the seven deadly sins, vi-vii.

Micah 6:6-14a
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city
(it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10   Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
and the scant measure that is accursed?
11 Can I tolerate wicked scales
and a bag of dishonest weights?
12 Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you ….

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Sermon
We’re down to the last two of the traditional seven deadly sins
and Gandhi’s seven societal sins, and we’re covering both today
so we can finish our series and
celebrate the John Duvall Mission Emphasis next week.
If you’ve been keeping track,
you know all we have left of the traditional seven deadly sins
are greed and gluttony,
which have always seemed to me to be pretty much the same thing—
one associated more with stuff, one more with food,
but both having to do with a never being satisfied with what you have,
an ever desperate need for more—for getting more—for consuming more,
and with some corresponding vague implicit undefined unnamed sense
that in some more lies hope or fulfillment.

We’ve been associating the traditional seven deadly sins
with Gandhi’s seven societal sins, and I tied greed
to commerce without morality.
Anyone take issue with me identifying
both sins as sins that undergird our economy?

And we could talk about how that’s manifest
in cutting corners to make more money.
We could talk about commerce without morality
as the logical extreme of deregulation.
We could talk about some of the most successful businesses of all
that do not pay taxes,
which are the cost we all share
for both facilitating and participating in the benefits of our culture, right?
But more and more I’ve been thinking about our economy as one
less about the services offered than the profits made.
Medicine is less about caring for people
than through caring for people making money.
Banking is less about helping people with their money
than through helping people with their money making money.
Insurance so much less about protecting people through unexpected circumstance
than through protecting people making money.
Too cynical? Never not been the case?
I don’t know. Seems to have been part and parcel of business getting bigger.
And if it all seems backwards to me, it’s not just me
because every commercial for every business touts the service
even while bottom-lining the profit.
I think that’s because we all have some sense
that service is supposed to be the focus—the priority.
Not that we don’t make money,
but that it is secondary—a byproduct.
Too idealistic?
Nowhere near as idealistic as claiming the market will regulate business.
Commerce without morality.

As is our custom, we also then consider the insights afforded us
by inverting Gandhi’s sin to a morality without commerce—
which I was thinking about much along the same lines
as the inversion from politics without principles to principles without politics—
the idea that we can passively accept the status quo
and think we honor our principles and priorities.
without factoring in economic realities and justice.
We’ve said it numerous times before:
the single most significant detail
when it comes to determining life expectancy in this country
is a zip code—which is an economic factor.
To think we can advocate for freedom, equal opportunities, and justice
without addressing economic inequalities is naive.

Which brings us to our prophetic text
which comes from the life and words and work of Micah,
an eighth century BCE Judean prophet
very much invested in the lives of ordinary citizens
who lived outside the swamp—the capital city—southwest of Jerusalem.
Micah and his contemporary Isaiah (who lived in Jerusalem) offer us
a “picture of a society where the rich and powerful use their influence
to exploit the vulnerable and to create even greater inequalities
of wealth and influence….
The economic situation of the poor was further aggravated
by [a defense budget] to hold off the threat from foreign empires …”
(Daniel J. Simundson in The New Interpreter’s Bible
The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 534).
That is, just to be clear, eighth century BCE Judah.

Our text comes from an imagined courtroom scene
in which God is the plaintiff in a covenant lawsuit against God’s people.
Having laid out what all God has done on behalf of the people,
comes the response:
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?”
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
It’s a progression of liturgical offerings and sacrifices
up to the religious equivalent of a record-setting stock market
and the sacrifice of children to the system.
Of course in the Bible, that’s recognized as absurd.
Not that there aren’t always those few who could afford and would attempt to bribe God,
but that the vast majority would recognize the absurdity.
Yet there’s a meme going around social media you may have seen
that highlights the backwards hopes and fears endemic to our own culture:
we are always three bad months away from homelessness;
we are never three good months away from being a billionaire!
And yet, we consistently protect the unlikely possibility of vast wealth
even as we increase the probability of poverty and homelessness.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

It’s not what you can theoretically do with lots of money if one day you had it.
It’s not symbolic acts in worship.
God names good the everyday life of the people
invested in justice and what’s right and humility.
Again, let me remind you, in case you were wondering,
this is the prophetic word for eighth century BCE Judah.

Affirmed throughout the prophets,
God listens and watches—
hearing and seeing not just the lives of God’s people,
but the various contexts in which those lives unfold.
And God cries out to the city:
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
and the scant measure that is accursed?
Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
“God cannot forget or tolerate the wickedness that is so prevalent,
particularly in the cheating, stealing and lying that goes on
in the name of commerce” (Simundson, 581).

I am most familiar with the lies told by the tobacco industry,
but who among us truly thinks the fossil fuel industry
is primarily invested in giving us the facts—in what’s best for us?

But the hard word is it’s not just what they are doing—
what big business is doing.
You cannot be a moral person in this or any culture
without careful consideration of your personal, local, and national economies.
Every budget is a highly moral document
and injustice in the marketplace—the wrong priorities in a budget
comprise the sin of a culture
for which all members of the culture bear responsibility.
We tend not to like that.
We want our goodness contingent on us—
not on larger social realities of which we are a part
that create and maintain profound inequities.

Also persistently affirmed throughout the prophets
is God’s response to what God sees and hears.
“Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you ….”
Sometimes called a curse of futility,
who among us thinks that’s something God does to us
and not what we’ve done to ourselves?
A consequence, not a punishment.
Sometimes what we call God responding in judgment is God naming judgement.
We’ll come back to that.

Then there’s gluttony which is what the church has largely turned faith into
when we consider Gandhi’s societal sin of worship without sacrifice.
Let me unpack that.
In the first century CE, someone wrote to the Ephesians in the name of Paul saying,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And I get it.
There is the need to acknowledge our limits
and to stress the initiative, power, and will of God for salvation—
especially in our rugged individualistic, privatized
culture-shaped way of looking at the world and so at faith too.
There’s something powerfully and fundamentally true about needing grace.
about admitting upfront, I can’t do this—can’t buy it—acquire it—
arrange it—coordinate it—enable it—facilitate it.

And so we sing, “Jesus paid it all.”
celebrating the uniqueness of Jesus—
who is who we cannot be and who does what we cannot do.
But then that significant, needed affirmation crosses a line
(like when a service becomes profit-driven)
a line in which everything gets turned back on itself in some twisted inversion of itself—
and even worship becomes just a matter of what someone else did for us—
someone else’s commitment—the risk someone else took in their way of being,
not about the commitment expected of us—
that same risk to incarnate that same way of being.

But how is that gluttony? you might well ask.
Jesus paid it all. Jesus forgives it all.
And so what difference does it make what we do and keep doing?
And we get more and more and more and more of the same
even as we affirm transformation—profess transformation—
and never change.
Long before the White House was naming and blaming
and practicing and preaching fake news,
preachers perfected the art of turning hard news that’s good
into cheap news that’s heresy.

Walter Brueggemann in an article called
“The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity”
identifies the “conflict between the narratives of abundance
and of scarcity” as “the defining problem confronting us …”
(https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/).

The world assures us if we worship scarcity,
we won’t have to sacrifice anything.
We’ll just have to buy and hoard everything.
And what we do sacrifice (though the world never tells us this)
is our peace—our well being.
The gospel assures us, asserts Brueggemann, we “can live
according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious,
frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home
and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.

But if you are like me, while you read the Bible
you keep looking over at the screen to see how the market is doing.
If you are like me, you read the Bible on a good day,
but you watch Nike ads every day.…

According to the Nike story,
whoever has the most shoes when he dies wins.
The Nike story says there are no gifts to be given
because there’s no giver.
We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves.
This story ends in despair.
It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality.
It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor,
the buildup of armaments, divisions between people,
and environmental racism.
It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves—a
and it is the prevailing creed of American society.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if liberal and conservative church people,
who love to quarrel with each other, came to a common realization
that the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance
can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity?”
Now that, my friends, is a prophetic word by an Old Testament scholar
aimed straight at us.

In conclusion, we invert worship without sacrifice into sacrifice without worship
to see what there is to learn.
My guess is Dad might say I’m reaching again!
But it is David Dark’s idea,
articulated in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious,
that we all worship—all make sacrifices to honor that one value or priority—
that controlling story to which our lives testify.
Yet we resist calling it worship; we resist calling it God.
We resist the idea that spirituality defines us too.
You may remember I mentioned the world asking us to worship scarcity?
Our culture asks us to worship stuff—
not anything in particular—just stuff.
Greed and gluttony are both symptomatic
of such worship—defined by the terrible fear of emptiness.
And fear is what makes those who are small
grasp for anything to make them feel bigger and more.

As we wrap up our Epiphany worship series on these sins,
we remind each other, yes, sin is heading down a way not God’s.
It is a way of fear and anger,
but sin is also the means by which we are invited
(through recognition—confession—repentance)
to intentionally choose to grow ever more into the way of God.

Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler,
was a young man when, as part of a delegation of leaders
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, he met with Hitler in 1933.
Niemöller stood at the back of the room and looked and listened.
He didn’t say anything. When he went home,
his wife asked him what he had learned that day.
Niemöller replied, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man”
(https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/).
1933.
Who are you going to follow?
Inasmuch as you can, make sure they’re not small and afraid.

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer
in his posthumously published apologetic Pensées wrote:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness,
[this smallness, right?] proclaim but that there was once
in [human beings] a true happiness,
of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This [they try] in vain to fill with everything around [them],
seeking in things that are not there
the help [they] cannot find in those that are,
though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only
with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God”
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)).

But don’t listen to Pascal.
Don’t listen to Brueggemann or David Dark.
Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to the Bible.
Just watch your screens.
Well, watch your screens with your mind turned on as well.
Commercials tell us our lives are empty.
Social media tells us our stories are empty—especially compared to others.
Popular media tells us our time is empty. Watch this inanity—this insanity.
Politics tells us to be afraid of them who want to take from us—
to be afraid if our guns are empty,
economics is too much about telling us to get more and more—
as much as we can to protect ourselves from
empty—empty—empty.

But God says, you were created full—
full of personality—
full of giftedness—
full of joy.
You were created to fill your time not with stuff
and not with stuff to do,
but with music and with stories and with relationships and conversations.
You were created to create.
You were created in the very image of God.
There is a fullness that overflows you enough to baptize all creation,
not an emptiness in need of any kind of filling.

Gospel is not about making the best just within the way it is;
gospel is rejecting the fundamental premise of the way it is
to be opened on another way to completely new and different hopes—
unfathomable without a fundamentally different premise of what is most real.
My friends, you were created full—full—full!

the seven deadly sins, v.

Psalm 52
To the leader.
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of mischief done against the godly?
All day long 2you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
4 You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.

5 But God will break you down for ever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
6 The righteous will see, and fear,
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 ‘See the one who would not take
refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’

8 But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
9 I will thank you for ever,
because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
I will proclaim your name, for it is good.

Sermon
Today is Sydney’s birthday.
17 years old. Hard to believe!
I asked her what she wanted for her birthday in worship.
That’s what you get asked if you’re a preacher’s kid!
She asked if we could sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”
I said, “Sure. Any other hymns you particularly like?”
“Be Thou My Vision.”
“You got it. Anything else?”
“Have a good sermon!”
Still not sure how to take that one!
I’ll do my best.
But you know (or do if you’ve looked at the sermon title)
that our societal sin today is politics without principles—
a societal sin I tied to the traditional sin of wrath.
You heard the psalm read—
the explicit exhortations against boasting and lying—
against treachery and trusting in money.

And I’m not going there, I said to myself.
It’s too easy.
Low hanging fruit.
Such very low hanging fruit.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to you, o my God.
And if I offend any of you today, well,
I hope I do so for the right reasons—or in the right way—
or within relationships and a community
in which I can fall miserably on my face!

I want you to know
I’ve been writing sermons now for coming up on thirty years
and I can tell you this is the hardest sermon I’ve ever written.
And I’ll tell you upfront, I may have failed miserably.
I have never written as much for a sermon that I cut—
which was appropriate—the right thing to do.
I wrote pretty much a political rant. Scrapped that.
It was a list of everything at which I take offense—
a lot of which is wrapped up in my values and priorities as a follower of God,
but it didn’t feel quite right.
Y’all have your own sense of how your faith
shapes your political expectations—your political hopes and fears,
and it’s my job to remind you you should,
but never to tell you how.
So policy is off the table …
except for policy that is unjust, cruel—without principles, right?
So I had a list of policies that I think are unjust and cruel,
but maybe that’s just my opinion—my interpretation,
and is a sermon the time and place to unload all that on you?
Plus, I couldn’t get through it without getting really angry,
and what’s our sin today?

And it’s true of every president—every administration:
their decisions and policies will have long-term consequences on people I love
and on God’s good creation,
But you’re not here to hear my assessment of political fallout,
as important and scary as I may think it is.

Nor are you here to hear my opinion of a man
who I think makes it quite clear what kind of man he is,
other than to say, “I will assume your eyes are open,
that you keep them open, and that you believe what you see.”

I have also had several tell me through the years
they would prefer not to know who their pastor votes for.
Politics is not what they come to church to hear.
And I get that—at one level.
And you will not know leaving today who I would vote for.

You get your political news from your preferred sources.
That’s not what you expect or want from me.
However, consider our inversion today
and as easy/as low hanging as politics without principles seems to be,
principles without politics is as much a sin and more of a challenge—
to think we can hold onto certain values and priorities—
to think we can claim the way of God—
and not have it necessarily translate into political investment.

Cornel West, son of a Baptist preacher,
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard,
asserts “Justice is love in the public square.”
a politically charged theological affirmation.
So principles without politics might constitute believing in justice, say,
but being unwilling to wade into the injustice of our justice system—
the mass incarceration of people of color in for profit prisons.
A principle might be believing in equality,
the lack of principle evident in being too comfortable
within the privilege of the systemic racism of our culture
to rock the boat.
The principle of particular political hopes
without caring what means are used to achieve desired ends.

Something I’ve told my classes,
“As theologians with integrity, there are no easy outs from the hard conversations.
In fact, it’s the hard conversations we often most need to have.
Not that it’s my job to evaluate your professions of faith (or your politics),
but it is my job to help you think through them carefully
and be able to justify them.
So here are things I’m telling you need to be justified:

the spiraling national debt (or to frame it differently:
the long term consequences of decisions made for short term gain),
the exorbitant amounts of money spent without question on violence
and the slashing of virtually any money spent to provide for the most vulnerable (and that is nothing new—that is our culture, not this administration),
cutting food stamps for the hungry while paying farmers not to grow food
“You don’t understand economics, John,” you might say,
and I will confess I do not understand economics,
but I know the taste that leaves in my mouth.
Those children separated from their families, put in cages,
without records being kept and the people making money off of them,
the prioritization of making money over offering needed services,
the people desperately trying to escape the horror back home
(in many cases exasperated by our country’s past foreign policies)
trying to escape horror and embrace freedom and hope
who are summarily sent back and killed
and “Oh, but we didn’t kill them,” seems—
totally inadequate.

