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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Worth of a Person, Part 2

Continued from Part 1, the previous post.

Ephesians 1:3-14

During Black History Month, it is important to realize there is another way that the question of what a person is worth lurks just beyond our attention everyday.  That is in the modern-day revival of slavery.  Often nowadays it is called human trafficking.  Observers tell us that large international criminal organizations now operate with their eye on the market and on their bottom line.  They follow the same logic of legal multinational corporations.  They don’t really care what they buy, sell, and trade, so long as they are making the highest profit available.  The move is away from specializing in a certain illegal product, such as drugs.  Drug cartels now also trade weapons or human beings, whatever the market is asking for.
What is a trafficked human being worth?  In South Asia, a desperately poor family may sell a child for slave labor for as little as $150.  Across the globe, some sources say the average price of a slave is around $400, but others say even less.  The average income to be made by the use of slave labor is above $10,000 per year, so the profit motive is powerful.  In the selling of sex, a teenage girl or young woman may cost a buyer $1900, but the same girl or woman may make that slave owner profits of $2400 a month.  Bought for a pittance, the modern slave fills the pockets of manufacturers, agriculturalists, and pimps.  In Africa, child slaves work the cocoa plantations of Ghana, the poor work in sweatshops making clothes in Lesotho, and throughout Central Africa children are kidnapped and forced to become soldiers.  In Asia, manufacturers contract with U.S. corporations to make clothes, electronics, and household goods in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and many other lands, staffing their sweatshop factories with wage-slaves working under hazardous conditions.  In Latin America, companies enslave workers for mines and large agricultural plantations.  Haitian children are sold and exported to the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere to be household slaves.  And all sorts of slavery exist just beyond our notice in the very land where we live.  But if the productivity declines from injury, illness, or exhaustion, their lives may be worth little or nothing to those who have used and abused them.  Murdering a troublesome slave may at times be a cost of business, since a replacement is so cheap.  Trading in human flesh, making commerce and commodity of someone’s daughter or son, someone’s mother or father, someone’s brother or sister, trading God’s beloved child for a handful of silver—this evil flies in the face of a loving God.  Whether it brings us cheap chocolate bars, cheap tomatoes, cheap shirts and pants, or in the back allies or penthouses, cheap sex with disposable people, such commerce makes God sick, angry, and sad.
What is the worth of a person?  We are living in a time when the worth of most people is diminishing steadily in the eyes of the powerful, the violent, and the unscrupulous.  These are harsh words.  They are hard to say, and hard to hear.  They are the words of despair, the words of death.  But they are not the only words I came by to say to you today.
The Letter to the Ephesians also has some things to say to us about what a person is worth.  We already realize that what someone thinks about the worth of a person may depend on how closely connected the people are.  Remote, invisible sick people may not seem worth a few extra dollars in taxes, but one’s mom or dad, brother or sister, wife, daughter or son may be of immeasurable worth.  A person’s bias and prejudice may lead one to assign low value to the lives of some people.  A slave trader may reduce a human being down to hard cash and potential profits.  But Paul tells the Ephesians a few things about what they are worth in this opening chapter.
First, in verse four he tells them that God considers them worth choosing.  God has chosen us.  God did not need to create the world.  God did not need to populate the Earth with human beings.  God could have looked upon humanity and rejected us for all our failings.  But verse 4 says God chose us.  Choosing us means God has drawn us near.  God wants to be with us.  God wants to share fellowship with us.  God has loved us with an everlasting love.  Being chosen by God entails God’s blessing us with all that heaven has to offer.  The goodness of God is poured out for us.  What is a person worth?  We are worth enough to God that God chose us.
God chose us for a purpose.  God did not choose us to wallow in the mud of our sinfulness.  God did not choose us to remain stagnant and settle for mediocrity, to let our shortcomings take root and grow up like weeds.  No, it says that God chose us to be holy and blameless.  God chose us in Christ.  He saw in Christ what all of us are destined to become.  Our true natures, united to the New Adam, Jesus Christ, are to be set aside for God’s purpose.  We are to turn away from sinning and live as Jesus lived, blameless before God.  And above all, our lives are to be awash with love.  Our way of being in the world is to be a loving way.  Love one another, as I have loved you, said Jesus.  Love God and love your neighbor.  That is our purpose.  That is why God chose us.  God saw in us the value, the worth, that could make that loving way happen.  In God’s scales, we are worth our weight in love.
