October 7, 2018, 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B, 20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 7, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

What a week!  But please don’t be on edge about triggers, today we’ll talk more universally than the presenting issue of the past weeks, and what a week it has been.  I had to re-read my Tune Up article about the proper use of anger.  A couple of times.  It was about when anger arises, that we should always remember what we love, not just what angers us, and that we must do something, channel that anger towards tangible action.  Those are two ways to keep righteous anger from morphing into soul and world damaging hatred.  That is how Jesus put His Holy anger to use in making real the Commonwealth of God.  We must do that, too.  (And we can).

This is a bad news, good news sermon.  I’ve been trying to keep the news at arms-length in my preaching this past year, but these last two weeks need some meaning to be made, some Christian contextualization to be done.  So the bad news continues to be that that the sky is falling.  It has always been falling, yes, but it does seem to be accelerating.  (For all the kids, maybe you’ve noticed your parents being upset by the news, more upset than usual over the past two weeks?  You all know that women are as just as important as men.  There are people in our country, in our government, arguing about that, which makes no sense at all, and that is very upsetting because everyone should know that already).   And it is not just the drama of the past weeks around the Supreme Court and all that implies or reveals about the patriarchal nature of our society, it is about everything in our common lives together, and it has been going on for a long time.  The myriad divisions within our nation, in particular racial division, immigration, the disparity of wealth, endless war, gun violence, ecological instability… none of that started under the current administration.  Our problems are much larger than one man or one political persuasion having the keys to the kingdom.

On Wednesday the Rev. Chris Hedges, spoke here in town.  He’s one of my go-tos.  He was a Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent for the New York Times before he left journalism for seminary (he’s a fellow Harvard Divinity grad), and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.  I first encountered him in the run up to Gulf War 2 when he was on tour with his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. 

I couldn’t go to hear him (Windy and I drew straws and I took the girls home after Choristers), but Win filled me in and I have read some of the stuff he was speaking from.  He’s a lot, a lot to take in.  His thought is politically and economically radical, and is firmly grounded in Christian morality; a combination that ticks-off most conservatives and most liberals, hence the kinds of ideas he explores are rarely echoed or even acknowledged in mainstream media.

Hedges’ latest book is America: The Farewell Tour (I said, he’s a lot, the book is brutally explicit in the portrait of suffering he paints).  In it he describes the way the sky is falling and he explores why it is falling.  The current administration, the dysfunctionality of our Congress, those aren’t, he writes, causes of our problems, but are symptoms, signs of brokenness deep within the structure of our society. One of the ideas he fleshes out in this book and elsewhere is our big word for the day: anomie.

Anomie is a term that comes from the late 19th, early 20th century French scholar Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science.  In a book examining suicide, he identified the dissolution of social bonds, the decay of society itself as a key factor contributing to individual self-destruction.  He called it anomie, a word meaning “normlessness”, or “rule-lessness.”  (Not anarchy, which is the absence of external authority. Anomie is what can ensue if the social rules, social norms that hold a society together are compromised).   When normal structures of society deteriorate, the whole system comes apart, from stem to stern.  From Wikipedia, the source of all that is right and true, anomie is described as “…the breakdown of social bonds between and individual and the community… unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values.”  That doesn’t sound good; it does sound familiar, though.

This is how Chris Hedges introduces the idea.  “Societies are held together by a web of social bonds that give individuals a sense of being part of a collective and engaged in a project larger than the self… The bonds provide meaning, a sense of purpose, status and dignity. They offer psychological protection from impending mortality and the meaninglessness that comes with being isolated and alone. The shattering of these bonds plunges individuals into deep psychological distress that leads ultimately to acts of self-annihilation. Durkheim called this state of hopelessness and despair anomie, which he defined as ‘ruleless-ness.’”

Most of have more virtual “friends” than actual ones.  We buy things on our computer not from local shopkeepers.  We drive almost everywhere. Most of our food was grown a thousand miles away, and how?  Few even know. Our faith in institutions is abysmally low.  Churches, not Resurrection, but many and increasingly are empty or shrinking.  (The Episcopal church as a whole shrank 3.5% last year).  Faith in our congress is in single digits, the courts surely took a hit this week, even trust in our system of elections is shaky after another electoral/popular vote discrepancy.  (Hedges quoted Emma Goldman on Wednesday, “If voting change anything, it would be illegal.”) But you intimately know the litany of what is wrong in the world, in your world.  What Hedges observes now, what Durkheim observed 100 years ago, is that all of those injuries to our common lives together not only infects the commons, it also grievously wounds us each individually, to the point we begin to self-annihilate.  The meth and opioid epidemics are self-annihilation happening.  So are the mass shootings.  So is allowing so many to live on our streets, or not having health insurance.  And chronic obesity, porn-stained sexuality, the kind of people running for office and the quality and content of our public debate are ways our self-annihilation manifests; that is it happening. Our moral fiber, collectively, is a mess.  And that collective mess contributes to the moral degradation of each of us individually. It is beyond the scope of Moral Man, Immoral Society.  If society becomes immoral enough (or amoral enough), it compromises, it damages the individual actor.  Maybe we are getting there.  A few weeks like the past ones could make one think so.

This is not political talk, this is moral talk, this is completely in spiritual territory because it is our spirits that are under assault.  Anomie is a moral, a spiritual ailment that infects a society and its members.  Spiritual injuries last, they get passed on from generation to generation, they cross class and race and gender divides because spiritual injuries are injuries to the whole self.  And they hurt everyone one involved, everyone: the victor and the vanquished, the perpetrator and the survivor, and everyone else, the innocent bystanders, there is always civilian collateral damage.  That is the condition of anomie.  Certainly there are other pictures we can draw of now, and that is one of them: anomie.

