Building New Tables of Shalom
Rev. Wayne A. Laws
As a community of faith, we have committed ourselves to creating a “Beloved Community” and that the Beloved Community we wish to become will be characterized by Shalom. Although we typically translate the Hebrew word Shalom as “peace” we have talked about how it is much more than just peace, which we typically define as the absence of war or violence. When we look at Strong’s Concordance we see the depth of Shalom. In the concordance it means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord, complete, perfect and full. Furthermore, it is our belief that God’s purpose for all of creation not just humanity but all of creation which includes the animals, the plants, and the environment, is the state of Shalom and that the life and teachings of Jesus model for us Shalom and the Holy Spirit inspires and strengthens us to co-create with God Shalom in our communities and our world.
However, we only have to turn on the nightly news to quickly reaffirm that we have not reached Shalom. Shalom in all of its fullness is not found in our neighborhoods, our cities, our state, our nation, and certianly not in the world for humanity much less all of creation.
For Shalom to be a reality requires justice. One way of defining justice is the conditions for a community’s collaborative relations. The obstacles to this collaboration is what we call injustice. From a faith-based perspective, injustices are the obstacles to achieving Shalom.
Injustice can take two forms: the first is called particular injustice that is specific to a particular person or event, there is an identifiable offender, and there is a legal means for restitution. The second is structural injustice which is systemic and institutionalized in our economic and public policies. Victims of structural injustice are targeted by their social position, there is no conventional “bad guy” and it is redressed through collective action.
Let me give you an example. A police officer who specifically targets a person of color based on their color is practicing particular injustice. The prevailing culture of law enforcement and our legal system that fosters this particular injustice and even allows it to continue is the structural injustice.
The NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem have done so to draw attention to this structural injustice hoping to initiate a national dialogue on it leading to change. Unfortunately, that has become lost in the current rhetoric.
Jesus’ act of healing the man at the pool on the sabbath was the very same sort of action calling attention to a structural injustice of his day. And like the NFL players of today, Jesus’ action rankled the powerful of his day to their very core and they did everything in their power to redefine his action into something different — to turn its focus away from his original intent and to discredit his action while inflaming the people against him.
Today, I would like to focus primarily on our call as followers of Jesus, working for Shalom, to eliminate structural injustices. In our Wednesday night book study, “Live Justly” Ron Sider provides a modern-day parable that he calls “Ambulance Drivers or Tunnel Builders?”
Once there were two towns on opposite sides of a great mountain. The only to get from town to town was over a winding, slippery road with very tight hairpin curves and steep drop-offs without guard rails. The road could be quite treacherous and there were frequently serious and even fatal accidents.
A group of devout Christians living in the town at the base of the mountain were deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars. They undertook an effort to marshal the other three churches in the town to pool their resources and purchase an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives, although some of the victims were crippled for life.
Then one day a young visitor came to town. Puzzled, he asked the townspeople why they did not close the treacherous road by building a tunnel through the mountain. Startled at first, the ambulance volunteers quickly pointed out that although his idea was technically possible it was not realistic or advisable. After all they argued, the narrow mountain road had been there for a long time. And, besides, the powerful mayor of the town, who owned a large restaurant and gas station and motel half-way up the mountain, would strongly oppose the idea and undoubtedly fight against it. They told him, “you are new here, you just don’t understand how things are done here.”
The visitor was shocked that the mayor’s economic interests mattered more to these Christians than the many human casualties. Somewhat hesitantly, he suggested that perhaps the churches could speak to the mayor or even elect a new mayor if he proved stubborn and unconcerned.
Now the Christians were shocked. With rising indignation and righteous conviction, they informed the young radical in no uncertain terms that the church dare not become involved in politics. The church, they said, is called to preach the gospel and give a cup of cold water. Its mission, they emphatically declared, is not to dabble in worldly things like social and political structures.
Perplexed and bitter, the visitor left. As he wandered out of the village, one question churned round and round in his muddled mind. Is it really more spiritual, he wondered, to operate ambulances that pick up the bloody victims of destructive social structures than to try to change the social structures themselves?
However, I believe where the church fails is when we say it has to be one or the other. In this parable, the ambulance drivers were performing mission – they were reacting to and meeting an immediate and critical need. Without them, even more people would have died. The tunnel builders would be the advocates working to change the social structure that is causing the need for the mission in the first place.
In our on-going work of establishing a Beloved Community, of working toward Shalom, we need both ambulance drivers and tunnel builders. Both are equally valuable. If we do not have both, Shalom is out of reach. If we do not meet the immediate needs of the people while also working to change the social structures that are obstacles to Shalom we can never make it a reality.
