Releasing the Chains

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-14 & Acts 2:41-47

Given On May 8, 2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY

It is said that we only move forward into unknown futures by using the light provided by the luminaries of our past. In my own journey there have been no brighter candles that burn than the ones alit by my grandparents McLeod. As an infant, I spent lots of time in their keep while my mother sought treatment for medical issues that have plagued her entire life. I formed nothing short of parental bonds with both my grandfather and grandmother and those bonds remained unbroken until that moment when they were both called back home. When I was about 5 years old, they returned to my and their hometown, I imagine to help my mother take care of what was now the third McLeod boy under 6. Their home, though small, became the hub of family gatherings and many a day and night were spent there either as just us kids or as the whole clan. Growing up, some of my most enduring revolve around time spent with one or both of my grandparents. Watching baseball or basketball with my granddad, assisting my grandmother in the kitchen, playing in their backyard with the neighborhood children while my grandmother sat on the back porch shucking corn or snapping field peas. It was the perfect environment for young boys to grow up in, a completely loving and grace-filled space that has continuously called to me through the decades that have since passed. I have spent a lifetime alternating between trying to recreate and trying to return to. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the memories of my grandparents revolve around food. Whether It was my granddad who teaching me about eating peanuts and drinking coca-cola on a hot summer day or my grandmother and the best root beer float I’ve ever had. Truth be told, the constant refilling of either soda or ice cream probably didn’t hurt the final product. And when any of the brother McLeod had a birthday we could request whatever we wanted for dinner from my grandmother and the whole family would get together at their house and enjoy her scrumptious cooking together. And the taste of pineapple will forever return to that place and time in my mind and in my soul. Whether it was Sunday dinners after church Sundays or just sandwiches made with fresh grown tomatoes and home-made mayonnaise it was simply not possible for anyone to leave their home feeling less than satiated. But as I think back to that time and those two beacons of light and love in my life, I am overwhelmed with the feelings of contentment and care that was provided by the loving hands of my grandparents.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I received from either of my grandparents was the deep and abiding value of just being hospitable to whomever the Spirit of God placed in your path. There was simply no concept of stranger for those who come into their presence and they did their best to pass that view of the world onto me and my brothers. In the period that I was blessed with my grandparents, they passed away when I was 12 and 13, respectively, their house was a frequent destination for me and my friends and none were ever made to feel anything but welcome. My best friend lived right down the road from my grandparents and numerous were the trips spent walking between his house and their house. Each time any of my friends would come with me to their house they to were quickly grafted into the family through the sharing of root beer floats or peanuts and coca-cola, or on rare occasions pineapple upside down cake. And as many as entered into my grandparents’ universe, they too became as grandchildren to them. Proving that when love is the central guiding force in one’s life that it truly can never run out and only grows larger and more powerful with each passing day.

The philosopher Peter Singer begins his book, The Life You Can Save  with a question. If one day your child brought home a friend after school and the friend, at some point while she was at your house mentioned something about being hungry, would you feed her? Singer presumes, correctly I hope, that of course you would feed her. So he pushes the envelope a little further. If you were out walking one day and came across a five year-old child complaining about being hungry would you stop and try to offer the child some way of being fed. Again, Singer surmises that most of us would stop and figure out some way to help the child. Singer then reaches the crux of his questioning. If we would welcome and feed the child who is in our house and we would stop whatever we were doing to help the child that we encounter while out of a walk, what is our response to the 8,000,000 children who die each year around the world from issues that stem from the basic circumstances of poverty? What is the responsibility we feel or should feel towards them as individuals and as a society? Taken a step further, Singer points out that there are around 1.4 billion people who live around the world on less than a dollar a day. Now, Singer grants that the vast, vast majority of those persons living on less than a dollar do not live in the United States and that poverty here looks starkly different than poverty in Africa or Asia, but he wonders if that fact alone relieves us of the responsibility we have towards persons (and especially children) who live in such wretched conditions. Where, he ponders, do we draw the line between persons for whom we have concern, and those that we do not. It is not an easy question and the systematic nature of poverty and preventable illness of the world has baffled nation-states and international organizations for the past century or so. And yet, in the end, the facts are that 22,000 children, not unlike those who worship with us in this community, not unlike my own kids, Jameson and Seamus, 22,000, will not be with us tomorrow. And the world is worse off because of it. And for me, this question about what we are to do about this crisis is the single biggest issue that we, as a global community, must address. And it should begin and end with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Over the last three weeks I’ve tried to begin to lay out the groundwork for an expansive faith that encompasses the whole of both the life of the individual but also the life of the community, based with the simple question, “How are we to live?” From that question, we have explored the manner in which we have fallen from the perfect image of the holy in which we were created and away from the love of God in our lives. Following that departure from the spirit of God, we, both as individuals and communities began an unending quest to pick up the pieces of our shattered worlds in our continual efforts to place God at the highest point of a mountain of accidental qualities and material goods. With this as our foundation, lets now begin to look at the different parts that make up an expansive faith within the cultures of our faith and our world.

