1 Kings 18:20-39 | Psalm 96:1-13 | Galatians 1:1-12 | Luke 7:1-10
Talk less, smile more;
don’t let them know what you’re against or what you for.
This is the refrain of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. My kids and I have been listening to Hamilton. It’s a show that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, and his involvement in the early politics of our republic. It’s this incredible piece that has a historical cry for representative government come from people of color via hip hop - an art form that speaks from the margins of our contemporary society. It’s an absolutely beautiful, moving, and timely piece.
Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.
These are the cynical words of a cynical man - Aaron Burr. He is a man who has learned not to trust a soul. He has learned to assume that if you don’t protect yourself and your prospects then others will take what could have been, should have been, yours. A cynical man who operates in the understanding that one must play the game, play politics, do whatever it takes to get what he wants, what he needs.
I have been thinking about cynicism this week. I have been thinking about how it functions and how it operates in our culture and in me. I started thinking about it when I read today’s gospel text. My first reaction and honestly my 2nd and 3rd and 4th reaction when I read this story from Luke was a cynical one.
“Yeah, right….” I thought.
“Yeah right… this centurion, this “man of faith”, is playing everyone.” I thought.
He has power in a system of occupation and exploitation and is used to being able to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, what he needs. He is maneuvering and using the many resources at his disposal to pull a favor from Jesus. He has probably tried everything else to no avail and thought he might as well try this Jewish teacher and miracle worker - his last option. The Jewish leaders he sends are, of course, in his pocket. He has the power as an occupying general to make them kowtow. I just can’t imagine he built that synagogue out of the goodness of his own heart. A maneuver surely, a way to ensure future loyalty. And then he piles it on. Pandering, he sends his friends – oh no don’t you bother yourself Jesus – I am not worthy. Just say the word.
Yeah right?! I just don’t trust it. The cynic in me saw the cynic in him and It wasn’t pretty. It took me by surprise. But then Jesus, he also took me by surprise. He finds faith in this one. This Jesus who came to release the captives, bring good news to the poor, let the oppressed go free, here he is seemingly answering the prayer of the oppressor.
So what’s a preacher do? Do I enter further into this cynicism and be less than honest about what I see here? Or maybe I should just disengage, not let on about my unsettled questions, and go looking for something I can talk about with certainty from somewhere else? Maybe Galatians, maybe 1st Kings could provide something I can get behind.
Cynicism is the inclination to distrust other people’s motives. It’s related to skepticism but it takes an important and much more damaging step. Good journalists are skeptical. Critical thinkers are skeptical. Great leaders and savvy citizens are skeptical. Skepticism is the awareness that evasion, manipulation, or deceit might be a part of any interaction. Skepticism is about questioning and finding our way through to what’s right and hopefully good.
Skepticism becomes cynicism however when distrust becomes our default position. And when we conclude that the best way to thrive in a world that we understand to be full of manipulation is to join the fray. When we decide that such treacherous and disheartening circumstance requires a response that is equally deceitful, manipulative and evasive.
Cynicism makes healthy relationship impossible. There is no foundation upon which to build understanding and co-operation. It leads to disenchantment, disengagement, opportunism. It settles into a belief that things will never change. Cynicism sinks the hope for community before it even starts. It rejects the possibility of life-giving, meaningful change and development. And cynicism, it really is a powerful part of our post-modern life. It was a form of cynicism that I brought to my initial reading of this text. It’s what we do when we begin with distrust and when we refuse to be vulnerable and honest with our questions and our fears.
So how did we get here? Well it seems cynicism is part of being enlightened.
There was an ancient school of cynics. These folks were ancient Greek philosophers and they rejected social conventions in pretty spectacular ways. They wanted their communities to know that everything a person needed, nature had already provided. They used satire and shocking public actions to get people to question the social mores of the time and the accumulation of wealth and status that shaped their contemporary existence.
Modern day cynics have some relationship to these ancients but modern day cynics are really a different breed born of the enlightenment – the very same era in which that Broadway show Hamilton is set.
