Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Me My Just Deserts - Matthew 20:1-16

“Give me my just deserts”

Zechariah 7:10-11; Psalm 146:7-9
Matthew 20:1-16

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe

(In addition to the Biblical Texts, this sermon was inspired by the book/ lecture series: Justice: What is the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel.  It is part of a four part series on understanding biblical justice.)

Last April, some of you may remember me telling about Ruby Gene’s surprising display of generosity.  We were sitting in a restaurant, she in a high chair, when a youngster her age, she was 16 months, was seated in a high chair a few booths down.  She noticed the child, and after looking over there several times, asked to get down, and once down, she squeezed a chunk of bread in her fist and walked over to her little neighbor holding her hand out toward him, like some kind of love offering.

Well, that was then.  This is now.  We were eating dinner this week and a piece of bread was on the table in front of her.  I made a move like I was going to grab it; she saw my move toward the bread and she reached out and snagged it and said, “My pan,” “My bread.”  I pleaded, “me das un poco?”  “Will you give me a little?
“No.  It’s mine.”  (like her Spanglish?).
“Por favor?” I persisted.
After going on like this for a while, she pinched almost a microscopic crumb from the bread and enthusiastically handed that crumb to me, “Aquí papa.” “Here dad.”  
That was my share of the bread.

Many would say that Ruby’s tendencies are instinctive and natural. Survival skills.  We all are this way.  Even though we grow up, do our cravings and desires to possess go away?  Do we shake our childhood reluctance to share as we get older and more mature? Or does it get worse? And we echo the sentiment:  “What’s mine is mine what’s yours is mine.”

We may come by this tendency—to get what we think we deserve, and hold onto it for dear life—honestly.  But, for thousands of years, there has been a competing message.  One in which we are to move past our animal instincts and show compassion and love toward others.  One which inspires sharing, but even more than sharing.

Justice: it’s what God wants from us.

The passage of Zechariah says that God wants God's people to administer true justice, and by doing so to not oppress the widow or the orphan, the immigrant or the poor.  Four groups who had no social power: who only lived at subsistence levels and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion, or social unrest.  Today, who else might we lump within the group of the most vulnerable?
refugees, migrant workers, homeless, many single mothers; many elderly people.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Qué te pasa pookie wookie?

This evening I was upset about doesn´t matter what. I was pouting; the universe was conspiring against me again!  I huffed and puffed. Trasie and Ruby Gene stood as witnesses. I sat down on the steps between our bedroom and the kitchen to change my shoes.  Ruby Gene saw me with my head down, and she came up behind me said, "Qué te pasa pookie wookie?"  "What did she say?" I asked Trasie.  Then, Ruby leaned around between my shoulder and the door frame, looked at me in the eyes, and with a furrowed brow and rounded eyes said again, "Qué te pasa pookie wookie?"  Evidently, she has a book that features a dejected character named Pookie, and Pookie's friends and family try to cheer him up by saying, "What's the matter Pookie?"

Ruby certainly helped me to forget my worries.  May we model her and Pookie's friends' example when we have loved ones who are feeling down.  Maybe say to them, "Qué te pasa, Pookie wookie?"  Letting them know that you are there for them and you care.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Walter Earl Fluker's sermon - Valley Calls

For MLK, Jr Day and along our theme of "Justice, A Biblical Perspective,"  I preached a slightly edited version of Dr. Fluker's sermon, Valley Calls, preached at Duke Divinity School in 2010, which you can hear preached my him here.  The congregation really appreciated hearing his voice, which I made every effort to honor (including purchasing the original one published in the journal: The African American Pulpit).  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Justice; Isaiah 42:1-9

Que corra la justicia; Let Justice Roll, part 1: “An exploration of Justice”
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-35; Matthew 3:13-17
Westminister Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe
Chester Craig Topple

Webster’s Dictionary defines Justice: the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
(1) : the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
(2) : conformity to this principle or ideal

I’ve never done that before; Started off a sermon with a dictionary definition.
The dictionary can say what it wants...what do you say? Turn to someone near you and give them a one word synonym for the word Justice.  Justicia.  Que quiere decir en una palabra?

What were some of the words you heard someone share with you?

Getting our heads and hearts around the biblical and Christian ethical understanding of justice will be our focus for the next several weeks. Today we’ll just explore the idea that gets thrown around a lot in a variety of contexts.  Next week, in honor of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, we will explore his and other African Americans’ understanding of justice. And the week after, we will look at justice from through a Latin American lens.  

