Link to the sermon: “Where Is the Cutting Edge?”
“God doesn’t make mistakes” has become a popular saying meant as a truism, and at a glance, it may seem obvious and inarguable. Can the Almighty, indeed, make mistakes?
But the popular truism is not kind, understanding, biblically correct, or theologically sound. Rather, its use, as I have heard it, is dismissive of real human beings and their very real situations in life. In short, it is casually self-righteous and downright mean.
It is biblically wrong to declare God the proximate cause (the closest, immediate and direct cause) of everything that happens in this created world. We do make decisions, and we do have experiences we did not earn or deserve, whether those experiences were beneficial or harmful, good or tragic. We go to Paul’s Letter to the Romans and learn from chapter 8 that God has turned the world over to its own futility but with hope. Indeed, the entire creation groans under the weight of its wrongness, its futility, as it yearns with hope for the revealing of the children of God in whose redemption the creation is to share. The creation is to be made new (see Revelation, chapter 21).
“God doesn’t make mistakes” is one more declaration of determinism but an especially simplistic and wrong-headed one. It asserts that everything is just as God intends it to be. Nothing can go wrong. What it really means as used in practice is that the accepted norms are right and proper and should be accepted. It asserts that people are born in conformity with traditionally interpreted biblical norms, specifically the Genesis statement, “Male and female he (God) created them (humans).” So, according to this maxim, the person born with both sets of genitalia doesn’t exist, even though such people do exist and are living persons. Less outwardly obvious but just as real is the transgender person whose selfhood is dismissed by the maxim as false, phony, misguided, or perverse. “You’re wrong about yourself, because God doesn’t make mistakes.”
This kind of easy declaration, “God doesn’t make mistakes,” fits into the general category of determinism which has always been dismissive of people and their fortunes or misfortunes. Determinism avoids personal and social responsibility for other people’s rights and needs; it may also block hope and excuse people from self-discernment. If life is predetermined by forces beyond my control, why strive? If people deserve what they get and get what they deserve, why care about the unfortunate? If my time will be up when my time comes, why take care of myself? If my prosperity comes automatically from the will of God, why question myself about the ways I do business, how I take more than I give, or what responsibilities I have for the common good and for the lack of opportunity for others?
In short, the pious saying serves to excuse cis-gender people from acknowledging the existence of people who do not fall into that category and from respecting their identities. Cis-gender is a term that refers to people whose anatomical gender identity conforms to their personal, sexual gender self-identification. The declaration that God does not make mistakes insists that everyone is cis-gender whether a person knows it or not and disregards people whose anatomical gender is unclear, mixed, or wrong for who they know themselves to be.
Two big faith problems surface here. First, Jesus does not dismiss people as unwelcome by their very existence or by their scorned conditions. He reaches out to the leper, welcomes that treasonous tax collector who will follow him, teaches women the truth of God’s redemptive love, and shares life and hope with sinners. Second, the notion that God is the proximate cause of everything that happens disregards the Bible’s insistence that the whole creation, including what we call the natural world, has fallen from its rightful, created and intended condition in relation with God, with humanity, and with itself. Everything is in need of redemption to become as God wills it to be. Jesus does not engage in or excuse pious meanness. He does not scorn any person as a nobody. He does not disregard people as, by nature or birth, inferior or worthless humans. There is no valid Christian truth that operates as pious cruelty.
Determinism is an excuse, a cop-out, and it is used to blame God for all manner of human strife, shaming, suffering, and injustice. In some forms, determinism condemns us to the social and financial station into which we are born (so why care about the poor or oppressed?). So it falsely justifies the privilege of elites. It declares our accepted norms to be good and right, even if the norm is slavery, exploitation of many for the benefit of the few, or false judgments made by unquestioned custom (read the New Testament’s Letter of James on false judgments about rich or poor people). Determinism promotes false security for some and hopelessness for others. There is much about life and about ourselves we can neither control nor easily change. But determinism’s declaration that what is must be accepted as what should or must be is false.
While working through the various parts of administering my Web site, I have discovered that my contact page is not sending emails to me. It wouldn’t even send one from my own Gmail address to me as a test. The message told me it was a domain problem which I’ll have to look into.
So, if you have sent me an email and wondered why you have received no reply, it’s because I have not seen your message. I apologize.
I do not want to use the section for comments on my posts to serve as a back and forth for personal message unrelated to the posts. I hope I can figure out how to correct the contact plugin.
Frequently these days, I re-read things I wrote years ago, especially it seems from 2010, to reset my clock of the self in hope of going forward with purpose and the hope purpose engenders. I’m feeling as though the restfulness of retirement is growing restless, as though rest has settled into the inertia of rest.
