Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The days are coming . . .

“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the House of Judah . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the Lord; “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Often, as a priest, I am reminded that the days prophesied have not yet happened. To be sure, the prophesy has begun to be fulfilled as the messiah has come and initiated the beginning of the reign of God. But, and it is a heavy but, our Lord Christ has not yet returned and recreated all things, including our hearts, with His torah written on our hearts. We do not always see things that He sees, we do not always hear things that He hears, and we certainly do not always love those people whom He calls us to love. Every now and again, however, He reminds me of the validity of His promise. Every now and again, I get that privileged opportunity to hear of the healing looked for in Jeremiah. This weekend was one of those magnificent moments.

     Let me start by way of foundational material. Nora (not her real name) had asked for prayers. She knew our Intercessors were faithful, and she had heard many tales of answered prayers thanks to their obedience. Nora shared a bit of her past and asked for prayers for healing. For very legitimate reasons, Nora had completely cut her father out of her life and out of the life of her immediate family. For some months, we have prayed consistently for her healing. For much of her walk in faith with Christ, she has also prayed for her own healing.

     As everyone around here knows, I was travelling in New England this past weekend, connecting with those who were interested in joining the fight against slavery. I had met with state workers by virtue of planning or divine-scheduling. I had connected with people of different denominational affiliation. And I had a chance to reconnect with our friends at New Hope Anglican, the chihuahua preacher’s church. Bryan had asked me to preach at the Sunday worship service, their Healing Sunday. Bryan had also insisted that I give about three days worth of sermon. So, before church, I retired to the billiards room to collect my thoughts and outline a sermon that would be a couple days shorter. As I was organizing my thoughts, Nora herded her family into the room and began to share a personal testimony, oblivious to my presence.

     On Tuesday of last week, she felt compelled to seek out her father and beg his forgiveness. When one of her family asked why she needed to be forgiven by him, she told them that she had been weak and had allowed him to continue to live without getting the help he desperately needed. She found that he was only 12 miles away and went to his house. Naturally, he was not convinced that her arrival was good. He had done despicable things to her in his past. I can imagine he was probably convinced that she had snapped and was there to kill him. But he came to the door and met with her. She repented that she had failed him as a daughter.

     Truthfully, had the story ended there, it would have been ok or good enough. I saw her point, but I still thought she was owed the repentance by him. But here she was telling her family of the healing that she had received these past few months. Before I could interrupt the cries of surprise and interrogation of her family, she said there was more. As they knew, both her parents had been atheists. Nora counts it an amazing grace that God has grabbed hold of her and her life so fiercely, given her upbringing. “God does more than we can ask or imagine,” she boldly proclaimed. Her father told her she owed him no apology. He was the sinner in the relationship. He was the one who had failed her, failed her terribly. Could she ever forgive him? When Nora asked her father where this understanding had come from, he shared that a friend had invited him to church many years ago. After some time of going to that church, he met the Risen Lord. For reasons he could not explain to her, he had committed his life to Jesus Christ.
He went on to share that as he has journeyed with God, he has been given eyes and ears to see the hurt and sin that he sowed. His prayer, as a result, had become fairly simple. He had asked God for the opportunity to repent to all those against whom he had sinned. He told Nora he was certain, absolutely certain, that he would never get to apologize to his daughter because what he had done to her was unforgivable. Now, near the end of March, she was standing at his door asking him to forgive her! Reminiscent of Simeon, her father told her he could die now at peace.

     Nora shared with her family the amazing healing grace of God. She had asked for healing prayers for herself, never once thinking to ask for healing prayers for him. She had asked for sanctification for herself, never once thinking to ask God to reach into her father’s life and to save him. She had given continual thanks for God’s willingness to claim a child of atheists never once asking Him to work the same miracle in her father’s life. There was so much work still to be done. God still had a lot of work to do in her life, and they were going to need a bigger table for Thanksgiving this year when her father joined them for the first time! You can imagine the tears of joy. The family hugged and prayed.
I turned to Bryan and softly said, so as not to interrupt the moment, “there’s our sermon. Would you ask her to give it today?” A bit of an argument ensued. Nora, as Bryan reminded me, is intently introverted. She does not like speaking to people she does not know. She does not like crowds. He counseled that I should simply get her permission to share what we had been privileged to witness. “It’s her story. It needs her voice. This church is her family not strangers,” was my response. Bryan asked knowing her fears far better than me. I will give her a lot of credit. She is not a fan of speaking in public. She is one of those gentle souls that never argues with those whom she trusts. In about 30 seconds or a minute, she got the obligatory three rejections of God’s call in that moment into our discussions. I had travelled all the way from Davenport. She had no homiletical training. Nobody would be interested in the story. Arguing with us had to have been very tough for her. And, in the end, God won.