And regardless of whether or not what he is working for is appreciated,
how he is has to be justified—how he treats people,
and “Well, he’s a little rough around the edges;” “He’s a brawler,
but he gets things done” does not cut it for me as your pastor.
Whether that’s his casual relationship with truth,
or the way he uses wealth as a bully—to not pay bills or to solicit dirt,
or the documented scams that promise money will go to a charity or to education—
whether that’s the way he mocks and denigrates individuals,
people groups, ethnicities, nationalities.
And if we have to argue whether he’s truly racist
or just using racist and white supremacist dog whistles,
I’m going to say the argument’s moot.

In discussions of whether or not he has the right and the authority
to do what he does—in debates about the legality,
what seems too much lost is the question, is it right?
Is it admirable? Is it noble? Does it make the world a better place?
Or are those antiquated questions of a time long past—
or a time that never was?

And what does it do, time and time again,
to have as the president a man we interpret to our children—
have to interpret to our children, over and over again,
“We don’t act like that; we don’t talk like that; we don’t treat people like that.”

Now maybe that was all too specific.
But how do we talk about something important without being specific?
Maybe it’s all skewed by my perspectives,
and maybe you have a sense of how all that can be justified.
Well then let’s have coffee. I promise just to listen!
I am fundamentally opposed to anything that might be called a bully pulpit,
and we can arrange a time and place to model respectful dialogue, opposing views.

Wednesday, Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic:
“We are living in the Era of Rage”—
which in light of our worship emphasis might be paraphrased:
“We are living in the Era of Sin.”
And I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious.

Stephanie Anthony, presbyterian pastor in Geneva, Illinois,
friend of a friend, was at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday.
Arthur Brooks, past president of the American Enterprise Institute,
a conservative think tank, spoke on forgiving your enemies.
Now remember, this was the day after the acquittal after the non-trial.

Stephanie wrote: “I appreciated one segment of the address that has been reported about at least on the New York Times website. Dr. Brooks asked for a show of hands of everyone who was in a relationship with someone they love, either friend or family, with whom they disagree politically. The report goes on to say that just about every hand in the room shot up, except the president’s. That was true. What came after that poll was the statement Dr. Brooks made that said (not a direct quote, but from my typed up notes and I’m too tired to go back and find it in a video online), “If this is not true for you, you live in an echo chamber.” His address went on to challenge us to get out of echo chambers, intentionally put ourselves in situations with people with whom we disagree, and get about responding in love as opposed to contempt which is tearing the country apart. I thought it was very well done.

There’s no other way to say it other than the president completely shifted the feel of the whole event. Shaking not one, but two different papers to an intentionally bipartisan audience who were present to unite in the spirit of prayer was taunting and disappointing. His address also took the content of the event in a dramatically different direction. It was no longer an encouragement about loving others, especially enemies, and instead became a justification for division, denial of other’s expressions of faith, and something that felt much more like a campaign rally than an address grounded in faith and the practice of prayer.
(https://revstephanieanthony.com/2020/02/06/spiritual-whiplash/?fbclid=IwAR0SSfU3SYA94gnGa4XJJqeOF4n5ZEk5P5PWmOuJzatkYgarQoXSSVSo15I)

One of the media’s go-to representatives
for the perspective of the evangelical church’s support of Trump,
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas,
in response to Trump’s vindictiveness said that Trump
“absolutely hates phoniness…and the president thinks
there’s something inherently phony
about saying that you’re praying for him
while you’re working 24/7 to destroy him”
(https://www.foxnews.com/faith-values/jeffress-trump-is-right-to-hit-back-against-pelosi-romney-on-phony-faith-remarks).

Oh, because Jesus was completely unaware
of the phoniness that surrounded him,
you know when he first taught forgiveness of his enemies.
He was completely unaware of Judas imminent betrayal—
oh, wait, no, he said something about that—
completely unaware of Peter’s imminent betrayal,
oh, wait, no, he said something about that too.

“After someone told Trump that Jesus commands us to ‘love our enemies,’
he asked Jeffress what the pastor thought about it.
‘I said, ‘Mr. President, to love your enemies means to want God’s best for them,
but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be unified with them. Truth divides people.’ ”
(https://www.foxnews.com/faith-values/jeffress-trump-is-right-to-hit-back-against-pelosi-romney-on-phony-faith-remarks).

He didn’t know that Jesus commanded love of enemy.
Someone told him.
That level of ignorance about Jesus
from someone who says he’s a Christian,
from someone supported overwhelmingly by the evangelical church is unfathomable to me.
Not not doing it.
Not knowing it.
This the darling of the evangelical church and of Mr. Jeffress.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing
but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits”
(Matthew 7:15-16a).
Obviously Mr. Jeffress and I are looking at different fruit.
What fruit do you see?

My friends, every colleague I respect is deeply suspicious of our president.
And maybe I’m in my comfortable echo chamber—
except it doesn’t feel at all comfortable to me.

Here’s the thing:
I grew up in Germany. Most of you know that.
And I have a deep and profound horror
of ever coming to the point where I would look back
and feel the terrible regret and shame of thinking I never said anything.
As a pastor, as one called to proclaim the way of God we see in Jesus,
I was silent as another way was chosen
and as the consequences of having chosen another way became apparent.

And what I see in Trump and in much of our culture is not of Christ.
It is not shaping a reality that is of Christ—
that shining city on a hill.
“That’s not his job” is a valid response.
But that criticism is my job.

Presbyterian hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
wrote a new hymn this past week
to the tune of “Lead On, O King Eternal” called “O God of All the Nations.”

O God of all the nations, your ancient prophets saw
that kings and institutions are not above the law.
Integrity is precious, and truth will one day stand;
Your way is peace and justice, and love is your command.

O God, when times are troubled, when lies are seen as truth,
When power-hungry people draw praise and not reproof,
When greed is seen as greatness, when justice is abused,
We pray that those who lead us will know what they must choose.

We pray they’ll gather wisdom and lift up high ideals,
To guide our struggling nation along a path that heals.
We pray they’ll have the vision to value each good law,
To put aside ambition, to seek the best for all.

O God of all the nations, may those who lead us see
that justice is your blessing, that truth will set us free.
Give all of us the courage to seek the nobler way,
So in this land we cherish, the good will win the day.
(https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-pastor-writes-new-hymn-following-wednesdays-impeachment/?fbclid=IwAR3jo4ykHsZPJXnMTePiRxxQMWylJKRj8_X4ioadOCiEKZj5TJBtFltAF9E)

A friend commented, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it
without getting snarky, but that’s really good.”
Maybe I’ve failed this morning. Failed you. Failed my calling.
Maybe I’ve taken the easy road of being snarky.
I know I did with that Dallas pastor.
But I didn’t mean to on the whole; I tried not to.
You see, I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious,
and there’s part of that that feels right.
How do we distinguish prophetic rage from partisan rage—
anger that’s appropriate from anger that is a deadly sin?

Etymologically the word “wrath” comes to us through Old English
from the Proto-Germanic meaning “strength.”
Isn’t that a good thing? God’s promise of assurance?
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid,
for I am your God; I will strengthen you …” (Isaiah 41:10).
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”
(Philippians 4:13).
“[T]hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength …
(Isaiah 40:31).
“[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of the power of God”
(Ephesians 6:10).

And yet our Scriptures also explicitly name strength weakness.
“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,
so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships,
persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ;
for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

So what is the strength of God?
We talk about the omni’s in class—
the traditional attributes of God:
omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable.
The classic way of thinking of God.
And I tell my class as I’ve told you before—told you regularly.
That’s not my experience of God.
In my experience, the strength of God
(and so the biblical idea of strength) is associated with love
and the persistent grace that does not leave you angry.
Oh, it might make you angry.
But it does not leave you angry.

He seems angry to me all the time.
Andy Lester was a professor of mine (and of my wife’s actually).
He wrote a book called Coping with Your Anger: A Christian Guide
(I’ve mentioned it to you before), a clinical study
in which he suggests anger is always the response to a perceived threat
that is then either appropriately or inappropriately expressed
You know, be angry but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
Trump must see threats all around him all the time.
He always seems angry—always blaming—always attacking—
threatening—because he never feels safe or secure.
And that is tremendously sad.
And it is too easy to come down on him,
without looking at ways we are responsible for him—
for what he represents that he is reflective of our culture and so of us—
what we have allowed—condoned—not confronted—resisted—
or not confronted and resisted effectively enough.
And as I’ve said, I am so consistently angry these days.

So where do I locate my anger? What do I claim as strength?
What do I identify as being threatened?
For him, I think it’s him. It’s always all about him.
I hope—I pray I see a way of being being threatened—
I pray I see other people being threatened—
values and priorities I hold dear—the way to which I gave my life.
And strength in that way does not lie in being mean—
in blaming others.
but rather in justice and grace and love.

It’s never that we’re to ignore what’s going on.
It’s never that we’re not to be angry,
but that our focus is not our fear in response to some threat,
but our commitment and our joy.
For we do believe ultimately
that fear and anger and violence (as much damage as they do)
are what the world sees as strength that God knows as weakness.
And I know that’s ultimately—
while most of us live much more immediately
and much more immanently than we do ultimately.

Sydney, I don’t know that I had a good sermon.
Not sure what I said—how I said it was good—was appropriate.
But I do believe that what I tried is vitally important—
that these are the conversations we avoid that we need to be having—
need to figure out how to be having.
Maybe today is nothing more than a lesson in how not to.
But when your child is celebrating her or his 17th birthday,
I pray the world will be a better place
because of us and not in spite of us—
because we chose to have the hard conversations—
to talk about the specifics—
and to grow in the strength of God
that casts out fear in grace and hope.

the seven deadly sins, iv.

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Sermon
Jesus is in Jerusalem.
In Matthew’s chronology it’s early in the week
that would come to be known as holy—
the week that began with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem
on the donkey and the colt,
that had him going to the Temple and raising a ruckus,
the week through which he stayed in Bethany—
presumably with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—
returning to the city each morning.
He spent a good bit of time at the temple teaching and telling stories—
even after the initial ruckus he raised there.
Staring down the consequences of his life and teaching that week,
he still had things to say, and in our text, he says
to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

Respect their position—respect the office,
the tradition, the story, the truths they teach,
but do not respect them, for they do not deserve your respect.
Their lives do not sync with what they teach—
with what you would expect from those in such office,
and you are not to respect anyone simply for the office they hold.”
The words of Jesus for the people of God.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
and lay them on the shoulders of others;
but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
They make others live with consequences they reject for themselves,
make others live in circumstances and with conditions
of which they know little, seek to know even less, and care least of all.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others;
for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
They love to have the place of honor at banquets
and the best seats in the synagogues,
and to be greeted with respect in the market-places,
and to have people call them rabbi.
They love being considered special—leaders—powerbrokers—
winners of the biggest game there is to play.

Amidst the great truths of which they are a part—
the great tradition in which they wrap themselves,
their lies are calculatedly costumed and choreographed—
carefully scripted
but their rhetoric as leaders is undermined
by the flexibility of their priorities
and the artificiality of their concerns.
Easy enough to understand simply as hypocrisy,
but I wonder if these are not so much the lies of hypocrisy we’re talking about,
as those of knowledge without character—
which I’m going to suggest connotes envy.
Let me tell you why.

Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. is the great grandson of Nelson W. Aldrich … not junior,
who was himself grandfather to the famous Rockefellers
and a leader of the Senate in his day,
“a Rhode Island grocer [who] entered the Senate in 1881 worth $50,000
and left 30 years later worth $12 million ….”
(https://people.com/archive/born-to-the-manor-but-not-to-the-money-nelson-aldrich-jr-reflects-on-matters-of-class-vol-30-no-13/).
His salary as a senator for that time (I looked this up)
was $5,000 a year—
though, to be fair, for his last five years it was $7,500 a year
(https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senate_salaries.htm).
Bribery is apparently something we as US citizens
have always tolerated in our politicians.

Nelson Aldrich, Jr.’s book Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,
that The Atlantic Monthly called “the best nonfiction book
about the American upper class written by one of its members
since Henry Adams’ Education” (op. cit. people.com),
includes this insight: “envy is so integral and painful a part
of what animates human behavior in market societies
that many people have forgotten the full meaning of the word,
simplifying it into one of its symptoms of desire.
It is that (a symptom of desire) which is why if flourishes in market societies ….
But envy is more or less than desire.
It begins with an almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself,
as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air…”
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Envy).

I have taken on the mission of reclaiming and celebrating nuance.
So, a little nuance for you this morning:
Admiration is viewing positively what another has or does.
Jealousy is missing what another has or does—
feeling its lack in your own living.
Coveting is wanting what another has.
Subtle difference there—missing focused on my lack,
coveting focused on what they have.
Envy is not just wanting what someone has or does or is,
but wanting them not to have it—do it—be it.
wanting them to be wanting.
That’s why envy is the deadly sin.

Steve Shoemaker, a former pastor of mine,
in a book he wrote about the seven deadly sins and the seven lively virtues,
put it this way: “Envy turns Paul’s instruction, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice
and weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12:15) upside down.
We rejoice when others weep and weep when they rejoice”
(H. Stephen Shoemaker, The Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome:
A New Encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues)
That makes of envy a mean-spirited emptiness—an insatiable vacuousness—
an idolatrous investment not so much in upward mobility—
a more elevated status—stature
(though that may be the language used)
as in a desperate pushing others down
that makes you feel taller even though you have not grown a bit.
An it-doesn’t-really-matter-how-low-I-am-
if-I-can-push-others-even-farther-down mentality.
Envy is the misguided attempt to feel better about yourself
not just amidst the misery of others, but due to the misery of others.

There’s a German word that’s been adopted into English:
Schadenfreude, a compound word from two words
that literally mean damages and joy—
taking joy in the damages another suffers.
And Schadenfreude is most often a symptom of envy.

While it may not always be immediately apparent,
it is always eventually apparent—
and it is never lost on the envious themselves,
that they are missing something—
something they didn’t get as part of their growing up
that they needed that they don’t see in their living.
Etymologically, our word envy comes from the Latin verb “to see”
and a prefix meaning “at,” “against,” or “not” or “opposite of.”
The envious see something vital in others they do not see in themselves
that leaves them constantly hungering—
longing—yearning—grasping—
desperately denying others in their envy.
And if they “succeed” (however that’s understood)—
the more they “succeed”—
the more they gain monetarily or politically—
the more people they mock or dismiss,
the more people they denigrate and blame,
because the more they know they are simply perpetuating
what made them feel empty to begin with—
ever acquiring but inadequate substitutes for what matters.
This is, by the way, one of the definitions of hell.

But you are not to be called rabbi,
for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
And call no one your father on earth,
for you have one Father—the one in heaven.
Nor are you to be called instructors,
for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

Titles and honorifics are not for you—
especially not ones that raise you above others.
It’s about humility again, isn’t it?
Knowing your place—not belittling your place,
but recognizing it.
The greatest among you will be your servant.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
And see there it is again—the truth of our God
and (supposedly) our faith
that envy turns inside out and upside down.
Envy thinks it can be exalted by humbling others—
mocking others—putting others down.

