Opting Out of 'the System'
Rev. Estelle Margarones
Jer 31:31-34 John 12:20-33
Easter is just two weeks away and the story of Jesus' earthly life is nearing completion. The Scripture passage we heard this morning indicates that Jesus knew his time has come. His earthly life was drawing to a close. We learn that 'his soul is troubled'.
He knows that he will be crucified and it may not necessarily, what he wants, but he knows it is his destiny. It is why he came here. He was troubled, but he knew what had to be done. He did what he had to do for the greater good.
When Jesus talked about the judgment of the world, he was not talking about God's creation, but rather, that judgment of that which was separate from God.
Biblical scholar, professor, and author Walter Wink describes a new use of the word 'kosmos' in the gospel of John. He says that this kosmos is a world apart from God(1). Author Charles Campbell elaborates on this idea and calls this kosmos, or world, 'the system'. (2)
This secular world—or 'the system' has a different ruler. Jesus tells the crowds that the system will change...the ruler of this world will be driven out and that Jesus would draw all people to himself. Jesus would be a ruler...in a different system.
Today, 'the system' may be as obvious as government, or organized crime, or any establishment that keeps 'isms' such as racism, or sexism in place.
Much of 'the system' appears innocuous. It has been deemed a benefit to have our health care tied to our employment. Credit cards lure consumer with introductory short term low rates. Websites allow you to publish personal information and photos—of yourself, or your friends (without their consent or even knowledge).
The grocery store near my mother's house recently changed ownership. Systematically, they have been replacing the longer-term employees with younger, less experienced help. Steve was 'let go' recently. His wife thinks it is because Steve is 65. They told him it was because he made too much money...at $8.50 an hour. My mother is not happy with the way the new owner is running the business. I suggested that she shop elsewhere.
We can choose not to participate. We have the ability and the right to 'opt out' of things. We can 'opt-out' of receiving mailings or emails or calls from the bank, or cable company, or insurance agent.
Whenever we choose not to participate in 'the system' today, we may call it 'opting out'. When we choose to live in a way that supports what we believe instead of what the rest of the system believes or expects, we may be regarded as different...or difficult.
Some people opt-out of eating genetically modified foods and choose an organic or macrobiotic diet instead. Some opt-out of sending their kids to public schools and home school instead. Some do not vaccinate their children and instead treat their illnesses with homeopathic remedies.
Jesus saw 'the (oppressive) system' clearly...and he opted-out.
Throughout his ministry, and even in experiences with soldiers, Jesus was peaceful. Through his non-violent actions, He exposed the system for what it was.
Today, in exposing 'the system' there may be some personal risk, such as losing one's friends, or losing one's job....or losing one's life.
Today, as in the time of Christ, opting out of 'the system' often necessitates that we also opt out of the fear of doing so. This does not mean that fear is not present, but it does mean that we do not let it stop us from doing the right thing.
Jesus said his soul was troubled, but he did not call upon God to save him from what he had to do. In fact, he said it was for this very reason that he came. Martin Luther King did not let fear stop him. King and his marchers had dogs set on them and they had hoses turned on them. Television cameras picked it up and showed the rest of the country what was happening. King went to Memphis and endured many threats.
In a speech, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. However, I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”
The Mountaintop speech was delivered on April 3, 1968. Just before the sun set the following day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stepped out onto the balcony of his hotel room...and was shot dead.
Forty years later, on November 4th, 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black United States President. He said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” That change may not have come without the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On November 5th, 2008, the headlines read, “A Nation Changed”, “Historic Change”, “Change Of Course”, and our own Boston Globe said, “Historic Victory”.
There have been other historic victories, too. For example, the case of tobacco companies paying out a three hundred sixty eight billion dollar settlement in 1998. That case was tried, in part, because of the bravery of a former tobacco company executive who effectively 'blew the whistle' on the industry and exposed their dangerous and deceptive practices.
Dr. Jeffrey Wigand was a very highly compensated Research Director for Brown and Williamson, the parent company to 16 cigarette brands. He became aware that the cigarette industry knew that nicotine was addictive, that they were putting known carcinogens into cigarettes, and that they were targeting children. He opted-out and exposed 'the system'.
In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on February 4th, 1996, Dr. Wigand said, “I felt an obligation to tell the truth. There were things I observed that I felt needed to be told.”
In response to his actions, Dr. Wigand had threats against his life and the lives of his children. Subsequently, he and his wife divorced. He did the right thing for the greater good, and, in the process lost his status, his paycheck, and his family. In speaking of the troubled times following his actions, he said, “Do I think it's worth it. Yeah, I think it's worth it.”
The movie inspired by his life story is called “The Whistleblower,” but Dr. Wigand does not like that term. In an article by Chuck Salter, published in 2007, Wigand says that the term implies disloyalty. He said, “...I wasn't disloyal in the least bit. People were dying. I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility."
Do you think that Jeffrey Wigand wasn't bothered by what he calls “systematic” and “aggressive” attempts to discredit him? Do you think that the threats didn't bother Martin Luther King? Do you think that Jesus was happy about the prospect of being crucified?
There have been many who were all troubled by what they saw in the system and they worked to change it, despite the personal risk and ultimately, loss.
About two thousand years ago, change came to those who consciously chose to follow Jesus, despite the risks, despite the persecution. The Roman rulers didn't count on this. They thought that by getting rid of Jesus, they were getting rid of the 'problem'. They thought that they could scare people into submission and into silence.
At the time of the crucifixion there were small sects of followers in Jerusalem and Galilee. Today, it's estimated that there are 2.1 billion Christians adherents worldwide; including those countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan where Christians are still persecuted(4).
Yet, change has come. We, who put our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, know change has come. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place without hatred, fear, or oppression. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where peace, kindness, and helpfulness abound. Love reigns.
You have 'opted-in' to Christianity. You recognize Christ as the Supreme Leader. Is there an opportunity for you to opt-out of an earthly 'system'? Could it be speaking up when you witness injustice? Could it be bringing your own utensils to cookouts this summer in order to cut back on the plastic that will inevitably end up in a landfill? Could it be refraining from purchases at very inexpensive stores because you know that child labor was involved in manufacturing of the products? Might you do this despite the financial risk, despite the risk of ostricization, and despite the emotional or physical risk?
Those who love their life will lose it. Those who want to keep what they have, be it standing or power or possessions, will, in the end, lose. Yet, those who hate their life in 'the system' and, because of that work for change, will have eternal life with Jesus.
Like the grain that falls to the earth and dies, one person may also lose something. But like the grain which dies and bears much fruit, it could be that one person's loss may yield a large gain.
May the promise of Easter, which brings hope and new life give you the patience, peace, and power opt-out of any oppressive system and choose instead to allow yourself to be part of the process of change...all to the glory of God. Amen.