Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Pile of Sin, and What to Do About It

Practicing Repentance:
A Pile of Sin, and What to Do About It

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, September 28, 2008

Sometime shortly after the assassination attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, Earl Brill, an Episcopal priest then on the staff of the College of Preachers, noted that he had gone the following Sunday to the National Cathedral and was stunned by the fact that not a word was said about the assassination incident. “Ronald our President” was dutifully prayed for in the Prayers of the People. That was that. Brill was horrified that the Church was so out of touch with what was going on in the nation.

A decade and a half later, I was on vacation during the week of the bombing of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. When I returned, I opened a very thoughtful note from an upset parishioner who wondered how on earth such a thing could happen and merit not even a word of prayer in the liturgy the following Sunday. She was horrified that the Church was so insensitive to what was going on in the nation.

The chatter about billions and bailout, economists and politicians, Treasury and the Fed, Wall Street and Main Street this week has me dizzy and bewildered. I was almost at the point of dodging saying anything at all about what by all accounts is the most serious economic challenge since the Great Depression. Then I heard the voices of Brill and my erstwhile parishioner. Does the Church have nothing to say about all that is happening in the nation?

And if we do have something to say, what? Shall we just be somebody else, flailing about, blaming the fat cats on Wall Street, calling for the resignation of first one and then another official? Shall we speak in platitudes about “the market” and “corruption”? Or do we join the chorus of economists, editorialists, and columnists who apparently know what ought to be done?

The Christian faith does have something to say about all this, different from any of those alternatives. And it might surprise you that it has to do with a theme imbedded in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus’ parable about the two sons, both of whom say one thing and do another, is about the simplest and easiest to understand of all his parables. On one level, of course, it is about the religious establishment who politely say that they will go and do what God bids them, but do nothing of the kind. In contrast, those who at first refuse but later accede to God’s will are the outcasts and sinners. They catch on to the message, change their minds, and change their behavior too.

When we open up the parable we find that what distinguishes the faithful son from the faithless son is not what each one believes but how each one acts. And the distinguishing activity of the second son is that he changes his mind. To put it another way, he repents. I don’t normally like sermons that do word studies, but this one I can’t pass up. The New Testament term for repentance is μετανοια, which means a change of mind. Matthew does not use that word here, but one that makes the same connection between repenting and changing one’s mind. So his story sets up a model that is key to understanding an urgently important dimension of the Reign of God, or what I like to call the Realm of Truth. That model is repentance: changing one’s mind and thus one’s whole program, issuing in radically new behavior.

Thus we come to discuss another practice in the Christian life in a series of sermons that focus on basic Christian practices. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the connection between the practice of repentance and the near catastrophe in the economy would lead very quickly into an easy, superficial moralism that wags a bony finger in the face of greedy financiers and says, “Naughty, naughty. You should have been less greedy and more generous.” What would happen, however, if we were to suspend blaming and shaming long enough to take a good look at what repentance involves? Might we come to see that what has happened on Wall Street is not an isolated case of something gone wrong on a massive scale? And we might come to see that it surely won’t be fixed by draconian measures to make private debts public.

In my opinion, it is impossible to talk about repentance without first coming to terms with the fact that there is such a thing as Justice in the universe. There is a thing called Equality and its twin called Fairness. If you go down to the Justice Department Building you will see the ancient symbol of Justice: a blindfolded woman holding scales. The very image of impartial weighing suggests that there is something about Justice that brings things into balance. Justice in the moral realm is like gravity in the physical realm. It just is. And ultimately the nature of the universe, through and through, is that what is out of balance will be brought back into balance. Nature ultimately rights itself, which, by the way, is one reason why climate change is so horrendously disturbing. Nature will not remain out of balance forever. Justice is the name we give to the same principle applied to human behavior. We cannot get away with imbalance and inequality forever.

