Too Late? Matthew 6:13

It may already be too late. The temptation may already be upon us, beloved–I leave that to you to decide.

But first, we need to consider what this petition–“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—means, because there is no part of The Lord’s Prayer that is so little understood or so perplexing. Does Jesus’ prayer for deliverance from temptation really mean that God tempts people to sin, or at least that he puts them in situations where they might be inclined to immoral thoughts and actions?

No, that would be a game, beloved, and God doesn’t play games with us. He doesn’t tease our appetite for disobedience. The compulsion to sin comes from our own inclinations and from the active power of evil in the world, not from God. The word “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different and distinct.

Part of our perplexity results from the translation of the prayer we use in worship and private devotion. Whereas the familiar King James Version says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the more modern New Revised Standard Version translates the same words, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

When the Lord teaches his disciples to beseech the Father to be spared from temptation and from the power of the evil one he is referring to the Jewish apocalyptic belief–a belief shared by Jesus and by the little Jewish church for whom the evangelist Matthew writes–that before the end of the age there will be an era of intense suffering and testing for the people of God. During that period the wrath of Satan will be loosed upon the righteous, and his time of persecution and calamity is variously called “the time of trial” or “the temptation” or “the tribulation.”

So the temptation into which we pray not to be led is not an individual experience, but a moment in history when the evil one and his forces will attempt with cunning and violence to turn the faithful away from faith and obedience into apostasy. And when we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” we are praying for the church that it may be delivered from this awful time and from the power of the Satan, the spirit of chaos and malice.

But has the “time of trial” come upon us already unawares? We can’t help but wonder. Is it too late? Has the temptation already begun? Even as are praying that the barn door will remain shut, is Satan already loosed upon the world? There is no question that we live in an apocalyptic moment, beloved. All around us we are witnessing a turbulent struggle between the forces of good and evil, and between two visions of what the end of history should be—ultimate freedom or repression, self-giving love or bigotry, human transformation or human degradation.

During the past decade the technology of social media has brought the whole world together in ways both amazing and alarming. People with similar ideas in disparate corners of the earth are being gathered into online communities that share ideas and information. This new globalism has had many happy results, including my ability to talk with you online about matters that concern us both.  There is, however, a sinister side to all this information sharing. In much of the world the internet access is largely uncensored and uncontrolled. Online it is possible to say anything and everything. As a result, fascist hate groups, once consigned to the lunatic fringe, have experienced an alarming rebirth throughout Europe and America.

The internet serves the evangelists of the so-called alt-right well as a recruiting tool, gaining for their ideas an enormous following of believers. This often anonymous community exists mostly online, but has gained great media attention of late owing to its vocal support for Donald Trump and its influence in the Trump White House.  The most remarkable thing about the alt-right movement, however, is its youthfulness. It is not just the old and the angry who are enticed. Millions of youthful adherents have been proselytized by the marketers of hate. They are drawn chiefly from a subset of under-employed and frustrated teenagers and young men, who are attracted to the potent anti-gospel of racist ideas and anti-migrant propaganda that they find online.

The influence of alt-right videos, blog posts and tweets is not, however, confined any single group. Crucial to the agenda of the alt-right is to make their message acceptable and familiar to ordinary people, bringing hate speech about liberals, feminists, and migrants into the mainstream.  Here they have succeeded brilliantly. Their assault upon the internet has already pushed the boundaries of acceptable conversation far to the right, making it possible to say things publicly that it would never have been uttered before. Suddenly the walls of “correct speech” are crumbling like Jericho’s. The measure of how well this agenda of the alt-right has succeeded is the fact that there is less and less opposition to racist and sexist ideas when they are uttered in public discourse and online. So we hear the president of the United States calling black athletes exercising their first amendment rights “sons-of-b…..s,” and we are scarcely surprised.

Many decent people have turned away from the internet in reasonable disgust, tuning out its tweets and the posts. But their effects cannot be ignored. The click, the re-tweet, the YouTube comment are part and parcel of an epochal struggle between good and evil. So the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the Armageddon of our times, is taking place not on a plain in Syria but on an online battlefield into which anyone with internet access can step.  The migration crisis has energized the alt-right, making it possible for its disciples to imagine a Europe that re-embraces fascism. In the United States the backlash against immigrants has already led to violent action and still more violent speech. And it is not over by any means. The alt-right movement is not going to go away; in fact there is every sign that it is strengthening both here and abroad and becoming a truly global network of tech savvy fanatics and an army of devoted followers.