Our text is explicit though: all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted,
just as in our story unfolding as it did long ago in Jerusalem,
Jesus was exalted—Jesus was raised up—to die—
raised up on the cross,
and then Jesus was entombed—laid low—
in order to rise.

That is more than just the story of Jesus, by the way.
That is God’s truth—
reality envisioned and created by God—
really always being created by God—
and the way we are called to participate
in the ongoing shaping of reality—
which is not political.

There is no political Messiah.
There is no political Savior—
just politicians wanting to wear such expectations—
coveting the attributes of all powerful, all knowing, infallible—
wrapping their emptiness in religious language and imagery
in the envy that seeks to push even God down.

Which brings us to our Woodbrook twist on Gandhi—
Gandhi’s knowledge without character
twisted to character without knowledge.
Dad questioned this. He thinks I’m pushing here.
He thinks if you have character, you do not reject knowledge.
I don’t disagree,
but I’m reminded these days of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.
I showed his TED talk to my class and speaking of creationists
he said, “[T]hey were not stupid people at all.
I would wager that their IQ is exactly the same as the average evolutionist.
It’s just that their faith is so strong in this literal interpretation of the Bible
that they distort all the data to fit their model.
And they go through these amazing mental gymnastics to accomplish this.”
(https://www.ted.com/talks/aj_jacobs_my_year_of_living_biblically/transcript?language=en)
In like manner, I do not question at all that there are good people
who think very differently than I do—scripturally, theologically, politically, morally.
Some of them seem to distort the data to fit their model—
doing all kinds of moral gymnastics to justify themselves.
And I must remain vigilant, because I’m sure they say the same of me.
But I will not impugn the character of someone
who rejects knowledge … necessarily … maybe.
Though maybe that’s in theory.
Maybe Dad’s right.
Because it’s hard to affirm character
in someone who turns their back on the evidence.

Which in good timing brings us to how we’ve also been mentioning
what might serve as antidotes to some of these deadly sins.
One antidote to—or balance for envy is gratitude.
Have y’all seen these gratitude journals?—
formats for tracking gratitude in bullet journals?
Noticing that for which we are grateful—naming gratitude—
is a profoundly helpful discipline
when it comes to combatting envy—
that emptiness—
because gratitude has to do with fullness.

We do it every Thanksgiving, by the way.
Set aside some time to name specifics for which we are grateful.
Actually, real quick: think specifically of what are you grateful for.
Turn and tell a neighbor.

Gratitude. There is another antidote to envy worth noting.
Jim Somverville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
preachers’ camp member also preaching this seven sins series
in a different order though (which can be incredibly helpful!).
In his sermon on envy, Jim told the story of a former church member, Gordon,
with Cerebral Palsy, and he … got around in a motorized wheelchair
and communicated—slowly and with great difficulty—
through a keyboard attached to the frame.
One day we were having coffee and I asked him,
“Gordon, how do you do it?” by which I meant,
“How do you live your life with out being eaten up with envy
that everyone else has it so easy and you have it so hard?”
And slowly, and with much difficulty, he began to type out the answer.
“I don’t look around at everybody else,” he said.
“I look at my own life.” As we talked further Gordon explained
that, like everybody else, he had good days and bad days.
His benchmark was down here somewhere;
it took him two hours to get dressed in the morning.
My benchmark was up here; it took me fifteen minutes, sometimes less.
But Gordon wasn’t looking at my benchmark; he was looking at his.
And as long as he looked at his, he was fine.
“How was your day, Gordon?” “It was great!
It only took me an hour and forty five minutes to get dressed!”
(Jim Somerville, “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy,” Richmond’s First Baptist Church, January 19, 2020)

Look to your own life.
Find blessings.
Be grateful for all you have for which to be grateful—
not because of how it compares to what anyone else has.
Social media is no friend of gratitude
and serves jealousy and covetousness
and can lead to envy.

Earlier I referenced the story of Jesus that is more than just the story of Jesus.
So what specifically does Jesus offer us to help us live without envy?
I mean, doesn’t Jesus save us from our sins?
Except I tend not to think Jesus will save us from ourselves.
Tend not to think Jesus has a magic get out from under the influence of sin card.
I tend to think he shows us the way.
It’s his way.
But whether or not it’s ours is not up to Jesus, but up to us.

So we look to the story for its lessons—
its insight into truth—its transformative possibilities?
I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27), says Jesus.
The leader among you must become like one who serves,
says Jesus (Luke 22:26).
Lean into the assurance of God’s reality
more than … well, anyone else’s assurances.
Don’t work so hard to be exalted.
All anyone looking up at you sees is your … rear end.
Especially if you’re stepping on them to get up.
Stay with people where they are.
Look them in the eye so they see you in the eye too.

The biblical tradition in which Jesus was raised was one of humility.
One third of the answer to what God requires of us
is knowing our place—
knowing our great calling to participate in the redeeming of all creation,
while knowing at the same time we are not God.

Now that is a little more complicated when it comes to Jesus,
theologically speaking—Jesus who was God (John 1:1),
but that priority of—that commitment to knowing one’s place
holds true even of Jesus who did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped, but humbled himself,
obedient even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).

My friends, we may have different theories
as to why this is the case,
but I think it’s hard to argue that it’s not the case:
that our culture is focused more on empty than on full,
on scarcity more than abundance—
that our culture is more fearful than brave (despite our national rhetoric)—
more invested in me than in you and in us more than in them—
more emotionally reactive than thoughtfully responsive—
that we are too much too small and too violent, dismissive of others—
more interesting in dominating than relating—in blame than responsibility—
less interested in partnership than in power—
perceiving bipartisanship as weakness—
and desperately trying to name what is truly weakness strength.
Ironic, isn’t it? As arguably the wealthiest, most prosperous culture in the world,
we are also arguably one of the most envious ones too.
We have sought fullness in all the wrong places.
This is our legacy—or it is the legacy being shaped.
But it is not the priority to which we must bow.
It is the culture in which we move and breathe and have our being,
and shape us it inevitably does, but it must not define us.

For we as those on the way of God, are defined by a fullness overflowing.
We look and see an uncontainable, irrepressible abundance.
We are a profoundly grateful people
who think carefully and deeply and feel as deeply as we think.
Ours is the uplifting call to the work of raising others,
affirming and celebrating others,
of confessing our sins less in order to transcend them
as to learn through them how to grow,
blaming not others but responsible ourselves.
And while we may fall short—may regularly fall short,
we get up time and time again and we keep trying,
because really, who wants—who really wants the alternative?

the seven deadly sins, iii.

Isaiah 31:1-3
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
Yet he too is wise and brings disaster;
he does not call back his words,
but will rise against the house of the evildoers,
and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
and they will all perish together.

Sermon
We are considering sin this Epiphany season—
the seven deadly sins to be specific,
but sin as a focus through which we can grow.
I mentioned the fourth century monk who came up with a list of eight sins,
the pope who formalized the list.
There is also a tradition
that a list of sins emerged from the thought and meditations
of the desert fathers and mothers—
those ascetics who in the third century
withdrew into the Egyptian and Palestinian and Syrian deserts.

Pride is typically mentioned as the first sin—
the original, foundational, deadliest sin.
The seven deadly sins, as mentioned,
are sometimes called the cardinal vices
because all sins (supposedly) can be traced back to these seven.
Some say all of the seven can be traced back to pride.

But there’s more nuance to this conversation than that.
For at the same time, there is so much
of which we are justly, appropriately, legitimately, justifiably proud—right?

Each and every one of you is uniquely gifted
and I pray you will come to know both the joy and the pride
of fulfilling your potential and finding your calling.
I hope you are all proud of who you are,
of what you have accomplished and of what you have yet to accomplish.
I hope you are all proud of our children and youth—
of who and how they are
of what they are accomplishing
and of what they will accomplish.
I pray not only for all of us to have the drive
to be our absolute best—
to do what no one else can do,
but to also celebrate who we are
in our blessed uniqueness.
That’s pride.

In 2002 and 2003 the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press
asked seven noted writers, scholars, and critics to consider the seven deadly sins.
They asked Michael Eric Dyson to address pride.
Michael Eric Dyson is Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University,
and was ordained a baptist preacher at 19 years of age.
I read his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
a few years ago. An almost unbearably hard book to read, but so important.
Neal Conan interviewed him on Talk of the Nation
about pride and quoted from that book:
“Thinking too highly of yourself is a sin.
Thinking well of God and others,
and therefore, of yourself, is a sacrament.”

I have found that the sins are often listed
in conjunction with a supposed antidote,
and humility is often offered as the antidote to pride.
Okay.
Again, a necessary nuance.
We’ve talked before about the nuance of humility—
that it’s about knowing your place—
your place within community and within the world and before God,
but that it is absolutely not about not being your absolute best.

There is a pride out of knowing your place
that is more related to an appropriately healthy humility,
and a pride out of not being sure of your place
that is more related to the fear that stems from insecurity.
It’s vital to know the difference.
There is a pride that is strong, and a pride that is weak.
There is a pride that is a virtue and a pride that is a sin—
a deadly sin—many say the deadliest sin.

Everyone with me so far?
Because we’re going to switch gears now—
rather abruptly!

When I was thinking about the seven deadly sins
and Gandhi’s seven societal sins,
I associated pride with science without humanity,
and that famous line from the movie Jurassic Park:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could,
they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When I was thinking about Scripture to go along with that,
I thought of Isaiah.

We’ve noted before the rather precarious geo-political location of ancient Israel—
a small country plopped right down there between the world superpowers
to their south and north and east and west—
plopped on the main north south trade routes—
the main north south military routes.
We’ve noted before the strategic alliances the two kingdoms make
Israel and Judah, the northern kingdom and the southern,
to protect themselves—
aligning themselves with Egypt and Assyria.
In our brief OT text today, Isaiah cautions Judah (the southern kingdom)
against an alliance with Egypt in face of the Assyrian threat.
Assyria was a legitimate threat—
the imperial power that defeated—
that destroyed the northern kingdom
now to Judah’s immediate north—neighboring north.

But Isaiah is explicit.
Do not place your trust in military alliances.
Do not place your trust in military technology.
Do not place your trust in military strategy.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann
commenting specifically on this text speaks,
as he so often does, directly to us today—
which is a neat trick
speaking specifically about this ancient text …
“The prophetic oracle, in context, shrewdly understands the linkage
of military mesmerization and religious self-deception,
and calls for a complete reorientation of policy”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998] 251).

No one is denying the geopolitical realities.
Nor the psychological realities,
and the Greek word psyche from which we get psychology
meant breath, spirit, soul.
There is a spiritual reality at play here too.

“Judah must reverse course,” says Brueggemann of Isaiah’s word,
“abandon its reliance on Egypt and its devotion to military might as a mode of security.
The summons to repent is insistent and massive.
It is a call that Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being” (Brueggmann, 251).

We’re switching gears again.
At the beginning of each theology class I’ve taught—
which is not a lot—three,
but at the beginning of each one,
I’ve introduced the idea of an implicit theology.
Perhaps not what you say, but out of which you live your life.
To introduce that I refer to the first year college introduction to literature English class
in which the professor asks each student for the two books most important to them.
Says the one student, “My family’s cookbook and my family’s checkbook.”
And we talk about how our checkbooks and our budgets represent moral documents, and how, regardless of what the president says, budgets matter.

Our country’s 2020 defense budget is almost $740 billion—
which represents an increase of $20 billion from last year.
That is not counting 25 billion dollars in the Department of Energy
for nuclear weapons.
That is not counting almost 174 billion dollars in what’s called
the Overseas Contingency Operations Account.
That’s not counting 215 billion dollars in Veteran’s Affairs,
almost 70 billion dollars in Homeland Security
and 80 billion dollars for intelligence—
all of which adds up to one and a quarter trillion dollars.

Now I am not one to dismiss the need for a military budget in our kind of world.
But, you’ve heard this before, I’m sure:
our defense budget is more than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia,
the United Kingdom, and Germany’s combined.
I do question that.
Morally.
Theologically.
Scripturally.
Fiscally.
The Pentagon has failed its audit two years in a row—
can’t or won’t account for 21 trillion dollars
that cannot be traced, documented, or explained
from the years between 1998 and 2015.

And I cannot tell you how sick and tired I am
of hearing so very little relevant, meaningful, public discourse
from politicians and religious leaders
about whether or not we can or should afford to go to war—
whether we can or should afford that drone strike against the so-called high value target—by this administration or the last one—
conversations that never come up when it comes to war,
but is all we hear about when it comes to social programs
designed to help specifically those people
for whom God tells us we are particularly responsible.
Then that’s all we talk about.
Sin.

“Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being”
says Brueggemann says Isaiah.
That’s the Bible. That’s our sacred text.
And preachers can do interpretive gymnastics all they want.
That’s pretty clear.
Who do we become if most of our discretionary income as a country
goes to military ends?
How does that shape who we are?
What does that say about who we are?

We’ve been twisting Gandhi into an inversion of itself
to name some of our systemic sins.
Today’s inversion would ask us to consider not just the sin
of science without humanity,
but the sin of humanity without science—
the sin of not using our brains—
of rejecting what research and analysis can teach us—
how it can guide us in decision making—
policy making—priority setting.
To ignore scientific evidence is as much of a sin against humanity
as is using technology without giving careful thought
to what is humane.

It really is the two kinds of pride, isn’t it?
The pride that is really fear and thinks all it needs is might—
the pride that is afraid of what is other and new and different.
And the pride that is the drive to grow and learn and improve.
The sin of pride and the virtue of pride.

Our prophetic text seems to state
that God will act against those who trust in military technology.
That is a way of talking about God
designed to protect a sense of God’s power—
of God in control,
which seems counter-intuitive to me.
You know this. I’ve said it before.
God is not in control.
I mean we claim God is in conversation and relationship with us,
and if God is control, that cheapens every affirmation I just made
about conversation and relationship.
Who among you would dare speak of control in their most significant relationships?
If God is in conversation and relationship with us, God is not in control.
But at the same time, I have no doubt that the decision
to fundamentally trust in military strategy
versus fundamentally trusting in God
will fundamentally shape those who do the trusting.
I do not believe God will destroy someone
who places their trust in—who gives their allegiance to power,
but who someone becomes in making that allegiance
destroys what is godly.

In the ancient sacred songs of the people of faith,
as recorded in the book of Psalms, we read
“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses
(the military technology of the day, right?),
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God
(Psalm 20:7).

There you have it—pride and technology—
pride and power,
and pride and God—
pride in humility—in the right order to creation—
set before you this and every day.
Choose life and life more abundant.

We’re switching gears one last time!
I found some statistics. I tried to double check them—
because that’s what you need to do these days!
Back in 2000, Google processed 14 billion searches a year
or 32.8 million searches a day.
By 2010, that number had risen to over a billion searches a day.
1.2 trillion searches in 2012—3.2 billion a day.
Last year Internet Live Stats estimated Google processed over
63,000 searches a second, around 5.5 billion searches a day—
around two trillion last year.

