Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Two Sermons

In my last post, I spoke about the contrasting stories of Scarcity and Abundance. I want to move now from the objective observation of these stories to the critical evaluation of them. As I have always told my students, just because we have to recognize that we all come to the table with a worldview does not mean that all worldviews are equally valid or useful. Ideas and stories have consequences, and sometimes these stories can bring about very negative outcomes.

I present the evaluation of these stories in the form of two sermons that I heard preached on Sunday mornings. These sermons were preached by two different ministers, about a year apart. They were given in two different churches, although both churches are members of the same denomination – a denomination that would be considered part of the “liberal mainline” in context of American Christianity. I use these two sermons to illustrate how the stories of Scarcity and Abundance can be manifest even within the same religious tradition. The theology and practical affects, however, are very different.

The first sermon was preached shortly after the devastating Paris terror attacks of 2015. The minister’s aim was to focus on the sovereignty of God in a turbulent time. He spoke of the Battle of Tours and Charles Martel, and of Jan Sobieski at the Gates of Vienna. The images were ones of war, a clash of civilizations against the armies of evil. The victory of Christendom was presented as proof of God’s favor, which subsequently allowed Western civilization to flourish instead of regressing into the darkness of false religion represented by the Muslim hordes.  

The parallel was drawn between the battles of the past and the events of the day. The enemy was at the gates again, threatening to destroy our civilization. But we need not fear, because God’s intention is the same today as it was then – to protect his chosen ones, the ones chosen to bear his message to the world. The truth would prevail, as it always had in the past.

The second sermon I heard preached just a few Sundays ago. The minister also addressed a congregation nervous and uncertain about the future, albeit due to different circumstances. His exhortations, however, were quite different. He spoke of the “impractical” nature of Jesus’ commands in the gospels, to love God and neighbor with a perfection that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Despite the seeming absurdity of the task, he spoke of the grace given to each of us to live such a life in accordance with our faith. This was a talk of victory as well, but victory of a different sort – victory over our own resignations in following Jesus’ example, rather than over external enemies.

Missing from this sermon was the clear, binary divide between truth and falsehood described in the first sermon. Jesus’ teaching was presented as a way of life to emulate, not a pronouncement of moral absolutism. He described truth as more of a destination than a starting point.

To me these two contrasting sermons demonstrate the practical differences between the stories of Scarcity and Abundance quite clearly. They also point to the outcomes of holding to those stories and letting them shape our actions.

In the Scarcity story, the big idea is one of strict certainty, of faith in the absolute. Things are completely good or completely evil, and we must choose a side or be swept aside into the ashbin of history. The truth is clear, and the idea itself is enough to die and to kill for. This whole approach is sanctioned, of course, by God himself, who wills it to be so. We either choose to be on God’s side, and thus are privileged to be able to be used as instruments for the glorious fulfillment of his plan, or otherwise we choose to be enemies and will deservedly feel the full force off his wrath as we are wiped out of existence.

The gospel of the Abundance story, by contrast, offers no such moral certainty. It is not an ethical program but instead a path that is to be followed, with very little vision of where exactly the path may lead. Any attempts to codify this path into some sort of law or set of precepts is always met with frustration. A reliance on grace is necessary for all parties involved, but the key belief is that there exists in the universe a sufficient grace to make the journey possible. And if we accept this grace for ourselves, we must certainly be willing to extend it to others.

If the specific application of the Scarcity story in the first sermon sounds familiar, it is because it has gained quite a bit of publicity recently. The narrative of the clash of civilizations is one of the guiding principles of the new presidential administration in the U.S. It is a key point in the worldview of Steve Bannon, one of the closest advisors to the President and likely a primary architect of many of the administration’s policy decisions. The same story has, in similar forms, been at the heart of authoritarian regimes in the past centuries. One of the chilling consequences of this story is the need to find a scapegoat, a common enemy that can be identified with the forces of evil that need to be extinguished. It’s an old story and one only need to study a bit of history to see how it generally plays out.

The need to define ideas and people along the binary categories of good and evil can have dangerous consequences. We will almost always see ourselves as good, and those outside of our tribe or nation as evil. Being in possession of the “truth” can excuse any number of atrocities. Our own national history was shaped by a doctrine of Manifest Destiny that took this story as a starting point.

The Abundance story hasn’t gotten as much of an opportunity to be tested over the course of human history. When it has, it is usually on a smaller scale, in counter-cultural communities that oppose the dominant ideology of scarcity and isolation. It has animated powerful non-violent movements in history, such as the American Civil Rights movement.  It provides the theological backbone of Liberation Theology. I see signs of it now in the teaching of Pope Francis, who took his name from a saint that lived this story at a great personal cost. It is no surprise, then, that modern-day proponents of the Scarcity story take exception to Francis’ words and seek to discredit him in the name of “tradition.”

We may be again facing a moment in our history where the adequacy of our stories will be put to the test. Both provide answers – but which answers will stand? Can we continue to exist in a zero-sum world where gains can only come at the expense of the Other? Or does the arc of the universe truly bend toward justice, and provide us all with the grace needed to exist in harmony with each other and with our world?

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