     In the end, we all won. Nora told her story to her brothers and sisters in the church. Most were those with whom she has forged a wonderful relationship, but there were a few visitors, a handful of strangers. When she finished what was a true labor of love and faithful obedience for her, there was not a person present not sniffling or tearing up. Almost all those present knew Nora. They knew her pain, her faithfulness, her desire to follow God wherever He leads her, and even her fear of public speaking. They took it for the blessing that it was. When Bryan and I recounted the prayer requests after the service, fully 7 people between us had asked us to pray for that kind of reconciliation within their own families. The visitors who grabbed me after the service were gushing. “I have read of stuff like this in the Bible, but I have never before witnessed it with my own eyes. I am speechless!”

     Think what happened, brothers and sisters. Think of the vision that we have been given. A lady victimized by a father asked us to help her pray for her own healing. Our God is so gracious, so magnificent, so powerful, so loving that He was not content healing Nora. He responded to her prayers by reaching into her father’s life. Her father had failed Nora terribly. Not only had he sinned against her willfully, he had even taught her that her Father in heaven was a myth, a joke, a fairy-tale. Undeterred, God reached into her father’s life, interposed His flesh and blood, and began a healing process whose end we cannot yet know! Another prodigal son, this time in the role of a failed father, came to himself and claimed that sacrifice on his behalf. As much rejoicing as there was in Watertown CT last Sunday, I can only imagine what the party sounded like in heaven.

     Brothers and sisters, that is the healing promised by God. That is the healing looked forward to by Jeremiah that can result only by our dying to our self and giving leave to our Lord to use us as He will. On this, the fifth Sunday in Lent, as we look back on the struggles of these past 33 days of this season where we take on disciplines and give up idols and begin to realize that we are not up to the simple tasks, let alone the difficult task of our own salvation, as we begin to look forward to next week’s celebration, the sadness of and passion of Holy Week, and the profound joy and hope of Easter, can you imagine a better story of redemptive healing? I can. I can think of two: mine own and yours. I pray, brothers and sisters that over the next couple weeks, you and I will be asked why we celebrate with joy each Sunday. I pray, brothers and sisters, that we will respond as did Nora, give an account of our walk with God, and given the privilege of seeing His kingdom grow right before our very eyes!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lifted Up!

     Our story this week in Numbers needs a bit of perspective. We don't often spend time in the book of Numbers. To be sure, many commentators believe that it is a good thing that we don't spend too much time in it. I remember during seminary, when we actually have to study the books, one of the commentators compared the book of Numbers to a treasured desk, an attic, or some chest where we keep the things we don't want to get rid of, but we don't quite know what we want to do with either. This commentator remarked that the book of Numbers was almost like Moses took great notes from God when composing the rest of the Pentateuch, but then he had all these left over stories when he had finished Genesis, Exodus, and the torah with which he was unwilling to part. This commentator jokingly hypothesized that such was how this book was created!

     If you have ever spent any significant time in the book of Numbers, you can probably understand the commentator’s humor. Compared to the narrative history that unfolds in Genesis and Exodus, and compared do the thou shalts and thou shalt nots of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers is a challenge. In many cases, it does not seem to make sense. In many cases, without the appropriate background, it can seem very disjointed and, well, not full of any good news. Today’s reading is, perhaps for you, one such example. After all, why on earth would God send a plague of snakes on people who are just complaining? It’s not like they are killing each other, worshipping a molten calf, or doing anything worthy of death, right? Did Moses leave this passage out of the Exodus narrative because it painted God in a bad light, as some will argue? And, surely, it offers us no good news and has no application today, right?