Lincoln in his Second Inaugural dealt with the ultimacy of Justice when he said,
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’

In other words, Justice is not just a good idea. It is something that is built into the fabric of the universe, an inescapable reality in the world of human behavior. Like Lincoln quoting the Hebrew scriptures, I understand Justice to be divine business. Justice is what God uses to bring balance to a severely unbalanced world.

And the thing that we humans most need to understand about Justice is that we participate in it by acting justly. One of many ways, but certainly not the only one, that we can act unjustly (and therefore be out of balance) is to be grasping, seizing for private use what belongs to another or what belongs equally to all. As one of our hymns puts it, “…we hoard as private treasure all that [God] so freely gives.” When we begin doing that, whether we live on Park Road or Newton Street or Wall Street, we are skating on ice that will assuredly break.

And so repentance, a change of mind, becomes essential and even urgent. We need to move back into a right relationship with God the Source and Creator of all things, and we need to move back into a state of balance—equality—with our neighbors. Now if you have noticed I have gone this far and have yet to mention the s- word: sin. Maybe now we can talk about sin without getting hung up on the the fallacy of relating it to a cosmic-sized list of no-no’s. Sin, before it is an act, is a condition. And the fundamental condition is being estranged from God, out of proper balance with creation, with our neighbors, with ourselves.

In order to become more and more just, we have to be able to recognize our sin. As our baptismal covenant puts is, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The only way we can do that is by being able to recognize when we are in fact out of moral whack. The next step is to confess it. And the next is to accept the forgiveness that is freely offered us. Then we are in a position to change our minds, which means really to change our entire direction, and thus our behavior.

What we have just done is open up the gospel story of the two sons, view it all in slow motion, and see what happens when the first son moves from a willful stubbornness that disregards his father’s will to a changed behavior that begins to be in line with the truth, which includes his own wellbeing. And we can begin to connect the dots and see how all this applies to the economic mess we are in at the moment.

The whole thing got out of whack. Greed, avarice, unbridled competition, unregulated risks, all fueled what everyone knew and could have predicted would eventually happen. There would be hell to pay. You can say it in one of many ways. “Nothing is free,” is one. “Justice will finally exact her wages,” is another. “God’s will can be denied at one’s own peril,” is a third. It all boils down to a scenario that develops when humans start behaving in a grasping, overweening, unaccountable manner. And I would emphasize that the lesson to be learned here is not one that applies only to bankers and investors, but to everyone.

The thing that we as individuals and we as the Christian community need to be on the lookout for at this stage is the danger of piling on sin upon sin by extending the inequity by letting the rich and powerful avoid Justice by skating over the faces of the poor. People don't like to come to Justice, especially if they are going to have to pay. We can reasonably predict that a result of the economic calamity will be drastic reductions in government budgets on all levels. And who will pay? The most vulnerable, who are dependent on government services: the poor. That would be a grave injustice.

There is some Good News in all this. We do not have to remain stuck in willful disdain of Justice or the God of Justice. We can change. One son in Jesus’ story did. Might that son have been you?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Shadow Side of Politics

Obama and The Palin Effect

From: Deepak Chopra | Posted: Friday, September 5th, 2008

Sometimes politics has the uncanny effect of mirroring the national psyche even when nobody intended to do that. This is perfectly illustrated by the rousing effect that Gov. Sarah Palin had on the Republican convention in Minneapolis this week. On the surface, she outdoes former Vice President Dan Quayle as an unlikely choice, given her negligent parochial expertise in the complex affairs of governing. Her state of Alaska has less than 700,000 residents, which reduces the job ofgovernor to the scale of running one-tenth of New York City. By comparison, Rudy Giuliani is a towering international figure. Palin's pluck has been admired, and her forthrightness, but her real appeal goes deeper.

She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue, and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of "the other." For millions of Americans, Obama triggers those feelings, but they don't want to express them. He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind. (Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a verbal play out of the fact that Sen. Obama is black. The shadow is a metaphor widely in use before his arrival on the scene.)