Going on to verse 5 it says that God judged us to be worth adoption.  Having gone astray, having turned to our own way, living like orphans in the world, God came to give us a family, a home, and a heritage.  God did not merely want us as a trophy or a curiosity on a knick-knack shelf.  God adopted us to sit at the dinner table together.  We are in the family.  God took on responsibility for us.  No longer strays, left to scrounge out a life, now we have a home in God. 
At home with God, we have some responsibilities assigned.  We need to carry our load, but it says God has given us abundant grace to do so.  We need to maintain the family reputation, and we look to Jesus to know how to live up to God’s expectations for us.  We ought to live with gratitude, praising God for the unmerited gifts bestowed on us.  We don’t have to keep on wandering.  We don’t have to wonder where our provision will come from.  God is our provider.  He looked at us and saw people worth adopting.  Now forevermore we are in God’s family.
Finally, according to verse 7, God looked upon us in all of our sins, and evaluated our worth.  God judged us to be worth redeeming, even at a cost.  The cost was God’s willing entry into our condition, taking on human form and flesh.  God came into the world as a baby.  This Jesus grew to be a leader among the Israelites, offering hope to all who were marginalized and oppressed.  The longer Jesus persisted in standing up for justice, the more he put himself in danger.  But he continued to the end because he saw worth in us.
When the world could no longer put up with Jesus’ challenges, the political powers banded together to arrest and execute him.  People who knew him conspired to sell him to the powerful for forty pieces of silver.  This good and loving man, sent from God, very God of very God, was beaten, humiliated, marched to a place of death, pierced and hung from a cross.  There, his life ebbed away.  The blood that had coursed through his body giving life to his cells and strength for his work, poured out because of his faithfulness to his mission.  God found us worth redeeming through the blood of Jesus Christ.  Ephesians explains that Jesus’ sacrificial death came to signify the forgiveness of our sins, for even as he hung there on the cross he had prayed forgiveness for his murderers.  What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?  Oh, sometimes is causes me to tremble.  The letter says God has emptied out his riches of grace and lavished them upon us.
You might give a check to your grandson on his birthday.  You might buy a fancy dress for your granddaughter at Easter.  But what about all those scraggly kids out in the street who don’t seem to know their heads from a hole in the ground?  That’s who we were, and God opened up the treasures of heaven and gave us all more than we can handle.  The redeeming work of Christ has revised our assessment.  Whatever it seemed we were worth in the eyes of the world, God had declared us worthy of grace upon grace.  We share an inheritance with Christ.  We are blessed beyond measure.
Knowing how God assesses our worth, we cannot merely stand by and let the world treat people like they are a dime a dozen.  Having been chosen, adopted, and redeemed by God, we have a responsibility to stand up for the worth of our brothers and sisters, be they the sick, factory workers, or modern slaves.  We need to look around our neighborhood, our schools, and our workplaces to see people according to the worth that God has endowed them with.  Love as God loves, and draw all God’s children into the family. 
I’m not going to go into detail about what to do about health care for all, about supporting oppressed workers, and about taking on the scourge of human trafficking.  Maybe that’s not fair, you say, now that I’ve stirred you up about it.  The Lott Carey Convention is working against human trafficking.  Rev. Barber and Durham CAN are leading efforts to improve jobs and health care.  Getting into the details will have to wait for another opportunity.
But the gospel message I want to bring to you today is that God has judged you worthy, and doing so has embraced you with a love that is boundless and steadfast.  Live in that love.  Sit down at God’s table.  Run around the house like you belong there, because you are one of the family.  Rest assured that God has judged you worthy of the ultimate sacrifice, the redeeming work of Jesus who went all the way to the cross.
If you have not yet realized that God has measured your worth and chosen you, adopted you, and redeemed you, we invite you today to hear and accept God’s calling to you to become part of the family.  Accept the saving work of Christ and follow Jesus today into a new way of life.
Others of you may have let yourself forget that God loves you with an everlasting love.  There is no need to wander in the wilderness any longer.  Let today be a day of returning to the embrace of the one who has adopted you into the family.  Renew your commitment to live as God has called you, holy and blameless before him in love. 
Perhaps you live in Durham but have not united with a church.  Mount Level is striving to be a faithful community of God’s people, a branch of God’s family, here in this city.  If the Spirit is urging you to unite with us in our mission to serve God, then don’t wait any longer.  Follow the Spirit’s leading and become part of this fellowship today.

