Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Connected as One" (Ezekiel 34:11-24)

Two weeks ago, Robbie Charboneau and I attended the South Coast Interfaith Council’s Festival of Music concert. One of the highlights of that concert was hearing the youth choir from one of our local Jewish congregations sing a selection of songs, including one based on Psalm 133:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

It was an appropriate and fitting sentiment at a gathering of kindred from many different faith traditions coming together on behalf of unity, peace, and understanding.

In my three years of involvement with the Interfaith Council – the past two as a member of the board of directors – I have gained a new appreciation for the way God has created and structured this world, a world in which all people are bound together, connected in ways we can’t even imagine or understand. We are all a strand on the web of life, inextricably bound to one another.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

Last week, Ken Brown, Margo Morales, Ginger and I attended the Interfaith Council’s other big November event, the annual Unity Awards Dinner. Father Greg Boyle, known for his work in helping gang members find jobs, stay out of jail, and live the lives God intends for them, was the keynote speaker.

At one point Father Greg mentioned an incident involving Cesar Chavez, when a reporter said to Chavez something about the great love that so many of the farmworkers had for the civil rights leader. Chavez responded by saying, “the feeling’s mutual.”

Father Greg then explained how that sentiment is behind all the work he does. There is a mutual love at work, a recognition that the gang member is created and loved by God just as he is, and that there is a connection there, a bond of unity, a recognition that we are all threads on a single garment of humanity.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.

With God as our Creator, children all are we; let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.

Now, if we always remembered that we are children of one Creator; if we always remembered how good it is to live together in unity; if we always remembered the connection that binds us together in mutual love; … then I guess we wouldn’t need people like Father Greg to remind us. We wouldn’t need Cesar Chavez to remind us. We wouldn’t need the South Coast Interfaith Council to remind us. And we wouldn’t need Ezekiel and all those biblical prophets to remind us.

Unfortunately, we don’t always remember our bond of unity. We forget that we are connected as one. In the words of Fred Craddock, we’ve developed the ability to “look at a starving child with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid;’ to look at a recent widow and say, ‘Well, it’s not my mom;’ or to see an old man sitting alone in the park and say, ‘Well, that’s not my dad.’”

And we end up looking at the poor and the outcast the way the rest of the litter looks at the runt, pushing them aside, denying them a place at the feeding trough.

Last month, Edgar – a young man who, ten years ago, lived with my family as a high school exchange student from Brazil – spent two weeks here in Long Beach on business. Conversations with him have helped me gain some perspective on the world and its many cultures, just as conversations with my friends at the interfaith council have helped me gain some perspective on the world and its many religions.

A couple of times while Edgar was here I was able to go downtown and visit him at the apartment where he was staying, and go for a morning walk in this beautiful, amazing city of ours.

And there, one block from his apartment, right across the street from his office in the Landmark Tower, right there in Lincoln Park, were the people of Occupy Long Beach.

The “Occupy” movement began on Wall Street on September 17. It soon spread to other cities around the nation and around the world.

Those who are not part of the movement, including the media, have had a hard time figuring out what the movement is all about. Mostly that’s due to the Occupy movement’s grassroots structure, and its insistence that no one person in the movement has more importance or authority than anyone else.

In other words, a person going to an Occupy camp, looking to get some answers from “someone in charge,” will end up leaving disappointed.

I wasn’t looking for someone in charge, but I was curious and tempted to walk over and talk to some of the members of Occupy Long Beach. But I didn’t. I think I was too intimidated. And I wasn’t sure I completely agreed with them.

Nevertheless, I think I understand what they are about.. Last spring, several months before the Occupy Wall Street movement began, Vanity Fair had an article on wealth inequality. The article mentioned how wealth inequality directly led to the uprisings in a number of countries in recent months, including Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. In those places, people became upset about the lack of opportunity, inequality of wealth, and a government that was controlled by the wealthiest 1% of the population.

The Vanity Fair article went on to say that, in the United States, “the top 1% have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99% live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1% eventually do learn. Too late.”

The top 1% have forgotten that their fate is bound up with how the other 99% live. They have forgotten that we are all connected as one.

This was true back in the days of the Roman Empire. The time of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus was an especially prosperous time. But guess who benefitted from all that wealth?

The top 1%.

According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, the top 1% included the rulers and governors, who owned 50% of the land. It also included the priests, who owned 15% of all land. And it included military officers and bureaucrats.

A small group of merchants formed what I think could be considered a very tiny middle class.

The vast majority of the population were peasants. Peasants struggled to survive. Two-thirds of their annual crop went to support the upper classes. This made things very difficult, and very easy for peasants to lose what little they had, go into debt, or even be forced into indentured servanthood or slavery.

Some of the dispossessed peasants became artisans. Since Jesus was a carpenter, he was part of the artisan class, living in a precarious position between the peasants and the lowest of all classes, the degraded and the expendables. When people in the synagogue heard Jesus speak and responded by saying, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” you can hear the class snobbery in their question.

