What does the Lord require?

Friends, I have to tell you about Friday evening: the closing of Heads Up! Hartford. (Several of you were there.) Imagine a packed auditorium, swelteringly hot. In the front rows are fifty or sixty teenagers in green T-shirts, emblazoned on the backs with the famous words from Micah: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Behind them, a crowd of parents, relatives, and well-wishers, including a host of young people who had participated in Heads Up! when they were teens. On the stage, a drum-set, a podium, and a screen, on which young people took turns singing, dancing, offering photographs, and testifying to how they had been changed, and how they had learned the difference that one person could make in this world.

I was sitting next to my friend and colleague Rowena, who had been gracious enough to allow me to hold her six-day-old foster son. And so, all the time that these teenagers were speaking, I was alternately gazing down at his tiny, perfect face, thinking about how kids not much older than he were suffering and dying in cages at the hands of our government, and looking up again to see these bright young people who were trying to make a world fit for children like him to live in. A world fit for us all to live in.

What does the Lord require of us? The painters talk about chiaroscuro, by which they mean a technique in which the scene in a painting has one bright light source which illuminates some people or details while allowing the others to fall into deep shadow.  (Think of a sunbeam coming through a high window into a dark room.) The light, of course, is Christ, but in this world, it’s Christ coursing through us: Christ in our hands, our feet, our heart. 

That’s what this Sunday’s reading from Kings (2 Kings 2:1-14) is about. It’s one of the most beautifully told stories in Scripture: the pacing, the three-fold repetition, the feeling of inexorability, the intimacy of friendship and the certainty of death. But all this points toward the river, where Elisha, the young prophet, makes an extraordinary request: Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit. (2 Kings 2:9) Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit. Elisha is speaking about the transmission of responsibility from one generation to another, that when our elders fade and die, those who are younger must step up to the plate. 

We cannot take refuge in indifference. We cannot take hold of our own smallness and pretend we have no power. Vested in us is all the power of God — at least, all the power God pours into this world. It matters when we speak and when we are silent, when we act and when we refuse to intervene. It matters how large we draw our circle: whether we center our lives on our selves or on our families or on the immediate members of our communities or on seeking to effect the kind of change that makes things better on a wider scale. And it matters for whom we act: for people like ourselves; for people unlike ourselves; for people who have power and can help us advance; for people who have no power, and never will, but whom Jesus also loves. It matters, because in baptism, we have put on the spirit of Christ. And to Christ, no one is a stranger, and everyone is kin.

There’s a funny thing about Elisha’s request. He does not simply ask that Elijah’s spirit come upon him; he asks for a double measure of it. For twice the holiness and power of the greatest prophet Israel had known. Elijah, after all, had plunged the region into drought and restored the rain; had rebuked kings and slain false prophets; he had even raised someone from the dead. Twice that is a serious ask! 

Elisha must have known a basic truth: that what has been raised from the dead can be made to go there again. That the gains people have fought for and wept for and bent their bones to achieve do not simply maintain themselves. There is evil in this world, my children, and there is entropy, and the force of self-interest is mighty indeed. The freedom that our founding fathers and mothers pried out of the hands of the British was partial. Freeing the slaves took a whole ‘nother war, in which one man in six died in our nation — and even then, they were mostly not able to vote. Our factory floors are safe only because workers and unions worked for it. Our children have healthcare only because determined citizens fought for it. The good things in our nation did not come about by chance, and they will not be preserved by indifference. 

This is true, of course, on a small scale as well. The parent who has cared for a cranky-sick child, the husband who has partnered his wife through a major career transition, the grown child who has cared for an elderly parent, can all tell you the same thing: deciding to do the right thing is not the hard part. What’s hard is continuing to make that decision, day after day, when the initial sense of joy we get from doing something good wears off, and all we are left with is the slog. 

That’s why St. Paul’s words today are so important: because Paul knows, and we need to remember, that the choices we make each day cultivate our souls, bending them toward the light or into the shadow. The works of the flesh sound kind of bloodless in our translation, but listen to what Eugene Peterson makes of them: “loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” (Gal 5:19-20, The Message) Imagine saturating yourself in that every day, in all of it or in part of it. Imagine what would do to your health of mind, body, and spirit. 