This morning I’ve been re-reading something I wrote for September 5, 2010. The whole piece holds meaning for me and more than a gentle nudge to move forward with purpose, but I share this tiny chunk.
What are people asking? They are, we are told, asking to be soothed and entertained. The passion running through our society is anger that builds into rage. We feel alive by getting angry. Otherwise, we chase the dull stars of relaxation, entertainment, and amusement. Descartes famously followed the process of doubting until he arrived at the bare conclusion, “I think, therefore I am,” but as a society, we are moving toward the conclusion, “I’m angry, therefore I feel alive.”
The flip-side, I think, of this ready anger is anxiety pushing us downward into depression. We need more in life and better.
<< So, how do we celebrate Easter? I don’t mean the holiday. We have our pastels and flowers, our egg hunt for the children, and our songs of joy in life, and that’s all good. I have no quarrel with the holiday. But my question is, How do we affirm Easter out there in the world when the candy is gone and the eggs have all been found, when the hallelujahs have been sung and the new outfits sent to the cleaners? >>
That short paragraph comes from my final Easter sermon preached as pastor of a church, which makes it now eleven years old. The sermon was titled, “Easter Makes It Personal,” and I needed to reread it today.
I fear that Easter, the Christian religious holy day and not just the springtime cultural festival, has been co-opted by our prevailing dedication to positivity to such an extent that Jesus’ suffering, shame, and death are made to seem nothing more than a hurdle between Hosanna! and Hallelujah! or worse, as the full sermon points out, a parading of triumph for the “good guys” (Christians) over Christ’s presumed foes. From the sermon:
<< It has long been popular to see Jesus’ resurrection as his triumph over his foes, the evil doers who tortured, mocked, and killed him. So we Christians put ourselves on the good side, the righteous side, as we put the Jews or Romans or unbelievers on the bad side. That’s false. Jesus gave himself for those estranged from God, and his resurrection does not overcome his self-giving love, his suffering and dying on the cross. It does not put the cross conveniently behind us. Quite the opposite, Easter establishes Jesus’ crucifixion as the full truth of God, the complete act of redemptive love that gives us new life and hope. Because of the resurrection, the cross stands forever as the truth of God’s unrelenting love for us and commitment to getting us back. >>
These are some of my thoughts for Easter eleven years after my retirement. Here is the full sermon (click on the word) for anyone interested. As long as there are seemingly “God-forsaken” people in this world (and there are very many), as long as the shamed and scorned continue to cry out, “Why?” to God or to a silent sky, we will continue to be called to serve, not only in the name of Jesus Christ, but in the way of this Christ who was crucified in solidarity with them. As long as they are the rejected, he continues to be the rejected. As long as they are put out of office and service for being uppity, he will be the one of whom people (in his hometown) ask, “Who does he think he is?” Yes, we celebrate Easter and the great hope it represents for us and our world, but, as the sermon says, we live on this side of resurrection where life is messy and often brutal, and so, therefore, does the Spirit of God.
American Christianity lives now in a time of upheaval and crisis. The gospel of Jesus Christ is being perverted by a “prosperity gospel” and by so-called Christian Nationalism which is, more accurately, angry and resentful cultural whiteness growing increasingly belligerent. The traditional Protestant churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) are fading. Fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves as Christian, and I find that being identified to newly met people as a Christian minister more and more frequently draws negative reactions ranging from suspicion and unease to visible disgust and even open hostility. I understand such reactions, unpleasant as they are to experience. When I read some of the horrid judgments pronounced by ministers upon large numbers of our fellow human beings, I can hardly blame strangers who find out I am, in their minds, one of that type.
I want to make a distinction but not one simply between tolerant and intolerant, respectful and rude, kindly and cruel, or magnanimous and judgmental. The needed distinction goes far deeper than differences in personality and temperament. The distinction is between Bible and Bible, gospel and gospel, Christianity and Christianity, and even between Christ and Christ.
Today on the church’s ecumenical calendar is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Eleven years ago I preached my final sermon as pastor of a church for the Sunday so designated. Today I reread it, and my own sermon nudged me to re-present it. The crisis in American Christianity was smoldering already those eleven years ago, but by now the anger and resentment have been stoked and fanned into open flames. If we are to be the church of Jesus Christ and represent him faithfully to people, we have choices to make, and those choices strike to the very heart of the matter.
Here is the sermon. I invite you to click the link on the word “sermon” and see what you make of “First Things First.”
