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Where You Live, Whether You Live

Sermon - 2/19/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 41

The Psalm this morning, for which I want to begin our reflection, actually begins with a beatitude, with a joyful note, but it's not exactly what we expect to hear, that we should be joyful about.  

I'm reading from the 41st Psalm, the first three verses:

1Happy are those who consider the poor;
   the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.
2The Lord protects them and keeps them alive;
   they are called happy in the land.
   You do not give them up to the will of their enemies.
3The Lord sustains them on their sickbed;
   in their illness you heal all their infirmities..

 

You know, poets are often prophets and prophets are often poets, and this morning I want to introduce to you one of the people that I think is one of the more profound poet/prophets or prophetic poets (whichever the case may be) of this generation:

I'm curious -- how many people recognize this man?  I'm also curious of the ages of those that hold up their hands J.  We'll see whether or not if you're "with it".  This is one of those guys who's so well-known in pop-culture that he only needs one name.  And so he goes by "Bono" [pronounced "BAH-no"].  He's just known as Bono.  And he is the lead singer and songwriter for the Irish rock group U2.  Made famous fairly recently in iPod commercials -- kicked off the iPod with one of their songs.  I really didn't pay any attention to U2 or Bono until Glen Campbell [congregation member] introduced me to him, so everything I'm going to say for the next 10 minutes can be blamed on Glen!  He was the one who gave me their latest CD:  "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb".  Great title, don't look for it for any instructions -- well, actually, there are in a certain kind of way.

But that CD and U2 received 5 Grammy's just a couple of weeks ago, and you know that the Grammy is the Oscar for musicians.  So, quite significant, they're really a hot group right now.

Well, it turns out that Bono is a very committed Christian.  As I said, he's Irish.  His father was a protestant, his mother a Roman Catholic.  Hence, Bono grew up in a country where the line between those two was literally the battle line.  As a result, he found that religion often got in the way of God.  Even though he is a believer in God, he says that he wasn't necessarily a believer in religion, at least not as practiced by the church.  

But then some Christians did something in 1997 that forever changed his view of Christianity and organized religion.  Bono, you may know, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, was named person of the year because of their unceasing efforts on behalf of the world's poor.

It was back in 1997 that a couple of elderly British Christians in their 70s got to Bono and convinced him to be one of the lead public spokespersons for the Jubilee 2000 campaign -- that global campaign to get wealthy countries to forgive the debts of the poorest countries.  The whole concept of Jubilee 2000 is based on the year of Jubilee that we find in our Hebrew scriptures where every 50 years all debts were to be forgiven, slaves were to be freed, and land was to return to ancestral ownership.  As a way to redistribute wealth and to ensure that nobody is caught in perpetuity in slavery and poverty.

Oh, by the way, that's precisely what Jesus announced in Luke 4 in his first public appearance in Luke's gospel, in Nazareth, when he said:  "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor".  The year of Jubilee.

Now some of you may recall that we participated in the Jubilee 2000 campaign when Bread for the World held an offering of letters to support that campaign in 1998 or 1999.  We took an offering of letters in support of that effort.  And as a result of the thousands of churches who, like us, did that (not only here in this country but also throughout much of Europe), our government, along with most of the Western nations, forgave literally billions and billions of dollars in debts to those poorest nations.  Made a significant difference.

And so it was the work of the church which changed Bono's mind about the value of organized religion and the church.  He says he was so impressed, "I almost started to like these church people"  J.  Does that give you a sense of hope?!  

Well, Bono has joined the Bread for the World, World Vision, and many other Christian and other faith groups as well as other anti-poverty groups, in a new effort (more ambitious effort) to cut global poverty in half (if not altogether eliminate it) by the year 2015.  It's known as the One Campaign.  

And on February 2nd of this year, he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast.  I suspect at the invitation of President Bush, because he's actually, believe it or not, developed a friendship with the President during that Jubilee 2000 campaign.  And so he spoke at this National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. on February 2nd, and I've heard from several people that is was the most prophetic speech heard at the National Prayer Breakfast since our own senator Mark Hatfield spoke against the Vietnam war in the presence of President Nixon at the National Prayer Breakfast during the Nixon era.

I want to share with you a little bit of what Bono said (to view Bono's full remarks, click here).

He begins with a bit of humor -- he said "One of the things I love about this country is its separation of church and state.  Although I have to say, in inviting me here both church and state have been separated from something else completely -- their mind!  Mr. President, are you sure about this?"  And I suspect that's what got the smile on President Bush's face right there:

 

The notion of an Irish rock star, instead of some prominent clergy member or preacher, being the one to address the National Prayer Breakfast.  And he continued:  "I've always read the scriptures, even the obscure stuff, like Leviticus 25:  'If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself, you shall maintain him.  You shall not lend him your money at interest nor give him your food for profit'.  And so, he says:  "Whatever thoughts you have about God, the one thing we can all agree on, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and the poor.  God is in the slums in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.  God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives.  God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war.  God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives.  And God is with us if we are with them".

