Peter’s Dream. Martin’s Dream. God’s Dream.

This is the text of the sermon I delivered on Sunday, August 25, 2013. I offer it here today (with slight modifications) in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11.1-18)

_______________________________

This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It was the biggest event Washington had ever seen.  People from all over the country, some 250,000 in all, descended on the National Mall on a hot, muggy day in the summer of 1963.  Students, activists,  clergy,  laity,  the famous,  the anonymous – all merging together like a mighty stream.  Bob Dylan sang, as did Joan Baez and Mahalia Jackson.  There were at least ten speakers on the program, but of course the one we remember most was the final speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the nation (indeed told the world) about a dream he had.

In the speech, which is one of the most famous speeches ever delivered by any man in any century; a speech that is as much a part of our national consciousness as the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, King says his dream is deeply rooted in the American dream.  It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…I have a dream.

I have a dream, he said, that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. I have a dream.

I have a dream, he said, that one day all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

I want to suggest today that Martin’s dream is also rooted in another dream, a dream much higher, much wider, and much older than the American dream:  God’s dream.  A dream for God’s people. A dream for the Church. A dream for all humanity.  A dream embodied in the person of Christ Jesus, manifested through the work of the Holy Spirit, and encapsulated in a vision imparted to the Apostle Peter on a rooftop in Joppa in the mid-first century.

Today’s passage is the cap to our month-long look at the book of Acts (though really we’ve touched on a mere five chapters). Throughout, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit moving and pushing – pushing the gospel further, pushing people further, and pushing the envelope further.

The word I’ve used over and over to describe this process is reorientation. The reality of the Risen Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit mean the magnetic poles of creation have shifted.  What used to be North isn’t North anymore. Everything has to be reoriented.  Everything.  We’ve seen passions redirected (Saul of Tarsus), opportunism confronted (Simon the Magician), and comfort zones stretched to the breaking point (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

Today, in this vision (this dream) given to the Apostle Peter, the Holy Spirit challenges what may be the most difficult thing of all to redirect and reorient. The Holy Spirit challenges Peter’s piety – or, at least, an element of it: a life-long habit, a life-long belief with roots anchored in his heart, in the depths of his soul.

Peter sees this thing, like a great sheet, lowered from heaven. On it are four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. He then hears a voice saying “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ He replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”  Ever. Peter is a pious Jew.  He has been raised to live within the context and within the confines of the Law of Moses. And where did he and his fellow Jews learn this law? FROM SCRIPTURE – Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. He easily could have said, “By no means, Lord, because the Bible says…”

But of course we so often quote Scripture to reinforce what we believe rather than allow Scripture to inform what we believe. God gave the Law of Moses to the Israelites as His chosen people. In the wilderness, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, the purpose of the law was to make God’s people distinct. Dietary restrictions were part of that. And if you’ve ever taken a look at Leviticus or Deuteronomy, you know the instructions and restrictions of the Law can be very detailed and quite specific. You also know that such restrictions didn’t just have to do with food.  They also had to do with people – the idea of Clean and Unclean.

Over time, this idea and these laws became something other than what I understand God intended.  For some it became a point of self-righteous pride.  For others it became empty ritual.  Many lost sight of why God had given them this Law. Embedded within all of the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” was the idea that Israel would be an example, would be a conduit for others to come to know this God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We see it in the Promise God made to Abraham – I will make you the Father of many nations, not just one.  We see it in the words of the Prophets, like Isaiah, who reminded Israel, the one nation God had chosen, that God sent them as a light to the (other) nations, that others might come to that light.  It is God’s dream, God’s intention that fold of His people will expand:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56.6-7)

This is especially true of declarations of the prophets associated with the Messiah:

Arise, shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60.1, 3)

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day (Zechariah 2.10-11)

This is where the arch of God’s mission, God’s journey with His people – all people – is headed.

