September 23, 2012

Current Events, Ancient Perspective


Text: James 4:1: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?”

It is very unusual for me to use the privilege of this pulpit for the purpose of current events. I avoid it as a matter of discipline, and I advise the members of the Sermon Group to do the same.

There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that there simply is so much else to say that is more important and more urgent. The Christian faith is not easy; it is not obvious; and in the twelve or fourteen minutes I get once a week to speak of it here when we gather together, there is a lot of ground to cover.

But secondly, we tend to get our perspective wrong when we presume to speak to these questions. My colleagues in ministry often speak of the need for “prophetic preaching,” by which I understand that they see this moment as an opportunity, or a responsibility, to pronounce on issues of the day.

I struggle with that. I struggle not because I don’t think Christians have a deep and legitimate stake in those issues—we do—but because I think the Christian gospel offers a critique of every position taken in the mundane world of politics. None of them should get the endorsement of being called the “Christian position” on anything. And anyone who claims that label seems to me to deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

You may well wish for a preacher who would dive into these headlines more readily. To be honest, I doubt I will ever be that preacher. Surely there are times, as Bonhoeffer said, when silence in the face of evil is evil itself; but I think those moments are rare, and when they come, what distinguishes them is that the stakes are spiritual, not political, and the scale is social, not individual.

And yet—and yet. Today’s reading from the Epistle of James pretty much demands a turn toward the public square. Because we live in conflictual and disputatious days. We are swimming in a rising tide of contention. We are surrounded by disagreement and division.

It isn’t just that our candidates disagree with each other; we expect that. But the character of our public discourse these days is itself casting us into contending camps: The one percent, the six percent, the forty-seven percent, whatever it is. Those who would lead us are dividing us, alienating us, estranged, from each other.

Now, James does not invite us to take sides in all of this disagreement. Instead, James is asking a different question. Why all this disagreement? Why all this division? Where does it come from? What are we fighting about, anyway?

James does not pose the question without offering a very direct answer, one I find myself carrying with me as I listen to all of the debates and all of the commentary and all of the interminable advertising. It is the idea that what lies at the base of all our contention is our self-focus.

What lies at the heart of our divisions, James is saying, is our envy. It’s our focus on the things we lack, instead of on the things we have. It’s our fear that everything we want only comes in finite qualities.

Not just money, but respect, dignity, safety, security, affirmation, acknowledgement, reputation. We want more for ourselves, so we must deny it to others. So that when candidates talk in the language of division, they find in us a ready audience.

And that is our failing, not theirs. When we allow ourselves to be trapped in this kind of thinking, we are failing our calling as Christians. We are in that condition described almost a hundred years ago by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”

So how are we supposed to live in this contentious world? What are we being called to do in the midst of our fractious civic discourse?

Through the ancient perspective of the Epistle of James I think we can see our current circumstances in ways that give us a program of action, a set of basic principles for finding our way through the thicket of contention and division.

It is that we should begin from a perspective of gratitude, not grasping:

Live as gifted people called to share our gifts;

And look with expectation toward a world transformed by the law of love.

To begin from a perspective of gratitude means to reshape our lives around the idea that what we have does not come from us; it comes from God. It’s not just a sweet line we used to say at the offering—remember it? “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee”—it’s a statement of belief.

From the Christian perspective the world is not divided between those who earn their keep and those who fall into some kind of shiftless dependence. From the Christian perspective, all of us, in the end, owe what we have to the goodness and graciousness of God. All of us are dependent.

And so the right way for us to go through the world is not to begin from the perspective of measuring what we don’t have, but of being thankful for what we have received. I learned from someone sitting in this room that a lot about your life could change if you just made my contribution to the church out of the first of my paycheck instead of out of the last of my paycheck. And that turns out to be exactly right. There is more than enough when I approach it that way.

Second: We Christians are gifted people. We have received the gift of reconciliation with God; we have received the gift of adoption by grace. We have received gifts of talents and skill and education and health. All of them come to us undeserving. And those gifts do us no good whatsoever if we try to hoard them. They only help us if we give them away.

That is the one basic reason why you cannot be a Christian on your own. Being a Christian means being in community, giving to and receiving from that community, dealing with all of it ups and downs and disappointments and triumphs. It means we can only realize the full measure of the gifts we have been given by investing them in the people we have been given in the community we share.

Begin from a perspective of gratitude, not grasping; Live as gifted people called to share our gifts; and finally, look with expectation toward a world transformed by the law of love.

Exactly thirty years ago apartheid was still the means of dividing people in South Africa, and the South African Council of Churches, an ecumenical group of black and white churches from across the country, became the target of a government-sponsored inquiry designed to silence the protest of the churches against state-sanctioned racism in that country.

Desmond Tutu, whom we all know would later become Archbishop of Capetown, was then the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches; Peter Storey, a white Methodist Bishop, was the president. Tutu and Storey were hauled before the judicial inquiry to defend the activities of the churches in demanding an end to the injustices and divisions of apartheid.

The address that Tutu gave that day became one of the documents quoted in the citation with which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he began that address by putting the whole miserable evil of apartheid firmly in its place. He began with these words: “I want to emphasize that these are thoroughly political, thoroughly mundane things.” It wasn’t that the church had no business speaking of them; it was rather that the church had an authority so broad that mere politics was only part of the story.

But there is more to this story. Not long into Tutu’s address, a buzz went around the gallery. And into the audience walked Robert Runcie, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with representatives of the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the National Council of Churches in the United States, the World Methodist Council, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It was an almost unprecedented show of Christian unity, something we pray for every week but rarely see. And it was simply and silently to lend support to the proclamation that the church’s business is the work of transforming the world by breaking down the barriers we build to separate us one from another with the transforming power of Christ’s love.

Our ancient teachings call us to a new and dangerous place in our own broken times; they call us to stand in the place where it is hardest to be. They call us to stand in the middle, in the place unswayed by vituperation and vitriol. They call us to stand in the place where we can give a hand up to people who are struggling, and be a restraint on the unfettered concentration of wealth and power by some.

They call us to find in a new way live out our identity as the via media, the middle way, trying to be the best and carrying a conviction of God’s loving purpose. May God give us grace to answer this call joyfully and effectually. Amen.