The Worth of a Person, Part 1

Originally preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC, February 24, 2013

Ephesians 1:3-14

Just this week the news reported that North Carolina now has the harshest policy for helping the unemployed.  A couple hundred dollars a week for twelve weeks is all that the state is willing to do to help hardworking people hold on while they try to find a job.  Cutting back on money that would all flow directly back into the economy makes little sense.  And as you have heard me say before, penalizing people who lost their jobs because of the immoral, criminal acts of others who destroyed the economy goes against any notions of justice.  It raises a question in our minds about how people value the lives of other people.

What if a stranger were to approach you in this room of people and point out someone, then ask you, “How much does he cost?” or “What is his price?”  Certainly it is not a question you are used to hearing.  After the initial shock, it would probably be an offensive question.  Buying and selling Africans and their descendents remains close at hand in cultural memory in this land.

       Moreover, it seems to our sensibilities a misguided question, a question that transgresses our categories of reasoning.  We are well-schooled in markets and commerce, but not everything is appropriate to a market.  For us, talking about costs or prices is a category mistake when assigned to people.

       On the other hand, if we take the question out of this hypothetical situation and ask it differently, if we change the context around, if we do some critical analysis of events in our world, we might uncover ways in which this kind of question is being asked every day.

       For instance, the debate about making sure everyone has access to good health care is one way of asking what is the worth of a person.  Both of the major political parties are unwilling to support the most efficient way to provide health care, a single-payer plan for universal health care, because they know that funding it would entail changing how we put money into the health care system.  Instead of paying premiums to private companies, the money would flow through a single system by means of taxes. 

Ooooh, that dirty word taxes gets people all stirred up.  When someone starts talking about taxes these days, people start feeling like they are getting their pockets picked.  Don’t bother to explain that most be able to save money by using a single-payer system rather than making their own private payments to for-profit insurance companies or so-called non-profit companies knee-deep in cash that looks to anyone else like big profits.  Somehow the idea of taxes to make sure that no one goes without health care gets people upset.  Apparently, many people think that a whole lot of sick people out here just aren’t worth the money it would take for them to see a doctor or get medication.  
I recognize that many people in Durham, and here in Mt. Level, work in the medical profession.  I am not trying to make you out to be the devils in this story.  What I am talking about are vast structures, powerful systems that enfold patients and medical professionals both.  Strong and powerful interests and lobbies are more concerned about controlling the clinics and machinery of health care than making sure there is justice in how these resources get used.  Controlling the scanners and beds is worth more to them than the people whom those assets can help.  So the perspective of both political parties and the rich donors to whom they listen seems to be that a person is not worth the taxes it would take to provide universal health care.

       Any of you who have been through a difficult illness and watched the bills come in would know that health care currently calls for no small amount of money.   After my beloved Everly spent over a month in the hospital last year, we started seeing stacks of bills from hospitals, clinics, doctors, and labs, and quite a few of them ran as high as five figures before the decimal point.  In the face of winning or losing the battle for Everly’s life, I think you understand that all of those bills together don’t even approach the value of her life.  On the other hand, if we did not have the insurance we have, one or more of those bills might have brought our finances to ruin.  Thanks to God’s provision, I don’t have to stand here and beg for help.  We’ve managed to keep up with our bills because we are blessed with jobs that have insurance coverage.  For the millions of other people without health insurance now, an operation or a hospital stay may be all it takes for them to go broke, to lose their homes, or to fall into endless debt.  They may rightly conclude that their lives, their futures, have been sold out from under them. 

       A news story stirred in my guts late last summer and pushed me toward asking today’s question, “What is a person worth?”.  It is a story out of South Africa.  It’s a complicated story about the economic unrest in a land where masses are unemployed and the gap between rich and poor is vast.  But it is also a story that echoes back to the harsh days of apartheid when mineworkers were fuel and fodder for a violent, industrial machine.  At the largest platinum mine in the world, workers began to strike for better pay.  They make between $450 and $650 a month, which is a wage many other unemployed workers would love to have.  You and I know it would be a struggle to live on that amount.  A new, independent union is asking for $1200 a month.  It’s a big raise they want.  None of us would be surprised that the management does not want to give the raise.  As the stakes began to rise, people on all sides of the disagreement began to escalate.  Management threatened mass firings.  Workers threatened larger and longer strikes.  No doubt some people on either side showed some poor judgment and provocative behavior.  But what happened last summer harkened back to the struggles of organized laborers in South Africa under apartheid, of auto workers demanding better conditions and wages Detroit, of millworkers trying to gain recognition and justice in Gastonia, and people standing up for their worth in so many places.  Armed police were ready for action.  The conflict heated up.  And in a few moments, 34 more mineworkers lay dead.  During a week of unrest and violence some police had also lost their lives. 