     To place the story in its narrative location, you must understand what is going on during this wandering. Moses led Israel to the banks of the Jordan after the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the torah on Mount Sinai. Thinking to be prudent, the leaders of Israel send spies into the Promised Land. They see those who live in the Promised Land and are afraid that they cannot hope to take possession of the Land. So, God tells Moses and Israel that none of that generation will enter the Promised Land. They will spend the next forty years wandering in a wilderness that would take you and me some two to three weeks to cross on foot. Our story today picks up in that wandering. Immediately before our story today, Israel has had to battle the King of Arad and all his forces. Despite the odds, Israel wins an improbable victory and utterly destroys Arad. Prior to that, Moses had asked the King of Edom for permission to pass through the land of Edom peacefully, a request that was denied by the king (Obadiah will explain more of Edom’s haughtiness and God’s judgment later in Scripture). So Israel finds itself going around Edom rather than through it, and it is during this “going around” that our story is grounded.

     Israel asks Moses and God why they were brought up out of the land of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Worse, they complain that the food and water are detestable. What are the people of Israel eating on this journey? Manna. God is feeding them the bread of angels, and the people of Israel claim it is detestable. How are the people of Israel being watered? If I mentioned the story of Moses striking the rock with his staff, would you know how they are being watered? That’s right, God is giving them manna and water. Hmmm. They are also being protected against the elements by the cloud. And they are being protected against enemies. Does any group have less reason to complain? And we have not even mentioned the events at Mount Sinai, the parting of the Red Sea, or the destruction of Egypt’s chariots. In the midst of all this, they have the temerity to accuse God and Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to dies. In the midst of this miraculous provision, they have the audacity to call it detestable and miserable. Maybe God’s punishment makes a little more sense to you now. And, in the grander sense, God is fulfilling His righteous judgment that none of those who came to the Jordan will ever enter to the Promised Land because they do not trust in Him.

     But notice what happens. Israel will often blame others for their actions. Like Adam (the one You gave me, she gave it to me) and us (it’s not my fault), Israel will blame their bad actions, their sinful actions, on others or on their circumstances. Curiously, Israel is growing up a bit during their wandering. The people recognize that they have sinned, that God is punishing them, and so they go to Moses. They confess their sin against Moses and God, and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf with God. When Moses intercedes, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, to set it on a pole, and to put the pole up in the middle of camp. Anyone who is bitten need only to look at the bronze snake in the middle of camp to be healed. Moses did as he was instructed by God, and Scripture tells us that whenever a person was bitten and looked at the bronze serpent, they would live. Ever wonder why God does not remove the snakes? After all, he caused them to enter the camp. Ever wonder how many people refused to look at the bronze snake upon being bit? Who here, honestly, would not be tempted to try and cure themselves? Maybe cut the x in the wound and suck the poison out? Maybe go see a doctor? Maybe try a nice poultice? Do you think you would honestly look to a bronze snake as told? Doesn’t that sound like a stupid solution to the problem of a snakebite?

     I ask those questions because you and I live a life similar to Moses with respect to this cure. You and I become heralds of God’s forgiveness and mercy the moment we accept His offer of salvation and undertake to live, not for ourself, but for Him. And what’s our message? Perhaps, in this season the Church calls Lent, you and I are engaged in disciplines or avoiding idols which cause others to ask what we are doing. If we understand Lent properly, we probably mention in our own voices that we are trying to live closer to the way God would have us live. We give up idols which cause us to walk apart; we take on disciplines or practices which cause us to walk closer with Him. People outside the Church in your life hopefully notice that you are more aware of your sins, more reflective about your behaviors which cause you or others in your life to stumble. And what do we offer as the solution to that problem of sin? The cross! Ever ask someone in your life outside the Church what they make of the cross? I bet if you asked and they shared honestly, you would find that many think it silly, not unlike, perhaps, the way you would find yourself looking to a bronze snake if you were alive during the time of our story. You want me to believe that God became a carpenter’s son? You want me to believe that He died for my sins? There has to be a better story than that! To outsiders, we might well sound like fools. But how do we sound in our own ears?

     I ask because I think that temptation to solve our own problems is alive and well today. How much better would our story sound, particularly in the Midwest, if we had to perform certain activities or duties to earn God’s grace? Yet how can we ever? If I call Charlie a bad name, how can I ever make total amends? Forget for a second the priest-parishioner relationship. Pretend we are friends and I insult him. If I apologize, have I completely atoned for my hurtful words, even if he accepts my apology as heartfelt? When your friends apologize to you for their insults, is the insult ever truly forgotten? Are things ever really the way they were before? No. There is a loss of trust. There is a sense of “does he/she really like me?”

