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Sermon for September 30, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: Americans on the Margins


Whenever I confront the evil of which we humans are capable, I feel guilty, and saddened, angry and tired. How about you? I resonate with the words once written by Franz Kafka:
You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
These are the questions I want to think about today: Are we better off as a nation when we engage the suffering of nation or when we hold back?  Does holding back actually cause more personal suffering, or is this protective posture necessary for our health? Let’s dig in by looking at an episode on Mark’s gospel.

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.”

“Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us. If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into  . . .  For everyone will be tested with fire. Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.”
Mark 9:38-50
John the Disciple is getting whiney again. He confronts his mentor with an arrogant objection. “Jesus, there is this maverick exorcist going around doing miracles and claiming it’s done with your power. He is using our brand, Jesus, but he’s not in our organization. We should make him stop. Right?  Right?” John sees a threat. His wants Jesus to draw a red line around the threat – to build boundaries around the exercise of compassionate ministry.

Let’s not be so shocked. We all have our turfs to protect. There is, of course, the home and family.  We have territory at work—both paid and volunteer—upon which no outsider is permitted to tread.  And we look to government to draw protect boundaries, too. There are city and county boundaries, national borders.  There are copyright laws that protect intellectual territory. 

What if the God we worship sees every single one of the margins we build and the territories we protect . . . and challenges all of them? What if God is asking us to re-draw the margins?

How does Jesus respond to John’s fear and anger and sense of injustice? He says, “John, knock it off.  Our job right now is to take care of the little ones. Our job is to expose the evil tendencies of humanity, beginning with the Self. Our job is to bring more salt and light, more flavor and brilliance, to the nations. Our job is to live in peace.”  Jesus welcomes anyone who does works of healing and justice. Those with “holier than thou” fantasies think that compassion belongs to the privileged few. Jesus protests against religious and political systems that exclude and dominate other people by reserving blessing for a fortunate few. And every time Jesus points this out, he calls for an end to corrupted systems that segregate, stigmatize, and subjugate people.

Love.  Mercy. Justice.  Love! Mercy! Justice!  It doesn’t seem realistic for a Republic, does it? Who leads by colluding with the dispossessed? How can engaging the suffering of nation make it stronger? 

At the heart of my response is an understanding of private and public life. Privacy is at the heart of the American Dream. We all value privacy, right?  We put borders around our private lives. The signs around our personal territory say, “NO STRANGERS ALLOWED EXCEPT BY INVITATION.” Strangers can only have legitimate access to our private lives when we invite them in. Our nation’s founder’s believed in this principle. They canonized the belief that private citizens who are free to pursue their own happiness will use their gains to contribute to the common good.

Somewhere along the line, Americans started believing that we could pursue our own happiness with no regard for the needs of others – and even at the expense of others. There goes the American Dream of equality and prosperity for all! The dream dissolves when people care more about personal wealth instead of commonwealth. Now we see growing sub-communities of American people living on the margins of economic and political life. Middle and upper-class Americans used to be able to ignore them. But, after a few years of economic turmoil, job losses and housing foreclosures, we are exposed to a new American experience. For Americans on the margins, private life is not area of sanctity and safety. Private life is isolating and fearful. Private life can be about suspicion instead of success; risk instead of reward. That’s why new social movements, like the Occupy Movement, come from the ranks of the dispossessed. Americans on the Margins realize that private interests are strengthened only when people band together as strangers with shared public interests. It’s the only way to improve life and make their voices heard.

If we take Jesus’ ministry on the margins seriously, might we realize that the corridors of power are located in surprising and disturbing places?

Political life functions around clear lines of rank, privilege and honor. Living a life of redemptive protest, a life of healing and wholeness means a status reversal. Where once leadership was seen to come from the front, from elected or appointed persons in defined roles, a new breed of leadership is emerging.
    Instead of leading from over, we can lead from among and beside.
    Instead of leading from certainty, we can lead by exploration, cooperation and faith.
    Instead of leading as managers, we can lead as mystics and poets
    Instead of leading convulsively, we can lead with inner freedom
    Instead of leading from the center, we can lead from the margins.

What is true in politics is also true of our faith. We cannot afford to work out our faith dislocated from the world around us. My faith compels me to help to build an American Dream that sanctify the margins of life.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast revealed that there are at least two kinds of Americans: those who can get themselves out of harm’s way, and those who cannot; those whom the government rushes to help, and those it does not; those who are expendable, and those who are not.  A few days after Katrina made landfall, Tim Wise wrote a column for MSN online entitled A God with Whom I Am Not Familiar. Bothered by a restaurant patron at another table, Wise wrote an open letter.

You don't know me. But I know you. I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck. When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, one of your friends offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh. "Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard." She then added that police should shoot the looters and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

If we want to believe that Americans on the Margins are immoral, and greedy and unworthy of support, so be it. If you want to believe that exclusion is solved by scolding victims, I guess it’s your right.  But, as Wise says, let's leave God out of it, shall we? Any God who blesses your lunch while children go to be hungry and people die in the streets is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.

Endless growth, unlimited development, class warfare, stripping the planet clean of its resources with no consequence – this is the Dream gone delusional. I just read a story about how the profitable giant Dr. Pepper/Snapple conglomerate is demanding wage and benefit cuts.  Even though the Dr. Pepper Company made a profit of $555 million last year, it wants to make recession wages the local standard. The company told the workers to think of themselves as a “commodity” like soybeans or oil. You know what, this is not the American Dream I buy into. The American Dream I follow is a Dream closer to Dr. King’s than Dr. Pepper’s

I support the American Dream that affirms the worth and dignity of every person.

I support the American Dream that focuses some national resources on those who are least likely to receive justice, equity, or compassion from the government.

I support the American Dream that roots for the underdog.

I support the American Dream that can’t force people to love the poor, but can at least keep them from starving to death.

I support the American Dream in which there are no strangers in the corridors of power.

I support the American Dream that affirms a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all – a Dream where we learn about how our standard of living depends on a lower standard of living for many – a Dream where we remember that those who suffer as a result of U.S. economic policies suffer on our behalf – a Dream that opposes the use of war to support American economic growth.

I support an American Dream in which the decisive test of political sincerity is the insistence on improving the lives of the most oppressed.

I support the American Dream that will not close its eyes and stop up its ears to shut out this call, even when we're angry, or uncertain, or just plain tired.

Grounded in our tradition, we are the stewards of a Gospel that gains energy and authenticity on the margins.  Empowered by our principles, we bear a Gospel whose message is lived and preached in accountability with those who are most compromised. Bound in community, we are one with those whom Jesus called, “the least of these.” Connected by the spirit of life and love, we refuse to hold back.


Sources:
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, pp.89-93.
http://www.irishmethodist.org/cmsfiles/pdf/faithorder/theologyofplace.pdf
http://nextreformation.com/wp-admin/resources/Margins.pdf
http://justgini.blogspot.com/2011/08/faith-around-margins-mothers-day-sermon.html
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/americandream/questionvideos.html
http://calcoastnews.com/2011/10/greed-the-real-american-dream/
http://www.milwaukeelabor.org/in_the_news/article.cfm?n_id=0099
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman.

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