According to Jeremiah God didn’t say,
You who rule . . . act with suspicion and distrust, and make sure to guard the stock portfolios of the oppressor. And make certain that the alien in your land runs into the wall of your fear and hatred, prevent widows from obtaining access to food and healthcare and housing that should be reserved only for the deserving. And please, whatever you do, don’t fall for all that sentimental political correctness when it comes to orphans—who are lazy and shiftless by nature; they only want to take advantage of the system. Because, let’s face it, the only innocent blood belongs to people who look like us. So if you have to shed blood, make sure it belongs to people who don’t have any power.
Reality, according to the flattened world in which we live, views poverty, violence, racism, sexual assault, anti-immigrant hatred as something “you people are just going to have to learn to live with."
'You people'—which means 'other people'—which ultimately means 'not me.'
The church—to the extent that it has promoted a version of the gospel concerned primarily only with helping me to get to heaven—has been complicit in allowing Christians to get comfortable with the idea that poverty, xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia aren’t a primary matter of concern when it comes to Christian responsibility—that the cries of our sisters and brothers are of interest only after we’ve secured our individual souls.
In our prosaic reality, all that stuff happens to other people who—although we may not make them targets of our open hostility—qualify as perfect candidates for our indifference.
By Derek Penwell
A friend of mine had a baby. After the shock of finding herself the proud new owner of a six pound bundle of joy, pandemonium, and excretion, she went to the mailbox and discovered a bill from the insurance company—the presence of which bill shocked no one, since babies (if they ever did) don’t come for free anymore.
However, after she returned to the newly baby-besieged confines of her home, she opened the bill, only to find that the insurance magnates had refused to pay for her epidural (you know, the hope of chemical relief to which many women cling when the pain becomes unbearable). Sagely, the compassionate folks in underwriting had determined that an “epidural is an elective procedure for a vaginal birth.” Consequently, the insurance company refused to pay that portion of the costs.
My friend was furious. And I, though I lack the requisite equipment to give first person testimony on behalf of the advantages of an epidural for a vaginal birth, was pretty certain an outrage had been committed. I have witnessed labor up close; and I feel safe in admitting my uncertainty about whether I would have the pain tolerance to face it without a great deal of chemical handholding.
I told my wife, a Postpartum nurse and mother of three herself, about the insurance company’s dodge. She got a dangerous look in her eye (the same one she got, perhaps not coincidentally, when I tried to convince her of the propriety of taking my last name when we got married) and said, “Some man made that decision!”
That struck me as wise.
Not long ago my daughter said to me in the car, “Did you know Walmart pays its women employees less than its men?”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I said.
Disgusted, she said, “It’s not right.”
No, it’s not right. So, to prove her point, when we got home she sent me a link detailing just how “not right” it is. Women comprise only about 15% of the top management positions in the retail division. Both salaried employees and hourly wage earners who are women earn less than their male counterparts. In fact, there are no regions where women make more than men as Walmart employees.
So bad, in fact, is the disparity that a class action suit was brought against Walmart on behalf of all its female employees, a suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court (Wal-Mart v. Dukes).
In a June 2011 the Court handed down a controversial decision, the substance of which argued that “all female employees” was too big to be certified as a class. The practical effect of that decision shored up a corporate structure that, at least according to the data, suggests a de facto system engineered to keep women at a financial and vocational disadvantage.
And I heard my wife’s voice in my head: “Some damn man made that decision!”
Turns out she’s right … literally: The Supreme Court delivered a decision in which the five deciding votes were all male, while of the four dissenting votes, three were female.
What sometimes get lost in the analysis of this decision—focusing as it almost always does on the implications for Class Action lawsuits—is the reality that, according to both statistical evidence and the anecdotal corroboration, women are being systematically discriminated against at Walmart—and that a male dominated court took a look at the evidence, and said, “What’s the problem?” As Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg argued in her dissent: “The Court gives no credence to the key dispute common to the class: whether Wal-Mart’s discretionary pay and promotion policies are discriminatory.”
Translation: While you boys argue over whether “all female Walmart employees” can constitute a class, women continue to get the short end of the stick at Walmart.