Starting in 2010 Google started putting out a year end search video
early in the new year for the previous year
offering a summary of what was most searched in that particular year
based on Google search, Google news and YouTube.
So for last year:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRCdORJiUgU

So if I may be so bold as to summarize that summary:

We have an innate sense of who our heroes are—
of what is heroic,
and we are so very proud
of those who drive themselves to be their best—
who accomplish things so many of us can only dream about—
who are so impressive—
physically, mentally—emotionally.
But what makes me a little teary, watching this video,
are the heroes who have a sense of how we’re in this together—
a sense of the value of relationship—
not just with loved ones but with anyone—everyone—
who have a sense of what is good and what is right.
And when they act on this,
it’s powerful and beautiful,
and they often seem a bit stunned by the attention.
We just did what we had to do.
We just did what was right—
not to be proud—not to get to boast—not to take credit for—
not for extrinsic reasons but for something deeply intrinsic.
We know.
Deep down we know.

We know building people up is heroic.
We know caring about the vulnerable is heroic.
We know that meeting needs is heroic.

So go do what’s right.
It matters what’s right,
and deep down we know—
we know what’s right; we know what’s needed,
and living life for something bigger than ourselves is the hero’s journey.
It is not mean.
It is not fake.
It is not manipulative.
It is not exploitive.
It is not petty.
It is not in control.
It is in love.
That is the measure of a good day—of a good life—
of which to be so very appropriately proud.
For the love of God, my friends, do not settle for anything less.

the seven deadly sins, ii.

2 Samuel 11
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ 4So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’
6 So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ 11Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ 12Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15In the letter he wrote, ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ 16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. 18Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 19and he instructed the messenger, ‘When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, 20then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, “Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?” then you shall say, “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.” ’
22 So the messenger went, and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23The messenger said to David, ‘The men gained an advantage over us, and came out against us in the field; but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall; some of the king’s servants are dead; and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.’ 25David said to the messenger, ‘Thus you shall say to Joab, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.” And encourage him.’
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord ….

Sermon
It is a very dangerous thing for me
as a white man—
a middle-aged white man—
to say anything about lust
that might in any way come across as an excuse—
a justification
for abusive behavior.

Nothing excuses or justifies
treating another person as an object.
Nothing excuses or justifies overlooking the wholeness of a person.
Nothing excuses or justifies acting as if a person
doesn’t have their own desires and needs—
as if the way we treat others does not have deep and lasting consequences.
Nothing excuses or justifies using power to strip another person of their dignity.
Pleasure without conscience.
Is that pretty clear?
And yet we’re all part of that all the time.

Cameron Russell has been a Victoria’s Secret Model
and has walked for Versace and Chanel,
posed for Vogue,
been the face of Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co.
She knows something about being objectified.
It goes with the territory.

In a 2012 TED talk that’s been viewed over 30 million times,
she shows side by side pictures (it’s fascinating) and comments,
“This is what I looked like with my grandma
just a few months earlier.
Here’s me on the same day as this shoot.
My friend got to come. Here’s me at a slumber party
a few days before I shot French Vogue.
Here’s me on the soccer team and in V Magazine.
And here’s me today. And I hope what you’re seeing
is that these pictures [the modeling pictures] are not pictures of me.
They are constructions, and they are constructions
by a group of professionals, by hairstylists and makeup artists
and photographers and stylists and all of their assistants
and pre-production and post-production,
and they build this. That’s not me”
(https://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model/transcript?language=en).
They build this. That is not me.
The language of objects.

And the language of our economy—
the assumptions and presuppositions endemic to our culture.
We all know sex sells.
This deadly sin of lust—this cardinal vice—is profitable.
So we turn a blind eye to the leering eyes and the dead eyes of those who know they’re being leered at.

Lust is not the only profitable sin.
Envy is the basis of most marketing and entirely too much social media,
but we’re not talking about that today.
It is a terrible theological observation and insight though:
sinfulness is consistently overlooked for money—for greed—
but we’re not talking about that today either.

We are those, however, who should be those pointing out to our children—
to our youth—to each other—
these constructs—these constructions
in our magazines.
We should rigorously be pointing out
how much masquerading as real is fake.
That’s not always easy or comfortable.
I remember a sexologist once telling me,
“If you come across your child watching porn
consider sitting down and watching with them—
making them stay there as you watch it with them
and point out to them everything that’s fake.”
Make you feel queasy?
But if you keep thinking about it for a while,
doesn’t it make a kind of profound sense?

The church has failed our children by in large
by being unwilling to talk explicitly about sex.
We’re pretty good at condemning pleasure without conscience,
but we don’t say too much about how in good conscience—
in relationship and commitment,
sex brings great pleasure as God’s good gift.

Too much we let the world spin its fantasies
and market them as what’s real
because we’re simply too embarrassed to be honest.

Part of our job as parents though—
our calling as followers of God in the way of Jesus
is a persistent questioning of—
confronting—rejecting—so much of the status quo
so much that is constructed and fake and one-dimensional.

It is our sacred calling
not to allow fake posing as real to go unnamed and unconfronted.

King David’s not himself in our text today—
or he’s not who he used to be.
for in the spring of the year, we read,
when kings go out to battle,
David sent Joab and his servants and all Israel against the Ammonites,
but David remained at Jerusalem.

He used to be at the forefront of the fighting—
so much so, we remember, that he would get all the credit.
Just back in chapter eight, we read
that David defeated the Philistines (2 Samuel 8:1),
and David defeated Moab (2 Samuel 8:2),
and David defeated Hadadezer (2 Samuel 8:3),
and the Arameans (2 Samuel 8:5), and the Edomites (2 Samuel 8:13).
I mean aren’t you just a little bit suspicious
when you read David killed eighteen thousand Edomites?
What did he cure cancer too?

So what has changed?
It may be that David has changed—
no longer in his prime.
Maybe a medical condition affecting his legs—an old war injury.
Maybe he had to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was, in fact, encouraged to stay in Jerusalem.
Maybe he was more important in Jerusalem now as king and symbol
than to be risked on the front lines.
And maybe it started back in chapter ten
where we read that Joab led the fighting
against the Ammonites and the Arameans,
and David didn’t even appear until the end (2 Samuel 10:17-18)—
until after the enemy was actually said to be defeated (2 Samuel 10:15).
Had to have been hard—relegated to the sidelines.

And if you have always received external validation—
validation for your good looks—
validation for what you’ve done—
what happens when you lose those looks?
what happens when you can’t do such deeds anymore?

Again, not excusing anything. Just observing—
and finding a word for us all.
Growing up—maturity—is, in part, for all of us,
the movement away from purely external validation.
We admire—our culture admires, as David’s did,
the external victories, the obviously impressive.
And we need to cultivate a greater appreciation—
we, as the people of God, need to cultivate a greater appreciation
of the more subtle, the less obvious victories—
the work of realizing and accepting the importance of every individual—
of administering justice and equity to all people.
And as we work to become more mature,
maybe our so very immature culture can too.

Awakening in the late afternoon, we read
(and what’s up with that? indolence? or bed-ridden?)—
awakening late in the afternoon,
walking on his roof, David saw a woman bathing,
and she was very beautiful.

The immediacy of such situations can short circuit thinking—
bypass perspective and priorities and beliefs and standards.
Lust can feel right. It feels important. It feels good
and natural and thus justified.
Everyone hear that?
Just because if feels right, does not make it so—
especially perhaps when it comes to lust.
And lust for what?: a fantasy of what sex might be,
a fantasy of what more money might be,
a lust for power—for control,
of forcing people to respond to you?

One servant said, “That is the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah.”
In the midst of objectification, the relational reminder:
she is in relationship with others; she is the heart of two families.
But David sent for her nonetheless,
and he lay with her.
This is wrong on so many levels.
This is sexual abuse; it is the abuse of power.
It is the betrayal of David’s anointing as king
and calling as shepherd.
But that’s why this has to be a David story—
a story of the hero—of the man after God’s own heart.
And there is no excuse—no justification.
That needs to be the unequivocal voice of the church.
when power (personal, political, or ecclesial) is abused.
It is critical for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus
to prophetically condemn abuse.

Our story’s even worse than we supposed
as we remember, she was in the bath purifying herself.
She was cleansing herself in obedience to the laws of God.
David saw her in an expression of her faithfulness
and took her as an expression of his own faithlessness,
and as she was cleansing herself,
in accordance with the law after her period,
she was at the time most likely to conceive, and she did.
And she who had been sent for—
she who had been the one unknowingly spied upon,
brought before the king and taken,
she who had been passive before the power of the king—
acted upon—now takes the initiative
and sends word to the king, “I’m pregnant.”

David, in his fear, and in his arrogance—
attempts to continue to be in control of people and consequences.
He sends for Uriah, her husband, one of his elite fighters.
He sends for Uriah, just as he had sent for Uriah’s wife,
and asks for an update from the battlelines.
We lose it in translation.
In Hebrew David asks about the peace of Joab,
the peace of the army and the peace of the war—
three repetitions in Hebrew of the word “shalom”—
David asking about what he is in the very process of undoing.
Sin undoes shalom.

David tells Uriah to go home and to wash his feet. Uh hm.
You know what that means, right?
Go home and sleep with your wife,
so when she says she’s pregnant,
everyone will think the child is yours.
But Uriah thinks of the suffering of his fellow citizens,
the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers,
and proclaims it isn’t right for me to take advantage
and to enjoy what they can’t.
As you live, as your soul lives, I will not.
Of course, we’re now wondering about the state of the life of David’s soul, aren’t we?
David’s first attempt to cover up fails in face of Uriah’s honor.

David commands Uriah to stick around another day
and gets him drunk and tries to send him home again,
but he just wouldn’t go home and wash his feet!
David’s second attempt to cover up fails too.

Things continue to get worse.
David asserts his authority—his power, again abusively,
and has Uriah himself take the message to Joab back on the battlefield—
the message to have Uriah sent into the worst of the fighting
and to withdraw the other troops so Uriah would be killed.

David inserted himself in Uriah’s place with Bathsheba,
and then placed Uriah in what had been David’s place—
at the forefront of the fighting.
Uriah doesn’t survive. He’s no David.
But neither is David—not in this story—
even as he now thinks his third attempt at a cover up succeeded.
And that’s just it:
we can’t ever not remember that this is David.
Shepherd boy David. Hero David. Beloved of God David.
Greatest king of Israel David.
No excuses. No justification.
But some sense of cognitive dissonance
in the unfolding of the greater truth of the man.
And so we continue to chew on this idea of sin—

sin as less an expression of self —
or the imposition of self —
of personality or tendency —
or even of evil — of wrong — of bad,
but rather the sad reflection
of a self missing some section
of itself.
To consider, for example, the seven deadly sins:
lust, for example, reflects
a deep longing for connection —
for a legitimacy of intimacy,
and greed, a need
to try and ply the emptiness inside
with enough of some stuff to fill it,
and gluttony’s just a particular way
of trying to fill that void
none of us can avoid.
Sloth is being overwhelmed at
and paralyzed by potential —
which then never becomes experiential,
and pride and wrath
put either too much on yourself
or on another—indicative
of a loss of balanced perspective
manifest in too much boasting or too much invective.
Envy reveals a lack of assurance or confidence
regardless of prominence or competence.

So what if we were to think of sin as emerging
not from the bad someone is or even does,
but from their suffering and pain —
their grief and deep uncertainty.
What if a sinner is an empty person
we’re tempted to fill with our own anger
not to have to face our own empty inside
from which we hide or through which we grow.
What if sin is so not supposed
to lead just to anger but also to empathy,
not just rejection, but also affection —
to see in another’s hell
the struggle we all know all too well.

Sin is supposed to constitute a challenge
to both the one who sins
and the follower of God in the way of Jesus,
and everyone wins only if no-one loses.
For the one, the sinner, sin is the challenge
not to excuse or justify behavior,
but to grow through experience.
For the other, the follower of God,
the challenge of sin is not to excuse or justify
any sense of separation—the feeling of being
any different than—
to always remember,
“That is something I would could do too.”

What if sins are signs pointing to that
for which we were created
that we’re missing.

The Greek word for sin, you remember,
comes from a verb meaning to miss the target.

There is supposed to be a deep pleasure
integral to living out our conscience in relationship and commitment,
and a terrible loss to pleasure without principle.

It’s not excuse the sin.
Heaven forbid.
It is critical for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus
to prophetically condemn.
It’s not the cliché hate the sin, love the sinner,
because I’m not even sure what that really means—
other than that it makes it all about them.
It’s not extenuating circumstances
(because extenuating implies justifying and condoning
and we’re not doing that),
but it is the discipline of seeing a more holistic context—
for the person who sins,
and the systems in which we all turn our blind eyes to sin,
and for the temptation to feel like we’re different than they are—
a more holistic context that includes
holding on to clear perspectives on what is unjust
on what is exploitive on what is abusive
but with love and grace for us all.

It’s as Bryan Stevenson,
the lawyer who wrote the book Just Mercy
(which you should read)—
now out as a movie (which you should see)—
it’s as Bryan Stevenson said,
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Have I been explicitly, crystal clear?
Because it is a very dangerous thing for me
as a white man
a middle-aged white man
to say anything about lust or sin
that might in any way come across as an excuse—
a justification
for abusive behavior.
But it is also a very dangerous thing for anyone
to set themselves up as judge
thinking themselves to be anything other than a sinner themselves.

May we walk the line
in the manner of the one
in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
full of truth and grace—
and never the one at the expense of the other.

the seven deadly sins, i.

1 Kings 21:1-24
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ 7His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
20 Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; 22and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. 23Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” 24Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.’

When I mentioned to my wife
that we were doing an epiphany worship series on sin,
she paused and then asked, “Why?”
“Well,” I did not say, “you were the one to suggest it.”
“Not for Epiphany,” I imagined her responding.
To return to the conversation we actually did have,
she said she associated sin more with a Lenten theme.
Fair enough.

As we were brainstorming worship possibilities last summer though,
it was she who suggested the seven deadly sins—
which made me think of Gandhi’s seven deadly societal sins—
which brought me to our twist on those—which we’ll get to.

It was Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
who spoke many years ago now at Preachers’ Camp
of Epiphany as a season of gradually dialing up the light.
Does awareness of deadly sins, I wondered,
allow us to—help us—dial up the light?

So some initial thoughts on sin. Fun, huh?
To get some thoughts on sin out on the table,
I’m going to read you an excerpt from a play with which I’m playing.
I do use a form of rhyme scheme
to acknowledge up front the illusion of drama
in order within what is then acknowledged as artifice
to be as real as possible.

BETH
It only recently struck me,
that in all our conversations,
with all their important, theological implications,
we’ve never really talked about sin.

KATE
Interestingly true. You begin.

BETH
Okay. Well, in many if not most
traditional Christian
faith affirmations,
sin is the crime;
judgment the verdict, the punishment,
the sentence, the time.
So in those traditional Christian
faith affirmations,
sin becomes the explanation
for the circumstances we hate.

KATE
Which feels like it should be
more up for debate:
sin as the motivation
for God’s retaliation
against what we did wrong
that we all along
have also called judgment.

