Friday, September 21, 2012

A Rant Too Long for Facebook

OK, then, just this week I preached the following words in a sermon
Never ever ever read the comments on any even vaguely political article on any web site. Ever.”
I call that “David’s Rule for Internet Serenity,” and I went on to invite the community to refrain from cynicism and hate-filled rhetoric, to find gratitude in every possible moment, and to keep silent unless our voice improves whatever context or conversation we find ourselves in.
Then this morning, in a simple scroll through Facebook, I ran across this comment:
I think the point is that we should not be forced by the government to feed those who are unwilling to work for their food. I regularly give food to those in need, of my own free will. I don't want the government telling me how to spend the money that God gave me. Only God has that right.
As you might guess, the comment came in a response to a status posted in the wake of Mitt Romney’s ill-considered remarks about the 47-percent of Americans who, he said, “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
The comment, made at a fundraiser and leaked on tape this week to a reporter, reflects what is, in my experience, a fairly widespread belief among affluent Americans about the unwashed masses of poor folks. I’m not going to try to unpack Romney’s words or the misinformation imbedded in them. Lots of folks have already done so. You can find one excellent analysis at the Atlantic.
I am studiously avoiding the comments on any article about Romney’s remarks, and I’m just as studiously avoiding engaging on Facebook, a social circle I inhabit for fun and to stay connected with friends and family in distant places. Oh, sure, I’ll make the occasional snarky comment in response to a political statement from time to time, but I really try to avoid arguing on line because it goes around in circles and just makes me angry without changing anything other than my blood pressure.
Incarnational theology, if we take it seriously, should teach us that minds only change when hearts have been touched. Hearts don’t get touched in on-line arguments, they only get touched in face-to-face encounters and relationships.
Nevertheless, sometimes writing matters, if for no other reason than to clarify one’s own thinking. I do not for a moment delude myself into thinking that clarifying my own thoughts will clarify anyone else’s; and I cannot resist the snarky insistence that some folks’ thoughts need clarifying.
I’m not even talking about Mitt. I’m actually bothered more by the Facebook comment, and, in particular this part of it: “I don't want the government telling me how to spend the money that God gave me. Only God has that right.”
As I noted already, Mitt’s comments would make me angry if they surprised me at all, but the truth is he’s simply reflecting an attitude that is deeply imbedded in the consciousness of many wealthy Americans. I no longer have the capacity to be surprised by that.
But I remain constantly surprised by the notion that God is a heavenly ATM dispensing cold, hard cash to deserving souls and thus nobody but God can tell a deserving soul how to “spend the money that God gave me.”
To be honest, my first question is always, “where the hell is the line for that, ‘cause I gotta get me some!” Seriously, where is God handing out money?
I should also be fair and note that the Facebook comment does not say, explicitly, that the person is deserving, but I am going to extrapolate from the idea I so often hear in such arguments that “God helps those who help themselves.” Accordingly, a just God would not be giving out money to the undeserving, who, at least according to the gospel of Mitt, seem to believe they are victims entitled to food and are doing nothing to help themselves. 
I extrapolate because if God is just handing out money willy-nilly to any old soul lucky enough to know where the line is then the money is an undeserved gift, that is to say, a handout.
So, is God handing out gifts willy-nilly to any old soul?
In a word, "yes." Everything I have is a gift, beginning with life itself and a planet that sustains that life. We call it grace, and it comes in all kinds of forms. The God I know as the author of that life, the giver of the gift, the God of grace, has, in fact, already told me, as it were, how to spend what I’ve been given: give it to the poor. Scripture is pretty decidedly clear about that.
In a secular, more-or-less democratic society one of the ways we do that collectively is through public programs that support the poor. In an obviously different context, that's more or less the case that Calvin made in favor of civil government. There is plenty of room to argue about the best and most effective ways to do that, but to suggest that the government has no place in the process of providing for the least of these our fellow citizens seems, at best, unrealistic in a nation of 300 million people, and, at worst, a pernicious, selfish deception based on an equally pernicious self-deception.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Day of Atonement

