We Are Bound Together

In the TV show Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, a brilliant physicist who purports to have a “working knowledge of the universe” but can’t understand basic social practices, develops a sort of flow chart for making a friend. In this episode Raj, Leonard, and Howard, two physicists and an engineer, return to Sheldon’s and Leonard’s apartment to discover that Sheldon as mapped an algorithm for making friends with his nemesis on their large white board which is typically employed for physics equations. He says he has “isolated the algorithm for making friends” and will no longer make the same mistakes made in the child’s picture book “Stew the Cockatoo is New at the Zoo.”

BigBangTheory Poster

The flow chart starts with “ask to share a meal” if not interested invite to enjoy a hot beverage (in this one he even has options listed to suggest) if not interestedà perhaps a recreational activity. At this point in the trial run his nemesis keeps suggesting activities that Sheldon has no interest in. He keeps looping back and his algorithm falters, unable to handle this unexpected turn. Fortunately, Howard is able to jump in and add a loop counter and escape option into the whiteboard chart.

The Matthew 18 passage provides a similar step-by-step instruction but for the purpose of restoring a relationship rather than making a new one. Before we take a closer look at these verses starting at verse 15 however, I want to note some the context of the first part of this chapter.

The context is that of “not losing.” Chapter 18 begins with the question of who is the greatest. Jesus brings a child in to their midst. You must be like this child to enter the kingdom Further more if you welcome this child then you welcome me.

Then from verses 6-14 we have 3 variations of not losing.

  • If you cause one of these children to stumble, that is lost, it would be better for you to be sunk in the sea with a  weight around your neck
  • If you yourself are wandering away dramatic action is needed
  • And third the parable of the lost sheep. In this parable the shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the fold to go out in search for the one that is lost.

So by the time we get to verse 18 we have heard Jesus challenge the disciples’ questions about greatness and we see a recurring theme on not losing.

Into this context we hear “Go”. If your brother or sister wrongs you go to them.  This seems to be a general formula or procedure for addressing wrong doing. This feels like a sort of process flow chart. Remember back to Sheldon and his algorithm for making a friend.

These few verses seem a bit like this but for conflict in the congregation. Go to the person. If that works, great! Process finished. If it doesn’t work then take someone else. If that works, great! If it doesn’t work tell it to the church. If this works, great! If it doesn’t work treat them as if they were a Gentile or tax collector.

The Gentile and tax collectors are those who are outside the community but who we seek to bring into reconciliation with God. And then also reconciliation with one another.

After we get this fairly detailed process of addressing wrong doing we read to more general, not particularly clear, but seemingly related bits.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

What you bind and loose is bound and loosed in heaven. Where a handful of you are, there too is God. Written as it is in at this point it the passage, we see that it is written to give assurance in the face of a difficult task. For all the simple straight-forward elegance of this teaching it is certainly not simple. Or perhaps it is simple but because it is difficult we imagine it to be more complicated than it is. Whatever the case, the assurance is given that we are truly doing the work of God. That God has entrusted it to us– is with binding and loosing. God has entrusted us but God is also with us. God is with us in the non-glamorous gathering of two or three.

So what? Perhaps I can claim that we have a tentative grasp of this passage.

This is a rather straight forward passage. We can do it or we can not do it.  I could have, as On Earth Peace, an agency of the Church of the Brethren, has done and create a guide and workshop expanding on the specific practices that can come out of Matthew 18. This adds even more practicality to the teaching. This material is in fact called “Matthew 18”. Or I could work to convince you that a healthy community and conflict resolution is critical for the well being and growth of a congregation.  This would be the empirical backing for a very practical passage—do it because it works. Or I could also give a deeper theological rationale for why reconciliation is part of our very DNA as followers of Jesus.

These are all important but I am going to take this in a somewhat different direction.

I think it is safe to say that this passage deals with reconciliation. This reconciliation obviously affects the relationships between people but also seems to affect relationship to God.

Furthermore this passage suggests that God is not merely interested in our souls but that salvation is a part of reconciliation and this is bodily.