BETH
Makes of God, whom we call forgiving,
someone who, in a weird way,
is grace outliving.

KATE
Ha! Eternity
gives God the opportunity
to outlast who we claim God to be.
Ah the irony
in the teaching of the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
who said forgiving seventy times seven
was the way to heaven
unless you’re God apparently on judgment day
and you damn people to hell —
making of God an unsurpassed
iconoclast.
I am that I am until I am not —
that’s an affirmation
with consequence fraught.

But. When it comes to tradition,
it probably comes
as no surprise to you
my lack of inhibition
to making an addition or two.

BETH
Interestingly true!
Please do
go on.

KATE
Alright, so first,
sin is supposed to be confessional
not judgmental,
which makes it both harder
and more relevant —
which is often the elephant
in the room
given the frequency with which
sin is directed toward them
from which focus stem
all kinds of problematic issues —
all from such terrible misuses of sin —
which, secondly, in my view
is only partially what we do —
and also partially what we’re part of
that we condone
that then owns us —
and that is its own consequence —
a shallowness —
a disconnectedness —

BETH
a wretchedness.

KATE, nodding
Not divine retribution.
That’s an intentionally misleading
confusion —
in the substitution
by the institution
of control
for the goal
of transformation.

BETH
Whoa!

KATE
And sin . . .

Pause

like circumstance, I guess . . .
is supposed to represent
a thin place —
a means of grace,
not the weight
that determines our fate.

BETH
That almost sounds like you think sin
should be helpful —
for the self full
of a desire to grow.
You know,
less frightful
than insightful.

KATE
Precisely. Befriend your sin,
and love you as a sinner.
Sports teaches us
that’s how you become a winner —
allowing what you’re not good at
to focus your workout —
inwardly in this case, on yourself,
not outwardly on anyone else,
and not in condemnation,
but in reflection
ever seeking illumination —
contemplation leading to the selection of change — or growth —
or both.

Sin is part of the conversation
about circumstance,
but as a future-oriented way
through it
not as a past explanation for it.

BETH
And in such a view,
sin is not to blame —
not meant to shame —
supposed to offer
a transparency
for those in errancy —

a transparency to possibility
through responsibility —
the movement from culpability
to capability.

KATE
But according to too many
sin becomes this catch-22,
and it’s a trap
I still fall into too —
in which sin is no longer what we do —
the choices we make,
the actions we take,
but some demonic power
that overtakes us
that we cannot resist
that insists
we necessarily fall short
of God’s expectations,
and sin becomes an inevitability
to blame
instead of a tendency to tame.

BETH
And so then,
in terms of us and them,
when we fall short,
it’s our faith we contort
sin to blame.
But when they fall short,
we excoriate them in shame,
and put them to blame.

KATE
And there’s the true demonic power
at work
that in our own theology does lurk:
sin creating not just
the opportunity for
but the tendency to
excuse us and blame them.

BETH
I tell you though,
it’s hard to get traction
for a theological view of sin
without a faction
you can blame.
That’s too often how most
play the religious game.

KATE
Sin is supposed to be like
one of those fitness apps
into which your caloric intake
is added (honestly)
and the number of calories you burn
is not padded (dishonestly)
and the more honestly you see
and enter your information
the better you can plan
for your health reformation.

I’m not saying a focus
on individual morality
is not an important priority —
powerfully illuminating
and challenging and necessary.
Just saying that’s not so much
that about which
the prophets of old
were caring.

To make sin just a matter of morality
is to shrink it
to I need to do better
or more likely you need to do better
instead of thinking we are at fault here
and need to make changes

I wanted to talk about sin without being negative—
contextualize sin without having it be a downer—
certainly without being judgy—
considering sin as a signpost to greater grace and more light,
and within such a framework consider the seven deadly sins,
also known as the cardinal sins
or the capital vices (which I always thought were in DC!)
which are not ever listed together in the Bible.
They are actually traced back to a fourth-century monk
who made a list of eight in Greek,
revised and translated into Latin,
formalized by Pope Gregory I in 590 CE
after he combined a couple and added another to get seven.

They were incorporated into Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
(though he used the term capital vices—
because he sees every other sin coming from these seven).
They were taken for granted by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales,
by Dante in the Divine Comedy,
and by Billy Graham, who did a study of them
through a series of sermons on the radio
that was turned into a book.

Gandhi’s list of seven social sins or societal sins
goes back to October of 1925,
when he published the list in his weekly newsletter.
But it actually goes farther back to March of that year
when it was preached at Westminster Abbey
by Frederick Lewis Donaldson, an Anglican priest.

The first of Gandhi’s societal sins we consider is wealth without work.
Maybe you, like I, think of criminals,
whose goal is to take advantage of the work and wealth of others.
I do also think of those born rich,
and I know it’s not their fault,
and some of them, I’m sure, are admirable people,
and some of whom are spoiled rotten
by having had wealth handed to them and never having had to work.
I think of those who exploit the work of others
and how much that is a part of the economic system that seems to be.
King Ahab of Samaria in our Scripture reading this morning
fits all of those categories.

So thinking of wealth without work
and thinking of the seven traditional sins,
sloth is the traditional sin that I picked
to go with Gandhi’s wealth without work.
Sloth is the only one of the seven sins
Dante does not describe as a perversion or corruption
of a good gift of God.

Sloth is traditionally associated with laziness.
According to Merriam-Webster
the primary definition of sloth is a disinclination to action or labor.
Synonyms include indolence, idleness, inertia, shiftlessness.

Derived in part from the Latin, acedia, meaning without care,
sloth is also a not caring—a whatever kind of attitude—
an apathy.
It’s also a being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis—
by to do lists bigger than can be accomplished in a day, or week or month—
by news cycles that never stop.
It is a restlessness.
And it is also a caring more about the good than the better
and more about the better than the best.
That’s hard.

So we have the traditional sin, sloth.
We have Gandhi (or Douglas’) sin of wealth without work.
Then there’s our twist
I suggest that sin is not just wealth without work,
but also the inversion of work without wealth.

Notice that Gandhi and the traditional sin
are more a matter of what we might call morality—
focused on the individual
vs/ the inversion that seems more systemic—
more a matter of justice.
and as easy as it is to match Gandhi’s sin
with several of the classic seven deadly sins,
(I chose sloth. You can make a case for greed),
the inversion is harder to match up
which is why in the sermon title there is a question mark there.
Work without wealth.
The bias toward personal morality is deep seated
in both Scripture and tradition,
and too often gives systemic sin an out—
a get out of jail free card.

Within the rhetoric of politics
some blame the poor for not working hard.
I’m sure there are some that don’t.
There are plenty who work harder than most people I know—
multiple jobs—
and just can’t catch a break:
work work work with no wealth.
There’s the sin.
Talking points identify either a positive or negative extreme
and then pretend the truth
does not include what is typically the majority in the middle.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in The Sunday Review of The New York Times in an excerpt from their book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.
It is a terrifying read, but it is not despairing.
“Americans bought into a misconceived “personal responsibility” narrative that blamed people for being poor. It’s true, of course, that personal responsibility matters: People we spoke to often acknowledged engaging in self-destructive behaviors. But when you can predict wretched outcomes based on the ZIP code where a child is born, the problem is not bad choices the infant is making. If we’re going to obsess about personal responsibility, let’s also have a conversation about social responsibility.

We Americans are locked in political combat and focused on President Trump, but there is a cancer gnawing ta the nation that predates Trump and is larger than him. Suicides are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids .…

We have deep structural problems that have been a half century in the making, under both political parties, and that are often transmitted from generation to generation. Only in America has life expectancy now fallen three years in a row, for the first time in a century, because of ‘deaths of despair.’

The stock market is near record highs, but working class Americans (often defined as those without college degrees) continue to struggle. If you’re only a high school graduate, or worse, a dropout, work no longer pays. If the federal minimum wage in 1968 had kept up with inflation and productivity, it would be $22 an hour. Instead, it’s $7.25.

‘I’m a capitalist, and even I think capitalism is broken,’ says Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedgefund”
(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/opinion/sunday/deaths-despair-poverty.html).

It’s a bit tricky preaching the prophets because we are not a theocracy.
We look at the prophetic writings of a theocracy as our sacred texts
and appropriately say the prophets focused on national sins—
what I might call systemic sins—societal sins.
It was the country’s responsibility, they said—the prophets—
to guard against economic injustice:
against exploitation of the poor.
It is the country’s responsibility
to care for the widows and the orphans
and the aliens and the refugees.
In our non-theocracy,
amidst our own traditional value of the separation of church and state,
what are we to do with such explicitly political prophecy—
such explicitly worded speaking truth to political power?

We have too many politicians who want to claim God and the Bible
without knowing what they’re about—
certainly without living into it.
And while we have too many church leaders and people
who also don’t seem to know much of what the Bible’s about,
there are also entirely too many
who do know but don’t seem to care.

I invite you today and throughout this worship series
to consider yourself honestly—
to consider your sins—
not to weigh yourself down,
not to get lost in guilt and shame,
not to hear anyone blaming you,
but to consider sin as a signpost.
Here’s where such behavior—
here are where such priorities lead.
They lead to being this kind of a person.
They lead to this kind of a culture.
Is that anything I want anything to do with?
Because there are other signposts pointing in other directions.

To look at the larger picture,
there’s a whole lot of sloth—
an unwillingness to engage in the work
of making us better.
In ancient Israel you could not separate
the call of the people to live into the image of God
and the call for God’s people as a country to live into the image of God.
We do ourselves and we do our country no favors
when we too easily dismiss that challenge.

I have not read Kristof and WuDunn’s book.
I commend to you this article.
It’s hard, but again it’s not despairing.
They say we can change.
We can make different choices.
But if we don’t intentionally do that—
if we’re slothful …
do you like where we’re headed?
There are good options.
There are signposts pointing to hope and health
and transformation and possibility.
Those are the ones to choose
May it be so.

trouble the waters: “”when you’re not on the mountaintop”

social justice

Scripture
Galatians 3:19-29
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one.
21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Sermon
The epistle to the Galatians is not actually a letter to a church—
to a particular congregation,
but one to an unspecified number of churches in a specific geographic area
in what is today Turkey.
This was an area Paul had been through (Galatians 1:8, 9, 11)—
in which he had been with people in conversation—
people to whom he had introduced the story of Jesus within the story of God—
and some of these communities of faith
would, no doubt, been ones he helped establish.

But then, as was his custom, Paul had moved on,
and now, down the road, he was hearing news back from Galatia—
news that disturbed him.

Because other missionaries had come into Galatia after Paul—
Christian Jews—Jewish Christians—and had assumed a teaching authority
within these congregations.
We don’t know specifically very much of what they were teaching,
and what we know is inferred from Paul’s response to them,
which is always a bit tricky.
You have to be careful,
but we do know they taught observance of the law (Galatians 4:21)—
the whole Law (Galatians 5:3),
and so they advocated following the Jewish calendar (Galatians 4:10),
maybe keeping the dietary expectations (Galatians 2:11-14),
circumcision (Galatians 5:2).

Paul was disturbed by all this,
and so, as was his custom, he wrote a letter
and really let the Galatians have it:
“I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are deserting the one who called you
in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
That’s strong—another gospel!
Then he calls them foolish and bewitched (Galatians 3:1).

The question with which we have to wrestle is this:
why would he make such a big deal about this?
They were all Christians, right?
What’s wrong with keeping Jewish customs?
Jesus was a practicing Jew.
Christianity developed out of Judaism.
Ecumenism—interfaith respect and dialogue and all that, don’t you know?

It certainly wasn’t about hanging on to a Jewish heritage as Jews—
maintaining that sense of identity,
as these were Gentiles who were being told, as Christians,
they also had to adhere to Jewish customs, rules, expectations.

For Paul, what was critical
was the problem in a grace-based system
of having a rules-based structure.
It changes your focus
from faith to obedience—
from what God does in grace to human faithfulness to the law,
and you end up with not just a different emphasis,
but a completely different foundation.

As followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we do not rely on the law for what a personal relationship with Jesus offers,
and that’s not the juxtaposition of the letter of the law with the Spirit of the law,
but with the presence of the Spirit.

We rely not on what we do, but on who God is,
and we can allow no confusion about this.

Okay, you might well ask, but how does Paul get off on knocking rules?
He issued a few of his own, didn’t he?
In fact, while he may say here,
“there is no longer slave or free,”
what about when he wrote “slaves be obedient to your masters?”
That’s in Colossians (Colossians 3:22).

He may say “there is no male or female” here,
but what about when he wrote, “women, be subject to your husbands?”
That’s in Colossians too (Colossians 3:18)—
or “Women, be silent in church?”
That’s 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:34).

What if they’re not rules?

I have no trouble imagining Paul writing different letters to different churches
because different churches were dealing with different contexts—
different specifics.
I can well imagine different expectations for different communities of faith.

I have no problem envisioning Paul
thinking of one church—the particulars of one church
the particularities—the peculiarities of one church—
writing them a letter saying one thing,
and thinking of another church and their peculiarities—
writing them a letter saying something completely different.
That is not a problem to me.
That is respect.
That is truth.

But then, in Bible study and preaching,
we tend not to look to a specific letter to a specific church,
but to a sacred text,
and never think we might be looking at contexts
and assuming we know what he thought in general,
instead of what he thought in particular contexts—
in particular congregations.
So the question to my mind is not what Paul said
that we accept as authoritative,
but amidst what all Paul said, what sounds most like Jesus?
What fits best into the trajectory of truth and grace?

Of course, I also have no trouble whatsoever
imagining Paul getting caught up in his rhetoric!
Dealing with Jews and Gentiles,
“in Jesus there are no Jews, no Gentiles”—he’s practicing.
“That’s what I need to affirm.
That’s the key affirmation in this particular argument I’m making.
But it would be more powerful in a list—
a list of three.
There is no slave nor free; there is no male nor female.”

Those are not his points—
not part of his argument.
Did he understand them as true implication though?

Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama,
Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the rhetoric of the white moderate
that was not lived into and up to.
“First, I must confess that over the last few years
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion
that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom
is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,
but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;
who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek,
but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action” ….

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill
is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: A Mentor Book, 1963] 84-5).

It reminds me in some ways
of the continued talk about and pride in the United States of America
being a land of freedom and justice and equality
when it is manifestly not true—not for too many.

There is not one story of this country.
There are millions.
And most of them are not the story we like to tell of this country.

We have explored over the past few weeks,
the truths of mass incarceration,
the playground to prison pipeline,
the contexts that limit opportunity on the one hand
and privilege some on the other.
We’ve seen the way this systemic racism
shapes fears, an assumed superiority and inferiority.

Bryan Stevenson, in his powerful book Just Mercy,
on our country’s mass incarceration problem—
our problem of systemic injustice in our justice system,
asserts “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”
(Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014] 290).
Conversely, of course, each of us is more
than the best thing we’ve ever done too. Right?
So are we rather what we’re accustomed to doing?
What we do most?
What we strive for? Commit to?
If our dreams are of a vision of an alternative to the status quo
is that enough,
or just another part of a great hypocrisy?
Because it depends on what it is for which we truly work, right?
The dream we struggle to make flesh
rather than the escapist fantasy that sounds good.