But it can’t get there, O Israel…. It can’t get there, O Peter…. It can’t get there, O First Baptist… if you won’t enter the houses of the nations, if you won’t share the table with those outside the fold because you view them as Unclean.

God is directly challenging Peter’s piety because his piety is in the way of God’s purposes – of God’s dream for His people, for all people, indeed for all of creation.

The new orientation of life in Christ, the new economy of the Kingdom of God is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another. That was the new commandment Christ gave His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion.  “Love one another as I have loved you.” We can’t love others – especially as Christ loved us – and stay away from them because we deem them Unclean.

We might say that in Acts 11 God is reminding Peter that he is the one who stood up on the Day of Pentecost back in Acts 2 and quoted the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit (Acts 2.17-18 // Joel 2.28ff)

All flesh.  And all means all.  Even Gentiles.  Even Gentiles like Cornelius, a centurion in that pagan Roman army that is occupying and oppressing Judea.

This is God’s purpose.  This is God’s plan. This is God’s mission.  This is God’s dream – that all people might come to His light, that all people might find the life that truly is life. This is the dream God calls His church and His disciples – people like Peter, like you, like me – to help fulfill. That call means the Holy Spirit will continue to push us, to challenge us, and to challenge our understanding of piety (your piety, and my piety), especially when it gets in the way of God’s dream.

And one of the ways the Spirit continues to push God’s people is to engage the issues, the injustices, the challenges of our day. Jesus may have instructed us to go into our rooms to pray (Matthew 6), but He did not imply we should stay holed away in there.  We cannot serve as instruments of God’s peace, we cannot live out God’s dream and keep to ourselves.

This is why the Spirit pushed Peter to Cornelius’ house: to serve as an instrument of God’s healing love, as an instrument of God’s dream.  The division between Jews and Gentiles was one of the major stratifications of Peter’s day, which could not be allowed to stand if God’s dream was to be fulfilled.

I believe the Spirit is also what pushed Dr. King to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago; it’s what motivated 250,000 people to fill the National Mall.  Their faith wouldn’t allow them to sit idly by anymore and abide the injustices of a racist society – injustices that promoted hatred and division, that declared one race clean and another unclean. Jim Crow was one of the major divisions of their day.  It could not be allowed to stand.

Peter could not remain silent any long.  The Civil Rights marchers could not remain silent any longer. And neither can we.

For all the progress that has been made, the work of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is still unfinished. The work of Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit on, in, and through the Church is also still unfinished – and both of these good works are entwined. How? We can’t do our part to help finish the work on either side simply by telling others God loves them. We have to help finish that work by loving them as Christ first loved us.

And we can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that a select few are compensated like kings while you (and a great many others) are paid a pittance for your hard work.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you can’t vote because you don’t have the right ID.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that your child and 30,000 other children might die today from preventable disease.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you and hundreds of thousands more of our black and Latino brothers have been permanently disenfranchised by the industrial prison complex.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you and 50 million other Americans are hungry.

We can’t say that, because it’s not okay.  And the Holy Spirit will push us to do something. Something.

From Moses to the Prophets down to Dr. King and right on down to you and to me, it has been God’s dream and deep desire that justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.  But the reservoirs of injustice are dark and deep indeed.  They were dark and deep 50 years ago, and they are dark and deep today.  Most likely they will be dark and deep until this heaven and this earth pass away and all things are made new.

But from Moses to the Prophets down to Dr. King and right on down to you and to me, God has been sending His people to crack open the dam.  Not by fighting fire with fire, not by giving as good as we get. That has only always added to the depths of the darkness.  No. God sends His people to crack the dam with the strong, steady embrace of love – Christ’s love. No wall is high enough, hard enough, thick enough, or fortified enough to withstand that kind of pressure.  The Holy Spirit proved that through the ministry of the early church that toppled an empire. The Holy Spirit proved that through the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement that toppled Jim Crow. And the Holy Spirit wants to prove it again – right here, right now by sending us against the deep darkness of our time.

