Monday, December 17, 2012

December 16, 2012 - Think Again: When God Changed Everything

Matthew 2:1-12

In August of 1981 I was driving from Dothan, Alabama to Wellsburg, West Virginia. Somewhere along a lonely stretch of I65 in northern Alabama I pulled over to get something to drink.  It was one of those exits in the middle of nowhere with one very small service station.  As I was walking back to my car I noticed the smell of something burning.  I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the car and there was oil dripping, which is never a good sign.  I opened the hood and there was oil everywhere.  Oil was all over the inside of the hood and all over the engine.

I’ve never been the most mechanical person, but I certainly knew that had I driven much further all the oil in the engine would have emptied and the engine would seize up.  I was stuck, without much of an idea of what to do.

I walked back in the service station, which was one of those one-person operations, and asked the operator if he could take a look at my car.  He was kind enough to do so, but he kept shaking his head as he looked at it and making noises that convinced me I had a real problem.

When you see oil everywhere you assume it’s going to be a fairly serious repair.  He looked things over for a bit and stood up and said the problem was something like a sensor for my oil pressure gauge.  It had blown out and the oil was spraying out of that spot on the engine.  Well, of course I had two questions – can you fix it and how much will it cost?

I didn’t have much cash on me; a little more, perhaps, than what I needed for the trip.  I had no credit card or other way of paying.  What I had was a broken car and a panicked expression on my face.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the man said he didn’t have the part in his little station but would call someone who might be able to deliver it.  Well, now there were two people involved in the repair, and that sounded really expensive.  I asked again how much it would cost.  He never really gave me an answer, which I took to be a bad sign.  He asked, do you want me to call and get the part?  I gave a foolish answer.  I said yes, which was foolish because I didn’t know what it would cost and if I could pay for it.  I answered yes in the hope that something would work out.

He called for the part, which was delivered after a little while.  I watched the two of them talk for a few minutes and wondered if they were hatching some kind of plan – let’s really take advantage of this guy.  The guy who delivered the part drove off and the service station owner started to work on my car. 

Have you been in a similar situation?  Or am I the only one who drove broken down cars?  It’s a lonely feeling sitting and wondering what would happen. 

He finished the work, walked over, and said let me show you what I did.  I looked under the hood, trying to act like I knew what I was looking at – oh yeah, there’s the engine.  He showed me the new part and explained what it did and I noticed he had also cleaned up as much of the oil as he could.  He said he didn’t want me to smell burning oil the rest of my trip.  I was happy for him to keep talking about anything but what it was going to cost.

He finally said, I think you’re good to go.  With a great deal of hesitation I asked, how much do I owe you?  I can still remember the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, wondering what I would do when he quoted me a really high price.  He said, I think five dollars will do it.  Five dollars!  He had a part delivered, had to pay for the part, put several quarts of oil in the engine, took a lot of time to replace the part and even cleaned up the old oil, and he charged five dollars.  I was ready to hug the guy, but was afraid he might charge me more if I did.

Perhaps he was a father who wanted to know someone would help his child if they were stuck somewhere, perhaps he was just a kind person.  Whatever his motivation, I was very grateful.

There are times when we feel very vulnerable in life.  There are times when we have a very pressing sense of anxiety.  There are times we face problems and we don’t know what to do.  The world sometimes seems so large, so unkind, and we feel very small and fragile.  Those are difficult moments, and it reminds us how fragile and how perilous life can be.

Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt at they traveled to Bethlehem.  They were forced to pack up and travel because the Roman government decided they wanted to conduct a census.  A census is very easy for us; we fill out a form and put it in the mail or complete it online.  If we don’t get it done someone will come to our door and ask us the questions.  The Romans were not as cooperative.  You went were they told you to go, when they told you to go.  It didn’t matter that Mary was late in her pregnancy.  It didn’t matter what kind of financial hardship it placed upon them as a family.  Nothing mattered except they were told to go to Bethlehem to register for that census and they had no choice but to comply.

It was a journey of about 80 miles.  They would travel east rather directly south because they would seek to avoid Samaria, where they would not be welcome and may be vulnerable to attacks.  At the quickest, it would be a four-day journey, but taking into account concern for Mary’s health it was probably closer to a week’s journey.  It was days away from work for Joseph, which certainly imposed a financial burden.