The temptation is upon us, beloved. The struggle between those who wait for the Kingdom to come and those who imagine a fascist, pagan future has already begun. We know that the Lord will triumph over the power of Satan in the end, but in the meantime God help us all.

 

 

 

 

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Fair It Isn’t

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus says—“When it was the turn of the men who came to work first, they expected something extra, but they were paid the same as the others. As they took it, they grumbled at their employer: ‘These latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated them on the level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun.’”

I suppose you could hog-tie this parable and try to make it about something it isn’t. It is certainly not a story in defense of laissez-faire economics or an illustration good labor-management relations. You might dwell on whether or not it is true that a person has a right to do whatever he pleases with his own property. But the parables of Jesus were not intended to inculcate high morality. And in any case you would miss the point, because this story is about justice, God’s kind of justice, and because it’s about God’s justice, it is an outrageous story. God’s justice being outrageous, scandalous, and messy.

My mama used to say, “If it’s sloppy, Billy, eat it over the kitchen sink.” And this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—is one that you have to eat over the kitchen sink, beloved, because it runs counter to our human idea of what’s fair is fair. The truth is, it isn’t–fair, that is. But nothing gets closer to the gospel, the good news, than this parable does. It may not sound like good news on first hearing, but it is.

The first and oldest meanings of a word are often the most interesting, beloved. For instance, to be “fair” meant originally to be pale, blond-haired and good-looking. In other words, to be fair is not to be dark, or to speak another language, or to worship God under another name. Our ideas of fairness are weighed, perverted by our own prejudices and predispositions. So as often as not they are stacked against the poor, the uneducated, the helpless, the dark, and the different. Fair doesn’t usually mean what’s fair to everyone. It means what’s fair to me.

Hurricanes tend to bring out the worst and best in people. There is a story that came out of this last hurricane. In Covington Georgia a worker pulled into a Taco Bell to get a quick lunch. He is a lineman for the county, and he had not been home for three days. He had been working hard, trying to get people’s electricity back on. But not hard enough. A woman approached him at the Taco Bell and threw her soft drink in his face because she thought he shouldn’t be eating while her power was still out. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, some people had electricity while others were in the dark. Fair it isn’t. But fairness can often be a cloak for crude selfishness.

So in Jesus’ story the employer offered all his workers a fair wage—a denarius, worth about twenty cents, which was considered generous for a day’s work in New Testament times. Therefore, those who worked for a full day for their denarius had no ground for complaint. And they are rebuked not for dissatisfaction with what they received, but for begrudging others who received just as much. They grumbled—understandably. But their employer asserts his right to be generous, to be just in the larger sense, rather than simply fair, to pay everyone alike. By giving to one he insists that he is taking nothing from another.

And this is the justice of God that constantly gets in the way of our idea of fairness. Fairness is a human notion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an hour’s wage for an hour’s work—but fairness, the human idea, is opposed to justice, the divine ideal. Justice is what God  alone can give, because he is God. This is not human business; it is Kingdom business. In the Kingdom of God each laborer receives the same grace no matter how long or short the service given.

I told you that this is a messy parable. You have to eat this one over the sink. It isn’t fair. It is grace, beloved. Eternal grace.

And grace cannot be divided up into parts and offered as payment for services rendered. We cannot earn eternal grace. It us ultimately past valuation, an inexhaustible fortune, the pearl of great price worth everything else we have and then some. And it is given fully and completely to each laborer in the vineyard. We could never earn it no matter how long we worked in the hot sun. It always remains a gift, pure and simple, not a wage. This parable is a defense of Jesus’ message of God’s pure and simple grace against the attacks of those who defend a religion of meritorious works. God’s justice is perfectly evenhanded, it says, like the employer, he gives to each the same, whether they come early or late.

It is never too late. Before we part I want to tell you the story of a woman, Ann. She was the wife of a mid-level diplomat who lived with her family in all sorts of places in Africa and the Far East, wherever her husband was posted. It was not as glamorous as it sounds. Most of those postings were on the night-soil circuit, as it is called. In one of them, far from good medical care, Ann’s baby became suddenly ill and died.

She did not have an easy time of it, but what can you say? If it’s sloppy, eat it over the sink. Life isn’t fair.

