Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

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The Gospeler Mark would have been great on Twitter.

In just six short verses, each one just one sentence, he pretty much tells us everything about Jesus’s incarnation.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need to study Scripture anymore. It does tell us, though, all about God’s vast love for humankind, a love so vast that he set aside his crown and came down to show us the face of that love and how to show it to others. That was important then; it is vitally important now, on January 21, 2018.

Aside from later flashbacks, Mark dispenses with the story of John the Baptizer and then barrels straight into the main event. John is the opening act, but Jesus is the superstar everyone was waiting for. Drum roll, fireworks, hoopla . . .

“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God,” we’re told. In fact, Jesus WAS the Good News of God, God incarnated, God we can see and hear and touch. Ain’t a that a good news?

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says. He’s not talking about chronological time; he’s talking about God’s time, metaphysical time, the RIGHT time, the time is ripe for the unfolding of God’s dream for mankind, to redeem his beloved children and bring them back unto himself.

What a time it was! For the Jews, it was yet another time of upheaval, of being ruled by a foreign power. Zealots planned insurrections; the Jews longed for Messiah to come and speak truth to power, to break the chains of Rome and set them free.

They got instead a simple man, this humble Jesus, clearly not a warrior, not wielding a sword or a knife, but saying words that did speak truth to power if only they could understand what true power is. Nonetheless, many would hear the ring of truth in them and follow him.

No, the Jews who were expecting a warrior Messiah didn’t get the fireworks, the drum roll, the hoopla. Because that’s not how God works and it wasn’t how Jesus worked then or today, is it?

“The Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus says, because he represents the Kingdom of God and he has come down to model for us the way back to God and the way to make God’s will come on earth as it is in Heaven.

“Repent, and believe in the good news.” Repent, literally change your mind, open your inner vision, think outside the box and understand what good news really means in God’s world.

Jesus came quietly, at first, walking on a beach, seeing fishermen who were probably dirty and smelly and he said to them, “Come, follow me.”

And they did. They immediately left what they were doing and followed him. The time was right, and somehow they knew it.

Some would scorn Jesus, the temporally powerful, the influential, the priests and scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, the ruling class. Someone would say, upon learning where Jesus grew up, “What good can come out of Nazareth?”

Does that sound familiar? Does that statement resonate with anything said, oh, the week before last? What good can come out of Haiti, of Africa, of El Salvador?

Those Jesus asked to come and follow him were, for the most part, humble, disenfranchised people. Some were outcasts. Some were simple laborers, concerned with subsistence living and maybe even selling enough fish to save some money up. The wealthy young man Jesus asked to follow couldn’t do it; the poor could because they had nothing to lose, and that is often the point where true power in God’s world begins.

As Jesus modeled for them the will of God to bring heaven on earth, he brought healing to other outcasts, crazy people, lame people, lepers, blind beggars, all were what might have been considered the lowest of the low. Yet these were the ones to whom he gave not only physical healing, but spiritual healing, the kind of healing that only comes from an encounter with the divine, the healing that comes with being made to know unconditional love.

Jesus chose people who, in theologian Howard Thurman’s words, had their backs against the wall. They were free of the entrapments of the world, and he knew they would get things done after he had given his very life for them.

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman seeks to answer a question that had bothered him for many years, a question put to him by a Hindu college president while he was on a fellowship mission with the YMCA in India.

The question was, how can you, a black man whose grandmother was enslaved, preach the gospel of the white man, a gospel forced on your people as a way to sedate them and keep them from thinking of freedom. It took Thurman many years to come up with his answer.

“The solution which Jesus found for himself and for Israel, as they faced the hostility of the Greco-Roman world, becomes the word and the work of redemption for all the cast-down people in every generation and in every age. I mean this quite literally. I do not ignore the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation. But the underprivileged everywhere have long since abandoned any hope that this type of salvation deals with the crucial issues by which their days are turned into despair without consolation. The basic fact is that Christianity as it appears in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, MUST NOT [my emphasis] tempt us into believing that was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”

If I believe in anything, I believe that if Jesus came to earth today, he would seek first the Haitian, the Salvadoran, the Mexican, the African, the African-American, the Dreamers, all those whose backs have been shoved against the wall.