And along the way, questions; many, many questions.  What is the purpose of God in these hard to understand events?  Why does God work in such unusual ways?  How do we see God’s hand in the events we experience?

As we have talked in recent weeks about what shapes our thinking, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate event in shaping our thinking, in shaping how we think about the world, how we think about others, and how we think about God.  We are preparing to celebrate the coming of God into the world.  What a strange way he chose to enter the world!

Why does God work in such strange ways?  Why doesn’t God make himself known in more obvious ways?  Why can’t we see and know exactly what he is doing?  Why do we have to struggle to connect the dots as we struggle through life?

Skeptics and doubters will rail against God – and even against us for believing – as they ask where is God in the world?  If God is really out there somewhere, why doesn’t he show himself in a more obvious way?  Where was God, they will ask, on Friday morning as the tragedy unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School?

Mary and Joseph lived through the tragic taking of life.  Herod was so paranoid about his throne that when he heard of the birth of one who was a king he took the lives of the male children up to the age of two.  There are always Herods in the world, tragically, who will take even the innocent lives of children in order to accomplish their twisted purposes and we will always be vulnerable to them.

God came into the world in such vulnerable circumstances to remind us that he walks with us through the vulnerabilities and struggles and tragedies of life.  Life is not easy, and it seems to be getting increasingly complicated and difficult.  Life has never been easy, and it seems we are at a tipping point from which there will be no return.  And I say that as one who is an optimist at heart.

But I hold to the truth that God came into the world as a vulnerable baby, surrounded by a family who felt the vulnerabilities of the time – just as we feel those of our time.  And God entered the world in such a way to remind us that he is not unfamiliar to what we experience in life.  Whatever we have experienced, God has as well.  But God also demonstrates that in spite of our vulnerabilities and struggles in life, faith and hope are the foundations of life.

It is in the coming of God into this world through the vulnerabilities and frailties of a young and anxious couple, into a troubled time, into a difficult world, that we find that faith and hope.  And God’s coming into the world reminds us that it is not the Herods of this world or the Roman Emperors of this world, or the mighty armies of this world that overcome.  No, it is the power of love.

The poet Carl Sandberg wrote in Star Silver –
... back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum

A baby's first cry mixing with the crunch
of a mule's teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn

Baby fists softer than snowflakes of Norway

The vagabond Mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom
all in a barn on a winter's night
and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay –
Why does the story never wear out?

It doesn’t wear out because it is forever a story we need to hear – a story of faith, hope, and love that reminds us God and his love will always overcome.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 9, 2012 - Think Again: Great Expectations At Christmas

Isaiah 55:1-3a

In recent weeks our messages have been centered on the idea of Think Again, as we have considered people and events that have shaped our world and the way we think.

This morning, I want to tell you about a boy named Charles. 

In 1824, when he was 11, Charles’ father was sent to the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison in London.  At the time, a person could be held in debtor’s prison for decades.  Those who were placed in the debtor’s prisons found their debts actually increased while they were incarcerated.  The debtor’s prisons, such as Marshalsea, were privately run, so they actually charged the prisoners rent.  The prisoners also had to pay for their clothing, laundry, and other services provided to them.  They also had to pay for legal fees and interest on their debts, all of which meant that many of them found their indebtedness increased while they served their sentence.

To be near their loved ones, the families of prisoners moved to the vicinity of the prisons, which led to communities springing up around the debtor prisons.  The life of these communities was based around life in the debtor’s prisons, and life there was very difficult. Charles and his family moved to the community surrounding Marshalsea to be near his father.  After arriving, young Charles was forced to leave school, sell his books, and begin working in a blacking factory (Blacking was sort of a precursor to shoe polish, and was used to waterproof footwear) to help pay for his family’s indebtedness.  It was very difficult work and Charles was greatly shamed and very troubled by the necessity of working to pay off the indebtedness of his family.

Charles’ father was released from the debtor’s prison after three months, but young Charles was forced to continue his work.  He was humiliated and deeply hurt because he had to continue working to pay for his family’s debts, and he came to believe he was condemned to an unhappy life.  The rest of his life was shaped by this very difficult experience, and as a result he suffered a very deep psychological wound.  His relationship with his father was also greatly affected, as Charles loved, but also resented his father.