But then again, men making decisions about women’s lives and bodies isn’t something new. Men have been running the show forever—not because that’s what God wanted, but because they could. The apostle Paul was pretty clear about what God really wanted in the wake of Jesus’ work: “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
So, just so we have this straight: Those people who claim to follow Jesus have a duty to embody this new reality, where men and women are not only viewed as equals … but treated, paid as equals.
I realize that for most of the culture suggesting that Christians actually ought to support female equality is swimming upstream. The church has a long history of putting its thumb on the scales of justice on behalf of men. Arguing that the church is pro-woman to many people sounds like arguing that dolphin lovers are pro-tuna—the dolphins make out just fine under such a system, but it’s hell on the tuna.
But I don’t think those of us who take Jesus seriously as the great liberator of humanity, as the herald of the radical nature of God’s unfolding reign of peace and justice, can stand silently by while men continue to make decisions as though they possess greater understanding of the needs of women for their own health and bodies. People who actually believe that “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” cannot continue to live as though males ought to continue to have some kind of privileged status in virtue of possessing the preferred sexual appendage.
And when I say that Christians must make a stand on behalf of an equitable system, I don’t just mean female Christians. If the world we live in is ever going to look anything like the reign of God announced by Jesus, men are going to have to be just as outraged by knucklehead underwriters refusing to cover epidurals as the women who suffer by being told their pain management is a choice.
Male Christians are going to have to be some of the loudest to speak up when it becomes public knowledge that their sisters, and wives, and daughters, and mothers earn disproportionately less at the hands of corporations and industries (I’m looking at you congregations and employers of women clergy).
Those followers of Jesus who are male are precisely the ones who are going to have to raise hell when Abercrombie & Fitch tells women that they’d prefer that only “thin and beautiful” women wear their clothes, who lose their minds when Victoria Secret markets clothing to teenage girls with phrases like “Call Me,” and “Feeling Lucky?”
In order to be faithful, the church needs some masculine feminists.
It’s not about being politically correct. It’s not about paternalistically protecting the women folk from the depredations of a culture bent on maintaining the power disparity. It’s not about chivalry. It’s about doing the right thing.
It’s about living like Jesus. If we take Jesus seriously, seeking justice isn’t an optional add-on after you get your personal life in order; it’s the way to pursue a personal life for everyone that’s worth ordering.
And just to be clear: some man can’t just make this decision … it’s going to take all of us.
In a world where the sands seem always to be shifting beneath our feet, in a world where fear and trembling are a part of getting out of bed in the morning, in a world where uncertainty holds us captive the ability to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” is a way of affirming a different reality—a reality that proclaims that—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—God is in control, that God will not allow God’s children to live without meaning in what appears to be a random and arbitrary world, that the fear and trauma we face will be faced by us with God at our side, and that God is already in the process of unveiling a new reign of peace and justice.
FYI: We had a technical hiccup about halfway through. For the unabridged sermon, you can still refer to the manuscript below.
You see, saints aren’t people who do great things for God because they have no shortcomings, no flaws; saints are people who do great things for God in spite of the fact that the deck’s stacked against them, that the shortcomings and flaws always threaten to undo them. Saints are people determined to live their everyday lives as if God matters more than the sum total of their weaknesses.
The great reversal. God will fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away. Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain be made low. Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
Determined to have the world the way God wants it, God can't just leave it alone. But then again, why should we expect anything less from a God who couldn’t even leave death well enough alone?
In the final analysis, it’s an easy thing to say that we depend on God to secure our lives, to establish justice. It’s an entirely different matter to live as if it were true—as if we’re called to be the expression of God’s justice to a world that would just as soon go back to bed and forget the whole mess. Faithfulness requires that we keep knocking on that particular door—even if it looks as if nobody’s home.
When faced with the temptation of dismissing people because they’re different, when persuaded to push the Samaritan lepers of our society into ghettos meant only to protect us from their condemning presence, when convinced that the only way to silence that which threatens our cherished beliefs is by nailing it to a cross, Jesus comes into our midst, sits down at the table . . . spread before us with vivid reminders of his own brokenness, his own 'otherness,' and says, 'no.'
