Sermon delivered on November 12, 2017
at First Congregational Church in Blue Hill
The run up to Thanksgiving feels as fraught this year as last, maybe more so as people dig in and refuse to sit at table with other family members after last year’s debacle. Uncle Fred didn’t know his niece was dating a person of color, and grandma’s comment about “queers” wasn’t really aimed at her grandson, but the damage was done and the wounds are not healed. There is no doubt plenty of “but it’s their turn” and “no way, I’m not going,” going on in households across the country.
It is hard to stay in relationship at the best of times, and the “me-first” rabid individualism of our consumer age is not the best of times. Add to that the Molotov cocktail of white nationalism and “us vs. them,” and it is surprising that any two people can sit in the same room, for while scripture may declare that where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, he too will be there, so am I convinced that where two or more are gathered there politics will be also. Reinhold Niebuhr famously called politics “where conscience and power meet,” but there isn’t always power, sometimes there is only longing for a world that could be, whether it is a world of some romanticized past or a world that is the stuff of dreams, Dickensian ghosts of what was and what might be. For the ghost of the present, politics is a free-floating anxiety, the elephant in every room.
Somewhere between ever smaller tribes of sameness and a passive acceptance of evil is a space for dialogue, for learning to disagree without being disagreeable, for covenant firmly anchored in core values. And while we do not have a creed, we in the United Church of Christ do have shared values, a shared commitment to the Way of Jesus, even if we’re not always completely sure what that means. We are committed to a God of love, to continuing testament, to extravagant hospitality, and to changing lives. And if we’ve read the gospels, we know that Jesus promises us that his Way is totally hard and totally worth it.
It was just a year ago that I stood in this pulpit and spoke about the surge in hate crimes the week after the election, though it feels like a decade of people being bristly and on edge. One of my favorite memes of this angry and divided time goes like this: “In all of the dystopian novels I’ve read, the resistance was never led by park rangers, but okay then”… And it was indeed the park rangers that went rogue and began the resistance to the gag orders imposed on civil servants and scientists. Our national crisis has created strange bedfellows as Democrats and Republicans work hand-in-hand to preserve our democratic institutions and the core values that bind us together as a nation, of native people, immigrants and former slaves. Our national crisis has created bizarre and new heroes, like Vanity Fair, a publication for the super-wealthy, and Teen Vogue.
Yes, I said Teen Vogue. This magazine should pretty much be the epicenter of all that is shallow and vain, yet it has become a voice for empowered young women who are no longer willing to live in a world of sexism and sexual harassment, a world of homophobia and hate. Under the leadership of Elaine Welteroth, recently profiled in the New York Times magazine, it has become topical and hard hitting. The reporter Jazmine Hughes, chronicles this shift, adding that it is in Teen Vogue’s best interest, because “Welteroth is catering to a generation that demands inclusivity and is increasingly sensitive to issues of diversity and representation and expects the same of its influencers.”
Let’s not pretend that the turn around at Teen Vogue was about the high road. This was about filthy lucre. In an age when people have declared that print is dead, it is adapt or really die, and the shareholders have other ideas. Which is true of pretty much everything that is alive, every complex system from the cell to the church, you can adapt or die.
For the hard core atheist, human intelligence is the result of a bazillion random rolls of the dice. The next roll is going to be just as random, so you might as well grab every pleasure you can for as long as you can. For the theist, even of the loosey-goosey progressive variety, life has meaning and direction, and human intelligence has meaning and direction, are meant to be aligned with the flow of divine creativity and goodness, meant to be transcendent. Unfortunately, human intelligence in the secular space often serves a reckless and destructive hedonism, while human intelligence in sacred space is unwelcome. Check you brain at the door. That’s not the way we do things around here.
And here are the prophets, and here in particular is Amos, completely unqualified to speak for God. He’s not even in his own country! His message is harsh. He says that what happens in worship disgusts God if it takes place in an unjust society. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”
“Let justice roll down.” Have you read the papers? Justice is not rolling down.
But that’s far away from Blue Hill, and here we give away tens of thousands to help the poor, so we’re golden, right? Back to our solemn assemblies and festivals.
And here are these brains, consuming a disproportionate amount of energy and keeping us awake at night.
Maybe we should use them.
I watched year after year as addicts, ex-cons, and the mentally ill, sometimes all three in one, those our society lets fall through the cracks, would travel to the affluent community for the soup kitchen, where they were served by the well-meaning but misguided. If there had been any effort to help move these folks out of poverty, it would have just been one more silo disconnected from countless other silos, a labyrinth of institutions and funding streams.
A colleague who was on the ground after Hurricane Andrew describes throwing fur coats off the side of the truck because who needs a fur coat in Florida after a hurricane! Journalists have detailed the disaster that happens after the disaster, like small towns in Alabama ravaged by tornadoes then having to figure out how to dispose of the warehouses full of broken toys and used underwear that had been “donated” to the relief efforts.