     What if, when Polly was here, I reached into her purse and stole $20 out of it? Again, forget the priest-parishioner relationship for a moment.  Pretend we are just friends.  If she discovers the theft, accuses me, and I repent, will my returning of that $20 cause her to forget my initial theft? I took $20, and I returned $20; everything is restored, right? Or will not Polly be tempted to keep her purse on her person, or maybe keep her money in her pockets? Will she really trust me when I apologize and give back the money? No.

     Brothers and sisters, we are speaking now of so-called minor sins. What happens when we expand our examples to those sins in other peoples’ lives that we know He hates far worse than our own garden variety inconveniences? How do we atone for sins of lust? For sins of dishonoring? For idolatry? For murder? How? And if every sin we commit is not only a sin against our brother or sister but against our Father in whose image each was created, how do we ever get things right with God?

     What you and I should realize by now in our walk with God is that we cannot do anything to fully atone for our sins. We can apologize and we can try and make some restitution, but there is a limit to what you and I can do, and that limit becomes even more pronounced when we think of our sins against God. If I cannot fully atone for stealing from Polly or insulting Charlie, how can I atone for my sins against the Father who made them? Thankfully and mercifully, God understood that when we were not yet His disciples, when we were dead to Him, we needed His grace and His mercy to atone and to save.

     I preached on Numbers this week, brothers and sisters, because of its importance in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s March Madness. I bet it would be hard to find a sports fan in this country who would not know the words of John 3:16. Heck, I bet it would be challenging to find people in the country, Christian or otherwise, who could not finish the verse for us if we started with “For God so loved the world.” But what comes immediately before that famous verse? And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Before that most famous of biblical verses, Jesus draws our attention to this story in Numbers, a story that is unkown to far too many Christians, let alone unbelievers. Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up and brought healing to all who looked to it when they were bit, the Son of Man will bring healing to all who look to Him for forgiveness of their sins. Better still, and I say this knowing that we are in the season of Lent and called to remember our needs for a savior, but I also say this mindful of the fact that you and I live this side of the cross, this side of the Resurrection, and this side of the Ascension: think of the hope of the double meaning in Jesus’ words. Like those in Israel’s camp, we can be healed of our sins which are killing us. Unlike those in the camp, though, we have the hope of the Ascension before us. How can we be assured of passing through the shadow of our deaths? The Son of Man has been lifted up! He has passed through the cross and the empty tomb, and He has been raised! But not only has He been raised from the dead. He has been raised to be with the Father for all eternity! The mercy and healing shown to Israel in our reading from Numbers pales by comparison with what God offers to all! All those who were bitten died. Not a one of them entered into that Land promised to Abraham and Sarah. You and I stand on this side of His Resurrection and His Ascension certain of God’s power to redeem everything in our lives, even our deaths. That, brothers and sisters is our hope and promise. That, my brothers and sisters, is good news worth sharing, even while we ponder all those things for which He has forgiven us. That, my brothers and sisters, is why John 3:16 so resonates with us who believe and is so well known even by those who do not yet believe. Healing and eternal life: gifts undeserved, but promised to all who look to the Son of Man!



Friday, March 9, 2012

     When I was first approached by ministry partners about joining them in the opposition of a nominee to the federal judiciary here in Iowa, I considered it to be too far outside my ministry to give it serious thought. My opinion of most politicians above the local level was not good long before I got involved in the effort to eliminate slavery. I can only say my experience with politicians about Human Trafficking has served only to confirm my prior opinions. So why would I want to step into another battle and ask others to join me?

