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This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of South Sudan. On May 1, 2016, Ethiopians and people of the Gambella region of South Sudan will celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Yet, the news from this region is heartbreaking. Last Friday more that 200 people were killed. Children and women were taken as hostages, and are held under the most horrible conditions, in the jungles of South Sudan and Ethiopia.

In the Orthodox liturgy of the churches of this region, during the first three days of the Passion Week, the people are supposed to be reading all three Gospels, not just the Passion account of the last week of Jesus the Messiah’s life. What a time to remember the words of Isaiah the Prophet regarding Jesus! “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:6 NIV). This was the message which the angel gave to the lowly shepherds who were grazing their sheep, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NIV) These words were spoken to them right in the midst of so much fighting between the Roman soldiers and the militant Zealot freedom fighters.

The liturgical reading which begins this week reminds the Orthodox people of South Sudan and Ethiopia that this same Jesus, who was born, surrounded by so much killing, including the killing of baby boys, and the rape and abduction of women and children, came into Jerusalem, riding a donkey.

The Gospel reading simply says,

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna from the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mat 21:4-11 NIV)

When Jesus entered into Jerusalem the people were not happily singing “Hosanna,” as is sung in so many churches in the west. The Hebrew word is a cry for help.

“Save us, Oh Lord! We are perishing!”

This is indeed the cry of the common people of South Sudan and Gambella: “Save us O LORD, we are perishing!”

My prayer today is the Jesus would enter into Gambella, riding a donkey, among the sheepherders of South Sudan and Ethiopia.

My prayer today is that Jesus would hear the cries of the women and children, “Save us, Oh Lord!”

My prayer today is that fighting and killing would stop, and the killers would allow the “Prince of Peace” to reign over the hurting people of South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Enough already!

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This semester my students are helping refugee families in the Chicago area. They help them with learning English, regular chores, school work, etc.  Some of them are from Bhutan- Hindu Nepali refugees who were persecuted and expelled from Buddhist Bhutan. Yet, others are from Congo- refugees of infighting between Hutus and Tutsis, because of the policies of the Belgian colonial rule. Others are refugees from Myanmar- Muslim and Karen refugees from a Buddhist country. Yet others are from Syria.

These refugees have experienced so much pain, persecution, and rape.

My students are learning much from them.

The Great Lent scripture readings- the life of Abraham and Proverbs clearly respond to the question, “What must be done about the global refugee crisis?

Abraham’s life was the life of a sojourner and a refugee. He was a “wandering Aramean.”

The Bible simply says,

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; (Gen 12:1-4 NIV)

The context of Abraham’s journey, roughly 2000 BC, gives us a very sad picture of global society and religions. Not very much unlike the religious persecutions we see today. A minority of human beings- Egyptian, Sumerian, Chinese, Aryan rulers, began declaring themselves as gods. They began coming up with religions, which dehumanized the majority of the people in their nations, and enslaved them. Enuma Elish, a Sumerian religious document, e.g. claims complete control of common people by the divine king Marduk. To teach common people a lesson he destroys and dismembers the body of their leader Tiamat, who is portrayed as a demoness. Then he “kneads her blood into common human beings.” These common human beings were formed to be slaves to the high divine-kings, and divine-humans.  (Enuma Elish VI:5-8, 30-40). Similar religions appeared in China, India, and Egypt, around the same time. The religions of this time were designed to enslave the majority of peoples groups in these ancient civilizations.

When these divine-kings conquered other peoples groups, the people were enslaved with a far more merciless force.

Abraham was sent with a mission in this context.

He heard the word of God and set about the mission.

On the way he gathered allies- good kings like Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem. This was a king who sought the justice (zedek) of God in society. He worshipped the God Most High, El Elyom, the creator of heaven and earth. (Genesis 14:18).

Abraham’s life is summarized by a simple, yet powerful sentence, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he was regarded as a justice oriented person.” (Genesis 15:6, my translation)

In the context of blessing Abraham, the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and afflicted there for four hundred years. (Gen 15:13).

This indeed did happen. And, at the end of the 400 years of enslavement, they were saved under the leadership of Moses.

Moses then taught them they should always remember that their forefather Abraham was a wandering Aramean, and that they were also slaves in Egypt. This was the only way in which they would treat immigrants and refugees among them well. Every year they had to remember this historical reality when they went into the Temple to offer the Firstfruits offering. They had to say:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me.”  (Deu 26:5-10 NIV)

In addition to this experiential dimension of their life, God also gave them laws which reminded them never to treat a foreigner harshly, and to take care of them, and the poor in the land:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exo 22:21 NIV)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exo 23:9 NIV)

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God (Lev 19:10 NIV)

You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.'” (Lev 24:22)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut 24:17-22 NIV)

The laws of the Torah provided several safeguards against poverty for everyone-strangers and the poor:

“The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. (Lev 25:23 NIV)

The Great Lent Readings from the Book of Proverbs also constantly underlines this theme:

Sadly, in society, “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends. (Pro 14:20 NIV)

However, “It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, and blessed is the one who is kind to the poor. (Pro 14:21 NIV)

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Pro 14:31 NIV)

It seems clear that God of the Bible, is always the God of the poor and the strangers.

 

What is the answer to the global refugee crisis today?

May we always remember that we are all strangers and foreigners.

If we remember this, then we will always treat “strangers and foreigners” with dignity, care and justice.

If we remember this then we will always care for the poor, the widows and the orphans.

 

 

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The Tree of Life

The Great Lent Readings: Genesis 2:25-3:21; Isaiah 3:1-14; Proverbs 3:13-34

The reading from the third part of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:13-34 is full of themes from the Garden of Eden. The canonical intertextual connection of the three books- Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs is quite poignant and clear, as is stressed in these Great Lent readings.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed. By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew. (Pro 3:13-20 NIV)

The theme of a Blessed or Happy life it the big theme of the third part of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with Psalm 1.

Blessed or Happy is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither– whatever they do prospers. (Psa 1:1-3 NIV)

Woman Wisdom is the Tree of Life.

It is with Wisdom that God made the whole creation.

Sadly, in Genesis 3, the evil religion of the Serpent, caused the primeval parents to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge. It was a tree created by God. It was good. But, ancient religions misused this tree to commit horrible acts. Kings and priests would abuse women under this tree- usually fig tree, banyan tree or grape tree. This was a religious ritual. They committed these horrible acts after eating and drinking from the fruit of the tree. According to ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian religions, human beings experienced divinity, when they participated in this ritual.

In modern day terminology, this would be called human trafficking of women.

Isaiah the prophet mourns that this is what was happening in his day, as well. Both the men and women of Jerusalem were copying the heinous deeds of the other religions.

The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty. (Isa 3:14-15 NIV)

The antidote to these heinous acts is found in Psalm 1 and Proverbs 3. Humanity is urged to find the Wisdom of God. She is a Tree of Life. In biblical thought this Tree of Life is the Word of God, the Torah. When human beings dwell on the Tree of Life, it will wipe away all forms of injustices.  It will bring about the Kingdom of God, here on earth. This is the solution to all forms of injustices promulgated against “the widows and the orphans” of global society.

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