Does that mean he wouldn’t seek us? Are our backs against the wall? Are we victims of fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell as Thurman describes them?

Well, we are if we let the status quo reign supreme. We are if we pass up a chance to speak out. We are if we don’t recognize that as followers of Jesus, everyone who suffers in the temporal world is our sister and brother in God, for whom we have a responsibility to them and to God to lift up.

For Jesus does call us too! Every morning when we awake, we are called anew to follow Jesus, to help bring the good news of God’s love and redemption into the world, to help bring the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, and to let the Holy Spirit work through us to say no to the powers that create the disinherited, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, to stand up for God’s justice, and God’s equality.

Because if we don’t share that love and that redemption with those whose backs are against the wall, we don’t deserve them. They don’t exist in a vacuum. If anyone is made to feel unworthy, then we are all unworthy.

Don’t forget that Jesus also modeled anger for us well as love. He let his anger loose when he saw the perversion of God’s will in the usurers in the temple marketplace and those who insisted that if you didn’t sacrifice an animal or birds, you couldn’t get close to God, in the priests who hid behind the temple veil as if only they could decide what God wanted of God’s people.

The time is fulfilled! Prepare yourselves! Humble yourselves! And when you hear the tender voice in your inmost heart saying, “Come, follow me,” you’ll know what to do.

 

 

 

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Don’t Add to Puerto Rico’s Problems

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I’m getting wind of rumors about Puerto Rico that seem to be part of a propaganda campaign to explain away why the territory is not getting the help it needs from the US government to recover from Hurricane Maria.

Another possible intent of the propaganda is to enact even more restrictive voter ID laws; even as the “president” dissolved the voter fraud commission, he started tweeting about voter IDs.

His Twitter fans are very enthusiastic, one person calling for both an ID and a birth certificate to be shown when voting. The thing is that it’s very unlikely that white people will be asked to show both of these, while people of color will.

INVENTED RUMOR: Puerto Ricans who have left the island since Hurricane Maria, not just for fun but for survival, will allow “illegal Mexicans” to reproduce their IDs so the “illegals” can vote too.

UNTRUE RUMOR: Puerto Ricans don’t pay into Social Security or Medicare, but they can get Social Security and Medicare. The implication is that we mainland taxpayers are funding the shiftless Puerto Ricans. In fact, Puerto Ricans do pay into Social Security and Medicare.

MISLEADING RUMOR: Puerto Ricans don’t pay taxes to the US so don’t deserve aid. While it’s true that Puerto Ricans don’t pay a personal income tax, they do pay taxes in Puerto Rico that are shared out to the federal government. According to VOX, Puerto Rico paid $3.6 billion in taxes in 2016.

What I thought was the most vicious rumor turns out to be true; well, the facts are true, but the way it was sad to me was vicious. There is a very high incidence of squatting on abandoned or government land. Lorraine Woellert of Politico tells the story at https://www.politico.com/staff/lorraine-woellert

Puerto Rico propaganda artLet’s get this straight: The US “won” Puerto Rico under the Treaty of Paris of 1898 along with Cuba, the Philippines and Guam, after the Spanish-American War. Spain had owned the island since good old Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1493. The French, Dutch, and English all tried to take it away. US Forces invaded during the Spanish-American War and managed to wrest it away from Spain.

At no time did the indigenous Taino and Carib Indian population have a say in any of this, much less the offspring of Africans who were enslaved and brought to Puerto Rico by Spain.

Puerto Rico became a US Commonwealth in 1952. Puerto Ricans are US citizens but have no voting rights in Congress and can only vote in Presidential primaries but not Presidential elections as they don’t qualify for Electoral College votes.

