Sermon Notes, Proper 13 year C

Just a couple thoughts about preaching this Sunday.

I was wondering about the relationship of the brothers. Is there a way to talk about rivalry and resentment here? Jesus response about greed invites my thinking about Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street where he tell students that “greed is good.” How do we express an alternate ethic, and why – when and if greed gives us all sorts of pretty things?

I was thinking about how the purpose of money is, in part, to circulate, to share. This is in contrast with hoarding. The rich man hoards – invests – in food he will not eat to day but in some unspecified date in the future. Instead, Jesus says “eat now.” Bring tomorrow today. It reminds me how I often think that tomorrow is the best day to start a diet, rather than now.

The body needs blood to circulate; the economy needs money to circulate. So what is it that we hoard? What kind of hoarding stultifies our lives? Is it about sentimentality? Is it a critique of attachment? Or is it a warning that we are always idol making creatures, to easily collecting burdens we don’t need to have. Perhaps the message is “keep moving.” Or die.

On the Killing of Chris Stevens

Yesterday Chris Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, was killed by armed men, fundamentalists offended by a video produced here in the United States.  It was a horrible act, one that deserves condemnation.

The Ambassador, by all accounts, represented the best of our foreign service.  He did not get his job because of his contributions to the administration.  He was a career diplomat, someone who served the country through the challenging work of diplomacy.  It’s not an easy job, but it is crucial.  We do not appreciate these sorts of men and women enough.   A good diplomat often earns the respect of the country they serve.  Chris Stevens did.

Good diplomats are truly the first line of defense against aggression.

The initiating cause was a hate-video written for the incendiary purposes of terrifying non-Muslims and insulting the faithful.    They’re excuse:  to inform.  It’s like crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater in order to see if the exit signs work.  The authors are now in hiding – as they should be.  They are cowards.

We are fortunate to live in a country with free speech.  But in an interconnected world what we say gets heard in the rest of the world.    We should be prepared when what we say takes a knife into the hearts of others.

But we need not lose heart.  Plenty of Muslims in the world understand that this is not the American Government.  They also, however, have opportunists who benefit from harnessing violence.  And so the cycle of hate continues.

We need not agree with glib statements that religion causes violence.  In many places throughout the world in history religions have existed together.  But when people in power are themselves fearful and society is anxious, it’s easy to light a match under the feet of the worried and watch the world burn to distract attention upon themselves.

We are one of the few countries where religious tolerance, with some exceptions, is part of our DNA.  Yes, although the Mormons, Amish, Catholics, Atheists and Jews have all experienced hardships, by and large they were each able to carve out places in our public life.  That we have been able to do this is in part because of our beginnings.  John Locke, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson showed no intellectual favoritism; and this was shared by many of their countrymen.

So what we do matters.  It matters that we have protestants and Roman Catholics living side by side.  It matters that Hindus go to Indian restaurants owned by Muslims.  It matters that Jewish institutions finance interfaith works here in Westchester.  Because it reminds the world that different religions can live in peace.

But opportunists know how to fan the flames.  And that’s who we’re talking about.  Opportunists made the video.  Opportunists stormed the embassy.  Most Americans would find the video, itself, scandalous; and few Libyans would support the murder of innocents.  Even now, they are protesting the murders.

The world watches.  If we permit interfaith hatred, it illustrates to other countries that diversity of faith is a threat to social order.  But when we visit and trust our neighbors, we show a better way.  When anyone in our country encourages Islamophobia, we should be clear:  those are not our values.   It was appropriate for the president to say that America does not seek to insult people of different faiths – because it’s true.  Even George Bush called Islam a “noble religion.” “Nobility” aside, insulting others won’t bring peace.  Showing how we live together might.

We can demonstrate a different way.

Theory of Moral Sentiments 1:2-6

[This is part of my steady series of reading Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, one page at a time.]

What is sympathy?  The source is our ability to conceive or imagine the same emotion as someone else.   We flinch when we see someone else get hurt.  One itches, another itches.  One yawns, another yawn.  “Grief and joy affect the spectator with … painful or agreeable emotion.”  Smith also calls this “fellow-feeling.”

