April 15: The Long, Dark Day in Which Nothing Hopeful Happens

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.”

Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Matthew 27:62-66

This small episode in the Gospel of Matthew goes largely unnoticed in the story of Jesus’ passion. The day after Jesus is laid in the tomb, nervous officials appeal to state power to make sure Jesus stays in the tomb. Pilate agrees to their request, giving them a contingent of soldiers to secure the tomb.

The injustice of Jesus’ execution is compounded by setting heavily-armed men outside his burial place. It’s as if the entire might of the political and religious establishment has thrown its weight against the man from Nazareth, in an attempt to erase even his memory.

This is how the Holy Saturday after Good Friday goes. It is a long, dark day in which nothing hopeful happens. 

Over the course of these forty days of Lent, I have described many forms of injustice in our world, and tried to give you a portrait of some of the people who are crushed by these offenses. These people live in a permanent Holy Saturday — a long, dark day in which nothing hopeful happens. They had hoped thing things might get better tomorrow, but the Powers That Be have made things worse, have arrayed more forces against them, have brought more guards, have sealed the stone.

Holy Saturday is a day in which all of us who work for justice, who believe in truth and freedom, who believe the prophets, begin to flag in enthusiasm. We wonder if perhaps things aren’t going to turn out right in the end. We begin to despair of our marching and protesting, of calling our lawmakers, of signing petitions. What good will it do? we ask ourselves. 

We begin to suspect that Martin Luther King, Jr. was wrong when he said that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just a straight line to destruction.

We are tempted to give up our justice work. If we can carve out our own little comfortable place of privilege in society, then perhaps we can stay there and forget about the rest of the world. After all, there is nothing I can really do, we say.

Throughout these Lent devotionals, I have quoted the Old Testament prophets, all of whom speak persistently of the unjust society in which they live. They lived in a permanent kind of Holy Saturday, too. They also lived in that long, dark day in which nothing hopeful happens. It’s obvious by their words that they have seen the worst, and expect nothing more.

And yet, in every single one of the prophet’s writings, there yet remains a word of hope. It is nothing more than a whisper in some places, a faint glimmer of possibility far off in the future. But it’s there.

Jeremiah sees a day of a new covenant with God; Hosea pictures God as a loving parent who simply can’t give up on a child; Joel foretells a time when Jerusalem will be holy again. Each prophet speaks of a reversal of fortune.

To all of you who struggle in the fight, who labor to make peace, who grapple with the forces of inequality, hear these words from the prophet Malachi, which come in the closing pages of the Old Testament, hear these words as the lone hopeful thing that you will hear on this long, dark day:

“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven,
   when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble;
   the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts,
   so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise,
   with healing in its wings.
You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:1-2).

Prayer: God, I do not pray for the death or destruction of anyone, even the wicked and evildoer. Instead, I long for those who have suffered the actions of the wicked and evildoer to be set free, healed, and restored. I look forward to seeing the sun of righteousness rise. I can't wait until I leap like a calf from the stall. Amen.

April 14: Watching Executions

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication
   on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced,
   they shall mourn for him,
as one mourns for an only child,
   and weep bitterly over him,
as one weeps over a firstborn.
Zechariah 12:10

On Monday, the day after Easter, the state of Arkansas will execute the first of seven prisoners scheduled to die before the end of the month. The executions must take place before the end of April, when the state’s supply of Midazolam, a controversial lethal injection drug, reaches its use-by date.

Arkansas is poised to do something that no other state has attempted. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, there have never been so many executions in such a short amount of time.

The rapid schedule has led to a number of serious questions, including the mental health of some of the inmates, the soundness of a few of the inmates’ lawyers, and the risks involved in bunched executions. 

There is one other problem. According to CNN, the state is having a problem finding enough witnesses to view each execution. State law requires that at least six people be present; so far, they have not been able to find enough volunteers. CNN’s report went on to say, “The volunteer pool is apparently thin enough that state Department of Corrections Director Wendy Kelley invited members of a local Rotary Club to volunteer.”

This dilemma highlights a central problem with the death penalty: as long as we don’t have to watch people being executed, we are comfortable with the idea that certain people should be executed. Were we to have to sit in a death chamber and witness the deed, we would no longer permit the state to kill in our names. We wouldn’t let it happen anymore, for the spectacle of murder, even if legal, is horrifying and inhuman.

In the midst of a song predicting a victorious Jerusalem and a restored nation, the prophet Zechariah says that the people of God will be humbled when they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” They will suddenly mourn, cry over, be grief-stricken by, the sight of their victim. In the context of the book of Zechariah, this “one” refers to God; this is to be understood symbolically. The people have sinned against, or “pierced,” their God.

The early Christians understood this verse to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own crucifixion. In the gospel of John, while Jesus is on the cross, a soldier pierced Jesus’ die with a spear, and the author comments, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled … ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:36-37).

Good Friday is the day on which we all spend time gazing upon the body on the cross, upon the one who was pierced for our sins. We willingly and knowingly sit in witness of the terrible punishment imposed upon the innocent Son of God. We watch because we know that, if we pay close attention, we will be changed as a result.

The question for all Christians today is, “How can we possibly support capital punishment since we have looked upon the one who was pierced for us? How can we allow the death penalty to be enforced in our names when Jesus’ death was meant to put an end to all such violence?”

Prayer: God, the death penalty makes a mockery of the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Give me a spirit of compassion for those who sit on Death Row. May I put my trust in the life-giving Spirit which raises dead things to life. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Become a partner with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, at tcadp.org. TCADP is the leading anti-death penalty organization in the state.

April 13: For Lack of a Shepherd

Therefore the people wander like sheep;
   they suffer for lack of a shepherd.
My anger is hot against the shepherds,
   and I will punish the leaders;
for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah,
   and will make them like his proud war-horse.
Zechariah 10:2-3

In our political climate, scandals are a dime a dozen.

In the city of Dallas, a county commissioner is being tried for corruption; in our state, the attorney general has been indicted on securities fraud and awaits trial; and in the state of Alabama, a governor has just resigned over a sex scandal. And every day, the national news breaks new revelations about connections between people in the current administration and Russia.

We hear of so much corruption, that we are becoming immune to the phenomenon. We are slowly becoming resolved to the idea that all leaders are hopelessly beholden to certain special interests or agendas, and that we will never know the truth about what goes on behind the closed doors of executive suites and White House conference rooms.