I joke that since retiring I preach only in Paradise. That’s Paradise, Pennsylvania where the Leacock Presbyterian Church gathers for worship. Yesterday, I filled in for the church’s interim pastor and preached a sermon called “Making It Real.” The link below connects to a PDF (Portable Document File) of the manuscript form of my sermon.
The book to which I refer in the sermon, Trauma and Recovery, written by Judith Lewis Herman, MD, is available through Amazon (and perhaps elsewhere) second-hand in its hardback version or in its digital format. I found the book very helpful and quite readable.
Following is one paragraph the sermon explaining its title.
<< By “making it real,” I mean representing in our own humanity the gospel of Jesus Christ, representing him to people in ways that are honest, authentic, faithful, and decidedly respectful and humble. Making it real requires listening and not just for an opening we can exploit with our arguments. In biblical terms, to listen is to understand with sympathetic feeling, to walk with, to enter into the other person’s situation without trying to take control of it, to stand with the person and let ourselves become vulnerable. A church or a Christian that will not become vulnerable with people who are vulnerable cannot faithfully communicate the gospel. We do not share gospel when we have nothing to say beyond, “We know, and you don’t; we’re right and you’re wrong; we’re saved and you’re lost unless you submit to our authority, accept our truth our way, and become one of us.” That’s not gospel. >>
Our then local paper’s news article had offered a reasonable view on a controversial topic, but its headline was inflammatory. Plus, one sentence in the article itself interrupted the article’s flow and contradicted its sense. I emailed the young reporter who had written the piece. He told me the editor who had written the headline had also inserted the malignant sentence. Both were designed to trigger anger in the reader and to stoke resentment of immigrants, while the article itself promoted understanding and recognized progress toward a more harmonious community.
This trend in headlines is now both common and dangerous. The article may inform the reader, but only the one who actually reads it. The New York Times online now includes an estimated reading time, presumably in the hope that people will do more than glance at the headlines. But do they, even in the Times? The excuse for inflammatory headlines may be a marketing tactic of attracting attention and encouraging the headline reader to delve further, but if the anger affect has already been triggered, might not the more likely thought be, “That’s all I need to know! They’re at it again, damn them!” The anger affect differs greatly from the interest affect. The former lights an emotional match; the latter leads the reader to look further into the matter.
I’m confident that a comparison of headlines in various newspapers and supermarket tabloids would reflect the polarization in our country. That so many Americans read little if anything beyond headlines and social media posts bestows inordinate power upon the headline writers and meme fabricators.
A second affect biased headlines and memes seek to trigger is fear. A third is disgust leading to contempt. Together in a toxic mix, feelings of anger, fear, and contempt encourage bigotry and hate while stifling desire to understand others, show respect, or feel compassion.
This morning, our now local newspaper explains a study detailing the shortfall in local incomes as they rise more slowly than the costs of housing whether purchased or rented. This problem is real for many people here, and it produces real distress, making it easy for opportunists to inflame resentment of already disliked targets who are not truly the cause. When people fear homelessness or find themselves forced to choose between the rent and healthful food or heat for their homes as winter deepens, they become vulnerable also to the wiles of people who hope to incite them to rage and maybe even violence.
Meanwhile, memes and even sermons (or what pass for sermons) offer platitudes of false, easy comfort or escape. Yes, I know, other sermons or religious rants aggressively join the manipulators fueling anger, resentment, contempt, and hatred – polarizing “them vs. us” – but my concern here is more with the insipid or airy than the bellicose.
In short, we need deeper thinking, broader understanding coming from listening as well as reading, better questions, and more trust in God than certitude about God’s likes and dislikes. Faith needs to do better than headlines and memes. We need to speak to people’s minds and not only their emotions or wallets. I’m not asking for detached intellectualism but for honest thought and for willingness to enter people’s confusion, doubt, and vulnerability (and maybe also hostility) and stay there with them.
4. How It Is Working (final post in this series)
I have it on good authority that resentment is fueled by a combination of fear and contempt with, at its onset, a dose of shame triggered by a painful sense of loss. For some, the loss is a way of life. “Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end.” With that loss may come also a sense of being diminished, made less – less powerful, less important, less secure, less well regarded. If pushed by someone stoking resentment, that sense of loss can be turned into a belief in having been cheated or robbed by some enemy or invader. Then, the demagogue has only to identify that enemy to manipulate some of the resentful into hatred and perhaps violence.
