Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

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When God Refuses to Listen

heather in ainsleys chair

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NRSV

I like to be honest from this pulpit. I like to be real. So let’s be really honest this morning. Have you ever prayed and had the feeling that God’s not listening?

You come to this place of worship and you go through all of the motions. You sing all of the hymns. You actually pray during the moment of silence, instead of spending those moments planning the rest of your day. You listen reverently to the choir’s anthem, and like few people, you even listen intently to every word of the sermon. But as the organist begins playing the prelude, you wonder if it was all just a big waste of time.

I believe this is a reason some people stay home on Sunday mornings. They are not getting through to God and God isn’t getting through to them. Sometimes, they blame it one the music. They say that the music just doesn’t inspire them. But most of the time, it is the preacher’s fault. They usually say something like, “I am just not being fed anymore at that church.” Have you heard that before?

Well, Isaiah suggests that their belief that worship is a waste of their time, that God is not listening, is not the choir director’s fault, and it may not be the preacher’s fault either.

Isaiah says that the reason that you may feel like worship is not bringing you close to God, the reason you don’t feel like God is listening, the reason that you feel like God has not heard a word you’ve said is because God has not been listening to a word you’ve said.

Isaiah says that if we truly want to know that God is listening to us, if we truly want to feel close to God, if we want our worship on Sunday to mean something, there are some things that we must do.

And if we don’t do those things, according to Isaiah, God might respond to our worship this way: “What are your services to me? I have had it up to here, I am sick to my stomach of all your worship! I have no desire for any of it. Stop tramping into my courts. And I have had enough of your preacher with his fancy robe who thinks he is all that with all of his seminary degrees. Your prayers, your hymns, they have become a burden to me. I have stopped listening!”

So, according to Isaiah, what must we do to be heard by God?

Put away the evil of your deeds. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.

If we want to be heard by God, if we want worship to be meaningful, Isaiah says that we better doing what we can help the most vulnerable members of our community.

My friend Rev. Dr. William Barber has he wonders why we spend so much time doing the things about which “God says so little” while spending so little time on the things about which “God says so much.”

I wonder if Isaiah is suggesting that the church might re-evaluate our ministry-team meetings. Like any congregational-led church, we have a lot of meetings here. We are having several tonight.

If Isaiah was here, he might ask us: “What has been the subject of your longest, most arduous church meeting? What was the agenda of that meeting that caused your spouse at home to worry about you, or even question your whereabouts, because they thought you should have been home hours earlier?”

Was it about how our church could could advocate for those in our community who feel oppressed? Was it about meeting the needs of children who do not have the support of family? Was it about defending the rights of widows or the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community? Was the agenda something about which God says so much? Or was the agenda something about which God says so little?

Rev. Michael MacDonald writes that many Christian Americans not only never have any lengthy church meetings about how they can better serve the poor, they just simply have a bad attitude about serving the poor. So bad, that many folks probably wished they had the license to rewrite the many scriptures which speak for the poor.

I would argue that many people actually believe they have such a license. Because as a pastor, it has been my experience that whenever I have spoken on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, someone almost always accuses me of being a “liberal.” Then, they will something like, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.”

When in fact, the overall message of the Bible says nothing close to that. Aesop’s Fables say that. Benjamin Franklin said that. Thus, I want to respond: “Who’s the liberal here? The one who is conserving the Judeo-Christian teachings of the Scriptures to help the poor and champion the oppressed, or the one who is re-writing the scriptures with the words of a fable or Deist Ben Franklin?”

For example: This is how McDonald said some Americans would rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan:

The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “Now by chance a priest was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who was hungry and ill clad.  He thought about stopping to help him, but decided that the man had probably been planted there by advocates for the homeless, so he walked by on the other side lest he give encouragement to those who wanted to divide society along class lines in order to gain political power for themselves.

So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, thought about helping him. But the Levite was afraid that he would rob the man of his independence, and he could plainly see that the man had sandal straps by which to pull himself up. So, he too, passes by on the other side.

But a Samaritan came near him and was moved by self-righteous pity. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine on them, no doubt as a publicity stunt to make his own self feel good and look good before his peers.

Then the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, and will repay you whatever more you spend,” thus encouraging the injured man to live like a parasite off other people’s hard-earned wealth.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?  The lawyer said, “[Well of course] the two who showed him mercy by walking by on the other side.”

And God says, “You can pray without ceasing, but I won’t be listening. I won’t listen to those of you who pervert justice, those of who champion the cause of the rich and powerful, those of you who take advantage of the powerless. God ahead, have yourselves a worship service, have two of them, but I won’t be there.” God says, “I simply don’t listen to the prayers of those who are all about feeding themselves while orphans and widows, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, go hungry.”

I believe Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo is right when he says that the one thing every Christian should do is not only write a check to help the poor, but help the poor in such a way that we actually build a relationship with them, get to know them on a personal level.

When I have been in conversations with churches about feeding the food-insecure, I always say that I believe we should merely hand them a meal.

I believe we should to sit down at the table with them, and get to know them, listen to them, love them, befriend them, be family to them. Let them know that we are willing to fight for them, defend their rights and plead their case. Be there to help them become the person that God is calling them to be.