The prophet Zechariah lived in a scandal-ridden time, too. He referred to the nation’s leaders as “shepherds,” a common symbol for leadership, inferring that one of the primary characteristics of a leader is to care for, nurture, and protect his/her constituents. In Zechariah’s case, this applied both to kings and priests. They were responsible for maintaining the covenant between God and the people.

Apparently, these shepherds had become self-serving, power-hungry, and greedy, and God’s wrath was about to be turned against them. But the focus of God’s anger is not so much against the leaders’ profiteering, but upon the fact that they have left the people to suffer. God is concerned about those in the leaders’ care, in whose name they are supposed to govern.

Maundy Thursday is a day to reflect on the dramatic contrast between two kinds of leadership. Zechariah paints a picture of leaders who allow their flocks to wander aimlessly, scattered and lost. Jesus, on the other hand, acts out a model of servant leadership, which puts the flock first.

In Matthew 9:36, as Jesus visited towns and villages in the Judean countryside, we read that he had compassion on the crowds, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This is a reference to Zechariah’s text; Jesus saw the same thing happening in his own time. He could see that a ruling elite were out of touch with, and neglectful of, the people.

And on the day of his arrest, Jesus gave his disciples a powerful example of what a true leader looks like. Before sharing the Passover meal with them, “he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself … he poured water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:4-5). Jesus engaged in an intimate way with each disciple — even Judas! — and communicated his compassion for every one of them.

When he was finished, Jesus made it clear that this was the way all leaders should act. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example” (13:14-15).

This is the standard that has been set for all shepherds, whether they serve in government, civic institutions, or churches. It is the benchmark of servant leadership: when one assumes a position of leadership, one’s primary responsibility is to love the people whom one leads, and to act out of that love, which puts the people’s interests first.

If only the news were full of stories about that …

Prayer: God, in my own sphere of influence, make me a servant leader. Help me to put other people’s interests first. Teach me how to wash people’s feet. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Everyone is a leader. Who are you responsible for? Do you manage someone at work? Are you an elected official? Do you teach a classroom of students? Are you a stay-at-home parent? Take time today to perform a random act of kindness for someone for whom you are responsible.

April 12: Nonviolence on a Donkey

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah 9:9-10

This passage should sound familiar; it is the basis of Palm Sunday. It is the scripture which Jesus fulfills when he enters Jerusalem.

You can understand why there was so much excitement. The people of Israel were familiar with this text. They eagerly looked forward to this moment. They couldn’t wait to watch their Messiah King enter Jerusalem, bringing peace as he wielded his mighty sword against the Romans.

Sure enough, when Jesus approached the city, he rode on the back of a donkey, just like Zechariah said.

However, where was the sword? How did Jesus “cut off the chariot” or the war-horse or battle bow? Exactly in what sense did Jesus “command peace to the nations”?

If we follow the history of Jerusalem, we discover that only thirty-something years after this procession, Jerusalem is sacked by Rome after a brief uprising. The walls were torn down, the Temple destroyed, the hopes of the people dashed. Rome won.

So how can we justify using this Scripture as “proof” that Jesus was the Messiah?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that Jesus has come to teach us a new way to peace. The world, up to this point in history, only knows peace as a result of war. The Romans themselves believed in the “Pax Romana,” the Roman peace which was ushered in by complete military domination. “Peace through strength” was the dogma which early civilizations believed in.

Citizens of the United States of America in the late 20th and early 21st century also have the luxury of thinking of peace in this way. We experience the absence of armed conflict within our borders because we are the strongest military force in the world. When we send our troops overseas, we are able to impose our way, seemingly at will.

The arrival of Jesus on the scene, unarmed and riding on a humble donkey, marked a new era. Jesus and his followers didn’t come to violently establish God’s kingdom; instead, they came to live out the ideals of that kingdom. The reign of God is built on justice and truth, on the law of love, on compassion for the vulnerable, and liberty for those who are oppressed.

This may be the most difficult part of the Jesus story for us to accept. We must recognize that the way of Jesus calls us to non violence. This is the new norm for those who would follow him; this is the kind of peace that he commands to the nations.

In these days of sabre-rattling with North Korea and missile strikes in Syria, it would be wise to ponder what kind of strength and power we need ...

Prayer: God, teach all of us peace, especially the nations. Draw us back from the brink of war with North Korea and Russia in the coming weeks. And give us that inward peace that passes understanding. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The two giants of nonviolence were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Read this fascinating Palm Sunday sermon by MLK, in which he recounts the life of Gandhi, and weaves it into the story of Jesus, preached on March 22, 1959.

April 11: Prison, Drugs, and Peace

These are the things that you shall do:
   Speak the truth to one another,
   render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace,
   do not devise evil in your hearts against one another,
   and love no false oath;
for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
Zechariah 8:16-17

Sometimes the words of the prophets sound a little abstract. What does it mean that we should not “devise evil in our hearts” or pass judgments that “make for peace”? Isn’t the real world of justice and law actually quite complicated?

The proof is in the quality of life in our community. We must look at the results of our justice system to see if peace is being made. Is there wellbeing, prosperity, abundance in our neighborhoods and on our streets?

The hard truth is that we have a criminal justice problem; our system does not make for peace. In fact, the more people we imprison, the worse shape our communities fall into. And we are imprisoning more and more people: since 1985, the per capita jail population in Dallas County doubled from 1.25 to 2.52 incarcerated individuals per 1,000 residents. This closely mirrors the nationwide boom in incarceration. In 1970, one in 1,000 American adults could be found in prison; today, one in 35 adults is under some correctional supervision. 

Not only that, but the boom in prisoners inordinately affects blacks and Hispanics, who have incarceration rates 5 to 8 times higher than whites. This phenomenon has led many scholars to suggest that mass incarceration amounts to a “new Jim Crow” policy in the United States.

There are many factors at work in this terrifying shift, but one of the greatest has to do with the so-called “War on Drugs.” Rather than treating drug addiction as a general health problem, politicians in the 1970s and 1980s decided to address drugs as a criminal problem. Legislation such as mandatory sentencing and the three-strikes law virtually dooms large numbers of people to lives in and out of prison. Now that more and more prisons are privately-owned, there is greater incentive to catch even low-level drug sellers.