So what I would most like to imagine
is Paul, as someone thoroughly shaped by his time and context—
bound by the prejudices, the biases, the priorities of his time and place,
but with a transcendent vision—
inspired by the Spirit of God at work in and through him,
that allowed him … on occasion … momentarily,
to escape what shaped him—
that not only inspired him but changed him.

I also want to be clear,
claiming to be beyond the rules of the law,
it doesn’t mean you don’t do what the rules tell you to.
It means you don’t need the rules to do what the rules tell you to.

The first of the Johannine epistles is one of my favorites—
in part because of the priority of love
without a list of particular rules for what that means.
So from the second chapter:
But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness,
walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go,
because the darkness has brought on blindness (1 John 2:11).

From the third chapter:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,
that we should love one another. …
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action. And by this we will know
that we are from the truth …. (1 John 3:11-19a)

From the fourth chapter:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,
cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also
(1 John 4:16b-21).

The writer of 1 John, or any subsequent editor,
felt no need—no need—to specify what love meant
in different situations and contexts—
felt no need for an elaborate, extensive set of rules and statements.

The church has tended (and tends)
to make everyone else’s business
our business,
instead of seeing our business
as everyone else.
We want to focus on people’s business instead of people.
It’s a way of keeping distance—
choosing the rules
instead of conversations and relationships.

The people who in the name of God
have turned their backs on family and neighbors
because they’ve been taught—
because they’ve allowed themselves to believe,
that a rule is more important than a person
betray—betray the Jesus who would sit down to eat with anyone—
not to figure what was wrong with them,
but to remind them that God loved them—
to remind them how right they are.

In some ways, this text, for our days
might better be phrased:
In the unity of Jesus,
there are, in fact, Jews and Greeks, and they are very different.
There are, in truth, those enslaved and those free,
and they too are very different.
There are men and women,
and they too are very different.
There are, in fact more categories of being than we know to name.
There are distinctive galore,
and they lead to different ways of experiencing the world—
different perspectives—
different lives.

We know this.
We are different—
very different.
The contexts in which we grew up are all different.
Some of us have defining experiences others of us don’t.
Some of us grew up in households of color.
Some of us grew up in other cultures.
Some of us grew up with a language other than English.
While I dare say all of us grew up wrestling with our identity,
some of us had to wrestle with gender identity—
and sexual identity.
Some of us grew up marginalized in this culture.

Our differences can make us strong.
They can make us richer—deeper—more beautiful.
They do not have to divide us.
If we do not allow them to divide us—
if we do not express fear in division—
if we work—will work—at not assuming
that any of our particular experience is the norm—
if we live trusting that what binds us is bigger than what divides us.

Beverly Daniel Tatum,
author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?,
writes of the development of racial identity
and about how that can be a healthy process
and an unhealthy one.
She also points out that Black kids don’t have a choice
about whether or not to wrestle with
and come to terms with their racial identity in our culture,
while White kids can pretend it’s not an issue for them.

We have a verse today that speaks to a great equality.
We can argue about whether or not it’s ever been lived up to.
That’s a deflection.
The question is do we try and live up to it.
Do we acknowledge what’s in the way,
and that it’s often us in the way—
our benefits—our privilege?

I read an article this week about a teacher
who designed a class project
in which the class was divided into groups,
each with its own responsibility.
But the grade was based on every group succeeding.
It’s kind of modeled after mission control for a rocket launch.
Everyone has their responsibility,
but everyone has to succeed for the emission to succeed.

He consistently observed in groups dealing with a problem,
boys arguing about it,
and girls working on it—
solving it,
but not being noticed
and not being assertive either.
He pointed that out:
“Not one of you,” he said to the boys, “saw what Kristen did …
While all of you were arguing, she built a design better than all of yours.
Kristen, why did you take it apart?”
“They were arguing,” she said, “so I thought their designs were better.”
None of them were, but they were willing to fight.
And one of them was eventually chosen,
because the boy who designed it was confident, assertive,
and most of all kept fighting.
In the end, Kristen voted for his design, too.
That’s a tragic lesson I never meant to teach:
Who the beneficiaries are of our cultural biases.
In the US, he who argues loudest and longest reigns victorious,
regardless of the collateral damage.

Make no mistake, we face the challenge of our culture.

54 years ago this past Monday,
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
And so this past Monday, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
for the 1000 Ministers March for Justice
(for which there were actually 3000 ministers registered—
and that’s not preacher counting, don’t you know!)
marching from the memorial to the Department of Justice
because we’re still dreaming—
because we still fall so far short of the dream—
because I wasn’t sure how to be in the midst of a worship series on racial justice
and not be a part of reaffirming that dream and that dreamer.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for his children—
a dream that transcended his context and theirs.
Paul had a dream for how people might relate as Christians
that transcended his context and theirs.
And the question is not really
do we dream dreams that big—
dreams that transcend our circumstances?
The question is not do our young men and women prophecy—
our young and old see visions and dream dreams?
Not even do we encourage them to dream big?
But rather do we expect them to—
and not only to dream, but to risk following through
on the bigness of those dreams?

Do we facilitate possibility or justify what is?

As we conclude the worship series,
having really just touched on
the beginnings of this conversation,
we’re sounding a call
for those interested in/invested in this conversation—
to keep it going—
to keep reading—to keep talking—cultivating relationships—
keeping us informed—
exploring what our next steps can be?

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown,
author of All the Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
baptist pastor,
recommends White folks setting up IRA’s—
individual reparation accounts,
or, if we’re serious about repentance being more than feeling bad,
individual repentance accounts.

I’ll be talking to the service ministry about that one!

What are our next steps?
Because surely as we finish a worship series,
we don’t want to one day (maybe in 54 years)
look back to see us standing still.

I have a dream—
nurtured by dreamers through our history
of a place where anyone can come—anyone—
sit down with us at the table
and be welcomed—
be celebrated—
be included.

You’d think that wouldn’t be such a hard dream ….

trouble the waters: “a religion not spoken in someone’s heart language is despicable to God” or, “a religion spoken heart to heart reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 2:1-12a
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Sermon
If you’ve been listening,
you have probably heard something like the wind
that has swept through—is sweeping through
many of our cities—many of our communities—
filling, in truth, the entire country,
as a story has been divided among us,
like distinct flames of one fire—
a story we thought we knew, now heard in another language.

Over and over again now, if you’ve been listening,
in the news ever-unfolding, in documentaries,
in conversations at church and in the public square, in books,
in our own relationships with friends, colleagues, and family,
we’ve heard, over and over again, the story of our country,
but not in a tongue many of us recognize.
Not a story of opportunity, but oppression.
Not of freedom, but incarceration.
Not of fairness, but injustice.
Not of bravery, but fear.
Not of achieving on merit, but exploitation.
Not of respect, but prejudice.
Not of a life open to what you make of it,
but a life within the constraints of a fixed system—
rigged to benefit a few.
If you’ve been listening ….

We did not celebrate Pentecost this year.
I think we were in the midst of 1 Peter at the time.
But it occurred to me planning this worship series
on the work of racial and social justice,
that the Acts Pentecost text might just fit.

Not only because of all the different languages,
but also because of all the people
from all the nations under heaven, we read,
and that word we translate “nations”
comes from the same Greek root
from which we get our words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”

Our text begins, literally, when the day of Pentecost was fulfilled—
not when it had come—when it was fulfilled
(John B. Polhill, Acts in The New American Commentary
[Nashville: Broadman, 1992] 96).
You probably know this, many of you—I’m reminding you,
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration before it was a Christian one.
It’s the Greek name, literally, “the fiftieth day,”
“for a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ …
fifty days after Passover. Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage feasts
when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem”
(Robert, W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 53).

Originally, the Feast of Weeks, was celebration of the spring harvest.
Faithful Jews, caring for their crops,
would tie a reed around the first fruit of each species to ripen.
at harvest time, those identified fruits would be picked
placed in baskets and processed to Jerusalem
handed to priests to be presented before the altar.

So celebrating Pentecost involved anticipation,
but also the work toward that which was anticipated.

In the faith story told, we move from Passover’s celebration
of the children of Israel being led out of the Egypt—out of bondage
to, 50 days later, Pentecost’s celebration
of God giving the children of Israel the Torah at Sinai—
in the movement from freedom to covenant—
from the escape of oppression to a mutuality of relationship and expectation.

No one’s real sure how long Pentecost’s connection to Sinai has been around—
whether it goes all the way back to the earliest harvest celebrations,
but it’s interesting, don’t you think?
In terms of agriculture, Pentecost was cyclically experienced,
and so remembered,
and in terms of faith story, cyclically remembered—and so, re-experienced.

If you’ve been listening to what sounds like the wind,
to what divides our story as a nation,
you’ve heard questions about the poisonous fruit harvested from our history—
about how much of our economy (even today)—
how much of even today’s wealth
goes back to the forced labor—
the inhumane exploitation of predominantly African people.
If you’ve been listening, you’ve heard questions
about the principle we claim of freedom—
fundamental questions like freedom for whom—and freedom from what?

On the day Pentecost was fulfilled, what was fulfilled?
Covenantal relationship? Mutuality of expectation?
Trust in the sufficiency of God’s provision and grateful response?
Awareness of and freedom from all forms of bondage and oppression?
It’s like looking at a fire which is always to see—
to be captivated by ever new flickering divided tongues of flame.

They were all together, we read, in one place.
And we’re not sure if we’re talking about the 12 apostles
or the 120 believers—both referenced in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:15).
Nor do we know if we’re talking about that upper room
also mentioned in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:13).
Almost as if the story is bigger than who or where.

And from heaven there came something like the sound of the wind.
And the sound of something like the wind, we read,
filled the house where they were sitting.
And they were themselves filled with the Spirit.

And there was something like fire—
like there was something like the sound of wind—
as if our language can but approximate,
but it approximates “various OT theophanies where God comes down
and there is fire on the mountain and Moses or someone
is given a word to speak for the Lord
(Exod. 19:18; 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13)” (Witherington, 132).
And they were, all of a sudden, speaking different languages.

May I read to you an account of Sinai?
The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo,
writing well before the time of Luke,
had this to say about the giving of the Law:
“Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven
there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice,
for the flame became the articulate speech
in the language familiar to the audience’ ” (Witherington, 131).
So important to remember always,
however you understand inspiration,
that Scripture comes out of a wider context.

And they (whoever all they were)
poured out of their house (wherever it was)
overflowing with the story of God.
And a puzzled crowd grew at the sound—
and notice—notice, it’s not the sound of the wind from heaven
that draws and puzzles the crowd.
It’s the sound of a story told by people.
So important—
the crowd gathered not in response to God,
but in response to people who responded to God.

Now the crowd consists, we’re told,
of the people from all the nations under heaven
who nonetheless lived in Jerusalem.
Our text is clear. these are not people from other lands
in town for the festival, but people those from all those lands,
who had moved to or retired to Jerusalem.
Sometimes you move away from where you’re from
to be where you want to go.

So we might note, amidst difference,
there is commonality, right?
The people of all nations are here united in their heritage—
their ethnic or their faith heritage—
(those are different, by the way—
born a Jew, Jew by choice)—either way,
they are all gathered together as Jews in Jerusalem
to celebrate Pentecost.
They are all at home in Jerusalem.

If you’ve been listening, you, like I,
have heard in the news—in justifications of hate—in pulpits—
the story of our faith heritage—our faith home,
but not in a tongue I recognize.
Distorted and used to justify abomination:
greed, prejudice, the idolatry of the self-made man,
separation, hate.
If you’ve been listening ….

Back then, among these in Jerusalem,
in the land of their faith story—
in the land of the language they learned as part of their heritage,
they heard the language of the streets they grew up on.
How is it that these ignorant Galileans, they wondered,
are speaking the languages of the nations?
That’s kind of a prejudiced thing to say.
You’d picked up on that, right?
If you’ve been listening.

They’re not puzzling about what they heard.
What they heard was familiar.
They couldn’t figure out how it was they were hearing it from these Galileans!

So now I’d also like to invite you to consider this story
from the perspective precisely of those Galileans—
presumably some of whom—maybe most of whom—
had spent years with Jesus.
I invite you to consider the implications of not just a story
being told in another language,
but your story being told in a language not yours.
What happens when your story is told in another language?—
one you don’t understand?
What happens when you have to trust someone else
with the telling of your story—
when their experience—their perspective is different?

If you’re listening, it’s hard.
It’s challenging—disturbing—uncomfortable.
Because what you’ll hear is the clear assertion:
you don’t get to tell the story in just your language.
And you have to pay attention to how you react when you read
theologian Ben Sanders III’s chapter, “How Did ‘We’ Get ‘Here’?”
in our Trouble the Water book,
in which he writes of our white supremacist country
and our white supremacist society
(Ben Sanders, III, How Did “We” Get “Here”?
in Michael-Ray Mathews, Marie Clare Onwubuariri, Cody J. Sanders, eds.,
Trouble the Water [Macon: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2017] 11-18)—
which got my hackles up.
Maybe it gets yours up too.
Take a minute though to consider—
to sit with it—think about it.

We proudly name of the high ideals—the lofty principles
of our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution: “We the people” … “We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….”

Of course, there was never anything inclusive
about that use of the word “men,” was there?
It always meant men.
Women were not included.
And the Constitution itself (Article One Section Three to be specific)
counted slaves as three fifths of a person.
We, the white men, hold these truths to be self-evident—
that all white men are created equal.
That 3/5 percentage was not repealed until 1868.
Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924.
The Indian Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1968.

If we stick to what was meant (in our founding documents),
it doesn’t mean what we need it to,
but if it means what we want it to,
we haven’t lived up to it,
and there is a clear trajectory from the best of who we could be
to the worst of who we are.

I can put that another way:
we can react to the worst we fear,
or we can work for the best we can dream,
and there’s no getting around that there’s an element of choice to this—
do you choose fear, or do you choose hope?
Fear doesn’t require much of you; hope is work.

Now, do we reject the ideology of white supremacy?
Absolutely.
The hopes and agenda of white supremacists?
Yes.
The benefits of racism?
Well, not when you put it that way?
The benefits of a system that is set up with most of us as beneficiaries?
Maybe.
Do we reject the systems?
How?

We reject individual acts of prejudice.
What? Overt acts? Violence? Of course.
What about racist jokes? Racist assumptions?
Do we stand up against those? Speak out against those?
Because if you’re listening, they’re all around us.
I hope we do—reject all that.
But because we don’t say such things—make such jokes,
do we get to reject the idea that we’re racist?

I’ve been challenged not only by the idea that ours is a racist society
(because it is not set up to benefit all—and there’s no question about that),
but also by the idea that no minority group
can be identified as racist in our culture at large—
prejudiced, yes, but not racist—
because racism, I’m learning, is prejudice plus power.
So do we acknowledge our complicity not in individual acts,
but in the system that benefits us and betrays others?
We’ve been confessing it in unison for the past six weeks.
Do we mean it?

