Proverbs 8:1-31 † Psalm 8 † Romans 5:1-5 † John 16:12-15
I suspect our children understand far better than we do the implications of climate change on the future. It is, after all, their future, although we are the ones who have given it to them, such as it is. So let me offer you one simple illustration that caught my attention recently.
Most of us are likely aware that populism is not simply an American phenomenon. We have a president who has made a decisively inward turn, advocating for walls and putting things in terms of insiders and outsiders both within and without our country. But we are not the only country where these explosive political dynamics have found new life. There is something of an international battle going on for the soul of our lives whether its arguments over Brexit in the UK, or Yellow Vest protests in France. These are all, at their roots, populist movements, that is, they are in revolt against elites, both in an economic as well as a political sense.
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak connect the dots for us in their 2017 book The New Localism, which Maggie brought to my attention from her work at Seattle U.
Populism, as it appears from the right, is “nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence,” they say, “of the modern economy.”[I]
Populism exists on the left as well. According to their analysis usually “devoid of national and ethnic chauvinism,” but still with a nostalgia for a world that no longer exists, seeking simplistic and protectionist solutions they argue no longer fit modern realities.[ii]
This is Hilary Cottam in a TED talk from 2015.[i] She’s a social entrepreneur whose been thinking much of her life about how we solve some of these deep and complex social problems that have been perplexing us for some time now.
She has a new book out, called Radical Help[ii] that takes a deep dive into the welfare state and how we might remake it. As you can tell, she’s doing her work in Great Britain, and has spent most of her life in Europe and Africa exploring these questions. But I think her work speaks to our own experience in the states as well, and to the needs for many of our institutions to adapt to changing realities.
In her presentation, Cottam goes on to provide a pretty stark picture of how the system as it currently is does not serve Ella well or others in similar circumstances, but may, in fact, work to keep them imprisoned in a cycle of despair, even as the people and the institutions they serve were and continue to be well-intentioned.
Ella’s story is a compelling example of this. Cottam notes that, when she met Ella, 73 different services run out of 24 departments in one city were currently offering social services—that’s just in one city, mind you. And Ella and her partners and her children were known to most of them. And they knew the services. They were not shy about calling in help when an argument or a crisis broke out. And the home was visited on a regular basis by many professionals: social workers, youth workers, a health officer, a home tutor, and the local police.
But nothing changed. None of these well-meaning and highly-skilled visitors were making a difference—even though, by its own measures, managing these social problems cost the government more than a quarter of a million dollars per year, per family.
In her book, Cottam adds more background.[iii] After meeting Ella, she asked the city leaders if they could also introduce her to a family whose lives had been changed by their interventions. They couldn’t. Police, fire services, health services, social services, education and youth services could tell stories about how they had helped individuals navigate particular crisis, but no one was able to cite an example of a family who no longer needed help, who had been supported to grow and flourish. Indeed the system seemed to be doing just the opposite, further ensnaring people like Ella in a safety net that was meant to free them.
I am grateful for people like Cottam. She strikes me as someone who looks beyond not only our stuck systems, but our stuck conversations which seem only to wedge us more and more into two ideological prisons—each spending too much of its time blaming the other. She asks interesting questions. She trusts those of good faith around her, including the helpers—and most important of all—those our systems seek to help.
Two findings are worth a little further attention. First of all, Cottam looked more closely at the government’s cost claims.
So many hours, so well meant. And yet, ultimately futile.
Cottam captures one snapshot of an almost universal reality of our time. Our institutions all seem to be at a point of fracture and even failure. They are all being tested, and our trust in them is failing.
We’ve been talking about this for a number of years now, of course. You will remember just one of many voices—Phyllis Tickle, who more than a decade ago began to alert us to the changes that were already upon us in her books The Great Emergence[iv] and Emergence Christianity. Tickle noted how its not just religion and its institutions that are being stretched.
Every part of our lives is shifting. Intellectually, politically, economically, culturally, sociologically, religiously, psychologically—“every part of us and how we are and how we live has, to some degree, been reconfiguring over the last century…and those changes are now becoming a genuine maelstrom around us,” she wrote, back in 2012.[v] Institutions of all kinds are built around realities that no longer exist.
