Category Archives: Life in the Spirit

Unwanted Gifts

“And all in the crowd were trying to touch [Jesus], for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).

Isn’t it remarkable how great worship can set your feet on higher ground? I came out of church a week ago in a really golden mood. It was All Saints’ Sunday, and the service had been what our kids used to call “good church”—inspired preaching, gorgeous music, the sacrament rightly administered, a sense of communion with the saints, both the quick and the dead. I wasn’t bored even for a minute.

Then things changed. On the steps outside I met a man, probably homeless, who told me he needed fourteen dollars to get to Tampa. Now I make it a point, when possible, to give to those who ask for my help. So I took out my wallet and gave him two dollars. Whereupon he preceded to give me a real tongue lashing– What kind of a Christian do you pretend to be? I need to get to Tampa enough to ask you for money, and you aren’t willing to give what I need that much.  Selfish, that’s what you are. Two lousy dollars!

He made my gift seem trivial and unworthy, and then he pocketed it with grudging thanks and accosted the next person, who was a better Christian than I am, I can only hope. I didn’t wait around to find out how that encounter went. By that time I just wanted to be on my way.

And on my way I went, but the incident has stayed with me all week, tarnishing my golden mood. The man at the church door had a point, although it  was harshly made. Maybe I am selfish. I could have given him fourteen dollars to get him to Tampa-or where ever he was really going. But I didn’t. Jesus would have—or would he? It seems to me that Jesus was in a slightly different position–certainly in a different time and place. In his earthly ministry our Lord encountered the diseased and the possessed, whom he healed by the power that was in him.  We encounter the crazed and the enraged, the wanting and the demanding.

It is so much a part the atmosphere of our time–all the rudeness, the fanaticism, the zealotry—we don’t always notice it. There is so much poison in the air these days that at times it becomes a toxic fog, and the Sun of Civility and Reason becomes only a warm spot in the venomous haze. You can hardly go out without meeting up with a crackpot or a crazy ready to attack—if you are lucky, that is, and it’s only with words. Sometimes it seems that they seem to lie in wait for you. And the problem for all of us, especially those who follow Jesus, is what to do when people unleash their religious prejudices or unload their half-baked partisan biases on you.

What do you do about that young man in the coffee shop who told us that he lives in someone’s garage and then when on to explain in ever louder tones why Donald Trump is the best thing that has ever happened to America? And what do you so about the young Scientologists with their artificial grins who accost you on the street trying to get you to watch a free movie or take a personality test to lure you into their noxious cult? Or what do you do about the crazed octogenarian with flags in his hat who screams at you that you don’t care anything about disabled vets if you don’t put money in his coffee can. Would Jesus put a dollar in the can and be on his way? I suspect not. Or would he do something else entirely?

I rather think he would heal them. That is what Jesus did when, during his earthly life, when he encountered those with illness and possession. He healed them all, St. Luke tells us, without exception. Even to touch him was to be well. And what we need to keep in mind is that those who accost us looking for money or attention or whatever are people in great pain. They have an ulcer on their souls, a fiery boil on their consciousness—that’s what makes them sometimes act out with such outrageous rudeness. They are angry with the way life is treating them, their anger is a symptom of a vast interior sadness, a dark cave of suffering within themselves.  They are trying to deal with their own pain when, intentionally or not, they give us pain.

Of course our first inclination when we meet up with them is avoidance—especially if they are aggressive. We want to shut them out or shut them down in one way or another and be on our way. We might just turn and walk off–show our power over them by ignoring them. Or if they push hard we might push back, meet aggression with equal and opposite resistance. Argue for victory. Beat them at their own crazy game. But we need to remember that such people are in pain. If they are angry, it is because they are weak and filled with the overwhelming sadness that always goes with weakness and anger. To defeat them and march away is no victory.

Victory is to give them what Jesus did, a share of his victory over the powers of pain and darkness. What we need to keep in mind is that those who  accost us are offering us a strange gift. It is a gift that we do not ask for, a gift that we did not know that we wanted or needed. It is the gift of themselves, the image of God in them. And in return they are looking for something—usually not just money. They want to be recognized  as human beings not just empty spaces. Like that man I encountered at the church door they are seeking to affirm their dignity by taking some of ours. And it isn’t hard to refuse. We can easily crush their dignity by taking a superior position and overwhelming them with it. But Jesus, The Son of God, did not do that. He healed them.