Yet over the years American companies have enriched themselves by locating in Puerto Rico and paying low wages and enjoying tax laws that benefit them. A venture called “Operation Bootstrap,” patronizingly designed (or said to) help pull Puerto Ricans out of poverty in fact caused more poverty and dislocation.

The harm that these rumors and half-truths will do if left unchecked will cause incalculable harm. Puerto Rico has been at a disadvantage for hundreds of years. As the modern-day commonwealth tries to recover from a storm as destructive as Maria need all the help they can get, from the US government and from fellow US citizens.

Please, if anyone brings these subjects up in front of you, shut them down.

 

 

 

Ghost of The Innocent Man

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Had I known how emotional I would get at the end of listening to Ghost of an Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, I probably would have waited until I was at home to play it.

Instead, I was zooming along a major highway through Pennsylvania at 70-plus miles per hour with tears streaming down my face.

Tears of relief, happiness, sadness, and release of tension.

I knew from the beginning how the true story of Willie Grimes and the 25 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit would end, but Mr. Rachlin’s book, which came out late this year, still kept me in suspense for many an evening while eating dinner. I can’t number the heavy sighs that came out of me at each twist of the botched investigation, the refusal of the Catawba County officials to do more, and the heartbreaking years during which Mr. Grimes was shuttled from prison to prison, all the while protesting his innocence and searching for someone who would listen to him.

It wasn’t until the creation of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, spearheaded by young lawyer Christine Mumma, that someone did.

Carrie Elliott, a woman in her late 60s, was raped in 1987 In her own home. One evening a knock came at her door, and she opened it to find an African-American man who forced his way in and proceeded to rape her repeatedly.

Willie Grimes was miles away with his girlfriend, Brenda, doing a personal errand and then attending a party. Mr. Grimes slept that night on a sofa at a friend’s house. A couple of days later, he was told that the police were looking for him, so he went to the police station to find out why. He was not free again until 2007.

Mrs. Elliott was shown two different sets of pictures of possible assailants. In one was the picture of the man who had raped her, Albert Turner. In the second, Mr. Turner’s picture was not included but Willie Grimes’s was. Influenced by a neighbor, who said that the assailant sounded like Mr. Grimes and gave her a description of Mr. Grimes, Mrs. Elliott then picked Willie’s picture.

The neighbor also went directly to the police and received a $1,000 reward for naming Mr. Grimes.

The two men looked nothing alike. And though Mrs. Elliott had not mentioned a man with a mole on his cheek or scars on his chest (Willie) right after the rape, the police thought they had an open and shut conviction. That, along with a pseudo-science report that a hair found in Mrs. Elliott’s house was identical to Mr. Grimes’s hair, the police in fact did have an open and shut case.

The police also ignored a banana that the rapist had eaten part of and tossed aside, which would prove to have fingerprints that would have identified Mr. Turner, the actual rapist.

And Willie Grimes, in his early 40s, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

His girlfriend died while he was in prison. Carrie Elliott died while he was in prison. Three brothers died while he was in prison. He was repeatedly denied privileges because of his refusal to “accept responsibility for his crime.”

I came to love Willie Grimes during the course of the book, for his perseverance, for his anger, for his joy when freed, for everything he endured.

We know that he is just one of many, many people wrongfully imprisoned whose fate is in the hands of organizations such as the Innocence Project, Equal Justice Initiative, and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

Knowing just one person’s story leads to an understanding of others’ stories and the hopes and prayers that they too will find the exoneration they seek and deserve. We can help by supporting such organizations as well as calling for reform in the American justice system. Just one day in prison for an innocent person is one day too much.

You can hear an NPR interview with Mr. Rachlin and Mr. Grimes here: https://www.npr.org/2017/08/27/546497386/-ghost-of-the-innocent-man-a-story-of-24-years-of-wrongful-imprisonment