I recognize that psychological analysis of politics is usually not welcome by the public, but I believe such a perspective can be helpful here to understand Palin's message. In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to
change and a higher vision.

Look at what she stands for:

--Small town values -- a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism.

--Ignorance of world affairs -- a repudiation of the need to repair America's image abroad.

--Family values -- a code for walling out anybody who makes a claim for social justice. Such strangers, being outside the family, don't need to be heeded.

--Rigid stands on guns and abortion -- a scornful repudiation that these issues can be negotiated with those who disagree.

--Patriotism -- the usual fallback in a failed war.

--"Reform" -- an italicized term, since in addition to cleaning out corruption and excessive spending, one also throws out anyone who doesn't
fit your ideology.

Palin reinforces the overall message of the reactionary right, which has been in play since 1980, that social justice is liberal-radical, that minorities and immigrants, being different from "us" pure American types,can be ignored, that progressivism takes too much effort and globalism isa foreign threat. The radical right marches under the banners of "I'm allright, Jack," and "Why change? Everything's OK as it is." The irony, of course, is that Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time.

She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing forty years of feminist progress. The irony is superficial; there are millions of women who stand on the side of conservatism, however obviously they are voting against their own good. The Republicans have won multiple national elections by raising shadow issues based on fear, rejection, hostility to change, and narrow-mindedness.

Obama's call for higher ideals in politics can't be seen in a vacuum. The shadow is real; it was bound to respond. Not just conservatives possess a shadow -- we all do. So what comes next is a contest between the two forces of progress and inertia. Will the shadow win again, or has its furtive appeal become exhausted? No one can predict. The best thing about Gov. Palin is that she brought this conflict to light, which makes the upcoming debate honest. It would be a shame to elect another Reagan, whose smiling persona was a stalking horse for the reactionary forces that have brought us to the demoralized state we are in. We deserve to see what we are getting, without disguise.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Would Someone Please Explain to Me How It Is?

How is it that John Kerry deserved to be mocked by the Republicans passing out purple heart band aids at their convention in 2004, and yet John McCain deserves to be Commander-in-Chief because he was a POW?

How is it that God is somehow pleased with trashing the environment, tax cuts for the wealthy, uninsured millions, torture, and character assassination in exchange for a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage?

How is it that it is good business to deal with the world's largest communist country, China, but un-American to open up dialogue and trade with Cuba?

How is it that liberals are responsible for premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies, yet when they happen in the family of the Governor of Alaska, families have a right to privacy and deserve to be left alone, except of course, when they are useful in television advertising during political conventions?

How is it that Hillary Clinton is a bitch because she is a strong woman seeking public office and Sarah Palin is hip because she loves to fire a gun, hunt, and cuss with the boys?

How is it that wearing the flag (against custom and tradition that the flag not to be used for personal decoration) becomes the token of someone's patriotism?

How is it that "the surge worked" gets to be the test of someone's acumen at appraising a war when (a) lots of factors besides the surge were in play and (b) the surge came four years and thousands of deaths late?

How is it that when Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky he was "sleazy," yet when George Bush lied in his State of the Union about nuclear materials being acquired by Iraq, he is either ignored, assumed to be telling a truth against all evidence, or is given a pass?

How is it that dozens of Republican congressmen and senators have offices run by or filled with gay staffers, yet vote against protecting the civil rights of those same gay staffers?

For that matter, how it is that a gay person can look at himself or herself in the mirror while working for an anti-gay Republican legislator?

How is it that experience is the key factor in a presidential election until one of the candidates chooses a running mate that is totally inexperienced to the point of not knowing what a Vice President's duties are, at which point "change" becomes the main issue of the campaign?

How is it that Michelle Obama is suspect because she said at last she was really proud of her country, but Todd Palin, a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, is an all-American husband although he publicly disdained the Union?

How is it that Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia, had too little experience to be Vice Presidential material because he had only been mayor of a small city (Richmond) and governor of a “small” state, while Sarah Palin is qualified to be Vice President because she has been mayor of Wasilla (population in 2007: 9780) and governor of the least densely populated state in the naton?

