Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Rabble Rousing...

 


Rabble Rousing…

 

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-14
11:4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat!

11:5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;

11:6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."

11:10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased.

11:11 So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?

11:12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?

11:13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!'

11:14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.

 

 

According to the Oxford dictionary, rabble is: “a disorderly crowd; a mob; ordinary people, especially when regarded as socially inferior or uncouth.” 

 

Obviously, the first thing we learn from this portion of this weekend’s lectionary text is that rabble has been around for a long, long time. In this case, where the Numbers passage is putting some “flesh” (sorry) on the story of God taking care of Israel in the wilderness, the rabble are griping that the manna isn’t enough, and they basically start to scream at Moses, “Where’s the BEEF?”

 

No matter how you parse it, rabble is a derogatory term, even as we see from the definition supplied by the Oxford people. One would not describe one’s family as rabble unless you are fighting with them, or using hyperbole as a joke. The same would be true for using the term on one’s collection of friends. 

 

There are many other terms that get applied to any group of ne’er-do-wells: hoi polloi (a Greek term literally meaning “the many,” but one that took on a more negative connotation in English); gangpack; or more specifically in our day, Proud BoysBoogalooKu Klux Klan; or Q-Anon. All of them have a beef, of some sort, and as they say, “It ain’t good.” 

 

So, as we see, “rabble-rousing” is not a new concept. Truth be told, we are probably ALLrabble-rousers, at some point, if we understand the term as a verb. We may rabble-rouse when we show up at a town council meeting to protest a proposed ordinance, or even when we campaign passionately for a given political candidate because we vehemently oppose the views of her/his opponent, or the incumbent the candidate they are seeking to unseat. 

 

The negative slant comes in, I believe, when the aims of the “rabble” are self-centered: seeking to get something that exclusively benefits their group; seeking to acquire for themselves a measure of superior power or wealth; or they just want to superimpose their views, desires, or policies over the entire rest of the populace. Sometimes the genesis of a rabble-rousing group may be altruistic—they may actually believe they speak for the majority, and are convinced that their cause is “righteous.” Unfortunately, this view is too often distorted or just plain wrong. 

 

Look at what is happening regarding the January 6 “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol. The rabble-rousers who committed that atrocity believed they represented a majority of the American people, when a constitutionally sanctioned, legitimate election proved they did not. And now other rabble-rousers are seeking to “wash” this fiasco of its terroristic and traitorous stain. 

 

Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in a book he wrote in 1830, first coined the phrase “the Great Unwashed” to describe what others in his day may have simply called the “riff raff.” This phrase of Bulwer-Lytton’s smacks of elitism, for sure, but it makes a point. In the case of our contemporary American society, we DO have necessary levels of education and expertise, and there ARE people who know things, whose knowledge should be tapped for the greater good. When it comes to subjects like global pandemics, climate change, quantum physics, and music composition, for example, I would consider myself part of the “Great Unwashed,” but not “riff raff.” See the difference? I know I’m playing with a subtle distinction here, and I may be wrong, but bear with me. I’m okay with admitting that my lack of knowledge in certain areas means my opinion should count for less when one of these is in the public forum, for whatever reason. However, in our time, this unwillingness to admit this, or even to acknowledge it is true, is waning rapidly. I saw a cartoon recently that showed a man sitting in front of his computer screen and yelling to his wife: “Hey honey, come here and see what I found that every scientist and expert has missed!” Social media, and a few devilish threads, have “created” a nation of “geniuses” who eschew authentic knowledge, academic credentials, and the scientific method.

 

American “independence” and personal freedom, while generally good things, may be partly to blame for this. EVERY American who meets the qualifications of nation and state to vote CAN vote their conscience. The First Amendment gives them freedom to soapbox their views, as well. This freedom, however, is now “leaking” into the realm of professional knowledge and expertise. Our continuing struggle to get the country vaccinated against COVID-19, and to get this pandemic under control, is a victim of this creep. No matter what the medical and scientific experts tell us, large segments of the population have deemed themselves “experts” based on conspiracy theories or just plain “bad medicine” that have spread like wildfire over social media and through unscrupulous broadcast media. These “rabble” are NOT restricting themselves to a personal decision to resist being vaccinated, but have formed “mobs” of the Great Unwashed, attending school board meetings to protest mask-wearing and other rules aimed at protecting THEIR children. In Florida and Texas, they have even supported passing legislation OUTLAWING the recommendations of health professionals, justifying this action under the guise of “personal freedoms.” The fallout from this rabble-rousing is that COVID continues to harm and kill people, and damage the nation’s economy. 

