Saturday, June 30, 2012

Finish the Job

It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. (2 Corinthians 8.10-11)

Worlds Away

My city, Chicago, is a very sad place. It’s been sad for quite some time, but it’s grown even sadder of late. We’re in the grip of a gun violence rampage that makes the Capone years look like a holiday. Years of ignoring the deprivation in “less desirable” neighborhoods have exploded on our streets. On weekends, the city averages 60 shootings, with many victims being minors caught in the crossfire. Last Wednesday, seven-year-old Heaven Sutton was gunned down while helping her mother sell sno-cones in front of her house. Gang members spotted a rival in line and fired into the crowd. Heaven had just returned from getting a new hairstyle for a long awaited trip to Disney World. Friday night’s news ran footage of our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, consoling Heaven’s mother, after attending the funeral of a 14-year-old who’d been killed the previous weekend. Since 2008, over 650 young people have been murdered in our city. When you add the adults, survivors, and victims in outlying areas infested by gangs and drug lords, the number reaches several thousands.

This is not news to Chicagoans, which places blame on all of us for not rising up against this scourge sooner. To our shame, we’ve done little to correct the social dysfunction that gave rise to the Capone era and racial discord of 1960s. Chicago has always been less a city than a collective of ethnic enclaves. For many who live in predominately white neighborhoods, African-American and Hispanic areas might as well be worlds away. The wailing mothers on the nightly news might as well be Sunni moms shrouded in burkas. Bombed-out streets five miles away might as well be Afghanistan or Syria. The barrage of heartbreaking images is finally starting to move those who’ve ignored their neighbors. Yet if we’re going to end this grotesque crisis, we have to overcome our aptitude for pity. It’s not enough to feel sorry for Chicago’s gun violence victims. It’s not enough to wring one’s hands and wonder what can be done. The time for pointing fingers and assigning blame is long gone.

Thankfully, churches across the metropolitan area are starting to mobilize. For the most part, they’re liturgical congregations, which means this weekend’s readings will be heard in their services. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will leap out of the texts to grip their hearts with renewed vigor and determination. Because this weekend’s message to us is very clear: it’s not enough to want to do something. A big start isn’t enough, either. Good intentions mean nothing if they’re not realized. All that we think or say, believe or do comes to naught if we don’t finish the job. That’s the moral in Sunday’s texts.

A Question of Fair Balance

The Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 1,17-27) puts before us a poignant scene. David’s lifelong nemesis, Saul, has committed suicide on learning the Philistines have killed all of his sons, including David’s dearest friend, Jonathan. The removal of Saul’s heirs clears David’s ascendance to Israel’s throne. What should be a triumphant moment is wreathed in sorrow. David leads the nation in a mourning hymn built on a recurrent theme: “How the mighty have fallen!” Although David won victory for Israel, its king, sons, people, and land have been laid waste. There is much to do to restore the violence-tattered nation. The devastation caused by Saul, a maniacal monarch and father, burdens the new king. The weight of the work ahead is genuinely felt in the poetry as David surveys all that must be done to finish the job.

In the Gospel (Mark 5.21-43), we meet another father who could be Saul’s polar opposite. Jairus is a synagogue leader whose 12-year-old daughter is sick unto death. In a bold move, he throws himself at Jesus’s feet and begs Him to come heal his little girl. Jesus agrees and a clamoring crowd follows. Along the way, a woman who’s been housebound with menstrual hemorrhaging for 12 years—as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive—pushes through the throng, confident if she can touch Jesus’s cloak she’ll be cured. When she reaches Him, He stops. “Who touched Me?” He asks. The woman reluctantly confesses and Jesus declares, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Without going into specifics, this healing surpasses a physical miracle; it remediates centuries of social and religious stigmatization of women. Given its groundbreaking significance, one might expect Jesus to call it a day. But His work isn’t finished. Though news arrives that Jairus’s daughter has died, Jesus committed to see about her. “Do not fear,” He tells the father. “Only believe.” He proceeds to Jairus’s house, touches the little girl’s corpse (another breach in Judaic code), and speaks life into her. He finishes the job.

