Category Archives: Justice

Will the Witness Please Stand Up…

“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble” (Psalm 107:2, NRSV)

I am a fan of murder mysteries and court room dramas. Two genres of television reigned in my home growing up- westerns and  detective shows. Folks like Perry Mason, Matlock, and of course Law & Order, were staples in my house. My grandmother watched mostly, and I would sit with her and watch just because.

One of the tried and true scenes in a courtroom drama was the moment when the trial turned to the testimony of the witness. Often, the case would hinge on what one witness had to say in the courtroom. In shows like Matlock and Perry Mason, the witness testimony was the show down, the high stakes drama filled with life or death consequences. Even the mundane moment of swearing-in the witness was infused with tension. The moment that always stood out in my mind was when the judge in some courtroom drama would call out “will the witness please rise?”. Since we the audience already knew the stakes at play in the drama, we knew that the last five, ten or fifteen minutes of the show would be defined by this “testimony”.

Well, despite the fact that these were just dramas, the role of a good witness in any trial cannot be understated. Granted,  witness testimony in court cases is often unreliable and needs corroborating evidence, the importance of having someone to verify what happened is always good in relaying the story. And it is to witness verification that our text points.

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This 107 Psalm attributed to David is one that is seeking a witness. It is a call to worship and to praise God for God’s goodness and “steadfast love” toward Israel. David calls the people to worship but tells them to show themselves as redeemed by saying something- “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!”.

Not unlike the bailiff in those courtroom dramas, David is looking for witnesses. Folks to whom God has saved, redeemed and can stand for God’s name in world.

We have, in the Christian church, taken this call for witnesses to be a call of attendance and not clarion call of presence and being. We expect the preacher to read this Psalm and folks to show up/ out in worship for all of the things that God has redeemed them from. Yet, I believe that David is calling on us to witness as redeemed people in a world that is too divided for its own good.

For too long, the “redeemed of the Lord” have been associated with certain political ideologies and a hypersensitive morality. We have been associated with judgmental values and a holiness that was subject to the whims of politics and power. However, the psalmist tells us to speak up! If we are redeemed, then there is a greater standard for us to speak up for; a greater calling to identify with. David is calling us to stand up for inconvenient truths and complicated realities. Being a witness requires us to risk it all when we identify who is really the Sovereign in this world of pretenders to power.

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There is a prophetic responsibility in “saying so”. We cannot just say so when it is easy. “Saying so” means speaking to power and principalities and saying that you are more than just a vote or a constituent. “Saying so” means witnessing to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in body, mind and mouth. “Saying so” means rejecting hypocritical positions and standing up for truth in the face of coercion.   My vision of truth comes when the witnesses of the Lord stand up and testify!

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It Ain’t What you Think

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)

The last forty years in American public life have been the most socially and culturally divisive, perhaps since the Civil War. The American republic has always been made of complex perspectives on a wide variety of issues.Throughout American history the divisions of black versus white, free versus enslaved, indigenous versus immigrant, North versus South, Christian versus “everybody else”, gay versus straight, east coast versus west coast, and just about any other division has dominated our portrayal of our selves as Americans.

While our divisions were built into American identity from the outset, the last half century has given way to consequential tears in the fabric of the Republic. We have used certain divisions to reinforce other in order to build coalitions, voting blocs and larger groups of influence. Our social discourse complexifies with compound descriptors like “Christian-southern-whites”, or “non-immigrant native-speaking persons of color”, or “black Southern gay men”. All of these descriptors are not just describing realities, but in fact are making out tribal distinctions. The carve out new spaces for entrenchment-home encampments to find like-minded believers  in order to feel “at home” somewhere. We shape these tribes (with their particularly ascribed stereotypes, ideologies and political instincts) in order to make the world digestible and manageable.