That’s the bad news. It is pretty bad.  And no one knows where this is all going to go, how it is going to end up.  No one.

So where’s the good news?  Where’s the Gospel?  Don’t worry children, there really is good news and it is really good…  Here’s the good news.  Look around.  Really, look at the person next to you.  Now look at the person across the nave from you.  Look up in the loft.  Simon says look up here.  (This is hard stuff.  We’ve got to laugh.  “If I can’t dance, I don’t want any part of your revolution.” another Emma Goldman quote.  Laughter is our spirit dancing.  That’s one thing that bums me out about scripture: it doesn’t record Jesus laughing.  We hear that Sarah laughed, but not Jesus.  We need to laugh sometimes.  I do).  Back to looking around. This is, we are the ecclesia, Greek for the Beloved Community; we are the Body of Christ, right here; we are one teeny-tiny twig on the Tree of Calvary.  And this is where it happens, since day one of the Church, one gathering of Christians at a time, this is where the face of Christ is seen, this is where the hands and feet of Christ find their purchase in the world.

A solution to our problems, a remedy for anomie is exactly what we are doing right now.  Forming morally grounded, joyful, nurturing, loving community (what church should be), what we are making a pretty good try at here; that is an antidote for anomie.  The way Hedges put it (he was preaching to mostly radically (if not hostile-y) secular Eugenians), the way to cure anomie is movements, social movements.  People gathering together, forming community in order to save the world.  Be it through empowering women, reversing climate change, ending homelessness, it doesn’t matter, as Gandhi observed, every justice issue, taken to its ultimate conclusion, is a conflict with empire, which, of course, was the battle ground upon which Jesus fought.  Done in movements, societies can be restored.  Movements bind people together, giving purpose and meaning, companionship and the dynamic of community.  Friends, loves, lives connect in movements.  And that is what we are part of here, part of a movement, the Jesus movement, a global religious movement for peace, inclusion and justice that has existed for 2000 years.  It is not the only way, but church is one of the ways that we can not only keep our own heads above water, but we can be agents of healing in our society, the healing of our community’s moral fabric.  Don’t discount the power we have here.  Look how much influence is exerted, how much damage has been done by the religious right.  Imagine how much good Christians with a different set of values could do?  Maybe with Resurrection values?  That is a heartening thought, but the religious right is so successful because they are committed, very committed to their values, and they give a lot, in all sorts of ways, in support of those values.

Today is the kick off of our annual giving campaign.  I am sure Patty is up there wondering how this sermon ties into that.  Well it does, intrinsically, because it is about believing in this place.  I believe in what we do here.  I believe in who we are here.  I believe in you!  I love you!  Isn’t that how community should be?  Sure, we do a lot of good works, our caritas is strong.  But the best thing we do, the most important thing we do I believe wholeheartedly, is what we are doing right now, worshiping God together, keeping the spirit of Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and shining that into the world.  In raising up these children as awake, moral participants in the world, in building a resilient community made up of resilient people, we are sustaining an island, a beacon, an outpost of the Commonwealth of God. We are knitting together strong bonds of community.  We are loving each other, welcoming others into that love, and shining that love out into the sin sick world.  That is pretty heartening indeed.

We are part of a movement, an ancient and global movement arrayed against the forces of malice and wickedness, the forces that tear down and destroy, against the forces that cause anomie.  Because “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”  And what does it, what holds us together, has held us together for 2000 years, through times a lot worse than this, is God.  It is God that does it.  Or another way to say the same thing: it’s love.

Today we kickoff our annual giving campaign.  You should have gotten materials in the mail.  If you didn’t, we’ve got plenty to share!  I believe in this place.  A lot of us do.  Not as just our church, our little community, but truly as one of thousands, millions of points of light that can contribute to the salvation of the world, binding the wounds of self and society.  Stewardship is the tending of the community, taking care of our common life together.  Part of that stewardship is minding our finances.  We need you here in church, our prayers together radiate out further than we can fathom.  We need your time and energy, you volunteering to make this place work.  But that is not what we are talking about right now.  In this season we are talking about money.  We need money to make this place run.  My salary, Tina’s, Gay’s, the rest of the staff.  EWEB.  Comcast.  We use a lot of legal sized paper for the bulletins.  The cookies at coffee hour aren’t free.  Neither are the plates we use at Egan, the wine we serve at Mass, the chairs AA uses on Wednesdays, the Bibles we give to our children.  All in all, it costs a little over $250,000 to operate Resurrection for a year.  Almost all of that comes from you, members of the Resurrection community through annual pledges.

We’ll be talking about money the next few weeks.  We’ll consider the spiritual practice of giving (if you can’t feel the gift, you are missing the spiritual benefits, of which there can be many).  Matching our values to our use of money (the theology of a budget).  The value of the gift is not its size, it is what it means to you (the widows mite).  Today, though, it is about the value of church, of this church itself, and why we need to invest in our collective futures by investing in something that can heal the violence done to our common life together, that can be a balm to our fractured society, a river whose streams make glad the city of God.

“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”  What happens here at church is not us, it is God.  But without us, without the relationships we have here, the work and prayer we do here, the love we express here, the money you invest here… it wouldn’t be.  God works through each of us here, in all sorts of ways, and collectively we can’t do it without you.  And in a world that serves up weeks like this past one, a world plagued with anomie, it is all hands on deck.

So please keep your eyes and ears and hearts open to our giving messages the next few weeks.  (And your checkbooks, too).  Consider how giving here can help save not only yourself and your family, not only South Eugene, but could maybe be one more pebble on the scales, tipping it towards the salvation of the whole world.  AMEN.