At this point in our history, there seems little doubt that we as a people cannot continue on the path on which we find ourselves. From the most starry-eyed idealist to the most rock solid conservative, most will grant that the manner in which we live as individuals and communities must change if we are to survive as a people and a species. We find ourselves burning through the resources of our planet at an alarming rate with battles over fossil fuels serving only as the prelude to future battles over food, clean water, and access to quality healthcare. In the Western World we have chosen systems of economics that ensure wealth is created for many at the top of the mountain while simultaneously enacting conditions that also ensure that many will remain poor and some desperately so. We have created a system that requires that each relationship is defined by competition rather than cooperation. There is nothing inherently wrong with pushing ourselves to be the best person that we can be, to seek to achieve and create something new and to leave the world a better place than where we found it and yet, when the cost of losing these competitions to be the best, to be the most profitable, to be the most powerful is the reality of living off less than a $1 a day while having no idea how to feed your family or experience any kind of dignity at all, something has gone horribly amiss and whole regions of the world have not experienced a win in hundreds of years. For many, it is the fear of poverty that they believe will inspire the poor to rise up out of poverty but this has created systems of abjection here and desperate destitution around the world and while we have been able to dismiss the impending struggle against poverty and for the basic necessities in our own culture through a combination of willful delusion and various opiates that take the form of entertainment, even those are beginning to lose their ability to dissuade from the chief concerns of our world. As the internet and social media continue to bring us ever closer together as a planet hundreds, if not thousands of times a day images from the struggles of the world are beamed onto our television screens, our computer screens, our smartphones until the weaker part of our own selves demand that we look away from the pain and heartache being splayed on our screens at which point we seek out the comfort of television, or sports, or books anything to give us a moment of respite from the bombardment of the knowledge of the ills of the world. But all hope is not lost. There’s always hope.

The two scripture readings for the morning offer a vision both for the individual communities of which we each find ourselves members but also for our societies and world at large. The passage from the book of Acts tells of the earliest days of the church  in which the disciples, newly filled with the holy spirit begin to reach out into the larger community with a message of love and fellowship. We pick up at the point in the story whereby three thousand new followers are baptized and brought into the loving care of the whole community. We are told that each day, more reached out in loving kindness to the society at large and that each day more were brought into community. That they began to devote themselves to study, to prayer, to the breaking of bread together around table and each day their faith was upheld and strengthened by the powerful things that the spirit was doing in their midst and throughout their community. We are told that as they continued on and their numbers grew that they began to keep a common purse, that each contributed what they had, great or small, for the good of the whole community and they each only took what they needed to survive, leaving the rest for others who needed the resources of the community more. And we are told they were happy. That they entered each meal together, each time of prayer and worship with glad and generous hearts, praising God for the bounty that they each enjoyed. While they had very little, because they took care of one another, they were able to enter into worship and the breaking of the bread with glad and generous hearts.

In the second reading, Isaiah offers a greater and yet more pointed vision for the world as we are called to create it. A vision in which we reach out to the poor and destitute in our midst and break the chains of injustice that continue to hold them down. To each hungry person that we know about, we are called to give them food. To offer the homeless a place to stay, to take those without adequate clothes and give them clothes. To live as if our reason for being on this planet, the reason we were created was to make the lives of those around us more bearable, more livable. To presume that each person we encounter is blessed with an unshakable degree of dignity simply because they are first and foremost beloved children of God. And if we strive to do that, Isaiah tells us that two things will happen. One, God will continue to take care of our needs, God will satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. And also, the very light of God will shine in the dark places of the world because you have chosen to use your life to shine light. And as we know, there is always light in the darkness and the darkness can never ever overcome it.

Both of these visions for the world seem odd in our contemporary setting. In the Western World we are in a period in which individualism seems to be defining the parameters by which we are in relationship with one another. I’ll take care of mine and you take care of yours. But, folks are, by and large, a pretty unhappy bunch. The pursuit of material wealth has left many of us feeling hollow as we see the things that we thought matter breakdown, be stolen, or held so tightly that we cannot begin to garner any enjoyment from them. Do we possess glad and generous hearts? A culture of hope and generosity that arises from an expansive faith that allows us each to live, with none being allowed to go to bed hungry. The expansive faith that arises from being intentional in each aspect of our lives as followers of Jesus calls all of us us to examine in each moment of day the manner in which our resources are being used and asks, “is there more that we can do with them?” Are we called to do more with them? Expansive faith calls us to be aware of the ways in which the money we spend can be used to better the world as a whole or can be used to perpetuate the systems of poverty around the world that allow us to purchase T-shirts at a cheaper rate, or coffee at a cheaper rate, or food at a cheaper rate. An intentional spirituality calls on each of us to be constantly vigilant of the plight of the poor in our midst and around the world while seeking to grow in the awareness of the systems that perpetuate the conditions of poverty around the world and then to seek to change them or withdraw participation in them.

But we need not fear. The spirit, the holy spirit who dwells deep inside of all of us is with us. She calls and we can follow, she passes over the dark places and shows us how we might spread light. She dances with us and we are called to bring more people into the dance. She loves and we are called to share in that love and to offer that love to each person we encounter. Because of our membership in the human race, because of our position as the only, we think, creatures who possess a consciousness of our world and our place within it, we are each responsible for the other members of the human race, we are each responsible for our brothers and sisters both in our midst but also around the world and what you do in this moment, what you do in every moment matters. The whole of human history rests on one moment at a time, one instance in which we might bring about incredible change in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world or we might inch closer to the point of no return. Just one key unlocks them both, its there at your command. Let us pray that the Holy that dwells in us might give us the knowledge and the courage to pick the right path. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

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