 

I certainly can’t say for sure that the novelist’s aim was to create a term that would distinguish a group capable of doing such trauma to a society from the mere “riff raff,” but this is what I see. “Unwashed” in our time could mean “inadequately informed” and “unqualified.” That our U.S. Constitution gives political power to such people when their numbers are large enough to either elect or disrupt is a sad truth, but like the biblical concept of “sin,” we don’t HAVE to let it rule the day.

 

As I mentioned in last week’s message, Rabbi Sacks reminds us that there is an important “third leg” to a healthy society beyond the first two of the market and the state, that being its moral code. There are times when rabble-rousers may be needed to rally for this code, which is far too often far overshadowed, even negated, by the market and the state. I believe it was the late Congressman John Lewis who coined the phrase “good trouble” to describe protests against moral travesties such as racism, sexism, disenfranchising the poor, and demonizing immigrants. Standing up for a responsible moral code doesn’t require professional knowledge or expertise, any more than “loving your neighbor as yourself” does. In fact, this makes an interesting point—the moral teachings of Jesus require NO special expertise or knowledge to observe and keep! Jesus, himself, engaged in “good trouble” when he opposed the desecration of the temple by the market, and when he spoke against the religious leaders who marginalized the poor and the lame.

 

Notice Moses’ resignation in verse 14. With all that he had been through with this “stiff-necked” people, he has finally reached the end of his rope with them. He gives up. I wonder, though, if there isn’t a much deeper foreshadowing present in these words? Moses was arguably the greatest religious leader in human history. Is his throwing in the towel possibly a premonition of God’s coming great gift of the incarnation, the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ? If Moses represents the best of human agency, working with the leading, inspiration, and empowerment of God, and yet now admitting failure with meeting the needs of Israel, does this signal the resignation of the human race to the fact that God’s direct intervention will be essential to our redemption? Something to think about.

 

The “rabble” that came to Moses failed the test of “good trouble.” Their ingratitude for God’s freeing them from Egyptian captivity, for leading them on their journey through the wilderness, and even for providing the manna as food for them was clearly displayed as they complained to Moses that they wanted more. Interestingly, God’s response was two-fold. God GAVE them some of what they were asking for—meat in the form of quail—but also sent prophets to help them understand their need for a moral code. If Israel was to survive, it must become more than just a sum of its “parts”—more than just a collective of selfish desires with the most vocal winning out. This is what a moral code can do for a people. 

 

America is in danger of regressing to a “rabble run” nation. Our sense of individual freedom has given much power to “the Great Unwashed” among us, especially when it comes to things like the COVID pandemic, the climate crisis, the proliferation of gun violence, and growing economic inequity. America has always been strongest when it has rediscovered its need of a moral code to temper our constitutional freedoms. As we learned last week, religion used to help us deduce and integrate this moral code, but between the waning influence of religion, and some contemporary religious groups even SIDING with and FEEDING the frenzy of the rabble, its influence may be ending. From an historical point of view, America would gain from a renewed study of the phrase “We the People” that begins our Constitution. And we people of faith would do well to return to a study of the teachings of Moses and Jesus, teachings that remind us we ARE our “brother’s keeper,” and that a people organized around “loving our neighbor as ourselves” CAN create a benevolent, compassionate, and sustainable society. So, let the “Great Unwashed” take a bath in the truth of biblical love and justice, and may the “rabble” be relegated to a minority that is not yet ready to care. Amen.

 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Asking Wrongly...


 Asking Wrongly

James 3:13-4:3

Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for  those who make peace.