To play upon people’s resentments effectively in the pursuit of power, the politician or television opinion talker must enhance and inflame the crucial factor: contempt. The demagogue focuses disgust and scorn sharply upon some group to be despised, and it helps to project some representative individuals of that group for special scorn and hatred. Hence the apparently electrifying chants of, “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies and the snide, ‘Let’s go, Brandon!” It is of course, important, for the manipulator to continue stoking the resentful people’s fears as well, but that job can be done in whispers because few like to admit to fearing people they scorn, and contempt feels much stronger.
It seems somehow important to human beings that they have someone to exclude from their circle of acceptable humanity, someone for whom it would be wrong to feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion, someone it is right to despise. The successful demagogue plays upon that perverse sense of rightness. The trick is to convince the targeted followers that anyone who speaks in favor of the despised group is thereby hating and denouncing them, working against them, and replacing them as the right people. For example, the cry, “Black lives matter,” is twisted so the demagogue’s followers hear it saying they themselves no longer matter and the despised are shoving into line ahead of them. For the demagogue’s purposes, the followers must not hear simply that what has been denied and trampled for centuries right into the present time (the worth of black people’s lives) must now be affirmed and supported, because if they let themselves hear that positive, reasonable message, they may no longer resent it, and then the demagogue will lose power over them. They may stop falling for the demagogue’s lies.
What has Jesus of Nazareth to do with this foul art of manipulating people by their resentments? Plenty, but centuries of misinterpretation have hidden from our sight his particular parable that challenges his own people’s contempt for the group they believed they rightfully despised. This parable has been defanged and declawed for so long that we hear it as nice. Jesus’ parable is not nice. Wrongly, we call it “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” How pleasant, but, no, this parable was perhaps his most offensive because it not only pictured the potential hypocrisy of the officially pious but also elevated the despised figure to the position of humble, faithful, admirable hero.
The Gospel of Luke sets the scene by having a teacher of the law (Torah) pose a mean-spirited question to Jesus. The question itself is fine, but the intent here is to entrap him and use Jesus’ answer against him. “What must I do,” the man asks, “to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what is written in the Torah. “What do you read there?” So Jesus gets the man to answer his own question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
No doubt it would be embarrassing to pose a question meant to confound the teacher and then find yourself answering it and being told by that teacher you were hoping to trip up that you got it right. “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” There it is, the question that reveals the rot. This question is not looking for someone to care about, to treat fairly, to welcome as a brother or sister, to accept as a friend and equal. No, the question really asks, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” Whom may I rightfully and piously exclude? What kind of people may I leave outside the circle of my sympathy, empathy, and compassion?
Jesus deliberately places the already despised and excluded front and center, not merely as one who should also be treated well, but as the good guy, the true neighbor, the one who does what God commands. Back then, in that land, Jews and Samaritans despised each other. Contempt of one for the other was assumed and accepted as fully justified. Don’t you remember what they did to us? Because the name Samaritan triggers no negative feelings in us, inflames no smoldering hatred, evokes no disgust or scorn, we miss the point easily. Indeed, without even thinking, we associate that name with the word good – the Good Samaritan – and so with hospitals and a the kind of person who goes beyond the norm to help people in distress. To Jesus’ original audience, the name Samaritan meant nothing good. For the extremists, perhaps we may say, with a nod to General Sheridan, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.
Jesus makes it clear that there is no circle that can be rightly drawn to exclude disliked groups from the command to love our neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7), he includes specifically the enemy within the range of that command. He is revealing the God who breaks the world’s cycles that move us from offense to resentment to exclusion and to revenge. And the cycle keeps repeating itself.
In the name of Jesus Christ, politicians and their media chorus are playing upon people’s resentments to gain power, and they are stoking fear and contempt that subvert democracy. Because a minority cannot often triumph fairly in a democracy and keep control, those seeking power are manipulating that minority into rejecting and derailing democracy. By lying about the stealing of an election, they are trying to steal elections, to gum up the mechanisms of democracy so badly that people will no longer trust democratic elections. The demagogues are promoting an anti-Jesus form of belligerent Christianity combined with an anti-American form of false patriotism. Those who fall for the scam, however, come to see themselves as the real Christians and true patriots. We are living in a perilous time.
- A Tough One for Us
This parable from Jesus (Matthew 20:1-15) is hard for us to follow and accept, for some of us maybe even impossible. We have called it the “parable of the eleventh hour workers,” but that name misleads us into the later Christian preoccupation with getting people saved and into heaven without caring much about earth and God’s love for the world. The parable is not about deathbed confessions or efforts to slip through the pearly gates at the last minute before they close the person out. The issue is here and now, but how can we — who have so much of wealth, comfort, and insurance and who without much thought accept competition as the right and proper driving force of human life and necessary engine of progress — possibly grasp the meaning of this parable?
