The Common Good
August 2005

A Change is Coming

by Robert Roth | August 2005

Among a people of faith, giftedness changes the world.

A bush burns,

A bush burns, a baby floats, and an impudent disciple finally gets it: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). The denouement in many of this month’s stories is found not so much in the action as in the extraordinary shifts of hearts and minds.

Joseph is sold into slavery and the Israelites fall into forced labor, but between his dreams and their mystical visions they follow God’s leading toward a land of milk, honey, and shalom.

Romans provides a spirituality of redemption and radical inclusiveness. Whether Jew or Greek, friend or foe, Paul beckons all who would be faithful to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2).

More than once in these weeks, Peter is all wet, either literally or figuratively. Only when he takes a leap of faith does he land squarely on solid ground. Jesus’ response? "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18).

Dreamers and mystics, apostles and aliens in a strange land - those whose voices ring out in these narratives seek to change history in accordance with God’s will. Repeatedly, they discover they must first change their way of thinking.

Millennia later, everything has changed and nothing has changed. Hunger, the oppression of immigrants, the false hope of violence, the pit or the prison - we also hope a change is coming. For us, too, it will begin in our hearts and minds.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist who lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

August 7
Assumptions Shaken
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

What do reasonable people consider normal? For favorite son Joseph, it seems normal to tell his brothers his dreams of success, sporting his "long robe with sleeves" - a garment suggestive of regal status and, given the sleeves, the avoidance of physical work.

As this story of a father named Jacob and a people named Israel unfolds (Genesis 37), Joseph’s brothers have a slightly different assumption: Fratricide. If Joseph’s dream doesn’t put them into a rage, the bling does. It makes perfect sense to kill him, but, among the brothers, cooler heads prevail. These nice guys simply throw him into a pit from which he is sold into slavery in Egypt. Score one for moderation.

In Matthew 14, the disciples determine that it could not possibly be Jesus walking on the water ("It is a ghost!"), while Peter assumes - until he hits the water - that his faith equals that of Jesus.

What’s "normal" today? The recent PBS documentary The New Asylums chronicled the mass migration of patients from now-closed mental hospitals to maximum-security prisons. Half a million mentally ill people who in earlier years would have been hospitalized are now abused daily in prisons. Behaviors that would have been treated therapeutically as normal for the mentally ill are met in prisons with extended sentences and solitary lockups.

Prevailing assumptions must be shaken before new visions - and actions - can emerge. In the passages for upcoming weeks, Joseph’s brothers and the headstrong Peter will each move toward a "new normal." For now, let us consider the wages of fratricide and fear.

Psalm 105 foreshadows a time when Joseph finds release from bondage and a king "makes him lord" of his region. In the epistle, Paul has the audacity to assume "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek" in hungering for salvation and wholeness (Romans 10:12). Could reasonable people assume Paul would extend that to the prisoner and the free?

August 14
Families Blessed
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Change comes to two families when faith allows one family member to see their families’ story in the larger story of God’s saving encounters with humanity. Joseph forgives the vicious abuse of his brothers and provides his entire family the very bounty foreseen in his inspired dreaming. Jesus expands his mission to the people of Israel to include Gentiles coming in faith. The Canaanite girl’s mother also sees the bigger story, faithfully pleading to the "son of David" (Matthew 15:22) to heal her daughter of a demon.

"Kindred living together in unity" in Psalm 133 are a precious commodity, like the oil on the beard of Aaron. The larger story: "the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore" (Psalm 133:3). In Romans 11, Paul reminds his readers of his roots in the tribe of Benjamin and of Israel’s ongoing acceptance by a compassionate God.

The fragmentation of society into the vested, guarded interests of nuclear families undercuts both those families and a social order yearning for fuller life and deeper harmony. A biblical ethic sees the biological family within the human family, in turn within the generational continuity of life on earth. It is a story of rising or falling together, living together as brothers and sisters, as Dr. King said, or dying together as fools.

August 21
Giftedness Revealed
Exodus 1:8–2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

It is the realtor’s mantra: location, location, location. The setting for this Exodus passage (and the prompting for the Egyptian king’s desire to destroy all male Israelite babies) is one of the empire’s frontiers. How could it be guarded if the Hebrews continue to multiply and one day potentially ally with a wartime enemy?

Peter confesses, "You are the Messiah" (Matthew 16:16) in Caesarea Philippi, a fertile area critical to the Roman Empire’s control of Palestine. Herod’s son Philip named the beautiful pagan-populated city in honor of Tiberius Caesar and himself.

These passages could be seen in the socio-political sweep of their emperors, Caesars, and pharaohs as case studies in forced labor and territorial control. Jesus’ question "who do you say that I am?" is asked amidst a cornucopia of deities - political and religious. Paul’s call in Romans 12:2 to "not be conformed to this world" also provides a radical shift in perspective.

With minds transformed, Paul knows the faithful will "discern what is the will of God" wherever they find themselves and use their gifts in the service of love, reconciliation, wisdom, and hope.

Among a people of faith, giftedness changes the world. In the first two chapters of Exodus, because some midwives "feared God" and refused Pharaoh’s orders to kill the male babies - using their function in the social order and outsmarting Pharaoh - they saved infant Moses. A tipping point, eh? As Paul lists "compassion" as a gift of faith to be used for the common good, along with prophecy, ministry, teaching, and leading (Romans 12:6-8), remember that daughter of Pharaoh who heard Moses cry, "took pity on him" (Exodus 2:6), and ultimately adopted him as her own.

Political or economic empires crush the lives and hopes of the poor. The revealed giftedness of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses, the imperfect Peter, and scores of early Christians provokes us to discern which gift God has given each of us that justice and peace might prevail. Wanted, even today: midwives, "the compassionate," and savvy daughters of pharaohs.

August 28
Wholeness Restored
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45; Romans 12: 9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

God’s fiery words make plain the Creator’s preferential option for the poor and suffering: "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.... I have come down to deliver them...to a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:7-8). God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom, wholeness, and a multi-layered peace: Shalom.

Here is the spiritual-political tradition in which Paul can stand and proclaim the vision of Jesus: "[E]xtend hospitality to strangers"; "Bless those who persecute you"; "Do not repay anyone evil for evil"; "If your enemies are hungry, feed them"; and "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:13-21). Paul exhorts in the tradition of God speaking to Moses through a burning bush.

The liberation wrought by a Moses or a Paul never comes without social struggle and personal suffering. Jesus rebukes Peter for his enormous miscalculation that suffering would not be required (Matthew 16:23).

In 2005, preparing to repay "evil for evil" has a far higher cost than would the deliverance of God’s poor to wholeness and health. The United States maintains 5,200 operational nuclear weapons and Russia 7,200, with both countries keeping more than 2,000 on ready alert. (The nuclear headliners, North Korea and Iraq, have 6 and 0 nuclear warheads, respectively.)

Blessing those who persecute? Feeding our enemies? Trusting God and not nuclear gods for deliverance? It will come with the renewal of our minds, the redemption of our dreams, and the consuming voice of God in our ears. One day, a change will come.

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