Some church worlds and Christians focus almost exclusively on the salvation of souls. Some church worlds and Christians focus almost exclusively on how we live and what our faith means materially. In the former reconciliation is with God. In the later reconciliation is with people.

I recently read a book (while waiting for a much delayed flight home from Chicago via New York) called “Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconciliation with Creation” written by Norman Wirzba, Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School and Fred Bahnson a permaculture gardener and pioneer  in church-supported agriculture.

Making Peace With The Land

Wirzba writes:

“Today’s church suffers from a reconciliation deficit disorder. The cause of this disorder is an impoverished imagination. As Christians, we have a hard time imagining that God desires all creatures—human and nonhuman, living and nonliving—to be reconciled with each other and with God. For some reason we have come to think that God cares primarily, perhaps only, about us.”[1]

Reconciliation is the repairing or healing of a relationship. If wrongdoing has caused the damage then it also includes stopping this action and setting things right. Proclaim the Gospel to all—human and nonhuman—proclaim that God is reconciling all things.

Wirzba continues with what he calls “ecological amnesia”:

“Ecological amnesia is so devastating because it leads us to forsake the material world. It contributes to an impoverished understanding of reconciliation because it trains us to think of ourselves as no longer dependent on clean water, fertile soil, diverse forests and fields and multitudes of insects and animals. As amnesiacs, we live an illusory life. We have forgotten what is not only good but absolutely fundamental: that we are bodies bound to each other through webs of food, water, breath, energy, inspiration, pleasure and delight.”[2]

Remember this connection. Remember and be reconciled. This proclamation happens through the sort of classical proclamation of words—through preaching and prayer and song but also happens through our life together. In 2 Corinthians we read that we are actually reconciled. But we recognize that though this may be reality we still have yet to fully embody this—hence the detailed instruction in Matthew 18. Though in status we are reconciled to God and one another we yet have work to do. Though we have been reconciled to all of creation we yet have work to do to fully realize this reality.

So we have specific recommended actions—almost a formula (or algorithm)—for confronting wrong doing and embodying reconciliation in our community. I expanded this to a more general understanding of reconciliation. We then shifted this general understanding slightly to include not only our relationships to each other and God but also to include all of creation. Can this be brought a full circle back to specific guidelines but now to include these three categories of Divine, human, and non-human?

Interestingly much degradation of the environment happens at the hands of people—in this case our process from Matthew 18 is quite effective. We may need to confront (with all requisite love) our brothers and sisters who live as though creation is not a gift from God given for our care.

Kulp Bible College, where we lived in Nigeria, is in the northeast part of the country. It is on the edge of the Sahel, which is dry land savanna, which is the edge of the Sahara. Due to deforestation, global climate change, and damaging farming practices, the desert is rapidly expanding south. Every day during the late afternoon or early evening we would go for a walk or run through the fields surrounding the campus. These fields were forest just 10 years earlier but were gradually cleared so that very little forest remained. One day we saw an overfilled truck bring a load of firewood from the field and unload it just outside campus.

This continued for days with load upon load of firewood being brought in. A local businessman had bought and was clearing land out in the “bush,” the scrubby unused land. He was clearing to grow beans to sell. This action and many others like it was a good short term investment but in the long run undermining the possibility of life in this area.

Secondly, our going to another because of wrong doing assumes we are being attentive to wrong doing. This wrong doing is certainly not limited to everyone else—it includes us. I am one of the wrong doers. At times this is towards others at times this is toward God and at times this is towards Creation.

This reconciliation is thus closely linked to mutual accountability. This accountability and attention to the reconciling of relationships is at the very core of the creation of the beloved community in which God, humans, and all of creation is reconciled and made whole.

–Nate Hosler

[1] Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 21.

[2] Wirzba, 35

Transformed Seeing: Learning from Farm Workers

A little over a week ago I went south to Raleigh, North Carolina for the National Farm Worker Ministry’s board meeting. While my primary objective was to participate in the meetings and activities of the board I did manage to wander the streets of Raleigh the evening before and try out some Carolina BBQ. Today I want to spend some time telling what I saw and reflecting on this in light of the scripture passages we read earlier.

