Monday, December 12, 2011

The Occupation of God?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

            I wonder if we could think of John’s setting up camp to prophesy and preach and baptize as a kind of first century “Occupy” movement.  “Occupy Bethany,” or “Occupy the Jordan.”
            I see similarities.  John was not out there doing his thing with anyone’s permission or authority. He didn’t seem to care about authority at all, except perhaps for how it was abused.  He certainly was not fond of either the political or religious leadership of his day. He had choice words for both, words that eventually got him murdered by King Herod II, with a little help from Salome and her devious mother.

            His general message was that something was not right about how people were living their lives and he warned that change—repentance, he called it—was absolutely vital for the future of a society that lived up to the ideals of its founders (not to mention God).

            I will confess that I am not as knowledgeable about the Occupy movement as I should be.  This fall has not leant itself to my exploring a new thing.  But I am intrigued by it and generally supportive of it.  Furthermore, I suspect Jesus is too.  The Occupy folks make me wonder, which is always a good thing.  Mostly I wonder what it means to believe passionately that the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in this country and around the world is nearing crisis proportions.[1] Or perhaps we’re already at the crisis point and that’s what the Occupy folks want us to wrap our minds around.

            I also wonder, however, what many of us do with the dilemma we are in.  Many of us, like it or not, have a dependency on Wall Street.  Our 401(k)s or 403(b)s do.  The endowment of this parish, and our diocese, and the Episcopal Church certainly does.  So if we support the Occupy Movement, are we biting the hand that feeds us?  Do we need to find a different way to be fed?  Or does the hand that feeds us simply need some radical reform?[2]  These are all important questions—vitally important, and as people of faith, we ought to be having conversation about them.  Again, I suspect Jesus wants us to do so.

            I also wonder how the church relates to Occupy.  I received the newsletters from a couple of our churches in the diocese recently that had fashioned a graphic that said, “Occupy the pews of your Episcopal Church.”  Clever, but I don’t like it.  At least I don’t like it unless I know those parishes are also having deep conversation about the issues raised by the Occupy Movement.  I checked—they’re not.  It seems to me this is just another example of the church exploiting others for its own benefit.  It’s another reason for a group of people who are largely alienated from the church and highly mistrustful of it to remain so.  It’s not helpful at all.  

            I like some of what Brian McLaren[3] is writing about the Occupy Movement and Christian faith.  In a blog post near the beginning of the movement, he admits that he is kind of uncomfortable with the word “occupy.” It sounds aggressive to him. But he says this in reflection after he spent a day with some Occupiers.

As we walked along, I kept thinking about Jesus' use of the term "kingdom of God." …. Like "occupy," kingdom of God” was a dangerous term for a nonviolent movement. It borrowed the language of the Roman Empire whose pax was maintained by slavery, militarism, public torture, and frequent executions (i.e., crucifixion). It was overtly provocative—bursting out of the private sphere of spirituality into the public world of kings, lords, and laws. It threw down a gauntlet before the powers that be, challenging their legitimacy with a higher authority.

If I had been around, I would have counseled Jesus against using the term.

[Like with the choice of the word “occupy”] I'm glad I wasn't consulted. It's rather obvious now that Jesus knew what he was doing. "The occupation of God has begun" might inspire the same fear and hope among people today as "the Kingdom of God is at hand" inspired in the first century.[4]

            “The occupation of God has begun.” I like that.  And I think the prophet Isaiah would have liked it.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

            That “year of favor” of which Isaiah speaks is the biblical “Year of Jubilee.” Every fifty years Israel was to set things right economically.  All property returned to its ancestral owners, all Israelite slaves freed, slavery being how the poor got used by the rich in those days.

            Jesus was so fond of this message that he used it as his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in his hometown,[5] a story we hear every St. Luke’s Day.

            This good news for the underdogs announced, indeed, the occupation of God.  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he said about this passage from Isaiah.  Jesus himself was the occupation of God, if you think about it.  Maybe more on that Christmas Eve.

            Whether or not you agree with the tactics of the Occupy Movement, you have to admit as a Christian, that the gross inequality in this country that has ballooned over the last decade has to be addressed.  Do we really believe as followers of Jesus that it is the inherent right for those who are rich to get as rich as they possibly can even if it means that the poor get poorer, the unemployed stay unemployed, and the vast majority of children in this country lose any hope at all of anything approaching the “American dream?”

            A quote from a book of Advent meditations that I am using says it very nicely:

Like it or not, the moral economy of God is not predicated on the necessity of poverty for most and riches for some.[6]

            We need to talk about this, and we need to take action, even if it is not exactly the kind of action of the Occupy Movement.  Or maybe it is.  But I am absolutely confident in this: Jesus wants us to do something.

[1] In 2009, total US household wealth was held 63.5% by the top 5% of the citizenry (35.6% by the top 1%).  The bottom 80% held 12.8%.  Median net worth in 2007 was $143,600 for white Americans, $9,300 for Black Americans, $9,100 for Hispanic Americans.  Between 1979 and 2009 , the top 5% of Americans saw their real incomes increase 72.7%.  The bottom 20% shrunk 7.4%.
[2] In a 60 Minutes interview on December 11, 2011, President Obama pointed out that, unfortunately, very little that anybody did to cause the 2007-2008 crash was illegal.
[5] Luke 4:14-21.
[6] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, Let Every Heart Prepare (Morehouse, 1998), p. 29.

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