     For those who live outside Iowa, my willingness to join might seem odd, so let me explain. Back in May of 2008, the federal government executed a raid presumably against illegal aliens working at Agriprocessors, Inc., a kosher meat packing facility outside Postville, IA. Press accounts of the raid are easily googled, and I particularly commend the movie abUSed: The Postville Raid to anyone interested in the topic of immigration, legal or otherwise. But, suffice it to say, a sizable force of ICE, FBI, and other agencies invaded a small town in Iowa, ostensibly to protect us from these criminals working hard in a meat-packing facility. For us at St. Alban’s, the raid was a watershed moment. Our efforts to feed families of Hispanic origin through the Angel Food Ministries program had nearly born fruit in the birth of a predominantly Hispanic, protestant congregation in our midst. Families that had drifted away from the Church for whatever reason, had approached us about opening up our space for worship. When we offered a Spanish service and a neighboring priest who was willing to lead the Eucharist, there were the beginnings of many Prodigal sons and daughter stories. In one fell swoop, thanks to the raid, the entire community dissipated. Those whom we had been serving for months never came around again. As one of the leaders shared with me, in light of these raids and the accompanying horror stories of herding, of threats and of intimidation, “who could they trust?”

     Where the raid becomes more than tangentially related to the issue of Human Trafficking is in the discovery and investigations which followed the initial roundup, herding, separation of families, incarceration, and deportation of those arrested. During the review of particular cases, it was discovered that a number of individuals (some place the estimate as high as 75) had been enslaved in Postville. As hard as the work is in a meat packing facility, imagine doing it for absolutely no money, or as little as $25 for 12 hours of that labor. Simply put, coyotes allegedly had trafficked victims to Iowa and got them jobs at the plant. The coyotes, posing as temporary employment businesses, allegedly collected the money from Agriprocessors that the employees had earned. Additionally, some women had been trafficked into the area to “service” the men in the area. So, in addition to the problems of immigration, Postville also involved several cases of alleged Human Trafficking. Unfortunately, much of what went on with respect to the raid, the subsequent arrests, and prosecutions has never been made public.

     Why do we care about this four years later? Stephanie Rose, then the Deputy Chief of the criminal division of the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Iowa that was assigned to handle the various cases, has been nominated to fill a soon-to-be vacant position on the Federal bench in the Southern District of Iowa. Her nomination has been much ballyhooed here in Iowa as she would be the first woman to sit on the federal bench in the Southern District of Iowa and only the second woman ever to serve in Iowa. Certainly, there is a need for more qualified women to be nominated to fill vacancies on the Federal bench, particularly in Iowa. My question is whether Ms. Rose should be the one so honored in light of her actions surrounding the Postville raid and in light of her staunch defense of the actions taken in the press.

     Ms. Rose was one of the key players in the prosecution of approximately 300 undocumented immigrants who were working for Agriprocessors, Inc. at the time of the raid. Her actions, both at the time and after, have sense come into serious question. Nearly all the undocumented immigrants who were arrested were charged with felony-identity theft rather than the simple undocumented immigration crimes which would have been sufficient for the purpose of a trial and deportation of those who were here, in fact, illegally. While many of us can appreciate zeal on the part of our prosecutors to enforce the laws of this land, the prosecution’s efforts were beyond the pale. Judge Mark Bennett, who accepted the resulting plea deals for almost 60 of those accused, termed the effort “personally and professionally offensive.” David Leopold, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, wonders whether Ms. Rose, in particular, would engage in this type of prosecution again or allow it to occur under her watch as a judge, if faced with similar circumstances. To this point, she has not been asked to give an accounting of her actions or her lessons learned. Apparently, the United States Supreme Court sided with Judge Bennett’s evaluation and Mr. Leopold’s questioning of Ms. Rose’s efforts, unanimously declaring in 2009 that felony identity theft charges cannot be applied to individuals like those rounded up in Postville. As politically divided as our court is now, it unanimously ruled against the prosecution’s tactics. The questions of her suitability for a position on the federal bench, however, do not end with her passionate efforts to get convictions quickly when serving as a prosecutor.

     According to documents that had to be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the US Attorney’s office was involved with Chief US District Judge Linda Reade from October of 2007 until the execution of the raid in the spring of 2008 regarding the raid and the prosecutions of those arrested. Given the fact that we expect our judges to be impartial arbiters of justice, the public needs to know whether the rights of the accused were abridged prior to any arrests or hearings. Looking back on the prosecutions, we can see some disturbing trends. While the accused were provided attorneys, as required under the law, we must question the ability of the defense attorneys to provide the best possible defense for their appointed clients. Few, if any, had any significant experience in immigration cases. True, the government offered some education similar to Continuing Education classes, but can we really expect that those prosecuting were providing the best possible defense tools to those representing the accused? Complicating the effort to defend their clients, most court appointed attorneys were assigned up to 20 defendants (the average was 17 defendants per lawyer according to the House Judiciary Committee). In a matter of a few days, attorneys with little or no immigration experience were expected to learn the law and the circumstances of their clients and present an adequate defense. It is no small wonder that so many defendants pled guilty to lesser charges.

