Some of you have perhaps been wondering what happened to me over the last few weeks – did he simply stop writing? The answer is no – I transferred my writing to a few other listservs and also to the Massachusetts blog known as “Blue Mass Group” where I have been making the case against some very foolish policies in the state under the name of “bmass”. You can look those up if you like – and comment on them. Some of this debate came to a head when I had the opportunity to preach at St. James in Cambridge, my wonderful home parish, and I discovered the readings were from Exodus and John. I haven’t preached in nearly two years, so it was a challenge and a joy. This is what I said.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Robert Kinloch Massie at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 15, 2009
I. Introduction: The Daily Struggle To Remember
Every week or so at my house Anne and I endure an abrupt ritual of panic. We are about to go out the door and suddenly …. I can’t find my wallet! I know I had it somewhere, in a pair of pants, but those pants seem to have jumped up and run off to a dark corner. So for a few minutes Anne and I have to rush around, playing hide and seek with a pair of trousers.
Other times it is the car keys. I have noticed that car keys seem to anticipate when I am about to leave? Just before I need them, they quickly slide under a pile of old magazines and again, Anne and I get to play hide and seek.
Has that ever happened to you? I am always pleased to read when such very human problems pop up in the Bible. One sheep wanders off, and the shepherd has to leave the ninety-nine and go running after it. [Matthew 18:12] A woman loses a coin in her house, and she has to turn everything upside down and sweep the whole place out until she finds it. [Luke 15:8]
We lose important things all the time. Why do you suppose that is?
Three reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and we lose what is important under a pile of junk.
Today, I want to propose that just as we often lose physically important things we can also lose spiritually important things. We do this all the time… and for the same reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and lose what is important under piles of junk.
Jesus knew this and spent a lot of time trying to point it out to people. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he suggested that people spend too much time worrying about the details of daily life – and by the way, in a community far less affluent than ours. “Do not be anxious about what you shall eat or what you shall drink … [or] what you shall put on.” [Matthew 6:25] “Seek first the realm of God and the righteousness of God, and the other things will be yours as well.” [Matthew 6:33]
To the spiritual pundits he said: you are worrying so much about appearing more holy than other people that you have forgotten what holiness is really about. Forget the long prayers, he said, use few simple words and even better, do it in secret. [Matthew 6: 5-14]
In Jesus’ day people worried a lot about what they had done wrong, so they spent a lot of time and money calculating how to please God with exactly the right behavior. And out of those anxieties arose a whole God-pleasing-calculation industry, much of it built on animal sacrifice. Those things don’t matter, Jesus said; what God wants is mercy, and not sacrifice.” [Matthew 12: 1-7]
II. The Demons of Mess
In pointing this out, Jesus was not inventing something new – he was drawing attention to the gems that existed in Hebrew scripture. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” is a quote from the prophet Hosea [6:6]. His message was: don’t get distracted, don’t forget, don’t lose what is important under a pile of junk.
And today, in this season of Lent 2009, we need to hear that lesson again, more than ever, in both our personal and our public lives.
Anne and I don’t watch a lot of TV but some months ago we came across an remarkable program called “Clean House.” How many of you have seen that?
For those of you who don’t know this show, this is how it works. A crew of specialists shows up to rescue a family whose lives are being wrecked by the demons of consumption and disorder. Their houses and their lives are a mess.
And when I say “mess,” you have to multiply whatever is in your head by fifty. One small house had boxes to the ceiling in every room. The parents were losing tempers, their minds, and their marriages. One sad eight year old son was reduced to trying to do his homework on the only remaining tiny patch of clear real estate on the dining room table that was not covered with junk.
In another show, a woman who had gained a lot of weight after having children had filled not just her closet but most of her bedroom with hundreds of shoes. And not just any shoes. She had hundreds of pairs of expensive designer shoes, that her husband bought on his slim salary to express his love and she was hoarding them in the hope that one day they would fit.
Some of the men in these families filled up rooms and garages with golf clubs, ancient magazines, weight equipment, sports memorabilia, and old appliances that reminded them of their dads.
And by the way I just want you to know that when you all come over to our house, none of you is allowed to go into the basement.
What makes these shows so fascinating?
1) They tempt us to judge, so that we can feel superior just like the Pharisee in the Temple, “Lord I thank thee that my house isn’t as cluttered as that family of messy tax collectors.” [Luke 18: 9-14]
2) They attract our sympathy, because the physical and emotional transformations that take place as the TV team persuades the owners to give up their stuff, sell it at a yard sale, and then use the money to remake the home – are often fascinating and deeply moving.
3) And finally they signal something we know but can’t express: the physical mess in these people’s lives is an outward and visible warning about inward and spiritual chaos.
Like many of us, the people are in a kind of bondage both to their memories and their dreams, they are anchored to illusions about the past and the future. They have been captured by the absurd mixture of insecurity and greed create by a consumption economy run amok. Watching one of these shows, Anne turned to me and said, “we turn to stuff to fill the empty places in our hearts.”
