Sunday, January 28, 2018
A New Teaching—With Authority: A Sermon for Epiphany 4, 2018
[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, January 28, 2018]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There come times when the things we have grown up around, that we know intimately, whether we love them or resist them, suddenly look threadbare, and past their best. One day the stuffed animal that was friend and companion in childhood loses its magic, and becomes a simple object, a reminder of a time that has passed.
It’s true of the systems around which our lives are structured just as it’s true of our childhood toys.
Polls conducted late last year by the Washington Post and this year by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion demonstrate that Americans have lost faith in democracy itself and in the institutions, public and private, that make up the democratic-republican order that defined the world of our grandparents and parents.
And those polls aren’t outliers or just limited to the United States; in 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed tens of thousands of people across dozens of countries about their level of trust in institutions—both public and private—found that a decline in trust across the board in all institutions for the first time in the 17 years it has been collecting the data.
We are seeing an unprecedented loss of faith in ourselves and in each other.
Well, unprecedented in our lifetimes, that is.
Because we are not the only people to have lived in such times.
Jesus lived in such a time, as the Gospels show us, and as historians have confirmed. The Temple hangers-on, gouging pilgrims who needed to purchase sacrifices, the uneasy relations between the Pharisees and the Saducees, the corrupted Sanhedrin, anxiously collaborating with the Roman occupiers, the puppet Herodian kings, whose legitimacy was dubious, even aside from the fact that they owed their continued hold on power to the Romans, and not to the people—all about them, the people saw hypocrisy, the lust for power and money. They lived under a spent, bankrupt moral and political order.
In such a time, as William Butler Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
And it often feels like that we live in such a time, as we look at the now almost weekly school shootings that rob our nation of our youngest, most vulnerable denizens. When well over 140 girls and young women are sexually molested by just one Doctor working for US Gymnastics. One Doctor.
Or when the “people’s pope” promotes against the will of the people a clergyman accused of condoning sexual abuse by another priest.
In such a time, it’s hard to disagree with Yeats that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Can the center hold? We look at the news, and, again, it’s we see the rise in hate crimes, and the newly empowered white supremacist groups who march, assured that they are “very fine people.” When backlash to marriage equality is increasing, and even possibly receiving government sanction.
The outlook grows even dimmer when we see that the so-called Doomsday Clock is ticking ever closer toward midnight.
That’s a real thing, by the way, the Doomsday Clock. It’s a measure expressed in a metaphor for how close humankind is to destroying the earth. It was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947, and currently has us at “just two minutes to midnight,” the closest we have been to apocalypse since 1953, when the U.S. and Russia were both actively testing hydrogen bombs.
Now, relax. It’s not a literal two minutes, or this sermon would be considerably shorter. But it is a measure of “how vulnerable to catastrophe the world is deemed to be.”
Among the reasons the Bulletin gave for moving the clock forward to two minutes to midnight was “the weakening of institutions around the world in dealing with major global threats.”
In such times as ours, and Jesus’s, another Yeats line rings true: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” In Jesus’s time the Zealots and several self-proclaimed Messiahs tried to overthrow Roman rule, only to meet terrible ends. Flavius Josephus tells us of the “Fourth Philosophy” of Judas the Galilean who encouraged his followers, the Zealots to revolt, leading ultimately to the uprisings and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
It was just such a Zealot whose life was spared by Pilate instead of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel tells us that Pilate wanted to spare Jesus, but was overborne by the crowd. That he knew Jesus to be guiltless, but the clamor of the people in favor of the violent revolutionary Barabbas led him to act against his better judgment. He lacked the conviction to stand against their passionate intensity.
So the doubts and fears we all live with today are not unique to our time and place, however it may feel to us. And the Gospel has something to day to us about those doubts and fears.
That when the institutions we rely on—whether secular or ecclesiastical, Church or State, seem to be breaking down, it’s time to pay attention.
That when old ways of living, of ruling, of thinking, are worn out, and the extremists begin to make way, theirs is not the only path that is open to us.
That’s the time to watch for the next thing, the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean to offer you a platitude, or some cheap assurance that everything will be all right.
I do mean to say to you that what we are living through is a time of transition. A time when the economy, politics, and the face of Christianity is changing. We live in a post-New Deal, post World War II Global Order, post-Christian, America, in the sense that these once defining labels are no longer safe assumptions to describe who or where we are as a people.
Yes, such a time is dangerous. Yes, such a time is frightening.
But it is also a time of hope.
Because we can’t take anything for granted anymore.
And that includes the old inequities hidden by the long-established system.
Terrible as it is to discover that men we admired have harassed and abused women, the fact that these women have challenged their abusers, and drawn back the curtain that hid the abuse—that’s hope.
That over 140 women and girls testified to the effect of Larry Nassar’s exploitation and abuse on them, and that he had to hear them, that’s hope.
Even our seemingly-permanent entrenched divisions can be transcended. Because Jesus, who rejected the violence of the Zealots, nonetheless converted one of them so completely that he became a member of Jesus’s inner circle, Simon Zealotes, one of the Twelve (Mk 11:12).
We follow the path of the Jesus who says that nobody is beyond redemption. Not us, not those who most fervently disagree with us. And when our struggling old order changes, yielding its place to new, in that new, we may be surprised at the realignments that we see.
Jesus taught with authority, not as the scribes, today’s Gospel tells us. Let me rephrase that. Jesus was not following a dead letter that had been laid down so long ago that its original source and meanings were lost in the mists of time.
In my other calling, that of a lawyer, I know that often laws outlive their purpose, but because we lawyers tend to venerate precedent, the old ways continue beyond their usefulness. That’s why one of the greatest of American legal thinkers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, had to remind his colleagues that “[i]t is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than ‘so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV,’" and that "It is even more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”
Jesus challenged the established order of his day—disputing with the Pharisees and Saducees, driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the Temple. He emphasized that the law could be summarized in two sentences: “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.” (Lk 10:25)
And that was an accurate summary of the Law as it existed, and as it was meant to be. The strict logic-chopping and punitive readings of it that Jesus encountered and rebuked, and the same logic-chopping and punitive readings we encounter today are examples of what Holmes was describing in secular law—what happens when you forget the “why” of a law and start worshipping the precedents.
That’s why Paul in the Epistle for today is following in Jesus’s path of by emphasizing that the Christian life is a free one, free from the old rules that were laid down to prevent eating food sacrificed to idols. In emphasizing this liberty, he reminds us to use it guided by love. Knowledge, he reminds us, can puff us up, but love builds up. So be careful how you use your freedom, he advises us; and ask yourself—are you using it lovingly?
St. Augustine put it even more boldly, and more challengingly: “Love God,” he wrote, “and do what you will.” Not so that we could engage our every passion and indulge our every wish. It’s harder than that, and ultimately more fulfilling. Act in love, because love begets love. An angry persecutor like Saul is converted by love into Paul.
And that’s the brightest kind of hope.
That we will be able to love others when they are unlovable to our eyes, and that we ourselves will be loved when we are unlovable to theirs.
Jesus cleared away all of the technicalities, so that we could remember who and what we are called to become. He didn’t say it would be easy.
But walking that path changes the world from Yeats’s fearful dystopia to a world filled with possibilities and opportunities to make change for the better. To heal old wounds and sorrows, and move forward.
Or, as we have so often heard from the pulpit here at St. Barts:
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.