The Fountain of Life

On a surprisingly warm-for-Chicago April day, our fourth-grade teacher took us to a nature preserve just outside the city. Mr. Smith was a sensitive, tall African-American man who had gone to teacher's college in Mississippi with my Aunt Verline. While we had lunch outside, Mr. Smith took a call inside the park office. With tears streaming down his crumpled face, he told us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated.

I had watched the Civil Rights movement unfold on our family television. Marchers singing across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote moved me; the visible signs of hatred--batons connecting with flesh; hoses turned on women, men, and children; dogs snarling with teeth bared--gave me nightmares. I had seen faces twisted with hatred, mouths snarling, snapping, hurling venomous speech like barks.

My siblings and I had been taught in Sunday school and at the dinner table, "Judge ye not lest ye be judged;" but I found myself wondering in my ten-year-old heart, "What is wrong with these people? Why do they hate with such hatred? Do they worship the same God as we do? Why kill a man? Is the dream of a new society so threatening that it needs to die?"

Our class memorized King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but I was a young woman when I read these words from Where Do We Go from Here.

"The Movement has got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated."

Every now and then I'll preach a sermon and someone will write to me, "That is too political; I am not sure we should be political." I believe it is the church's fear of being political that disables our prophetic voice, leaving us with, as Dr. King said , "a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound."

Rather than boldly proclaim God's justice for a lost people who need hope, too often the church whispers or says nothing at all, blessing the status quo with our preaching, helping the eyes of those who would make greed their god to remain blind. As the psalmist implies, too often we are apathetic to the mischief and wickedness of a people gone too far from their God to recognize that they are indeed lost. Afraid to offend, we watch as the feet of the arrogant trample upon the necks of the innocent. They pray to a god whose name is deceit, whose gospel is greed. And we who are afraid offer no alternative. And because we are not brave, a whole generation finds us irrelevant and ineffectual, hypocritical and helpless in the face of injustice.

In their book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, David Kinnaman and the Barna Group found that four out of five adults aged 18-29 think Christianity has an image problem. They find the church anti-gay, hypocritical, and judgmental.

Robert Jones' 2010 study Doing Church and Doing Justice quoted one millennial as saying the church "need[s] to be judging of our selves, we don't need to be judging of everyone else."

This generation wants church to take seriously Micah's call to do justice. As one millennial said, "Social justice is a step past what people are comfortable with when they talk about doing good. It is about looking at systemic change, looking at systems of oppression."

Turning a judgmental eye on the church he loved, King said, "What kind of people worship here? And who is their God?"

I love the church, too, and I yearn to hear the Church stand up and say in a bold voice, "We are the people who worship here and our God is an awesome God whose steadfast love extends to the heavens and back to earth again; whose faithfulness reaches to the clouds; whose righteousness holds up the foundations of our very being; whose will and ability can make crooked places straight; whose justice saves not only human beings but all of creation."

I want us to sing in every congregation and shout from every street corner, "We are the boldly faithful followers of our steadfastly loving, justice-working God who is a refuge from despair, a safe space in which to lay down our weary souls, and a shelter from the raging storms of oppression. Our God sets a table before us in the very presence of our enemies, and fills our cups to overflowing. In God's household, there is a river of delights and the fount of every blessing."

I am dreaming of the day when the church everywhere lives out a simple creed: In our God's household, everyone has enough. And we are the people to make it so.

Gandhi once said, "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

Poverty, homelessness, hunger, high unemployment, and insufficient wages--these conditions are the violent results of an economic system that is crippled with unbridled greed and corruption. It is violence done all around the world with devastating results. Poor people are oppressed and kept poor. Wars are waged to ensure that those with power and wealth keep it. And everywhere, darker-hued people are the poorest and most disenfranchised.

Here at home, in this cold winter, on this day before the inauguration, 49.1 million Americans, or 16 percent, live below the poverty line. This means an individual lives on less than $11,139 and a family of four on less than $22,314. More than 16.4 million of the poor are children.

And just in case we are of the mind that this poor-people problem is not our problem, those of us who consider ourselves middle class live with shrinking pensions and an increasing inability to afford college for our children and elder care for our parents. Tax increases threaten to trickle down our way to pay for unfunded wars and our nation's out-of-control debt.

In the midst of lament at the difficult times in which he finds himself, the psalmist celebrates the precious steadfast love of God whose household, whose economy, contains an abundant feast for all.

The teachings of Jesus tell us that in God's economy, workers who come early in the morning, workers who come in the hot noonday sun, and workers who begin to pick grapes as the sun begins to slide down the horizon all get paid the same wage, a living wage, a sustainable wage.

A rich man throws a party, invites all of his rich friends, and they do not come. So, he sends his servant out in the streets and gets the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the blind, and invites them to sit at the table.

A crowd is gathered on the mountainside, and Jesus is there to preach. But before he starts preaching the good news, he enacts the good news, using a child's lunch to make food for thousands.

In God's economy, the despised Samaritan has the good heart to pick up a sick man off the ground, put him on his donkey, take him to the hospital, and leave money there to pay the physician. Folks have healthcare in God's economy.

That's what God's economy looks like. There are new rules in God's household.

Some Christians say this is not our business. We are not supposed to get involved in the social issues of our day. That is government's business. We are not supposed to be political.

I believe it is government's business to address economic and racial injustice. The preamble of our Constitution reads, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." To establish justice, to promote the general welfare--these are words that should guide our government. The government is run by the people, many of whom sit in our pews.

The church is responsible to provide a clear and consistent vision of what it looks like in God's household, God's economy, God's reign of peace. And the church is responsible to help our people find ways to work for social justice.

I believe. Everyone has enough is our simple creed. Our worship is a rehearsal of God's reign.

Isaiah describes worship in which the hungry are fed, the needy are tended to, and the naked are clothed. The result of this justice-working worship is that our "light will shine like the dawn."

Everyone has enough. Everyone has enough to eat. A place to sleep. Meaningful work. A living wage. An affordable college education. A job when they graduate. Dignity in the twilight of life. Fair treatment on the job. Affordable health care.

We who are God's people simply have to make it so. From a deep place of courageous faith, we are called to dismantle the structures and systems that allow the violence of poverty to happen.

Perhaps in times not too unlike these, in the midst of an idolatrous culture, with eyes wide open to the violence of poverty all around, the psalmist affirms the stunning and surprising Grace of our God with these words:

How precious is your steadfast love O God.

All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings

They feast on the abundance of your house

And you give them drink from the river of your delights

For with you is the fountain of life. In your Light we see Light.

Tomorrow is inauguration day. We have no clear idea of what tomorrow will bring. How I pray that that day inaugurates a new way to be church and a revolution of values. We might say it is past time, but we can't do anything about yesterday--TODAY is the appointed time. Today we are tasked with the precious and prophetic work of using our power, the power of God at work within us to make God's abundance available--not to the few--but to the masses.

What kind of people are we and who is our God?

We are the people called by God to do a bold new thing on the earth. We are the people whose God is Light that darkness cannot overcome. We are the people gifted with a prophetic role to dismantle the systems of oppression and ensure that there is liberty and justice for all. We are the ones to make sure that everyone has enough, that all of God's people drink from the fountain of life.

Let us pray. Holy and gracious fountain of life, in this season of epiphany, help us to have eyes that can see our world in bringing about your reign. Help those of us blessed by your bounty share with others. Give us all a sense that your reign is a soon promised reality that we can embrace in this moment, in the now. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.