This is from a sermon I preached five years ago this month. I just ran across it in looking through some old files. It struck me as remarkable appropriate for the present time, despite the obvious datedness of some references.
God looks across the vastness of God’s own creation at what human beings have made of it: what once was a luscious and verdant garden has become a dark and desolate space devoid of life – and we might take note of the fact that present-day Iraq is said by some to have been the home of the Biblical Eden. Thus the righteous judgment of God is plain: I have turned away and will not turn back. I will leave you to your own devices. You have made yourselves destroyers of worlds, now live with what you have destroyed. We can think of this on a geo-political scale or on scales more local and personal – from international relations to interpersonal relationships, from the betrayals of kings and presidents to our own acts of betrayal.
That is the judgment of God: to grant us the freedom to dwell in the hells of our own creation.
And perhaps the greatest sin of all is the choice that we make – over and over and over again – to remain there. We make an idol of our present pain and refuse to consider the possibility of a future otherwise. We trust in surges of economic or military might and are blind to any other power or possibility. Our myopia denies the gift of imagination that God has given us, and, indeed, denies the very God who gives it.
In spite of all of that, God does not stop in judgment, but acts with love and mercy to invite creation into redemption.
Indeed, the prophetic oracle to which Jeremiah responds appoints him not only to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow,” but also to rebuild and to plant. The city – the polis – has failed by every measure to live into the covenant community that God calls forth – the community of compassion and celebration, the community of shared suffering, shared burdens, yes; but also the city of shared wealth and resources and harvest and celebration. The utter failure to live into that vision – the vision of the commonwealth of the beloved – is the occasion for the prophetic pronouncement of God’s judgment.
God’s judgment is simply this: any city that fails to live into that promise, that vision of authentic community – any city that fails that project fails, plain and simple.
We live in just such a time; we live in just such a city; we live in just such failure; we stand under just such judgment.
Jeremiah’s words bear repeating:
“From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abominations; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord” (Jer. 6:13-15).
Let us say it plain, that the people may understand: from the least of us to the greatest we pursue the outrageous gains of speculative markets; we buy the i-thises and i-thats that, by their very names, underscore the market’s utter disdain for authentic community; we strive mostly to assure our own place on the ladder of success without blushing at the fact that our incomes are 45 times or more the median global per capita income and many more times more than that of the least of these our sisters and brothers in the global commons; and we sit idly by while our nation engages in wars fought to ensure that gap remains firmly in place – all while our leaders promise us “peace, peace, and security, security,” but there is neither peace nor security for we stand under God’s judgment.
But the story does not end in judgment. We are called, in the tradition of Jeremiah, to imagine a future otherwise, to imagine a new Jerusalem and to call it forth even at this late hour.
The pivot point arrives for Jeremiah at the moment he realizes that repentance is possible, that the present time may be redeemed and transformed because the future belongs to God. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” When that day comes, “then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy.”
Why such hope? How can such a promise be spoken in the midst of desolation? Because the future belongs to God – “to the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God,” as Paul sings in doxology.
The future belongs to the God made known to Christians in the one who welcomed the tax collectors and sinners into his presence; the one who understood the fundamental value of the least of his sisters and brothers in the household of God; the one who knew that no measure of worth or accomplishment or power or success makes anyone 45 times more valuable than anybody else; the one who knew that no surge in violence could ever bring peace in a world where some still champion economic and political systems that define such vast disparities of wealth as the just results of an invisible hand.
That very God calls us now to be quite visible counterweights on the scales of justice.
Our pivot point has arrived. Even in the present darkness, the time for light and more light has come. Repentance is possible and the present time may be redeemed.
A day of atonement lies before us.
Now the dictionary defines “atonement” as “reparation for an offense or injury,” and a certain conservative orthodoxy holds that such reparation was made through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. I don’t think much of that orthodoxy. I don’t like what it says about the possibilities of human life, I am disgusted by what it suggests about God, and I cannot abide the way it simply dismisses the life of Jesus as mere prelude to his death.
But I do like the word. I like the suggestion, imbedded in the word itself, that we can be at one with God, that our purposes and God’s purposes can come together in reconciling love.
That possibility is the pivot point upon which Jeremiah’s prophetic vision turns, and it can be the point upon which the present time turns as well.
How can I stand before you and make such a claim, given all I’ve just said about unjust economies and unjustifiable war? How can I stand here having laid out what can best be called the case of humanity’s fall, and suggest that redemption is at hand?
No logic can explain it, no calculus account for it, no economy comprehend it. This is a moment that calls for that larger perspective I mentioned at the beginning – a kingdom perspective.
For if we are who we say we are – children of a loving God; and if we believe what we say we believe about that God, then we must sing with the psalmist,
”The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations!”
The reign of God announces a profoundly different kind of kingdom, not so much about power as it is about covenant fidelity – about steadfast faithfulness, about a Godly power that is concerned not with the acquisition of more power but, instead, concerned first and foremost precisely about the condition of those with no power. Imagine our rulers putting such concerns first – imagine Republicans and Democrats concerned not with who controls the Senate but with how the hungry are to be fed, not with who will win the White House but with how the sick are to be cared for, not with the culture wars of Red and Blue but with how a just and lasting peace can be constructed. This is not to say that there are no important differences between the parties, but it is to call deeply into question their quite similar relationships to the question of power.
That same psalm that sings kingdom praises recalls the nature of God and of God’s power, telling us that this God “keeps faith for ever, executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow.”
We are called into relationship with this God. We are called to trust this God before any princes and rulers, any Democrat or Republican, and even and especially against the lure of so many socially constructed idols: militarism, consumerism and every other “ism” that tempts us to put our trust in something less than ultimate, something other than God. And we are called to put first in our lives the same concerns as this God puts first – precisely the concerns that all the false gods ignore or belittle: justice, welcome of strangers, compassion for the outcast and marginalized, shalom for all creation.
That is how we become at one with God. That is how we mark a day of atonement. That is how we live kingdom lives. That is how we claim for ourselves the promise of Jesus that the kingdom of God is among us, within us, here and now, in this very place at this very moment.
Trusting that truth, then, I am able to say confidently that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. And thus I trust that though the arc of the moral universe is mighty long, it does bend toward justice. Though the nations tremble under tumult of war, the time of the prince of peace is at hand. The time for peace is at hand.