While his experience was very difficult for him, it also brought to him a great sensitivity about the struggles of other people.  Throughout his life, Charles was very deeply troubled by the plight of the poor, especially poor children, and how society trapped the poor in difficult and desperate lives.  He observed firsthand the harsh conditions that many children suffered as they worked long hours to help their impoverished families, and as an adult he worked as an advocate to improve the conditions faced by these children and their families.

In May of 1843 Charles decided to publish a political pamphlet condemning the social environment that led to such conditions.  The title of the pamphlet was to be An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.  In October of that year he spent three days in the city of Manchester, where he spoke before a charitable organization.  It was during those three days that Charles decided a political tract would not be the best way to further his goal of helping the poor, so he decided instead to write a story.  The purpose of the story would be to expose the sufferings of the poor and the extent to which many in society had closed their hearts to the plight of the poor. 

It took Charles six weeks to finish his story, with the final pages completed in December of that year, shortly before Christmas, which was good timing, as Christmas was the theme of his story.  There are some memorable lines from his story, one being it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.  Another line speaks of the hardheartedness of the main character towards the poor, when he says, if they would rather die . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.  If you haven’t yet guessed the identity of Charles you most likely will from the final words of the story, which speak of the great change of heart that takes place in the main character – and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!  The great Charles Dickens, from his classic story, A Christmas Carol.

Of the many interesting things about A Christmas Carol, one is how we often miss the context in which the story was written.  Today, we think of A Christmas Carol as a story of individual change and redemption – important concepts – but Dickens intended that it be a story to bring about social change. A Christmas Carol was written as a response to the poverty of Dickens’ day and was directed at the conditions that trapped people in poverty and the hardheartedness that many in that time exhibited to the poor. Despite the economic advancements of recent generations the poor remain, as Jesus said, always with us.  Trying to eradicate poverty has become one of the most vexing problems of humanity.

  Our modern expectations of Christmas greatly weigh upon the simplicity and message of the first Christmas.  Our modern celebration of Christmas has become so awash in materialism that we have placed an economic burden upon ourselves in paying for gifts and all of the other things that have been added to Christmas. We have unreasonably high expectations of happiness, family togetherness, and everything being perfect that we are sorely disappointed if those expectations are not met.

The simplicity of the first Christmas reminds us that Jesus was born into many uncertainties.  There was political uncertainty, social uncertainty, and in the most personal of ways, there was economic uncertainty.  Jesus was born into a family that struggled economically; of this I am convinced.  In the time of Jesus there was little or no middle class; there were two classes – the rich and the poor.  You can guess which class was larger. The first Christmas held no grand expectations for Joseph and Mary.

In the time of Jesus most people found daily survival an epic struggle.  Daily life was such a struggle that few people would live to what we would consider old age.  Even just 100 years ago, the average life span of only 47 and only 4% of people reached age 65.

The first Christmas and its simplicity and struggle remind us that we are called not just to individual transformation, but to social transformation as well.  We are called to transform society and its structures to bring justice to all people. 

Every year we hear so much about the war on Christmas.  I disagree about there being a war on Christmas, but I do believe that in a spiritual sense there is a struggle for the heart of Christmas.  It’s a struggle that is not being waged on Christmas from the outside of faith by those who oppose faith, but among those who have faith.  The struggle for the heart of Christmas reminds us that the simplicity and poverty of the first Christmas tells us the purpose is not to load ourselves up with more stuff, but that we are called to remember the poor, to remember those whose lives are full of struggle, to remember the brokenhearted, to remember the lonely, to remember the sick, to remember those who are imprisoned, to remember those who are without hope, to remember those who have given up on God, to remember those who need the promise of the message of the first Christmas.

We have a bare Christmas tree in the foyer of our church, and I’m glad that it is bare.  It is bare because every angel of the Angel Tree was taken, and I’m grateful that we will remember that many children who need extra help. 

May we also remember that our community is filled with many needs, and not all of them are material.  May we provide for those who are lacking of the necessities in life and for those who are in need of the hope of Christmas.

Isaiah reminds us why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live (Isaiah 55:2-3a).