By Derek Penwell
I had a baseball game that day, beginning and ending my career as a catcher for Dog ‘n Suds at the tender age of nine. I was nearsighted and my glasses didn’t fit beneath the mask. Every time I turned my head, the mask moved slightly, as did my black nerd glasses, which made every pitch a funhouse adventure.
After I got home, following yet another losing game, and parked my orange Huffy with the black and orange striped banana seat, my mom met me outside and said, “There’s been an accident.”
Not knowing quite what to say, I said, “Who?”
“Jamie,” she said. “He and Michael were playing with lighter fluid out in the woods, and Jamie was burned badly.”
I remember wondering how it might be possible to be burned “goodly.” But all I said was, “What happened?”
“I don’t know, honey. His mom just called. I think he’d like to see you.”
Jamie was a fairly good, if suggestible kid, who lived across the street from me. We were the same age, but we were in different third grade classes, and didn’t hang out much together at school. At home, though, we roamed the neighborhood, built ramps to jump our bikes, played sandlot baseball and kick the can, and traded baseball cards.
Michael, who was a year older than we were, lived two doors down from me. And though my parents never said so explicitly, I got the impression that they thought Michael was a “bad kid.” He always seemed to be in trouble, picking fights and swearing at adults. Last I heard he was serving time for attempted murder.
On the way over to see Jamie, I kept thinking about the bodily implications of being burned. I’d played with matches myself before, so I knew that fire hurt in an intense and special way. And the thought of someone close to me experiencing such pain not on a tip-of-the-finger scale, but on a life-altering scale seemed incomprehensible to me.
When I saw him, his leg was bandaged all the way up to his hip. He was whimpering. I didn’t know what to say. Nothing seemed right. But his look said that he wanted something from me, some word, some bit of human contact from someone who didn’t yet shave and who still wasn’t allowed to swear in public. So, I said all I could think to say: “I’m sorry, Jamie.”
Now, this wasn’t a movie, so my three words didn’t “buoy his flagging spirits,” they didn’t “give him the strength to go on” and “face an uncertain future.” He said, “Thanks.” And that was probably it for him.
But I got to thinking about those three words: “I’m sorry, Jamie.” What does that even mean for a nine year-old to say “I’m sorry” in the face of tragedy? Of course, I know what it means if you’re nine and you throw a rock through the neighbor’s picture window. Then, “I’m sorry” means, “I take responsibility. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”
What does it mean, though, when your nine year-old neighbor nearly burns his leg off, and you (another nine year-old) say, “I’m sorry?”
Well, for one thing, it could simply mean, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.”
It could mean, “I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you and your parents, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.”
It could simply mean, “I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.”
I’m not sure what it meant for me to say to my pitiful nine year-old neighbor, “I’m sorry, Jamie.” I suspect my intentions were some uncomfortable mélange of all of those things. Given the same situation, and after forty years of growing up, I’m not sure I’d say anything different if I had it to do over again.
What does it mean, then, for anyone, in the face of great suffering, to say “I’m sorry?”
I suppose it might mean all those things:
- I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.
- I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.
- I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.
But it occurs to me after accumulating a little experience that such an expression of sorrow speaks to something more, something much deeper than just the current situation of which I’m now a witness. As a man now, it seems to me that “I’m sorry” goes to the very heart of what it means to be human in a world threatening to come undone.
- I think such sorrow conveys the pointed sense we seem to share that something is not right.
- Perhaps it suggests sorrow for a world in which the pain I observe is a pain I’m all too often powerless to relieve.
- Or perhaps it is a prayer to God, a shaking of the fist against the predations of the night, a seeking of answers with Job about why it is that little boys who make dumb little-boy-decisions are required to pay the debt they incur with their own pound of flesh, a chance to ask why it is we shouldn’t expect something better from the one who made us and who, in other ways, seems to love us and desire so much better for us.