In other words, we are not doing a good job of making peace. When laws and policies end up putting more and more people behind bars, we should take notice — and take action.

Last year, the interfaith organizing group, Faith in Texas, released a report on the state of mass incarceration in Dallas County, entitled “Live Free’s Agenda for Ending Mass Incarceration and Criminalization.” The closing words of the report, written by Dr. Robert Baker, sound like something Zechariah might have written:

“Whether it’s the nightly news reports of dead black and brown bodies laying on pavement or the haunting absence of our loved ones who face long prison sentences, we can no longer afford to turn away from the trauma that the prison industrial complex is inflicting on our nation. Those of us who come from communities that have been ravaged by this broken system just ask that you stand with us. Don’t look away from the pain festering in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, rather, run towards the trauma. Do something about it.”

Prayer: God, we mourn with those who have loved ones in prison. We pray that you would comfort those who are in prison. We ask that you would show us how we can do something about it all. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Read the report from Faith in Texas here. Turn to pages 7 and 8 to see a scorecard on how Dallas County fares in addressing mass incarceration. Choose one of the topics to investigate, and determine what you can do to make a difference in Dallas, or in your own community.

April 10: Marching for Mercy

Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me:
   Say to all the people of the land and the priests:
When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh,
   for these seventy years,
was it for me that you fasted?
And when you eat and when you drink,
   do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? …
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
   Render true judgments,
   show kindness and mercy to one another;
   do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;
   and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
Zechariah 7:4-10

Once again, God shows disdain for the practice of fasting when it is unaccompanied by the pursuit of justice. Zechariah shows that he stands firmly in the line of Hebrew prophets who criticized the people’s ethical standards. It doesn’t matter that they have been fasting at the correct time for seventy years; their religious practices are nothing but a cover-up for their own narrow self-interest.

In this particular scripture, however, we find a word that is fundamental to the understanding of God’s character, and therefore, to the character of God’s people. That word is the Hebrew hesed, translated here as “mercy.” It’s a notoriously difficult word to translate into English; other translations include “lovingkindness,” “loyal love,” and “goodness.”

What is important to know about hesed is that it is a quality of commitment primarily, not emotion. Like the word “agape,” or “love,” hesed is not a feeling; It’s something people DO for other people “who have no claim on them,” as one Biblical commentator put it.

God says that the Israelites must show hesed to those who have no claim on them — namely the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor. In fact, Zechariah insists that the people’s relationship with God depends on how they act toward these others.

At yesterday’s Mega-March in Dallas, I looked around at the people marching at my side. I saw a lot of people “who have no claim on me.”

I walked alongside Hispanic immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. I am a citizen of this country, and I have no obligation to defend their presence or protect their status. In fact, I could make a phone call to ICE and likely have a number of folks rounded up, if I wished. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed

I walked alongside Muslims. I am a Christian, and I have no obligation to pray with Muslims on Friday, nor do I have to pay heed to their Scriptures or their teachings. Muslims have no claim on me. I could argue, like many politicians do, that this is a Christian nation, and that Christian faith ought to be privileged in the public square. I could make the case, like many politicians do, that some Muslim-majority countries produce terrorists, and thus, we ought to close our entrance procedures to these countries. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed.

I walked alongside the poor and homeless. They have no claim on me. I could argue that I have a job, and that I work for my living. I could point out that many of the poor abuse drugs and alcohol, and that some of them have had multiple possibilities to turn their lives around. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed.

And then it hit me — everyone has a claim on me. I am obligated to love every single one of God’s children. It is only when I begin to draw distinctions between myself and others that I find myself drifting away from hesed. When I point and say, “I’m legal — she is not,” or “I am a Christian — he is not,” or “I’m responsible — they are not,” then I have already begun to run from God’s commandment to show hesed.

The truth is that we all are dependent on each other. There is no “them”; it’s only “us.” Or as we shouted repeatedly yesterday on the streets of Dallas, “The people united/shall never be divided!”

Prayer: God, as we begin this Holy Week, I remember that your Son did not experience much kindness during his last days. Help me to be merciful, and remind me that I am connected to my neighbors, known and unknown alike, by the divine gift of our humanity. Amen.

Justice Challenge: April is National Poetry Month, and there is a long tradition of American resistance poetry. Follow this link for a list of some classic justice-oriented poems. Read a couple, then try writing your own!

April 8: The Day of Small Things

Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
   “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house;
   his hands shall also complete it.
Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.
   for whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice,
   and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.”
Zechariah 4:8-10

In these words from Zechariah, the prophet utters more reassuring promises to the returned exiles of Israel from Persia. He tells them that the Temple will be rebuilt, despite their fears, and that they will once again have hope in the Lord.

Apparently, some of them have been pessimistic about their future, and have “despised the day of small things.” This means that they have seen little evidence that their city will once again be prosperous, and that the Temple will actually take shape again. There areonly “small things,” tiny pieces of hope, minor efforts.

Those who care deeply about justice can identify with this pessimism. Often, when we become involved with important issues, we discover that there is seemingly little we can do, or we fear that our efforts are futile. 

We say to ourselves, “What good is it do go on yet another march? Why bother to call my Congressman again — she doesn’t listen to me?! Why write a letter to the editor of my local newspaper because I will sound like a lunatic?”

We often denigrate our own actions by calling them “small things.”

Yet our faith is full of testimony to the fact that the smallest things make the biggest difference. Jesus told us that all we needed was the faith of a mustard seed in order to move mountains.

Often the problem is that we want to move mountains first; we want to make the biggest impact first, failing to see that it takes thousands of small things to happen before big things emerge. 

We must discover a new appreciation for the small things that make for justice, and learn to encourage others who may be on the verge of disappointment.

Jesus continually modeled for us the ministry of small things. He ate dinner with folks, he played with children, he stopped to chat with people on the side of the road. He never allowed the seriousness and magnitude of his mission to override the small, everyday moments. Those moments actually became the substance of his mission. 

In the pursuit of God’s justice, there is, in fact, no small thing.

Prayer: God, forgive me for underestimating the power of my small actions. Give me the strength to keep on working for justice, even when there are no visible results. Remind me to encourage others. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Write a note, email, or letter of encouragement to someone you know who works for justice on a regular basis, who may be facing some disappointment. Remind them not to “despise the day of small things.”