Even stories:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” – the bystander imagines the sentiments of the sufferer.

Smith distinguishes between pity, compassion and sympathy.  Pity and compassion are concerned with suffering, while sympathy is a more general term for all “fellow-feeling.”  “Sympathy” is Smith’s word that is Girard would say represents the mimetic nature of the human mind.

The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.

Sermon Prep, Pentecost X

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

A parishioner remarked “this is the time to discuss planned giving.”

I may, to shake it up a bit, begin with discussing why I love money.  I’ll declare I’m pretty rich – which I am, compared to most people in the world.  Just not compared to my neighbors.  And then my retirement plan.

There’s a bit more than simply “greed is bad” going on here.  Is it “greed is bad” and “you might die tomorrow”?  I remember tha bumper sticker:  whoever dies with the most toys wins.

Do I get political?  Billionaires who have died this year have been able to create little monarchies because they’ve been able to avoid paying taxes.

Richard Layard notes the limites of happiness.  Building a bigger barn won’t do it.

Catherine Caimano preaches a very good sermon, but I might try to make the challenges more severe.    there’s no way to get around the apocalyptic depth of the message.

Are we being encouraged to look busy?  To prepare for death?  Or Is Jesus implying, “don’t save up to party in the future!  Party now!”  Has the world so fallen apart, that our hands are the emergency rescue team for the earth?  And can we do it?   Should we?  Must we?

It is not an anti-abundance message, I suspect.  It is a challenge to acquisitiveness for its own sake.   Such tendencies are built on the foundation of our anxieties as we compare ourselves to others.   Why must we compare our lives so when the only judge we need to know is Jesus Christ?

The Tea Party

I’m in the midst of doing some community organizing in my county, and I’ve been struck by the contrast between the work I’ve been doing and what is happening in the tea party “movement.”

Some interesting social analysis has been done about them.  Most of the tea party is white.  They don’t want to be told what to do.  It represents the hyperindividualism that reflects part of our cultural consciousness, and the more recently cultivated antagonism toward the behemoth that is The Government.

Reasonable people can critique the “therapeutic state” and its diminishment of civil liberties.   Institutions, after all, engineer cultures (did you know that the English propensity toward tea was based primarily on a conscious decision to prefer Tea corporations to Coffee corporations?).   Anger toward corporations, generally, is well placed, even if tea partiers aren’t that consistent.

But the tea party, which seems proud that there is little leadership or organization, seems to be blind about the nature institutions, government and the public.  Their view is of the mass, “taking over” which is more like the cultural revolution (choose any) than of getting work done.

The tea “party” ignores that politics is about people in institutions.  Joe Schmoe is just a dude spouting off about paying taxes.  He’s got some anecdotes, and he’s pissed, but just because he knows his car’s broken doesn’t mean he knows how to fix it.   It just looks like another narcissistic blowhard who doesn’t know who’s responsible for his lowered standards.

Good Government requires some leadership and management skills.  Politicians will make difficult decisions.  If tea partiers don’t want leaders, and don’t think government should manage, their task is going to be incredibly challenging as they get stuck in their internal bickering.   They will perpetually seek a consensus that will never emerge.

No government will make everyone happy.   Kenneth Arrow showed, in my view, decisively that there is no perfect government or economic system.  Someone will feel screwed.   Perhaps the rich will find some of their money confiscated; or the middle class will find their pensions cut.  Sometimes liberty wins, sometimes security.  But in a democracy we live together whether we win, or lose.   Although I talked, admittedly, about emigrating to the Netherlands after Bush won a second election.

Leaders will inevitably disappoint some people.  It’s the nature of leaders that they get hit, that they compromise, and choose between two bad, or two good, decisions.   A tea party that isn’t sure what it wants, besides being left alone, and resists any leader trying to compromise between the various publics, will find itself just another discussion group, a loud mob unable to accomplish anything.

