Sunday, October 16, 2016

Blessed Beyond Belief At EMU's Homecoming

from EMU's spring issue of Crossroads, photo by Joaquin Sosa
When I enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in the fall of 1960, I would have never dreamed of being chosen as an "Alumnus of the Year" a half-century later.

It still seems incredible to think of having been honored in this way as a part of this weekend's Alumni Homecoming events at Lehman Auditorium, along with wonderful people like Donna Beachy Burkhart and her husband Wayne Burkhart (Distinguished Service Award), and Grace Schrock-Hurst Praseyto (Outstanding Young Alumnus).

Here are my comments at this morning's worship service at Lehman, where I was asked to speak briefly on the first part of Micah 6:8, "to do justice".

Thanks for the opportunity to speak to a sometimes neglected aspect of “what God requires of us”, and to what Richard Stearns calls “the hole in our gospel”.

I can’t thank EMU enough for its part in being the kind of alma mater (“nurturing mother”) that’s addressed that issue of justice in a way that has made a huge difference in my life from the time I enrolled here 56 years ago. My experiences in my classes, in regular chapel services and special events held right here in this space, were transformative, along with the many friends I made who enlarged my world and helped impress the words of Micah and of the prophets and of Jesus even more indelibly on my life. 

And of course the most special of all of my Christ-following friends I met here, someone who took an active part in a little church all the way over in Mt. Jackson while she was a busy student here, became the love of my life, Alma Jean, my wonderful wife and companion and a great mom to our three children, and grandma to our six grandchildren (all reasons, by the way, to choose a good Christian college!).

I’m also indebted to God’s people in the congregational families I grew up in, and later pastored, folks who were my spiritual uncles and aunts and cousins and sisters and brothers who demonstrated Micah-like faithfulness, along with my having been blessed and nurtured by my biological family. 

My father, who passed away 31 years ago, left me his well worn Bible, in which he has today’s text from Micah heavily underlined. Without talking much about justice, he and my mother just lived it. On her tombstone are the words of a gospel song she liked, “I need no mansion here below.” As a testimony to that, in their retirement my parents lived in a modest mobile home, and throughout their lives everyone knew them as among the most hospitable people ever, not just toward their many friends, but toward strangers and people who were marginalized in our rural southern neighborhood. 

And my dad, in spite of his struggle to provide for us nine children, the youngest being one they adopted as a welfare child, gave a tithe of his milk check to Mennonite Central Committee or to some other charity every month, out of gratitude for feeling blessed with far more than others he saw as being less fortunate. And that wasn't just a tenth of the profit, but of the entire check. Now we did have other farm income as well, but that left a big impression on me when it came to loving God and loving your neighbor with a generous justice. Today I know his heart, and a tenth of his milk check, would still be for people like Syrian refugees and for hurricane victims in Haiti.

I’ve also been inspired by numerous inmates in our Virginia jails and prisons I’ve come to know, starting with when I went with other students every week to spend time at our local jail, an experience that began a lifelong interest in criminal injustice. One of my current inspirations is Charles Zellers, Sr., who writes volumes about justice from inside Buckingham Correctional Center, where he’s taken multiple college classes during his 22 years in prison. And in spite of being a trusted supervisor at one of the manufacturing enterprises at Buckingham, where he earns just over a dollar an hour, and in spite of having an aging and ill mother who desperately needs his help at home, he’s been denied parole a heartbreaking 8 times. Like many others, his underpaid court appointed attorney had persuaded him to take a plea deal with the assurance that if he stayed out of trouble in prison he would be released on parole within a few years. It’s never happened. 

I showed this picture of Mr. Williams (with the red cap)
Then there’s the passion for justice I feel for John Bennie Williams, an 83 year-old, blind African-American with an excellent record of behavior in prison, and who has for years been eligible for geriatric release because of his age, but has been turned down 22 times by a parole board with only a 3% annual release grant rate of the cases it reviews each year.

These are just a few of the things that have motivated me to keep putting off settling down in a Sarasota-like retirement somewhere, and to keep using whatever influence and means I have left to encourage everyone to love justice as God does, and to keep praying daily that God’s upside-down kingdom come, so that God’s will be truly be done right here on earth as it is in heaven.

Some years ago, 60-minutes commentator Andy Rooney suggested, tongue in cheek, the need for a new religion, one that would totally rule out war and other forms of violence and injustice and inequality. We know there already is such a religion, but one that simply lacks enough people committed to living it in such a way that “justice will roll down like a mighty torrent, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”, where what happens here in Harrisonburg and wherever we live is directly impacted by what is happening among our our global village neighbors. 

Wherever there are people who are suffering, in Haiti, in Honduras, in the Sudan or in Syrian refugee camps, those people, those places, should become for us, in the words of the late Elie Weisel, “the center of the universe”.

Among the closing words of the book of Hebrews are these I leave with you: 
“Remember those in prison as though you were their fellow prisoners, and this who are mistreated as though you yourselves were suffering.”

Link to EMU podcast of the October 16 service
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