make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish?  And how do you know when not to ascribe anger to God? 


Does your God ever get mad at YOU? Does that lead to feelings of shame that can overwhelm and defeat you?  Would that really be an outcome a loving God would produce?


Consider ways we construct our own images of God that we worship—and how these images may turn out to be merely shiny objects that distract us from what is really real, what is deeply compassionate.


Third Reading:  Exodus 32: 1-14
11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

GUIDED MEDITATION “When God Changes God’s Mind”

And God changed God’s mind!  Moses argued so persuasively that God relented. God had a change of heart. God remembered his/her promises and reversed his/her decision to destroy his/her faithless people.

The theological heart of today’s story may be this: although the people of God are faithless, God remains faithful; although God might have good reasons to give up on us, God remains faithful. 

Again we see the Bible offering sometimes conflicting theology.  Elsewhere God is described as an immovable rock, as the Alpha and the Omega that never changes.  Elsewhere the Bible extols the virtues of steadfastness and conviction. But this story shows an alternate insight into holy living: sometimes it’s a good thing to change course. This story says that the sacred thing to do sometimes is to change your mind. 

It seems to me that our country may be able to step back from the brink of war because leaders have been able to change their minds.

It’s hard to admit you’ve been wrong.  But sometimes our firm convictions are merely wrongheaded stubbornness. Religious convictions may be the most difficult to change.  It took me 10 years or more to rethink my understanding of homosexuality, to repent of heterosexism, to affirm LGBTQ people just as they are, to change my mind and, more importantly, to change my heart.  It was hard because this was a belief that seemed enshrined in biblical authority.  It seemed to me God had already spoken on the topic.  But in fact I came to see that I’d been judging others because of societal prejudice, and the belief I’d held was harming God’s children. I had to change my mind, but it felt to me that God was changing God’s mind.

A friend of mine sports this bumper sticker on her car:  “If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know you have one?” 

I might add a corollary: “If you haven’t had a change of heart lately, how do you know you have one?”

Many churches focus on shoring up the beliefs you came in with.  Many churches bolster the people’s convictions about doctrine and assure them, in the words of a beloved hymn, that “God changes not. . . . As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.” Here we want to listen to the Still Speaking God. We open ourselves to the Spirit of Love and Truth. 

Where is there some point of dissonance in your life?  Ponder the things that snag your attention —things that no longer seem to add up the way they used to.  Is God speaking to you through apparent contradictions?

Is God’s compassion and wisdom tugging at your sleeve, calling your name, taking you by the hand to lead you away from a petrified position and toward an openness to a new way of thinking or behaving?  


O God, show us where we need to remain firm and where we need to change.