The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”

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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.

Cultured Despisers Never Die: They Just Take New Names.

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imagine

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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Believing in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do:  believe in impossible things.

I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence.  Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance.   The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith.  Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.

ImageA few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades.  For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.

Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction:  distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.

What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience?  Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart.  When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble.  We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads.  We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score.  We have never had proofs.  We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.

Mother Teresa was a witness.  Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing  – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away.  “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.  In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love.  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights.  Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them.  Far more convincing is the sight of  “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses   That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.

Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things.  The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway.  And that makes all the difference.