Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Loving neighbors: One world, one pain

Jim is the first to arrive today to help set up. We open the church together. So I go out to the steps, I see Marty. I greet him. At first he looks puzzled. Then he says, “Oh, Reverend, I didn’t recognize you. You had all the accoutrements of a shammes.” I lift up the broom and dust pan and laugh and wave.  He comes closer. “Reverend, my father died at 70, may he rest in peace. When he was sixty two, some ministers came and said, “Kaplan, we know you’re a rabbi, but you have to take care of your family. You have to sign up for social security. And he  did. And my mother and we kids, we never wanted. Reverend, you have to take care of your family. Do not wait too long.” I thank him. Don’t say that he’s told me that before . “Remember,” he says, pointing a finger at me and looking me in the eye. Then walks off. Looking  over his shoulder he says, “Have a good Sunday.”
It’s time for worship. There’s lots on the table today.  A lot about love your neighbors. Love your enemies....The love your neighbors idea frames Leviticus 19. Everything that come before that passage is how you do it. The injunctions echo the Ten Commandments, expand on them. And always at the heart of Torah, there is  justice at the heart. For example, the idea of not stripping  a vineyard bare, or harvesting to the edges. The whole idea of gleaning, of leaving something for the  poor, the alien, the immigrant;  especially the undocumented, unprotected immigrant. The idea that we are not to extract every last penny of profit...or  even “keep the wages of a laborer until morning...”
How can that not speak to the idea of a Living Wage?

I’m thinking about Wisconsin this week. The most disturbing  part is the  attack on collective bargaining. Over 30,000 state employees rallied to protest. As an old union organizer  friend of mine in Portland said, the only alternative to collective bargaining is collective begging and we ain’t doing that.” My son Micah sent me a great photo from Egypt showing a man  with a sign saying, “Wisconsin, we are with you: one world, one pain.”
Can you believe that in 1910, the Presbyterians started something called the Labor Temple? At Union Square?  That the Board of National Missions had something called the Unit of City and Industrial Work ? That there was a Labor Temple School led by Will Durant that lasted into the ‘30’s? (By the way, that’s where Durant’s the Story of Civilization came from, his lecture series at the Labor Temple.)
A Columbia University article reported  that the Labor Temple was founded in 1910 by the Rev. Charles L. Stelze of the Presbyterian Home Mission Board. Under Stelze's leadership, the Labor Temple would be "entirely unsectarian, where every man, if he have a message, may give it expression, and if it be good it will receive attention." On its opening day, Labor Temple was attended by five hundred members of labor unions, Socialist, Anarchists, and persons who took interest in labor matters and sociologists.
And as could could be predicted, New York City Presbytery erupted with charges that Steizle and Durant presented socialist and pacifist lectures and promoted Bolshevism and Leninism. (Which Durant did not deny.) And criticized Henry Sloane Coffin for supporting them. How did our church come to abandon  working people?
Again, today in our neighborhood,  The Saigon Grill workers are organizing, protesting, calling for a boycott against the new owners even as the old owners were put away in jail this week. Some of our members would like to see us try and mediate this conflict even as others begin to reach out in solidarity. Our neighbor Trinity Lutheran is the workers’ gathering place. 
Love your neighbor, as you would yourself...that’s what all this is about. 
So now  back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. And remember, he’s speaking to his disciples, those who have already made a commitment. But still, the deeper Jesus gets into his sermon, the harder it gets. Loving enemies? Do not resist an evildoer...really???
I believe that what he’s talking about is how our resistance can lead us to become what we hate. Walter Wink, from up the street at Auburn Seminary,  has written:
The very act of hating something draws it to us. Since our hate is a direct response to the evil done, our hate almost invariably causes us to respond in the terms already laid down by the enemy. To counter their espionage, we had a spy network; to make sure that no one cooperated with the enemy, we needed to spy on our own citizens. "You always become the thing you fight the most," wrote psychologist Carl Jung, and we have done everything in our power to prove him correct.

He goes on to point out that Churchill’s bombing of 43 German cities, including the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, were essentially terrorist acts directed at civilians. And  the single most deadly terrorist attack of all time was the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I say this even as one whose father believed that those bombings saved him from being shipped out to Japan. The target was civilians,the goal was, as we have come to call it, “shock and awe”...
In the world of the Sermon on the Mount, vengeance and grudges are simply forbidden.
Likewise, you become transformed by your fear, you become your fear. The Inquisition, born as a  response to the Protestant Reformation, revealed a church turned paranoid  and  violent in its efforts to defend itself.
In the pursuit of witches, the church, especially the  New England Puritans, became possessed itself. 
You become what you hate. It has been said that the reality of the new society that will be born is already revealed in the nature of the revolution that brings it about.Which is why the triumph of a non-violent  revolution in Egypt gives us so much hope. 
My reading of Walter Wink’s article from the 1980’s reminded me that, in his words, There is no more  classic instance of counterproductive violence than that employed by the Reagan administration against Nicaragua. When I remember the policies of President Reagan in Central America, his economic policies which so badly hurt working people and continue to haunt us today, it becomes hard, no impossible  for me to be objective in this celebration of his centenary. Funny, Ronald Reagan and West-Park, birthdays in the same year. I wonder if our Presbyterian Peacemaker friends of the ’80’s would see the irony?
Finally, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Perfect? Perfect? It was John Wesley and his idea of  Christian perfection that tried to live that out. For Wesley, perfection was not the state of being unable to sin, but rather the state of choosing not to sin. Wesley's perfection represented a change of life, a freedom from willful rebellion against God, impure intentions, and pride. Wesley also did not view perfection as permanent.
However, in our tradition, perfection  is simply  impossible. As the rolling Stones once sang:
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails just call me Lucifer
I'm in need of some restraint
It is the very realization that we are none of us perfect that makes love of  neighbors, love of enemies possible and judgment impossible. 
We agreed that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are hard to live by. But that wrestling with their meaning is important.
Philip sang “Lord, I want to be a Christian” then  we all sang:
O for a world where everyone
Respects each other's ways,
Where love is lived and all is done
With justice and with praise.
 O for a world where goods are shared
 And misery relieved,
Where truth is spoken, children spared,
Equality achieved.
We welcome one world family
And struggle with each choice
That opens us to unity
And gives our vision voice.
The poor are rich, the weak are strong,
The foolish ones are wise.
Tell all who mourn; outcasts belong,
Who perishes will rise.

O for a world preparing for
God's glorious reign of peace,
Where time and tears will be no more,
And all but love will cease.

And then once again, Ana’s warm cafe con leche. We pass the peace. And church is over.
The steps are empty, except for clothes and seed left for pigeons. I wish they wouldn’t do that.
    Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers

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