Why were people dying?  The mining company was falling behind the goals their management had set for production.  Every day they did not run their mines at full capacity, they lost profits for their shareholders.  Police, also paid a worker’s wage, were brought in to risk their lives for the company’s production goals, and in the process the mineworkers’ lives were also put at risk.  Police and miners died for the sake of trying to get the mines back up to production.  Mining production was traded for the lives of forty-plus miners and police officers.  Killing workers seems thrifty when for every job there are hundreds more applicants who would work for less.  The struggle for jobs in South Africa is so great that competing unions get pitted against one another in these mining struggles, leading to misdirected violence between groups of the disenfranchised.  Death on the front lines of union organizing is not so remote in US history, either.  Is South Africa’s tragedy reminding us of the path that the current world economy is taking us down?  Will US employers soon be willing to trade the lives of their workers for profits in the same way?

In Mississippi, at the same time that these events were unfolding in South Africa, autoworkers at the Nissan plant were laying the groundwork to start a union.  Management threatened to close the plant if they unionize.  Although the same Nissan company operates with union contracts in many of its plants in other countries, they tell their employees in Mississippi that their lives are worth just so much.  If it means the hard work of their Mississippi workers would cost them a few cents more, then they would rather shut down their plant and stop making all those cars and all that money.  They would rather go find other desperate and beaten down people who won’t cost them so much, who aren’t worth much.  With automobile companies raking in the profits, an experienced, loyal worker is still not worth enough to have the company sit down at the table and arrive at an agreement fair to all parties. 

The Mississippi and South Africa stories remind me of a pair of texts in Isaiah.  Chapter 58 echoes chapter 1.  The prophet proclaims that God is not happy with the show he is seeing, a showiness of piety and outward worship.  The wealthy, who are putting on the show, are complaining that they have fasted but God did not give them what they wanted.  Isaiah speaks in the words of these unfaithful oppressors when he says, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Then he gives them God's reply,
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
            Oppressing workers, treating them violently—this was how the wealthy employers of Isaiah’s day were behaving. But we remember also from the first chapter of Isaiah that God offered a path to resolution of their sins for these people abusing their brothers and sisters. The KJV says, “Come, let us reason together.” The NRSV puts it more bluntly, “Come, let’s argue it out.” Sitting at the table, working out a path of mutual interest is what God would have us do. A solution to oppression is one that will be mutually agreeable to all parties and in accordance with the justice of God. Without it, all the dancing and shouting and fasting and praising turns out to be bad acting that makes God sick and angry with looking at us. God made us all, every one of us, because of love. God loves every person. God counts each one of us as good, as valuable, as worth being heard, being cared for, and being able to share in the bounty of this world. Reasoning that through in a way to be fair to everyone is what God expects. A person is worth that kind of effort.
"The Worth of a Person" is continued in Part 2, the next post.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Everly's Blessing

 Originally posted on CaringBridge.org

Today our pastor, Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., took his text from Isaiah 44:2-3.  It is a promise of water in the desert, of the Spirit of God upon the people.  He pointed out a significant distinction that many of us may miss.  When God blesses us, the blessing is not for us.  God blesses us that we will bless others.  This particular text says that the blessing will be for the offspring and descendants of those who first receive it.

The sermon sent me to thinking about the blessing of Everly.  A little more than thirty-six years ago, in the fall of 1976, Everly arrived in Waco, Texas, to start her higher education at Baylor University.  Within a few days we met one another as part of a leadership group recruited and sponsored by the Baptist Student Union.  Everly had been recognized by her peers and teachers at the very large J. Frank Dobie High School as perhaps the strongest leader in her graduating class.  She was expected by them to go far and accomplish great things.  I was a small-town boy with an over-estimation of my importance in the world.