Friendship with the World

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

 

When you pray, are you rubbing the lamp, hoping the God/Genie will emerge and grant your wish? Think seriously about this question. And if you are honest about your response, what percentage of your prayers are these kinds of “rub the lamp” prayers? While you ponder this, let’s look at the theme of today’s lection passage from James.

 

If I had to summarize what the author is laying out, I would say it is all about what motivates us. Why do we do what we do, in terms of our faith, and even in terms of what drives us in life? The initial thesis of this passage is stated in the first verse, actually: If we are wise, we will live in such a way that our life, itself, is our best Christian witness. It will be a life lived wisely, gently, and with the common good in mind. Incidentally, this is a dangerous way to live.

 

Take the example of Jesus. He loved deeply, taught how to live wisely, doing so himself, and was certainly all about the common good. His goal was to bring about the Kingdom of God where all of God’s children may live in peace and harmony. He never spoke anything but the truth. And this lifestyle severely threatened the “powers that be” in his age. Setting aside the theology of his crucifixion, it is an historical fact that his message and its truth got him killed. Others living according to Jesus’ example met a similar fate: Joan of Arc, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The author of James is encouraging us to live in the way Jesus did, realizing that it could be hazardous. This is most likely why the passage later reminds the reader to “resist the devil,” for a world that has chosen to NOT live by grace, in large part, will become hostile to those who try. 

 

Do we have purity in purpose regarding how we live? We are challenged to ask ourselves this question, as well. Jesus said “Ask and you will receive.” This author says, “You do not have because you do not ask,” but then adds “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly…” And then the author defines asking wrongly as asking with selfish motives, “to spend what you get on your pleasures.” It’s indeed a conundrum, when set alongside other biblical passages that seem to endorse having an “abundant life” and encouraging us to be joyful people. Can we have these things AND have purer motives? I believe James is trying to say, YES WE CAN, (with apologies to former President Barack Obama).

 

Let me take a moment to lay out a parallel thesis that may help us here. The other night, at our Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CF & A, as it’s known), one of our group led a conversation on diversity—something we have each month, in an effort to encourage diversity and strategize on how we might help dismantle racism. He had us read a few excerpts from a book by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and view a couple of his videos. (Rabbi Sacks served as the “Chief Rabbi” of Great Britain from 1991 until 2013.) Sacks posits that modern human society, if it is healthy, is built on three “legs”: the market; the state; and a moral code. He suggests that the market and the state are in the “I” business, providing for the wealth, power and freedom of the individual citizen, while the moral code “leg” is about the collective, or the “we.” (One could argue that the market can benefit all people, but rarely does it, and likewise, government can work for the common good, but its representatives are too often elected by voters focused on what is good for themselves.) Sacks says that, while the strength of the market and the state are relatively assured, the moral code “leg” has suffered, partly because of the waning popularity of religion (which used to help define a moral code) and more recently because of the politicization of religion. When society’s moral code—which is aimed at defining and protecting the “we” of our civilization—is eroded or left undefined, the selfishness of the market and the state prevail. Unfortunately, this means that those with less wealth and who are not adequately represented by the state, suffer. Initially these are the poor and the diverse minority groups, but as power gravitates upward toward those with the most wealth, the middle class begins to weaken as well. In his last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks urges us to pay more attention to the moral codes that may help restore a measure of egalitarianism to our culture and serve as an antidote to the toxicity that has overtaken our public discourse, thanks largely to the competitiveness between the market and the state. He seems to have a very good point.

 

The James writer is saying the same thing, but applying it to our prayer life. We may not see our prayers answered because we ask with motives that may just be too selfish, or at the least, self-serving. This is not to say we shouldn’t pray for our own needs, but it is to say that we ought to also pray for adequate resources for all who are in need. We liberals are fond of saying “It’s not a pie!”, meaning that the world’s resources are abundant enough for everyone to get a slice, if we work to assure that the “pie” is not owned solely by Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. But please note that James ALSO says that it is “asking wrongly” when our intent is to “spend what we get” on our personal pleasures. This is where wisdom enters the picture.