Nate preachning about the farm workers at Washington City Church of the Brethren

Nate preachning about the farm workers at Washington City Church of the Brethren

In Isaiah 51 we read

“Look to the rock from which you were hewn. Look to Abraham your father”

The prophet is calling the people to remember where they came from—to remember that God had delivered them and called them to righteousness and justice. This “remember” reminded me of being in middle school or high school, particularly early on when going out on my own was a newer experience. My parents, rather than listing specific rules that might include things like—“no driving stupidly even though you imagine yourself invincible” or “don’t drink,” they said something to the effect of “remember who you are.” A list of rules would have been tedious and likely not particularly effective. But by saying “remember who you are” they included the entirety of what they had taught and shown during my growing up.

The prophet is calling the people to remember where they came from. To remember they are a people of righteousness and justice and that God delivered them from slavery.

Two days after I arrived home from the National Farm Worker Ministry board meeting I was on a plane to Chicago in order to participate in Church of the Brethren staff meetings in Elgin. Like a good board member I had purchased a NFWM T-Shirt and was wearing it for my day of travel. I had a window seat and was the first person on in my three seat row. While sitting there, looking out the window, and not planning on talking to anyone I suddenly heard—“Oh, we get to sit with the National Farm Worker Ministry.” I looked up to see two women who at first I thought may be Catholic sisters (there are a lot of Catholics in farm worker organizing—and a number of representatives of Catholic women’s orders—nuns—on the NFWM board). It turns out that they were Episcopalian and were professors at Virginia Theological Seminary. It also turns out that they had done work with NFWM quite a long time ago but hadn’t heard much from them for many years.

Now I am in no way implying that they deserted good work and were being unfaithful but my bright red t-shirt that read—“Justice for Farm Workers” reminded them of their past. It reminded them of this particular fight for justice. For these friends, even though they hadn’t been connected with NFWM they had still been concerned and active in struggles for justice, caring for neighbor and the earth. This was not the case for the Israelites. For the Israelites the Prophet is calling them to a radical change back to the way of God. Isaiah calls them to remember who they are–a delivered people—a people of justice and righteousness. Remember where you came from.

While Isaiah in general as a book focuses on Israel’s vocation of justice, righteousness, and relationship to God these few verses specifically remind of several things: where they came from, that the Lord will comfort, that justice will go out in teaching as a light to the nations, and deliverance is coming. This passage focus on these three—where they came from, the salvation of the Lord and (very briefly) that this entails justice. Isaiah reminds us of this as well—we are a people delivered—saved—and called to justice.

On the first day of the meeting we went to visit farm workers. Specifically we visited and listened to farm worker organizers from FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Campaign) and then to labor camps. The founder of FLOC, Baldemar Velasquez spoke to us of his early years of working in the fields and how he came to do this work, which started many decades ago. He started in the fields at age six and organized his first strike at age 12. As migrant farm workers his family moved with the seasons. One year the farmer offered to keep his father on to do handyman work during the winter. Since there weren’t crops to pick Baldemar was able to go to school. He said that the small house the family lived in was so poorly insulated and cold he didn’t need prodding to go to the well heated school.

One of the challenges that farm workers face is that often there are no pay stubs or records of how much they worked and what their pay is. They simply get an envelope with money and have no way of assuring that they are getting paid what they are supposed to. (This pay is also quite low so every bit earned is critical). This is how Baldemar’s father was paid. On one particular occasion he was certain that his envelope didn’t contain all that was owed him. Though he knew it risky, he desperately needed the money, so he decided to ask his supervisor about it. When he did this the man verbally abused him. Young Baldemar was witness to this. It was at this time that he began to question this system. He then told us of successful campaigns in the past, and he told of what they are working on now.

Later in the day we broke up into 3 different groups and visited several labor camps. Sometimes these camps are official but meager structures provided by the farm, sometimes they are unofficial actual camps, and sometimes it is a room or trailer that the workers need to pay rent for. One such trailer visited by a board member on another trip was dilapidated, crowded, and cost each worker $50 a week –which when calculated cost more than the board members child was paying for an apartment in New York City. My group visited two camps.