April 7: Not by Might

This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:
   Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
   What are you, O great mountain?
   Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain;
      and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”
Zechariah 4:6-7

The prophetic writings of Zechariah were directed to returning refugees and exilees. The Israelites who had been taken in captivity to Persia were returning to their homeland, led by Zerubbabel. They finally made their way back to Jerusalem, but found the city in ruins, including the Temple.

For awhile at least, the people seem to be in despair. They doubt that they will ever be at home in Judah again; they worry that they will never again be in a fruitful relationship with their God.

In a series of eight night visions, God gives the people promises of comfort and support. One of the most striking is this assurance that the foundation of the Temple will be laid again: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” this will happen, says God.

In fact, this is a common theme which runs throughout all of Hebrew Scripture. The people of Israel are not mighty or powerful on their own; their success or prosperity is never chalked up to their own achievements. It is always God alone who accomplishes their victories, wins their battles, and ensures their survival.

Anytime the people began to trust their own power or might, they faced defeat, and God would call them back to faithfulness.

This morning, Americans awoke to the news of our fresh involvement in the Syrian conflict. Cruise missiles were launched from US warships to attack Syrian airfields. Our social media feeds and cable news programs are full of reassuring platitudes about our military power and might. We know that we have the strongest fighting force in the world, with the most up-to-date weapons and technology. We are armed and dangerous, strong and ferocious. We are ready to right every wrong and defend liberty and freedom.

But the words of the Lord, as spoken by Zechariah, ought to shake us from our self-confidence. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.”

In the midst of geopolitical intrigue and warfare, we must remember that God’s spirit is active in the world, and that it does not depend upon might and power, as we define might and power. 

We would do well to remember that Jesus himself, when faced with the violence of the Empire, refused to resort to the weapons used against him. Instead, he surrendered himself to God’s spirit, and was enabled to overcome death.

The work for justice depends upon our own reliance upon, and surrender to, the Spirit of God. When we fall back on the world’s own patterns of violence, we will fail.

Prayer: God, please protect the children of Syria today. Keep them safe from the violence of evil men and the bombs of well-intentioned men. Teach me how to trust you. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Today, every time you hear, read, or see something about the violence in Syria, stop and say a prayer for peace. Practice keeping the conflict in your mind all day without letting it become a source of anxiety.

April 6: Villages Without Walls

I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length?” Then the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, and said to him, “Run, say to that youngman: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it.”
Zechariah 2:1-5

Two days ago, bids were due for proposals for President Trump’s wall along the southern border with Mexico. The wall is considered to be Trump’s signature campaign promise, but also his most controversial proposal. A border wall would need to cover 2,200 miles, and would cost anywhere from $21 to $38 billion. 

The argument for building a wall on our borders is related to a desire to improve security and control immigration. As long as a border is unsecured, it is difficult for a nation to determine who is in and who is out, who should enter and who should not, who is a friend and who is an enemy.

If there are fewer possible entry points, then a nation can have rules about entry, and enforce them.

This was the rationale behind the ancient practice of building walls around cities. This is the reason that the holy city of Jerusalem was originally walled around with only four gates, each of which were closed at sundown and opened at sunrise. The walls protected the citizens from attack at night.

However, the prophet Zechariah sees a night vision in which the concept of building walls is judged harshly by an angel, but for a startling reason.

In this vision, the third of eight which Zechariah sees, a construction worker measures for the placement of a city wall. A messenger is sent to the worker to tell him that there is no need of a physical wall “because of the multitude of people and animals in it.” 

The reason, therefore, that the wall is condemned is because it is restrictive; a wall may be protective, but it also keeps a city from growing, from being prosperous, from overflowing with abundance. God’s desire is that the city of Jerusalem expand!

God promises to be the protective force around the city — a “wall of fire all around it” — if only the people will agree to keep their city open for growth.

This prophetic parable speaks an important truth to us about any border walls we might construct. When we construct walls, we are prioritizing security above prosperity, safety over abundance. When we put up boundaries, we are protecting “our space,” but at the expense of the possibilities inherent in a future of sharing and partnership.

And when we throw up such barriers, we send a message to the rest of the world that we are “us” and everyone else is “them.” From behind these walls, we become more likely to see the rest of humanity as a dangerous, threatening, encroaching mass.

We may never experience a world without borders or fences or walls; it seems unlikely that our world will ever be safe enough to go without these fundamental protections. But surely that’s what God hopes for, surely that’s what God meant when the world was created, a place of abundance and glorious prosperity for everyone.

Prayer: God, help me not to build walls of exclusion in my own heart. Keep my ears and eyes open to those in this world who are not just like me. Make me to be someone who is unafraid to cross boundaries. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Make plans today to march in Dallas on Sunday, April 9, at the Mega-March 2017, which is designed to bring our city together “to bring hope to the most vulnerable, help break barriers and build bridges between people from all walks of life that want to help, that want to stand together.” KPUMC members will eat lunch at El Fenix after worship on Sunday, and take the Bishop Arts streetcar to downtown Dallas at 1:13 pm. We will take a Red Line train to the Pearl/Arts District station, and then walk the rest of the way to Guadalupe Cathedral, 2215 Ross Ave., where the march will begin at 2 pm.

April 5: When God is Silent

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.
Habakkuk 3:17-19

Our Lent challenge has been to work for justice, in place of simply doing the ritual acts of worship. Every morning, I have given you something to do.

But what happens when your efforts to do justice do no good? What happens when all the protesting, marching, calling, petitioning, and voting fails to correct an injustice? What do we do when our best efforts fall far short of accomplishing the goals we have been pursuing?

The words of the prophet Habakkuk seem especially pertinent here. Habakkuk’s prophecy deals precisely with this question. He opens his book with a searching question of God: “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? … The law becomes slack, and justice need prevails” (1:2, 4).

Perhaps Habakkuk has been an activist for some time. Maybe he also has protested, marched, called, petitioned, and voted with all his heart, but to no avail. He’s starting to lose heart, and beginning to wonder if there is any moral arc to the universe at all.

He has seen good people suffer, and wicked people prosper. He has watched women and children bear the brunt of oppression, and he has observed the powerful exploiting their position.

Now he is beginning to despair of the hope for justice.

God’s answer to Habakkuk is that justice is surely coming. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3).