But during all those years between Katmandu and Timbuktu, Ann kept a secret ambition alive. Most people would have given it up long before, but Ann didn’t. And when her husband retired, she made up her mind to fulfill that ambition, though late in life. She had always wanted to go to seminary and become a Lutheran pastor. Her grown children thought she was crazy. Her husband tried to seduce her with the pleasures of retirement. But she became the oldest student ever to enroll in the seminary, and she graduated at age sixty-one and was ordained, having received a call to a little country church in rural Maryland.

And Ann was a wonderful pastor to those people. How they loved her! She was filled with stories about the grace of God. She was filled with compassion for the little sorrows of ordinary life. But mostly she was filled with thanksgiving for having received what she desired all her life. And who would begrudge her of it? Those who don’t want women to be ordained to the ministry? Those who think Ann was too old?

The grace of God does not know early or late, young or old. It swallows up our ideas of fairness like Jonah was swallowed by the great fish—hook, line and sinker. As the landowner in Jesus story asks the grumbling laborers with genuine amazement—“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or would you begrudge my generosity.”

Fair it isn’t. Nevertheless who would dare?

 

 

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What Luck

Is there such a thing as luck? Or why didn’t the Puritans throw dice?

 

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

We went out to dinner last night in part, my family and I, to celebrate the fact that we have electricity and air conditioning again and that our property and ourselves came through hurricane Irma pretty much unscathed. The waiter was happy too. He and his mother had decided not to evacuate, and they had come through just fine. “We got lucky,” he said with a smile. “We have light.” And that set me thinking about what lucky means.

Whatever it means some people clearly weren’t. As I write to you, Miami is still waterlogged. Naples is in ruins. Millions are still in the dark and a quarter of the houses in the Florida Keys were destroyed. Describing the devastation of Hurricane Irma there, New York Times reporter Frances Robles writes: “The landscape is a seemingly random mix of lost and saved—homes and businesses unscathed in the wake of a storm that appeared to pick and choose its targets, taking a roof here and a yacht there, leaving roads littered with random debris.”

We are so used to randomness that we take it for granted–it forms a part of the background of our lives. Chance seems to govern the circumstances in which we find ourselves, whether we prosper or founder, whether we are hale or sickly seems governed by fortune. But does luck exist? Is there such a thing as chance? Our Puritan fathers and mothers didn’t think so. Fervent and consistent Calvinists, they saw every single movement in the universe as the work of a designing and judging God. Every leaf that fell was foreordained to fall where it did.

That’s why they so strongly disapproved of games of chance. Because every shuffle of the cards, every throw of the dice was preordained by God. And games of chance were a way of playing frivolously and blasphemously with his predestining will. So on March 22, 1631 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony banned gambling from New England: “It is. . .ordered that all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or [gambling] tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.” And that punishment, though unnamed, would not be trifling, you can be sure, because this was a serious matter. It was not just the desire to keep anyone anywhere from having fun that motivated such legislation, but a sober and consistent understanding of divine providence. The Puritans did not believe in luck. Every event within their world had a meaning, and their sovereign God did not want to play silly games of dice and cards with mortals.

Our neighbor across the street feels the same way, though with less profound reasoning. She had big live oak fall in her front yard during the storm, but it missed the house. She says that was the will of God, not luck. She is very emphatic about this. There is no such thing as luck. But many trees fell on many houses here in Florida. Was all that the will of God? There is an apparent randomness in human suffering that is impossible to deny. We live in a universe where virtue does not necessarily triumph, and where goodness is not always rewarded. In fact, all of us, the righteous and unrighteous alike, are subject to time and chance, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says. There are times when it seems that effort and forethought and good faith mean nothing in the face of blind luck.

So is there room in the universe for chance. For a believer in an omnipotent and sovereign God it seems not. But is there another way of looking at the world and God’s relationship to it in which randomness does have a place. Those very first verses of the Bible describe how things stood before creation:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Before creation everything was a formless, random chaos. Then with the calling forth of light God began to bring order to the dark, watery mess, and each symbolic day new wonders are brought forth by his almighty Word. And each day he pronounces his work good—good but not perfect. And there is a way to think of creation is not a finished reality, but as an ordering process that is still going on, a process in which you and I, beloved, have a small but real part. There remains, however, a pre-creation chaos outside of God’s immediate control and ours.

Chance is part and parcel of that pre-creation randomness of the universe, the chaos with which God still struggles at the edges of the world and in the hearts and minds of human beings. Suffering is part of it too. And the symbol of that chaos is the crucified Christ, who made himself subject to time and chance. He was no more sheltered from the demonic forces in nature and the madness in humanity than we are. And he died a violent, unjust, and apparently meaningless death on the cross.