It was a couple of months before Everly and I began to get to know one another.  She endured what women in our culture often endure--listening to men talk excessively about themselves (in this case, I was the blabbermouth).  Even with that, she detected something in me worth sticking around to discover.  I was especially drawn to the joyfulness she brought when we were together.

As we grew to be a couple, we had lots of long talks.  One of the early memorable conversations had to do with Everly's calling to teach.  She did not begin her university studies with plans to be a teacher, and some important people had steered her away from it because they thought she could aim for something "better" or "higher."  However, her first year of studies was leaving her with a feeling of something missing.  She was becoming sure that she should be an educator.  Everly did not see a need to separate high achievement from a vocation that would allow her to serve the community and use the gifts to teach that had already appeared.

Most of us who have lived long enough know that the actual path our lives take is far more complicated than we might have imagined at the outset of adulthood.  Everly finished Baylor with little inclination to ever go back to school again.  She immediately became a teacher, and in the course of a few years taught math at most levels from middle school to high school seniors.  It only took about a year of teaching--a year of wondering how it is that some children learn a concept and others don't, puzzling why some strategies work with one child and not another, reflecting on the processes children develop on their own to figure things out--before Everly started recognizing her drive toward further study.  A masters degree in math education from the University of Texas followed.

Then more years of teaching took Everly through Irving, Texas, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Durham, North Carolina.  As a lead teacher, a department chair, a Presidential Award Winner, and a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, Everly's vision of better classroom teaching expanded and began to make its mark.  Eventually she moved to district-level curriculum leadership in Durham Public Schools, gaining national recognition for her work, including the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from Baylor University.  And during those years she began work on her doctoral degree from the University of North Carolina.

From Durham she advanced to state leadership as the Director of Mathematics for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.  Having made a lasting mark on that state, she most recently moved to lead mathematics curriculum for the Texas Education Agency.

This is a story that many of you already know.  But for me it is a way of showing how Everly has understood deeply from a very young age that the blessings she has received are for others.  She had dedicated herself to understanding young minds, developing strategies for instruction, and uplifting all students to realize success in mathematics.  Her bountiful intelligence, enthusiasm, organizational insight, and compassion are blessings she received to share with others.

Another way of saying this is that Everly is our blessing.  We have received her into our lives as she has poured herself out, doing good.  She has done good to teachers by recognizing their centrality and power in education.  She has done good to students by never giving up on their capacity for higher math.  She has done good to bureaucrats and politicians by helping them direct their ambition and power toward better curriculum and schools.  She has done good to her colleagues by finding their best qualities and helping them to grow in those ways.

I guess I got the best of the blessing.  I got to live with Everly and share my life with her all of these years.  She is my supreme blessing.  From the time of her first years of teaching, the two of us have had an unending conversation about math teaching.  She has hammered out her ideas, her experiments, her theories, and her resolve in long talks as we drove to work, did the laundry, picked up the kids' toys, sat down in the evening, and just about any time or any place. 

As I said earlier, I probably started out with an over-inflated sense of my own importance.  We intellectual and academic types are prone to such delusions.  I have had a very satisfying and enriching career as a professor, so I'm not belittling that. 

But I also have come to understand that God blessed me with Everly not to have her only for myself, but so that I could play a part in giving her the strength to bless the world.  Reading so many of the comments on CaringBridge has further confirmed this is true.  Everly's influence is deep and wide, and the people she is touching, working with, and serving are blessed beyond measure.  Wherever she has gone, people and institutions have changed for the better.  I'm thankful that I am sharing in such a powerful life of blessing in this world.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.

I am a witness.  This is what God has done and continues doing through Everly.  All praise and glory be to the Holy One of Israel!  Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Faith and Faithfulness, Having Faith and Being Faithful

Listening to conversation about Hebrews 11 drove home the need for better training in Bible reading.  The verse under discussion was 11:7:
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith (NRSV).
It could have been most any verse in this chapter my Dad often referred to as "the roll call of faith."  Here, looking back at the story of Noah, forms of the Greek pistis occur twice, and some translators add a third implied "faith."  The noun is here translated "faith."  The verb form, pisteuo, is usually translated "believe." 