Churches travel to distant places to find poor people to serve in expensive and ineffective forms of mission tourism, as if they did not have the poor at home.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek pulled no punches in 2010 when he wrote:
When, confronted with the starving child, we are told: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can save her life!”, the true message is: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt, but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering!”
We can look down on the philosopher, because he wants to address the causes of povery and dares to call himself a Marxist. And we look down on the innovation of the business world and the shrewd and strategic thinking that produces results for the wealthy, because we are pure in heart, and besides, that soup kitchen was founded 25 years ago and those volunteers feel good about what they are doing. We want the 21st century when it comes to medicine, but are happy to stick with the 1st century when it comes to charity.
Except I’m tired of losing, and there are too many problems in the world for me to be putting my efforts into something that doesn’t work.
Show me that you are more concerned with the institution than the mission, more focused on the volunteers than on the needy, and I will show myself out the door.
There is not enough time fort hat nonsense. Imagination, creativity, and innovation are gifts from God. Intelligence is a gift from God.
On Easter weekend of 1988, I worshipped at the church in Manhattan where St. Thomas Merton converted to Catholicism, and rode the streets at night with Covenant House, a charity serving homeless youth and teen prostitutes, handing out sandwiches, gloves, and etc. That charity would be caught up in a scandal of its own a couple of years later, not unlike the scandals currently surrounding Kevin Spacey and Roy Moore, but at the time it was still a financial juggernaut, and I was meant to learn how it made enough money to buy up Manhattan real estate. But there in the van, down at the pier, I couldn’t help but wonder if we weren’t simply helping these kids stay on the streets.
Let justice roll! I’ll post a meme on Facebook and sign a petition at change.org and send a donation to some charity that helps attractive white people and feel good. Thank you, Žižek.
But not everyone is happy to look away, to slap on a band-aid and move on.
The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize went to Muhammed Yunus and Grameen Bank, pioneers in microcredit. Yunus started in 1976 with $27 of his own money and made loans to 42 women so they could buy bamboo at reasonable rates to weave furniture. By 1997, he had founded the village phone project, providing a source of income and connecting remote villages. By the year after Yunus and Grameen Bank had won the peace prize, the bank had lent out US$6.38 billion to over seven million borrowers, 94% of them women, always the most vulnerable to poverty in our unjust and patriarchal world.
This is the innovative empowerment thinking that created Heifer International, a charity so familiar to us. Heifer does not hand out food, it hands out livestock that allows the poor to produce food and surplus to sell. And it doesn’t stop there, because giving someone a cow does no good if they don’t know how to take care of a cow, so it comes with education. Many programs work on a re-gifting model, where say the first calf must then be passed on to another family.
It turns out homeless shelters don’t work, but tiny houses do.
I was recently asked why our incredibly generous Dolly Fisher Fund program to help the needy didn’t include rent assistance. My response was that unstable housing is a chronic problem here, poorly insulated and dilapidated trailers up dirt roads that become impassable during a winter storm, so that jobs are lost and the family falls further behind, children missing school, frozen wells. If you want to lift people out of poverty, I suggested, create energy efficient affordable housing in town, something our neighborhood grocer already figured out.
I love Amos but justice doesn’t roll down anymore than does wealth, and we know where trickle down economics got us. Justice rolls up. Help the poorest and the whole society benefits. Living wages and stable housing are the best answer to crime, not more corporate prisons. Those who insist on hand-outs and top down charity, on institutional silos, who refuse to read the papers that come out about innovative programs and innovative thinking might as well burn the green papers that they give to charity.
We are not going to solve a problem that is thousands of years old with thinking that is thousands of years old. And we are not going to create a just society with a weekly hour of wishful thinking and social niceties. I’m glad we happen to live in a state with a key Senate vote and that enough of us made phone calls to save, at least for now, the Affordable Care Act, because when we fail, people die. And we do fail on so many issues and so many people die.
I’m tired of losing. How have we not figured out yet what the Koch brothers figured out years ago, that if you control the State Legislatures, you control the nation?
I can’t afford to turn away and we are never going to get anywhere if we refuse to talk about difficult things.
Our faith exists because of three thousands years of innovation and adaptation. The Hebrews were religious innovators. The prophets were innovators. Jesus was an innovator and were his followers, challenging the mighty with their love. The Protestant Reformation was innovation, and it was innovation that brought colonists across the sea, that founded a Congregational Church in Blue Hill.
Uncle Fred still wants a world where white men can do anything they want to anybody they want. That isn’t what Jesus wants, isn’t what I want, isn’t what you want. So should you find yourself at table eating a serving of racism and sexism along with your pumpkin pie, maybe you can speak up with love, claim your faith, and then, when you’ve slept off the turkey. Get up and work on that justice thing.
It’s gonna take some research and that probably means the internet… a perfect excuse to buy yourself a new tablet on Cyber Monday.
May you find in yourself the courage of Amos and the nimbleness of Teen Vogue. And may justice roll. Amen.