 

For the most part, people of faith are well within our ethic to pray that our needs may be met. As I said earlier, we should also care about the needs of our neighbor, as Jesus taught, but that aside, today’s passage shines a light on what we DO with what we GET, in answer to our prayer. There are those who resist helping the poor, out of a believe that they will spend it unwisely and don’t know how to manage their money. But are we not often guilty of the same lack of wisdom? How often do we “spend our blessings” on ourselves, and not for things we need, but on things we want--on things we believe will improve how others see us, from the standpoint of power or status? James thinks we do. 

 

This author indicts us with a harsh phrase, calling us “double-minded.” Think of this as a split personality when it applies to our moral code. On one hand, we want what we want when we want it, while on the other hand, we espouse to live a “Godly” life, believing we are modeling the Gospel that Jesus preached. The two don’t share the same quarters well. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said we can’t serve “God and mammon,” or to use a more common terms, God and “wealth creation.” As I got closer and closer to retirement, I found myself more interested in monitoring the stock market, since it had a bearing on my pension, which I was going to need sooner, than later. I saw firsthand how “addictive” watching the market can become, especially if a person has developed a “portfolio” designed to “create wealth.” It can mirror playing the machines at the casino or pumping $50 a week into the state lottery, both of which most “enlightened” people frown upon, especially those who are serious about “creating wealth.” James is asking us: WHY are we doing it, and WHAT will we do with what we get? These are the moral questions.

 

As I was working on this “sermon,” my dear wife came into my “lair” and we opened a discussion about the text. She reminded me that part of the “good life” that we have been blessed to build from the very beginning of our 44-plus years together was that we have always been “tithers” who gave a minimum of ten percent of our annual income to our church, AND we purposed to give “offerings” beyond that to the various concerns and causes we chose to support, like my seminary, the college our kids attended, and numerous missions and charities. We literally built this ethic into our family budget, and have never strayed from it, even when we were putting our children through colleage. We have been blessed with more than enough to live on, and enough to enjoy a few luxuries, like my little sports car and Dara’s fancy embroidery machine. This discipline of giving has formed in us a spirit of generosity. One that is now deeply ingrained in our lives. 

 

This was demonstrated to me a few months ago when one of our neighbors—a teacher who teaches in one of the underprivileged areas of the city—had a student whose family home was destroyed by fire. She appealed to folks in our development for aid for this family. Using the online giving method she shared with us, I sent a financial gift toward helping this family. The response I got back from her was like we had donated a million dollars! I was dumbfounded. She went on and on about how generous the gift was and that it far eclipsed the other gifts the fund had received to date. I was embarrassed, in that I thought it was a meager offering, and would certainly be overshadowed by donations from our much wealthier neighbors. Every so often I STILL get a note of gratitude from that teacher. All this to say that part of our “good life” has been becoming generous and cheerful givers. 

 

Let me take one more stab at trying to define the “balance” that the James author is encouraging us to find in our living out of the gospel. I’m sure I’ve shared this in other messages, but it’s worth sharing again. During my first go-round at St. Paul’s, I had several visits with a parishioner who was living with cancer. He was a deeply spiritual man, but also highly practical in his philosophy of life. During almost every visit, he would tell me that as long as I set the bar of what it meant to “live the Christian life” too high, people would listen politely, but continue to maintain the status quo. He urged me to preach what he called “enlightened self-interest.” Human sociology observes, he said, that human beings will usually “go home” to what is best for themselves. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the moral code of the scriptures, casts the higher vision of caring ALSO about our neighbor’s welfare, as well as for the broader human community. My friend said that people are more apt to yield to the idea of “sharing” their blessings to help a neighbor in need, rather than to hold to a theological giving goal like “tithing.” This “enlightened self-interest” could create a practical balance that would make sense to people, and once challenged to adopt this principle, they may grow beyond it, developing a ministry of personal philanthropy, if blessed with greater resources. The willingness to “love neighbor as self” would preach, if presented in this way. He was right, and this may be one of the keys to the “good life” the James author espouses.