In the contemporary church, perhaps especially in the traditions born of the Enlightenment and the United States "nation with the soul of a church," these terms faith and believe take on a highly intellectual aspect.  That is, we tend to think of faith as believing in something, or in other words, accepting certain statements to be true.  Sometimes this aspect of faith is called "assent" to propositions or confessional statements.  Faith or belief, in this way, is a mental act, a matching of mind to concepts embedded in sentences.  "Jesus is the Son of God" is such a statement.  Popular notions of faith might tend toward, "Yes, I buy that.  I accept that.  That is what I think.  Thus, I have faith in that."

Greek (and Hebrew for that matter, if I were to go into another ancient language of scripture) do not make such an easy distinction.  I'm not going to cite numbers of New Testament and extrabiblical texts to provide statistical support, but let it suffice to say that very few, if any, uses of these words in Greek literature indicate this kind of mental act of assent.  Faith as assent is an emptying out of scriptural reasoning and replacing it with something alien.  For scriptural reasoning, faith or belief takes on richer meaning that may require more than one English word to adequately express.

For those who think I am being excessively picky or misrepresenting the churches' conversations about faith, let me first acknowledge that I would be lying to say that many preachers, teachers, and other church folks have regularly pointed out to me that faith means "trust," and believing means "trusting in."  The Hebrews text above makes this very clear through contextual analysis, without even having to look beyond the single verse.  Warned by God, Noah respected the warning.  That respect was trust in what God had revealed to Noah.  Faith in God means trust in God.  Trust in God means putting one's life in God's hands.  Trust in God means accepting as reliable what God has said.

This is more than simple assent.  It is relying on God.  It is resting and moving within the embrace of God, walking on the ground laid out for us by God. 

And this relying, resting, walking, and moving presses our understanding toward the additional aspect of scriptural reasoning with the words faith and believe.  Trust is nothing without acting on it.  Faith is nothing without faithfulness.  Noah's trust included a confidence to act on God's guidance, even against the conventional wisdom of his day.  As the Hebrews text says, Noah respected what God had said and built an ark on dry land when there had been no rain since who knows when.  The righteousness (or justice, an other word for another post) that comes by faith is not based on a person's knowledge, or intellectual assent.  It is not a mental righteousness.  The righteousness that comes by faith is demonstrated in faithfulness.  It is the confident action that comes from trusting God.  It is the life lived as God has called.

This complexity is why I encourage my seminary students, and my Sunday school classes, to exercise discipline as Bible readers.  When they come to the words "faith" or "have faith" or "believe," they should practice substituting that additional aspect of pistis and pisteuo which does not come through in contemporary English:  faithfulness or be faithful.  Thus, after reading Hebrews 11:7 in the NRSV, I want to go back and reread
By faithfulness Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faithfulness (NRSV, adapted).
It emphasizes the acting in confidence based on trust that is crucial for a biblical understanding of faith.  Moreover, the discipline reminds me that Bible reading is more than first impressions.  It is more than making a scriptural text conform to my cultural biases and mean whatever pops into my head.  It is disciplined work, and there are great mysteries to be unfolded as I continue to search this deep sea of divine wisdom passing through and into earthen vessels.

Just for the sake of expanding this point, let me give a few other examples.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who is faithful to him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16, NRSV, adapted).

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faithfulness for faithfulness; as it is written, The one who is righteous will live by faithfulness (Romans 1:16-17, NRSV, adapted).

Just as Abraham was faithful to God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, so, you see, those who are faithful are the descendants of Abraham.  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faithfulness, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.  For this reason, those who are faithful are blessed with Abraham who was faithful (Galatians 3:6-9, NRSV, adapted).
How else would Abraham's belief appear than in his faithful obedience to God's call to go to another land?  Those who by faithfulness are righteous shall live.  To do what God commands demonstrates the trust that encompasses the life of faith/faithfulness.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Hosea Sees Only Self-serving Misleaders

In the previous post, I pointed out that the prophet had identified the priests and king as the cause and core of Israel’s sins, the target of divine judgment.  This argument emerged in the opening four chapters, and was summarized by the opening words of chapter 5.

Hear this, O priests!
  Give heed, O house of Israel!
Listen, O house of the king!
  For the judgment pertains to you;
for you have been a snare at Mizpah,
  and a net spread upon Tabor,
and a pit dug deep in Shittim;
  but I will punish all of them.

The misleaders are laying traps for the people.  They are the tempters.  They strategize as hunters who set up snares, who spread nets and lie in wait, who dig pits and cover them with brush.  God is fed up with their scheming.