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BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Probably the most maligned of these complex tribal distinctions is any one of them that include the moniker Christian-a very well earned distinction. Throughout the centuries, Christianity has perpetuated some of the most egregious crimes or acts on other people. Slavery, indigenous conquest, and the subjugation of non whites, were all perpetrated with Christian institutional endorsement. Continuing in that surrogacy, we as Americans have used the Christian moniker to create new and distinct tribal groups to reinforce political and social beliefs. Since the Moral Majority of the late 1970s, to be Christian in America is to be part of the “Conservative” tribe and political party. For the mainstream, to be Christian means believing in creationism, being pro-life, for a singular definition of marriage (between a man and woman) and to believe in the divine right to American Manifest Destiny.

The problem will of this is the truth of the Judeo-Christian faith; it does not neatly fit into such well constructed, poll-tested, hermetically sealed demographic voting categories. Jesus was not a republican or a democrat. He didn’t defend unborn life at the expense of the living. He didn’t campaign for tax reform or wrap himself up in anyone’s patriotic symbology. He didn’t promote biblical adherence in schools, idolatrous belief in a state-sponsored savior, and he sure as heaven didn’t count on America as being the vehicle for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus wasn’t a progressive either. He wasn’t an American liberal seeking to harmony with everyone and promoting peace, love and soul. He didn’t believe in pro-choice, a government sponsored social safety net, and the unity of all humanity under one banner of peace. He wasn’t a socialist who believed in the redistribution of wealth (despite what you might read in the Gospel of Luke). He’s not the Jesus of the elitist and pontifical Left, or the xenophobic hypocritical Right. A pox on both our houses!

The American tribal adjective- Christian is a perversion of the ancient teachings of the one called the Christ. We lack the seriousness to believe the faith we practice. No, I am not suggestion that “we all fall short of the glory of God”. I am asserting that we (as Americans) intentionally avoid the hard practice of The Way! To be a follower of Jesus means leaving “stuff” behind, denying yourself, and taking up a cross. It means hearing the voice from eternity call you to “drop your nets” and follow him. It means you (and this nation) are far from the kingdom values we espouse and say we believe. Its just easier to pervert the gospel than to live it.

Only the words of the prophet Amos can give us the wisdom we need in our hypocritical and fiercely partisan time. God wants none of our worship, festivals or pomp when we cannot see the third way of moral justice. The vision of truth can only be revealed when we let go of our tribalism and let Christ challenge us all…

 

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A Poor Imitation…

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him

that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,

and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;

so his own arm brought him victory,

and his righteousness upheld him.

He put on righteousness like a breastplate,

and a helmet of salvation on his head;

he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,

and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.

According to their deeds, so will he repay;

wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies;

to the coastlands he will render requital. (Isaiah 59:15b-18, NRSV)

I, like many of my friends and colleagues, am devastated and disappointed as a result of Saturday night’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin cased. The 18 months of waiting, the intense media scrutiny, the charged testimony, and the 16 1/2 hours of deliberations brought back a not-guilty verdict and released George Zimmerman. The thousands of hours of interviews, the fervor and anticipation in social media, and the attention to the minutia of race relations, community engagement and social stereotypes all lead to a seemingly forgone conclusion: George Zimmerman legally killed an unarmed teenager.

I tell you, I am disappointed……but not surprised. I am not surprised because what could a jury do when the prosecution argues none of the central factors that define the case, race, vigilantism and poor investigation? In a conversation with a dear friend and colleague, I expressed to him my utter dissatisfaction with the prosecution in the case. “They haven’t even proven to me that George Zimmerman is guilty, and I already believe he is!”, I told him. The prosecution was not prepared, organized or even thorough in their execution of the case. Unprepared witnesses, unclear strategy, and no mention of the key factors of the crime (racial profiling for one) defined the character of the prosecution’s case. You can’t win if the jury does not have a clear understanding of your theory of the crime.