May we all, like Peter, have the courage to step down off our rooftops and step out on faith – to stand up, speak up, and reach out in the name of Christ to make room at the table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) for all of God’s people.  That is where we will find freedom, find love, and find the life that truly is life.

Let us arise and let us shine, for our light has come – and the darkness does not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Maconomics

News of the McDonald’s sample budget first broke three weeks ago in the shadows of the Trayvon Martin decision. Initially, the budget received a fair amount of media coverage but has since faded.  This post is my attempt (however feeble) to keep the story alive. I was very glad to hear Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute reference it on The Diane Rehm Show this past week. The more attention it gets, the better.

I want to call attention to this issue because the implications of “McBudget,” as Al Lewis and others have dubbed it, reach far beyond line items and expense amounts.   “McBudget” is a snapshot of what might be termed “Maconomics”:  the impoverishing realities of an inequitable system that millions of underpaid American workers face each and every day, and the cavalier (if not ignorant) attitude that highly compensated executives have toward life lived at or near the minimum wage.

Time Magazine is where I first learned of McBudget, developed by McDonald’s for its “average” workers, but the story originated at ThinkProgress.org.

The Time article, like much of the media’s coverage, focuses on the unrealistic nature of many of the budget items: $20 per month for health insurance, for example, along with $150 for a car payment, $100 for auto/home insurance, but $0 for gas to make said car drivable. The rent allowance is also woefully inadequate, especially for most of America’s urban markets.  Here in DC, $600 might score you a room for rent – in someone’s basement in what used to be a closet.  If you could somehow find an apartment for that rate, it wouldn’t be much bigger than a closet and it would be in a neighborhood where you’re more likely to encounter The Joker than Ronald McDonald.  The line item labeled “auto/home insurance” thus seems colored with the eerie ting of a self-fulfilling prophecy: on this budget, you might very well end up living in your car.

Perhaps the most jolting aspect of this sample budget, however, is that it assumes the “average” worker will have at least one other job.

That’s right: meeting each of these meager line items would require a person to hold at least two jobs, because they would have to work 70-hour weeks at $8.25 per hour to net $2,060 in a month ($515 per week) after taxes. And since $8.25 is actually a full dollar per hour MORE than the federally mandated minimum wage, the likelihood that someone truly making minimum wage could swing even these low-balled expense estimates is something less than zero.   

As Laura Shin writes in Forbes, what McDonald’s has done in creating this budget is to unwittingly demonstrate (in very specific terms) that “its employees can’t live off the wages it pays” – unless, of course, you consider scraping by from one want-filled month to another “living.”  

To help put the wages behind this budget into context, ThinkProgress cites a 2012 Bloomberg News report asserting that it would take the average McDonald’s employee “one million hours of work” to earn what the corporation pays its CEO.

I would look at it another way: McDonald’s reported earnings of $6.6 billion in the first quarter of 2013 – up slightly from $6.55 billion one year ago.  Those figures represent an operating profit margin of 31% – which is among the highest (if not the highest) in its industry.

McDonald’s high operating profit margin is significant because operating profit doesn’t arise from secondary business activities (returns on investments, licensing, and the like); it arises from what a business is in business to do.  For McDonald’s, that means operating profit comes primarily from selling Big Macs and Happy Meals. It’s money made almost exclusively on the backs of the “average” workers for whom McBudget was designed – workers who are not receiving fair compensation for their labor much less a share in the fruits of it – workers who deserve better. McDonald’s would not be – indeed, could not be – in business without them.  If McDonald’s Chief Executive resigned tomorrow, the company easily could go ten or more months before filling that position.  If the “average” workers walked off the job tomorrow and didn’t fry the fries, grill the burgers, or run the registers, McDonald’s restaurants would not stay open ten minutes.