How is it that in three of the last three Republican administrations we have had recessions or serious economic downturns (Reagan, 1981; George H. W. Bush, 1991; George W. Bush, 2007-8) and yet people with money feel more enthusiastic about Republican economic policy?

How is it that a young person choosing to give several years of his or her life to community organizing, working to improve human lives and living conditions, draws scorn?

How is it that, as mayor, trying to get a librarian fired for not purging the library of books that you disagree with, is not enough to make you suspect for not understanding one of the basic tenets of a free society?

How is it that the longest periods of sustained prosperity since World War II happened during Democratic administrations (Kennedy/Johnson, Clinton) and Republicans declare that Democrats bankrupt the country and only raise taxes?

How is that Reagan racked up the hugest deficits in history (until Bush), and the debt under George W. Bush has zoomed to trillions, and yet Democrats are accused of being the big spenders?

How is it that the media are liberal and not to be trusted to tell the truth, but when they convey trash about the Democratic candidate, no matter how fabricated, they are immediately believed?

How is it that when John McCain uses his “lipstick on a pig” metaphor to accuse Hillary Clinton of warming over her old health care plan, he is “talking straight” but when Obama uses the same metaphor not even talking about Sarah Palin he is accused of being sexist, with Republican women in the House demanding that he apologize for something he has not even said?

How is it that Sarah Palin can make sexist and racist slurs and she is excused “because that is the way Alaskans talk” while Obama is accused of racism on the basis of what his pastor said in a sermon that he never even heard?

How is it that a President who dodged the draft by going into the Texas Air National Guard with his father’s political pull, and a Vice President who had “better things to do” than go to Viet Nam are presumed to have what it takes to lead a nation’s military and foreign policy, and in the next election one must have been a POW to have credibility to become Commander-in-Chief?

How is it that after eight years of disastrous wars, failed foreign policy, a shrinking economy, environmental disasters, inept government (Brownie, Gonzales, Miers) rising unemployment, soaring health care costs, people expect change from two people committed to the same failed policies?

How is it that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can be “agents of intolerance” in 2000 but John Hagee’s endorsement can be coveted in 2008 (until pressure mounts to renounce him) and you can still maintain the line that you are a straight talker?

How is it that “maverick” became a label that anyone thought qualified one to be President?

How is it that John McCain can change his mind on immigration, taxes, the environment, and any number of other issues, and still be a straight shooter, whereas John Kerry is mocked for changing his mind by a host of people chanting, “Flip-flop, flip-flop”?

How is that a party can continue to fabricate, lie, smear, trash, slash, and burn its way through election after election and still maintain that it is doing it all in the name of heaven and argue that it is the party to bring about real change?

How is it that the Constitution is a sacred document not to be tampered with and strictly to be adhered to, to the point of denying the vote to an entire area of the country called the District of Columbia, but can be mocked by a Vice Presidential Candidate who falsely accuses her opponent of worrying about reading accused persons their constitutional rights?

How is it that an electorate could possibly keep voting against its own interests because it continues to believe that they will be better off if homosexuals are worse off?

How is it that, after six years, some people, including the Vice President, continue to argue that Saddam Hussein’s finger was on the 9/11 attacks and that whether they were found at all, he had weapons of mass destruction?

How is it that 2/3 of the country could believe one month that the nation is on the wrong track, moving in the wrong direction, and the next month seriously consider voting to keep it moving in the same direction?

How is it that when courts interpret the law in ways that differ from conservatives the judges are “activists” and when they make sweeping changes that accord with conservatives, they are simply interpreting the Constitution?

How is it that when Barack Obama draws thousands in this country and abroad he is dismissed as a phony (or dangerous) celebrity, and when hundreds flock to cheer Sarah Palin she is lauded as being poised for having been a beauty queen?

