Sermon For St. George’s – Aug. 4, 2019 – Susan Flanders
Today’s readings pose a challenge – all of them together offer a clear message, both of condemnation and of hope, but the message is not easy – especially for you and for me, affluent and comfortable here on our coastal peninsula, ensconced in our summer homes, far from the poverty and woes of so much of the world.
Hosea depicts a God who mourns the infidelity of Israel, its chasing of other gods – a message of condemnation met with mercy. So does the psalmist; God’s mercy endures despite people’s wanderings. In Colossians we have a list of sins – all manner of evil behavior – some of which may apply to us. And finally Jesus’ parable about the rich man and his dependence on his treasures – the material wealth he has stored up for himself – basically a teaching about greed.
I’ll start with the easy response to this challenge. We can look at all the sins catalogued in the Colossians passage and point the finger of blame away from ourselves and straight at an obvious target. Listen again and notice who might come to mind: “whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)…all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another.” Well, one target of blame emerges instantly. We can rest that case and deplore that person – and easily forget to even wonder, however reluctantly, whether God’s mercy extends to him as well.
But what about us? What is on our conscience? What in us is idolatrous or greedy or mean-spirited?
I recently finished reading the columnist David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. If you read Brooks’ column or watch him on the PBS Newshour, you may have noticed that he has moved into a less political, more sociological or even spiritual kind of commentary. Well this book is a kind of memoir explaining this change. Brooks has gone through a conversion process – not from the Jewish background of his upbringing to a born-again Christian faith, but a far more nuanced process of exploring both traditions and very gradually moving from a stance of unbelief or atheism to one of belief. And that has brought David Brooks to a passionate embrace of commitment to moral values, not just intellectually but in practice. He sees our moral failings as in part carelessness about our desires, and he uses a brilliant quote from the author David Foster Wallace to illustrate the importance of our wants. Brooks quotes from a commencement address given by Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005, saying this:
“…in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
I quote Foster at such length, because what he has to say gets at the crux of whatever culpability we bear for our own moral short-comings. They are so often unconscious – our default settings, unexamined and unrecognized. And whether or not we are religious, even if we call ourselves atheists – we do worship; we do turn to one thing or another, one person or another to make our lives work out, to make us feel secure, and surely money is one of those things. The things we turn to are saviors for us, even if we don’t call them that.
I remember way back, when I was just starting seminary, an encounter with George at some fancy party. George was a rich, successful businessman, handsome and confident, with a wife and two daughters who were just like him. When he learned that I was headed for the ministry, he told me that although he attended church, he really didn’t feel he had need of saving or forgiveness – that his life was really going well and he had nothing to regret, no need for confession. He’d made it on his own. And it threw me because I think there are lots of Georges, but back then, I didn’t know what to say.
If I met George today, now that I’m forty years older and after a divorce and a late miscarriage and money and career crises and an early stage cancer, I would know what to say. “George, we can’t do it on our own. We can never make all good choices; we can never be sure that if we get things right, everything will be fine. We depend on our relationships, our vocations, our savings, our fitness practices, our real estate, a drink at the end of the day, all of our beloved familiar rituals – and that is fine, and normal, and good. But we can’t worship them – we can’t rely ultimately on any or all of these things and expect that by doing so, we’ll ensure a happy life and a peaceful death.”
Well, so – we need help, and what the Bible passages tell us is that we need God, we need Jesus. But what does that mean? How do we even think about that in terms of our own experience rather than as some supernatural savior who stands ready to save us? Maybe at first read the scriptures seem to say this, but I believe there’s a deeper message buried within them. These ancient writings about God’s mercy and love, God’s care for God’s people are not just false promises. To me they suggest something at work in the world that is worth desiring and striving for – something that does give meaning when all our little saviors fail us.
When I suggest that love is that thing, that savior, that source of meaning and purpose we yearn for, that sounds too easy, too pat – oh yeah, that whole God is Love thing, but hear me out. If there is an actual power and presence underlying all of creation and expressing itself in all forms of love, then we can be part of that expression – each one of us can be a bearer of love, to one another, to our communities, our country, our whole aching planet. And we can call that presence God, as I do, or just stick with Love. Perhaps this is our purpose – to be part of the force that is love in this world, to commit surely to love – and to bet our lives on it – perhaps in so doing, we find, or make meaning. And maybe that’s another way of saying have faith in God.
But I hasten to add – having faith includes action. “Love is a verb, not a noun,” as one of my favorite song writers, sitting right over here, wrote in a song years ago. And just this past week, Deanna Hollas, the new Presbyterian minister especially ordained to work against gun violence said this, “While all that we do as Christians should be rooted in worship and prayer, it should not stay there. It is like breathing – worship and prayer is the in-breath, and action is the out breath.” Love must express itself in action; it is more than a feeling.
What David Brooks discovers after his own life falls apart is his need for actual practical commitments to something beyond himself, and most of his book is about that. He writes at length about the importance of relationships and community, and of course these are the incarnations, the embodiments of love – the appropriate objects of our commitments.
But somewhere in all of his advocacy for our committing ourselves to something bigger and beyond, Brooks really got my attention with this: “Consider the possibility that we are the ones committed to, the objects of an infinite commitment, and that the commitment is to redeem us and bring us home.” What if….
Which brings me back to the ancient writings from Hosea and the Psalm about a God we really might worship:
This God says to the prophet:
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
And the Psalmist says of this God:
He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
For he satisfies the thirsty *
and fills the hungry with good things.
Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.
Consider indeed: What if God’s love comes first – love poured out that we might learn to love?
Can we commit to love, to the love that commits to us? Mercies indeed – what will be our response? Amen.