Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

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[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.


I Hate Your Worship – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20 / Psalm 50. 1-8, 22-23

August 11, 2013 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

“Among both Christians and Jews, Isaiah is one of Scripture’s most well-loved and often-quoted books” says biblical scholar and our friend, retired from Louisville Seminary, Tricia Tull. “No other prophetic book is more often quoted in the Christian New Testament…no other book appears more frequently in the Jewish annual lectionary and no other Old Testament book [appears] more often in contemporary Catholic and Protestant lectionaries.”1
Isaiah, the prophet, lived in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah. His prophetic ministry took place in the time when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria and the southern kingdom was near the brink of disaster from Assyrian invaders. Isaiah interpreted, in ethical and theological terms, “the disasters witnessed in his generation…[warning] Jerusalem that the same fate could well befall them if they remained [indifferent] to the just demands of their God.”2
While Isaiah is one of the most loved books in the Bible, it is probably not because of chapter 1, which is our text for this morning.

[ Read Isaiah 1.1, 10-20]

These are hard words. Confrontive, challenging words. In fact, both the Psalm reading and Isaiah are hard to hear.
Isaiah was talking to people who came to worship, carried out the rituals, gave their offering and then went home and lived their lives as if they had never heard of the ten commandments. And God was sick of it. Sick of the rituals, the prayers, the offerings carried as if they were a lucky charm to keep God working on their behalf. Only God didn’t play that game.
We probably all know people like this. They go to church, they profess to be a Christian but they conduct their lives and treat other people like they slept through every worship service and didn’t hear a word that was said. I know people who say they have a relationship with God but when I look at their lives I don’t know what Bible they have been reading.
As much as I would like to make this passage about other people, it’s not only an indictment about others. It’s an indictment of all of us.
Isaiah talks about incense and burnt offerings, fat and blood. We might hear that and think it’s not our worship practices which are a problem. There’s no blood here. No lambs and goats are wandering our aisles.
But in our day we could as easily be hearing these words:
“I hate your worship. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it.”3 Now that hits home. That’s preaching gone to meddling, if you ask me!
Eugene Peterson in The Message translates it this way:
“I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.”
There are books that have come out in the past number of years by leading atheists and other opposers of religion, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Well, the Bible has them beat by a few thousand years. God is the first and most scathing critic of religion4 and we hear that front and center in the very first chapter of Isaiah which, in the arrangement of the Bible is the very first chapter of all of the prophetic books. A sharp critique of worship leads off the entire collection of prophetic writing.
Scholar and pastor Stacey Simpson Duke says, “This is always a core problem for God’s people–the gap between our practice and our praise.”5 The religious ceremony, the showing up, the singing the words, praying the prayers, giving our money, listening to the sermons, in some ways that’s the easier part. It’s what happens when we walk out of these doors that is when the gap begins. Really, it’s when we stand up and start to interact with one another and then walk out the doors to interact with more people, that the gap begins to grow. Sometimes it’s because we’re mean, cranky, obstinate people. Sometimes it’s because we’re ordinary human beings living in a world with all manner of injustice and inequity and all kinds of pressures to meet deadlines, balance the budget, look the other way, close the deal, compromise, make the problem go away, get along and go along, don’t rock the boat, be reasonable.
And we slowly let the pearls we have held in worship slip through our fingers.
Worship, Isaiah says, has no value if it doesn’t transform us to live lives of justice and compassion. That’s what God’s complaint is–against the Israelites and against us. This isn’t a call for no worship, it’s a call for worship that moves us to pursue goodness and righteousness; that translates in our lives into “[Saying] no to wrong. [Learning] to do good. [Working] for justice. [Helping] the down-and-out. [Standing] up for the homeless. [Going] to bat for the defenseless.”6
Worship is essential for us. Worship that “requires of us an awed and candid engagement with God that is life giving, community transforming, and world altering.”7 Worship is not the only place that kind of engagement with God takes place but it certainly one of the places and it’s definitely the place where a community can be transformed to change the world.
The irony of this passage from Isaiah is that it is precisely in worship where we hear this text, critiquing our worship. And it’s in worship where we learn how God wants us to live in the world. It’s in worship that we draw strength and courage for that kind of life. And it’s from worship that we are sent to be the life-giving, transforming body of Christ in the world.
Now lest that sound too grandiose, let me tell you a story.
In 2004, a group of Presbyterians left the Presbyterian Center downtown to walk to the Taco Bell at 2nd and Broadway. They were promoting a boycott of Taco Bell until the fast food company would agree to an increase of one penny per pound to be paid to farm workers in Florida who pick tomatoes and at the time were earning about $7500 per year. The group of Presbyterians walked on to YUM! headquarters. The cause, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was on behalf of some of the poorest of the poor in our country.
I remember thinking at the time, “This is such a huge corporation. How is our action, that seems so small, going to make any difference?”
And yet, with continued boycotts and negotiations, the next year Taco Bell signed on with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Partnership.
A week and a half ago, during the Big Tent Conference of the Presbyterian Church, there was another protest. This time at Wendy’s at Bardstown Road and Grinstead. And in the intervening decade eleven corporations  are now participating in the Fair Food Partnership: Yum!, Burger King, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and 4 food service groups including Aramark and Sodexo. Ninety percent of Florida tomato growers also participate in the Fair Food Partnership, “a direct result of those corporate buyers saying they would only purchase from growers within the Fair Food Program.”8
For Presbyterians, that decade of work comes directly out of worship and the demand we hear in the Bible from God to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. The Reverend Noelle Damico, the Associate for Fair Food in the Presbyterian Hunger Program, said because of these actions, “there has been a structural change in the Florida tomato industry which…supplies 90% of the US domestic winter tomatoes between October and June and the improvements are affecting 100,000 workers every season!”9

Pastor and priest Henri Nouwen, wrote many books on the spiritual life. Even as a deeply spiritual person himself, he knew how easy it is to get distracted and listen to voices other than the voice of God–to let the gap widen between our praise and our practice. He wrote a lot about creating space in our lives for God to act and speak–ways we diminish that gap between our worship and the rest of our lives. He identified  three essential disciplines–or practices–for disciples of Jesus: solitude, community and compassionate service. “It is through solitude and prayer that we can stay in touch with our truest identity as [beloved] children of God. This leads into relationships with others in community where we learn to celebrate and forgive.” We can think of those relationships and celebrating and forgiving as part of the experience of worship. “Then, it is these relationships[–and our worship–] that sustains us as we reach out to serve others through compassionate ministry.”10
It’s another way of saying what we hear in Isaiah and throughout the bible and see in the life of Jesus. Solitude, community and compassionate service. None are enough in and of themselves. All are essential. Each one nourishes and sustains us for the other two. Solitude, community, and compassionate service. Marks of a faithful life. God’s way for us to live.

* * *
1 Patricia K. Tull, “Isaiah” Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., eds. CArol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p255.
2 Ibid., p256.
3 Paul Simpson Duke, “Homiletical Perspective – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p319.
4 Ibid.
5 Stacey Simpson Duke, “Pastoral Perspective – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p318.
6 The Message, Isaiah 1.16d-17.
7 Paul Simpson Duke, p321.
8 Personnel correspondence with Noelle Damico, Associate for Fair Food, Presbyterian Hunger Program, August 8, 2013.
9 Ibid.
10 Henri J. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Living, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2011), p