And since I am talking about the dynamics of the law and the case, let me take a minute to define the difference between being guilty as a verdict of a court of law versus the actually committing of a crime. You see, in our system of jurisprudence, the evidence and the law are the only factors for consideration in order to prove the ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ of a defendant. The job of the prosecuting attorney is to arrange the evidence in such a way as to ‘reconstruct’ a narrative of the crime placing the defendant as the one who is centrally responsible for both the evidence and the crime. This is actually a huge responsibility since the only job of the defense is to offer a ‘reasonable doubt’ to the prosecution’s case. Defendant’s have no real burden of proof other than to discount what may take months or years for the prosecution to put together as the narrative, given the evidence.

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What this system does not give is a guarantee that the one ruled guilty is actually the one who committed the crime. This system of jurisprudence offers the ‘faith’ that if the evidentiary hearing is sufficient enough that a jury of ‘peers’ believes a particular theory of the crime, then justice is served. This system can only give assurance based upon a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, this system is likely to get it right as much as it likely to get it wrong. For one who masters the elements of trial law, jury selection, and storytelling can convince a court (within reason) of their theory of the crime and thus get someone acquitted who may have actually committed the crime (see OJ, Casey Anthony, and any number of Jim Crow ‘trials’, etc.).

Given my skewed understanding, I started reflecting on the results of the case and listening to the press conferences of both the prosecution and the defense on Saturday night. What I wrestled with deeply disturbed me. For one, why is it that the prosecution in Florida (or any state for that matter) is always so effective when the defendants are represented by public defenders or cheap legal representation, but not so when there is ‘good’ legal representation? Why is it that under ‘normal’ circumstances, the prosecution is often so confident in their theory of the crime, that they bully defendants into plea deals so that they never set foot into a court room? Why is it that a ‘typical’ prosecution often gets away with certain ‘tricks’ that are overlooked by inexperienced defense attorneys and trial weary judges only to the detriment of the defendant’s fair hearing before the law?

I think that ultimately, the Zimmerman/Martin affair has revealed the underlying problem with our system of ‘justice’. It is the same problem that was brought to light in the OJ Simpson case, the Casey Anthony case and many of the other high profile cases that result in a prosecution’s failure to prove the case. It is brought to light in any high profile, well-heeled defendant is brought before a court of law to be held accountable for some act. In those instances, the respective prosecutions are forced to bring their ‘A’ game, because so many people count on them to get it right. At best, they are mediocre; because, quite simply, their normal actions against a defendant often involve ‘tricks’ and other mechanisms to avoid an intense trial on the evidence and facts. Plea deals, zealous prosecution and other powers of the state so often overwhelm ‘ordinary’ defendants that there is seemingly little for them to be able to react to. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have deep pockets to get the attorneys that check after prosecutorial misconduct. ‘Ordinary’ defendants cave under the bluff of evidence that prosecutors throw at defense teams. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have an entire world rooting for (or against) their acquittal……

 

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Now, as you may have guessed (by my oversimplification of the legal system), I am not a lawyer or even a legal secretary.  What I know of the law comes from a careful reading of some textbooks on law (and a hell of a lot of ‘Law and Order’). I am a practical theologian. I speak to matters of faith and how our faith speaks to the matters of our life. In light of that disclaimer, I can say this: our current system of jurisprudence offers little in the way of the justice that God is looking for in the above passage from Isaiah. You see, justice is first and foremost a divine concept. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s cry and call for justice to be made known among the nations and the people. Justice, like love, is an aspect of God’s character. God is the balance on the scales and the mediator of the morality of the universe. The nature, occasion, and execution of justice is solely the ultimate purview of God.

Like all attempts at human imitation of the divine, the American justice system falls far short of the divine character. Perverse and distorted, the justice system is riddled with loopholes and undermining of the traditional rules that distort the divine position. Not unique to America, the truth is that humanity’s justice is not God’s justice. This passage from Isaiah forecasts the beginning of new vision for Israel. It is a vision where God, out of sheer frustration and disappointment, comes down to be justice for the nation. In this anger, God deals with the unjust to reestablish the plumb line for the nation and for the world.

