Monday, December 17, 2012

What Then Should We Do?

There is more to come from Washington, DC.  More Living History Days to ponder. 

But first, "this important message from our sponsor", as they used to say on TV at the beginning of commercial breaks...

It comes 10 minutes into the 1983 film The Year of Living Dangerously.  It's that question from the people who have been stung by the truthful words of John the Baptist.  At Luke 3, verse 10, they ask, "What then should we do?"

"TYLD" is a great piece of work from a great director, Peter Weir.  It stars a very young and drop-dead-gorgeous Australian actor, Mel Gibson, in his first big feature.  Playing opposite is a striking Sigourney Weaver. 

And the central figure, the Christ figure, is Linda Hunt pulling off an Oscar performance for her portrayal of Billy Kwan, a quirky and somewhat mysterious little man who is a free-lance news photographer in Jarkarta, Indonesia during the failed 1965 Communist-led coup against President Sukarno.  

Gibson's character is Guy Hamilton, an Australian Broadcasting Service reporter sent to Jakarta without contacts in a business where contacts are everything.  He's too naive to grasp how overmatched he is to the task.  But Billy Kwan knows the ropes and knows them well.

After a couple of drinks at the bar of the international hotel where other foreign correspondents hang out, Kwan takes Hamilton for a nighttime introductory stroll through the slums of Jakarta.  Instantly met by street kids and beggars.  One feels the tension, the humidity, the turmoil of the world of 1965 when America is escalating to half a million troops in South Vietnam.  And Indonesia seems poised to be another falling domino.

As soon as they begin walking among the poor, Kwan quotes Luke 3:10, "What then shall we do?"  Kwan tells Hamilton he could give away all his wealth on the spot.  Hamilton replies that it would make no difference, like adding an imperceptible drop to the ocean.  Kwan says that's the conclusion Leo Tolstoy came to when he gave away all his wealth in Czarist Russia.  

Then Kwan observes that maybe it's the wrong metaphor.  Maybe instead of seeing ourselves as a drop in the ocean, we should see ourselves as light.  We can add the light we have right where we are.  And our light, however small, will indeed make the world around us a little brighter.  

It's a great film.  Romance.  Tension.  Intrigue.  Dense population.  Poverty.  Suspicion.  And the ever-challenging position of being a foreignor living and working in a land one does not understand.

Kwan has a mysterious side.  He keeps files on all the foreign correspondents.  He has photos, knows their backgrounds, their strengths and weaknesses. 

Why?  A sense of self-importance?  A fantasy?  Delusion?  Megalomania?  Or does Kwan have a higher purpose in mind? 

The film does a marvelous job of carrying us along without divulging too much.

Then an unexpected scene.  Billy Kwan visits a hovel in one of the most densely packed slums and hands a single mother a roll of bills.  The mother has a sick child who will die without meds.  Billy has adopted this family.  It's his way of adding a little bit of light.

Billy is a bit of a manipulator.  He pulls  strings to arrange a romance between Guy Hamilton and Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) who works at the British Embassy.  Again, why?

Then, heartbreak.  The poor woman whom Billy had given the money to has had to spend it on other things.  Her sick little boy has died.  Billy arrives for another visit just as the women are washing the still little body for burial.  Heartbreak. 

As the story unfolds, things begin to fall apart.  Martial law tightens.  A coup fails.  Repression.  Violence against foreignors like the ones Billy Kwan had hoped could help him answer his question from Luke 3...

Hamilton is shot and beaten, barely survives, discovers Kwan's files.  The foreignors don't behave as Kwan had hoped.  One night in his dark little house Billy types the account of how he believes he has failed to bring greater light to his world.  Again and again he pounds the keyboard of his typewriter:

What then must we do?  
What then must we do? 

I won't reveal how Billy Kwan ultimately answers his question.  It's a key to the meaning of the film.  Remember, I said he was the Christ figure. 

But I will say this.  Thanks to this story, it's the first time in my life I have honestly "heard" the preaching of John the Baptist. 

Ordinary people ask what they should do. 
Tax collectors ask what they should do. 
Even Roman soldiers.

It isn't just the self-righteous Pharisees.  It's us.  All of us...

What then should we do? 

John's answers are stunning and sobering.  They don't reflect a snotty, nit-picky God who is discontent with the architecture of churches, the length of services or the style of music and liturgy.  They don't reveal a God who is constantly obsessed with the bottom line and declares that unless the current 2.5% "tithe" tops at least 5% in the next budget cycle the fire and brimstone are a-comin' before Christmas. 

