Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So who is responsible?

BP, Deepwater Horizon and Haliburton are all pointing fingers at one another in front of Congress like so many school children accused of cheating on a quiz. Instead of working together they're blaming...and Congress is partly complicit. They're always out to find someone to blame. If they can show themselves to be the ones who caught the culprit they are more likely to be voted back into office, whether they caught the right guys or not.

George Huguely is accused of murdering Yeardley Love on the campus of UVA, and the governor is exploring the options of reporting to avoid anything like this happening in the future. They are asking people, like in the Times Square bombing attempt, to report unusual behavior. But will that not turn us all against one another in the long run? Sell out on our anxiety in the cause of community and destroy community int he process...Hmmmmm.

Seems the system is broken. I think the plummetting trust in public government is a pretty clear sign that we think the system is broken, but the big question is, How is it broken? Tonya Craft was acquitted on 22 charges of child molestation in Georgia. She blames the system for going on a witch hunt, and the parents of the children who brought the allegations blame the system for not dishing out justice. Both are convinced the system is broken because of what it put them through.

There seems to be no sense of democracy, where if the law rules in a certain direction by public process, even though we don't like it, or maybe even don't believe it, we act by it. That tenuous balance between the good of the whole (government) and the rights of the individual (democracy) hold our souls in constant dynamic tension, but tension is never comfortable, and our anxiety often makes it feel unacceptable. So our system feels broken when it breaks us.

I find that I assume that the legal system is supposed to reveal the truth, and as Christ said, "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," it will be obvious who is to blame and what to do about it. But we find that the courts are no better at determining the truth than most other institutions in our society. Perhaps Kierkegaard was right in saying that unless God reveals the truth to us in a life-changing encounter we cannot discover it for ourselves, because of our radical subjectivism. Revelation, then, is the source of truth...but even revelation needs "spinning" to make it applicable to life, and therein is the rub. So who is responsible?

You are. I am. We are. Thomas Jefferson said that this American experiment can only work if the general public is educated. Most of us are not. Oh, we hold degrees, but we don't think critically about life. We don't take responsibility for our own actions. We look for someone to blame and we elect people who will help us do that. This was Eve's sin, and Adam's and ours.

Move over Haliburton. Move over, Deepwater Horizon and BP, and governor and Craft and the others. We must take the stand, raise our hands and swear to tell ourselves the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then to hold ourselves accountable by it. Only then will we be truly free.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On the failure of nerve

Ed Friedman before he died almost finished a book published by his children posthumously called "The Failure of Nerve." He accurately identified a dynamic of our society in which safety has become such a popular issue that nobody wants to take risks anymore. It's gotten bigger than just that, he notes. People make lots of money making people feel safe. We've become a nation of anxious people run by those who will calm our anxiety without letting us face it, for that is what we prefer. We're run, therefore, by the most anxious people rather than the least.

I saw an example of that on the news recently. Mayor Bloomberg of New York said of the car bomber that was thwarted (and I paraphrase,) "This is New York. If you go around worrying about what the next threat is it will paralyze this town. What do you want us to do, close the streets, close the subways?" That's not a failure of nerve, that's a call to have nerve. It was good to hear him say it.

On the other hand, Frank Graham has made a name for himself for voicing anti-Muslim rhetoric. If you just change the name of the god invoked he sounds eerily like those against whom he spouts. Here is someone who is capitalizing on our fear. Are extremist Muslims dangerous? Yes, of course they are. But are extremist Christians dangerous, too? Yes, of course they are. Why why throw stones to hide your hands? Both extremist positions are expressing anxiety without naming it or facing it, and giving people excuses to live out of their small selves rather than their larger (to use Christian terminology) redeemed selves.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. Friedman was a Jew, but he explains Jesus' words beautifully. It takes nerve to love one's enemies, it's just cowardly to spit at them from behind the wall.

Recently there has been documented an increasing movement on the part of parents to refuse to vaccinate children. That's not nerve, that's stupidity. The only losers there are the children who merely become repositories for deseases that have been largely contained. Nerve is the courage to do what's right, not what one happens to want.

