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.

No comments: