My Rights vs. The Common Good (Pentecost 9C and The 4th of July)

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sparkler-with-american-flag-30f09ec483c906ae(A Sermon for the 4th of July Weekend, July 3, 2016)

Good Morning! And Happy Fourth of July Weekend! I confess I love this holiday. I love the music and the fireworks and the feeling of American solidarity that rises up among us when we gather. This year, I don’t know what it will be like because I’ve never known a time when Americans were so divided. Not simply by different opinions, not by the usual political parties, but by political blocs spewing hatred at each other. Deep and personal and irrational anger.   Outside my last sojourn in academia, I haven’t known a time when people were so identified with their grievances. When the tension between individual rights and the well-being of all seemed so volatile.

I don’t remember a time when the group considering itself most aggrieved consisted of a category of white men. And, to quote Leon Wieseltier in a Washington Post article this week, these competing groups, “in the myopia of their pain… kindle racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.”1   For starters. People look at the UK and the quick unraveling of its economy and social cohesion after BREXIT. They look at the unleashing of a racism that “Britain-firsters” deemed legitimate. Americans of all stripes now worry – could that happen here?

Well, of course, it could, but we are people of God and not limited to political and demographic data in our reflections. As Christians, we look through the lens of Scripture and of our founding documents as Americans. On this Sunday, most churches read Chapter 6 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galations, which syncs well with the Declaration of Independence. Together, I think, they show us what Paul called a “more excellent way” through the mistrust and opprobrium that currently cloud the American political scene.

They both speak to human freedom in terms of a community of relationships and there is no indication in either of them that personal freedom might ever trump consideration of the common good. I was stunned a few years ago when several conservative American politicians were citing Ayn Rand, the prophet of selfishness, as authority for their views on individual rights. How did Ayn Rand define freedom? “Freedom (n.),” she wrote: “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To delifelibertypend on nothing.”2 Well, bushwa. That is un-American, un-Christian, and, I would argue, patently untrue.

The Declaration of Independence was revolutionary in its proclamation that governments cannot just own people or claim sovereignty over them based on military might or power. Instead, the Founders asserted that human beings have human rights that precede government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders dreamed this nation into being grounded on what they perceived were God-given rights all people could claim and no one could take away.   They meant the Declaration to be a beacon of light to the rest of the world, and the ideas they espoused are as radical now as they were then.

There have been complications. The British Empire didn’t agree with their ideas, nobody really knew how to implement them or even to enforce the rights claimed. Nor, as you know, did the nation’s founders agree on precisely to whom they applied. It was a long time before anybody thought to extend the term “all men” to men who didn’t own property or men who were black or to women of any color or social status.

domviolThe tension between individual rights and the well-being of the whole reared its head early and continues to trend. Consider the argument over gun regulation: I have the right to own and carry firearms however and whenever I want vs. we have the right to safety in public places and to the reasonable protection of our children. What gives? And when we read the 6th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see the same tension. In v. 2, Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But in v.5, he says: “All must carry their own loads.” Which is it? If I have to carry your burdens, that impinges on my own freedom. How about I’ll carry my own burdens and you carry yours. That sounds more fair.

And we respect it. I like the example someone recently gave of the mother eagle who decides that an eaglet is ready to fly. The eaglet stands at the edge of the nest and its mother gives it a shove. She flies above her baby in case something goes wrong, but the baby learns pretty quickly how to unfurl its wings, flap them and fly.

We respect also the independent spirit of those who have suffered greatly and refuse to be defined by it. We admire those who have somehow found the resources in themselves to demand that others not treat them as victims – of cruelty, neglect, or bad luck. Not because they’re too proud or don’t deserve sympathy and understanding, but because self-pity feels bad and doesn’t help. If you ever decide to “help” a blind person walk down the street, you will find this out right away.

But how about the “bearing one another’s burdens” part? It obviously refers to helping each other out in times of hardship – something the church community excels at. But it’s more than that. This is the one Paul calls the “law of Christ.” Caring for someone who’s sick or has a baby or has difficulty getting out of the house. Caring for someone whose life has fallen apart. Caring – from afar – for people who lack resources or need care. We are, as Christians, committed to this “bearing of one another’s burdens.” And if bearing our own burdens, when possible, produces respect, bearing another’s burdens, when needed, produces love.WHRD

It’s the flip side that gets us. Most of us believe so strongly in the virtue of independence that we have a profound fear of being seen to be dependent. It’s as though we’d rather die than owe somebody something. We fear the loss of dignity we believe is a byproduct of dependence. But it’s independence that, in the end, leaves us alone and robs us of the love that can transform our lives. Dependence and care create holy relationships that are vital and life-giving – with our children, our parents, our friends and whomever else falls into our web of compassion.