Campolo says, in a way that only a good ol’ Baptist could say it, that one important reason that Christians should want to actually sit down at the table with people who are poor is because on the last day, when you are standing before the Great Judge, as God is separating the sheep from the goats and points to us and asks the question, “When have you clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink the thirsty, when have you shown generosity to the least of these my brothers and my sisters?”—That is when you are going to want to have the new friend you met around that table standing beside you, and you are going to want to be able to turn to them pat them on the back, and say with a confident smile, “Go ahead, you tell it.”

Do you want to come to this place on Sunday morning and really have an encounter with God? When Mary Beth begins playing the Postlude, do you want to know that you have actually communed with the creator of all that is? Isaiah, and I believe Jesus says, that will depend on how you commune with the most vulnerable members of our community.

Perilous Prudence

greedy fool

Luke 12:13-21 NRSV

In his book entitled, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture, Ralph Wood, criticized so-called “seeker-sensitive” or “user-friendly” churches that started springing up all over at the turn of this century. These are churches that try to attract people in today’s culture by adapting to, or even mimicking the culture. The goal is to have people walk into these churches and feel as comfortable as they do walking into a shopping mall, to create an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like church.  The primary goal is to make worshippers feel at home, at ease, as comfortable as they can be.

Wood believes this is the opposite of how we should feel when we come to worship. He contends that there should be a necessary friction between the ways of the church and the ways of the world.

Church historian Robert Wilken agrees.  He says that when a person comes into a Christian church for the first time, he or she should feel “out of place.” Every Sunday morning, at least for one hour, we all ought to be a little uncomfortable.

Why?

Because the way of Jesus is usually not our way.

The truth is that when we read the gospels we discover that Jesus, more often than not, looks at things very differently than we look at things. To our dismay, we open our Bibles on Sunday mornings to learn that Jesus is not a white, conservative, English-speaking, American capitalist who values the things we Americans all hold so dear to our hearts: prudence, productivity, prosperity, not even freedom.

We open our Bibles and hear Jesus say things like, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her soul.”

This is disconcerting as most of us honor those who “gain the whole world,” or at least a big slice of it.  We honor these people every year in our celebrity magazines with our yearly lists “the most successful” and “the most famous.”

Yet, Jesus calls these successful people, these Forbes 500-type-people, these “winners” in the game of life, well, he calls them “losers.”

Which brings us this morning to the little story of Jesus and the rich farmer.

Here is a prudent, productive, and prosperous man whom we might call a tremendous success.  He is not only a success at farming, but he is also a wise manager of his success. He very astutely builds great, secure barns to hold his grand harvest. We might give him the “Farmer of the Year” award.

And because we don’t like to acknowledge that Jesus’ ways are not our ways, we would like to think that Jesus might praise the man. We would like to read words form Jesus admiring the man for being so capable, resourceful, and prudent.

However, Jesus says to the man, “You fool!”

Nothing “seeker sensitive” or “user-friendly” about that!

That was going to be the title of this sermon this week: “You Greedy Fool!”  But after sleeping on it Monday night, I thought to myself, “I can’t put that in the newsletter. That’s just ugly. That’s going to surely offend someone!  Let me see if I can call this sermon something else, something a little nicer—I got it, “Perilous Prudence.”  There, that sounds better.

But that’s not what Jesus said to this businessman, this capitalist that we might want to praise and even imitate.  He didn’t say, “You know, I like what you did with these barns. I am proud of your ingenuity.  But just make sure you don’t place your entire sense of security in those barns. Your prudence is apt to be a perilous thing.”

No, he didn’t say anything of the sort. In essence, Jesus says to this successful business owener: “You greedy fool.”

Twenty years ago, I attended a Christian ethics meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. During one session of the conference, we had a discussion on marriage equality.  A number of speakers, most of them pastors, defended their opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of protecting the American family.  “Marriage equality,” they said, “was a grave threat to the American family.” A chorus of “Amens” resounded around the room.

I will never forget an older pastor (had to be in his 90’s), who stood up and said: “I was a pastor for over sixty years, and you know something, I’ve never had a family in any of my congregations destroyed by a gay couple. But I have seen dozens of marriages ruined, and numerous families devastated by nothing more than simple greed—working too many hours, overspending, buying too much, getting too deep in debt.  If we want to save the American family, must must something about our greed.”

You could hear a pin drop.

The farmer was a fool, because as Jesus implies, he thought he could secure his life with stuff.  Perhaps his thinking was that if he just got stuff piled high enough, deep enough, it would somehow be a barrier of protection against any misfortune that might come his way.  The more he accumulated, the more safe and secure he would be from all alarms.

The Apostle Paul calls such thinking in Romans, “serving the creature rather than the creator.”  In Ephesians, he calls it “idolatry.”  And for such thinking (thinking we might call prudent, productive, prosperous), Jesus calls the man a “fool.”

Preacher and author, James Howell, once preached this text in the Chapel of Duke University. In the sermon he said, “This university has all sorts of awards that honor successful alumni who have had success in business, medicine, law, and even the ministry. These are people who have taken what they have learned here and worked that into a successful life. But what I want to see is this university establish an award, not for the person who has achieved success because of his or her Duke education, but for the person who has suffered the most, lost the most, because of what he or she learned here.”

Sounds like a rather foolish suggestion, doesn’t it?

But what do you think Jesus would have called his suggestion?

No, the ways of Jesus are certainly not our ways.

Selfishness, greed and materialism are perhaps the greatest sins of our culture. And according the Bible, greed is not only the biggest danger we face as individuals, it the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the Kingdom of God on this earth.  In fact, one could say that the way most Americans live, the accumulation of goods beyond one’s needs, is a lifestyle in direct contradiction to the word of God. It is a clear violation of the law of Moses, and it is condemned by the prophets.  And Jesus has more to say about this sin than any other sin.