They don't show us a God bent on burning at the stake all who are not ideologically or doctrinally pure. 

Instead, we get these three items on God's top ten list:

1.  End poverty by taking personal responsibility for it.  Neighbor to neighbor.  Period.

2.  End extortion and greed.  Not a cent of overcharges.  Period. 

3.  End corruption, injustice and the abuse of power.  Period. 
John concludes by pointing to the powerful work of the One to come who will accomplish God's work of winnowing.  He will separate the "wheat" from the "chaff" which he will burn.  Now, before we haul off and assume this winnowing is a separation of "good people" from the "bad people" so that the "bad people" can be eternally burned, consider this:

If God culled out all the bad people, there would be no one left standing.  Heaven would be empty.  Billy Graham would never get there.  St. Stephen and Apostle Paul, damned.  Mother Theresa?  MIA.  Likewise all prophets, popes, priests, preachers, presidents, politicians and pundits. 

No murdered children either. 

Evil is in all of us.  Johnny the Baptizer nailed it.  And that's precisely why the crowds stuck around despite his stinging and universal rebuke.  No matter how disturbing, the honest truth is worth hearing even if it nails you through the heart.  Because it's not half-truths, lies, or telling people what they wanna hear.  It's not been contaminated by money.  It's not our recent political campaigns.  Decidedly not.   
The good news is that the One whom John says is on people's doorsteps is the One who can and will do the humanly impossible.

He will suck the "chaff" out of us and burn it.  In a fire that ain't going out.  And that chaff ain't ever comin' back.  Period. 

It's the work of Jesus.  That's why John's words of universal indictment are good news, not hopelessly impossible bad news.

Meanwhile, the innocent people at Clackamas Town Center. 

Meanwhile, the children in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the children in a mud brick house in Pakistan hit by a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone.  Made in USA.  

Meanwhile, the children in homes with addicted, violent, abusive adults.

Meanwhile, children violated by preachers and priests. 

Meanwhile, the people all around us with all kinds of mental illnesses whom we have put on the streets because we wanted to save money.  As if human capital weren't infinitely more valuable.

Meanwhile, absolute paralysis when it comes to preserving and restoring the very living creatures and systems of earth for fear (seems to be our sole motivator) that it might harm the economy.  As if destroying the living systems of earth did not doom us to a war that will end all economies. 

Meanwhile, broken relationships all around us. 

Meanwhile...  What then must we do?

I've looked at the Greek verb tenses in Luke 3.  English struggles to translate.  Please do not understand the word "should" to mean  "ought".  As in, "You oughtta do this.  But if you don't, oh well..." 

But here are the ways to hear the questions people asked in response to John' prophetic words:

In light of what you've said, John:

1.  "What then should we do if we were to honestly solve this problem?" 

2.  "What then shall we do to adequately and properly respond?"

3.  "What then must we do?  What is urgently, divinely called for here?  What responses and responsibilities are inescapable."

4.  "What do we see when we stand before the mirror and look deeply inside?  Wheat?  Chaff?  A little wheat, a lotta chaff?"

Slaughtered children?  Gun control?  Well, sure.  But way down the list. 

Pay attention to John's three items first.  We will make a better, safer world when we make better, safer people. 

If we believe that John's words truly were good news and that Jesus has something to do with a good news outcome, then I have a question of my own for today:

What in God's name are we waiting for? 

But I'm not givin' in an inch to fear,
'Cause I promised myself this year...
I feel...  like I owe it... to someone...

When I finally get myself together,
Gonna get down in that sunny southern weather,
Find a place inside to laugh,
Separate the wheat from the chaff.

I feel like I owe it to someone... 

--David Crosby, from the song "Almost Cut My Hair",  1970

Someone...  A whole class of them were only 6 or 7 years old.

Other someones are on our streets, cold and wet and homeless.  Some kill themselves and almost no one sees or cares.  Or weeps.  Without community and relationships, without love, how many of us could hack it out there?  Alone.  

Mental illness and broken relationships are hiding in plain sight all over the place.  People are isolated and alone in the most run-down apartments and the best of developments.  Some have taken up weapons and killed before they killed themselves.  Others simply suffer alone.  How long, Lord?
It doesn't have to be this way.  We can help.  We must.

Jesus has the chaff business under control.  His sure promise. 

 Pastor Roger

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