“Wait for it.”

It’s not a very satisfying answer, is it? How can we wait for God to act when we see the children of Syria, frozen in their death masks? How can we wait for hopeful results when we know that millions of Syrian refugees languish in camps, uncertain of their own futures? How can we keep up our own hope when we know that refugees are slowly losing their own?

God gives another clue to Habakkuk. In 2:4, God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right within them, but the righteous live by their faith.” This phrase should remind you of Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, where Paul quotes this verse. Paul, in fact, makes this assertion, “The righteous shall live by faith,” a core plank in his theology. To him, the life of the disciple is based on walking by faith, not by sight or by logic. To have faith means to put one’s trust wholly and completely in God. 

And yes, this means that one has ultimate confidence that, in the end, justice will be done on this earth. It certainly is a matter of faith; there is nothing that we can see with our eyes or hear with our ears that would assure us that justice will prevail one day. But we can trust that God is faithful.

In the meantime, we work. We put our hands to the difficult, often unrewarding, often dangerous, work of doing justice. 

Even though, as Habakkuk puts it, “the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines,” we trust that one day, the trees and vines will be bursting with the fruit of shalom.

Prayer: God, if I don’t see the results of my work today and if I instead begin to despair that justice is achievable in this world, please remind me that you are faithful and good. Amen.”

Justice Challenge: Yesterday, news broke of a sarin gas attack on a town in Syria which killed over 50 people, including children. What will you do? Today, I leave you to ponder your own response to the ongoing horror in Syria. You could communicate to our own government your displeasure at our inaction; you could make a donation to UNHCR; or you could reach out to a local Syrian community and express your support. The choice is yours.

April 4: The Gun Problem

The faithful have disappeared from the land,
   and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
   and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
   the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
   thus they pervert justice.
Micah 7:2-3

The prophets paint a grim and bloody picture of Israel. If you read only the prophets, you would get the impression that the nation was especially violent, with rivers of blood in the streets.

Their writings are certainly full of hyperbole, but one might equally speak of the United States of America as a violent dystopia. Especially if you look at the statistics.

According to a study published last year in The American Journal of Medicine, Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than in other developed countries. The study went on to report that, even though the US accounts for half the population of the other 22 nations in the study combined, America is responsible for 82 percent of all gun deaths.

Gun deaths occur in a number of ways, including crime and mass shootings, but they are also the number one method of suicide — over 21,000 people shoot and kill themselves each year. And accidental shootings kill approximately 544 people each year.

Just two days ago in Corpus Christi, a two year old found an unlocked, loaded gun left on the kitchen table by his father and accidentally shot himself. 

Every day, 309 Americans are shot by a gun for any number of reasons, 48 of whom are children or teenagers.

So you could be excused for thinking that, yes, America is a grim and bloody place. Which is precisely what much of the rest of the developed world thinks about America. In my own travels, I have been asked numerous times if I feel safe living in a country where there are so many guns.

I don’t know exactly how to answer that question. I understand that there is a Second Amendment right to own guns, and I recognize the reason why the Founding Fathers felt the need to enshrine this right in the Constitution. They wanted to ensure that citizens could protect themselves from a despotic and overbearing government; this was meant as a safeguard against tyranny.

But the creators of this republic would be heartbroken if they saw those gun statistics. They could not have approved the widespread violence, the wanton disregard for life, or the random and senseless mass killings. They wanted a different America.

In the same way, Micah wanted a different Israel -- God wanted a different Israel! God, the author of peace, desired the people of Judah to be guided by laws and truth, rather than a chaotic Wild West-like frontier justice. 

I think God wants the same thing for America in the 21st century. Let's do the things that make for peace in this country, with or without guns.

Prayer: God, help us to lay down our arms peacefully. May we trust in you for our shelter and refuge. We reject the violence of the streets for the peace of your salvation. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence is one of the best and most-respected organizations working to reduce gun deaths in America. Help them work on their goal to “cut gun deaths in half by 2025” by getting involved in their campaign to stop “bad apple” gun dealers.

April 3: Head, Heart, and Hands

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the suit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal; what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:6-8

At the risk of oversimplification, I find that, generally speaking, there are three different kinds of Christians, which correspond with three typical orientations toward faith. 

“Head” Christians approach their faith by trying, first and foremost, to understand it. They want to believe the right things, and they become primarily concerned with doctrine, orthodoxy, and theology as a system of beliefs.

“Heart” Christians come to faith with their emotions. They are very likely to have initially had a powerful spiritual experience with Christ. They tend to love prayer, worship, and the mystical side of Christianity. They want to feel the power of God, rather than just read or hear about it. They have to experience it, or else it has no relevance for them.

And “hands” Christians express their faith by doing things. They would rather take part in mission projects than talk about what they believe. They prefer concrete actions like feeding and caring for the poor, working with the dispossessed, and being present in the midst of crisis.

However, none of these orientations is alone sufficient to sustain the life of a disciple over the long haul. If you only approach faith through the “head,” you will dry up and find it difficult to follow Jesus when you reach the limits of human understanding. If you rely only on your “heart” to engage with God, you will discover that your emotions are unreliable, and that you need something more stable upon which to ground your faith. And if working and doing with your “hands” is the only way in which you understand faith, you might descend into a legalistic religion that is based purely on what you do or don’t do.

True discipleship is a matter of all three orientations, wrapped up in a life that is wholistic and balanced. We follow Jesus with head and heart and hands. We are engaged with God through mind and emotions and action.

This passage from Micah is a beautiful exposition of this balanced life. He clearly disparages the person who relies only on the obedient carrying-out of ritual religion: “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings?”

Micah says, “You know what God really wants. You know that what’s required is that you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

That is the recipe for a disciplined and healthy life, which engages the whole person — body, mind, spirit.

It is, in fact, the only way in which the whole work of justice can be carried out. Anytime we see injustice in our world, we must let it break out hearts and flood our soul with compassion. Then we must engage with our minds and discern the facts about the injustice. 

And finally, we must act. Perhaps this is where so many of us hesitate. We object that we don’t know what to do, or that it seems as if there is nothing we could do. 

But if we are to be the whole and complete people God calls us to be, the work of justice must be done.