The enlightenment philosophies of individualism and modernism that dismantled monarchies and birthed republics like ours emerged in a new arena of increased sociability. During these times folks began to gather more frequently in ways they had not before. They developed ideas and innovations in the company of others with whom they could exchange their thoughts, their needs, their vision in ways they hadn’t before. Old hierarchies and accepted ways of conveying information and authority like the church, monarchy and aristocracy gave way to a wider range of voices who gathered in salons, and in cafes and taverns, in societies and in new forms of government.
These gatherings were not all encompassing by any means but they were wider and had a different, more egalitarian flavor than before. In this more democratic environment people had to learn the art of engagement and the communal development of ideas. Skepticism was important in this arena. But cynicism the dark side of skepticism began to take hold as competition and ambition reared its ugly head.
Add to this the development of commerce in the late 18th and early 19th century and cynicism took a pretty firm hold in our ways of being together. Modern day commerce and industrialization put a premium on competition, and getting the best deal possible pushed folks more and more to taking a stance of distrust as the default. Novels and media of the modern and post-modern era tell the story over and over of innocents being duped by those who were out for themselves. A need to look out for ourselves against the connivances of others, or the injustices of society and its systems, built through the 19th and 20th century and into the present day. One need now only look at some of our national politics to see cynicism in all its glory.
It’s this heritage that caused me to question the centurion.
Yeah right? Don’t trust his motives. He is looking after himself in a system that is corrupt.
But then there is Jesus. Jesus is a questioning individual. He asks us all over the gospels to consider and to resist systems that marginalize and oppress. But what does he do in this scenario? He apparently answers the Centurion’s request and he heals the boy.
He doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t stop to point out all the rights and wrongs in the situation – not amidst suffering. He heals the boy.
Jesus trusts the centurion word’s and he looks within the system the centurion and the Jewish elders represent to the suffering and he does what he always does. He heals the boy.
All over Luke, Jesus is about the healing. Often times, he doesn’t even wait to be asked. He looks for suffering, he asks his followers to look for suffering and he heals.
But he doesn’t do it quietly, and he doesn’t show any preference. Soon after this healing in the halls of power this same Jesus will touch and raise a dead man, the unclean. He will forgive and restore forgive a brazen woman, a sinner. He will sit with and bring wholeness to a demoniac, a dangerous outsider. He will go on to criticizes the pious and the judicious for not healing those who are in pain, for caring more about systems of control than the suffering of those within these systems, those they are meant to care for.
There simply is no duplicity in Jesus. He is not out to please anyone. He does not pretend to be anything other than who he is. And who he is is one who moves in our midst and heals, one who brings wholeness regardless of status or circumstance.
So as I think about my cynical response to this text, I realize that Jesus’ healing ways show me the way out that God has provided. Jesus comes to us as we are hurting and afraid and hiding behind our cynicism and asks us to be part of a better future by looking for where the suffering is, (maybe it’s in ourselves). Jesus shows us that we will find a way through by we listening to folks (maybe ourselves) when they say there is pain and fear and loss. And Jesus teaches that ultimately we will find a way through by reaching out with a healing touch. A touch but that is wide enough to hold with honor and gentleness the other. Hold with honor and gentleness their story, their needs, their pain, and their hopes.
Now, as we make our way to places that contain suffering of course we will have a million questions about how things happen, and how we people got hurt and how we are to use that information to live more justly.
These are important questions that our gospels invite us, compel us even, to explore. But I think this text today asks us, especially those of us with privilege, to guard against a cynical questioning that shuts us off from healing relationships. I think it invites us to ask our questions in an open, honest, loving, and vulnerable way not in a way that internalizes our doubts and fears, the feeds distrust so as to poison us or corrupt the healing way we are meant to move in the world.
Maybe Aaron Burr is right after all….talk less, smile more. Not from cynicism, not from distrust and fear though, but from a willingness to listen and a willingness to offer a healing response where there is suffering.
Thank be to God. Amen