Year B, Proper 16 August 23, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness…”
A couple of weeks ago I told you about how Windy and I had a failed debate date. We could not watch the debate because NewsCorp. was holding that common, restricting access to our political process for the sake of profit. Well, a week later, they relaxed their grip and we watched it streamed online. I didn’t really want to watch it: I find our public political discourse, left, right center, it matters not, I find it all very upsetting. No one seems very honest, or seems to care about most things unless it is to their advantage to care. That’s nothing new, folks have been disappointed in governments and governors since we first starting having governments and governors. But I begrudgingly did my civic duty and I watched… and I’ll tell you what, I have been riveted since. In particular, I am mesmerized by Donald Trump and the energy around him and lights he is shining on our political process and American culture. Fascinating. And very, very important to pay attention to.
I cannot comment one way or another from up here on any candidate or political party. I can say that someone is interesting, but much more would be improper, unethical and illegal, to the point of endangering our tax exempt status as a religious institution. I’d need to check with the vestry before we went there. It is, however, equally improper, unethical and irresponsible to not try to frame, to help make meaning, Christian meaning of a public discourse that will have very significant impacts on our individual lives, on the well being of our community and in very real ways on the future of our world. What I am asking, as upsetting as it can be, I am asking for you to pay attention to this moment in our politics, to this moment in our history, this is a very important moment.
Jack Marrietta sent me a column by commentator E.J. Dionne that was published this week in the Roman Catholic journal Commonweal. The article is a commentary on this political moment, and it is done through a sort of exegesis of the 1919 W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” It goes like this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
There wasn’t a lot of optimism in Europe in the days following the Great War, and Yeats was an Irish Republican… 1919 marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, an ugly, ugly chapter of English and Irish history. And we are what, 14 years into the war on terror? This is one of our own ugly chapters and the foreboding of Yeats’ words may ring more authentic for us then we are willing or are able to admit.
That is E.J. Dionne’s point, authenticity or the lack there of in our political landscape and how dangerous it is to lack a center, a moral center in our political world. Well, his real point is that authenticity is not lacking across the whole political landscape, but that the center of our political leadership, center right, center left, center center, all of them, and that center, captured as it is by focus groups, policies unveiled to incrementally move specific parts of the polis to gain specific advantage, that the center has lost any claim to authenticity. The center, he observes, does not authentically stand for anything but their own political gain which is founded upon, reliant upon business as usual. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” Dionne observes that across western democracies, in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Spain, England, even, moderates, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats on the continent, Tories and Labor in the UK are all losing ground to the left and right extremes. Our own parties are in disarray and the fringes are gaining voice and vote. Mr. Dionne ascribes this loss to people desiring, hungering for conviction. For something firm to stand upon. For leaders willing to say what needs saying. For authenticity. Or as Mr. Yeats puts it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. Does that ring true to your ears?
It is no different then the main line Protestant churches. We’re a decidedly middle class institution, and like the moderate, centrist political class, we don’t generally rock the boat, don’t challenge the structures that we rely upon. We can’t critique the free market too harshly if we want to fund that outreach initiative, advocate for that public housing program or ensure a successful capital campaigns or annual cost of living adjustments to our compensation packages, right? The Episcopal Church has shrunk what, 10% over the past 10 years. I fear that this shrinkage is in direct proportion to how weakly we resisted war in the wake of 9/11; how weakly we respond to the continuing crisis of race, to the increasing income inequality crisis, to the overarching crisis in our atmosphere, our climate. (Now we’re doing pretty well here, were 40 points above national average over the past 10 years, but if you ask around town, Resurrection is not often accused of being too moderate, to being uninvolved in things we find important).
Look at what Joshua said to Israel. “Now therefore, revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness… Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…” Israel was on the threshold of Canaan, they were about to enter the Promised Land and Joshua, he who would lead them, he says flat out, choose. Who will you follow, YHWH, the God of Israel, the God that liberated you and led you here? Or will you take the safe path, the familiar one, the moderate one, and stick with the gods from beyond the river, the gods from Egypt? He is saying choose, and follow that choice with sincerity and faithfulness. Big words.
St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is similar in its strident call to do what is right, to follow principles and act in the world with principles because it is important, our presence and effort in the world. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Those are our enemies, still, the spiritual forces of evil. They are spiritual, abstract, amorphous, in the realm of the “unseen,” but the dark forces of greed, apathy, denial, selfishness, hardness of heart, duplicity… these spiritual maladies are endemic to our civilization and will someday be the death of the moderately participatory democracies in the western industrialized world. This was life and death to Paul, and things haven’t gotten one iota less dire.
The solution, though, the remedy is right there. St. Paul doesn’t leave us hanging, and the cover of the bulletin that Mike Van drew is a great illustration of what we need. Gird yourself with the belt of truth. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Shod your feet in the gospel of peace. The shield of faith will protect you from the “flaming arrows of the evil one.” Finally, top it off with the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the Word of God that cuts through all of the frivolity and banality of the world. A bit more martial an image then I like, but Paul is right, this is serious and we need to bind ourselves up in mantle of the bold love and gentle righteousness of God that Jesus Christ was and is and will be.
Stand up to the foolishness sold as wisdom! Stand against the sins of partial truth, against declarations of self-interested principles. Be it from your teenage daughter, in the lively conversation you have with your radio on your way to work, or when you sit down at your kitchen table to fill out your ballot. Bring to bear the sincerity and faithfulness that Joshua demanded of his brethren. Clothe yourself in the loving-kindness of God, and pray, with St. Paul, that you may declare it boldly.
Now don’t get me wrong, declaring boldly most anything, in particular declaring boldly the truth when that truth is not welcome or when that truth is challenging… there are few things harder to do in this world. Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum from our Gospel for today makes that abundantly clear. He told them to eat his flesh and drink his blood and that He will abide in those who abide in Him. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” the disciples said.
I can only imagine Jesus sighing. He knew that many did not believe. “What,” He asks, “would you believe more if you saw it all right in front of you, me ascending back to heaven, would that help your unbelief?” But no, he tells them, that is not how it works. “It is the spirit that gives life… The words I have spoken are spirit and life.” It is faith that matters. Faith in God, absolutely. And that also means faith in your ability to perceive the truth. Faith in your ability to let go and let God. Faith in your ability to tighten that belt, to gather your strength, to make the sacrifices that we all will, do need to make to allow the love of God in Christ, to allow the Commonwealth of God to break out into the world. And in Capernaum, they all left Him. Turned their backs on the truth of God, on God standing before them. They all left, all but the twelve. Where’d they go? To the baseless center, the riskless center? To the inauthenticity of going along to get along, or worse, going along to get by, to take care of only themselves?
I don’t know, but Simon Peter’s answer is an answer for our time. “Do you wish to go away?” Jesus asked. (There is no one else left, only the twelve. A tumbleweed just blew by). And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go. You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” There is nothing easy about that answer; they were resigned to accept the truth as the truth. I pray that our leaders grow to answer it rightly. That we have the courage to do what is right, for as Mr. Yeats tells us, “Surely revelation is at hand…” AMEN