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Just because justice is divine, doesn’t mean we cant’ do our be better. (Love is divine and we spend a lifetime trying to perfect it!) We can do better by our citizens, by our mothers and fathers, and by our God. As long as there are those who are prosecuted disproportionately, we can do better. As long as there are those who can ‘buy’ the right defense to find the holes in our legal system, we can do better. As long as people feel unsafe and unprotected by the systems that are meant to protect us, we can do better. God requires it…..lest God comes down and see about it for Godself!

My heart breaks for Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin as they have no closure and no opportunity to grieve fully in light of the continual questions that permeate this case. All of hearts should break at the injustices of our life together. We can and should do better by Biblical standards. For all those who mourn and suffer under our best attempts at justice, my vision is for their healing, and God’s justice to be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

 

 

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Following a Different Policy

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? He said, “I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brothers blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)

This past week a stunning thing took place at a assisted Living facility in Bakersfield, California. A woman had gone into cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. A nurse (remember that) on staff called 911 and was waiting for instructions. The operator on the line stated quite clearly that CPR was needed and that it needed to be performed immediately. The nurse’s response is bone chillingly inhumane and robotic. The exchange went as follows:

911 dispatcher: Are we just going to wait and let this lady die?

Nurse: Well, that’s why we’re calling 911.

911:  We need to get CPR started

Nurse: They’re refusing CPR. They’re going to let her just die.

911: I understand your boss is telling you you can’t do it but if there’s anybody, a      human being, I don’t…. is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?

Nurse: Um, not at this time.

I must admit that when I first heard this I was struck by the irony of it all. A woman who is a nurse, and is trained to help people, quotes company protocol and policy when someone has a heart attack. In a “Assisted Living” facility no less!!(Worse yet, it has been reported that the deceased daughter is “satisfied with the treatment” her mother received.)

Apparently, the company that owns the “assisted living” facility has a policy that does not assist people in active medical distress other than calling 911. This company has effectively enshrined into company policy the phenomenon that we occasionally see from people in the streets. You see it through the hidden camera footage when people see someone on the streets in distress and then do little to nothing to aid that person. Sometimes they don’t even call 911 or reach out for anyone.

Cain and Abel

This behavior is not new. If we trust the witness of the scriptures, we find the first such incident in our above text. Often called the first incident of murder in creation, the above passage seems bigger than just sibling rivalry gone awry. Likewise, this tale is not merely about what happens when we are not forthright in our feelings. All of those explanations can be found in the text but Cain’s response to God’s prompt seems to be particularly telling.

When God “stumbles” upon the scene of fratricide, God asks,Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain offers a stunningly blunt and sarcastic retort, ““I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” The response seems on the surface to be both disingenuous and pompous. At a deeper level, the writers of the passage are placing a double entendre into Cain’s mouth. The retort is both a denial of Cain’s familial responsibility for his brother and is a passive slap in the proverbial face of God. In other words, when God poses the question of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain’s response in our vernacular is, Don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping people isn’t my job, it’s yours!!

More importantly in the passage, Cain’s response reveals a truth of our own human shortcomings. When we fall short of expected behavior and fail to be human in our behaviors to our fellow sojourner, we resort to hiding behind the ‘policies’ we craft for ourselves. Whether it’s Cain hiding behind the witness of God’s character as humanity’s caretaker; the Pharisees being scolded by the Jesus for hiding behind the sabbath; or a nurse in Bakersfield, we use the convenience of policy to cover our ineptitude or inhumane practices to one another.

Beloved, we are made to be connected to one another. We cannot live a part from each other and thrive. We are meant to live in community and even though communities don’t always get along we are called to do it together. Resorting to legalistic interpretations of ‘policy’ stifles what has always been intended for each one of us. ‘Policy’ has a place in so far as it helps us to understand our relationship with one another and the ways we relate to God. However, our heavenly mandate is always answer yes when the question is asked, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”. The 911 operator almost seems to be asking that very prophetic question of the nurse when she simply asks, “is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” In the same way that Cain killed his brother Abel, this nurse willful inaction stole the chance for life for that woman. The nurse’s response to the operator says it all: “Um, not at this time.”

