Benediction Online

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fifty Years On

Usually when we see Jesus healing someone it is because they or their friends and relatives have requested it. But in today’s gospel he calls out to a woman who has lived almost two decades bent double and heals her. Even though she hasn’t asked him. What is Jesus doing here? Is he moved by compassion, is he seizing a teaching moment or is he stirring up trouble?

Why did a quarter of a million people head to Washington for a march 50 years ago, and why are thousands of people following in their footsteps this week? Are they moved by compassion, are they seizing a teaching moment or are they stirring up trouble?

Certainly in 1963 the authorities were concerned that there would be trouble. The march was policed like a military operation, literally—it was called Operation Steep Hill. They stopped all elective surgery in Washington that weekend. They stopped the sale of alcohol, cancelled all baseball games, and said that the courts were going to run all night, thinking that there would be a large number of arrests.[1]

But it was a peaceful demonstration with few arrests. Yet it challenged the status quo. Just as Jesus’ decision to heal the disabled woman was a peaceful demonstration of the kingdom of God but also a confrontation with the religious authorities. The point he was making was that religious laws and religious practice are only part of the picture – when they get in the way of us living the reign of God, when they get in the way of us demonstrating God’s love then they are out of place.

At first glance, putting religious practice before practical compassion doesn’t seem to be a big problem in this country today! But the way Christianity is sometimes practiced is contributing to the political impasse. If we imagine God as a purely external transcendent being who has specific laws which we have to obey, then like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time we are going to take rigid positions. We may conclude that abortion is wrong and given the rigidity of our understanding of God’s law it becomes logical to say that anyone who agrees with abortion under any circumstances is suspect. We lose sight of the need for compassion in our desire to be right.

For centuries people believed that slavery was right, and supported this with their reading of the Biblical narrative. Then they believed that white people of European descent were superior to others, and again supported this with a few Bible verses. The 1963 March on Washington is important in our history because it marks a time when people, black and white, said enough is enough - we must treat all people equally - just as the Stonewall Inn riot six years later was an iconic moment when gay people started to demand equality.
But fifty years later we still do not have racial equality. Of the 2.3million people in prison today in this country, nearly one million are African-American. In 2008 Latinos and African Americans together made up a quarter of the country’s population but 58% of the prison population. That is not racial equality. The death of Trayvon Martin was a result of racial profiling, which is a euphemism for racial discrimination. Had he been a white kid things might have been very different for him and his family.

In a country built by immigrants we have an immigration system which is antiquated and which makes it difficult for farmers to legally get the workers they need and leaves thousands of migrant fieldworkers open to exploitation. The bill which passed the Senate is not perfect but it is a significant step forward but it is unlikely to pass the House because the leadership of the House are taking a rigid anti-Obama stance which prevents them from seeing the needs of real people.

What would Jesus do?

I really have no idea what Jesus would do, and in some ways that’s an irrelevant question because he isn’t here and you and I are. It is up to us to find ways to use our power to show compassion, raise up teaching moments and, if necessary, to make trouble. We are fortunate to live in a country where we can have a voice, where we don’t have to take to the streets and risk having our children killed by riot police or by chemical weapons. But we don’t use the voice that we have. When was the last time you wrote a letter to the Editor or to an elected representative? When was the last time you chose to get involved with a situation that calls to you? As Christians we are called not just to go to church and do our spiritual practice but to be informed and active citizens. We are called to make the world a better place for all people, and that will only happen through systemic change which primarily happens through government.

If our religious practice does not include supporting those who are working for a world of equality and freedom then Jesus is talking directly to us when he says “You hypocrites!”

This week there will be people in San Luis Obispo who are part of the movement for immigration reform and there will be several opportunities to meet them and learn more about it. There are details on the notice board  - a potluck on Wednesday and a prayer vigil on Thursday. I hope that some of us will be able to be there.

Fifty years after the March on Washington it is time for us to stop thinking of the civil rights movement as something in the past but to realize that the reasons for the Jobs and Freedom march are as relevant today as they were then - the discrimination, joblessness and economic inequality faced by African Americans. For the past six decades the rate of unemployment among black people has consistently been twice that of whites.[2] It is lower for Latinos, but still 2% higher than for the white population. It is not surprising that gangs flourish.

It’s time that we added our voices to the voices of those who are calling for equality. It is time for us to financially support organizations that work for an end to discrimination and to provide jobs for those who are chronically unemployed.