But, of course, we don’t have to imagine, do we? Thanks to advertising and social media and 24-hour news cycles, we are, in fact, immersed in that stew. We can’t drive down a highway without seeing billboards, or turn on the radio without hearing ads or talk radio, or try to buy clothing without being subjected to images of who we should be and how much externals should matter, or go to the supermarket without reading tabloids and women’s magazines and men’s magazines which urge us to care for our selves, tone our bodies, decorate our homes, and to believe that sexiness is what matters, which show us image after image of the good life — but which are mute on the subject of virtue.

But if immersion in toxic or trivial things can damage our souls, the converse is true as well.”What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Gal 5:22-23, The Message) Those are St. Paul’s words, again translated by Peterson. 

A few weeks ago, I reminded my congregation that God honors our choices; that God respects our freedom. St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)  He has to give that warning, because that moral freedom may be the scariest gift Christ gives us. And we do want to throw it away, don’t we? We hide in the darnedest of places, yoke ourselves to addiction and triviality and busyness —- but that gift of freedom is irrevocable. Christ grants us forgiveness, but his grace is not cheap.  We are not called to believe in Christ, but to follow him. Not to give intellectual assent, but to live with courageous compassion.

This week, the names of six migrant children who died in U.S. custody were released to the public. We prayed for them during the Prayers for the Dead. As a Christian leader, I am called to remind you that each of those children was created by God, just like our own; loved by God, just like our own; made to give God glory, just like our own. There is no politics compatible with our faith which allows us to condone these deaths, or the conditions which led to them. This is not about Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, immigration, borders, or any of that: this is about our fundamental moral commitments. Are we willing to be a country which kills children by espousing a policy of deliberate neglect?

I know that we, do not all share one set of political alliances: that’s the beauty of Christ, that he calls us together to learn from one another, and calls us to love one another even when we do not agree. I also know that each one of you is a person of deep good will.   And I suspect that most of you are as devastated as I am about this. My friends, there comes a time when being devastated is not enough. We can so easily allow our sense of horror and grief to become a placebo which allows us to believe we are good people, when in reality we are doing nothing to move the bar.

I am a woman whose family perished in camps, and I am begging you: please: Phone our legislators. Write to them. Attend the demonstrations which will be taking place around the country this week and in the weeks to come. Send money to the ACLU and the Immigration Law Clinic at U.C. Davis and other organizations which are working to turn this policy around.  The time for passivity is over; each of us who is person of good will needs to put skin in the game, just like Jesus did when he took on our flesh and our blood and our pain and our death because he was not willing to allow us to go on suffering alone.

What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Today, that looks like not allowing children to be killed. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

Turning our hearts

Today is the Feast of Nativity of John the Baptist, the day when a fierce wildness entered the world and began to call it to account. The story is a strange one: an elderly priest, alone at the altar of God; an angel who brings him good tidings, then strikes him mute when he is not quick to believe; nine months of silence, while the child grows in the womb; finally, a naming: John, which no one in that family has been named before.

It is a story of the upending of the human order of things — even of those aspects of it which were believed to have come from God. The smoke of the incense scatters on the wind of the angel’s wings. The orderly naming of family is broken, so that something new may come into the world.

And why? According to the angel, so that one will come “to turn the hearts of fathers to the children.” (Luke 1:17). It is a strange phrase; it rings oddly on our ears, which are more accustomed to the fifth commandment, which enjoins children to honor their parents. But to honor one’s children is to be attentive to the future: to be aware of the kind of world we are bequeathing to them.

We’re not doing so well at that, these days. Tens of thousands of children have been detained at our borders, in subhuman conditions, denied soap, toothbrushes, or warm blankets, sleeping on concrete floors and trying to eat frozen food which has not even been reheated. If these conditions had been imposed by their own parents, the U.S. government would have intervened to place the children in protective custody; today, the government inflicts such harm, while too many Americans remain silent or passive or complain but do nothing. Of the children who were born here, 21% (about fifteen million) live in poverty. Approximately 1.5 million schoolchildren are wrestling with homelessness. And that’s without even looking at the state of the ecosphere, which threatens to take away our first, last, and best home if we do not change our ways.

We need the witness of John the Baptist today. Harsh, acerbic, scathing as he was, still — he pointed to a God who is utterly transcendent, to a God whose pure goodness simply will not tolerate the harm we inflict on one another. Because when we turn our world over to our basest instincts, when we allow cruelty to supplant the law of the land, the true name of judgement is Love, and the true name of accountability is Hope, and the true name of repentance is Mercy. God’s mercy on us, and ours on one another.

Copyright: Ben Wildflower