May our expectation of Christmas be of the peace, happiness, and love that comes not from a mall or store, but from the manger in Bethlehem.

Monday, November 26, 2012

November 25, 2012 - Think Again: The Possibilities of Gratitude

Luke 17:11-19

The first time I attended a UK football game was in 1984.  Our neighbor at the time came over to tell me he was given two free tickets to the game and asked if I would like to go.  Well, I’m all about free so of course I said yes.  I was so grateful he offered me a free UK football ticket.

He asked if I could drive, since he had the tickets, and I thought that was fair.  When we got to Lexington he told me where there was a great place to park near the stadium, which I thought would be very expensive, but if we split the cost it would be reasonable.  When we pulled into the parking area he said maybe I should pay, because he had provided the tickets.  By this point my gratitude was beginning to wane somewhat, but once we got to our seats and the game started I was happy to be there.  But we hadn’t been there long when he decided we should get something to eat, and guess who should pay for it?  That’s right – me.  And not just once, but twice.  After all, he had provided the tickets.  Later in the season he came over and once again had two free tickets to a game and asked if I would like to go.  I told him I didn’t want to sound ungrateful but I couldn’t afford another free ticket!

Sometimes, it’s hard to be grateful.

As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, today we come to a fascinating historical character.  He’s one of my favorites, and is a person who brought a great sense of gratitude to the world.

Born Giovanni di Bernardone in 1181, his father was furious when his wife named their son Giovanni, after John the Baptist.  His father wanted him to be a man of business, not a man of God, so he renamed his son Francesco.

Francesco enjoyed a very easy life because of his father's wealth, and everyone loved him.  Francesco became the leader of a group who spent their nights in wild and lavish parties.  He was also very good at business, which made his father very happy.  Francesco later decided he wanted to be a knight and go to battle.  He found his chance, but he was taken prisoner and held for ransom.  He spent a year in a dungeon before being released.

After his release he continued to party and even went back into battle, with other knights in the Fourth Crusade.  He rode away on his horse wearing a suit of armor decorated with gold and a long, flowing cloak.

But he only rode one day’s journey away from his home when he had a dream in which God told him he was living his life all wrong and that he should return home.  He began to spend time in prayer and went off to a cave to weep for his sins.

As he traveled through the countryside one day, Francesco met a leper.  Although Francesco was repelled something compelled him to climb down from his horse and to kiss the hand of the leper.  The leper returned the kiss of peace, which filled Francesco with joy.

He eventually came to an old church – the church at San Damiano.  While praying there, he sensed God telling him to repair the church, which was at that time a crumbling old building.  To get money to repair the church he sold fabric from his father’s shop.  His father was so enraged that he dragged his son before the local bishop and the entire town and demanded that his son return the money and renounce his right as his father’s heir.

The bishop told him to return the money to his father and that God would provide.  Francesco returned the money as well as the clothes off his back. In front of the town he said Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father.  From now on I can say with complete freedom, “Our Father who are in heaven.”  Wearing only old castoff rags and barefoot he walked off into the freezing weather, with nothing, but singing because of his gratitude that God would provide for him. 

Even though Francesco had nothing, he believed he had everything.  He went to work on the church at San Damiano, begging for stones, and with his bare hands he to worked to rebuild the church. 

Francesco began to preach and as he did he attracted others who began to work with him.  They slept under the open sky, begged for food – sometimes eating garbage – and always loved God out of gratitude for what they had received.  He taught and practiced that everyone was equal, and no one was greater than another.
Francesco and his companions went out to preach two by two, and some listeners were hostile to these men dressed in rags and talking about the love of God.  Some people even ran away from them, believing them to be crazy.  But they also noticed that these beggars who wore old rags or sacks and walked barefoot were filled with a constant sense of joy.  How was it possible, people wondered, that a person could own nothing and yet be happy?
Francesco believed that he and those who followed him were truly free.  They would not accept money.  He believed that if they had possessions they would need weapons to defend them.  What can you do to someone who has nothing?  You can’t steal from him.
Francesco was only 45 years old when he died, but he left an indelible mark on history.  If you have not yet guessed the name by which we are most familiar with Francesco you may be familiar with is famous prayer –

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

That is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who changed the world through the simplicity of his living and the gratitude he expressed each day of his life.