But here we are—embracing and living the American dream.  The reality is that most of us have much more than we need.  And we still want more.  It is our nature as Americans.  We are capitalists.  We are consumers.  The bad news is that Jesus calls us fools.

How did I start this sermon?

If you came here to feel comfortable, at ease, at home, you’ve come to the wrong place. For his ways are not our ways.

His way loves peace. Our way loves guns.

His way welcomes the foreigner. Our way fears them.

His way liberates the oppressed. Our way is apathy.

His way speaks truth to power. Our way is silence.

Our way saves, accumulates, and conserves. His way gives it all away.

Our way disparages the poor. His way blesses them.

Our way honors those who achieve great wealth. His way sends them away empty.

Our way holds grudges and judges. His way forgives and accepts.

Our way values freedom, self-sufficiency and independence above just about anything. His way values total dependence on God over everything.

Our way is one of self-preservation. His way is one that picks up and carries a cross.

But, here’s the irony of the gospel.  The bad news that the ways of Jesus are not our ways is actually very good news.  Let me explain with a story.

An old, holy man once saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water of the Nile River.  Knowing that the scorpion would surely drown, the old man leaned out over the water, hanging onto some roots, and tried to rescue the scorpion.  As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively he withdrew his hand. A few seconds later, having regained his balance, he stretched himself out again.  This time the scorpion stung him so badly that his hand became swollen and bloody. The old man’s face contorted with pain.

Just then, a passerby saw the man stretched out over the river struggling with the scorpion.  He said: “What are you doing? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature!  Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned to the stranger and said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”

In the light of our selfishness, greed and pride, thank God, that Jesus’ ways, are not our ways.

Let us pray.

Lord, Jesus. Thank you that it is in your nature to save us. Come and save us.  Come and turn us from our foolish ways and foolhardy lives and draw us into your wisdom. Help us to see all our accumulations as your gracious gifts, given, not to be hoarded, but to be shared with others. Enable us to see our lives as dependent upon you for their significance and sustenance.  Lord Jesus, make us wise.  Amen.

The “gods” Are on Trial

Men in cages

Psalm 82 NRSV

In March 2005, a woman contacted Florida’s Palm Beach Police Department and alleged that her 14-year-old stepdaughter had been taken to Jeffery Epstein’s mansion.

In June 2008, after Epstein pleaded guilty to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14,he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. However, instead of being sent to state prison as are the majority of sex offenders convicted in Florida, Epstein was housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Jail. He was able to hire his own security detail and was allowed “work release” to his downtown office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. He served 13 months before being released for a year of probation. While on probation he was allowed numerous trips on his corporate jet to his residences in Manhattan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Palm Beach police chief accused the state of giving him preferential treatment, and the Miami Herald said U.S. Attorney Acosta gave Epstein “the deal of a lifetime”

Last week, Epstein was arrested in New Jersey on sex trafficking charges. According to witnesses and sources, about a dozen FBI agents broke down the door to Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse with search warrants. Two days later, prosecutors charged him with sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors. Court documents allege that at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein’s mansion.

Jeffrey Epstein has finally been brought to court for his crimes.

And at least 40 women with their families say: “It’s about time!”

Today, we’ve heard the Psalmist account of the gods who have finally been brought to court for their crimes. And the world says: “It’s about time!”

Perhaps it was Job who said it the best when he looked at the state of the world around him and observed:

The earth is given into the hands of the wicked; God covers the eyes of its judges (Job 9:24).

The truth is that Job speaks for many of us when he asks:

Why do the wicked live on, reach an old age, and grow mighty in power…Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them (Job 21:7-9).

We look at the conditions at the border that Vice President Mike Pence calls “unacceptable” and with Job we lament:

             The poor of the earth all hide themselves. The throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer (Job 24:4-12).

Job painfully observes that things on earth are not good. Injustice is thriving. Evil seems to be winning. Kindness is waning. Love seems to be failing. Whoever is in charge of things down here needs to give an accounting. The gods must be taken to court! The gods must be brought to trial.

Pollution has created an ecological crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. We have dishonest and greedy politicians Washington; Child abuse and inhumane conditions at the border; Drug addiction in Fort Smith; and ICE Raids in ten cities throughout our country on this the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. We have racism, poverty, homelessness, violence spreading around the world. We have perpetual war; inequality, White Christian Nationalism; Climate Change, bigotry, sexism, and sick religion.

Whoever is responsible for the pain and brokenness of this world needs to be brought to justice now!

And the Psalmist declares: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.”

The gods are on trial. They finally have their day in court.

And, with Job and the rest of the world we cry: “Well, it is about time!”

But who are these gods?

Other “gods” are mentioned throughout the Bible, and Psalm 82 is not the only Psalm to mention other gods: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3).

Idolatry is considered to be the greatest of all sins. The first of the Ten Commandments is: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”

But again, who are these gods? Who is guilty of injustice toward the weak and the orphan and who shows partiality to the wicked? What god refuses to maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute? What gods fail to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked?

A couple of weeks ago, we read where Jesus criticized would-be followers for placing people above his call to discipleship.

One man wanted to bury his father. Another wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus’ response, albeit harsh sounding, reminds us that we are oftentimes guilty of putting people ahead of our call to be followers of Jesus.