How is it that you can wade through these questions and not be just a little sick at hypocrisy and falsehood?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Is the World Ready for What the Church Can Give It?

Practicing Shaping Community:
Is the World Ready for the Gift the Church Can Give It?

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, September 7, 2008

“And just why is it that the church is so important?” asked a visitor of Dr. Samuel Johnson, eighteenth century England’s prototypical scholar. The visitor went on to make a case that was to become standard fare for many people in American society two centuries later. I can worship on my own. My relationship with God is my own business. Religion is personal. Organized religion gets in the way of being spiritual. Dr. Johnson said not a word, but reached his tongs into the coal fire in front of him and his visitor and plucked a burning coal and set it on the hearth, alone. The conversation went on to other subjects. In a few minutes, Johnson remarked to the guest, “You observe what has happened to the coal, Sir. It no longer burns. That is what happens to a Christian who tries to practice faith apart from the community of faith.”

Christians practice faith in community. Someone has put it this way: that the perennial strategy of Christianity is to gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories. The amazing photography of Jim Stipe that hangs behind me this morning well illustrates that. On the left you see the bowl in the baptismal font. Baptism is the original act of bringing someone into the assembly. It is indeed the way we create community. You remember your baptism every time you pass through the door into this place, reach your hands into the font, and sign yourself with the cross you first received on your baptismal day. Today we’re bringing Anna into the Body of Christ. From today onward, she is as much a Christian as she will ever be, just as the oak seedling is as truly oak as is the five hundred year old oak in Rock Creek Park. We bring Anna into this community of faith precisely so that she can grow into the fullness of all her potential, spiritual as well as physical and mental.

In the photograph on the right, you see the Eucharistic feeding. When we celebrate the Holy Communion today, as every Sunday, we proclaim that through his gifts of bread and wine Jesus is, as he promises in today’s gospel, present with his community. More than any other thing at St. Stephen’s, the way we celebrate communion, gathered in a circle around the Table where everyone has a place, illustrates what we understand community to be. It is a gathering of all God’s people, where Anna, the newest member, has as definite a place as Edith or Vivian or Bill or Doris or Daphne who have been here for decades.

So between the time we gather the baptized and the time we break the bread we tell the stories. And in the middle photograph, you see hands holding the Bible. How do you think of the Bible? As an almanac predicting events? As answer book to life’s questions and problems? I suspect that most of us think of it the way we first learned it: as a storybook. We are spending an entire year, beginning today, focusing on the theme of “story.” Most, though not all, of our formative stories can be found between the covers of the Bible. The themes of the Bible, especially its major theme, “I will be their God and they shall be my people,” inform the other stories, large and small, that we tell and retell to define who we are.

These things are our sacred symbols. Water, bread, wine, story form the core of who we are. But the core is not all there is to the apple. Shaping community takes practice. I began several weeks ago leading us through a series of sermons that focus on Christian practices, some of the habitual things that we do to live out our faith. So far we have looked at two of these, discernment and proclamation. Shaping community is a third practice. Much of The New Testament is about this practice. We see the fledgling church organizing itself in the Book of Acts, and thanks to those who preserved many of Paul’s letters, we see some of the challenges that these new communities faced.

One such challenge lies behind today’s gospel lesson. Every community has to deal with the forces inside it that threaten to unravel its very fabric. And maybe the most common of those is evident when a member does another member wrong. Matthew’s gospel painstakingly sets forward a procedure of what the Christian community is to do when that happens. Shaping community, however, goes on in many ways beyond handling disagreements. The interesting thing is that Matthew’s community employs, or at least is enjoined to use, a principle in adjudicating disputes that has a much wider application. It is what I would call “speaking the truth in love” one to another. We cannot be sure that Matthew’s community, any more than Paul’s communities, always practiced that principle. Maybe they were at each other’s throats (read the Letters to the Corinthians, for example). But the principle is one that consistently reflects one of the chief values of Christian community: the virtue of honesty. In order for there to be a viable community, the members of it have to be able to be honest with each other.