When we look at the life of Jesus we see him being both the ambulance driver and the tunnel builder. In our gospel reading this morning we see Jesus in both roles. In the role of the ambulance driver he addresses the man’s most immediate need and heals him. However, it is very important to note that Jesus did not assume the man wanted to be healed. Before doing anything, Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be healed. One trap that we easily fall into when being the ambulance driver, of doing mission work, is assuming that we know what is needed and what the other person wants without asking.
In the role of tunnel builder Jesus’ going to the pool and healing the man on the sabbath addresses several oppressive social structures of the day including relegating those with physical and mental challenges to a lower, degraded and isolated place in society, to the back gate with the livestock, and the strict adherence to the law that placed the law over the welfare and common good of the people.
Another way of looking at this that I have talked about before is what I call building new tables. A statement we in the church frequently use is “that all are welcome at our table” or some variation of that. I affirm what we mean by this statement and the intentions behind it but I would offer that it does not follow the model of Jesus. Jesus did not make places at the table for others, he destroyed the present table and he created a brand new one by addressing and changing the social injustices that held people in oppression.
When we make a place at our table for someone it is still our table with all of our rituals, our traditions, and more importantly its unspoken rules. As followers of Jesus we called not to make places at our table but rather to co-create a brand-new table where all are welcome and equal.
To build a new table requires first a willingness to destruct the old table so something new can be raised in its place. This is not easy to do at all. We are comfortable with our table as it is, including the social injustices that are part of it that we personally benefit from. The longer we sit at our own table the more comfortable it becomes and the harder it is to let go of.
Building a new table requires change and change, as we know, is hard to do. For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, it was so hard to change their structural injustices, to build a new table, that they resorted, as our reading today says, to killing him instead.
As in the parable we heard earlier, building a new table cannot be accomplished by mission alone or by advocacy alone. It takes both working together holistically to build a new table. Both callings are necessary, both are worthy, and both our part of our call to do justice.
In our parable this morning there is one piece missing that was modeled by Jesus and is what I call “Ministry.” I have discussed this in previous View articles so I don’t want to belabor it but in Ministry as I am using it here, emphasis is on the individual’s emotional and spiritual needs. This can take numerous forms including counseling, prayer, spiritual direction, being present, story sharing, visitation, etc. When you think about ministry do not fall into the trap that it is just the role of clergy or ordained people. On the cover of our bulletin we proclaim that the “ministers” of Mountain View are all of us. Each one of us is a minister. In our reformed tradition we believe in the “priesthood of all believers.” All of us are called to ministry.
An example of ministry by Jesus is when he chooses, again with intention, to sit and have a conversation with the woman at the well. A simple act of being present and listening to her story.
When we think of building new tables of Shalom it must include ministry, mission, and advocacy. These three form the three legs supporting our new table.
The work of Amy and our commitment to be a WISE congregation is a perfect example of building a new table. Mountain View has a long and very rich history of welcoming people with mental and physical challenges to our table. However, we are now in the process of deconstructing that table and building a new one where not only will those with mental and physical challenges be welcomed to sit at the table but they will have a voice in co-creating the new table. They just don’t sit at the table, they have an active part in determining what happens at the table and the path the table will take.
As Amy challenged us last week, our new table moves from being one of access to one of inclusion.
As part of our WISE covenant we commit to being present in ministry to those with mental and physical challenges, to be present and to listen. An example of this was those who went to be with Brian at the Hope Farms Project Fall Festival a few weeks ago.
We commit to engaging in mission to those with challenges, like participating in the Out of the Darkness Walk or providing a ride so someone can participate in the full life of the community and always remembering not to assume we know what someone wants or needs but first asking.
And we commit to work at changing the social structures that stigmatize people with mental and physical challenges. We commit to changing the social structures that foster a culture that those with challenges are seen as less valuable to our society, that foster workplace discrimination, and such things as not having equal accesses to public services. An example is those who have called their Congressional Reps encouraging them to not support reducing health care access and benefits for those dealing with mental illness.
The prophets give us many visions of what Shalom looks like and what is the result when we choose to embrace and work for God’s justice. As several of you know, I enjoy gardening and as such the vision given by the prophet Isaiah of what happens when we break the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke of oppression letting the oppressed go free. He tells us that our light will break forth like the dawn and we shall be like a well-watered garden, a spring of water that will never fail. We will be known as the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Earlier, Michael sang the very well-known protest song, “If I Had A Hammer.” Sisters and brothers, we have a hammer. The Holy Spirit gives us the hammer to break down the walls of injustice and build new tables of Shalom.
So, whether you are called to be an ambulance driver or a tunnel builder let us recommit to using our gifts, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guided by Jesus, to boldly speak truth to power, to break down the walls of structural injustice, and to build new tables where all not only have place but have a voice. Let us hold the vision of Shalom, of Beloved Community, always before us knowing that our work is not in vain and that the day will come when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.