Very much the sentiment of Psalm 41.  Bono noted in that speech that poverty is mentioned in scripture, in our Bible, 2100 times.  And he quotes Matthew 25, in that story when the nations appear before the Lord and are separated left and right, and Jesus says "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink", and concludes "as you have done it to the least of these you have done it to me".

Now if you happened to have been listening to Air America Friday morning, when Al Franken was in town at Lane Community College (Franken has a nationally-syndicated radio show that's sort of the opposite of Rush Limbaugh, the liberal response to Rush Limbaugh, if you will), you may have caught that segment when I was a guest on the show.  I received the invitation in the middle of the week when I was in Washington D.C., and made it back just in time.  Franken wanted to talk about church and state issues, among other things that I'll come to in just a little bit, and he quizzed me on some of the things we have done here.  And I told him about our effort, through Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, to bring the Reverend Dr. James Forbes to Eugene from Riverside Church in New York City as part of the 'Let Justice Roll' campaign orchestrated by the National Council of Churches, to make the eradication of poverty a primary issue in the Presidential campaign.  At which Franken interrupted me and said "Wait a second, I'm Jewish, and I happen to know that Jesus never spoke about poverty!".  

And he of course was being sarcastic, he wasn't being serious, but that gave me an opportunity then to tell the story of Matthew 25 which was actually part of a larger story another time when I was with a group of people talking to a legislator in the Oregon Legislature who said to us:  "It's our personal responsibility to help the poor but it is not the responsibility of government.  Government should not be in the business of welfare and food stamps and the like".  At which point, Steve Fietz from First Christian Church in Salem Oregon reminded him of the story in Matthew 25, when the nations became before the Lord. 

So I shared that story, quoted that scripture on national radio on Friday.  

Well, Bono takes note of our country's significant generosity.  Especially in response to the AIDS epidemic and he publicly thanked President Bush on this occasion for his effort to do something about that in Africa.  He said that we, as Americans, can be very, very proud.  

But then--this is where he gets prophetic--said he was on thin ice.  He says:  "Here's the bad news.  It's not about charity after all.  It's about justice.  And that's too bad.  Because you're good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can't afford it.

But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.

Because there's no way we can look at what's happening in Africa and, if we're honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn't accept it. Look at what happened in South East Asia with the tsunami. 150,000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, "mother nature."  In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it's a completely avoidable catastrophe."

And so he lifted up the One Campaign that seeks to change that.  Two million Africans have signed a declaration you can find online at www.one.org.  And that declaration says:

"WE BELIEVE that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty. . . . . . WE COMMIT ourselves - one person, one voice, one vote at a time - to make a better, safer world for all."

So Bono notes that left and right have united together in the belief that where you live should no longer determine whether you live.  U2 fans will recognize that as a lyric out of one of his songs on that album.  "This is not a Republican idea, it's not a Democratic idea, it's not even, with all due respect, and American idea, nor is it unique to any one faith.  Rather it is what God is doing on behalf of the poor", Bono says.  As Psalm 41 says.

And so Bono issued the challenge of the One Campaign -- "Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America:  I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing.... Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional 1% of the federal budget tithed to the poor.

What is 1%?

1% is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to you. 1% is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you. 1% is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to you. 1% is not redecorating presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This 1% is digging waterholes to provide clean water."

But, he notes, America gives less than 1% currently.  In fact, we give .075% of our federal budget to development assistance to help other countries overseas.  The least of the 22 most developed nations.  And so Bono challenges:  "We are asking for an extra 1% to change the world.  To transform millions of lives.  To give 1% more is right, it's smart, and it's blessed by God."

So Bono believes that where you live should not determine whether you live.  The reality, of course, is the reverse.  If you live in the Darfur region of the Sudan -- Sudan is just below Egypt, circled on the map below -- :


-- If you live in that region, the odds are 1 in 3 that you live in a refugee camp.  And 1 in 12 that you did not survive the last three years.  Two years ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell identified the massacre that is occurring in the Darfur as genocide.  And I have to confess to you, like most Americans, I did not pay a whole lot of attention.  You know, there are too many other pressing issues.