As a carpenter in a tiny village of Nazareth, it’s likely that Jesus and his father Joseph sold some of their goods in nearby Sepphoris, a very large, very wealthy city less than an hour’s walk away.

Sepphoris’ history no doubt influenced Jesus and his ministry.

When Jesus was just a baby, there was a massive uprising in Sepphoris against Roman rule; sort of an “Occupy Sepphoris” movement, except much more violent. It took the Romans some time to crush the rebellion, but crush it they eventually did.

30,000 residents of Sepphoris were killed or sold into slavery. 2,000 of them were taken to Jerusalem, where they were executed in the manner that Rome deemed appropriate for traitors: by crucifixion. Rome figured that 2,000 corpses hanging on 2,000 crosses would be a pretty good deterrent against future rebellions.

And then Rome burned the city of Sepphoris to the ground.

There can be no doubt that the residents of Nazareth – including new parents Mary and Joseph – were impacted financially, socially, and psychologically as they watched the smoke rising from nearby Sepphoris.

So when Jesus began preaching about a new kingdom, many of his fellow Galileans believed that he just might be the one who could succeed where the rebels in Sepphoris had failed. And when Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem, a city even more important than Sepphoris, they eagerly joined this “Occupy Jerusalem” movement.

And Jesus was almost – but not quite – what they expected. He did make it clear that the inequalities of society, including inequalities of wealth, were contrary to the will of God. He made it clear that such inequalities had no place in God’s kingdom. This teaching was consistent with the words of the prophets, who proclaimed that in the kingdom of God, all people live together in harmony. Lions and lambs lie down together. Food, water, and wealth are shared, so that all may partake of God’s abundant blessings. In God’s kingdom, shepherds look after the sheep, rather than hoarding everything good for themselves, and leaving the sheep to starve.

But Jesus also recognized that everyone – even the Romans, even the shepherds who eat and drink the good stuff and then trample down and foul what is left for everyone else – even they are children of God. And they themselves also suffer from living in a world of inequality, a world where people do not live in unity, a world where people look at one another but do not recognize that they are brothers, sisters, parents, children; one family of humanity, connected as one.

Jesus didn’t share the dream that so many in the lower class had, the dream of revenge against the upper class, the dream of doing to the 1% what they’ve been doing to everyone else. Jesus’ dream was different. His dream of justice, not revenge, involved having no one in any class treated that way.

So when Jesus went to Jerusalem, he went without weapons. He went to Jerusalem, but on the way, he taught his followers to respond to Roman soldiers peacefully, non-violently, by turning the other cheek; and if forced to assist a soldier by carrying his gear for one mile, they were go then go with the soldier for a second mile.

When Jesus got to Jerusalem, he criticized the temple leaders who worked with the oppressive government while pretending to serve the people. He overturned tables in the temple where doves were being sold and money was being changed. Doves were the cheapest acceptable sacrifice; they were what the poorest pilgrims used to present as an offering. But these sellers and money changers were marking up their prices in order to get rich off the backs of the poor, and that infuriated Jesus.

It’s not so different from the way the wealthiest in this country have created their own economy on Wall Street, evading taxes and watching their wealth increase by 18% over the past decade, while incomes for everyone else, all the hard-working Americans on Main Street, have actually gone down over that same period.

Income inequality and oppression in ancient Sepphoris led to an uprising that resulted in that city’s destruction. Income inequality in modern Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere led to riots and an overthrow of their governments.

Well, guess what: income inequality in the U.S. is actually more extreme than it is in Egypt. When the world’s 134 countries are ranked for income equality, the U.S. comes in at #93, behind China, Russia, Iran, and Egypt, and just barely ahead of Mexico.

So it is good that we remember the poor, especially at a time of Thanksgiving, sharing our wealth in the form of food for the hungry. Let us also remember that we are connected as one with all of humanity, rich and poor, hungry and well-fed. There is a mutuality there, and this is what I hope the people in Lincoln Park and the rest of the Occupy movement remember. It’s what I hope our CEOs and policymakers remember: that there is a mutual love that binds us all together, and which calls upon us to treat even our adversary with kindness and love.

Let us remember and give thanks for a God who actively seeks out the lost, as Ezekiel says; a God who brings back the strayed, binds up the injured, and strengthens the weak. Those sheep who have been pushed aside from the feeding trough, those people who have been denied a place at the table, God will rescue and save. God will feed them with good pasture. They will lie down in good grazing land, and be at peace.

Let us remember the good shepherd sent by God, who shall ensure that the people are fed. He will bring good news to the poor, and proclaim release to the captives. In him the first will become last, and the last will be first.

And then, in God’s kingdom, everyone will recognize that they are indeed one, brothers and sisters, one family, and there will be no more hunger, no more poverty, no more lack of opportunity.

This is the vision we have been given by the prophets and by Jesus. How very good and pleasant it will be when kindred live together in unity, when all people understand that we are connected as one.

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