In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
What is more disorienting than the seeming failure of something you have always believed in?
This past Wednesday, the Fourth of July, the Washington Post published an article by Anna Lührmann and Matthew Wilson summarizing the 2018 report of the Varieties of Democracy Project of the University of Gothenburg, known as V-Dem. V-Dem calls itself “the largest-ever social-science effort to measure democracy around the world.”
Those results, disturbingly, described the United States as a “declining democracy.” Lührmann and Wilson write that “[t]he United States fell 24 places in the country ranking on liberal democracy over the past two years, from seventh in 2015 to 31st in 2017,” adding that “When we compare the United States’ score in 2017 with its average score over the past 10 years, the drop is precipitous and unprecedented.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post also as a polling team, and an article by Emily Guskin, reports that the polling team found that, as of July 2018, “Americans are less proud of their country and the way its democracy works, and they show persistently weak trust in government and many major institutions.“
By now, you must be wondering if this is a civics lesson or a sermon, but we’ve just finished commemorating Independence Day, so let me bring it to a point:
Normally, when the institutions we place our trust in seem to be failing, we criticize. And that’s fair enough, as long as we try to ground our criticisms in fact, and reasonable expectations. But one thing we don’t do: look inward.
Cynicism and mutual distrust rot institutions from within, just as they fray what Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address called “our bonds of affection.” In a relationship, in any relationship, distrust and anger can bring those bonds to the point of snapping.
That's true within a church, within a country, or within a family.
And that includes our relationship with God.
What do we see when Jesus returns to Nazareth in today’s Gospel?
When Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town, he teaches in the synagogue, and the people marvel at what they've heard about his wisdom, at the deeds of power being done by his hands, only to swiftly pivot and cut him down to size as “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.”
And Jesus finds that can “do no deed of power there,” other than laying his hands upon a few of the sick, and curing them. Yet as soon as he leaves Nazareth, he sends out the Twelve, and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Jesus, whose ability to feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, cure the sick, and even raise the dead is known far and wide—is suddenly rendered essentially without power. Jesus himself is amazed at the unbelief of those who have known him longest, and attributes his inability to do any work of power in Nazareth to their unbelief. He wryly adds that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
And sure enough, as soon as he leaves Nazareth, he is able to be the Jesus we usually think of, not only able to do great deeds of power again himself, but able to deputize the Twelve to perform them in his name.
Again, what happened?
The clue came to me from an unusual place: C.S. Lewis’s little fantasia, The Great Divorce, in which he imagines Hell as a dreary little suburb, where it’s always raining, and always twilight. Periodically, the ghosts who live there are able to journey in a bus to heaven and interact with the saved. If they choose to stay, they can, and grow into the fullness of love and light. Some do. But most cling to their own perceptions of themselves—as victims, as tragic figures, as the misunderstood, and so voluntarily take the bus back down to the little town of the damned.
Lewis’s guide in this fantasia is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, whose writings opened his youthful mind. In explaining the interactions Lewis is observing, MacDonald tells him that:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end: Thy will be done. All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, explains Grace. She says that:
God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us. We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love, and we only try to live in response to the gift. No one is climbing the spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different from spiritual self-improvement. We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time.Grace is offered, regardless.
But Grace can be refused; Grace can be rejected.
Jesus cannot force us to be well; we must want it. It’s not that His power is gone in Nazareth, not at all. It’s far simpler than that. The people who knew Him as a boy, a young carpenter, who know His family—these people are simply unwilling to open their hearts and discard their long-standing image of who Jesus is, and His role in their lives.
And because of this, they cannot accept help from Him. It’s literally inconceivable to his former neighbors that all these stories they’ve heard about Jesus are true. They don’t fit the boy they knew, the apprentice carpenter, the member of a local family. And because they cannot conceive of Jesus as being anything other than what they knew, they reject the gift. And God says to them, “Thy will be done.”
Conversely, St. Paul. He describes a mystical experience attributed to “a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” Now let’s get something straight; this person is Paul himself . How do we know this? Later in the reading he flatly admits it, telling us that he “refrain[s] from [boasting], so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” So Paul himself is caught up into Paradise where he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” Fourteen years after the event, the wonder and awe are fresh.
And yet: in the very next line, Paul tells us that, “[t]herefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” When he appeals three times to the Lord to be freed from this torment, the response is simply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
The nature of this torment is unclear—physical pain, disease, epilepsy have all been suggested, but while the nature of this thorn is elusive, its purpose is repeated twice—that he “should not be too elated.”
Why not? Why shouldn’t Paul be elated?
Perhaps because, like the ghosts in The Great Divorce, Paul is all too capable of losing sight of his own limitations, and could fall into the trap of no longer seeing himself as he is, faults and all. And instead of sharing the joy this vision had brought him, he could view this free gift of God as something that marks him as special, as superior. Paul, who is inclined to self-assertion—look at all the times he insists on his apostolic rank—is being protected, by being reminded that he is a flawed human being, just as those he seeks to serve are.
Just as we are.
Which brings us back to our beginning. Jesus tells us to “love one another, as I have loved you,” and even to love our enemies. As we look on in this summer of discontent, we must remember that however easy it is fall on one side or another in this time of division and uneasiness, we must not do so with hatred. We are not enemies, Abraham Lincoln warned us, we must not be enemies.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t express our beliefs. We must, as you have often heard in this Church, make no peace with injustice. But it does mean that in our struggle, we remember that those who choose to are oppose us us are as precious in the sight of God as we are. That we fight not in enmity, but constantly reminding ourselves that those who we find ourselves estranged from are in very truth our brothers and our sisters, and that when this struggle is over, we must have conducted ourselves so that we can reach out to them—and they to us, may it be so—in love.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.