Yet, the Maconomic model is structured so that those who run a company live like princes while those who make it run struggle to eek out a living at all. McDonald’s compensation package for CEO Donald Thompson weighed in at 13.8 million in 2012. Assuming he paid at least 25% in taxes, (which he may not have) that’s $10.35 million net for the year – or $862,500 per month / $215,625 per week. Company reports further reveal that executive compensation for the seven (7) highest paid employees at McDonald’s (including the CEO) totaled $67,576,070 in 2012 – up 232% (!) from the previous year, even though the company’s stock price declined nearly 10% in that same period.

In the world of Maconomics, these seven people (regardless of company performance) deserve close to $70 million, while the “average” worker deserves McBudget.

There are those who argue that Maconomics is the inevitable outcome of free markets; that, despite its flaws, it represents the best workable model for economic growth and produces the greatest benefit for society as a whole; that a low-paying job is better than no job at all, and increased government regulation of businesses (such as raising the minimum wage) will only yield higher unemployment. 

I find such arguments socially untenable – especially in a democracy and particularly in America where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is supposedly gospel.  McBudget infringes upon all three of these “inalienable” rights.  Furthermore, it’s hard to argue that Maconomics is the best model when it’s hard to see how anyone is truly benefiting from the model other than America’s CEOs, CFOs, and Executive VPs.  Across the board for the past 40 years, the percentage of America’s national wealth controlled by the top 20% has increased exponentially.  Currently their share stands in the neighborhood of 90%.  The top 1% alone hold 24% of the national wealth unto themselves.  Meanwhile, for everyone else (80% of America) wages have remained flat, purchasing power has declined, and net worth has eroded even as the productivity of the American workforce has continued to improve. 

It hasn’t always been this way, so why should we believe it “has to be” this way?

Maconomics is even harder to justify morally and spiritually in light of THE gospel.  Love thy neighbor as thyself (Leviticus 19.18/Matthew 22.39).  In everything, do unto others as you would have done unto you (Matthew 7.12).  The laborer is worthy of his hire (1 Timothy 5.18).  The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12.15-21).  The list could go on.  It even clashes with “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3.10), a favorite verse of John Smith and still popular with political conservatives.  McBudget represents an entire class of people who are working – hard – and yet cannot afford to eat, at least not very well.  Note there is no line item for food in McBudget.  Food, clothing, gas, toiletries, and other basic necessities would all have to come out of the $800 per month allocated for “spending money.”

But nothing in the New Testament is as pertinent to the spiritual implications of Maconomics as a story Jesus tells about a poor man named Lazarus who lives camped outside a rich man’s house (Luke 16.19-31).  Despite the proximity and consistency of Lazarus’ presence, the rich man doesn’t notice him let alone feel any compassion for him.  The rich man whiles away his days in luxury while Lazarus suffers, until they both die.  From the torment of Hades, the rich man looks up and finally, for the first time, sees Lazarus – reclining in the bosom of Abraham.  The rich man begs Father Abraham to allow Lazarus to touch his tongue with a drop of water, but Abraham refuses.  The rich man (prefiguring Jacob Marley) then pleads for Abraham to warn his brothers, who are still alive, so they might be spared his fate.  Abraham’s response: they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.

Jesus is speaking to His followers here.  The suits on Wall Street and our representatives in Washington may not care what Jesus says. They may not care about the “average” workers at McDonald’s or any other corporation beyond their costs and their labor.  But Christ’s disciples should care, and we should listen. Listening means we cannot continue to turn a blind eye, especially a willfully blind eye, to the inequities of 21st century America. Through the window of McBudget, we have caught a glimpse of Lazarus – behind the counter if not on our doorstep.  We’ve seen how stark the realities of Lazarus’ situation are. The question is: will we be moved by what we see?  Will we be moved to ask questions?  Will we be moved to demand action?  Or will we will continue to grab our food and go on our way – unconcerned with value beyond the menu?

 

 

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