September 12, 2021
For our second reading this morning we move from the New Testament wisdom of James to the Old Testament wisdom of Proverbs. Listen as God continues speaking to you from Proverbs 1 starting with verse 20.
With yesterday being the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, like so many others this past week I’ve been thinking back to that time. Hijacking passenger airplanes and crashing them into buildings… was an act of violence that shifted our take on reality because it so violated our common humanity. Why… how could anyone in this day and age be so consumed by… by what? Desperation? Power? Greed? Anger? Religious foment? How could anyone conceive of such an action? What motivates a person to have so little regard for their fellow human beings that they would purposefully fly a plane full of passengers… people just trying to get somewhere… into buildings of people just arriving and beginning a day’s work? Regular people just going about their daily tasks of living. Was there the thought that there would come a sudden capitulation… that this would somehow bring to them those things that they sought? If you bring that much anger and violence into the world… what do you think you will receive in return if not greater anger and more violence? And isn’t that just what happened? Haven’t we become angrier and angrier over these past twenty years? More divided. More motivated to look for enemies everywhere and to live lives under this vague but constant feeling of oppression by someone or something whose only purpose for existing is to make our lives just that much worse? We operate in paranoia of neighbor… ready to attack one another if we feel for a second that they are trying to take something away from us. Fingers grasped tight into fists holding onto something… not sure what… but holding onto something in outrage. We are primed for outrage everywhere we turn. Ready to fight and kill and destroy. Desperate not to be caught off guard again. Desperate not to have our illusion of control shattered again.
Do I exaggerate?
This year I will have been an ordained minister for twenty-one years… so I was still very green back then having just finished my first year in ministry… still trying to figure all of this out… how to be a minister… still learning so much about our faith and what it’s about… trying to figure out how faith and our theology sits in the messiness of the everyday and isn’t just this thing… this concept and collection of theological ideas that sits somewhere out there… like a distant God who is observed and observes but is not really all that involved. I remember going out in the months that followed the attack and ringing the church bell in Sparta at special times as we searched for a way to somehow make sense of all this through the wisdom of our faith. We talked about unity then… but we were not sure by what we ought to be united. Was it only a unity created by a common enemy? Was it the unity that came from seeing too much of ourselves reflected in that enemy… that maybe we ought to be unified in our pursuit of a better world… of putting our efforts into creating a better world where everyone had a place in its benefits? But its always simpler to have the common enemy. That seems to be the easier path that we take again and again.
I can remember the nervousness that came at different worship services when I dared to pray for our enemies… wondering how this vital piece of our theology would go over as wars of retribution were being instigated… as counterstrikes were happening… as young men and women were signing up and gearing up to go and fight. Who was going to angrily meet me at the door if I dared to lead us in a prayer for our enemies… that we would remember the teaching to love our enemies… not just pray that God would crush them? How was I supposed to deal with mercy and justice at this time as they kept coming up in our regular lectionary scripture readings? Reality had shifted and words like mercy or even forgiveness… these were not welcome words at the moment. People were uneasy about receiving such messages. Here I was this new minister still talking about peace and the importance of love of neighbor as I would have on September tenth twenty years ago. But now… now there was article after article about the theology of a just war… articles that tried to convince us that war and our Christian principles emanating from the cross… that these two could be woven together in harmony. Christian pacifism was sold as the greater threat. Parallel to those articles were the editorials that echoed a Crusader mentality that glorified the good Christian soldier… especially the good Christian soldier who would not only kill the Muslim, but also find a way to desecrate Islam at the same time.
And I worried about that… worried because while others were beating the drums of war… which felt so emotionally right at the time… I began to worry because I could also feel that pull of the drums… feeling like maybe… maybe this Christian faith of ours was simply too naïve to have a place in the real world. Maybe I was missing something in my reading and understanding of scripture. Maybe it was my theology that was leading me in the wrong direction. It’s the doubt that comes with feeling out of step with everything else that’s going on. But time taught me how the real world… the real world has a habit of taking these teachings and principles of Christ and sorta putting them up on the shelf for awhile when they might get in the way of the workings of the real world… and then taking them back down again when the challenge they offer to the real world has subsided… and we can talk about them again without the worry of accountability. We are too skilled at saying and spouting the words and tenets while ignoring how our own thoughts and deeds remain untouched by those words and tenets. It’s why I’m glad we ritually confess our sins as a weekly part of our worship… because that one small ritual keeps in front of us that disconnect between the wisdom that comes from God and the wisdom of the real world.
As a new minister who has become an old minister… I’ve been subject to many the wagging tongue who wanted to set me straight through the years… educating me about just how far some of this cross centric theology was supposed to go and who it was really aimed at… and who had to be made to obey even if by force. And truthfully, I have to say I’m thankful for those wagging tongues because eventually they helped me to push away from the doubt that would spring from the temptation of worldly fears and to dig deeper into the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord.
So much has happened over these past twenty years. A twenty-year war that would drop in and out of our consciousness… and conscience. How many mass shootings around the country have happened during this period of time… traumatizing us to the point that we now automatically go through what feels like a preset list of responses that have ultimately led to very little… if anything. We’ve had a financial collapse. Some government shut downs. Drone strikes have become so common that they have entered the realm of the mundane. Political divisions and tribalism have reached a point where it’s become cartoonishly bizarre, but the frenzy isn’t showing many signs of slowing as we are now having the problem of not being able to recognize or say there are domestic terrorists among us. Loss of life doesn’t seem to move us as it should. We’ve been in pandemic mode for a year and a half. Even with all those who have died from this virus… we still find ways to blunt and deny and to push to the side so it stays safely walled away from our conscience. The giant wave of wagging tongues twisting and blunting and now trying to control what will shape our understanding of reality and what will not. For decades we’ve been told how climate change would affect our regular patterns of weather. We’ve been told that weather events would become more intense and more catastrophic. But the wagging tongues of denial kept us ineffectual in mounting a response that would make a difference.
If it’s not one thing it’s another… and hasn’t it always been that way? Why wouldn’t we want to just throw our hands up in the air and resolve ourselves to the fate of our own collective do nothingness? Show any manner of resolve… make a call for collective action appealing to the common good and what happens? The giant wave of wagging tongues locks everything up and do nothingness prevails.
I mean, I had to laugh this week when I read this passage from Proverbs because of how perfectly it reflects where we are today. How long will scoffers delight in scoffing and fools hate knowledge? I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish comes upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.
Aren’t you tired of the real world? Aren’t you tired of all the anger and paranoia? Aren’t you tired of doing the same things again and again in response to the disaster of our own making and thinking that this time… this time things will be different? Maybe there is another way… if only we can let go.
So what wisdom does this faith of ours really have for such a constantly chaotic world? The gospel passage we didn’t read today has Jesus once again telling his disciples that the beginning of knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord. Specifically, the fear of the Lord that is the cross of Christ. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my word in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” There’s Wisdom’s call. There’s the invitation to stop crucifying others and instead take up that cross in Christ’s service. Let go of your anger and listen to the wisdom that comes through James… wisdom that would make an immediate change to the outrage manufacturing world that is around us today… “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Violence begins with the belief that others are always the cause of evil in the world… but the wisdom of our faith tells us to first get rid of the evil of sin inside ourselves… to let go of sin and welcome in the ways of Christ. And then rather than turning towards persecution and control… simply be that light… let that light shine… act in the light and let the truth of God’s light bring the change.
Twenty years ago we witnessed again the depths of inhumanity of which we are capable. So how in those twenty years have we grown in wisdom... the wisdom that shows us the heights of humanity imbued by God’s righteousness? Amen