So you could say that any person that we put above God can be considered to be a god.

A week ago, we read where Jesus sent seventy disciples out on a mission trip with the instructions to travel light, to leave some things behind, reminding us that we are also guilty of placing thingsahead of our call to be followers of Jesus.

The truth is that anyone or anything that competes for our allegiance to the God that is revealed in the Scriptures and in the words and works of Jesus is false god.

Prophetic preacher and one of my favorite writers John Pavlovitz is right when he says:

Idolatry is a horrible, dangerous thing. [And] sadly, far too many Christians are so very guilty of it.[i]

There are many things and many people we put above God: Our family; Our race; our nationality; our way of life; our religion. But there may be one god that we put above all other gods. There may be one god thatshows the most partiality to the wicked and refuses justice to the weak and the orphan, that tramples on the rights of the lowly and destitute.

Pavlovitz names Fear as the god of many people today, including some in the church. He writes:

Fear has become their false god, one they worship with complete and undying devotion.You can see it in the way they complain on social media, in the way they comment on the news of the day; in the defeatist, alarmist language that they use as to describe the world.

When Fear is your God, “everything becomes an imminent threat:” asylum-seekers, Muslims, atheists and agnostics, the media, Hollywood, and anyone that doesn’t pray like you, vote like you, speak like you and love like you.”

When Fear is your God, you cling to every little bit of worldly power that you can, whether or not you agree with the morality or ethics of that power.

When Fear is your god, you worship anything that prevents you from worshipping the God who loves all people of all nations, all races and all languages.

Last Sunday, I believe you could see it in the extravagant patriotic worship services in many large evangelical churches throughout our country, but especially in the South. In some worship services last Sunday, it was not certain to whom the worshiper’s allegiance was pledged: To a nation? Or to the God to whom all the nations belong?

When Fear is your god, patriotism turns into nationalism which quickly becomes idolatry.

When Fear is your god, you turn all of your attention to the things in  

When Fear is your god, you develop a “me-and-people-like-me-first” position, and your heart becomes callous to the suffering of anyone who is different.

When Fear is your god, you can’t afford to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and care for the sick.

When Fear is your god, it is too risky to welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned.

When Fear is your god, life is about self-preservation, self-protection, and it becomes unashamedly self-serving.

When Fear is your god, dying to self is unimaginable, loving others as yourself sounds ridiculous, and carrying a cross, well, that is just foolishness.

The truth is that if Fear is the god of enough people, the entire creation suffers. We all walk in darkness, and the very foundations of the earth are shaken (Psalm 82:5).

The good news is that the gods are on trial, declares the Psalmist, and here comes the judge! The God of all nations, the Holy One who spoke the world into being and walked on the seas and healed the sick and raised the dead is having a reckoning!

The false gods are being put in their place! And it is way past time!

For when we put the true God, the God of the Holy Scriptures who we know most fully in the words and works of Jesus, above all other gods, much of the problems that our world faces today, some of the very same problems that Job observed in his world, will not only be addressed, but many of them can be solved.

Paraphrasing

I love the closing prayer of the vigil that we had Friday night for those suffering at the border. It was a pledge to the true God:

I will not fear people who don’t look like me, vote like me, worship like me, speak like me, or love like me. We are all God’s children.

I will not fear immigrants, dissenters, or troublemakers.

My country was built by immigrants, dissenters, and troublemakers.

I will not fear the false prophets who spread fear to make me hate. They are weak. They do not speak for me.

Let us stand, let us speak, and let us be heard.

Because our God has put the gods of the world on trial. Judgment has been rendered. Fear has been convicted and cast down and out by Love. And the verdict is in: Love always wins, and it will never be silenced or ever fade away.

May we share it boldly and loudly in such a way that the entire world will cheer: “It’s about time!”

 

[i]https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/01/15/the-greatest-false-idol-of-modern-christianity/

Seventy Disciples

Mission Possible

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV

For several years now First Christian Church in Fort Smith has adopted a little slogan that we have used to identify us as a congregation: Mission Possible. You’ve seen it on t-shirts, on our Facebook page, and on our Narrative Budget that shares our mission with others.

The slogan has more meaning for me this week in light of today’s gospel lesson.

Mission Possible has been on my mind, because, as preaching professor Karoline Lewis has pointed out, Jesus’ instructions to the seventy before they venture out on their mission sound more like orders received from central command in the series “Mission Impossible.”

“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road—Carry no provisions. Not even a decent pair of walking shoes. Danger abounds, and by all means, don’t stop and ask for directions!”[i]

And guess what? Although you are going in peace, announcing the Kingdom of God is here, not everyone is going to accept your peace or be happy with what the Kingdom of God being near entails!

Now, how many of us are ready to sign up for that mission trip? It sounds absolutely dreadful.

Yet… here we are.

On this weekend after the Fourth of July, there’s not many of us, but there’s at least, what would you say, 70?

A good 70, I’ll say; which, interestingly enough, just so happens to be the average worship attendance in mainline churches these days.

Here we are. And curiously, the mission to which we have committed ourselves through this particular church is no less daunting, dangerous, and dreadful today than the mission of these 70 Jesus sends out.

Like Jesus’ 70, we have inherited an Abrahamic faith that began when Abraham extended generous hospitality to complete strangers who just so happened to be messengers from God.

Sadly, in our current culture, sharing this hospitable faith, or even standing up for this faith is very unpopular.