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We are better than what this nurse and this company offered this dying woman. It is insufficient for the company to say that they let all of their residents know of the CPR policy in advance. There is still a human standard, a basic standard or life. This standard applies to all areas of our life together. We can do better in our conversations about guns and violence and not hide behind a policy that “guns don’t kill people”. We can do better in our policies toward war, healthcare, poverty and all the ways that we should be “keeping” our brothers and sisters. God requires more and Abel’s blood cries out for me. We should demand better from each other and from those who lead us.

Getting the lesson from the Cain and Abel narrative without the death of another one of our brother’s and sister is a vision of truth…

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Newtownian Understanding (part 2)

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:18-19, NRSV)

Do you still remember? Are you still outraged? Does it even matter anymore? In this age of rapid tweets, social media and waning attention spans, we are so quick to forget our hurts and pains. Our grief and moments of change last temporarily since our lives our fleeting and we so rapidly move from one state of angst to another.

Yet, we said that the tragedy in Newtown meant something different. We said that this tragedy should never happen again. We claimed a new orientation to the mental illness and our obsession with guns. Despite all of our proclamations and aspirations, the talk about gun control and mental illness has evaporated into the partisanship of old, and the gridlock that has marked our politics in the 21st century.

We have heard every manner of proposal  from the liberal Left to the conservative Right. The National Rifle Association proposed arming trained volunteers to be placed in public schools, while others have suggesting keeping a national database of the mentally ill. All of which seeks to do new things in and have a new mindset without changing our traditional systems of thinking and politics as usual.

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This text form the prophet Isaiah should give us some grounding as to what our course is moving forward. The prophet conveys God’s promise that God is prepared to do a new thing in the midst of our very being. In the face of depressing circumstances in exile and the loss of all that was normative, God questions the people of Israel, that he is “doing a new thing” and “can we perceive it?” In the very midst of their despair and concern, God points them to the opportunity in their midst. The interesting point to the passage is that those opportunities God is revealing our not simply moments of change…..but they are moments for God to show God’s self strong. God presents the opportunity and we are called to see and act with the assurance of God’s promise that something new can happen and is happening in our very midst.

In spite of the things we said after Newtown, we have not thought any differently about our violence, our treatment of the ill, or our children. We find reasons to hold two contradictory premises: maintain the safety and security an open society, and yet affirm the right to carry weapons by all individuals. If we say that God is speaking to use through these challenging moments, we must be prepared to entertain the notion that some tensions are too difficult to hold. Being a free society means that we have certain rights that guarantee life and liberty. But being a civilized society means that we are prepared ‘certain’ rights for the sake of the good of the society…….right?

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In any event, our national discourse is being conducted in such a way as to negate whatever learning opportunities we could have. Our work is yet to be completed, but it begins with us having street-corner conversations about everything from gun control to the treatment of our mentally ill. The stigmas of gun ownership need to be challenged just as much as the ostracizing of people who seek mental health advice. True, the average gun owner does not seek to harm any person, but may hunt or use it for the comfort gun ownership may bring. Yet, the prophet’s words of examination and insight ring true, “do you see what I am doing in your very midst?”

If we think that Newtown is a ‘game-changer’ in the life of this nation, then it ultimately means opening our eyes to the ways we need to change for the betterment of our nation. I affirm that God IS  up to something. Hopefully, if we CAN perceive it and glimpse it as a vision of truth for the upcoming year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours…..

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Newtownian Understanding (Part 1)

Jesus wept. (John 11:35, KJV)

The simplest verse in all scripture, (and the one that is easily remembered during games of scriptural recall), is the above passage. In all of the Biblical witness, the profundity of scripture is so often found within its deep phrases and careful construction of the narrative. Understanding the nuances of the story and all of the subtleties of a passage of text, so often exposes the deepest meaning and truth for application. John 11 verse 35 captures all of that in two simple words……..Jesus……wept. It is the most provocative and deeply profound statement in the Bible.