I love this Isaiah passage read today: Strong statements, speaking of God’s Servant:
“He will bring forth Justice to the nations”
“He will faithfully bring forth justice”
“He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established Justice”

In the midst of mud slinging debates in Washington, an ever exploited natural environment, and the horrible tragic shootings in Arizona, it seems that there is much justice yet to be established.

But what does justice look like?  Can you envision a just world?  What would it look like?  
Would everyone have the same amount of stuff? Or in the very least, would everyone have the same amount of opportunity to get stuff? Is a just world one in which everyone is free?  
But free from what, and free for what?  Free from laws to do as I please, as long as I don’t hurt anyone?  

Dave Anderson, a good lawyer in this community, gave me a book several months ago written by Michael Sandel, whose title is Justice:  Subheading: What is the right thing to do?
Lawyers are constantly pondering that question.  Justice is about doing the right thing.  
The word for right as in upright in Spanish is, Justo. What is the right thing to do?

“Is torture ever justified? Would you steal a drug that your child needs to survive if you couldn’t pay for it? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth? How much is one human life worth?”  (from Sandel’s website)

Christians may turn to the bible for answers, and it’s interesting to see how interpretations are made by those asking what is the just thing to do. I received a letter recently from a local pastor inviting me to defend the bible and defend the American way of life by speaking out at the upcoming legislative session against any acts that may give more rights to same-sex couples.
Is this the kind of justice that is to be established?

Now, in a secular society, the laws should be neutral, right? Often there is worry about any kind of virtue--or high moral standards--entering into law.  Immanuel Kant, an 18th century Christian Philosopher, said “the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue, or of the best way to live. Instead, a just society respects each person's freedom to choose his or her own conception of the good life.” (Sandel, Justice, 9)

But Aristotle, who lived before Jesus, had another way of understanding Justice.  He believed:  “justice means giving people what they deserve.  And in order to determine who deserves what, we have to determine what virtues are worthy of honor and reward. Aristotle maintains that we can't figure out what a just constitution is without first reflecting on the most desirable way of life.  For him, law can't be neutral on questions of the good life.”  (Sandel, Justice, 9)

How do these two prominent ways of thinking about a just society hit home for you?  Just as these two perspectives can lead us to go back and forth about what is right, we, in our US society show our fickleness in so many ways.  We get upset about bailouts to bankers who took bonuses on taxpayer money, after they were the ones who got us in a financial mess to begin with. We say they are greedy.  But, we applaud those in society who make a lot of money.  
We say they are successful; we assume they are good, hardworking, honest people.

Why do we reward soldiers who have been physically injured in combat with purple hearts, while we frequently chastise or belittle soldiers who have been psychologically injured, which is often a more severe and long lasting injury?

Each and every day I, all of us I imagine, are faced with decisions...ethical, moral decisions.
And we are supposed to respond, hopefully in the right way.  We may even attempt to remind ourselves to respond in the right way by asking a helpful question: What would Jesus do? WWJD? Trasie gave Bruce some bracelets recently, inserting his name for Jesus’.  I’m sure Bruce will be distributing these bracelets to many of us soon.    

Many of you have met the man who has spent several nights sleeping under our front portal this past fall and winter: Manuel Carrillo. He is 73 years old, likes the bottle, and was significantly injured after he was hit by a car on St Francis in front of burger king about a year ago.  What is the right thing for our church to do? or for me as an individual? Well, we support the shelter, and this is a very reasonable place for Manuel to stay, instead of here.  But, for his own reasons, he doesn’t want to stay there; he wants to stay here.  He is exercising his individual freedom. Plus, many of us have given him food, brought him blankets, cleaned up after him; and shown him courtesy.  Recently, someone I didn’t know stopped by the church to inquire about Manuel. This person had been trying to help him, and said to me, is this the best the house of the Lord can do? Pointing to Manuel who was sleeping on one of the benches; and at the same time pointing a finger at me....  I got defensive...and stood up for us….  
But, the question is still a good one...What is the best that the house of the Lord can do?
An issue of Justice.

Isaiah says that the servant, who for us Christians is Jesus, will establish justice on earth.  
And this is associated with his teachings. (Feasting on the Word, John H. Hayes, p. 223)
The Psalmist says: God leads the humble in what is right and teaches them the way.  

For you and for me, the hands and feet of Christ, our calling is to carry on with the same mission of the servant: to bring about justice on the earth. No ifs ands or buts; we are called by the one in whom God was well pleased, to be on the path of the way.  And we aren’t supposed to grow faint in the process! You hear this soon to be installed/ ordained officers!?