Deuteronomy might say:

 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

But our culture says, “Some strangers are animals, not people.”

Leviticus might say:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

But our culture says: “We should only love and welcome aliens based on their merit which we will determine through a strict vetting process.”

Mosaic Law may warn:

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (Leviticus 27:19).

And the Psalmist may warn:

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).

But today’s culture says: “If foreigners and strangers are unhappy with the conditions of our detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved.”

The prophets may declare:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then [the true God] will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

But our religious culture says, “The God you talk about is not the true God, but some imaginary God.”

The prophets may command:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

But today’s culture argues: “But they might be drug dealers, criminals and rapists.”

So many churches today have said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Moses. Sorry Jeremiah. It’s not happening Zechariah.” What you people of God are talking about, especially in these days, is Mission Impossible.

However, the good news is that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, says, no, what the holy scriptures command us is actually Mission Possible. But how? How do we do what the Bible tells us to do when we live in a world where we are like lambs living in the midst of wolves?

For the mission we have committed ourselves to seems impossible when we consider that not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots that has been called to stand up for the foreigners coming into our land, we are a group of people who claim to be followers of Jesus, who we believe Jesus is the Christ, the way, the truth and the life. Consequently, we are a church on a mission to embrace the way of Jesus, and to call on all people, all nations, including our own nation, to embrace the same way.

On this first Sunday after the day we celebrate our nation’s birth, we implore our leaders:

  • To lose their way of greed and materialism, to follow Jesus’ way of generosity
  • To lose their way of dishonesty and deceit, to follow Jesus’ way of truth
  • To lose their way of militarism and perpetual war, to follow Jesus’ way of peace
  • To lose their way of violence and domination, to follow Jesus’ way of servanthood
  • To lose their way of putting themselves first, to follow Jesus’ way that started with: “For God so loved the world.”
  • To lose their way of bigotry, to follow Jesus’ way of valuing every human as one made in the image of God
  • To lose their way of harming children, to follow Jesus’ way of treating children as the greatest among us
  • To lose their way of suppressing the rights of women, to follow Jesus’ way of empowering women
  • To lose their way of abandoning the needs of the sick, the hungry, the foreigner and the imprisoned, to follow Jesus’ way of loving them as their very selves

And here is perhaps what makes our church’s mission seem even more impossible these days:

Not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots, and not only are we committed to following the compassionate and just way of Jesus, we are a church born out of the Stone-Campbell movement. That means, that like our foundersBarton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we have made a commitment to be on a mission to follow the inclusive way Jesus, even if it causes us to lose some friends!

We have made the decision to welcome all people to Lord’s table as God has welcomed us—graciously, generously, lovingly, unconditionally. And we do this in a culture where such welcome is socially unacceptable.

We have committed ourselves to let the first word that anyone hears from our mouths be “Peace.”  And we do this in a culture where the very first words that many hear from churches are words that denote the exact opposite of peace—Words of judgment and condemnation; words judging others as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that has been used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination since our country’s founding.

So, how do we do it? How do we transform a Mission Impossibleinto a Mission Possible? How is that our slogan?

I believe the answer is in the obvious but oftentimes overlooked detail in our gospel lesson this morning. The answer is the number 70.

The good news is that we are not on a mission to be open and affirming in a culture that is closed and condemning alone. Each one of us has at least, at least, 69 fellow disciples, 69 friends in the faith, on whom to depend. Seventy people may look small in this sanctuary that seats 400, but 70 is a lot of bodies, a lot of somebodies, a lot of disciples on which to count when the going gets rough.

Jesus did not expect any of his disciples to be alone on the difficult mission to which he was sending them. And neither does God expect us to be alone to do our seemingly impossible work.

Right now, I want you to take a moment and look around you. For what you see… no… whoyou see, is all you need to do the work Jesus is calling you to do in a world where danger and injustice abound.

You need no purse, no bag, no sandals; and not even the ones you may meet on the road. All that is necessary to carry out our mission, to transform Mission Impossible into Mission Possibleare scattered about in these pews.

And I have a feeling that is why you are here this morning. You are here, because here, in this place, is your group of seventy. You come to be reminded that you are not in this alone. You come here acknowledging that if we are ever going to be the people God is calling us to be, we need one another.

Even before moving here two years ago to serve with you as your pastor, the Mission Possible slogan caught my eye.

For it is a slogan with optimism and assurance, potential and promise, success and victory.

With God, anything is possible! Right?

With God, it will be possible for me to declare that the Kingdom of God is coming near to the River Valley.

With God, it will be possible for me to announce to Fort Smith, Van Buren, Barling, Greenwood, Roland and Spiro: “Peace!”

With God, it will be possible for me to speak up and speak out, and the demons will submit!

Well, not exactly. With God, and about 70 others!

Today, I am grateful that I found a group of 70, well, at least 70, sometimes 120-140, and more than that on Easter and Christmas Eve, whatever the number, I have found a lot of good somebodies with whom to go out and follow Jesus wherever he leads.

And together, although we seem small, and our provisions are limited, with God, we can do some big things to bring the Kingdom of God near!

Let us pray together.

Gracious God, emboldened by being apart of our 70, may our spirits be filled with joy and enthusiasm by following the way of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and Jesus, sharing your redeeming love with all people. AMEN.