 

“Asking wrongly” happens when WE (or someone in our immediate family) are the main beneficiary of our prayers, if answered the way we ask. And it happens when we intend to “spend what we get” on our own pleasure. The Christian believer is called to more than a “rub the lamp and ask the genie for a wish” spirituality. If it can be summarized in the phrase “enlightened self-interest,” and if that works for you and motivates you to adopt this concept, so be it. It may indeed set you on the path for what the scriptures view as the “good life,” which will often be in direct opposition to what the culture calls the good life. And, as James says, it will show. It will show. Amen.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Perfect Law...

 

Perfect Law

Psalm 19

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice
[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens[c] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
    Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
[d]
    do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

A friend shared a brief narrative by writer, Anne Lamott, addressing the difficulties we face in life. The phrase that lit me up was Lamott’s assertion that “grace bats last.” Loving the allusion to baseball, I am also reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous line, “It ain’t over until it’s over!” In baseball, a team’s chances to win aren’t over until their last batter steps to the plate. For the believer facing challenges, it is essential to remember that GRACE BATS LAST!

 

What does this have to do with Psalm 19, our lection passage for this weekend? Everything! Note the verse I have highlighted in the text—“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” What IS the purpose of the law of God? Scholars and preachers have bounced this one around since these texts were written down, and I’m sure they were doing it in the days of the oral tradition, as well. I believe there is a difference between “laws” and the “law of the Lord.” People write laws to guard individual freedoms and keep powerful entities in check. Laws are written to define property, protect the innocent from harm by less responsible citizens, and to codify state, regional, or local cultural norms. But what of the “law of the Lord”?

 

This Psalm says the law of the Lord “revives the soul.” God’s law has a greater purpose than to provide boundaries and state punitive measures, as much of human laws do. God’s law is spiritual, first and foremost. It is for the good of the soul. Psalm 19 says it “makes wise the simple,” “rejoices the heart,” “enlightens the eyes,” and is “true and righteous.” Human laws are impossible to define as “true”—they are enacted by some body, and just “become,” but who is to say they are “true”? The truth of God’s law may be found in the purpose of God’s law. 

 

First, God’s law “establishes” the soul as the center of exchange between God and humanity. Then, God’s law enlightens, adds joy, and gives wisdom. God’s law fosters relationships—righteous relationships—between God and us, and between ourselves and the other. If we keep the Psalm 19 “purpose” of God’s law in focus, we may find ourselves reevaluating the long lists of laws we find in scripture. Our human tendency is to look at these “does and don’ts” in the same way we look at human law. Human law tends to be rather cut and dried: obey them and be left alone; violate them and risk enforcement. God’s laws are about forming and keeping righteous (“right) relationships. They are given to help create harmonious, peaceful community, but not by just drawing boundaries. God’s laws proactively seek to feed the soul of the person as WELL as the community, at large. The law of the Lord is not in place to “bless” or satisfy GOD. God’s law is to bless humanity with peace in the soul, righteousness in relationships, and harmony in the community. 

 

Let us take a quick look at the “Top Ten” of God’s law—the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments are:

 

1.    No other gods

2.    No graven images

3.    No taking God’s name in vain

4.    Remembering the Sabbath

 

These seem to be things that would “bless” or honor God, and while keeping them certainly DOES honor God, if we remember that the central purpose of God’s law is righteous relationships and building healthy human community, we would do well to view these as things to focus on in order to bind a people together in one heart and one mind. Centering community life on Yahweh gives the people of God a common value. Having multiple gods—especially human-formed ones—divides the community. Using Yahweh’s name as an insult or as a profane utterance offends the community and belittles its core value. Ignoring the sabbath has multiple negative results for the individual as well as the community. We all need the “day of rest,” and the stresses and tensions of our contemporary 24/7 society illustrate this only too well. The first four commandments are more about US than about God. As we learn from Psalm 22, God can take the “heat,” but people and the communities they form are very, very fragile, often balancing on a few shared norms or values. Among a people where a relationship with God is that central focus, commandments 1-4 seek to hold the center together.

