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.
Acts 11:1-18 † Psalm 148 † Revelation 21:1-6 † John 13:31-35
According to local legend, the largest octopus in the world lives below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Some say it’s a 600-pound creature, once named King Octopus by The News Tribune.[i] Others say it lives among the ruins of Galloping Gertie, the wreckage of the bridge that collapsed during the November 7th, 1940 storm into the white-capped waters of the Puget Sound.
Douglass Brown was 15 when he saw a giant tentacle emerge from Puget Sound. He was walking along the beach with a girl he wanted to impress when he saw this arm come out of the water.
“It was 10, 15 feet in the air,” he told a reporter for KUOW. “It looked like an octopus or something like that, and I just took off running.”[iii]
Not surprisingly, there is no report on how the relationship fared after that fateful day.
“They try to scare you,” says commercial diver Kerry Donahue of these big octopi. “Their big defense mechanism [is that] they get bigger than you are.” The first time it happened to Donahue, it terrified him. “Because your radio is to the surface,” he told the reporter, “you take a lot of flak for screaming like a 2-year-old when you run into an octopus.”
They can also get small, though. National Geographic set up a tank and shot a video to demonstrate how malleable these creatures are.[iv]
Acts 9:1-20 † Psalm 30 † Revelation 5:11-14 † John 21:1-19
If you were here last week, you may be wondering what we’re doing reading another section from the Gospel of John. “Didn’t we finish that last week?” you might ask. And my response to you is to say, give yourselves a pat on the back for your insightful and close listening. We should all be proud!
Check out the last paragraph from chapter 20, the previous chapter in John, from last week’s reading:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.[i]
It is clearly the ending to the story—a hopeful summary statement by the gospel writer reminding us what the work of Jesus’ disciples has been about. Case closed. Time to move on.
And then we have this afterthought:
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…
Acts 5:27-32 † Psalm 118:14-29 † Revelation 1:4-8 † John 20:19-31
From the very beginning of the Christian church new disciples called catechumens were prepared during Lent for their baptism at Easter.
Catechumens were paired with sponsors and invited to a time of inquiry—learning, reflection and discernment within the church—because this move toward baptism was understood to be a radical move toward a new way of living in the world that required understanding and careful intention.
If you haven’t already, you may want to get to know these faces. These are neighbors of ours, young Americans predominantly from the northwest, with others scattered throughout the country. They range in age from 10 years-old to their mid-twenties. And they are suing the federal government for knowingly causing climate change and violating their constitutional rights. They are litigants of the youth climate lawsuit known as Juliana v. United States.
Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
The constitutional climate lawsuit was originally filed in Oregon in 2015 and has been making its way through the court system. The expectation is that the lawsuit will finally go to trial late this year, although that could change given the considerable resistance it has received from the federal government and corporate interests throughout the process.
On average, Death Valley gets two inches of rain a year. Two inches. There are two major mountain ranges—the Panamint Range, pictured here, and the Sierra Nevadas beyond them to the West that trap weather systems that would otherwise drop precipitation from the Pacific, making it one of the driest places on earth.
Yet it is fair to say that Death Valley, one of the driest places on earth, has been shaped by water.
Well, water and tectonics.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 † Psalm 27 † Philippians 3:17-4.1 † Luke 13:31-35
This is one of those really awesome texts that fits well in the Dangerous Book for Boys, Daring Book for Girls[i] genre of children’s books that argue it is good to go close to the edge and, sometimes even leap over it, that understands you need to get dirty sometimes and maybe even risk a few cuts and bruises to really know something, that recognizes that an overly sanitized, protected, secured life may not actually get us anywhere worth getting.
I think of Molly and Megan McAdams who were delighted that the 2014 film “Into the Woods” included the part of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Cinderella in which the evil step-sister cuts her toe off in her desperation to fit into that golden slipper. They showed it in that film rather than scrub it out like Disney’s writers had done for their previous versions of the fable.
There’s something about the grit of life, the close experience of it, the finding our way through that has everything to do not only with our faith and life and well-being, our resilience and joy, but with our encounter with a God who tends to traffic in these places as well.
In a way, this is the call of Lent. To get a little dirty.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 † Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 † Romans 10:8b-13 † Luke 4:1-13
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No doubt you’ve heard this adage that suggests that if you possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who merely says they own it.
The doctrine allowed Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pig that the McCoys claimed was their property, although we can imagine it didn’t make their lives better or help to de-escalate the historic dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The old saw has underlined feuds on too many school playgrounds to count. It has destroyed countless friendships. It has been front and center in disputes in U.S. history with tragic results for many of the early dwellers of these lands. It has contributed to the fire between Palestinians and Israelis, and all of their proxies, and in too many stories to tell on every continent throughout every age. The question of ownership and land is arguably at the root of every conflict, all human violence, and the climate change peril that our planet and its inhabitants are facing.
So it may interest us to note that this is something of a theme in the telling of our scriptures today.
“I’m drawn to places,” writes Eric Weiner, “that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”[i] He is speaking of what we’ve come to know as thin places.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. The ancient Celts used the term to describe places like the wind-swept isle of Iona where Julie Kae will have an opportunity to spend some time this summer as a part of her sabbatical.
St. Andrew Sermons