[i]http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4683

No Time to Waste

 

jesus_facepalm

Luke 9:51-62 NRSV

When it comes to writing a sermon, I don’t know which is more difficult: Trying to figure out from the biblical text a message from Jesus for us today, or trying to figure out how to relay that message without being forced to leave town.

And in the case of our gospel lesson this morning, how to relay the message from Jesus without sounding like a complete jerk.

Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. He is on a mission following a selfless, self-expending, sacrificial way of love and grace. And in following this narrow and difficult way, he seems to be rather exasperated by the lack of support and understanding around him. So much so, that I almost titled this sermon: “Grumpy Jesus.”

Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem doesn’t to get off on the right foot, as he receives word that there no hospitality awaiting him in the village of the Samaritans. No room for him in the inn, or this time, even in a stable. This is not surprising considering the Samaritans and Jews mutual animosity; yet knowing Jesus’ love that has no borders, Jesus is obviously frustrated here. But perhaps he is more frustrated by his disciples’ response.

James and John, bless their hearts, ask Jesus if he wants them to reenact a scene from 2 Kings by asking God to rain down fire from heaven and wipe out the entire Samaritan village!

Really? Have they been listening to anything that Jesus, the “Peace-Be-with-You-Love-Your-Enemies” Rabbi, has been teaching them?

Rick Morley, an Episcopal Priest from New Jersey, says that this is like “one of those moments at Thanksgiving when your crazy uncle says something so ridiculously inappropriate that everyone just turns and stares with their mouths agape.”

After James and John’s outrageous question, he imagines Jesus doing one of these (face palm).

Of course, Love-Incarnate, the Prince of Peace, immediately rebukes them and their idiocy!

Then, we have a series of three encounters of would-be disciples. Interestingly enough, especially in light of what the disciples just said, the three encounters may remind us of the three passed by a man in the ditch in what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus lifts up a Samaritan as an example for all of us.

The first would-be disciple comes, and without Jesus asking him, presents himself as the perfect candidate: “I will follow you wherever you go!”

Now, what is not to like about that! I know I am never turning anyone away who comes forward during the hymn of commitment saying, “I want to follow Jesus wherever he goes!” I am signing that person up immediatly! No more questions need to be asked!

Yet, Jesus, perhaps still exasperated because he had no place to spend the night in that Samaritan village, and by his disciples’ failure to get anything he has been teaching, says: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Okaaaay, Jesus. I will check back with you when you have had your coffee!”

Jesus then encounters another and invites him to follow him. He agrees to follow, but then asks permission to go and bury his father first. A very reasonable, loving, even faithful request. It was his part of fulfilling God’s law to “honor your father and mother.”

Then, if you thought the “Foxes have holes and birds of nests” comment was snarky, Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

Now, he is really sounding grumpy.

C’mon Jesus. I know you are upset that you have no where to lay your head. I know no one in that Samaritan village welcomed you into their home. I know your disciples are idiots. They are incredibly irritating, to say the least. I know that when it comes to embracing your way of love and grace, they don’t have a clue. But the poor man just wants to bury his father! What can be wrong with that? Isn’t honoring our parents part of discipleship? Isn’t taking some time to grieve over the loss of a loved one something God would want us to do?

Then, Jesus encounters the third would-be follower, who like the first one, also volunteers without being asked. But first he wants to go and say good-bye to his family, perhaps to let his children know why Daddy wouldn’t be home for a while. Again, sounds like a reasonable request. Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say good-bye to his parents when Elijah chose Elisha to be his disciple while he was plowing his field (1 Kings 19:19-21).

But grumpy Jesus is not having it. Echoing the calling of Elisha, he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Look Jesus. I know you are upset. I know you’re tired. I remember that just last week you were trying to sleep on that boat only to be awakened by a storm. And as soon as you stepped out on the land you were confronted by a man possessed by demons. Then, although you were exhausted, you healed him only to be unappreciated and run out of town! Jesus, I know you have no where to lay your head. I know you are frustrated. I know the disciples that you have been training to be compassionate, loving, forgiving and peaceful want to rain down fire and take out an entire village. I know you have your face set on Jerusalem and all the suffering that is to come. But come on, Jesus, take it easy. Let this man say good-bye to his family. And for God’s sake, let this one bury his father!

This is what I feel like saying. But this is Jesus. This is the eternal Word made flesh. This is the Son of God. Thus, my faith tells me that there has to be something more going on here—something more than a little fatigue, frustration and fear.

His face is set toward Jerusalem. This infers that he knows the that his time on earth is very short. And he knows that if he is going to usher in the Kingdom of God before he dies, as master preacher Karoline Lewis has said: “there is not a moment to lose.”[i]

The same is true for us. The reality is, our time here is also very short. And if we want to make a difference for the Kingdom of God while we are here, there is no time to waste.

But maybe this appearance of grumpiness is not about Jesus at all. For what we know about Jesus, he was always teaching by word and by example to deny self and to lose self. So, perhaps Jesus is not thinking about his own circumstance at all.

Perhaps he had in mind other circumstances and people who needed to know and to experience the love of God. Not next week, not tomorrow, not even later that afternoon, but at that very moment. Perhaps Jesus knew that, not for him, but for others, for many, there was not a moment to lose. Every second counted, every minute mattered.

So, this appearance of grumpiness is actually a holy urgency, a sacred stress if you will, fueled by a divine love with a height, a depth, a width and a breadth that we can only begin to understand. Perhaps Jesus knew that for God’s kingdom to come to those who need it the most, there is not a moment to lose.