     Why should the plea deals offend Judge Barrett or concern us? Little publicized is the fact that 140 of those individuals who were deported have received U-visas (specific visas granted to particular victims of crimes) and returned to the United States. In other words, those deportations should never have occurred in the first place. The defendants’ eligibility for U-visas was not altered by their deportation. All 140 should never have been forced out of the United States nor separated from their families. We live in a country whose judicial system was founded on the proposition that it is better that a guilty man go free rather than a single innocent be wrongly convicted. In this case, in which Ms. Rose was intimately associated, 140 individuals were wrongly abused by the system. Why? What led to such a complete failure? If the decisions were not hers (thereby not disqualifying her from the esteemed position to which she has been nominated), then who made the decisions? The buck had to stop somewhere, and she is one of those individuals who has those answers.

     Finally, we must question the treatment of those arrested, and whether that treatment meets established norms for humane. All those rounded up and arrested at Agriprocessors in Postville were bused to National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa where they were held and tried in a makeshift jail and courtroom. Some of the accused allegedly were denied access to attorneys and to communicate with the families from which they had been seized. Perhaps the cattle building was a fabulous setting for incarceration by 3rd world standards, but it fails the “smell” test in the United States. Herding people like cattle? Did Ms. Rose really see nothing wrong with that image? If she were to sit as a judge in such a setting, would she not find it at least a bit uncomfortable? And, again, maybe the decisions were not her own. Maybe she was doing what she was told. But we need to know who instructed her that this was the way to go about getting the prosecutions so valued.

     Let me be entirely clear, it is entirely possible that Ms. Rose is as, Senator Harkin describes in his glowing praise of her as a nominee to the federal bench, a superb, ethical attorney, one who has the potential to be an outstanding federal judge. It is entirely possible that Ms. Rose may be the best candidate for the opening here in Iowa. The problem with her nomination, as I see it, is that there are still too many questions left unanswered. Her efforts to misapply felony laws in what should have been a civil proceeding have already been unanimously overturned by a divided US Supreme Court. The consultations with Judge Reade indicated by those released documents suggest that Ms. Rose or someone else in that office does not accept our Founding Fathers’ intention that the Judiciary powers be inherently separate from those of the Executive and legislative branch of government. Certainly, the actions can cause those of us on the outside to wonder whether the nominee accepts the roles of the judiciary as defined by Hamilton (Federalist #78) or Madison (Federalist #47). These are important considerations as our judges are appointed for life. They can only be removed from office by impeachment.

     Finally, when asked whether the Postville Raid and prosecutions would be an issue in her confirmation hearings, Senator Harkin, the nominating senator, seemed to choose his words carefully. According to Senator Harkin, the Judiciary Committee and the DoJ both determined that she had no knowledge of nor any hand in the implementation of the raid. If she had no knowledge of the raid, who in the office was communicating with Chief Judge Reade regarding the upcoming prosecutions for a raid that had not yet occurred? Who made the decisions to fast-track the Postville cases, resulting in at least 140 people being wrongly deported and separated from their families? Who made the decision to charge the accused with felony identity theft in a civil immigration case? If she was not a supporter of those actions, why did she defend them so strongly in the press?  Efforts by the House committee to get answers have portrayed a government that functions more like the three stooges than what we as American citizens expect of our officials. ICE, Homeland Security, the Department of Labor and other government officials claim that other agencies made the decisions. Before we agree to a lifetime appointment for someone so intimately involved in the cases, we should endeavor to get the facts straight. Our Senators should demand that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings not rubber stamp Ms. Rose’s nomination but, rather, seek to discover who made what decisions. It is entirely possible that Ms. Rose will be the judge that Sen. Harkin envisions. But, in the case of federal judges, it is far better to make sure the right person is elevated that justice might be served for all. We as citizens ought to contact our Senators and encourage them to take a closer look at the events of Postville and Ms. Rose’s actions in it, that our Founders’ intent that the administration of our laws be impartial might be fulfilled.