We went to see—but how do we see?

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.–Romans 12:1-2

Chapter 12 follows Paul’s describing the Gentile readers’ being grafted into the vine of the family of God. This chapter and these verses are the result of this new relationship and connection to God. “by the mercies of God—to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Note the elements of this. Bodies are presented to God for spiritual worship. While this may feel repetitious it is critical that we keep before us that “spiritual” and “material” are not separated. How we live is not separate from how we worship. Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, cannot be distilled down to “being a good person” or “worshipping God with a pure heart.”

The passage continues, 2 “Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Don’t be conformed but transformed. Don’t be stuffed into the world’s mold but be changed into something new. This being conformed indicates a restriction. A restriction in how we live, relate to others, see, and hear. One risk of this “world” language is that at times Christians have set a hard barrier between themselves and the “world” which is seen to be corrupt. I would like to make a slight distinction in how I believe the Bible uses “world” and some of the ways we might understand this. The Psalms, for example, celebrate many things in the world. That is they celebrate creation but also celebrate food and relationships. These things certainly can be over celebrated, abused, or worshiped but are in and of themselves beautiful and part of God’s good gifts. There is another, darker, understanding of world that I believe this passage is responding to. It is, for example, the system and habits of greed which place our own selves above others, above God, and above God’s creation. The old Brethren sought to distance themselves from this world by a variety of practices of non-conformity. One small thing was that men did not have mustaches because elaborate mustaches were signs of vanity and were also associated with the military. We also had unadorned churches—which were called meeting houses—so that we would focus on God and not seek to look good.

The passage doesn’t, however, stop with a negative “do not conform” but continues with a “be transformed.” “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Being transformed we will know the will of God. Being transformed will begin to see like God. See in the way God sees. Hold this vision of transformed seeing for a bit while I head back to the farm workers.

During a time of reflecting on our experiences meeting farm workers and organizers the day before, a question mark arose. Most of these workers had gone to great lengths to get here and many have stayed for many years. While there have been cases of virtual or actual slavery, in Florida, for example, this is not exactly what we found. My group spoke with a man from Haiti who has been picking tobacco for 34 years. This despite the sickness people often feel from absorbing significant nicotine from handling the tobacco. Another worker we met is soon turning 28 and has been here for 9 years. When he described his home in Mexico with abundant fruits we asked why he stayed. He said he has friends and its “quiet”—that he liked it.  When he brought out a large bucket which holds 32 lbs of jalapeño peppers we asked how long it took to pick—15 minutes. And how much do you make from it?–$1, so that’s $4 an hour. There were probably hundreds of peppers in this large bucket. His fingers were blistered from the repetition of picking for 11-12 hours.

Though these conditions were obviously bad some of the group began to wonder why, if people keep coming and seem content, why do we do what we do? While some noted that this situation was complex, David of the United Methodists urged us not to call it complexity. Call it what it is—a system of greed. “Complexity” gives the impression of moral ambiguity. This is a system of greed and my desire for cheap food is a cause.

This is part of the being transformed. This is part of my seeing being transformed.

One of the participants was a visitor to the board meeting. She is a seminary student interested in food and environmental justice who the director invited to join us. She was in my group and met the jalapeño picking fellow. When we reflected as a group on this experience she spoke and was obviously moved. She said, “For several years I worked in a grocery store. I unloaded boxes of peppers from a particular farm. I saw those boxes at the farm today. (paraphrase)” These boxes were no longer just boxes filled somewhere somehow. They were filled by Sergio. Her vision was transformed.

Now this is not a call to paralyzing guilt but it is a call to attend to the transforming of our vision–to our total transformation. When our seeing is transformed—unsurprisingly, we see differently. How do we see? Who do we see?

Do we see the farm workers hidden from our sight back off the road? Do we see the system with its greed? Do we see our involvement? Do we see the people who abuse the workers?

Do we see Jesus?

“2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Go now, transformed.

–Nathan Hosler