Now Hosea extends the condemnation to Judah as well.  Israel and Judah are two of a kind.  Although Judah may not have done all the same things, the sins of both kingdoms are alike.  Both are led by people who live in contradiction to God’s laws.  They both act like adulterous lovers.  The deeper they go into their sinfulness, the more they found themselves facing external oppressors, harmed and injured by their own plans, and growing more rotten as each day passes.  Assyria, the hoped-for protector, has its own designs on the future of Israel and of Judah.

Chapter 6 opens with the voice of Israel saying, “Let us return to the Lord.”  Admitting that their hardships and judgment may originate in God, they are hoping that showing more faithfulness may lead to healing.  They admit they do not know God as they should.  Have they been listening to what Hosea has said?  Do they admit they have failed in helping the people know God?  Don’t get your hopes up.

Hosea responds in the voice of God, saying, “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.”  Even their proposed repentance is self-serving.  They just want to get relief from their mess.  They are still strategizing.  They are trying to hedge their bets.  Maybe if they play nice with God, they can get back on their feet, get their edge back, get their mojo working again.  God will have none of it.  Much like Isaiah or Amos, Hosea says that the empty practice of temple rituals, pretended worship, is of no value to God.  One of the most famous lines of the entire Hosea oracle appears in chapter 6:  “For I desire love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Hosea then begins to list the sins of Israel and Judah.  These sins, he says, go all the way back to Adam, but they are multiplying in this time.  The priests and king have broken the covenant and turned to other protectors, other gods, other laws.  They have been faithless in their dealings.  Negotiating in bad faith is just another way to call someone a liar.  Such people never meant to do what they promised.  It is the way of a colonizing power with the indigenous people:  say whatever it takes to gain an advantage, then stab them in the back at the end.  They were faithless toward God, trying to manipulate God to do them favors.  They were faithless in their leadership duties, twisting their official power for personal gain.  All around there was evildoing.  Faithlessness implies the promise of good with covert scheming to undermine it.  Evildoing implies overt and direct harm toward others.

Things were so bad that the cities were “tracked with blood.”  Tracking blood means that pools are on the ground to be stepped in and spread as the violent evildoers run away.  Priests and royal courtiers are in the midst of this evil.  Priests lie in wait like robbers, using their power to demand payment, sucking up the livelihoods of people who long to draw near to God.  They are like murderers.  Their crimes are monstrous.  Using the fa├žade of the Temple cultus, they have created systems and structures of organized crime.  The royal family and courtiers have done the same.  Rather than being servants to the people, they are serving other interests.  They sneak around on their responsibilities to line their pockets and solidify their political power.

Chapter 7 continues to provide a laundry list of sinfulness.  Again, Israel’s king and court deal falsely.  They do not protect the people.  Inside the city, thieves break into homes with impunity.  Outside the city, bandits raid the people in the countryside.  The King, it is implied, may even get a cut of this widespread criminal activity.  Gild the palm of the security apparatus, and the gold finds its way to the top, thus making the king glad.  Royal officials enjoy all their treachery.  It is the game of power, fun for all who play.  They are so corrupted and debauched that their duties are dissipated in drunkenness.  They drink until they are sick.  They get drunk and behave badly.  It is no wonder that the dynasties of the Northern Kingdom continue to end with bloody coups d’etat.  Their evil is so intense it is like a hot oven that burns all day.

Blinded by their self-serving actions, they turn to foreign alliances for protection and hope.  They can’t see that by trusting in God they would find a path to peace.  Instead, these who have behaved as hunters scheming to trap their own people will soon become trapped in the snares and nets of Assyria.  Their actions are senselessly setting themselves up for destruction.  They look silly going from one alliance to another like a weakling, a bird that will easily be ensnared or entrapped.  They reject the ways of God, but they can’t even tell the truth about who God is or what God expects.  Desperate, they whine, cry, cut themselves, shout with rage, but still rebel against God.  As the likelihood of an advancing imperial army draws ever nearer, they still cannot shut up their corrupt, raging, rebellious gibberish.

There is a right way for people to live together.  It involves serving one another and seeking common good.  When leaders and powerful people of Israel or any society turn away from their calling to become self-serving, it gets bad for everyone.  When a wealthy elite gains ever more wealth and power, a reckoning cannot be far away.  Hosea was doing his dead-level best to get the leaders of Israel to turn things around.  The response was not promising.
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