 

Commandment number five is unique:

 

5.    Honor your father and mother

 

We could write hundreds of sermons on what it means to “honor” our parents, but I believe God gave this “law” to stitch together not just the current population of the human community, but the generations, as well. “Honoring” the ones who have propagated both the physical AND the spiritual future of the community venerates their vital role, cares for their “aging out” years, and plants important values in the children, the grandchildren, and all future generations. Again, it’s about a healthy community and loving family relationships, not just about “appeasing” God. Our American society has done a poor job with this. Social Security is the best we could come up with? And even THIS is paid for those who will later benefit from it. As a recent retiree, I can say that even with the Medicare program as a “benefit,” having to pay for Part B of Medicare as well as the cost for an advantage plan that covers some of the huge gaps between what Medicare covers and the actual costs of health services, is a huge hit to our retirement budget. And if you listen to some in the Congress, you hear them call these programs “entitlements,” ignoring the fiscal participation of those in the workforce, and regularly looking for ways to “roll back” or cut these programs to “balance” the federal budget. And these programs make little to no provision for elderly Americans who eventually need fulltime care, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of us! No, we are not too good with the fifth commandment.

 

The remaining commandments are:

 

6.    No killing

7.    No adultery

8.    No stealing

9.    No bearing false witness against our neighbor

10.No coveting of neighbor’s “stuff”

 

Violate these, and community breaks down rapidly, not to even address what happens within the soul of the perpetrator. If indeed God’s laws are for the “reviving of the soul” and for forming and perpetuating peaceful and harmonious community—we might call this the Kingdom of God—the penalties for ignoring or breaking them is self-actualized. Doesn’t this remind you of what Jesus said—“What you sow you will most assuredly reap”? 

 

If we err in our understanding and application of the Law of the Lord, we do so when we believe these laws are in place to “protect” or “honor” God. They are not. They are all given in an attempt to create the Peaceable Kingdom God envisioned when God created the world. They are designed to return us to Eden. And Jesus came to offer forgiveness to humanity for our terminal selfishness that leads to community-busting sin, and to “update” God’s law by stating it all so simply: Love God, Love neighbor. 

 

If you buy this theological view, you must be most depressed at this point, given how poorly we in the human community, and most especially in the American corner of it, are faring with using God’s law to find redemption, peace, wisdom, and building a joyful, harmonious community. But remember what Anne Lamott wrote: GRACE BATS LAST. God did not just give us God’s law and walk away. Through the agency of God’s Holy Spirit, through the redemption offered through Jesus Christ, and by renewing our knowledge and application of the Law of the Lord, Grace WILL prevail. When Jesus said things like “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” and “The Kingdom of God is within you,” I believe this is what he was talking about. It may seem far away right now, but with God ALL THINGS are possible. We just have to want it and be willing to partner with God and God’s law FOR it. This desire for righteous relationships across the board is what brings the psalmist to write that God’s law is “more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey.” 

 

May our souls be revived by the Law of the Lord; may we join our hearts in the common purpose of revealing the Kingdom of God in our midst, and may we not forget that even when things look bleak, GRACE BATS LAST. Amen!

 

  

 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Calamity...

 


Calamity

Proverbs 22:1-2; 8-9; 22-23

  A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

 

Over my years as an active Christian believer (and certainly my 36 years as a pastor), I have observed that people who desire to “take the Bible literally” do so as selectively—if not more so—than those of us who believe it needs to be studied carefully and appropriate tools used to properly contextualize its messages for each age. The “literalists” often take the passages literally that make their point about a given controversy, but hem haw around other passages that could be damning to their cause. Liberals (or “progressives” as some like to call themselves today) can be quite guilty of this, too, but we generally are more amenable to a wider discussion of “what the Bible says.” Either way, over-spiritualizing the message of the Bible may cause its message to be obscured, as well. As we mentioned last week in our discussion of the Song of Songs, forcing a passage to be “spiritual” when it is at least initially talking about concrete things like sexual love causes the reader to miss both the message and the freedom offered by the text.

 

Today is another case-in-point. Proverbs is teeming with snippets of wisdom pretty much meant to be taken at face value and not “converted” into some high-falutin’ theology. Let’s start with verse 8 of today’s lection passage:

 

  Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.