It is time for us to find creative ways, like Jesus, to show compassion and to confront the rigid thinking and the systemic problems which keep people bent over and limited for decade after decade.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Sometimes I watch television when I’m at the gym or waiting in an airport and recently I saw part of an episode of the reality TV show Storage Wars. For those of you who haven’t seen it – it follows professional buyers who purchase the contents of strangers’ storage bins based only on a five-minute inspection of what they can see from the door. In California if you don’t pay your storage bin rent for three months, its contents can be sold at auction as one single lot. The goal of the buyers in Storage Wars is to buy the contents of storage bins and  turn a profit on what they find. As you can imagine sometimes they are thrilled, other times disgusted with the contents of the bins they have bought.

If all the storage units in this country were put side to side they would take up 78 square miles - more than three times the size of Manhattan Island. That means that there is 7.3 sq.ft. of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation; so, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.[1]

What in heavens’ name are we doing with all that storage? Some of it is used by people whose lives are in transition, but 30% of all storage units are rented for more than two years. So an area bigger than Manhattan Island is currently used just for storing stuff long-term, and that’s not to mention the things we have in our garages and guest bedrooms.

I have talked a few times about how holding grudges and failing to forgive ties up our energy so that don’t have it for serving God and living life to the full today. I want to suggest that the stuff we hold on to does the same thing. Stuff that we don’t need becomes a place of blocked energy in our lives, because things are made to be used and enjoyed. If they’re just stacked away somewhere they’re not being used nor enjoyed.

Two weeks ago the following appeared on the back of the Benediction Weekly:
“Here’s how the story begins:
Seven beings – three adult humans, two small children, a cat and a dog – share a household.
One well-educated adult enjoys a meaningful job, health insurance, hearty meals, the comfort of a well-fed dog, and entertainment on a widescreen television.
Another adult cares for a child on the unheated back porch, nourishing the child with occasional scraps.
A third adult does most of the housework, makes clothing, tends the garden, and cares for a small child who suffers from a preventable illness.
A cat, unneutered and hungry, lives in the garden and roams the neighborhood for food.”

We were asked to imagine the end of the story.

I would like to imagine that the well-educated adult opens up the home to those who live on the back porch, and everyone shares so that no-one is doing more than their fair share and everyone gets what they need to flourish, including the cat.
I would like to imagine that.

But that’s not the reality. The reality is that the well-fed adult who sits in the house enjoying TV is like you and me. According to the Scientific American, one American consumes 53 times more goods and services than one Chinese person and as much as 35 people who live on the Indian continent. A child born in the US will, in their lifetime, cause 13 times more ecological damage than a child born in Brazil.  With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper. And those are not renewable resources. We also create half of the world’s solid waste.[2]

What does Jesus say about all this? He says “But God said to the man with many storage units, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Before we get comfortable with the idea that provided we are rich toward God it is ok for us to have excess “stuff” let’s also remember the last line of the reading for St. Benedict’s Day, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Luke 14:33).

Serving God means loving our neighbor and loving our neighbor no longer means helping an old lady across the road or giving money to a panhandler. Loving our neighbor means being willing to share. Loving our neighbor means using less and hoarding less. Loving our neighbor means living a life of radical simplicity – living simply so others may simply live.

That’s not easy to do. It fact it’s almost impossible. If we were truly living simply we would give up our cars and walk or cycle everywhere. But how many of us live close enough to a grocery store to walk there? And how many of us live close enough to church to walk here? Our society is just not set up for us to truly live simply. But there are many things we can do.

We can buy things which have a minimum of packaging – packaging just goes straight into the trash or recycle bin, and recycling while better than tossing still uses energy. We can share things we own and borrow things we need. We can install solar water heating or panels for electricity. We can carpool. We can eat seasonally and lower on the food chain and buy food grown locally which has not been transported and stored. We can get rid of our stuff and free up our lives to be lived today not pulled back into the past.

There are many things we can do to live more simply so that we can truly love our neighbor. The most important thing is to stop acquiring stuff and to realize that our happiness, our fulfillment does not come from what we buy, or what we own. It’s difficult to do that when all the time we are barraged by advertizing assuring us that we’ll be happier if we use this product, buy that gadget or take a dream vacation.

But it is our calling. Our calling is to take care of all that God has given us. Our calling is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our calling is to focus our minds and our lives on quality not quantity, on the expression of love, peace, kindness, goodness, mercy. Those are the things that sustain. Those are the things that bring new life, not what we own, not our investments, not the contents of all the storage units in the country, but the things of God. And when we focus on them, when we become rich in God then we will find that we have more to share.

True abundance is not in what we receive or what we have, but in what we give. True abundance comes when we no longer need to hold on to old habits and old stuff but can let go and open ourselves to the new. True abundance comes when we unhook ourselves from the addiction to acquire more and more. Then, as we create the space to be filled with the unconditional love of God, so we can bless others, and our lives become a flow of loving energy creating a little bit of heaven on earth wherever we go.