So where does all this leave us? Our faith and our freedom and our politics and our participation in the great dream that is America? What do we do now? I think we start by moving beyond what Wieseltier, in the same Washington Post article, called the “parochialism of pain.” Let us listen and care about the tribulations of others and the injustices done to them — as much as we’d like theWhat-does-the-Lord-require-of-you-wordpressm to listen and care about ours. Let us not compete for whose is worse. And then let us build on the deeper understanding we glean from each other. Because this holiday and these Scriptures call us – not to hatred and opposition to people who disagree – but to interdependence, to collaboration, to cooperation and to sacrifice in our time and in our place. To practice God’s politics, which are guided always by justice and compassion and a willingness to work for all people to enjoy the blessings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen.

 

1 Leon Wieseltier, “How voters’ personal suffering overtook reason — and brought us Donald Trump,”  The Washington Post, June 22, 2016

2 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943), Chapter XII, p. 149 ; Dominique Françon to Alvah Scarret.

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Cultured Despisers Never Die: They Just Take New Names.

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On Religion: Speeches to Its’ Cultured Despisers was a witty and influential book by Freidrich Schleiermacher, first published in 1799.  Considered a sort of Ur-text for modern Protestant theology, Speeches tried to save religion from the sneers of thinkers who prided themselves on their Enlightenment views.  If you were ever a college student, you were probably a Cultured Despiser too.

There is a way, though, in which they never quite move on.  Today’s Cultured Despisers are the proponents of Scientism: the belief that science conquers all and renders the humanities and religion superfluous.  We’ve been through Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom I otherwise liked a lot) and we now have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist/linguist, who likes to think that what he does is “hard” science as opposed to the mushy thinking of lesser disciplines.

Pinker has been in the news increasingly because of his TED Talks and his theory, really, that the world is getting better and better.  We are the most “civilized” we have ever been. Not surprisingly, such a rosy evolution is due to Science and, in particular, the triumph of Science over Religion.  In Pinker’s words, “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken.” (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

While the notion that human beings are becoming ever less violent is a happy one, it seems belied by the facts of history.  It was last taken seriously as part of the pre-WWI belief in the inevitable triumph of progress.  Remember Emile Coue:  “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better?”  While I suspect that a theory of inexorable human progress is at least arguably un-Christian, the greater concern is Pinker’s mistaken assumption that religious fundamentalism is a justifiable stand-in for religion in general.* What is true, rather, is that science and religion both depend upon metaphor for intelligibility.

My real beef with Pinker is his belief that religion (contra science) is a closed system which cannot take in new discoveries or information.  Just as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the truth ought be accepted from whatever source it comes, so have Christian theologians argued that “the religion of the incarnation” cannot be hostile to new knowledge because truth is always an ally.   One of the earliest modern examples of this is the Anglican Lux Mundi (“Light of the World”), a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians in the late 1880s.

It simply strikes me as a silly (and banal) argument to be having.  Experiences of faith and awe do not fit neatly into categories or “non-overlapping criteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould once described science and religion.  The truth is that virtually nothing worth describing can be described without interpretation and metaphor.  Not love.  Not grief.  Not freedom.  Not art.  Not poetry.  Not music.  Not physics.  Not really.

When what we see exceeds our ability to explain (whether it’s redemption or the multiverse), we none of us give up our belief in ultimate intelligibility.  We continue on, probing, in expectation that the belief will be justified.  And that, regardless of which category we are overlapping, is called faith.


* The errors of fundamentalism ought not be mistaken for the errors of religion.  See Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013.

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For the Week of Pentecost 16: Beating People Up with Religion

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bent woman_2In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus is teaching in a town synagogue on a random Saturday — the Sabbath.  When a bent and emotionally crippled woman approaches him, he interrupts his teaching and heals her with the words:  “you are set free from your ailment.”  An indignant elder immediately hurries over to chastize Jesus for breaking the Fourth Commandment (the law banning work on the Sabbath)  — and in a place of worship, no less.