As along as we’re facing challenges,
I challenge us to absolutely reject generalities phrased as absolutes.
As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his book
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
a brutally beautiful book,
“criticizing police brutality is said to be hating law enforcement.
Sitting during the national anthem is said to be hating America.
This sophomoric approach will remain a roadblock
to genuine racial engagement
until it is replaced by a deeper, more humane,
more sophisticated understanding of the issue of race”
(Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
[New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017] 120).

Oh, if you’ve been listening, even if you’re not into football,
you’ve probably heard a lot of criticism of Colin Kapernaek.
I don’t follow football enough to be able to evaluate his skill as a player.
But the reaction to his kneeling during the singing of our anthem
is a disgrace to our own ideals.
Uncritical worship of—or even respect for—our flag or our national anthem
is nothing but hypocrisy in a culture that does not live up to—
does not commit to live up to—
the best of what they both represent—
or what we like to think they mean until we actually have to live up to it.
There are people who put their lives on the line for what we compromise.
Who is showing disrespect?
Not the one pointing this out.

Remember in our Acts text how they were all Jews in Jerusalem?
It’s easy enough, in theory,
to go back far enough to find a commonality—
the Jewish faith heritage, in the case of our text.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the meme online:
there’s only one race—the human race?
The problem is not finding a commonality,
it’s all the differences that divide us within that commonality.

And we are invested in a binding commonality—
because we think that’s the way to deal with difference.
And I don’t mean to totally discount that.
I remember as a youth visiting a French speaking worship in Paris,
and thinking, “I’m not going to understand a word.”
But then I remembered I knew the French word for God, Dieu,
and the French pronunciation of Jesus, Jesu,
and you’d be surprised how often Dieu and Jesu showed up!
I don’t mean to discount the power of commonality,
but that’s not what we get in our story.
I mean, maybe it seems like we do—
everyone hearing in their own language the stories of God’s deeds of power.
Many languages, but one story, right?

But give our sacred texts some credit.
Give them their depth.
Allow them their nuance.
Trust inspiration.

The story, we read, was told in different languages.
We’ve noted it enough—just in translations from Hebrew to English—
Greek to English, how often a translation is misleading—
how often a translation is flat out wrong.
And sometimes, admittedly, it’s bias.
It’s imposing a certain way of understanding the text on the text.
But sometimes it’s just because it’s a translation.

One of my favorite writers is the German author, Rainer Maria Rilke,
and there are some wonderful translations of his work into English,
but many of the English poems are essentially different poems.
The translators tried to retain some essential image or idea,
but it’s not the same—the rhythm and sound of the words can’t be the same,
and the meaning can’t always either.

It’s a familiar text, our Acts 2 passage—a familiar story—
often construed as the birth of the church—
when the church was defined and unified.
But what if, instead of celebrating something cohesive and defined,
we celebrated the risk of setting—
the trust in setting—something free?

If you’ve been listening to the story of our country,
you’ve heard the weeping—
children weeping for their parents—
parents weeping for their children—
grandparents, friends, neighbors.
If you haven’t, you’re not listening,
you’ve probably heard the disgust, which is disturbing—
the rage, which is scary.
But the point is not to deny it or explain it away,
rather to acknowledge the reasons for it—
and our complicity in those reasons—unintentional maybe, but still.
It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re good people,
it has to do with the systems in which we live.
In our various spheres of influence, we must stop
invalidating the stories of others
because they don’t tell the story we do.
And we must stop being so damned afraid
(Fear damns. I’m using that theologically!).

Like Scripture, our country gifted us
with a dream to which we have never caught up—
a dream we have never lived into in its fullness.
And those who, long ago, sought words to put to these dreams
conveyed so much more than they knew—
so much more even than they meant.
The dreams of our faith and our country
left us with room to grow—
room to grow into the work of that which we anticipate—
room to grow beyond everything for which we’ve settled—
beyond every compromise that cheapened the possibility of the dream—
that took of its depths and made something shallow—
that tasted its complex richness and chose cheap and easy.

In the winds of change
sweeping through life and culture—
in the fires of discontent and conflict—
in the confessions and in the arguments—
in repentance and defiance—
in the movement from all forms of bondage
to ever greater mutuality and freedom and covenant,
the Spirit of God speaks—
whispers—weeps—rages—shouts,
“You are each one of you my child.
In all your beautiful distinctions.
Do you not see,
created in my image,
blessed and loved,
and entrusted to each other,
to deny that is to deny me?

If you’re listening ….”

trouble the waters: “a religion that keeps people out is despicable to God” or “a religion of welcome and inclusion reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Sermon
Most of you know the story.
As Paul ravaged the church in Jerusalem,
the leadership scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Philip, one of the seven deacons “of good standing,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3),
ended up in Samaria.
And being in Samaria, he preached in Samaria (Acts 8:1-14),
and being Philip, preached effectively.
That’s the immediate background to our story.

But our story begins with an angel of the Lord saying to Philip,
‘Get up and go towards the south
to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’
(This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

But that’s not where our story begins either.
A lot of stories begin before we know they begin,
and, by the way, not knowing a story begins
before you’re familiar with it—(or in it)
is a sign of privilege.

So the story actually begins with an Ethiopian government official,
an African, on his way home from Jerusalem.
Many stories begin in Africa before we’re ever a part of them,
but we don’t tend to think of that.
He had been in Jerusalem—
had taken some personal time—
had come to worship, we read.
So our story today actually begins before anything we’re told,
with this Ethiopian man somehow having heard the stories of God—
been profoundly affected by the stories of God—
the presence of God—the grace of God—
the initiative of God in Africa—
enough to become one of the so-called God-fearers—
who then, on his own personal initiative,
made the long trip to Jerusalem to worship.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch—
a court official, we read, of the Candace (not a name, but a title),
mother of the king of Ethiopia.
This eunuch was in charge of her entire treasury.
He was a big deal in an ancient kingdom of great power.

Ethiopia then, by the way, was not Ethiopia now.
Ethiopia then, also known as the kingdom of Cush or Nubia,
was the power south of Egypt,
extending from the first cataract to the sixth cataract of the Nile
(Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998] 295).
where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in present day Sudan.
Ethiopia was also considered, since the time of Homer,
by both the Greeks and the Romans, the ends of the earth
(F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary
on the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1988] 179).

But he wasn’t in Jerusalem in his official capacity—
wasn’t there on business.
He left Africa by choice.
That needs to be said
because of how many stories that began in Africa ended in other countries
not by choice—or by someone else’s choice.

So it’s actually well into the story that the Ethiopian
was in the Judean wilderness on his way home.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
That’s the pluperfect tense, by the way.
How often do you get to say that?
Or the past perfect, which isn’t as fun to say!
Y’all know the pluperfect?
It defines a time in the past earlier than another time in the past.
So he had gone to worship in Jerusalem before he was on the road home.
But there is another way of hearing such phrasing.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship.
You hear it? He had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
but was unable to—was not allowed to—
was barred from entering into the Temple.
So, he was returning home, disappointed, we can safely assume—
rejected, excluded, seated in his chariot,
for as a eunuch, he would have been “excluded by law
from full participation in the covenant community”
(Deuteronomy 23:1; Leviticus 21:17-21)
(Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 142).

So he was returning home
on that road south of Jerusalem,
disappointed,
and reading the prophet Isaiah.

I don’t think that should in any way be heard as a measure of his faith—
that even after this heartbreaking experience with the people of God,
he was nonetheless reading Scripture for consolation—comfort—assurance.
And I certainly don’t think he was sitting in his chariot
looking at a Hebrew scroll wondering what it said—
needing someone to read the text to him—to translate the Hebrew—
to interpret the meaning.
I think he was actually rereading a scroll he had read many times before—
rereading a scroll with which he was oh so familiar,
trying to figure out how he had read it so wrong.

Because Isaiah, the larger story of Isaiah,
is one of inclusion.
Isaiah writes of God gathering the remnant
of God’s scattered people from a host of different nations
including Ethiopia (Isaiah 11:11).
Isaiah writes of a specific word of invitation God speaks
to the nation of Ethiopia (Isaiah 18),
and most importantly and most specifically,
Isaiah writes and this man had read,
over and over again:
“For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4-7).

That’s what God says.

The language of superiority is not the language of God.
The language of exclusion and rejection is not the language of God.
The language of fear and violence is not the language of God.
There are not many sides to this.
Those who seek to follow God denounce such language
be it spoken by protestors, presidents or preachers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And it was God’s language of love and grace
that had birthed this Ethiopian eunuch’s deep and profound hope
to be included—to be a part.
Can you imagine what it’s like to want to be included—
to expect to be included,
and then to be excluded?
If you can’t, by the way, that’s privilege.

As we join this story midway through it,
the Spirit, somehow, whisked Philip from Samaria into the wilderness
south of Jerusalem.
The Spirit heard the sighs, you see, too deep for words—
felt the broken heart of someone rejected by the faith community—
acknowledged the profound importance of a so-called outsider,
and sent someone,
but didn’t whisk him right onto the chariot.

So we also have to visually picture Philip,
responding to the Spirit’s direction and running—
running to catch up to the chariot—
running alongside the chariot,
before being invited aboard—
before being included.
The Spirit prompts—initiates,
but it takes Philip’s effort too.

Again, the Ethiopian didn’t need Philip to read Isaiah to him.
He didn’t need Philip to interpret what he had read.
This should in no way be understood
as any kind of colonial/condescending/patriarchal
“I-have-and-will-give-you-the-answer-you-need.”

No. When Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”,
and he responded, “How can I unless someone guides me?”,
we need to hear undertones of anger and disappointment.
“Well I thought I did,
but obviously I need someone to explain to me
how this doesn’t mean what it says.
Because obviously I got a lot of this wrong.
I mean this is what it says, but apparently not what it means.”

What happens when the invitation of God—
the assurance of Scripture—the promise of faith—
is impeded by those who claim to follow God, respect Scripture
and number themselves among the faithful?
I have said before, I’ll say again:
while so many in the Church focus on reaching the so-called “lost,”
who do not know God,
we are so much more responsible
for those who have known and rejected God because of us.

Of course, it is complicated, isn’t it?
It cannot be as easy as some obviously clear
absolute division into right and wrong.
Because the question we have to wrestle with is this:
what happens when to obey Scripture is to disobey Scripture?
What happens when to honor Scripture is to dishonor Scripture?
Because if you listen to Isaiah,
you’re not listening to Deuteronomy and Leviticus
or vice versa,
and so then you are raising the question,
if the way we treat so-called outsiders is not because the Bible says so
(because the Bible says both),
then what is it?
What drives priorities and choices and actions?
Is it what you were raised with?
What you’re comfortable with?
What preserves your privilege?
Is it what’s easier?
Because the rules are definitely easier
than the grace that surprises
not just those used to being excluded,
who find themselves included,
but also surprises those used to justifying exclusion—
that wild unpredictable grace that includes—what, them?

And what happens when someone reading
about God’s promises and assurances,
overwhelmed by grace and love,
investing in hope and possibility,
runs into the people of God’s fear and defensiveness?

This is our history—part of it—
a significant part of it,
and always a part of now too.
It was once the church and slaves and slavery.
It was once—still is in many contexts, the church and women and patriarchy.
It is the church and non-gender conforming individuals,
and the church and non-traditional expressions of sexuality and relationship—
it is the sin of racism—
not just the lies, but the heresy of white supremacy—
and always, for those with ears to hear,
fear and defensiveness and anger and rejection.

And given that our Scripture’s stories
are all placed within a core defining story—
the story of a desperate struggle against emperor and empire—
resistance to oppression of mind, body, spirit, priorities—and minorities,

it is wrong.

And we must be more willing to say it.
Not that Scripture is wrong,
but that this text is—or that one—
because they stand against the trajectory of revelation—
stand counter to the ongoing revelation of grace—
stand in opposition to justice, righteousness and humility.

Now the Ethiopian was contemplating a particular passage
within the larger scroll of Isaiah,
one of the so-called suffering servant passages.
Let me read you a few sections:
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.”
That’s familiar to y’all, right?
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”
and this is the part quoted in our text:
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.”

“About whom,” asks the eunuch, “about whom, may I ask you,
does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
Because he’s identifying with this text—
placing his own suffering into his reading—
his own sense of being despised and rejected by others—
held of no account—his own sense of bearing
what others perceive as infirmity and affliction—
his own sense of oppression—of justice perverted.
It’s an insight into Scripture many of us miss.
That’s privilege.

Philip opened his mouth and starting with this scripture,
he proclaimed the good news of Jesus—
which I would suggest is less that Jesus suffered for us,
as that God redeemed Jesus’ suffering.
Didn’t require suffering.
Didn’t justify suffering.
Redeemed it.
And anyway, as interesting as it is to wonder what all Philip said,
it’s as interesting—more interesting? to wonder what the Ethiopian heard.
And to hope that within the story of one excluded,
sent away from a place of worship,
left studying our sacred texts on some lonely road,
trying to figure out how he had so misread
words of radically inclusive grace and love—
to hope that within the story of theologically justified exclusion,
there would be rekindled the hope of presence and grace and love—
that Philip’s sense of the gospel—the good news,
the grace of Isaiah in Jesus, the grace of God in Jesus—
his responsiveness to the leadership of the Spirit,
would all lead him to a radical inclusiveness.
“This is the story of Jesus,” he says, “and it is your story too.
You are a part of this bigger story that began before us.
For at the time of his ascension, Jesus, left the disciples with these words:
‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
and I myself, Philip, was a witness in Samaria before being sent to you,
and through you—through your powerful faith and hope,
the gospel will go to that distant land
between the first and sixth cataract of the mighty Nile—
will go to (according to Homer and the Romans and the Greeks)
the very ends of the earth, and will go with joy.”

Well they came to some water.
And the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What’s to prevent me from claiming this story?—
this hope?—this truth?
What’s to prevent me from choosing to live into this story?
What’s to prevent me from believing?
What’s to prevent me from identifying myself along with you
as one following in this way of God?
What’s to prevent me?”
So far, it’s only been the people of God, right?
But Philip, again, responsive to the direction of the Spirit,
enthusiastic in his celebration of the gospel’s radical grace,
says, “Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you. Absolutely nothing.”

They came up from the waters,
and Philip was whisked away by the Spirit of God.
The eunuch saw him no more,
but went on his way rejoicing—
went on his way with joy.

It’s beautiful.
Later in that Isaiah passage the Ethiopian was considering,
we read (he hadn’t gotten to it yet,
but it was waiting for him—he did get to it):
“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11).

And now, finally, think about this!
It’s all part of a bigger story!
Remember how Scripture stories are placed within a core defining story?
The Ethiopian had experienced rejection and exclusion.
He was leaving oppression,
and was in the wilderness with a guide,
and, in the wilderness, God provided water!
I love Scripture!
The children left Pharaoh in Egypt
and were led through the wilderness,
were provided water
on their way within the presence of God to the promised land.
Now this man is leaving Pharaoh in the promised land
and going back to Africa—
because you don’t get to leave Pharaoh and become Pharaoh!
And even in God’s city—even as God’s people, you can be Pharaoh.
And the promised land is always less about the place
than the promise and the presence—and the spirit.