I won’t pretend I know what lies at the heart of the inarticulateness that seems to plague us all when we stand in the presence of suffering. My hope is that the great dis-ease our mumbled words express lodges itself in the heart of God, who, beneath it all, I think we’re really seeking in such times.
What I do know, though, is that “I’m sorry, Jamie” means very much the same thing, whether it comes from the mouth of a child with infield dirt still on his hands or from the mouth of a man who’s already seen more pain in the world than he thought either necessary or possible.
Keep working. Keep plugging away. Keep expecting that—whatever the appearances to the contrary suggest—I’m fashioning a people there. I launch ships in the desert. I harvest crops in the wilderness. I ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow. I’ve even been known to make the dead dance. You may not see it clearly right now. It’s easy to see empty pews and think I’ve bugged out. But I haven’t. Don’t worry. I’ve got big plans for you.
If the world is ever to take Jesus seriously, in other words, it has to quit seeing those of us who are his followers as fence-builders, as constructers of barriers, as those more willing to exclude than include. To the extent that Christians have continued the divisions—male/female, black/white, straight/gay, fundamentalist/progressive, Catholic/Protestant—we’ve alerted the world that it need not take us seriously. We’re just like everybody else, willing to declare war on whomever and whatever we can’t figure out how to fit in the tent.
In these parables Jesus wants to know: Who are we making angry because we love the wrong people?
And this is an especially important question to ask on the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Because somewhere over the past fifteen years an awful lot of our neighbors have gotten the message that it’s okay to be afraid of Muslims, that it’s okay to hate people they don’t even know—just because those people happen to go to a mosque to worship God, or because they happen to be refugees, trying to escape horror and death in their home countries.
By Derek Penwell
Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”
As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”
As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”
But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”
Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.
Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?
Here’s where a really good writer might offer the winning strategy, distilled to its essence: The thing that makes some small independent bookstores succeed in the land of the giants is __________.
But if there is a strategy, distilled to its essence, I don’t know what it is. Of course, I have some ideas—an emphasis on niche marketing, an appeal to customer service, a local community atmosphere. I imagine all those things, and probably some others, have contributed to the success of certain small independent bookstores.
What I want to focus on is the broader reality of bigness. For years the roadmap to success appeared to wend its way through Mega-ville. Go big or go home, right? Walmart. Microsoft. McDonalds. Google. The New York Yankees. Hollywood blockbusters. Page views. Empire.
In fact, so closely did success seem to correlate with bigness that—at least informally, if not explicitly—that’s gradually how success came to be defined. Biggest is best.
When Big Became Small
But the narrative of bigness has bumped up against some difficult realities. For one thing, a market that is increasingly fragmented by the vagaries of demographic diversity—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression … not to mention, the perennial issue of the range of individual taste—is difficult to dominate in a general way. When a culture is largely homogenous, generating broad appeal is much easier—you only need to get a couple of things right to saturate the market. When the market is fragmented, however, broad appeals are almost impossible, since whatever you offer will almost certainly exclude wide swaths of the population.
For another thing, with the increasing presence of the Internet, and it’s almost endless platforms for publishing and marketing, the signal to noise ratio is as high as it’s ever been. So, while it’s easier now than ever to get your message out, your message is one among millions. Being heard is both easier and more difficult, in that your message is easier to broadcast to a potential audience, but because there are so many voices, it can be more difficult to have your message actually heard. Time was you could craft a message, publicize it through traditional media, and have a reasonable chance of having it being heard by your intended audience. If you were quick enough, properly resourced, and sufficiently smart, you might run the table. Boom! Big. Nowadays, however, mass appeals untailored to highly specific audiences have difficulty making connections.
No question but that bigness still exists. And where it does, it’s really big … huge, in fact. (Think Apple, Walmart, Google, Comcast, Verizon, United Airlines). But it’s becoming rarer and rarer.
Small and local are also thriving (Think Farmers Markets, CSAs, Record Stores, Community Ministries). What we have less and less of is moderately big (Think Montgomery Ward, Circuit City, Newsweek, Borders, My Space). A large swath in the middle—including much that would traditionally have been called large—finds itself being squeezed on both ends.