The central message of this pearl is that injustice leads to calamity, and no amount of angry response to the calamity will slow its progress. We are living this now, in 2021 in so many, many ways: 

 

·      Systemic racism continues to deny persons of color the same opportunities, resources, and safety white Americans enjoy. That’s a fact, not an opinion, as some would assert. When I get pulled over by a police officer, the last thing on my mind is, “Will I live through this encounter?” Not so with black people, who have to have “The Talk” with their driving-age children about how to respond to police in a similar situation. Racism is behind the myriad “voter fraud” bills being passed in state legislatures throughout the land, aiming at making it harder for persons of color (and the poor, whom we’ll get to later) to vote, because of their tendency to favor the “other” party. Racism is rampant in the housing market. Ask a successful African American person what it was like for them to try to rent an apartment or, God-forbid, buy a home in a white suburb. Their experience is almost universally different than that of the white majority. (In the interest of some measure of brevity, I will end this point here, but the evidence for the reality of systemic racism could fill several libraries.)

 

·      Our country has joined the world at large in suffering through a horrible pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. The injustices abound, including: spending more time finding someone to blame, rather than defeating the virus. Some have fought to point the finger at China for letting the virus escape from a lab. So what, even if someday this is shown to be the origin (although medical experts don’t support this assertion)? How will this “fix” what this virus has done? Will it bring back the millions of lives lost (over 600,000 here in the USA)? And what would be the remedy? Closing the labs that also create the CURES by studying these deadly viruses? No, much of the suffering and most of the calamity has been caused by those who have perpetrated injustices: unequal distribution of life-saving vaccines, nation to nation, rich to poor, etc.; the poor and more diverse groups getting sicker and experiencing more deaths than more prosperous populations; the refusal by many to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the virus and its variants, all under the guise of “freedom”; and the overall politicizing of a public health crisis. The calamity this has bred include more sickness and deaths, passengers beating up on flight attendants on airlines, parents literally shouting down and shutting down school board meetings (including here in the North Allegheny School District, one of the most privileged and prosperous in the country); and “conservative” governors banning—BANNING—a requirement that masks be worn in schools! Calamity, thy name is ignorance!

 

·      Injustice has come to our democratic republic. Thanks to unproven accusations of “fraud” by the losers of recent elections, our whole system of voting, vote-counting, and accountability has come under fire. “Conservative” state legislatures have begun changing the systems that have protected our elections for over two hundred years, in the name of “election security,” and taking elections out of the hands of those who have long safeguarded them, and placing them in the mitts of partisans. All because their “side” lost a close election. We have only begun to see the calamity this will cause—look at the “audit” that was conducted by a fanatical group in Arizona. It will get worse—much worse. 

 

·      Grave injustices have been committed by all of us against the environment and our home planet, but the top of the list has to go to corporations and their legislative and political minions who have resisted reasonable regulations and environmental policies that might have stemmed at least some of the tide of human-exacerbated climate change. The calamity that is beginning to emerge due to this is frightening: 100-year storms happening two or three times a year; torrential rains replacing seasonal showers; and wildfires destroying far more than what would be “natural” for them, would it not be for the alterations to winds, temperatures, and excess dryness from droughts amplified greatly by the injustice human-exacerbated climate change. 

 

I’ve only cited a few examples here. Read your newspaper and fill in a few of your own. Oh, and calamity is not an exclusively American phenomenon, either. Witness what the religious fundamentalists who call themselves the “Taliban” are doing in Afghanistan against women and reason, or what political authoritarians like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping are doing to their own citizens who don’t accept their rule. Also, note that I put “conservative” in quotes most of the time. I have many good friends and quite a few family members who are (or were) conservative—politically, theologically, fiscally. But the new conservatism taking root is an extremism that turns most of what conservatives used to believe and support on its head. This is a group that was strongly patriotic, believed in our fair process of elections and the peaceful transition of power, and would never have tolerated a mob attacking the Capitol of the United States. Look at the calamity that has resulted from the injustice of true conservative values being eschewed in favor of staunch, rabid partisanship.