I have not been worried about the tea party because they do not take organizing seriously.  In someways, they are like some parts (not all, of course) left – get people angry, hold a couple marches, find some politician who says what you want to hear. The hard work of engaging communities, discerning their values, discovering what keeps people up at night, and then acting upon it, is substituted for quick fixes.  Like corporations, politicians and even some progressives, the tea party thinks there is a quick fix, and that is to vote the bums out.

It doesn’t work like that.  It’s one reason I fell in love with the church. Granted, plenty of priests try to find quick fixes.  The daily life of church, however, resists it. Although I believe there may need to be a reboot of the church,  bodies of people coming together are what the church does.  Perhaps we have not done so well at that over the last 30 years.  We’ve not been able to manage within the new economy of attention.  I don’t think it’s hopeless, but I do think it will require a different kind of work.  The tea-party illustrates what we should not be doing.

I’m not hard on the tea party.  As a reformed anarchist, I’m actually sympathetic, aside from it’s loose resentments that stem from race populism.  I wish that there were some elected officials who would really challenge the economic system.  As it is, some of the tea party officials seem like stooges for state capitalism.    Which is a lot different than democratic capitalism.

One of the reasons I think that democracy, and capitalism, are fruits of some hard consequences of Christian morality is because, in the case of democracy, we learn to lose some times; and when we win, we treat the losers with respect.  Battling things politically is far better than fighting a civil war.  In capitalism, we coordinate desires, trusting in each other’s ability to share goods (I’m not talking about the system of high finance).  They are held in tension – sometimes they contradict each other.   And then we should be able to learn to choose.

The tea party needs to learn how to live within the former.

Prolegomena to the Current Anglican Crisis

After a recent exchange on another blog, I’d like to address a few reasons why  reasserters and reappraisers do not understand each others’ arguments.  It seems to me that we see our current context with very different lenses, and thus our discussions easily veer off track.

What I’d like to offer are a series of broader issues, one that isn’t exhaustive,  that shape the conflict.  Perhaps by examining these descriptively, we can address our different prescriptions.

1.  A general crisis of authority.  Over the last 50 years, all our major institutions are not trusted by the laity.  There has been a crisis in the authority of scripture and the church.  This parallels a lack of trust in governments as well.

2. An alteration in the relationship between public and private.  Sex was once private, but is now ubiquitous, in part because it is used to sell products.  Public persons are not merely individuals representing institutions, but persons who’s private lives are also public.

3. The introduction of the market into institutions that had previously been sheltered from competition.  These include the church, social service organizations, and unions.

4. The immediacy of communication.  This undermines the virtues of reflection, prudence and even the Sabbath itself.  Videos and emails are exchanged quickly without consideration about their underlying meanings or the proper audience.   Although audiences are easily segmented, anyone can be a hearer, and may hear exactly the opposite of what the speaker intends.

5. The reconceptualization of place.  Cyberspace dictates the rules of civil engagement.  Geography has less of a hold on identity.  Much of our battle happens in cyberspace, and not in person.  However, it is still physical persons who make decisions and operate institutions.

6. The social engagement of more Americans with non-Christians.  This directly impacts how the average lay person thinks of heaven, hell and the uniqueness of Christian doctrine.

7. The diminishing consequences of sex outside of marriage.

8. The effect of capital upon churches and the liberation of desire for the sake of profit.

9.  Our lives and ideologies are generally fragmented, and we put them back together again sometimes in haphazard ways.

Until we can get an accurate description of our cultural context, it will be a challenge for us to even understand our proscriptions.

By and large, the progressive church has accepted the impact of liberal capitalism into the sphere of social relationships.  Some have some antagonism toward neo-liberal / libertarian economic policies, but by and large it accepts the colonial, bourgeois, world-view.   I am saying this as a description.

The conservatives generally accept, however, the place of the US as an empire, but are unwilling to adapt a pre-modern understanding of cosmology and the role of the church.