So, maybe we need to rethink the endgame. Maybe our understanding of success needs recalibration.
- What if scrambling to be a monopoly is a waste of time?
- What if “mega” scares off more people than it attracts?
- What if, as Seth Godin has suggested, small is the new big?
I want to suggest that these are questions denominations and congregations should be considering just now.
Following Jesus costs a great deal more than we’re able to afford on our own. There are crosses with our names on them, just waiting for us.
Your cross might be made from the wood of ministering to the homeless. It might be carved from the ancient timber of speaking out against rape culture. It might be from the lonely stand of trees that make up caring for those with physical disabilities or mental illness. It might be from the lumber of #BlackLivesMatter, or feeding the hungry, or advocating for forgotten children, or caring for God’s creation, or welcoming the refugee, or standing up against the injustices that confront LGBTQ people, or sheltering the immigrant.
But don’t be mistaken, if you follow Jesus there’s a cross for you.
Where is the Lord?
According to Jeremiah, that’s the question God wants us to ask.
God isn’t afraid of our doubts and fears. God doesn’t shrink before our questions, doesn’t run from our anxieties.
God would rather have us ask tough questions about where God is than to have us throw up our hands in despair.
Christians can’t just believe stuff. People want an answer to the question: What kind of God they got up inside that church?
They want to know what turns on these much-discussed beliefs, what difference these beliefs make in our lives. Do they help us heal the sick, care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or receive the outcast? Do they help us stand up for the persecuted and the oppressed, welcome the refugee, or protect the vulnerable? Or do these beliefs merely represent a golden barrier that offers protection against blame—a way to be right?
In short, people who’ve lost interest in Christianity might just like to see Christians for whom believing 'this stuff' is merely the first step to actually living it out.
So, the safe thing to do is live as if God exists because the reward of doing anything else isn’t so great as to justify the risk of being wrong on this question. Pascal would have all of us smart people who are really thinking about things make the safe bet and live faithful lives just in case God exists.
It’s so rational and so…unsatisfying. Isn’t it? Trying to be faithful to the edicts of a higher power that just might exist seems so middling, so empty, so impotent, so…safe. It seems like advice a financial planner might give you. This is what the kids call “weak sauce”.
I don’t want that kind of faith. I want the kind of faith that turns away swords, conquers enemies. I want to part seas! Heck, in my line of work, I would settle for some of the more modest accomplishments of our Israelite heroes: obtaining promises and administering justice. Injustice is everywhere. Cruelty and pain abound and I want a resilient, courageous faith. But, I don’t often feel faithful at all, much less full of the faith of our Israelite heroes.
It’s so easy to think that the more we have the more prepared we are; only to find out that we maybe we’re preparing for the wrong thing.
It’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking the higher the walls we build, the safer we’ll be; only to be shown that no walls are high enough to keep out the stuff that haunts our dreams, that our safety is not ours to ensure.
It’s so easy to believe that the future we’re waiting for is one we could—through thoughtful planning and safe investments—meet on our own terms; only to find out that the future breaks in on us like the owner of the house returning from a wedding banquet—pushy, demanding.
God has a compelling relationship to us, God’s people. Always there. Constant, persistent, insistent. We need a God who stays. We need a God who invades our lives with presence. We are the ones who move away, who put up barriers, who assign God to safe places in our lives and in our thinking. There is the old line, “if you think you can’t find God, who moved?
Imagine a world where God’s presence invaded every space. Imagine following that presence through the door to healing: healing of broken relationships; relieving painful and infuriating injustice, healing of ugly dialogue--offering peace and wholeness in its place. Because that is what the presence of God--the Spirit-Energy--can do.
But Jesus says that in the reign of God, following him toward Jerusalem, we don’t get that kind of assurance. All us type A’s are going to have our worlds turned upside down, because we’re on an adventure—not a tour group.
In a world where too many go to bed hungry at night, where too many wake up to uncertainty about whether their children will make it home safely from school, where too many look for a friendly face among those who claim to follow Jesus but find no one . . . it’s going to be especially tough to make the sorts of things that typically go on a spreadsheet the measure of our success.