In her book, Cottam affirms that one of the greatest challenges is releasing ourselves from the prison of conventional thinking:
The left say that more money must be spent. Our welfare state is still comparatively cheap by international standards and therefore, they argue, more money will solve these problems. In contrast, the right claim that the welfare state is too big and too bloated, hindering the ability of individuals to stand on their own feet. Further cuts must be made, they say, and if the state stopped interfering people would do better. The diagnoses are different but the programmes for action are remarkably similar. Both sides want to focus on the money and to rearrange the institutions. Above all, they want to manage things differently.[vi]
The good news in Cottam’s story is that the institutions she was working with found the courage to try something different. Realizing that 80% of all resources were essentially supporting the system and only 20 percent the families and that in reality they were ultimately just gate-keeping and managing the lines and keeping the system in business, they agreed to reverse the ratio.
Everyone who came in contact with Ella or a family like Ella’s would spend 80 percent of their time working with the families and only 20 percent servicing the system. Even more radically, the families would lead. Their voices became primary. They would make the decision as to who among this group of seventy-something providers was in the best position to help them. And this small group of providers the family selected formed a team around them. And they even gave them a sliver of the former budget that they could spend in any way they chose.
And very quickly a relationship between the team and the workers began to grow. And even as there were, predictably, steps backwards as well as forwards, Ella completed an IT training course, she got her first paid job, her children are back in school, and the neighbors who dreaded the next disruption from Ella’s flat are now quite happy to have them around.
Cottam found what REACH and many others are discovering as they pay close attention to our current needs—to what is working and what isn’t. Relationships are the critical resource we have in solving some of our most intractable problems. And yet, relationships are all but written of by our politics and our policies, and they have not been historically factored into our institutional structures.
But we know this and we have been on the front lines of some of these changes that are seeking to trust the voices of those who struggle and suffer. And our scriptures have talked for millennia about neighborliness as a key to the foundation of human life and well-being. It’s just that we sometimes get so stuck in our patterns and routines and the systems that support them, that we lose sight of these foundational understandings.
It is neighborliness, the formation of thick relationships—relationships with connections deep and wide—that lead us from the modern prisons of loneliness and isolation at the core of so many of our challenges to the transformation that occurs in the story of Paul and Silas in prison and the girl in the prison of her enslavement, and the jailer who is caught himself in a system that threatens him at every turn so that he has no recourse, no hope, when he thinks the prisoners are gone.
And yet, as this system is shaken to its core by two followers of Jesus who see something beyond the reality that is directly in front of them, they find strength in what unites them, rather than what keeps them apart. All of these who are a equally victimized—the girl, the disciples, the jailer—are drawn together. And everything changes. They find company; they are cared for, and they commune.
Paul and Silas are the brokers of this unity in the same way that John’s Jesus imagines the church might be—perhaps especially as our institutions have lost their effectiveness. Relationships are some of the critical resources we have in solving social problems, and the church as an institution, is enfleshed by this font and its water that is shared by all, and by this table and its call to thick relationships. We are in a unique position to shake open a new reality, to gather together a new community, not just here in this place, but across the street and across the city.
When John’s Jesus says we are one, that this is the goal of the Godhead for us to know and practice this, I think he is at least saying something about the possibility of friendship, lifegiving intimacy, and mutuality as the way to peace and new life.
[i] Hilary Cottam, “Social services are broken. How we can fix them.” TEDGlobal, London. Retrieved May 31, 2019 from https://www.ted.com/talks/hilary_cottam_social_services_are_broken_how_we_can_fix_them.
[ii] Hilary Cottam. Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us & Revolutionise the Welfare State. Virago, 2018.
[iii] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 207ff), Kindle Edition.
[iv] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Baker Books, 2008.
[v] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Baker Books, 2012, p. 25
[vi] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 208ff), Kindle Edition.
1 Sam. 2:18-20, 26; † Ps.148; † Col.3:12-17; † Luke 2:41-52
So tell me if this sounds familiar: “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you…”
Let me stop right there to ask you: Is it familiar?
It sounds like Elizabeth, bursting out in song when Mary shows up at her doorstep, doesn’t it? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” It sounds like a song for Mary, mother of Jesus, for gentle Mary, meek and mild.