And then I was invited this week, in my role as President of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, to join in an inter-faith effort, a lobbying effort, in Washington D.C. -- one of about 80 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders that came together to lobby members of Congress.  And I learned about the bloody civil war that has lasted for 20 years, dividing the Sudan, North and South.  And it finally came to an end in a negotiated peace agreement worked out by Secretary Powell.  But, the killing did not stop.  Instead, it simply moved from that North/South line, to the West, as the government of Sudan armed tribal militias known as that Janjaweed in an apparent effort to drive out or exterminate the 6 million Darfur people, who largely are (not entirely) black Muslims.  And hence it's Muslim-on-Muslim violence, mostly Arab Muslims against mostly black Muslims.

Over 2 million of the Darfur people are now refugees.  400,000 have been killed.  Thousands of villages have been destroyed -- pictured in the map below (you see the legend with the red triangles symbolizing all the villages that have been totally wiped out):

 

The African Union negotiated a cease-fire in 2004 in the region and deployed 7,000 peace-keeping troops.  But those troops are badly outgunned and out-manned.  There are more police officers in Washington D.C. than there are peacekeepers in the Darfur, a region the size of France.  And so our goal in coming together in Washington D.C. this week was to put pressure on Congress and the administration to act quickly to bring an end to this genocide, especially since the United States now occupies the presidency of the Security Council of the United Nations, and hence a golden opportunity that only comes once every 15 months.

We met with the Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellicke, who's been to the area four times.  And Assistant to the President Mike Gerson, and numerous members of Congress.  I, and two other members of the American Jewish Committee, met with Congressman DeFazio, Senators Wyden and Smith, to ask them to give their support to quick action (and I can give you more specifics about that later if you're interested).

The big question is, did we do any good?  Well, Saturday morning, I opened my paper, as I suspect many of you may have, and read that the President is asking for everything that we were asking for, and more!  We were hoping maybe for $100 million dollars to support the African Union force in place -- the President is asking for $500 million dollars and a doubling of the troops to stop the genocide.  Now I don't honestly know whether or not our little feeble effort made that difference (personally, I think it was that Al Franken interview on Friday J).  Whatever the case may be, it was interesting to note that in that article on Saturday, the one person they cited from the [Bush] administration was Mike Gerson, the very man that we met with on Thursday morning in the Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Now the struggle to save the Darfur people is far from over.  Just because the President has announced this initiative doesn't mean that it will happen.  One of the things we learned was that there was $50 million dollars in the federal budget last year for this effort that got taken out of the appropriations bill at the last moment.  And so Secretary Zoellicke said to us "When you go and talk to your members of Congress, please tell them that we need this money".  We went to our members of Congress, we told them that, and they laughed at us.  They said "Why are you coming to us?  We aren't the ones who pulled it out of the budget".  We never got straight from Congress or the administration on why exactly that $50 million got removed.  

But the point is, without the public support and pressure it's easy for those things to happen in the middle of the night.  

So I am standing before you today to tell you that the President needs our support.  Now some of you probably thought you'd never hear me say this J.  But I am asking you to support President Bush in this effort on behalf of the Darfur people.  

I finished my trip by visiting one place in Washington D.C. that I had not yet seen that I longed to see, and that was the Holocaust Museum, just off the mall.  And the story that is told there in the three stories of the exhibit is one very familiar to me.  As soon as I walked into the Museum I immediately recognized the architecture from my time in Auschwitz (in 1980 when I was there).  If you can imagine walking through that exhibit and seeing all of those faces, and images, and stories.  Listening to the tapes and watching the videos.  It's an incredibly moving experience.

But the one thing that really got to me, that gave me hope, was the wall of names of all the people who acted on behalf of Jews, to save Jews, during the Holocaust.  I've known this story, of Denmark and others and the like.  But to see thousands of names of people who were acting, harboring Jews, helping them to escape out of the country was a great hope.  And you see, that's what it takes.  If we are going to stop genocide it takes all of us working together to make a difference.  The Holocaust Museum's mission is not just to remember that story and to keep it alive.  Its mission is to stop genocide from occurring anywhere in the world.  And hence a couple staff members from the Museum were working with us in this effort to lobby Congress.

I want to leave you with some images.  Many of you remember Paul Jeffrey who spoke here last year, the photo-journalist who travels around the world on behalf of Church World Service.  He takes pictures of the things that our money, our Week of Compassion offering and the like, is doing around the world.  I downloaded some of his images right before I went, hoping for an opportunity to show those to members of Congress.  In fact, what you're going to see here is part of what I showed to Congressman DeFazio.  I think it helps to personalize, to humanize that situation when we see it and experience it.  So I just want to close then with this presentation:

Click here to view a movie showing images from Darfur
(will open in a separate window)

 


Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT-Caritas


Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT-Caritas

 

There are many ways we can respond to tragedy and times of need.  But we are always called, as a people of faith, to respond in some way, to share our faith, to show our faith, to live our faith.

 


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