Jesus knew that for those who need God’s love, for those who need compassion, healing, forgiveness, and restoration, there is no time to waste.

There is not a moment to lose –

For those who are poor, for those who hunger, for those who weep, for those who are hated, insulted, excluded and rejected (Luke 6:20-22).

There is not a moment to lose –

For those Samaritans who believe they have lost favor with God (Luke 10:25-29);

For a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17);

For a man who had been suffering with dropsy. Jesus healed him on the Sabbath in the presence of the Pharisees (he didn’t wait until the next day when it was lawful), proving, there is not a moment to lose (Luke 14:1-4).

There is not a moment to lose –

For the rich man who thought he was blessed because he was rich. For the poor man who thought he was cursed because he was poor (Luke 16:19-31);

For the ten lepers who approached Jesus in a region between Galilee and Samaria (Luke 17:11-19);

For the blind beggar sitting beside the roadside near Jericho (Luke 18:35-43).

There is not a moment to lose –

For a man named Zacchaeus who defrauded the poor;

For all of the poor people he defrauded (Luke 19:1-10);

Jesus is frustrated, because there is not a moment to lose –

For an entire world that feels rejected, cursed and lost;

For children of asylum-seekers separated from their parents;

For asylum-seekers drowning in rivers and thirsting in deserts;

For children confined in for-profit, inhumane detention centers.

Jesus is exasperated, because there is not a moment to lose –

For LGBT teens who are contemplating suicide;

For all children who suffer from neglect and abuse;

For girls who are raped and then denied healthcare;

For boys who are taught that it is okay to objectify girls;

For the person with a disability who feels like the whole world, even God, is against them.

Jesus is stressed, because there is not a moment to lose –

For the one dying in a nursing home all alone;

For those who have to make the choice every week to either buy their medication or to buy groceries;

For those unjustly locked away in our prisons because of their economic status or skin color;

For nations on the brink of war.

Jesus is grumpy, because there is not a moment to lose –

To respond to climate change that threatens God’s good earth;

To end the destructive pollution of the planet with plastics and carbon.

And Jesus has his palm planted on his face today, because many of his disciples still don’t have a clue. Some still want God to rain down fire and brimstone on those who believe and live differently. And many would-be-followers still have no sense of urgency to be witnesses of love, peace and justice.

In a sermon, Raquel Lettsome, an AME preacher from New York points out:

We tend to wait for God’s action [or somebody else’s action] rather than getting our [own] feet wet.

Are you at the Red Sea, waiting for God to do something? Or are you at the Jordan River, willing to get your feet wet so as to enter into the promised land?

Are you waiting for someone else to speak justice? To call for righteousness? Or will you embrace the moment and proclaim the promise of God’s favor?

Are you waiting for others to stand up for those our world rejects and reviles? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?

Whatever we do, may we know that every moment counts. Every minute matters. There is no time to waste.

Let us pray.

Create in us a new heart of compassion, a new sense of urgency, as Christ has called us to be servants of love and grace in this very moment. Enable us to truly be your disciples, O Christ. AMEN.

Invitation to the Table

The needs of our world are so great, that Jesus needs all of us. That is why all are welcomed to be served and to serve from this table sharing the love and grace of God with all.

Commissioning and Benediction

Go ahead and get grumpy.

Feel frustration.

Experience exasperation.

Sense some sacred stress.

Because there is a suffering world out there that needs the Jesus that you follow,

the Jesus that is in you and the Jesus who wants to speak and work through you.

And there is not a moment to lose.

 

[i]https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4679

 

Deviled Ham

torches2

Luke 8:26-39 NRSV

Today’s gospel lesson is one of my favorite stories of Jesus. There is just so much from which to glean from all of the rich symbolism in this story.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

The opposite of Galilee. The opposite of home. The opposite of familiarity. The opposite of comfort. The opposite of sanctuary.

I believe it is important for the church today to note that the man in this story would have never had an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that brought him liberation, healing and restoration, if Jesus and his disciples stayed in Galilee.

This is one of the reasons I am so grateful for our Disciples Women Fellowship that has chosen to serve at Hope Campus twice a month. If we want to follow Jesus as his disciples, the church must be willing to leave the sanctuary to encounter people who need the liberation, healing and restoration that we know the love of God can bring.

As he stepped out on land,

Jesus and his disciples had just encountered a storm out on the lake, and now, as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat, they encounter a different kind of storm.

 a man of the city who had demons met him.

A man of the city—reminds me of another story of Luke, when “a woman of the city who was a sinner,” anoints Jesus’ feet. Right away, we get the suspicion that this man had a sinful reputation.

For a long time, he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

And here is where we begin to get the picture that this man of the city is not the only sinner in this story. He is unnamed, naked, and homeless, and he lives among the dead. He is treated as if he was no longer alive, as if he did not exist. He is fully debased, degraded and dehumanized with no rights, no privileges, no power, and no place whatsoever in society.

 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.

He has been driven to the margins of life by the Legion. Legion is a technical term for a division of the Roman Army. Thus, it is revealed that this man is a victim of the Roman Empire and its oppressive systems that do great harm to people like him.

We don’t know exactly what that means, “people like him,” but, sadly, we could make some good guesses:

Could it be that he spoke a foreign language? Was he an undocumented immigrant or refugee? Perhaps he had a different skin color? Maybe he practiced some kind of minority religion? Did he have cerebral palsy, autism, a Traumatic Brain Injury, down’s syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder? Did he suffer with seizures? Could it be that he suffered with some sort of mental illness? Might it be that he was gay or transgendered?