But, as you may have guessed, this isn’t that. It’s actually a quote from the book of Judith, which you and I both know is not in our Bible, that is, not in the Protestant canon. But it is in the Septuagint, which is the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament that Jesus would have known. It is also in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons.
So I think we can talk about her, and some of the other women who were, like Mary, highly favored.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
Genesis 9:8-17 † Psalm 25:1-10 † 1 Peter 3:18-22 † Mark 1:9-15
Cognitive scientists Steven Solma and Philip Fernbach have spent many a year asking anyone they can find if they know how a toilet works? How about a zipper? They want to know. Or a coffee maker? Do you know how those work?
Yeah – yeah I have a reasonable idea how they work is the answer they would first receive. So then they follow up. Okay, can you explain to me exactly what it takes? How that toilet bowl empties, how the water in the Mr Coffee gets to the pot and how it gets heated, how those little prongs attach when you put on your favorite hoody. Then they let the person think for a while and try to explain as best they can how these processes they engage every day actually work. Finally they ask – so tell me again how would you rate your knowledge of how that toilet works?
These researchers have spent time and effort measuring these dynamics very precisely - lots of well-designed questionnaires and sophisticated coding and exacting measurement - and what they have found is that in the vast majority of cases when we take the time to examine our understanding of some of the mechanisms around us we realize that we actually know quite a bit less than we think we do - on almost every subject.
Exodus 14:19-31 † Psalm 114:1-9 † Romans 14:1-12 † Matthew 18:21-35
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Perhaps I should stop talking and just sit down.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Thus ends the reading of the word. Thus, ends the sermon.
Why do we pass judgment? There is plenty here in this simple question. Just take time to reflect on it, live in it. “Explore the space,” as Christopher Walken says in one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits. If we were to do this, and this alone, to consider our quick path to judgment, it would be time well spent.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
That’s what the slave did to the other slave in the parable, isn’t it? He decides not to forgive the debt he is owed, despite having just experienced forgiveness that has given his own life back to him.
It is worth pointing out, I think, the extremes captured in the amounts that are forgiven and not forgiven. The master forgives his servant a debt of ten thousand talents, while the servant fails to forgive his brother a debt of one hundred denarii.
Let’s do the math. A talent, as the footnote in the pew bibles notes, is worth “more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer” while the denarius was “the usual day’s wage.” In other words, the first servant has been forgiven a debt equivalent to 50 million days of a salary for a laborer, while he cannot find his way to forgiving a debt equal to a salary of 100 days of labor—4 months or so. We are talking, in other words, about a proportion of 500,000 to one.
Genesis 45:1-15 † Psalm 33 † Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 † Matthew 15:10-28
Mother Teresa used to say, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I don’t know what you think of this. It strikes me at first, like a claim from a more innocent time. It seems inadequate in the face of the recently amplified voices of white supremacy, of oppression and intolerance and hatred—perhaps most unnervingly, from the occupant of the White House whose role is supposedly to speak with a moral voice, to represent all the people, not an intolerant few.
It seems inadequate in the echo of extremist voices reviving the language of racial purity and ethnic intolerance. It seems inadequate given these beliefs led to the systematic murder of 7 million Jews and people of color by the Nazi Party of Germany—of people with physical and mental disabilities, and of lesbians and gays and transgendered people who were only trying to be their true selves.
It seems inadequate given the long history of slavery, of overt and covert oppression and malicious intimidation of people of African ancestry these past 400 years. It seems inadequate given the ebb and flow of government policies over the life of our troubled nation that have further privileged the interests of the already protected insiders.
Perhaps a quick reminder of legislative history in the United States might help us to keep things in context here:[i]
Readings for this Sunday:
Proverbs 31:10-31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | Mark 9:30-37
Questions for reflection:
In the midst of the struggle against apartheid, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk wide enough for only one person at a time to pass. A white man appeared on the other end, recognized the Bishop as one of the leaders instigating reform in the system of white privilege for which he stood, and said, “I don’t make way for gorillas.” At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, “Ah, yes, but I do.”[i]
St. Andrew Sermons