There seems to a be some link between social conservatism, political conservatism and theological conservatism, but I don’t think the links are intellectually necessary.   One can be a theological conservative and an economic progressive; a theological liberal and a libertarian or neo-conservative.  I can say that I share a cultural identity (bourgeois, private college, suburban/urban, Yankee) with people who call themselves “liberal.”  What that means on a daily basis changes.

Ernesto Cortes, Jr.

I was recently reminded about this fellow.

When one woman asks him to explain how he “motivates” people to support a cause with actions as well as words, the storm rolls in. Cortés can scarcely conceal his impatience. “Perhaps I prejudge you unfairly,” he begins, “but when I hear your question, what I think you’re really saying is, ‘How can I convince people to do what’s good? How do I get them to do what’s right? How do I get them to follow my agenda?’ ” He pauses, frowning. “That’s not organizing. What I mean by organizing is getting you to recognize what’s in your best interest. Getting you to recognize that you have a child, that you have a career and a life to lead, and that there are some things that are obstacles to the quality of your life. I need to get you to see how you can affect those things through relationships with other people. And it’s only going to happen if you engage in some kind of struggle.”

He pauses to let it all sink in. “We organize people not just around issues, but around their values,” he says. “The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and hope. We need power to protect what we value.”

In churches, we call this asset based congregational development.  Begin where people are, not where you think they should be.

On Lent

From 2009

It doesn’t look good. Just the other day I heard about a few acquaintances who have lost their jobs. In the scope of the disaster, they are lucky – at least one person garnishes a wage, and they’ve saved enough to manage. Another might move north to cheaper rent.

So we’re going to be in the wilderness for a while. People are hunkering down, spending less and taking shelter. People are even buying less beer. Or at least they are buying cheaper beer. And beer is counter cyclical.

Perhaps Lent is a lot like an economic depression.

Some years I’ve used this time to practice new habits. One year was so horrible, Lent became my excuse to party. Usually I give up some food group, but other times I’ve added a task. Sometimes I have six or seven new disciplines and ended up with just one by Easter.

However, I don’t think Lent is primarily about “giving up sugar in your tea” or discerning all the ways you’re bad. We can be reminded of that on a regular basis, even without Lent. After all, we fall short often, even when we work arduously for whatever prize we seek. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness because he needed to become more perfect or because he was supposed to give something up. He was driven there to understand who he was.

The wilderness is, by nature, a place where humans aren’t meant to be. Human beings are social, and we tame nature. In the wilderness, we are vulnerable and exposed. We could easily get killed.

There are times where even the strongest of us becomes weak and terrified in the midst of immense challenges. We become alone, and just like a small child, we become aware of the monsters (Metaphorically. Real monsters are actually furry, polite and misunderstood) that await us: a sudden loss of one’s livelihood, an imagined slight, a real slight, a betrayal, a misfortune. Yes we are deeply alone; temptations and illusions await, and we don’t know what we will say or do when they happen.

But this sense of loneliness, this “depression” is not meant to be the place we land. It allows us to reconsider the superficiality of our previous life. And perhaps we realize that there is a power that will allow us to reconnect even more deeply with others. And that is the power of the spirit which resides in every human being, that life force that cannot be dulled or finally beaten forever. The first stimulus package is the awareness that Easter is on the horizon. And that even in the midst of lent, we can still connect and find the true self that awaits to be lifted up and empowered.

H. A. Williams says that during Lent we discover that yes, the bucket of water in our soul is a lot like the ocean. It is teeming with life and of great depth. Let the next 40 days be a time to plumb those depths and discover the love that has filled all things in you.

The impact of moral symbols

In India, people are exchanging zero-rupee notes to challenge the culture of bribery. Poor people who don’t have power, or money, offer them to officials looking for rewards.

It’s a challenge, and one that is remarkably creative in our paper exchange system.  It puts people on notice.

The zero-rupee note is effective because it uses the language of money to halt, interrogate, and challenge unjust exchanges.

Religious symbols can sometimes take such roles, but if they aren’t comprehensible, they won’t work.