Finally, in the New Testament text (2 Corinthians 8.7-15), Paul expands on this principle in a most illuminating fashion. He tells the Corinthians, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” (v8) It’s a subtle, yet unmistakable, distinction. Earnest people empathize with others’ woes. Genuinely loving people do something to end them. He points to Jesus. “Though He was rich,” Paul writes, “yet for your sakes He became poor so that by His poverty you might become rich.” Paul tells the Corinthians—by far the most privileged readers of any epistle—never to forget they too are recipients of genuine love. Then Paul says, “It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” (v10-11) Ever the wily pastor, Paul backs his challenge with wisdom that cancels all excuses for not finishing the job. “The gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have,” he says. “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” (v13-14)

A World Out of Balance

Chicago’s sorrow is but one instance of rampant grief currently visited on a world out of balance. A pernicious spirit of “Me, My, and Mine” has overtaken us, warped our minds, and laid us to waste. We are at war with nations, cultures, neighbors, fellow believers, and ourselves. Violence is our lingua franca, whether articulated with a trigger or sprayed across pulpits, felling innocent souls with heresies of hatred and inequality. Though perched on seats of power, the mighty—be they elected officials, corporate princes, media moguls, bigoted pastors, or drug kingpins—are fallen and our streets are strewn with corpses of every kind. Christ has deeded us the gift of life, life that exceeds the paralysis of earnest intentions, new life that activates in us the gospel of genuine love, true life that not only compels us to do something, but also inspires us to follow Christ’s example and commit to finishing the job.

“We can’t fix the world’s problems” is no excuse. It’s not about what we lack, but what we have—voices, hands, feet, and hearts overflowing with conviction and urgency that drive us out of our comfort zones to defeat the spirit of violence and hatred holding us hostage. Our presence is sorely needed in a berserk world beholden to evil powers. Earnest empathy won’t do it. Pitying victims won’t correct the imbalance that deprives us of the abundance buried in communities under fire. The instant we say, “Something must be done to end this madness,” is the moment we confess there’s something we can do. In Ecclesiastes 9.10, we read, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the Land of the Dead], to which you are going.” Each of us regularly confronts injustice, abuse, and aborning tragedies we can combat—in a word, a gesture, or a sacrificial act of defiance. Find those opportunities. Commit to them for as long as you live. And don’t stop until you’ve done everything in your might to finish the job.

(L-R) Heaven Sutton, 7, felled by gang warfare in Chicago on June 27, 2012; Brandon Elizares, 16, gay El Paso teen felled by suicide on June 2, 2012; Ahmed, age unknown, mourning his father felled by a Syrian Army sniper on March 18, 2012. 

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Sherry Peyton said...

What a powerful statement! You perfectly exemplify the message that Paul was attempting to get across. You have stated it so exquisitely that there can be no doubt that we are called to rectify these wrongs we see in our world. We are called to do it in love. Rather we do it, more often than not with words of criticism and venom. We are all guilty which is a lovely way to mask my own guilt. Yet, we try to overcome our fears and self-centeredness to alleviate some of the pain we see about us. Continue to speak truth Tim as you always do. Blessings.

Tim said...

Sherry, your comment brought to mind a comment a former pastor of mine once made: Jesus was a leader, not a driver. When approach making positive change happen by negative criticism and coercion, we're trying to drive change, which never works. It may change behaviors, but it never changes hearts.

Overcoming our fears and self-centeredness--yes, that's what we must do. That involves risks, just like those Jesus takes, stopping to confess we've been touched by those deemed "unclean" and boldly extending our hands to touch those that others presume dead. This discipleship thing can be a messy business indeed. But it always brings us to pure love and joy.

Thank you for these thoughts. They enrich the post mightily!

Many blessings,