Thursday, July 14, 2016

Servants of the Master

Friends at Peace United Church,

Omar Haramy, Administrator at Sabeel Jerusalem
I'm writing tonight from Portland, Oregon, where I'm participating in an annual leadership retreat organized by FOSNA (Friends of Sabeel North America).  FOSNA was instrumental in organizing the "Justice for Palestine" conference we hosted at Peace United this past April; and the support of their staff has been deeply satisfying throughout the spring.

Throughout tonight's opening dinner, I was greeted enthusiastically and gratefully by friends who'd attended our April event.  One was a Palestinian from Santa Rosa, who embraced me and thanked me and mentioned the incredible warmth she'd experienced among us in April.  Another couple from Orange County were similarly appreciative and talked about the inspiration they derived from their weekend in Santa Cruz.  A Presbyterian pastor thanked the church for its courage.  I recognized one or two; but I was surprised and moved by the depth of so much gratitude.  From strangers.

Sabeel's founding spirit, the Reverend Naim Ateek, is with us this weekend, as is feminist theologian and groundbreaking author Rosemary Radford Ruether.  It's a remarkable gathering of 70, of all ages and all manner of religious backgrounds, imagining justice in an era of profound injustice and daring to believe that small groups of committed souls can change the world.

Black Lives Matter: Kevin Hicks, Portland, OR
This week, I'm reading a thoughtful and profoundly helpful book called Being Jewish and Doing Justice by Brian Klug.  Klug is British and Jewish, and the book is his very disciplined effort to describe what being British and Jewish means to him.  But I'm struck by much of what he says, and it's relevance for my own Christian and American vocation.  In this passage, for example, he's wrestling with Jewishness and chosen-ness, and the purpose or mission of faith:
I figure it this way.  When God enters the frame, the whole of the frame shudders.  If he singles something out, the thing in question, whatever it might be, is not granted a special privilege over and against everything else.  Rather, it is raised to a higher power.  The part, while remaining a part, is not merely a part: it comes to signify or stand for the whole (which is not the same as the sum).  So, on the one hand, when Moses says 'Today you have become the people of the Lord your God,' he does not add 'and you have ceased to be what you were yesterday.'  Their brand new identity does not erase the old.  Nor does 'raised to a higher power' mean elevated to a superior rank.  They are still the humble house of Jacob, the ragtag mob that staggered out of slavery in Egypt.  On the other hand, today this mob has taken on a meaning.  Becoming the people of God, they become a signifier, signifying what it means to be a people, in the full sense of the word, where being a people means meeting the standard God builds into the word.  This makes them representative, rather than exceptional, representing the idea of a people, a people that is wholly a people.  As such, they are the apple of God's eye.  As such, they are the people of God.  Of God, that is to say (recalling and continuing Moses' description), 'God, who shows no favour and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger' (Deuteronomy 10:18).  Being of such a God means partaking of these selfsame qualities.  It means being, like God, partial to the utmost impartiality: partial, in a word, to justice.  'Justice, justice shall you pursue' (Deuteronomy 16:20): thus Moses directs the Israelites, calling them out of Egypt, calling them to go from being slaves of the master of an empire to being servants of the master of the universe.
Surrounded tonight--by Naim Ateek and Rosemary Radford Ruether, by Palestinians and Jews, young activists and elderly peace pilgrims--I'm struck by Klug's insight and the church's essential vocation.  We too are called to become a "signifier"--to bear in the midst of a multicultural, multifaith, wildly diverse world an ethic of lovingkindness, compassion and impartiality.  I believe that's what we've done together this year--by hosting the "Justice for Palestine" conference.  And I believe it's what we'll continue to do together.  

It's not an easy task, or calling.  Empire's grip is fierce, within communities, across nations, and within the human heart.  To go from "being slaves of the master of an empire to being servants of the master of the universe" will take our very best selves, our courage, all our creativity and deep love for one another.  But that's the calling for us: nothing less.  Just as it was for the "ragtag mob that staggered out of slavery in Egypt."  Will we serve the master of the universe?  Are we committed to that?  I think so.

On a marquee outside a motel today, I found this reminder: "We rise by lifting others."  That's Moses at Sinai, and Jesus in the Galilee.  And that's the calling for a people of God--wherever and whoever they may be.