In others words, we get distracted, we forget, we lose what is important gets buried beneath a pile of junk.
So how do we fix this? Our readings today give us an idea.
One way to stop losing the wallet and the car keys is to keep putting them, day after day, in the same place.
And one way not to lose ourselves spiritually is keep ourselves and each other of what is important, every morning, every Sunday, in the same place.
This isn’t easy. Today’s first reading gives us an example. You would think that the people who had followed Moses into the desert would be able to keep track of what was important. After all, God had helped them escape from soul-stifling, bone-crushing slavery in Egypt – and they were on their way, if they could stay focused, to the Promised Land.
But what happens? Moses goes up the mountain for a little facetime with God — and the next thing you know, when he had been gone a short time, his followers get distracted. They forget about Egypt, they forget about Moses, they forget pretty much about everything. They tell Moses’ brother, “Get up, and make us some new gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” [Exodus 32: 1] They gave all their jewelry to Aaron who melts it into the shape of a golden calf, which, when you think about it, is kind of the ultimate symbol of meaningless junk.
This is one of the earliest management problems on record. And so God tries to simplify things by sending Moses back with a two page memo, although the memo wasn’t on paper, it was stone. He says, okay, I understand that living together can get complicated, so I am going to distill what is important into a few basic rules. Four of them are about our relationship with God. Six of them are about our relationship with other. Ten in all. One for each finger.
And, as we know from human history, that pretty much solved the problem, we know those Ten Commandments by heart. Right?
Well, the truth is – they are not that easy to remember. I mean, ten things is a lot , especially when some are long and others are short, especially when some say you should do this and should do that. But years ago, when I was a chaplain at Grace Church School, a wonderful teacher taught me the easy version in verse. So this is the congregational participation part. Repeat after me:
Above all else, love God alone
Bow down to neither wood nor stone
God’ name refuse to take in vain
The Sabbath rest with care maintain
Respect your parents all your days
Hold sacred human life always
Be loyal to your chosen mate
Steal nothing neither small nor great
Report with truth your neighbor’s deed
And rid your mind of selfish greed.
The kids in my fourth grade loved this. We used to do speed trials. I think the record was 12 seconds for 10 commandments. I will post it on the webpage, and we will see if anyone can beat that.
III. Frustration, Repentance, and “Godly Grief”
But you know, despite the simplicity of these Ten Commandments, in Jesus’s day people still got distracted and forgot. In fact, they asked Jesus if he could give them an edited version. Ten’s too much, give us two.
So Jesus did: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself,” [Luke 10:27]
Maybe we begin to see why Jesus occasionally got frustrated. We sometimes gloss over this aspect of Jesus’s ministry – because his core message was one of endurance and patience and love — but to me those flashes of annoyance make him seem fully human.
He explains things, repeatedly, in the most vivid way, with the most memorable stories and parables, and people still look at him blankly and say, in essence, what do you mean by that?
And so he tries again, with a new story, or a new angle. But sometimes he says, “you have eyes, but you do not see, ears but you do not hear.” [Mark 8:18]
On another occasion he shakes his head and says:
“To what shall I compare this generation? You are like children, sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other, “We piped to you and you would not dance, we wailed for you and you would not mourn.”[Matthew 11:16-18]
No matter what approach we try, no matter how we try to draw your attention to what is important underneath the pile of junk, you get distracted. What will you listen to?
And every now and then Jesus’ frustration boils over into anger, an anger designed to produce what St. Paul called “godly grief.” [2 Corinthians 7: 9-10] That’s a great phrase for Lent. Godly grief is when we are reminded of something a bit painful in a way that produces repentance.
The gospel passage from today is an example of Jesus acting in a way that was designed to induce godly grief. We know that these actions were centrally important to his followers because it appears in all four gospels.
It is hard for us to appreciate the power of the Temple today or the shocking nature of Jesus’ behavior. The Temple of Solomon was not just a place of national reverence. It was a place of immense spiritual power. For at the center of the Temple was a hidden room, called the Holy of Holies, which only one person could enter only once a year. In this room, in total darkness, sat the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant, as you know from your Bible and from Raider’s of the Lost Ark, was said to contain the original tables described in Exodus. According to Jewish tradition, in and around this object and this room, hovered the actual power of God.
It was sort of like the core of a nuclear reactor combined – times a million. Think about it. The creative force of God, who brought forth not only humanity, not only this world, but God “who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place and flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space” could be encountered there.
But what did Jesus see when he arrived there in the courtyard surrounding this place?
It has become the Temple Livestock Exchange. When Jesus approached this immensely powerful place, what he saw was disturbing. Inside the courtyard was a market where people bought and sold animals in order to slit their throats, drain their blood, and burn their bodies in the hope this would earn them spiritual points. A place where some leaders paraded around to show off who was more important, more holy, more special, more deserving than whom. A place where you had to change regular money into Temple money, at high rates, at the table of a money-changer. In the version in Matthew he quotes both Isaiah and Jeremiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” [Matthew 21:21, Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11] So he drew together some cords into a whip, scattered the coins, turned the tables over, and drove the changers out.