How could someone be so content and so happy with so little?  How could someone devote their life to rebuilding a dilapidated old church, working in bare feet and wearing old rags?

That St. Francis gave up so much is a reminder of what Paul writes of Christ in Philippians 2:5-7 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.

We have traveled far from the ways of Francis of Assisi.  We have come far, but have we gone the right direction?  Now we are in the midst of a season of conspicuous consumption that probably brings much more anxiety that it brings pleasure.

Luke this morning tells us of these ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, and of the ten only one returns to express gratitude to Jesus.  This wasn’t being healed from a common cold – this was the gift of life.  Lepers were in a long, slow march toward death.  Shouldn’t that draw a sense of gratitude from a person?

I think part of the message of this passage is to make the reader or listener stop and ask have I been grateful for what I have been given?

Many years ago a group of farmers decided to eat their best potatoes and to only plant the small ones. They kept up this practice for many years, even though they noticed the potatoes getting smaller and smaller. They blamed the weather, the beetles, and potato blight.  They continued until their potatoes were reduced to a size not much larger than a big marble.  The farmers learned through bitter experience that they could not keep the best things of life for themselves and use the leftovers for seed.  Even nature teaches us that an open, generous, and grateful life produces blessing while an ungrateful and ungenerous life reduces the blessings of life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

November 18, 2012 - Think Again: Don't Be Afraid to Speak Up!

Matthew 23:1-5; 13, 23-28

When I was in the 6th grade there was a guy in my neighborhood that decided he would make my life very difficult, and began to bully me.  I was a fairly small kid so I was an easy target.  One of the ways bullies work their intimidation is by having a few of their friends along with them, which is what this guy did.  Bullies also seem to enjoy dragging out their intimidation over a period of time.  For a number of days at school, and on the school bus, he would tell me what he was going to do to me, and his friends would chuckle.  He would stop me in the hall, with his friends behind him, and give me a few shoves or call me a few names, and on the bus would sit behind me and harass me.  And through the process he would be counting down to the day of reckoning, when he and his friends would get off the bus at my stop and attack me.  As the day drew closer I was really worried.  It’s not that I hadn’t been in a few fights before; it’s that I had a perfect record – I lost every one.  I didn’t know what to do.  What do you do when you can’t come up with any solutions and you feel a sense of desperation?  You pray!  I prayed, and in those prayers of my youth it became obvious to me that no matter what those guys did, I should not respond by striking back, which, I have to admit, didn’t seem like a very wise course of action.  But Matthew 5:38-39 came to mind, because we had talked about them at church and they stuck in my mind – You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes on the right cheek, turn to them the other as well.”  I have to admit, that didn’t sound like great advice to me.  I didn’t want to lose a tooth and I didn’t want a black eye, but this was the advice of Jesus.  On the way home from school that day, I got on the bus, and this guy and his friends came down the aisle.  He slides into my seat and pushes me against the wall of the bus, and reminds me it was the day they were getting off at my stop.  And then he asks me what I was going to do about it.  I gave him my answer – that up to that moment I was still thinking might not be the wisest course of action – but I thought what have I got to lose?  So I looked at him and said I’m not going to do anything.  You can guess his answer – are you a chicken?  Well, I was afraid, but I was trying not to let that show.  My answer just popped out; it was something like this – Jesus said I shouldn’t strike back if someone hits me so whatever you do I’m not going to do anything back.  And I remember his reaction so well.  He had one arm behind me on the back of the seat and the other on the seat in front of us and he started shaking his head up and down, like he didn’t know what to say.  He just kept shaking his head and finally said, okay, okay, okay.  And then he stood up, went to another seat, and never bothered me again.  I couldn’t believe it – I thought, wow, this stuff really works!

There are times in life when we have to stand up and say something, and it is often difficult to do so.  As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, we come to a man who decided to speak up.  His speaking up so altered world history that there is a holiday to commemorate what he did.  It’s not a major holiday, but it’s an important one, nonetheless. 