Ours is not the story of some zero-sum game
in which someone winning and others losing are the only options—
a story in which we defeat Pharaoh
only to then take his place.
Ours is a bigger, richer, deeper more profound
transformative and ongoing story of possibility
in which Pharaoh is ever being overcome—in others and in us—
in which it’s up to us
to persistently name the promise and trust the presence—

to see in our story the bigger story
of God always with those being led away from oppression—
always being led away from discrimination—
always being led away from the tactics of violence—
always being led away from rejection and exclusion and heartache—
always being led away from fear—

to see in our stories the bigger story and to know
we must always contextually place ourselves in this story—
to know that who we are in the story is not fixed,
and that how we treat others
is less a matter of our privilege than of our judgment .

Eugene Peterson, a writer I appreciate and admire,
author of the popular version of the Bible, The Message,
in an interview last month was asked, as a retired Presbyterian pastor,
about whether he would now celebrate a same-sex wedding, if asked.
and he said, yes, he would.
And then he said no, he wouldn’t.
A few days later.
Maybe, as he said, he needed more time
to think through the question and his answer.
Maybe LifeWay’s threat not to sell his books had an effect.
I don’t know.

My friend and senior co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in DC,
Maria Swearingen, commented,
“Welcoming and affirming queer people shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth
or dragging your feet. It should feel like joyful conversion.
Like, ‘I was blind and now I see.’ Like drinking from living waters.
It should evoke language like, ‘My theology was vapid and frail,
my God so small and close-minded that it made me demean,
belittle, neglect, and outright hate people for no … good reason.
And now I have discovered how wrong that was.
And the only thing I can imagine doing
is saying yes to their precious, wondrous lives.’ ”

In the aftermath of the last few days,
how do we possibly not identify specifically Black lives and Jewish lives—
specifically the lives of those rejected,
and say yes to their precious, wondrous lives?
And identify specifically the small broken lives of those who hate
and utterly reject that hate,
but also remind them too,
of what’s precious and wondrous about them too.

And so, in the midst of trying to figure out where all my privilege lies,
and who I exclude and who is excluded in my culture,
so much of which I take for granted,
in the midst of trying to hear the pain of those rejected,
the song of God’s love and grace,
and so trying in my life and ministry
to hear what truly celebrates Scripture and God
and what demeans and diminishes God—
sometimes even in the name of celebration—
trying to ascertain not just who we have excluded in the past
for which we must repent,
but also who we are excluding—
what “issues” we are prioritizing over “people”
made in the image of God—
in the midst of all this,
I am full of joy and hope at the prospect of my theology and my God
ever expanding—
ever embracing more—
ever celebrating more—
in the goodness not of having arrived—having vanquished,
but in the goodness of presence and promise on the way—
in the goodness of a story not reduced to winners and losers,
but ever expanding into ongoing transformation.

Yes.

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

Scripture
Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Sermon
Today we start our seven week worship series on racial justice,
and preparing for it has been absolutely and utterly overwhelming!
Hard to even know where to start.
There are so many stories—so many statistics—so much history.
But actually, we do know where to start.
We start with Scripture.
That’s what we do.

And our text this morning comes from the book of Amos—
the prophetic word of a prophet from the southern kingdom,
born not far from Jerusalem,
who nonetheless prophesied predominantly to the northern kingdom.
So the voice of an outsider.
His ministry dates to the the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel
and Uzziah, king of Judah,

which means Amos prophesied in what would have been prosperous days
in the life of both Israel and Judah.
Early military expansion by both kings
resulted in years of political stability
and economic prosperity (at least for the ruling class)
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 259).

Assyria’s dominance in the region was imminent,
and so too the destruction and defeat of both kingdoms,
but nothing was suspected at the time.
Amos predicted the downfall of Israel,
not based on a recognizable outside threat,
but on his observations and interpretations
of the kingdom’s priorities and practices.
He spoke into a status quo
that would have not been questioned by those in charge—
into a status quo that was good to and for those in charge,
and it is against such a reality that we need to hear these words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

Our text unfolds in “three parallel sets of negative statements”.
The first “uses three expressive verbs (hate, despise, take no delight)
followed by two objects (festivals, solemn assemblies).
The second … focuses upon three types of sacrifice
(burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being) that YHWH rejects.
In the third set of parallel lines … YHWH commands
that songs cease and refuses to hear the instrumental music”
(Nogalski, 321).

It’s interesting to consider.
God hates/despises precise those festivals and rituals
specifically spelled out in the Torah—
not only God ordained but God specified—
here’s exactly how you do it!
And when God rejects their songs—
think about it—
the entire book of Psalms is a collection of their songs.

God rejects what God ordained—
what God inspired.
God rejects worship.
God rejects Scripture.

And the rejections build in power and disgust.
But our text does not culminate in negatives,
but in a positive—
not in rejection but in affirmation:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So in somewhat like manner,
throughout this worship series, each sermon will have two titles:
one from a negative perspective—an observation on what is—
and on too many of our choices and actions,
and one from a positive perspective
that names our hope and the heart and truth of God—
the positive given integrity in not rejecting the negative.

Now we need to be clear.
It’s not that God hates worship.
It’s that God hates the hypocrisy of worshippers
who see no connection between who God is
and how they live as followers of God—
who do not see or acknowledge the relevance
of their politics and their business lives.
It’s not even so much that God despises
worship that has not resulted in justice and righteousness,
but those who worship
with no sense of the important of justice and righteousness.
It’s not that worship’s not valued—not important,
it’s that it’s undermined—distorted—perverted.

Our text forces us to revalue our Scripture,
and where once we sang
with the children of Israel of old in petition:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4),

Amos demands that we sing with the children of Israel
in confession:
“In the walls of Jerusalem,
there we sat down and there we wept,
remembering Zion.
In the Temple there,
we hung up our harps.
For there our people
asked us for songs,
and our believers asked for faith, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the Lord’s song
in our unjust land?”

How can we sing of our faith—our faithfulness—
our God,
when our social and economic structures
make of that faith and that God a mockery?

Which brings us to the context in which our faith is practiced
and our worship is celebrated,
and here’s where I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
Do we go back and look at our history of genocide—of slavery—
on how much of the wealth and prosperity of our country and people,
now as then,
was generated by taking from others—
by the labor of slaves and the bodies of slaves?—
how city planning, and the development of mass transportation
intentionally excluded black neighborhoods?—
or how red-lining condemned neighborhoods with black families?
Do I look to the years of the civil rights movement?
There is so much to catalogue in our story that is despicable in its racism.

But I want to refer specifically to more recent tragedies and commentary,
believing these details to be indicative of deepest truth.
Y’all know the name Michael Brown?
Of course you do.
August 9, 2014 he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.
After the killing of Michael Brown,
the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s investigation
of the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court revealed
that their “mission was revenue generation—
extracting money from the black residents of the town,
using methods that were often legally questionable,
sometimes outright unlawful, and certainly morally reprehensible….
Blacks make up 67 percent of the populate of Ferguson
yet constituted 85 percent of vehicle stops,
90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests,
88 percent of cases with the use of force,
92 percent of cases in which arrest warrants were issued,
and 96 percent of the people held at the Ferguson jail for more than two days…. Dubious municipal ordinances were used as excuses
to generate citations, said the report—
again, almost entirely against black residents
for “Manner of Walking” (95 percent), “Failure to Comply” (94 percent),
and “Peace Disturbance” (92 percent).
One hundred percent of police-dog bite victims were black”
(Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin [Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2016] 17).

Freddy Gray?
After the death of Freddy Gray, April 19, 2015,
in our own city and the subsequent riots,
Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed “When Baltimore Burned,”
in the New York Times, April 29, 2015 highlighting
“a failure on our part in the American news media.
We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store
but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools,
joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing —
and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning,
consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead,
more likely to end up in prison than college,
harassed and occasionally killed by the police —
why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar:
Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.
We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race,
but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech given in the last year of his life said,
“a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it America has failed to hear?…
It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society
are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo
than about justice and humanity.”

This week, in an article in Baptist News Global, Bill Leonard,
former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest,
church history professor and one of the keenest observers
and interpreters of history unfolding that I know,
pointed out James “Cone’s poignant critique
of individuals like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr
and other “white theologians” who “have written thousands of books
about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy
between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.”
He is particularly critical of Niebuhr, his erstwhile theological mentor,
who could address the cross “with profound theological imagination,”
and yet “say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy
invalidated the faith of white churches.”

By the way, some two thousand more black men and women
were lynched (that we know about),
than there were people killed
when the World Trade Center towers came down on 9-11.

Also this past week in Baptist News Global, our friend Russ Dean juxtaposed:
“Opioid abuse is a tragedy; crack cocaine use is a crime.
Opioid users are members of society who need to be valued and restored;
crack cocaine addicts are criminals who need to be locked away.
Opioid addiction needs to be treated with compassion and medical intervention;
crack cocaine addiction deserves increased “law and order.”
With the opioid epidemic we seek the peace of the addicted;
with the crack epidemic, an all-out war on drug users.
Opioid use is treated with careful diagnosis;
crack abuse with mandatory sentencing.
Opioid recovery is to be celebrated; recovery from crack cocaine …
well, who cares if anyone recovers from crack?”
Could it be, he wonders, as simple and tragic
as that opioids plague middle class and rich white families,
while most crack cocaine abusers are poor and black?

In 2005, in Missouri, James V. Taylor was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of an amount of crack cocaine
that investigators deemed unweighable
and was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

In 2010, in Las Vegas, Paris Hilton was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of .8 grams of cocaine
and was given a fine and sentenced to community service hours
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

And this is not an anomaly.
This is what passes for justice in our country.

In 2003, in Georgia, Gennarlow Wilson, a 17 year old high school football player
engaged in consensual sexual acts with a 15 year old
and was sentenced in 2005, to 10 years in prison
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

In 2015, in California, Brook Turner, a college freshman
raped a young woman
and was sentenced to six months,
and his parents thought that was too much.
He will never be his happy-go-lucky self his father lamented.

Author Jennifer Weiner, writing in The New York Times, this past Friday
points out in an article entitled “The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up
how men have avoided responsibility by not claiming their maturity.
In 1969, that was 37 year old Teddy Kennedy,
whose “handlers”/family figured “if America saw
this married man in his late 30’s as a boy—
handsome and high spirited, mischievous, not a criminal—
he’d be able to squirm out of his misdeeds with minimal punishment.
And today, it may well be 39 year old Donald Trump, Jr.—
“that honest kid,” don’t you know.

Women and nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.

If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups,
whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.
Witness every administrative body, from middle school to Congress,
that has decided that it’s easier and more culturally acceptable
to police police girls’ and womens’ clothing than it is boys’ behavior.

Should one of these fine young fellows slip —
inflamed, perhaps, by one bare shoulder too many —
there’s probably a woman to blame,
and it’s his punishment, not his crime, that becomes the tragedy.

People of color, of course, never receive the leeway
that “good kids” like the 39-year-old Trump son seem to get.
When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice,
for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun,
their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.

Oh, and there’s this:
in 1984 people sentence to life in prison numbered 34,000
by 2013, it was nearly 160,000.
“Upward trends in life sentences originated in the ‘tough on crime’
political environment of the 1980s, which saw growing skepticism
about possibilities for rehabilitating serious criminals”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states)—
which is a theological heresy, by the way—
a total rejection of the grace of Scripture and God.

At a recent Baltimore County Council hearing
on a request from the federal government that local law enforcement
be trained and designated to perform immigration officer functions,
the rhetoric was all about the violent criminals in our community
(of whom ICE is notified when they’re arrested anyway),
as if there haven’t been family members deported after traffic stops.
I said, “You speak to this program at some imagined best, free of abuse,
as if people won’t be forced to live with it at its worst.”

And the fact of the matter is, … well, here are some crimes
for which people are serving life sentences in our country:

— acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop;
— having a stash of over the counter decongestant pills
that could be used to make methamphetamine;
— attempting to cash a stolen check;
— possessing stolen wrenches;
— shoplifting three belts from a department store;
— making drunken threat to a police officer
while handcuffed int he back of a patrol car;
— taking an abusive stepfather’s gun from their shared home
(http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/14/23-petty-crimes-that-have-landed-people-in-prison-for-life/).

As you will no doubt have surmised,
the racial disparity among those serving life is striking.
“[T]he black population of lifers reaches a remarkable 77% in Maryland”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states).

And finally, I heard something this week I haven’t heard before.
And maybe it has been said, and I just haven’t heard it,
but in the aftermath of the police killing
of Justine Damond Saturday a week ago,
the police chief in Minneapolis has already resigned
and publicly stated, “Justine did not have to die.
This should never have happened.”
No blue wall in Minneapolis this past week.
But of course, Justine was a beautiful, blond, white meditation instructor,
and the officer who shot her, Mohammed Noor, of Somalian descent.

The disgust must build, my friends—the rejections.
Because these are not isolated incidents,
but evidence of who we are,
and it’s only after confession that there can be repentance,
and only after repentance that there is a new positive to embrace.

There are stamps in our bulletin.
They’re a part of our history—part of our story, yes.
They’re also about how you get a message across.

There’s also a fist in our bulletin—
a raised fist.
It’s an offensive image to some—
as is Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the thing:
to consider the racial history of our country
is to find not a single advance that was not hard fought:
abolishing slavery,
segregating schools,
the civil rights bill.
Nothing was done out of any moral imperative of the majority.
Think about that.
It undermines so much of how we like to think of ourselves.
But we have too much engaged in the fatal flaw
of thinking we are who we’d like to think we are
instead of what we do.
Unfortunately it seems, historically speaking,
social justice is rarely offered.
It has to be demanded.
For while social justice is ultimately good for all,
it’s not as immediately profitable for some.
It does not justify the power to which some cling.

These are the realities against which
the words of Amos resound in our worship.
So this is some of what I think needs to be heard in our worship—
needs to hear from the church—
from us as followers of God in the way of Jesus:
that Black Lives Matter is not an arrogantly confrontative, exclusive claim
but the desperate, sad and lonely recognition that too much
in our culture, they don’t.
Our world needs to hear that we absolutely and completely
utterly reject any narrative of white supremacy as heresy—
racism as sin—
that we acknowledge how both lead to injustice
and to God’s utter disdain and contempt.

For if we do not confront and challenge such narratives,
we will be destroyed.
Oh, not by any external threat,
but in moral decay proudly clinging to rotting ideals.

Our love of country only has integrity
if we recognize and despise those parts of it that are evil.

Psychology teaches us you can’t really love yourself
until you embrace your shadow side.

Our youth and children Passport camp theme
was do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God—
a theme that rolls through this worship series.
And here’s a question for you:
if justice rolls down like waters,
what gets swept away?
If kindness and humility were prioritized—
if we lived in hope, not fear,
what would life in this country then be like?
More like God’s dream?

I am hopeful;
I am excited.
We can still be the church.
But only if we realize
that, according to God,
that doesn’t have to do with worship.
It doesn’t have to do with dogma.
It has to do with justice
and kindness
and humility.

I have a dream.