And you and I, his followers, his would-be saints, are called to receive that gift the crazies and the crackpots offer, their shared humanity, with thanks. We need to thank them in some way for what they have given us, and then do what we do instinctively when we receive a gift—offer one in return. Healing. At a much lower voltage we have in us that same power that came out from Jesus to heal the multitudes. He was a conduit for the love of God, and so are we.

Each time we are accosted we are being called to the ministry of healing. We are able to heal those in pain by doing what Christ did. He met people one to one in their need. He stopped and he listened, and by being a compassionate listener we restore some of the dignity the speaker has lost. If we stop and listen we will often meet with irrational anger, with the aggressive language of the young and the “age rage” or the elderly. But that is just the wrapping of the strange gift they offer. And our response in some form should be—Thank you for yourself, for your honesty about your need.

Every person we meet, beloved, even the most obnoxious, has something to teach us, about God, about the world, and about ourselves. But to hear what they have to teach we need to stop and listen, compassionately and humbly. We are not put on this earth to correct them, but to listen to them. A person doesn’t have to be right in order to teach us something important.

And there is a lot to be learned these days and no shortage of teachers. Is it just me, or does it seem as if there are a lot more crazies out there, or are the ones out there crazier than before? What is certain is that everyone is stressed by the news and the old inhibitions on polite speech and action have been dissolved in the strong acid of mass culture. It makes us all a little crazy. There is no one to blame for the situation because we all are to blame. People feel they can say and do whatever they think best, and we, none of us, were really that good in the first place.

But those people who accost us in the street offer to each of us the opportunity to learn more about how to follow Jesus. They each have a strange gift for us, and we have a gift of healing to offer in return. The scriptures say that power went out of Jesus and healed all who were in any need. And that power was the love of God. And the only way for us, his would-be followers, to confront sad and angry souls is to let that love show through us by compassionate and humble listening.

Now that we know what to do, beloved, the trick, as ever, is to do it.

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Filed under Discipleship, Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

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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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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Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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What Became of Shame?

 

“Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7).

Whatever else may be true, beloved, it is obvious that we are not sewing fig leaves together anymore. It’s all out there, on the record, in language you never heard in the Bible. The barriers of what is acceptable in public speech and personal conduct have been eroding for some time now, but under this administration they have all but collapsed. There is no point in arguing that this is so. The question is—How did we as a nation lose our sense of shame?

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. In fact most of us can recall the decline and fall of shame because we played a part in it—not a starring role, perhaps, but we were part of the mob scenes. I know I was there to swell the crowd when shame died. And because I am partly to blame for it, it is incumbent upon me to do some small thing to rebuild the fallen barriers.

Shame is a very basic, and one might say, a primitive emotion. The scriptures trace it all the way back to the Garden, where Adam and Even ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Immediately their eyes were opened, the Bible tells us, and they were confronted with the awful consequences of their disobedience. They felt shame, which is, simply put, the humiliating awareness that we have committed some terrible transgression of the rules.

Guilt is a different thing all together. Guilt is self-condemnation, a profound unease because of what we are, independent of any particular action. It is the deep-seated suspicion that we are by nature bad in ourselves. Shame on the other hand is the consciousness that we appear bad to others. It is a state of moral undress, the awareness we have been caught, judged and condemned for what we have done by another person, by the community, or by God.

Shame is measured by the transgression and the transgressor. Where the transgression is small the shame is—or should be—proportionate.  Where the transgression if terrible, shame can be overwhelming—except when the transgressor feels no shame. Then he or she will not scruple to disguise the shameful act with a lie. So in the story of the children of Adam and Eve, when Cain killed his brother Abel, at first he trusted that no one had seen him. So when the LORD asks him, “Where is Abel your brother?” he replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But the LORD says, “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9).

What have you done? Honestly admitting shame is the only remedy for it, honestly confessing the transgression, accepting forgiveness and resolving to do better. Shame can become twisted, cruel, and destructive, but it is not a bad thing in itself. It is in fact the foundation of conscience, which is simply the internalization of honest shame.