Not only is he a victim of unjust political systems, he is also a victim of his community. Unfortunately, that is the power of government: if the state leaders are against you, then it gives permission for society to be against you.

He’s labeled “demon possessed” which means he has been fully “other-ized.”

There is no evidence that he has ever harmed anyone, yet, he is “bound with chains and shackles” and “kept under guard.”

He is not to be counted in the census. There is no path to citizenship, no process to appeal. There is no grace.In an act of gross dehumanization, he is forced to live among the dead until he dies.

This is the evil of our world. It is not a spirit that might make us take off all of our clothes and take up residence in a cemetery. No, the evil of this world is the the chaining of this man, the oppression of this man, the dehumanizing treatment of this man, treating him as if he did not exist among the living, shackling him naked in a graveyard, is the true demonic evil in this story.

And for Jesus and his followers, this type of evil should always be brought out and driven out. Jesus is never happy when any person is demeaned, degraded, dehumanized and excluded from community. Whenever Jesus encounters chains, Jesus breaks the chains. The good news is that every time we draw a line that keeps people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.

This demonic evil, this anti-Christ spirit that possessed the state and the culture to oppress this man is further revealed in the fascinating account of the demons leaving the man and entering a herd of pigs that were minding their own business, innocently feeding on a hillside. As soon as the pigs get infected by the demons, they immediately rush down a steep bank, and they drown in the lake.

I once heard a preacher joke that it is right here in this story that we have the first recorded instance of “deviled ham.”

I know, it’s a terrible joke. Sounds like the kind of thing we might hear Jim Creekmore might say. The poor pigs. What did they do to deserve to become agents of evil? And how could Jesus do such an inhumane thing to any of God’s beloved creatures?

However, we soon discover that these poor pigs were infected with evil long before Jesus showed up.

Notice what happens when Jesus liberates this man (verse 37). When they find the man is liberated, do all the people thank Jesus? No, all the people, “all the people in the surrounding country beg Jesus to leave their presence.”

The demonic evil here is not only the oppression of this man by unjust political systems and a fearful culture, but that the people valued their pigs more than the man’s liberation. The people would rather keep their pigs, their income, their stock values, their privilege and power, rather than see this man set free. This is what made this herd of ham so deviled.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man shackled.

If it means losing some pigs, crucify the liberator.

If it means losing some pigs, succeed from the union.

If it means losing some pigs, assassinate the preacher.

If it means losing some pigs, suppress the vote.

If it means losing some pigs, oppose the minimum wage.

If it means losing some pigs, then ban foreign nationals of another religion. Separate families. Close the border.

If it means losing some pigs, then resist equality, forget fairness and defend discrimination.

If it means losing some pigs, then keep quiet. Stay silent and stay put. Learn to live with injustice.

If it means losing some pigs, then stomach the murder of children. Be okay with torture. Endure endless war.

If it means losing some pigs, then water down the gospel. Ignore evil. Neglect the poor. Send the stranger away. Don’t feed the hungry. Don’t heal the sick, and whatever you do, don’t do anything to follow the sacrificial way of Jesus. Don’t love others as you love yourselves.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man naked, chained and guarded.

The truth is, that whenever a person or a group is liberated from oppression, there is another person or group that has some deviled ham to lose, some things that they value more than another’s freedom.

So, a good question for us is, what is our deviled ham? What do we value more than another’s freedom?

Patriarchy? White supremacy? Heterosexism? Religious superiority? Homogenous cities and neighborhoods? Homogenous churches? Cheap fast food? Inexpensive coffee? Inexpensive clothing? Easy and quick access to guns?

Another question is: are we ready to leave Galilee? Leave the familiar and the comfortable in order to bring liberation, healing and restoration to another. Are we willing to leave home so others can have a home?

The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” [Restored to his community,] he proclaimed throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Desiree Adaway, a consultant, trainer, and coach who helps to build equitable and inclusive working environments in companies and organizations including: IBM, United Airlines, The Girl Scouts, and Rotary International, writes:

We are all socialized into systems that oppress.

We learn to accept oppression as normal.

We are born into a social system which teaches us to accept things as they are.

We are rewarded for accepting things as they are.

We are congratulated for accepting things as they are.

We become “model members of society” when we accept things as they are.

We gain comfort, money, connections and power when we accept things as they are. People who go against the grain, pay the price.

I know [there’s] a tiny voice deep in your heart is saying “I do not oppress people.”

That might be true, you may not actively oppress others- but here is the reality- oppression is still happening, because this cycle and the systems they support continue to run uninterrupted.

Oppression is the norm, not the exception.

Justice is the exception, not the norm.

Institutions influence individuals and individuals influence institutions.

This process is pervasive, consistent, circular, self-perpetuating, and invisible.

The simplest thing to do is nothing.

But we have failed to realize that we have become participants in our own oppression by doing nothing.

Will you take responsibility for the oppression that continues? Will you stand up and confront the systems, rules, and norms?

How, where, and when you confront injustice is irrelevant, as long as you do it.

You and I are responsible for interrupting oppression. We are responsible for dismantling it. We are responsible for creating new systems and ways to share social power.

Society will not transform itself. We have to break the chains.

We all have to pay the price, so that can happen.

Let’s get to work y’all, because freedom ain’t free.[i]

[i]https://desireeadaway.com