Now wait a minute! Wealth? I have wealth? Since when? I turn from the computer screen before which I’m typing this draft to look out my study window at our backyard on the three tenths of an acre we own. Our home is off-handedly called a starter house which sounds funny because it is the first my wife and I have owned and the one into which we moved after we both had retired. The house is also the first we’ve occupied that included central air conditioning as well as the modern marvel of central heating we’ve never lived without. We each have a car. I could go on, but I hope the reader gets the point. Yes, by any measure against most people who live today or have ever lived, we are quite wealthy, even though by this society’s standards, we are not.
In worship services, we pray, too often casually by rote, “Give us this day our daily bread,” or in some versions of Luke’s gospel, “our bread for tomorrow” not realizing that petition is the urgent prayer of the day laborer. He goes each morning to the market hoping to be hired and so to trade a hard day’s work for a denarius, a coin worth enough for him to purchase one day’s bread and oil for his family. Just enough. If he is not hired, no bread for tomorrow. Please, God, grant me a solid day’s work in the hot sun so my family may eat. Bread, just bread. Maybe sometimes a fish, if I can get one, maybe two small ones.
How can we enter the world of the long-ago day laborer? But is he or she a specter of the long-ago and far way? Go the parking lot of, say, a Home Depot some morning early, and you may just see them: the day laborers hoping to be hired. Sometimes they work construction, sometimes they pick produce for our veggie trays or crudités.
The urgent prayer of the day laborer is the background music for Jesus’ parable of the generous landowner and the resentful workers. The story unfolds simply enough. The landowner needs day laborers to harvest his crops and so goes to the market to hire them. A bumper crop requires the landowner to keep returning to the market to seek more workers. The final time he goes leaves only one hour before sundown for those hired last to work, but he needs them. The parable’s cutting edge comes when he pays all the laborers, starting with those last hired to whom he gives a denarius, the day’s wage. Seeing his generosity, those who worked in his fields all day expect more money, but they too receive only the agreed upon amount, a denarius each, no more. Here comes the resentment.
Their expectation of extra pay, cut off by the experience of being handed only a denarius, triggers shame affect because they have been denied the extra money they expected, believe they deserve, and still desire. Soon disappointment gives way to the components needed for resentment: anger and contempt. The disappointing experience translates to them as unfair. They feel cheated. They deserve more. Or the latecomers deserve less. But how would the hunger next day of the latecomers’ families benefit the disappointed all-day workers and their families?
I suspect this parable offended people even among Jesus’ original listeners, unless they had experienced the fear and desperation of not being hired and the shame of returning home with no denarius. Imagine the relief and even joy of those who stood around almost all day, hoping desperately for some work and some small payment, maybe even just the chance of making enough of an impression to get hired the next day. But this employer cares about them and so provides for their families. So, he asks the ones grumbling why they resent his generosity which, from the viewpoint of their resentment, they see as stinginess.
The politics of resentment succeeds by redirecting anger and contempt onto the vulnerable — the immigrants and undocumented workers, the women who have taken men’s jobs, the outsiders brought in to do the promised temporary jobs while locals remain unemployed and watch their old way of life crushed under the weight of development, the others who (like the last hired workers) are desperate for their daily bread — or the elites seen as looking down their noses at the “ordinary people” who are told by those seeking to capitalize on their resentment that they are the real Americans. With the proper encouragement from a demagogue, the resentful are easily manipulated.
Then-president Donald Trump remarked that one good thing about COVID-19 was that he no longer had to shake hands with “disgusting people.” In accidental and clueless honesty, he spoke his contempt for the very people who supported him, voted for him, and screamed their resentments at his rallies. Hillary Clinton foolishly and obnoxiously referred to Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” But Trump was the seasoned con artist, and his slip into uncharacteristic honesty seems to have cost him nothing.
Resentment is complex. The fire lit by disappointment and fear bursts into the flames of anger increasing into rage, and contempt intensifies into hatred. Resentment drives people to fight for revenge and pride even if their fighting burns their lives and even the nation’s life to the ground. The antidotes to resentment are sympathy and compassion. Can the all-day workers sympathize with and feel for the desperation and fear of the overlooked day laborers willing to work in seeming futility for only a single hour’s pay?
We are so marinated in our notions of the fairness and rightness of competition and judgments of the comparative worth and relative deserving of people that we cannot easily appreciate this parable, let alone make the jump from recognizing the employer’s generosity and compassion to appreciating God’s compassion for the fearful, the desperate, the disappointed, the shamed, and, yes, the undeserving. But there it is, and what we do with it is up to us.