     How can you help? Simply contact your Senators’ office and ask to encourage their fellow Senators on the Judiciary Committee to do their due-diligence on the matter of the Postville, IA raids. If your senator happens to be on the Judiciary Committee (its members are Patrick Leahy — VT; Charles Grassley – IA; Herb Kohl – WI; Dianne Feinstein – CA; Orrin Hatch – UT; Chuck Schumer – NY; John Kyl – AZ; Richard Durbin – IL; Jeff Sessions – AL; Sheldon Whitehouse – RI; Lindsey Graham – SC; Amy Klobuchar – MN; Cornyn – TX; Al Franken – MN; Michael Lee – UT; Christopher Coons – DE; Tom Coburn – OK; and Richard Blumenthal – CT), please take the time to contact him or her and encourage the senator to answer those questions about Postville which concern you most! Those of us in Iowa have a special obligation to bring the facts of the raid to light. Not only will Ms. Rose be a judge among us, but the events of the raid occurred beneath our very noses.

     Once again, let me be clear, this is not an effort to torpedo someone’s elevation to the federal bench. I am not asking people to oppose her nomination unless the facts that are presented dictate such.  She may be the best qualified as both Senator Harkin and President Obama assert. That some of the defense attorneys in Iowa and other judges speak in favor of her elevation certainly speaks to the qualities which Senator Harkin so admires, and the fact that people across the political divide are able to support her nomination is also good evidence of her potential jurist abilities. However, that she was a major player in the Postville raid is not in question. In public comments regarding the cases brought before the US Supreme Court, Ms. Rose has defended the prosecutor’s office actions as “good, hard work.” Now is not the time for our Senators to allow her to be silent with respect to what she witnessed, what she decided, and what she learned as a result. Nor is a time for senators to allow those individuals given the authority and responsibility to serve the public good to sound like children when pointing the finger at others. Only then, can we as citizens trust that justice will truly be served in our courtrooms and most especially in hers if she is raised to the post of Federal Judge in the Southern District of Iowa.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A question of faith . . .

     Questions about faith often plague those of us who are active in church. By that I mean that a goodly number of questions that people have about themselves and their relationship with God are articulated around their faith. Do I have enough faith to be saved? Do I believe the right things about God enough so that He will raise me after I die? How can I know whether I am in “right relationship” with God? There are tons of other questions along these lines. Chances are, all of us have asked ourselves these types of questions at various points in our walk with God. And, it is no small wonder that we do. Most of us realize that we are saved by faith and God’s grace, so it seems natural that we would want to make sure that our faith is “enough” or “well placed.” No doubt the Enemy of God also provokes us to wonder and doubt our relationship with God, as well. When we reflect honestly upon ourselves, when we are given eyes to see us as God saw us before we became His adopted son or daughter, it is no wonder that our doubts can prick at us. I am not righteous enough. I am not loving enough. I am not obedient enough. I don not deserve His grace. Clearly, the people whom Paul was writing in Rome shared some of our questions.

     How can we be sure that they shared our questions? Look at the entirety of the letter. What is it about? On an important level, faith is a subject of the letter. The letter begins and ends with Paul exhorting the readers (and now us) to an obedience which arises from faith. And much of what comes in between is spent explaining what is meant by faith and its role in salvation. Take for example today’s readings. If I asked you when it is your faith that saves you, what would be your response? Now, read St. Paul again and ask yourself that same question. Does your faith save you?

     The quick answer to the question is, as you have no doubt figured out, no. Our faith does not save us. It seems a strange statement. We are all called to believe in Christ, and Him crucified and Risen. Should not faith be that which saves us? Mercifully, it is not what saves us.