 

It’s hard to “spiritualize” the simple message of verse 8, especially when we see so much obvious evidence of its truth all around us. My advice is: don’t try. Of course, we also have seen what the second half of this verse means, as well. Rather than having conversations aimed at “meeting in the middle” on these issues, and working to “fix” the issues, we, as a society, have substituted blaming and out-of-control anger for problem solving. And the “rod of anger” is indeed failing. I was watching one of the final movies in the Harry Potter series the other day, and in this episode, the protagonists were taking turns wearing a necklace that was one of the “horcruxes” of the story’s villain. Whichever of the characters was wearing the cursed thing turned dark and angry, blaming the others for the maladies they all faced. How do we get rid of this damn “necklace” we all seem to be wearing today? Proverbs 22:8 reminds us what the secret potion is: systematically attack and end the injustices we are perpetrating against each other, against our system of government, against our planet, and against the people of the church.

 

Yep, the church. As long as the church supports these injustices, and especially ones against other children of God, we will continue to suffer calamity, one of the greatest of which is the cascading decline of the Christian church in our own nation. While historically we have neverbeen a “Christian” nation, as is the assertion of some, we have been a “churched” nation. That is ending. Just a few weeks ago, fresh polling shows that for the first time in American history, more people DO NOT have a religious affiliation than DO, and the majority of Americans have ceased going to “church,” whatever this looks like for those polled. “The world” sees our conflict over race, sexual orientation, human culpability of climate change, and incessant arguments over theology and which “view” of the Bible is “right,” and they have begun, en masse, to opt out. It’s a good thing that Jesus came to save the church, because right now, it’s the church that needs saving!

 

The rest of the verses of Proverbs 22 cited in this week’s lectionary passage are just as powerful, by the way. God’s “bias” toward the poor and disdain for those who aren’t generous is clearly stated. And what of a good name? What IS a “good name”? I have been accused of besmirching my own “good name” by being “too political.” I could not live with myself as a person, let alone one who believes in the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, if I did not speak out against injustice and speak for justice. I have had to live with the fact that some don’t see social justice advocacy as being “spiritual” enough for a pastor. And I felt it hypocritical to eschew the work of justice until the “safety” of retirement, although I admit that being retired has provided a measure of freedom to speak out with a bit less chance of being criticized for it. And, part of the apologetic I hope to amplify in retirement is a better defense of social justice work AS central to the Christian faith. I also wish to redeem the label of “liberal” for use in the lexicon of biblical Christianity. My problem with the more acceptable “progressive” is that it seems to imply, “I’M progressive and you’re NOT” as a message, which I simply do not believe. A balanced, healthy society is made up of legitimate conservatives and legitimate liberals meeting at table to converse, worship, feed, and collaborate on how to make life better and more just for all. I don’t know if we can get the current “genie” of calamity back into the bottle, but if we can, I will be a proud liberal at that table.

 

Years ago, I heard the phrase “If you want peace, work for justice.” At the time, it sounded overly challenging to me. Could I not have peace, personally, if I wasn’t engaged in the work of social justice? Earlier in my ministry, I preached that having a relationship with Jesus Christ could give me this “personal” peace, and then I could listen for God’s calling to see what else I should be doing as a believer. I fear this message has spawned a sea of “believers” who live in their spiritual “peace bubble,” praising Jesus, worshiping together joyously, and holding to opinions about social issues that serve their own interests, especially in maintaining their “peace bubble.” I have come to believe, over the years of what I hope is a maturing faith, that the predominant role of the gospel is to keep drawing the “bubble” larger and larger until all of God’s children experience peace. Proverbs 22:8 reminds us of what will happen when we eschew the bubble-enlarging work of justice: calamity, not calm.

I have often cited something a friend once said about missions: Successful mission work needs PRAYERS, PAYERS, and PLAYERS. Until all of us in Christendom finds our place in at least ONE of these same three roles regarding social justice, we will find peace a distant goal. This is your challenge for the week: Will you be a prayer, a payer, or a player in the pursuit of JUSTICE, that calamity may begin to fade into history? Amen.

 

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