Strange Christ

In Ecuador where I grew up they play a very peculiar form of Volleyball. They use a 9 foot net, a 40-foot court instead of 30, and a soccer ball, and they play 3 men on a team. It is a highly strategic game that is physically exhausting—and very popular. As a young man many times I stood at the sidelines hoping to be included on a team. I'm not known for my physical prowess, nor my athletic abilities, but I'd watched the game so much I figured I knew the basic strategies, and as one of Gringo descent, I had height on most of the people who would be playing with me. I was never chosen to play—until I figured out the way in. Inclusion was an economic thing. You had to wager an amount of money that you figured matched your ability to play.

What does it take to be included in God's family? The Church is very clear on its membership. Baptism in the name of the Trinity, with water, by another Christian is the basic rite of Christian initiation. Some churches require other things as well, but not the Episcopal Church. Over the centuries baptism has never been exclusive in this regard. During the times of persecution in the early church it was not always clear. More than once non-believing spectators, on seeing the faith and strength of the Christians, vaulted over the barriers and died with the Christians. The Church decided there were two kinds of baptism: Baptism by water, and baptism by fire. The penitent thief on the cross by Jesus was the first to be baptized by fire. Then there is the question of people like Abraham and Moses. Hebrews 11 teaches that God accepts them as well. And how about those to whom Jesus refers when He says, "I have sheep in other folds. I will bring them also so that there will be one flock, one shepherd." Inclusion in God's family is something God does. We get the privilege of detecting and recognizing it, but we certainly don't control it.

In today's Gospel lesson two clues are given to including the stranger: First of all, the Stranger is Christ. The 7 disciples who went fishing represent the perfect number. Since Simon Peter is with them this represents the Church. It's you and me out there just doing the work of the Kingdom. They catch nothing all night. Without a greater purpose our labor is futile, we're just keeping the lights on and paying the preacher. In the morning they see someone on the bank. They don't know who it is. He is the Stranger. They get instructions to change their tactics just a bit...hardly enough to make any difference, after all, these men know how to fish. But when they catch 153 big fish, such that their paltry capacities are sorely tested, suddenly they know who it is. There is only One who sent them to fish for the souls of men and women. There is only One who is Master of the Sea. The Stranger becomes the Friend.

For us, as well, the one who is a stranger bears the potential of being the very One we seek. Christ, hidden in an unknown person, may very well be standing ready to bless us in incredible ways. All we have to do is heed attention, get to know, look for the signs offered. Suddenly our daily grind becomes our daily bread. Doing Church becomes a way to find Christ. And when you find Christ in someone chances are that person will join you here.

Every person who walks through those doors that you do not know is Christ, waiting to be known. If you have come to meet with Christ, you most surely meet Him in the Sacrament, but the Sacrament represents US as well as Christ. It makes no sense at all to expect to meet Christ at the altar rail, but not in the Parish Hall. If you are eager to meet God here the person who you do not know is part of God's response.

Secondly, the Stranger is my brother or sister. Jesus stands on the beach with breakfast ready for the disciples. It's like old times again. Jesus is back at the helm. But what does Jesus spend the time doing? What follows is traditionally called, "The Reinstatement of Peter." He takes Peter, the one who betrayed Him three times, and three times He asks him, "Do you love me?" Each time Peter responds, "Lord, you know that I love you." And Jesus responds, "Feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my sheep." Peter is the spokesperson, the one who represents them all, he is "every disciple," He represents us, you and me. We, too, have betrayed Him, and we, too, are re-enlisted for service. He calls us to feed one another, to care for one another, to help one another, to teach one another, and to learn from one another. Become brothers and sisters. To include the stranger means to make them a brother or sister. Overcome the strangeness with hospitality. If the strangeness is due to lack of knowledge, then share and listen, if the strangeness is due to estrangement, then forgive and re-engage on a responsible level.

A while ago I visited a church in a distant city. For a number of reasons I did not wear clericals, in fact, I was dressed rather natty. I arrived on time, was duly greeted by the usher and the greeter, but before the service, during the peace, and afterwards, only one person spoke to me before I spoke to them, and then, only in a cursory way. I left the church not necessarily thinking that they didn't want me, but that they had no idea that I was there. I was invisible to them. How tragic, yet how common! Let us not miss one opportunity to include Christ in the life of the stranger among us, and let us not miss one opportunity to share with them the life of God's family.