But on the basis on Christ’s resurrection we believe that God will ultimately triumph over the forces of chaos and his work—and ours– will be gloriously completed. There will be an eighth day of creation when the whole flawed composition will be perfected. But in the meantime the resurrection of Jesus is the pledge that order and harmony will triumph in the End. Until then there is work for us to do in overcoming the irrationality in ourselves and in showing concrete compassion for those who—for no apparent reason—did not “luck out.” Luck gives us an opportunity to proclaim that God is still at work, still struggling to bring order and concord to the formless elements and the discordant forces that shape and distort our lives. Luck enables us to say that we are struggling together with him, that we are on his side, as he is utterly and entirely on ours. “Peace be with you,” the risen Lord said to his disciples and so he still says to us, “Peace be with you,” knowing that peace is not only his gift but our task.

 

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What Did Martin Luther Do?

“Luther”                               by W.H. Auden

With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,

He saw the Devil busy in the wind,

Over the chiming steeples and then under

The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.

What apparatus could stave off disaster

Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?

Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,

World a still pond in which its children drown.

The fuse of Judgement sputtered in his head:

“Lord smoke these honeyed insects from their hives.

All Works, Great Men, Societies are bad,

The Just shall live by Faith. . .” he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.

 

In a few weeks we will mark the 500th anniversary of an event which, dependent upon your point of view, was either the greatest tragedy that ever befell Christendom or the most heroic moment in its long history. While the rest of the world is celebrating Halloween—somewhat appropriately–some of us will remember that it was on the eve of the Feast of All Saints in the year 1517 that an obscure monk in a remote town in what is now Germany nailed ninety-five subjects for theological debate to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses constituted a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of the time, and their publication set in motion what is narrowly called the Lutheran Reformation. More broadly, however, that dramatic moment marked the end of the medieval world and the beginning the long Halloween we call the Modern Age, the fright night through which we are now living, beloved.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the scriptures say. And in this case the man was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg. Martin was a scrupulous monk and a brilliant teacher, but he was obsessed with doubts about his own relationship to God. His conscience condemned him, and he was tormented by feelings of unworthiness and guilt. How could all-holy God have anything to do with a man as profoundly sinful as Luther thought himself to be? He tried hard to be the perfect monk, and he struggled to follow the rules which the Church had laid out as the road to salvation. He confessed with exaggerated care every trivial fault and received absolution for his sins, real and imagined. But every attempt at obedience to the rules ended in abject failure and despair. And Luther could find no reason in himself why the all-powerful and all-holy God should not cast him into the eternal nothingness of hell.

His superiors in the monastery offered him what comfort the Church could give, but he still lived in constant dread of God’s righteous judgment. He knew that in Jesus Christ God was supposed to have revealed himself as a God of love, but all that Luther could feel was God’s hatred. That is the reason he was drawn to the manifestations of a God of weakness and vulnerability—the baby in the manger, the dying Christ on the cross. But the question remained: How can a sinner find his or her way to the God of love, who often hides his face and then reveals himself a God of wrath?

The medieval world was a world of barriers–social barriers, barriers to travel, exploration, and thought. In his search for a loving God, Luther faced the greatest barrier of all, the Church itself. In the medieval Church authority flowed down from above, from the risen Christ, through the pope, his representative on earth, through the hierarchy of the Church and its priests, to ordinary believers, and that authority extended from this world into purgatory in the next. Through its seven sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, penance, marriage, holy orders, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick—the Church followed the believer from the womb to the tomb and beyond. And through the sacraments it offered heaven to those who believed its doctrines, followed its precepts, and performed such good works as it prescribed, and threatened damnation to those who did not.

Salvation was its sole possession; it could come only through the ministration of its ordained priesthood. Ordinary men and women could not approach God directly nor discover his saving grace without the mediation of the clergy. Access to the Holy Scriptures, which were available only in Latin, was confined to the literate few, priests mostly. Vernacular translations of the Bible were forbidden.

In the realm of the spirit, the authority of the Church was absolute. It was an all-embracing universal community of believers which forbade opposition and burned dissenters. This is the Church into which Luther was baptized and ordained a priest, and in which he struggled with his questionings and doubts. And it was within the Church that the brilliantly gifted Luther was given the post of professor of New Testament at the newly created University of Wittenberg. There he searched the scriptures, especially the letters of St. Paul, to find a basis for the church’s claims to absolute authority and could find none. What he did find was a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1:17).