     Paul uses as his example of salvation the life and history of Abraham and Sarah. It is a fitting example.  Thankfully, Abraham and Sarah are presented in the book of Genesis as mere human beings. I know our temptation is to elevate the saints to a holiness that seems unattainable to us “mere mortals,” but look at their faith journey. Our reading this week takes place nearly 25 years after God has sworn His covenant that their descendants will be like the stars or like the grains of sand on a beach. 25 years! Abraham and Sarah give up the family farm. They travel hither and yon throughout what you and I consider to be modern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Israel on foot. I can imagine there was a bit of grumbling over 25 years. What are we doing? How is this helping us? What was I thinking? Scripture teaches us that, at times, both Sarah and Abraham took things into their own hands to help keep God’s promise. Sarah, you probably recall, gives her handmaid to Abraham to father a child upon. Why shouldn’t she? When this journey began, she was in her 70’s. Even if Abraham can function, it is wasted. She has long since passed through the change of life. And, lest you think that Scripture picks only on her, look at Abraham. When the two kings decide that Sarah is a looker and they want to take her for a wife, what does Abraham do? For fear that they will kill him and obviate the covenant, Abraham pretends to be her brother. Eventually the kings figure out that Sarah and Abraham are married and give tremendous gifts to them because Yahweh is clearly on their side. So I ask again, does their faith save them? Do they act like holier-than-thou individuals? Or, are they more like you and like me than, perhaps, we want to believe?

     St. Paul points out that what saves them is God’s grace. They believed and He credited it to them as righteousness. Not even their faith saved them, just as our faith does not save us. It might seem counter-Christian, but think on Paul’s treatment of the subject. He rightfully points out in the letter that keepers of the law fail to achieve their own salvation, and in our section he reminds us that those who depend on their own faith also fail to achieve their own salvation. It is God’s grace working in us as we live out our lives in obedience to Him which achieves our justification.

     To some of you, it might seem like I am speaking nonsense or quibbling, but think of the impact. How many of us have seen or heard a preacher tell us or someone else that the reason God did not heal, did not act, did not provide, did not (fill in your own blank) was because the person’s faith was not enough. God wanted you to be healed of that disease, that infimity, but you lacked faith. God wanted to bless you, but you withheld that last $100. Wolves robed as sheep prey on people’s desires to have their salvation depend upon themselves. And our desire to believe is no different than our desire to earn God’s grace through works. Deep down, we want to believe that we can save ourselves. Deep down, we want to believe that Jesus was scourged and crucified for others, and not for us. Put another way, can Abraham and Sarah boast that their faith was of such a quality, of such a depth, that they had to be saved by God? Can you or i? Absolutely not! The only thing which saves us, which restores us to a right relationship with the Lord, is His grace, His promise.

     Ironically, our translators did us no favor this day in choosing the words. In verse 16, they take Paul’s language and make it seem as if God has to respond in a particular way. The word “guarantee” does not appear in the Greek. That is because guarantee is a legal language. It is contract speak. What Paul is teaching the disciples in Rome is that they should trust in God’s grace just as did Abraham and Sarah. It is God’s promise which makes the covenant valuable, worthy, holy. He is not obligated. Where Abraham and Sarah had every reason to believe that God’s oath was impossible because of their respective ages (Paul says they were as good as dead), they believed that God could. Naturally, their belief that God could bring the dead to life and call into existence things that are not yet foreshadowed the work and person of Christ who is that ultimate expression of God’s ability to keep His promises.

     Brothers and sisters, you may feel a bit diminished this day. Perhaps you have heard me say that your faith does not save you and felt a bit disconnected, a bit less worthy of God’s love. Perhaps deep down you have always thought that your faith was what saved you, that your faith was of sufficient worth in God's eyes to merit your salvation, and now you find yourself reexamining your life in God’s eyes. Good. It is not by mistake that Paul spends so many verses teaching us about the importance of God’s grace in our lives. What we are talking about today is, to use another of Paul’s images, a meaty subject and not gruel. But Paul is not alone in his emphasis on this aspect of our salvation. Think of your favorite hero or heroine. Who in the Biblical narrative does not waffle between faith and unbelief? David? Elijah? Sarah? Rebecca? Peter? Paul? Who? Only Christ. Only His faith in our Father in heaven is perfect, just as only His work on earth was perfect, and just as it is only His faith which saves us and raises us to new life with Him.

     Thankfully, brothers and sisters, all God asks us to do is to believe. All He asks us to do is to believe that He died, rose, and will come again. The rest, as they say, is up to Him. The events of Holy Week and Easter serve as that perfect reminder that the Lord whom we are called to serve can and will keep His promise to all who follow in the footsteps and paths of Abraham and Sarah. Like them, we can waffle a bit. Like them, we can stumble. Yet, mercifully, like them, He will raise the dead and nearly dead to new life, that His purposes in our lives and even in the world around us will be fulfilled!

Christ’s Peace,