What happens when we speak the truth, sometimes difficult and hard, to one another in love? Do people cringe and fall silent? Get into arguments? Withdraw? Zoom in to St. Stephen’s. What do you imagine to be the most seriously divisive issues that do or could come about among us? At this point in our life together, it seems to me that there are a couple of things that we are going to have to deal with before Anna reaches high school age. One of these is that our diversity will become harder and harder to preserve, given the changes that are happening in our neighborhood. As that develops, my guess is that we will have the choice of becoming defensive and reactive, or becoming creative in figuring out ways that such an important value to us can maintain its centrality. Another issue that will continue to require our speaking the truth in love will have to do with inevitable conflicts that arise when resources are scarce and when many needs compete against each other. Neither of these things is new. Both of them will continue to require us to make a priority of facing the tough issues with each other with candor, respect, and forthrightness.

Sometimes when we stand and renew our baptismal covenant, which we shall do in a few moments, I wonder what would happen if the Christian community were to realize that one of the greatest gifts we have to give the world (which might, in fact, be just what the world needs to be saved, quite literally) is the model of what a community can be. If our political process, for example, were to catch just a little bit of the notion of truth telling with respect (notice how I am re-casting the idea of “speaking the truth in love” for a broader audience!) how might our fractious, polarized country come together in common endeavor? The Church, as Archbishop William Temple once said, “is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” By practicing shaping a community in which we can safely speak the truth in love to one another, honestly and faithfully, Christians can show the rest of the world the possibility of living respectfully with neighbors who are different from us. We can demonstrate that it is possible to accord even our enemies basic respect. We can perhaps even cause people to stop and wonder at how a Christian assembly can hold up a little girl named Anna, like the wise old Baboon Rafiki holds up Simba, the infant Lion King in the story by that name, as if Anna were the incarnation which all creation has been awaiting and to whom the whole Circle of Life bows the knee. By shaping such a community we might actually give to the rest of our brothers and sisters in the world a model of how, with a little water, bread, wine, and a set of life-giving stories, we can fashion a common life in which people are treated as if they were in fact holy, and in which justice and peace are realities sitting on the bench beside you.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Reasons why I might vote for Obama

George W. Bush
Dick Cheney
Karl Rove
Mission Accomplished
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Abu Graib
Privatizing Social Security
Alberto Gonzales
Harriet Miers
Tom DeLay
Fox News
Kenny Boy Lay
Seven Houses
Cindy McCain’s $300,000 dress
Family Values
Donald Rumsfeld
John Ashcroft
Valerie Plame
Scooter Libby
No New Taxes
Global Warming
Kathleen Harris
Dead or Alive
Ann Coulter
One Man One Woman
$9 Trillion National Debt
John Bolton
$4 per gallon
Slam Dunk
Swiftboat Veterans for Truth
Terrorist Alert Today: Orange
Rush Limbaugh
Heckuva Job, Brownie
Bring ‘em on
Condaleezza Rice
Flag pins
Walter Reed
George Tenet
Body Armor
Ted Stevens
Jack Abramoff
Larry Craig
Old Europe
Axis of Evil
Rick Santorum
Ted Haggard
Yellow Cake
Bridge to Nowhere
Anti-ballistic missile treaty (Bush pulled out)
Duke Cunningham
Ralph Reed
Intelligent Design
Spokane Mayor Jim West
Bush v. Gore
Bill O’Reilly
Trent Lott
James Inhofe
Mark Foley
Veto of the SCHIP act
100 Years in Iraq, I don’t care
United Nations Population Fund
Bob Ney
Patriot Act
Terry Schiavo
Flight Suit
James Dobson
Texas Air National Guard
Paul Crouch
John McCain: “I really don’t understand the economy”
Kyoto Accords
Stem Cell Research
Samuel Alito and John Roberts
Or, for that matter, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
Paul Wolfowitz
Richard Perle
The N. R. A.