All Jesus has to say to the religious official is: “You’re a hypocrite” and the battle is joined.  He points out that the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy”) also provides that God’s people enable their animals and servants and any aliens under their roof to rest on the Sabbath, with the obvious effect that they should not be tied up or yoked or in any way unable to rest.  How, therefore, could it be against God’s law to unbind this woman on the Sabbath?

Most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ perspective here.  However, we ought not make the mistake of thinking the argument was really about what does and does not constitute “work” under the Fourth Commandment.  It might be worthwhile for us to reflect on examples in which we or our own church leaders use religious teachings to bind others or keep them bound — much as the good law against work on the Sabbath was used as a weapon against Jesus’ freeing a middle-aged woman from her sickness.

We know that some fundamentalist Muslims have used their Holy Scriptures as a justification for terrorism and murder.  But we should also remember that Christians have interpreted our Bible to justify all kinds of violence, as well as slavery and discriminatory treatment under the law of people outside the white, male, property-owning norm.

Jesus’ issues with the “organized religion” of his time had to a great deal to do with the application of religious laws — not for their original purposes of legislating humanity and compassion and justice — but to enforce the power of those who had it and collaborated with it.  Jesus, who routinely hobnobbed with women and other have-nots of his society, was a living rebuke to the political and religious authorities of his time.

What is amazing is how quickly his words and behavior can move from the safely religious to the unsafely political.  Relevantly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus cautioned that he came to bring division, not peace.  In the Bible, such division is reconciled by the Cross.  How do we reconcile the tender words of Jesus with the discordant effects they had then and still have when we apply them in real life?

Prophets in Ordinary Time: Checking In

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hoseaimagesThose of us lucky enough to have been introduced to the writings of the Hebrew prophets through the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel are elated that the lectionary readings at Sunday Eucharists — from now to the end of the year — include major snippets from those writings.  From Amos’ “Hear this, you who trample on the needy‚” to Hosea’s “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” we hear words of judgment on the deeds of the nations and the people’s apathy as they sit back and let it all happen.  And in the midst of judgment, we hear God’s words of passionate love and comfort, a promise of redemption and the rebuilding of the cities of our lives.

Their visions are poetic and dramatic and often startling.  They throw at us the “parade of horribles” that follow human collusion with corruption or indifference: wars, environmental degradation, damage to lives and loss of hope.  They also show us glimpses of beauty and relationship that are expansive beyond the limits of our own imaginations.  And they tell us that nothing is preordained, that God does new things.  Heschel said once that there are no proofs for God, only witnesses.   The prophets are such witnesses, and for Christians, the first to convey the powerful and living image of the incarnational God we know as the Christ.  Not surprisingly, it is they Jesus cited most often in describing the meaning of God’s kingdom.

If, as the prophets say, God is the One who hears the cries of the suffering and acts, we, clearly, are meant to do the same.  As the prophet Micah put it: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  We are meant to be the people who live by God’s values.

Have a blessed week.

Early Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

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This coming Sunday is TRINITY SUNDAY — the supposed bane of preachers and object of mystification (or outright rejection) to everyone else.  It’s not  spelled out explicitly in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Gospels and no one can really explain it.  The peculiarly Christian doctrine that the Divine Being we call God is three persons –conventionally described as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, to put it mildly, perplexing.  To get students over the notion that Christians worship three Gods, one professor suggested only that it helped to think of the Trinity as “one What and three Who’s.”  Unfortunately, for many people, that leaves the doctrine firmly with Alice in Wonderland’s ability to  “believe in six impossible things before breakfast.”

We’re going to celebrate it anyway — because, without the doctrine of the Trinity, we have absolutely no way of understanding our own spirituality and ethics and theology.  Without the Trinity, we lack a grammar* for even speaking of the God of  our own experience.   St. John’s claim that “God is love,”  expresses exactly what Christians mean when we call God Trinity.   But an even better expression, I suspect, is the ancient image of Trinity as a dance — a continuous weaving and outpouring of creativity and expression and self-giving among the members — and it is in that image that we believe human beings are made.  We live and we work out our salvation in the relationships of love we have with our spouses and families, with all the other communities of which we are a part, with the rest of creation, and most assuredly, with God.*

For wherever you arperichoresis trinity:razorplanete worshipping this Sunday, I offer the words of this contemporary Trinity hymn by Richard Leach:

“Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun — the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.  The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”*

Blessings to you.