Prayer: God, engage my emotions with an awareness of your presence. Touch my understanding with insight. And move my hands to accomplish your will. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Are you primarily a head, heart, or hands Christian? What are you missing in your life of discipleship as a result? Decide to do something today to address the imbalance.

April 2: Beating AK-47s to Shovels

In the days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
   and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
   and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and
      under their own fig trees;
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Micah 4:1-4

You will be glad to note that, technically, the Sunday of Lent are not fast days; they are considered feast days, and thus, you do not have to observe your fast on Sunday. We don't have that luxury; since we are practicing the fast that God chooses, we can never cease the work of justice.

Instead, each Sunday we will focus on one positive and inspirational example of a person who is actively working for justice. 

In Philadelphia in 1995, an abandoned Catholic church building had become the unofficial home of dozens of homeless people. The archdiocese, which owned the building, gave the squatters 48 hours to leave or be forcibly removed. 

A young man named Shane Claiborne decided that this was not a very Jesus-like thing to do. So he led a number of community activists into moving into the building with him, in protest. They hung a sign in front of the building which said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?”

This act of resistance led to a reprieve for the homeless, and later, Claiborne moved into a communal house in North Philadelphia to continue to work on behalf of the urban poor. His community is called The Simple Way, which is involved in food distribution, emergency services, neighborhood celebrations, and an economic “redistribution scheme” called the Jubilee Fund.

As he said in his bestselling book, The Irresistible Revolution: “Only Jesus would be crazy enough to suggest that if you want to become the greatest, you should become the least. Only Jesus would declare God's blessing on the poor rather than on the rich and would insist that it's not enough to just love your friends. I just began to wonder if anybody still believed Jesus meant those things he said.”

Claiborne has set out to live as if Jesus did, indeed, mean all those things he said. He has worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, visited Iraq just prior to the American invasion, and spoken out boldly against capital punishment.

One of my favorite Shane Claiborne projects is called RAWTools, which takes seriously the above passage from Micah, which foretells a time in which the nations forsake the art of war, and turn their “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” In other words, they turn their weapons into gardening tools!

That’s exactly what RAWTools does. A group of artists and activists, led by Claiborne, encourage people to turn in their guns, which are then quite literally taken apart and rebuilt as tools, or as unique pieces of art.

Claiborne has always taken Jesus’ words seriously, even when they seem idealistic and hopeless.

But as he has said before, “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.”

Prayer: God, may I live the good things that Jesus said. Because I believe that they will lead to the shalom that you have promised. Amen.

April 1 -- "No Corruption Here!"

 

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March 31: When Elephants Fight

Listen, you heads of Jacob
   and rulers of the house of Israel!
Should you not know justice? —
   you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin off my people,
   and the flesh off their bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
   flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
   and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
   like flesh in a cauldron.
Then they will cry to the Lord,
   but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
   because they have acted wickedly.
Micah 3:1-4

Micah minces no words when he targets Israel’s leaders. He uses quite graphic language to portray how the leaders of the nation have betrayed her citizens; he accuses them of symbolic cannibalism, of destroying and eating them.

Sadly, history is replete with examples of kings, presidents, emperors, and prime ministers who take advantage of their people. At this moment in time, this dynamic is at play in the country of South Sudan, which came into existence only six years ago.

Though born out of a sincere desire to secure the interests of the southern Sudanese against their Arab counterparts in the north, the creation of South Sudan only created new conflicts and power struggles. 

The large majority of Sudanese oil reserves were located in the south, which was supposed to be a major advantage to the new country. However, the new government has spent the large majority of the revenues on arms purchases and building up its military forces, and virtually nothing on infrastructure, economic improvements, or other projects that would benefits its people.

And now a famine has broken out in the region, which threatens an already-fragile people. According to the U.N., around 100,000 people currently face starvation, and another 1 million people are on the brink of extreme hunger. The famine has sparked a new refugee crisis, as desperate South Sudanese seek food in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic. Already, there are 1.5 million refugees of the famine.

It is the ongoing civil war in the country which sparked the famine in the first place, says the U.N.: “The bulk of evidence suggests that the famine … has resulted from protracted conflict and, in particular, the cumulative toll of repeated military operations undertaken by the government … beginning in 2014.”

In other words, the leaders of South Sudan have “torn the skin off their people, and the flesh off their bones; they eat the flesh of their people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle.”

An African proverb aptly sums up this crisis, and captures the meaning of Micah’s words, too: “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

The true meaning of leadership, whether national, religious, or local, is to serve the people whom one has been entrusted to lead. When leaders look out for their own interests, and attempt to profit from their position and power, a reckoning is due.

In a democratic republic like the United States, the reckoning comes in the form of elections. But even so, the people themselves bear the responsibility of watching, observing, and holding its leaders accountable.

And in the case of countries where there is a minimum of democracy and a dearth of institutions which can hold leaders accountable, there is only the power of the people themselves.

Prayer: God, we mourn for the people of South Sudan. Turn their leaders from their own interests, and make them cry for their own people. Help the whole world pay attention to what is happening. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Make a donation to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to help feed the refugees of South Sudan. Then post on social media any and all stories you can find about the famine in South Sudan, to help draw attention to what is happening there.

March 30: Stolen Lands

Alas for those who devise wickedness
   and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
   because it is in their power. 
They covet fields, and seize them;
   houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
   people and their inheritance. 
Micah 2:1-2

How does someone “seize” or “take away” a field or house, as Micah describes it?

There are lots of ways, some of them even legal. Banks can foreclose, creditors can call in their debts, and governments can determine “eminent domain.” Nations can invade with armies, and annex land at will.

One of the worst land and property seizures happening in the world right now, however, is taking place slowly and deliberately in the West Bank. Even though the international community has recognized the official borders of the Palestinian territories for years, the Israeli government continues to disregard these borders by allowing the construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

The city of Hebron is one such example. Shortly after the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Israeli settlers moved into a Hebron hotel, and were allowed to stay “temporarily.” Since this time, settlers have continued to move into Palestinian territories, building houses, cutting off Palestinian farmers from their fields, and even, in some cases, tormenting the Palestinians who live around them.