We don’t use animal sacrifice any more — in fact we despise it — so it seems as though what Jesus doing makes sense. But this act was probably the single most direct political and economic act of disruption in his ministry. Some scholars feel it was the principal reason that the religious authorities began to plot his death. It is as though Jesus had been offered a public tour of the White House, and then taken the opportunity to run into the Oval Office and shove the President’s desk through the smashed windows and right out into the Rose Garden.
Jesus did this to make a point. In his view, in his zeal of the moment, the people of faith had followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts, and in his view the whole spiritual enterprise had become buried under a huge, horrific pile of junk. It was time to clean house. So he did.
But the question for us in this Lenten season is not whether the people in the Temple courtyard had gone off track. The question is in what manner we – not only individually but collectively – are going off track.
IV. The Modern Moneychangers
I could suggest a number of ways, but I am going to close by zeroing in on one. In this state we have reached a level of despair, dishonesty, and denial so severe that our elected officials are about to approve a proposal that says, in essence, in order to save some of us, others of us must be destroyed. Holly’s email signature line quotes the wonderful phrase from Paul Farmer, “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” I agree with that. I fear that many leaders are about to act as though they do not.
What do I mean? Our frightened, confused, and avaricious officials have are about to expand predatory gambling in order to cover a budget short fall. There is no sugar coating this. They believe that because we are experiencing temporary financial difficulties we should permanently crush tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people.
Many of you may not have not given this a second’s thought, but if not, I would like you both to trust me and to find out for yourself. I have been down this path of raising concerns before they were not commonly recognized many times before. I began fighting the outrage of South African apartheid more than 35 years ago, before many Americans had ever heard of that country. I spoke out on climate change more than 20 years ago, before many Americans knew anything about the dangers of greenhouse gases.
And now, in 2009, I want to tell you that we are facing one of the worst decisions that will be made in this generation, that makes a mockery of the very word Commonwealth. This decision is being supported uncritically by many members of the Senate, the House, by cabinet secretaries, by the unions – most disgracefully by the teacher’s union — by the Globe, by the Herald, by Treasurer Tim Cahill . It is even being supported by my friend, Deval Patrick, the governor for whom we pray, as we should, each week.
What would we have thought of Franklin Roosevelt if he had proposed that the solution to the Great Depression was to set up a million one-armed bandits all across the United States to “raise public revenues” at the very moment that people were plunging into financial despair? Yet nearly a million for more sophisticated and dangerous machines have already been scattered around our nation today.
What should we think that after a decade of casino capitalism in which our savings were destroyed by the equivalent of high tech slots on Wall Street our leaders are proposing to hurl many of our brothers and sisters into even deeper financial ruin?
What are we thinking when, after telling our teens to work hard and to save, we encourage them to slide effortlessly from the video games of their youth to the tens of thousands of video slot machines and video lottery terminals that they are planning right now to drop all across this state?
Do not be deceived. This is not about fun or free choice.
This is not about social gambling, or playing poker with your friends, or having an office pool over basketball.
This is the deliberate exploitation of poor and middle-income people dressed up as fiscal salvation.
Gambling is our modern golden calf. Our dance around it is the idolatry of “something for nothing.” Slot machine manufacturers are like 1950s cigarette companies. They are lying about the addictive nature of their product, even as they exploit the research showing how the lights and sounds and near-misses of slots cause our brains to emit the euphoria inducing neuro-transmitter of dopamine. This is why a national commission called these devices the “crack cocaine” of gambling.
The actual phrase that the slot industry uses for what they hope will happen is that a person will “play to extinction,” that is, will drain their financial assets. These machines are reverse ATMs, designed to remove money from your account as fast as you can push a button. Many addicts – including young people – now rely on adult diapers so that they don’t have to get up from a “hot” machine.
This is a sleeper social justice issue, and today I am asking you to wake up. I know that at St. James we are busy with many challenges – real challenges, worthy challenges — to serve the hungry and to help prisoners, to rebuild our space and to save our planet and to remember, and always to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves. But if we do not awaken to this danger in time, isn’t it also true that our food lines will grow longer, our prisons fuller, and our democracy more vulnerable to its addiction to the golden calf?
I started this sermon on a light note, about wallets and car keys and cleaning the junk out of our houses. What Jesus told us is that sometimes the junk in our collective life gets piled so high that the divine light by which we are intended to see each our begins to falter, and we are at risk of losing what we most value about our communities.
In Lent we are called to examine our lives, in peace if possible, in godly grief if necessary, and then to follow Jesus. We are to follow even unto to the contemporary courtyards of power, right up to the tables of flashing lights and spinning dials of the mechanical moneychangers.
They are deceptive and cruel.
They are immoral and unjust.
And it is our responsibility – acting with the humility and the strength that only the Spirit can provide – to insure that they are swiftly overturned.