*Thomas F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives (T&T Clark, 1994)

* E.g., Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Community and Christian Life (HarperCollins, 1991) or, my actual favorite: John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1997)

* Richard Leach, “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,”  (Selah Publishing Co., Inc., 2001)

Gospel for Insiders and Outsiders

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Jesus and the Canaanite Woman* (Pentecost 15A)

I am not preaching tomorrow and have the luxury of simply noodling around in a difficult text, i.e., the story told in Matthew’s Gospel about a woman who accosts Jesus while he is trying to take some down time from his own unbelievably stressed daily life.

If you know the story, then you know that the scandal of this invasion of Jesus’s privacy is not only that the accoster is female, but that she belongs to an inferior group of people – the Gentiles. Since most of us are Gentiles, we may not immediately realize what a bad and alien thing that is in Jesus’s particular First Century Jewish culture. Jesus’ disciples rudely prevent the foreign woman’s access to their group.

The woman responds to their jeers by shouting that she needs to see Jesus because her daughter is “tormented by a demon.” Jesus has a popular reputation for curing people of diseases and infirmities and she wants his help. Jesus answers by calling the woman’s people “dogs,” the woman seems to make a witty retort, and Jesus ends up healing the daughter because, he says, the woman has great faith.

That’s the story. And very often, in dealing with this text, preachers claim that Jesus was just kidding or that he was testing her, and, anyway, that the reference to “dogs” can be explained away and is not nearly as derogatory as it sounds. I’ve done it myself so I can quickly get to the punch line of how the woman’s insistence in addressing Jesus ultimately changed his mind about his mission.

The problem with deflecting attention away from the actual letter of the text is that it blatantly disrespects the word, treating it, as Augustine scholar Robert O’Connell once put it, “as a trampoline, [the] occasion for an impatient leap into the discarnate realms of spiritual interpretation.”**

The text, O’Connell argued, deserves respect. And so do the “real, historical things” dealt with in the text – the context, the town, the earth, etc. — which ought not simply be “sublimated into symbols.” Id. The fact that a biblical text offends our own sense of possibility is not sufficient reason to treat it as spiritual metaphor.

The truth is, this gospel of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is patently offensive and needs taking seriously because it is offensive to us. What Jesus says to this woman sounds racist. At best, he seems to have adopted a stereotyped bias against an “outsider” – non-Jewish and non-male – who is not entitled to respect or attention.

Moreover, and this also is offensive to us, the woman in the story debases herself by making a witticism to mask the insult of Jesus’ rejection of her personhood. I thought immediately of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late 19th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” which describes black people smiling to mask their anger.*** And I thought of how women, historically, often have played dumb or ditzy in order to have any power at all. The truth is, I suspect, that oppressed people smile and shuffle a lot.

What is interesting here is Jesus and I think of St. Paul’s comment that “he became sin for our sake.” Jesus is human, and therefore tribal, and therefore benefitting from the accidents of being Jewish and male in a society that values and rewards Jewish males: I cannot, he says, “take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” He will not, he says, take the salvation and healing intended for the Chosen People and dispense it to infidels and outsiders.

One of the reasons scholars are said to accept this story as true is because they think it is so unflattering to Jesus that it’s unlikely to have been kept in if it didn’t really happen. Ah, but it raises uncomfortable questions about our own place in this story. What, e.g., enabled Jesus to empathize with this woman who, moments before, was – as far as he was concerned — essentially subhuman? Was it her persistence in coming at him? There was a Stanford study reported by ABC News last year which concluded that people who are targets of prejudice confront a bigot only when they think the bigoted person can change. Is that what happened? Did she see his possibilities before he did?

Did this unnamed woman show Jesus his “dark side,” the Jungian Human Shadow that we are told we must all face if we are ever to understand our humanity and vulnerability to being outsiders? And is our own knowledge of suffering and victimhood actually necessary to acquire the gift of compassion?

I continue to ponder… .
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* Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-282.

** This wonderful phrase is from his 1978 article, “Art and the Christian Intelligence” (in St. Augustine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 138).

***  “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.”