Hebron’s population is estimated to be just over 209,000, all of whom are Palestinian, except for a small Jewish minority of 500-800. The city was divided into two regions, the first of which is run entirely by Palestinians; the second region, known as H2, consists of the Old City, and has a population of 30,000 Palestinians and the Jewish settlers. In 2015, Israel sent a brigade to protect the small contingent of settlers, and marked a “closed military zone” in the heart of the city, shutting down over 500 Palestinian-owned businesses. Palestinians are subject to daily roadblocks and searches by the army, as well as to insults, threats, and violence by some of the settlers.

Settlements continue unabated across the West Bank. Despite widespread international opposition, settlers have multiplied fourfold in the last 24 years, with a total of 130 settlements throughout the West Bank. 

This reality on the ground makes it harder for Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate peace. For one, it severely hampers efforts at a two-state solution. Since the Israeli military is now present throughout the West Bank, and Palestinians are unable to move freely within the territory, it appears as if the Israeli government is pursuing a “divide and conquer” tactic.

This state of affairs has been an ongoing burden for the Palestinian people since 1948, when 750,000 were uprooted from their homes and lands to make way for the newly-created Jewish state. Many fled to Lebanon, carrying their house keys with them, certain that they would return in just a few weeks or months. Instead, they died in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, the keys rusting into irrelevance.

The violence that some Palestinian militias and rebel groups embrace is, in part, a reaction to the original crime of land seizure in 1948, a cry of resistance to the loss of identity, home, family.

Micah’s message is that violence begets violence, that oppression breeds oppression. He warns the cities of Judah that those within them who covet and seize will themselves be seized. He powerfully protests against the injustices which are routinely practiced in the land.

Prayer: God, please show mercy to those who have had their lands seized from them, and to those who have had to flee their homes for safety. Make me a righteous peace-maker. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Watch these 2 short videos by Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine. It’s ten minutes of reality-check that you will not forget.

March 29: Sons and Daughters of Abraham

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob,
   shame shall cover you,
   and you shall be cut off for ever. 
On the day that you stood aside,
   on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
   and cast lots for Jerusalem,
   you too were like one of them. 
But you should not have gloated over your brother
   on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
   on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
   on the day of distress. 
You should not have entered the gate of my people
   on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster
   on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
   on the day of his calamity. 
You should not have stood at the crossings
   to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
   on the day of distress. 
Obadiah 10-14

The tiny book of Obadiah is a prophetic tirade against Judah’s neighbor, Edom. To understand the book, one must know the historical context. In 587 BC, when Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon, the neighboring Edomites didn’t come to Judah’s defense. Instead, they took part in the plunder, looting goods and “gloating over Judah’s disaster.”

This betrayal cut deeply, since Edom and Judah were considered “brothers”; they traced their ancestries back to Esau and Jacob, respectively. Even though the Edomites were not Jews, they were still family. 

Through the prophet Obadiah, God promises to repay the Edomites, threatening, “As you have done it, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obadiah 15).

As Christians, we ought to hear these words in relation to our connection to our own faith “brothers and sisters” — Jews and Muslims. All three faiths are descended from the same central figure, Abraham; Jews and Christians find their heritage in the line of Isaac, while Muslims trace their ancestry through Ishmael.

Unless we want to face God’s wrath, we ought to consider the way we treat Jews and Muslims. Do we rush to their defense when they are mistreated or insulted? Do we gloat when representatives of their faiths fall or stumble? Do we “loot” their dignity by passing on lies, untruths, and propaganda about them?

In recent months, hate crimes and threats against Jews and Muslims in the U.S. have increased dramatically. 

A flood of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues, though revealed to be hoaxes, has opened the door to a rise in anti-Semitism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 130 active Ku Klux Klan groups operating in the country, as well as hundreds of other white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and Holocaust-denying hate groups. Earlier this month, the largest synagogue in Seattle was defaced with graffiti, including the tag line, “Holocau$t i$ fake hi$tory!”

American Muslims are also under constant threat and harassment. Anti-Muslim groups proliferated in 2016, from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year. So far in 2017, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported 33 separate incidents in which mosques have been targeted for vandalism or arson. Early Sunday morning of this week, someone threw rocks and a Bible through the glass doors of a Fort Collins, Colorado, mosque. 

The rising rhetoric of suspicion and mistrust against those who practice Islam and Judaism is unacceptable to those who believe in the God of the Bible. This goes beyond a simple affirmation of the Golden Rule; we must do more than simply “live and let live.”

God uses the word “brother” to describe Judah’s relation to Edom in the book of Obadiah, and God would surely use the same language to speak to us of Muslims and Jews.

We are all family.

Prayer: God, we often fail to see ourselves as brothers and sisters with people who believe differently. We may disagree over theological points, but we agree that you are one God, and that you are a God of love. Help us to love each other. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Since Jewish and Muslim communities are fearful and anxious these days, why don’t you reach out to a member of one of those communities and express your support? It’s as easy as sending a card or gift to your local synagogue or mosque; or taking a neighbor or fellow worker who is Muslim or Jewish to lunch.

March 28: The Blood of Nations

You have plowed wickedness,
   you have reaped injustice,
   you have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your power
   and in the multitude of your warriors,
therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people,
   and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.
Hosea 10:13-14

The story of a nation-state is always the story of bloodshed. Every country has a legacy of violence, an origin story of war, and continues to hold its borders with at least the threat of military action.

Israel was no different from any other nation, even though its origin was fundamentally an act of the divine will. God laid the foundations of this nation and defended it against all enemies.

But over time, Israel began to trust its own military strength, as the prophet Hosea warns. The nation’s arsenal and number of soldiers had led it to believe that it was sufficiently powerful to defend itself, and did not need God’s intervention.

This will lead to disaster, says Hosea.

America is no different from any other nation, either. Our own origin is soaked in the blood of those who lived here when the Europeans came, not to mention the blood of subsequent wars, skirmishes, and police actions.

After two world wars in the 20th century, America began to see itself as the major global superpower, thanks to the development of a new type of weapon — the atomic bomb. Now that all challengers to the title of “superpower” have fallen away, in part because of our nuclear arsenal, it is not hard to trust “in our power” and in the multitude of our weapons. 

Even though nuclear weapons are inarguably the most demonic form of warfare in the world, designed specifically to inflict massive suffering to civilians and civilian society, we are reluctant to let go of them.

