Former Speaker of the House John Boehner visited Stanford on April 27 to chat about his time in Washington, D.C., but the conversation quickly turned to what he thinks of the current Republican presidential candidates.
The pontiff’s lines on the exploitation of the powerless drew wide applause and highlighted not only themes that he has often addressed but also the debates over whether the pope — and Catholic teaching — lean toward some form of Marxism. Francis’ critics among conservatives in the U.S. in particular have often accused him of being a “left-winger” or a communist. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has praised Francis as a “socialist” like himself.
In this season of Lent, Isaiah 55:1-9 may be a sobering text for us. In this election season amid shrill or buoyant rhetoric, we may not notice that there are real choices to be made — even as Jews in ancient Babylon were confronted with real choices of a most elemental kind.
The problems of the world can overwhelm us. When we are confronted by the Divine in the cries of human need, we may, like Isaiah, feel unworthy and ill-equipped to respond. However, if we allow this Divine experience to transform our human weakness, we can find the courage and strength to answer that call, as Jean Vanier has, with a bold, “Here I am!” What follows may be more difficult than we can imagine, but we can be confident in the knowledge that the work we do is Holy work.
You don’t want God to ask you to be a prophet. You really don’t.
When God calls you to some holy task, you might expect a contemplative path, a quiet life of service, and love of neighbor. You might expect a comfortable life of piety and hopefulness, grace, and caring.
But true prophets know better.
Prophets tend not to have such idyllic hopes for God’s call. Prophets know too well that the call of God to speak hard truths is paved with difficulty. The prophet’s road is lonely not because she escapes the hubbub of everyday life in order to retreat and draw near to God. No, the prophet’s road is lonely because she is called to the most troubled corners of the world, places which existence we would rather deny or ignore. The prophet’s road is lonely because she must speak boldly to an upside-down world that doesn’t realize it is upside-down. The prophet sees the world as it really is while we see the prophet and marvel that she is walking on the ceiling.
In our readings for this week, we encounter two prophets who speak bold words to a world predisposed to ignore them. We encounter two prophets who speak a word of deliverance to the downtrodden and judgment upon the powerful. We encounter two prophets engaged with the most pressing matters of all. We encounter two prophets that we still refuse to heed.
This reading of Isaiah 40 may make it more difficult for many of us to relate to the ancient historical setting of the text. There are many among us, however, who are refugees, forced to migrate to find economic opportunity or even because of poor decisions or systemic injustice that forces a disproportionate amount of our minority population into the prison system. Bereft of personal and economic freedom, our nation’s prison population might find both hope and justice in these words from the ancient prophetic text.
There is no doubt that many in our nation’s prison have committed crimes, just as the ancient people of Judah did according to Isaiah 1. There is also no doubt that we need a system of incarceration that separates dangerous criminals from potential victims. But the words concerning disproportionate judgment also call us to question the fairness of our current system in the United States, which boasts the largest prison population in the world at 2.2 million.
Moreover, just as God did not give up on the people of Judah, God has not given up on those in the prison system. What would happen if we as Christians partnered with God to help transform lives and offer hope to the women and men who fill our prisons?
Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:
-the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;
-the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)
-the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?
Can we be as honest as the Bible?
The highlight of the Super Bowl for me was Coca-Cola’s "America is Beautiful" commercial. The images of the American landscape are amazing and the song was beautiful. At first I was a bit confused by the different languages singing "America the Beautiful" (I’m slow…), but I caught on about halfway through. When the commercial ended, I looked over at my wife and said, “Wow. That was beautiful … Not worth four million dollars, but that was good.”
For the moment, let’s deal with any cynicism that the Coca-Cola Company is simply trying to sell us their product. Of course they’re trying to sell us their product; that’s why they spent millions on their ad, but along the way, Coke pointed to the reason that I love the United States. I love my country because it is a nation that welcomes the “Other.” Indeed, we haven’t always been good at this, and we still struggle with it, but the United States is a nation of immigrants. Even Native Americans, who have tragically been excluded from the land they’ve lived on for thousands of years, were originally immigrants who were welcomed by this land. This land has a long history of welcoming people into it, and so any act of excluding immigrants goes against its ideal of welcoming the “Other.”
This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.
“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.
As the New Year brings reflection over the past year, we have heard much about Pope Francis and the ways he has surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The suddenness of his predecessor’s resignation this past spring, the fact that he is the first Pope from the Americas, and his apparent commitment to his namesake St. Francis’ concern for the poor and displaced all contribute to the sense that this Pope embodies the unexpected.
Especially indicative of the way this Argentinian, who for a short time was a nightclub bouncer, has surprised people is being named “Person of the Year” by The Advocate, a popular U.S. magazine devoted to gay and lesbian rights, culture, politics, and entertainment. Although he did not (nor will he, likely) reverse the Church’s stance on gay marriage, this accolade was given to the Bishop of Rome based upon his apparent change in tone about gays and lesbians, reportedly having said to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the issue. Clearly, this humble response has endeared the Pontiff to many who have been excluded from the fold, yet still yearn for hints of acceptance.
The period of Epiphany is a time in which the identity of the Divine’s chosen is revealed and often this identity entails some element of surprise. In the same vein, this week’s Old Testament text, Isaiah 49:1-7, highlights the unforeseen nature of the servant who restores Israel.