Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Bible & the Newspaper - Kurt Nelson

Dartmouth College Chapel
Matthew 25: 34 - 45

There are, you may have noticed,
bible stories out there that are hard to relate to.
Strange stories that make you work for their affection,
Wading through arcane language and context and theology.
If we can muster the energy to deal with them at all.

And then there are passages like today's.
Passages that smack us in the face with truth,
Both timeless and contemporary.
I can't count the number of times
I've heard today’s passage read or quoted.
I've even preached on it a number of times.
And still it can surprise and convict me.

"Just as you do to the least of these…you do to me."
"Just as you do not do to the least of these…you do not do to me."

It doesn't get much more direct.
And those words, I suspect, haven't lost an ounce of their power
in the thousands of years since they were spoken,
and then written.

I am most definitely a sinner.
I hope that comes as no surprise.
I don’t walk around beating people up,
or oppressing the masses.
But these words still pop into my mind fairly often,
when I am indifferent to suffering.
When I speak ill of someone,
When I assume the worst of people,
lacking any grace and charity.

And I’m often reminded,
of the wonder of God’s forgiveness,
and god's undeserved grace.

But more often than not,
in recent times,
I find myself pondering these words,
“Just as you do to the least of these…”
In relation to our collective actions, inactions, and responsibilities.

I find myself wondering,
as we face the highest unemployment rate
and poverty rate in the last half century,
in our country,
how do Jesus' words speak to us differently?
As we face record breaking temperatures,
droughts, floods, and fires.
As we poison streams and Gulfs and oceans,
and we collectively cause and suffer from unclean air,
how do Jesus' words speak to us collectively?

In the midst of war and violence,
and terror and uprising,
how do Jesus’ words speak to us?
“Just as you do to the least of these…you do to me.”
Our theme for this term, "The Bible and the Newspaper."
Is a shorthand.

It comes from Karl Barth,
one of the more important theologians of the last century.
Who reminded young preachers and theologians at every turn,
that they ought to read and work and preach,
with the Bible in one hand,
and the newspaper in the other.
Now, some of you may be thinking,
"I'm not a preacher or a theologian."
But fear not.
For Barth was talking about all of us.
Barth was very Protestant,
and so anyone who professed a Christian faith,
or really even thought about it,
was (and is) a sharer of the good news,
and a crafter of lived theology.
Others of you might be thinking,
"Who still reads a newspaper?"

And fair enough.
Newspapers are not the force they once were.
And may be headed the way of rotary phones.
But in this case it's a symbol,
a call,
to pay attention to the world around us.
And so we will come together for these few weeks to wonder,
how our faith calls us to live in a troubled world.
We will ponder how we read our scriptures in light of current events.
And how we read our newspapers
(or whatever news source you may trust) in light of scripture.

We will wonder together how we ought engage thoughtfully,
and theologically,
with the events of the world.

This summer as I sat around pondering scripture,
and the events of the world
(as I, of course, do in all my free time).
In particular as I considered "the least of these"
and their place on our fragile planet,
I came to a strange conclusion.
(Now I want to note,
that I have no expectation of your coming to the same conclusion.
Nor do I particularly at this point, hope that you will.)
But I found myself,
almost exactly a month ago,
under arrest.
I and 51 others on that day,
and about 1300 over the course of two weeks,
sat on the sidewalk in front of the White House
where we were not meant to sit,
and were placed under arrest.
We were there in hopes of convincing the public,
and especially our president,
that we should not build a massive oil pipeline,
from the Tar Sands of Alberta Canada,
to the oil refineries of Houston, Texas.
We were there having heard the stories,
of First Nations communities in Alberta.
Suffering from loss of food, loss of land,
and extremely high incidence of cancer.
“Just as you do to the least of these…”
We were there having heard from residents of the Gulf Coast,
suffering not only from the ill effects of un-dealt-with oil spills,
but the persistent ill effects of being surrounded by oil refineries.

“Just as you do not do to the least of these…”

We were there pondering the rivers, and aquifers, and farmlands
that such a pipeline would cross.
And there pondering our changing atmosphere,
and its ill effects on all of us,
but especially those already struggling.
“Just as you do to the least of these… you do unto me."
We were there hoping to honor a long tradition of those,
who heard the call of scriptures
and of current events,
to make a stand for a more just world,
in ways both big and small.

It was the first time I had done anything like that.
It was exciting and a little terrifying.
These are strange and powerful words.
That can push us to strange and scary places.

But, we can take heart that we are not alone.
And that in our wandering, confused ways,
we are all part of God’s unfolding story for all humankind.

I’m not at all convinced there’s there’s an easy,
straight line between scripture and policy.
And I certainly don’t expect that we all share the same politics.
But I do hope you’re here,
here in this chapel,
and here at this college,
because you think that those beliefs you hold most dear,
ought to affect the way we live,
the way we organize,
and the expectations we have for our society.
There are those who would opt out.
Who push all such questions into the afterlife.
Or who would create little Christian Kingdoms.
But I believe at the very heart of Christ’s message,
seems to rest the idea,
that the problems and possibilities of this messy world here,
are really, truly, and deeply significant.
That seems to be the essential point,
of God in human flesh.
Jesus’ words ring too strongly in my ears,
And maybe yours as well...
“Just as you do to the least of these…”

And I hope you’re here,
because you think the witness of hope, faith, love, and justice
has something to say about the problems of the world.
And so this term will, I think,
push us to ask ourselves not if we should be involved,
but how.
And in the spirit of faith, and hope, and love,
we will engage,
and wonder,
and hope,
and pray together.
With the Bible in one hand,
and the newspaper in the other.

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