Yesterday at the United Nations, talks began on the possibility of a worldwide ban of nukes. One of the first to speak out in opposition of such a ban was our own ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley who said, “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”

Haley represents the current American strategy of deterrence, which is the idea that having nuclear weapons effectively deters other nations from developing or using their own nuclear weapons. She, and other government leaders, insist that we would never use them, but President Trump has publicly refused to take any options off the table when it comes to military action. 

Indeed, the sad truth is that America is the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons in actual conflict. The result was the slaughter of over 200,000 Japanese civilians.

To date, America holds approximately 6,800 nuclear warheads, second only to Russia, which has 7,000, but far more than the remaining countries which have nukes. That’s a lot of firepower, sufficient to destroy a good segment of the earth’s population.

Our ambassador urges us to “be realistic” when it comes to nukes. 

I believe Hosea is being quite realistic when he says, “Because you have trusted in your power … therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed” (10:13-14). He recognizes the basic truth which Jesus uttered in the garden: “All those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). 

Those who trust in the shedding of blood to keep themselves safe, may find that they are the least safe.

Prayer: God, you hate war, because it destroys your good creation. May I hate war with the same passion, and do all in my power to make peace. Help us to turn swords into plows, and spears into pruning hooks. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Follow the efforts of ICAN at the UN to ban nuclear weapons here: http://nuclearban.org Sign up to receive updates through the rest of the week.

March 27: The Land Mourns

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel:
for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
   and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
   and stealing and adultery break out;
   bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
   and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
   and the birds of the air,
   even the fish of the sea are perishing.
Hosea 4:1-3

Last week, news reports from Michigan revealed that mercury levels in Great Lakes fish is climbing again, after decades of decline. Mercury is, of course, toxic to humans and animals; the news doesn’t bode well for the region’s fishing industry.

Scientists still don’t know exactly why this is happening, but they are beginning to look at a familiar culprit — the warming planet.

It seems we hear a report like this every few days. Another chunk of the Arctic ice is melting; the sea rises another couple of inches; a reef is eroding. The globe is getting hotter, but so far, humans have done little to reverse the alarming trend.

According to Bill McKibben, Methodist Sunday School teacher and founder of 350.org, the world is heading to unprecedented waters unless humans begin to roll back the amount of carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere. Currently, we are over 400 ppm (parts per million); in order to keep the planet from warming further, we need to get under 350 ppm (hence, the name of McKibben’s group). 

If the warming is left unchecked, sea waters would rise, creating millions of climate refugees; drought and famine would multiply; mosquitoes carrying dangerous diseases would proliferate; and the amount of extreme weather we already encounter would increase.

Surprisingly, the prophet Hosea predicts this phenomenon! He speaks of a time when “the land mourns and all who live in it languish,” including animals, birds, and fish. Hosea foresees an environmental crisis, and he attributes the blame to the injustice of the people who live in the land. He claims that this is the result of a lethal mix of violence and crime.

Hosea doesn’t only indict the people of Israel; he is addressing us. His words challenge us to think of global warming and its effects as the result of our own sinful, unjust actions. 

We have enthusiastically and uncritically embraced the use of fossil fuels, and allowed gas and oil corporations to continue to mine and drill ceaselessly. We are addicted to the use of these fuels, even though we know they are unrenewable and are bad for the environment. For the sake of short-term, low-cost gasoline in our cars, we accept the long-term high-cost of carbon emissions’ effect on our climate.

We have rejected the wisdom of the Iroquois, who believed that all decisions should be considered for their impact on the seventh generation to come.

Hosea would have likely ridiculed our lifestyle and carelessness; later in chapter 4, the prophet laments, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6).

The problem these days is not really “lack of knowledge,” though; it’s an unwillingness to act on the knowledge we have. 

Prayer: God, we love the world you have created and called good. We confess that we have not cared for it with the tenderness and compassion that you desire. Help us to fall in love with the creation again. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The White House is expected to issue an executive order tomorrow which would roll back President Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, (which is currently under review by the Supreme Court), and spur job growth in coal and gas industries. Despite the appeal of new jobs, policy which encourages the use of more fossil fuels, at the expense of alternative, clean-energy, renewable sources, is harmful and damaging to the environment. Let your Senators and Representatives know today how you feel about the administration’s approach to climate change.

March 26: Remembering Oscar

On that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
   and raise up its ruins,
   and rebuild it as in the days of old …
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
  and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them:
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
   and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
   and they shall never again be plucked up
   out of the land that I have given them,
   says the Lord your God.
Amos 9:11, 14-15

You will be glad to note that, technically, the Sunday of Lent are not fast days; they are considered feast days, and thus, you do not have to observe your fast on Sunday. We don't have that luxury; since we are practicing the fast that God chooses, we can never cease the work of justice.

Instead, each Sunday we will focus on one positive and inspirational example of a person who is actively working for justice.

Only two days ago, we marked the 37th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador. It’s still a largely unknown and forgotten event, though highly dramatic.

Romero had just finished a sermon in a hospital chapel and had moved to stand behind the altar to start the Mass. At that moment, a gunman entered the back of the church, fired two shots, and sped away.

The bishop died there in the chapel, as the world gasped.

Romero was assassinated, not for his great preaching or his impressive prayers. He was condemned by the government of El Salvador and its many supporters, including the United States government, because he spoke up for justice for hundreds of thousands of poor and marginalized Salvadorans.

The hierarchy in Rome never expected Romero to be such an activist; in fact, he was sent to El Salvador precisely because he was considered to be “non-political.” They thought he would avoid the controversy swirling around national politics.

But when one of his priests was assassinated within a couple of weeks of Romero’s arrival in El Salvador, the archbishop realized that something sinister was happening in the country. The government began to crack down on Catholic priests who worked among the poor. Over a three year period, fifty priests were attacked, six murdered, by right-wing paramilitary groups or government forces. Romero spoke out against the persecution, and went so far as to write a personal letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, pleading with him to stop sending aid to the Salvadoran government, a plea which was ignored.

Meanwhile, Romero realized that his own life was in danger. In one interview in 1980, he said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero’s story is not a comforting one. Instead, it reveals the truth that the prophetic voice comes with some danger. Romero stands in a long line of noble truth-speakers who paid the ultimate price.

In his last sermon, Romero said, “One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

Prayer: God, thank you for the witness of Oscar Romero. May I have the courage to stand up for my convictions. And may the witness of Romero continue to shine in the people of El Salvador. Amen.