John’s understanding of Jesus as the “Word made flesh” means that this Jesus is God realized and revealed in humanity. John’s Jesus is independent of the disciples and ready to engage all of the tasks of human existence because of the confidence of the relationship he has with “his Father.” The relationship is so connected and so intertwined that we understand John’s Jesus as fully God in the moment. So what Jesus does, so God does as well. When Jesus acts, God is at work. Jesus speaks, God is speaking. They are “one.”

So then, the moment when Jesus comes to the tomb of his deceased friend Lazarus, is an eye-opening moment in the life of Jesus and all of us. For in this moment, despite all of the power Jesus possesses to rectify the situation……..Jesus cries. God cries. Its earth shattering and provocative. It challenges all notions of divinity but yet it is witnessed to right there in the text. The fullness of divinity expressed the deepest and fullest moment of humanity…….grief.

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The events of this past Friday are so disturbing and numbing that it really defies words to attempt to explain. I, like many others around the world, was shell-shocked and stricken by the horror and evil visited on elementary school teachers and students. Much of my crying came from watching my own children play, oblivious to what was taken place in the world and how the parents of those twenty children could no longer do so. It hurt to see the pain in Connecticut while seeing the joy and innocence in the eyes of my children, knowing that the world we live in will one day jade those eyes and cause them to produce many tears.

These situations have become all too common in our country and frankly, a form of this type of violence occurs in neighborhoods and cities across this country everyday. Mothers and fathers are nearly constantly weeping because of the loss of a child to gun violence and assault. News images and reporters cover a fraction of the violence that visits many neighborhoods and communities. In America, we have sadly learned to cope with mental illness, gun violence and the tragedies of mass public killings. By the way, if we have found a way to cope with the killing of our children at the mall, in movie theaters and at schools, we have developed our own level of mental illness in society.

Each time this horror visits us (be it in Tuscon, Aurora, or Newtown), we as a nation quickly move from sadness to debate about fault, illness, or theological/philosophical distraction to satiate our desire to understand or make sense of these situations. People say things like “God needed another flower” or “its all part of God’s plan”. (In fact, if you read the John passage closely, you will discover that Jesus makes his own theological assertion about the death of his friend). In my experience, these assertions and claims, do little to provide the ‘help’ and understanding that people think they do. In some cases, it causes harm and pain. It is not constructive to try and comfort without first wrestling with your disturbance. That means taking time for self-reflection and processing. Some might argue that theological assertions and policy debates are ways to grieve and process our emotions in periods like this. This might be true, however, while there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, there are constructive ways to grieve. Constructive grief means dealing with the hurt your have experienced in ways that continually allow you explore meaning and feeling about a situation. This is very difficult and shouldn’t be done alone. Sadly, many do not know or are unwilling to go through the hurt to Process their emotional health. Rarely do we take the time to process our own emotions in light of these situations. As a result, we learn little from these horrific moments and become broken people ignoring the cracks and fissures of our neighbors and friends, because we don’t want to expose our own brokenness.

Memorial Newtown

In the days and weeks ahead, my vision of truth is that we take time to grieve constructively, together. We seek to understand ourselves in the light of this confusion. We weep. We write. We pray. We do the things as families, communities, neighborhoods that restore wholeness in our lives together. Constructive grieving is done privately and publicly and experienced individually and collectively, so that no one is simply alone and no one is delusional about their hurts and pains. We live together and grow whole……..together.