But this is an overwhelming task.  A tiresome burden....And we still do not get a clear picture of what the establishment of justice looks like. Isaiah says: sight to the blind, bringing out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in the darkness. Something about an ability to see.  But not necessarily a literal physical ability to see, but a spiritual vision. To unveil, uncover works of injustice, and to bring out of those situations both victims and perpetrators of these injustices who live in the darkness; in the shadows.  To see and then show how to live by the way that is lit by righteousness. The way that is just.  The way of justice. It is to be carried out, not with violence or the use of overriding strength or proving who’s right and who’s wrong, but through humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance.” (Feasting on the Word, John H. Hayes, p. 223)

Bringing out, not only individuals who are trapped in dark places, but also the society as a whole.  As I was preparing for this sermon, I came across a speech Robert Kennedy gave at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968, (go jayhawks). He delivered it as he sought a nomination, less than three months before he was assassinated. In the speech, Kennedy spoke of the Vietnam war, riots in US cities, racial inequality, and places where he had witnessed extreme poverty on US soil.  From these explicit matters of justice he suggested that Americans had come to value the wrong things. “Even if we act to erase material poverty,” Kennedy said, “there is another greater task…For too long,” spoke Kennedy, “we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values to the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product...counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts...the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
( and Sandel, Justice, 262)

Have things changed much?  It’s easy to complain about all the wrong that seems to be going on all around us; but The servant will faithfully bring forth justice..Prisoners out of the dungeons; The servant will not grow faint...The servant will not be crushed until justice has been established on earth.  ON EARTH.  Brothers and sisters.  It is an age old debate: What is Justice?  What is the right thing to do? It gets so complicated, but at the same time, it can be so simple:  

When I was a student at Georgia Tech, I waited tables at a sports bar in the CNN Center in down town Atlanta.  It was a lousy job, and didn’t do much to help my wallet or my self esteem, but I did it anyway.  I was quite in tune with my Christian faith even for a 22 year old; I knew that God wanted Christians to reach out to those on the margins.  Every time I went to work, I parked down in a dark dripping parking garage that never seemed to have enough cars parked in it for me to feel particularly good about the security of my car...fortunately, my car wasn’t at the top of any car jacker’s list. To get to and from my car, I took a short cut, hopping up a 5 foot retaining wall, then scaling a steep dirt bank which collected trash and debris from the bridge I had to cross outside of the CNN center.  Under this bridge lived two men.  I don’t remember their names.  They were 50, 60 years old?  They had a good supply of blankets and tattered clothes; a radio and a small box. There was just enough space for everything. That was their home; probably had been for some time. After I met them, whenever I got off my shift, I would try to bring them some food from the restaurant, and we would hang out a bit while they ate or smoked whatever kind of cheap weed they had found that day. Rarely was there much traffic, so we didn’t feel hurried or silenced.  When the semester ended before summer break, I decided to quit that lousy job.  With a box of food in hand, I went to visit my homeless friends on my last day after work.  When I told them I wouldn’t see them as much anymore they said:
“You know, Chester, we never know how life is going to steer us.  We know you’re a student and you’re probably going to end up with a high paying job and be someone important.  But, just in case things don’t work out, and you end up down on your luck and ain’t got no where to go, you can always come here and stay with us...”

Justice. May we always seek to do the right thing...

Let us pray a prayer re-committing ourselves to doing the right thing, using the ancient words of St. Francis of Assissi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Kiss A Pig

Isabel Chavez, a 13 year old in my church, sent me a cute email, reminding me not to take life (or myself) too seriously.  I think the picture below, which was one of several, sums up a New Year's resolution we all may take: Kiss a Pig (and don't insinuate that I am referring to anyone's spouse or any other person; literally kiss a pig, cochino, puerco).  By doing so, we might remember that life is short and the more we can share joy with one another, the more we demonstrate our faith in God.  BTW, I could see Ruby Gene doing this one day....

Click here to read Biblical passages which may inspire us as we approach the first day of the new year.

Santa Fe Turns 400 this year

Welcome 2011.  Among other things of significance for this new year, we can anticipate the city turning 400, since it's settlement in 1611 (a little math) by the Spanish.  I often tell visitors of its ancient history as the oldest capitol city in the US; and throw in that it's the highest, too, at 7000 feet.

The party planning committee already blew the first few millions given to them to celebrate the much anticipated occasion, and has petitioned, and I believe received, more.  Among the projects they have taken on to promote the event is a song.  I got an email asking my opinion, and inviting me to share it.

Click here to listen 

And you can post any feedback, which I'll be sure to pass along ;).