The revelation that salvation came through faith alone by grace alone was like a thunderclap. It woke Luther out of his tormented dreams into the vocation of a prophet and reformer. Now it became clear to him that salvation was a pure gift, an individual experience achieved through a direct encounter with the Word of God, not a commodity to be purchased with good works. Faith answered Luther’s need to find a way to God not through the mediation of the Church, but by the simple trust in God’s forgiveness. Luther came to understand that every individual man and woman could approach God directly as a member of the priesthood of all believers. And freedom came through free access to the God of grace whose love is manifest to all in the cross of Jesus Christ his Son.

Luther’s was a time of great excitement and ferment. Bold explorers were discovering continents. Humanists were uncovering long lost classical texts. Artists were breaking free of medieval constraints. Scientists were challenging the established ways in which the world and the universe had been viewed. New ideas were everywhere, spread by the newly invented printing press. And there was wide dissatisfaction among educated people with a corrupt and autocratic church. In this heady atmosphere Luther’s Reformation spread like wildfire through Germany and its surrounding countries, eventually dividing Europe between Catholic and Protestant lands. The Roman Catholic Church went on to counter-reformation glory and to spread its faith through new discovered worlds, but it could never again claim absolute, sole authority over the European heart and mind. There would always be other competing voices. It was still a long ways to what we call religious freedom, but Luther offered each individual man and woman freedom to question, to doubt, to search, to find and to be found by God.

Luther was an ambivalent character. In his lifetime and ever since he has called forth both uncritical adoration and virulent hatred. But no one has ever denied that he was a powerful force to be reckoned with. He still is. He was a vastly prolific writer in the German vernacular. He was the brilliant translator of the Bible who gave a voice and identity to an entire German nation.  He was undoubtedly a man of great personal bravery and conviction, who proved that one ordinary person can stand up to authority and change the world. In later life he became a loving husband and tender father. But Luther could also be racist, violent, and profane. But he has never ceased to fascinate people of all kinds with his complexity and his humanity.

But Luther’s greatest accomplishment was that he broke the barriers, barriers he never intended to break, barriers he would have been horrified to see broken. Luther unleashed a hurricane. He was never a social reformer, and like many of us with regard to politics Luther became more and more conservative as grew older. He regarded order as a gift of God and condemned in the most violent terms revolt against secular authorities, whom he considered God’s representatives on earth. He never intended to tear Christendom into Protestant and Catholic halves or inspire revolutionaries to violence. What he wanted was to reform the Church so that it would preach the Word of God in its purity and administer the sacraments rightfully. What he did—unwittingly–was lay the groundwork for modern secular democracy.

But the influence of Luther and his Reformation goes further than that. I heard a character on the television drama the other night say: “I don’t know the meaning of barriers.” He was a sociopath, as it turned out, but those words stuck with me—I don’t know the meaning of barriers. This too is part of the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation. Luther’s teaching that every man and woman is responsible for his or her own salvation evolved into political freedom.  After all, if in the most central aspect of human life, his or her relationship to God, faith could set a person free, why should he or she not be free in other matters?

And political freedom has evolved into that rampant individualism of modern society in which every man and woman is his or her own pope. So Luther became the pioneer and patron saint of those who push the frontiers of freedom in directions he would never have dreamt of. And those who “never cared for trembled in their lives” as the poet puts it, are granted unexampled liberty and rights that he would never thought of granting.

So the Lutheran Reformation is the spiritual source of the great struggle of our times, between the rights of the individual and the rightful demands of the community. Where do individual rights end and the rights of the community begin? Luther struggled with that problem too, the tension between the freedom of the Christian man and woman and good order in the world and the church. Luther fiercely advocated obedience to the secular authorities. But the direction of his teaching is clear, and from the beginning people saw its implications—in the greatest matter, the person’s relationship to God, the Individual the New Man and the New Woman, the sole sovereign over his or her own body and soul. And if barriers exist, they are there only to be overcome or ignored.  If independence becomes egoism and selfishness, is that not to be expected? “Men and women of the world” do not know much if anything about Brother Martin’s struggle for faith, let alone share it. But from his “dread,” he gave them freedom of choice, and if they take it and are “glad,” who can blame them.

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The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.

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Ruthless People

 

Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017

 

What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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Bad Attitudes

She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.

No, it wasn’t easy.  But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.

There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.

My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.

We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage.  They come and they go.

Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.

The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it.  If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.

Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.

But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.

 

 

 

 

 

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