The man’s name is Martin Luther, and the holiday is Reformation Day. October 31st of this year was the 495th (1517 AD) anniversary of his actions that led to the recognition of Reformation Day.
On that date Martin Luther took an article he had written – Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (better known as his 95 Theses) – that sounds like a real nail-biter, doesn’t it – and nailed it to the door of All Saints church in Wittenburg, Germany.  It was a list Luther had compiled of grievances and questions that he believed must be addressed by the Catholic Church.  At the time, Luther had no idea that he was setting into motion a series of events that became known as the Protestant Reformation.  His simple act of nailing the 95 Theses on the door of All Saints church completely reshaped our world, to the point that had he not done so we would not be sitting in this church today.

One of the many contributions Luther made is the idea of speaking up, of protesting against the things that need to change.  Though Luther never set out to create the movement that became Protestantism, we are Protestants because of him.  The word Protestant comes from protest or protestor.

There are many things that should cause us to speak out, and certainly at the top of the list is the abuse of people. 

Our Scripture passage for today cites a few verses out of a longer passage.  In these verses Jesus is absolutely blistering in his criticism of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.  These verses are Jesus’ protest against the way religious leaders such as the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees were treating people. 

Listen to what he has to say.
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,
2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;
3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.


Jesus has some real issues with these guys, and rightly so.  They were imposing such a heavy burden of guilt and hypocrisy and judgment and works oriented religion upon people and because they were doing so Jesus speaks up and is absolutely withering in his criticism.

The world, sadly, hasn’t changed much.  People are still being mistreated, and we need to speak out about their mistreatment.

One of the great tragedies of modern warfare is the horrendous violence directed at civilians, particularly women and children.  Violence, and particularly sexual violence, has become a tool used to devastate populations.

Week of Compassion is a partner in Speak Out Sunday – designated as next Sunday – which is a time to bring awareness of sexual and gender based violence both locally and around the world, and Week of Compassion has information on their web site.  But it’s not just in warfare; it’s right here in our own country, and in our own community.  Did you know that in the United States, 1 out of every 3 women are victims of sexual and gender based violence?  One out of every three.  Look around this morning and start adding up numbers and that’s a lot of people. 

Our news media’s current obsession is the David Petraeus scandal.  I wish they would remember there are some other things that bear mentioning.  They are consumed with that story, while they have almost completely failed to mention that within the ranks of the military violence against female soldiers has increased dramatically in recent years.  Those are our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and daughters.  And the added tragedy is that some of our most trusted institutions have failed us in this area – schools, universities, the military, and even churches.  Who will speak up for these people?   We must.  We cannot be silent at the abuse of people.

Can you imagine if some of our greatest social problems got the media coverage to match the Petraeus scandal?  The media is far too silent about many of the struggles facing people.  We get a few mentions of poverty, but it doesn’t get much coverage.  A piece buried in the news the other day was a surprise – do you know what state has the highest poverty rate?  California, at 23.5%.  Not what you expected, is it?  Do you know what state is second?  Florida, at 19.5%.  The recession has exacted a painful, painful toll on people.

There are many people who are forgotten by our larger society.  They live on the margins of life, struggling to get by.  They are the people who fall through the cracks, they are the children who are abandoned, they are the single parents struggling to raise their children, they are the lonely, they are the abused, and they are our relatives, our friends, and our neighbors.

One thing churches have done far too often is to speak against people, rather than on their behalf.  Too many times churches have been quick to point a finger of judgment and too many times churches have been quick to speak words of condemnation.  Imagine the difference if churches were quicker to speak up for people instead of speaking in judgment of them.

Jesus always stood up for others.  He stood up for the woman taken in adultery, when the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees wanted her to be put to death by stoning (John 8:1-11).  No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly to these men – look at what they were willing to do to this woman.  He stood up for the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26).  She was ostracized by her own community and even the disciples were troubled that Jesus spoke with her.  He stood up for the woman who anointed him shortly before his crucifixion (Mark 14:1-9). 

In 1521, four years after he nailed those arguments on the church door, Martin Luther stood before the Roman Emperor and leaders of the church to answer charges of being a heretic.  One of the most brilliant theologians of the day, Johann von Eck, asked him this – Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?  Luther’s response has become famous for his bravery and conviction – I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against the conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  Amen.
(Word of God Across the Ages, Bill J. Leonard, 1981, Nashville:  Broadman Press, p. 34).

It’s tough to speak up.  It’s tough to challenge authority.  But walking in the way of Jesus means there are times when we cannot be silent.