There is an interesting conclusion to the pericope of Jesus weeping. Jesus weeps and then orders the stone be removed and does something. After he weeps, he takes action. After crying, he addresses the situation. Quite simply, there is a time to cry and then there is a time for action……. (Part II will turn out attention to that action)

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Vain Worship…

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die. ’ 5 But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. ’” (Matthew 15:1-9,NRSV)

The last two weeks for the nation’s new pastime have been the most horrific and tragic in quite a long time. The National Football League has suffered the violent loss of two of its players, the possible criminal indictment of a third and the tragic death of a girlfriend and mother of three. By now, sports enthusiasts and cultural watchers alike have been made aware of the case of Javon Belcher and his wife Kassandra Perkins. (Click here for more information on the case.) 

The Murder-Suicide at the Kansas City Chief’s practice facility rocked the world with the violence and senselessness of the acts. There have been many op-eds and pundits examining the angles of this tragedy. Two of the more controversial perspectives came from NBC News Sportscaster Bob Costas and centered on the role of guns in the tragedy. Costas borrowed from a column of Fox News Journalists Jason Whitlock and centered on the US culture of big business sports, the role of guns and domestic violence in the tragedy. 

Unfortunately, while we were still grappling with the horror of the events of December 1st, Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle Josh Brent and practice squad player Jerry Brown got into a car in which an intoxicated Brent decided to drive on December 7th. Brown was killed in the car accident and Josh Brent has been charged with a form of intoxicated manslaughter. In the wake of these tragedies, pundits have been quietly reflective on and muted in their responses out of respect for the evolving criminal nature of this tragedy.

In both of these horrific events, no one seems to be asking a more poignant question. While pundits and columnists have spent a great deal of time analyzing the players, our culture, and the proliferation of guns, it seems to me that now would be a good time to look in the mirror and examine what these tragedies and our responses to them say about our society.

Jovan Belcher

Our text grapples with an interesting redefining of communal accountability. In this confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew, Jesus and his disciples are caught violating rules of religious purity. In a swift retort, Jesus challenges their definitions of righteousness and piety. In the face of strict ritualistic obedience and adherence to tradition, Jesus confronts false piety and warped superstitions to free those who might be bound by these systems.

Adherence to the status quo for the sake of tradition and making up the rules as you go along are designed to keep people captive. Trapped and hopefully compliant, the Pharisees represent all that is wrong with many of our religious and institutional structures. They can be so dependent on people remaining in the system without hope of escape. Conformity, non thinking and non questioning participants keep the system going while at the same time remaining deeply entrenched in warped thinking.

Much of our allegiance to the gridiron sport of Sundays in the Fall and Winter is rooted now in deeply held traditions and beliefs about our teams, our athletes, and our culture of competition. Last year’s NFL labor dispute centered on the distribution of nearly 9 billion dollars in revenue between 33 teams. The Sports Entertainment Complex is an institution of our culture and like the religious institutions of Jesus’ day, self righteousness, adherence to honor and tradition, and false piety are all used to protect its interests.

Hurt RG3

 

Instead of focusing on the loss of two innocents, Kassandra Perkins and her three month old daughter, the Chiefs opt to compete a day after this awful tragedy. The Dallas Cowboys take to the field in competition while one of their own sits in a jail cell (he was released on bail Sunday night); many of their own players took the field with tears in their eyes. Instead of pausing and calling for moments of reflection and focus, NFL carries on under the banner of “getting back to a sense of normalcy.”

Our ‘get-over-it’, ‘suck-it-up’ culture is rooted in part in the way we play our sports. Players getting concussions week upon week and still going to play. Families and teams being torn asunder by pain and violence and the League moves on without disturbance or disruption. AND EACH WEEK WE TUNE IN TO KEEP THE INSTITUTION ALIVE…..

The Jesus of Matthew 15 is the Jesus that calls us to be liberated from blind obedience to our traditions. It isn’t our guns or our gladiator obsessed spectating that is causing this callous nature. Its simply us. More than anything, lets pause long enough to see the vision of truth that liberates the chains of spectating and blind allegiance to the field. I pray that we may be different so that Kassandra Perkins will not have died in vain….

Selah……….

 

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