The other day, while the United States Senate narrowly voted—50 to 51–to begin debate on a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act, protesters in the gallery chanted “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” and “Shame, shame, shame!” At least they had the right idea, but one cannot help but wonder what if anything the word “shame” means anymore in the public realm, things having been brought so low by brazen shamelessness of this administration and the paucity of honor among those who are supposed to serve us.

Because the opposite of shame is the pagan virtue of honor and its Judeo-Christian equivalent, righteousness. Righteousness and honor go hand in hand with modesty–not thinking too highly of yourself–and restraint–the inherent dignity of the person in victory and defeat. But in the Age of Trump does honor or righteousness, let alone modesty and restraint, retain any real value in the public realm when compared with money and power?

Oh, yes there are still examples of honor out there. John McCain comes to mind. But in his integrity, independence, and willingness to compromise he appears like a dinosaur on the floor of the Senate. And Jimmy Carter goes on modestly building Habitat for Humanity houses and teaching his Sunday school class. But the consensus of the Principalities and Powers seems to be the honor does not matter anymore than its opposite, shame.

So how did this come about? What became of shame?  The responsibility for its decline must be shaded as widely as possible.

On the one side liberal politicians and intellectuals and ordinary folks—like myself–with progressive ideas have for many years now made the proverb—“To understand all is to forgive all”—our motto. It was a big mistake and I confess it.  But for most of my lifetime the liberal establishment has excused violence and sexually irresponsibility as justified by circumstances or explicable because of economic influences. It isn’t. But when you cut people the slack they do not deserve, when you excuse the inexcusable, when you lower the barriers of what is acceptable to the place where everything is acceptable, you make yourself an enabler in a society where nothing is shameful.

Teaching shame—that wrong is wrong in the eyes of God and the community–is part of a moral upbringing. What we say and do have consequences in the real world. But when we give a pass to bad behavior as a result of a bad environment, when we justify what we should condemn and approve what we should disapprove the consequences will crowd in upon us.

We are not taking about forgiveness now. Forgiveness is another thing altogether. Divine grace does not make excuses for sin; it demands righteousness, or at least its pursuit and it presupposes shame and repentance.

Conservatives have until very lately been the bemoaners of moral laxness and the self-appointed champions of responsible behavior. Not anymore. The self-styled defenders of traditional values went for Trump in a big way, knowing full well that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for shameless coarseness and leprous morality. Everyone knew that from the get-go. And we got exactly what they wanted. And why? Partly because he wasn’t Hilary Clinton. Defeating her justified any means.

But it was more than that. Trump speaks to and for a deep, latent violence in America and out of a shadowy background of racism. His Fundamentalism of Money and Power speaks to other forms of Fundamentalism, evangelical and materialistic. And he is a bully, and bullying is the new correctness. Shame may be dead—or at least dying, but the same cannot be said for bullying. Tweet-shaming is being practiced everywhere—from high school to the Oval Office—and with the same aim in mind—destruction of the enemy. And the enemy is us, beloved.

So liberals and conservatives—both the “talking heads” and the “hoi polloi”—in their own ways share the responsibility for the new shamelessness and its nasty results. So is this the way it is going to be from now on? Or will it get worse in ways that we cannot even anticipate now? Well, beloved, that is in a small but real way up to you and me. We have to decide whether or not to call scurrilous language and antisocial behavior what it is. It is easy to condemn those in high places for their brazen shamelessness, but it is more difficult to acknowledge how we enable their bad behavior by excusing the inexcusable. It is easy to censure Donald Trump for his vulgarity, coarseness, and laziness, but it is harder for us to condemn the culture of excess, which he represents and in which each play our part.

The righteous life must be lived in the world among other people, which is what makes it so difficult. Some of them think as we do, others do not. In the end integrity is a lonely business. It takes courage and a degree of recklessness to pursue it because whatever you say and do in its pursuit will never please other people. But its reward is an awareness of having lived honorably, which in the end is the only thing worth having. So, beloved, we need to take those words from the hymn seriously:

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for our salvation be our glory evermore.

And may the Holy Spirit answer that prayer.

 

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