Thursday, October 9, 2008

What is the Price of Truth?

This sermon refers to Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46.

How anxious do you feel?

In some conversations I’ve been in this past week, anxiety was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with a knife. But it cuts, undercuts, shortcuts its way not so much to the mind or the heart as to the bowels—well, I won’t go further with that.

Some of us have family members who work in the financial sector, who worry about the viability of their jobs. No man is an island, and job cuts in one sector will be felt in others.

Quite a few of our members are in or near retirement, and in that circle there’s lots of fretting about investments losing value, cutting into pensions.

Non-profit institutions dependent on endowment income have to take into account not just cut earnings, but slippage of restricted endowments below thresholds at which they can be drawn upon at all. This was already bedeviling us here at St. John’s—it’s bound to trip us up now.

Should I ask again: How anxious are you? Anxiety cuts at us sharply.

The truth also cuts. There is a saying that the truth of a matter cuts both ways. That can mean many things, and suggests at least that life is a puzzling adventure full of surprise and irony, that the reality inside our experience often isn’t what it appears on the outside, and that it takes time for a story to be told whole and full.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, commented last week on the market collapse: “This crisis exposes the element of basic unreality in the situation—the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders,” he wrote.

That could be an invitation to dare practice the kind of consistent gratitude that St. Paul recommends when he urges us to thank God in all circumstances. Any takers on that?

Consider it. If there’s a human tendency as pernicious as anxiety, it’s denial. If we are where we are on Wall Street today not just because of the greed and corruption of some, but by the denial of many, then let’s have done with denial. Let’s welcome truth cutting through every layer of deception and distraction and hype and hysteria and lousy values, even as it hurts like hell. Why not dare look for the gift in what we suffer? Can’t we build a better economy on truth than on lies?

As St. Paul tells his story, he was living a life of denial, denying the power of God’s Spirit as it blew and rattled its way through the creaky edifices of first-century religion and society. He denied God’s care for a whole world by believing a theology that monopolized God’s care for just one tribe. He denied the call to change, the right of God to require change, the freedom of God to judge and challenge and transform the daily round of commerce and education, household and government.

Paul nearly perfected a denial of the spirit, choosing (in his own words) to be confident in the flesh. Then, in the flesh, on that perilous road to Damascus, he got whomped by reality, clobbered by the force of all that he was repressing, whaled by a devastating blow that he never quite explains to our analytical minds, but which rendered him an invalid for a season, and landed him right in the hands of his nemesis, the fledgling Christian community, the very group (still within Judaism) that he was intent on putting out of business, and who would nurse him to health and midwife his new birth.

Paul, whose denial of the spirit gave him a career trading on fear, falls calamitously into an unknowable future which he will come to treasure as it opens him to spirit and truth. He is not a bad icon to place on your television set, above the nightly news and the streaming Dow Jones.

He teaches us to sing a new song with these lyrics: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

So comes the freedom that allows a colleague, Stephen Bonsey, Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, to write to his people:

“The urgent duty of Christians in times like these is to resist the culture of fear, step outside the confusion and controversy, and lay hold of fundamental truths. One such truth is this: God has given us a world of abundance. God provides our daily bread. There is more than enough of all that we require to go around. The marketplace, when it is fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, facilitates this distribution.

“There is only one thing ultimately that can threaten us with the specter of hunger, loss of housing or denial of health care, and that is fear: fear of scarcity; fear that we will suffer deprivation as others will take more than their share. Such fears inspire pre-emptive action in the form of greed, corruption, and deception. These are the forces that distort markets to serve the few and powerful at the expense of the many – thus creating the very scarcity that seemed to threaten us.

“If we act in the present crisis out of fears inspired by the great lie of scarcity, we will inevitably create the very conditions we sought to avoid.

“Is it possible to consider another path? Could we approach the present crisis as an opportunity, not to shore up a failed system, but to build an alternative? What would it look like to devote $700 billion – or whatever the amount – to build economic strength from the ground up rather than the top down? What if we were to shape public policy to encourage markets of shared abundance in local efforts for sustainable agriculture, green energy, universal health care, excellence in education and renewed infrastructure?

“What if we were to act in confidence and strength in service of the truth, rather
than out of fear in service of a lie?”

Our Gospel today gives us a parable from the commodities market. Sweet cultivated grapes are the cash crop, and wine the product. The vineyard’s owner, after establishing his enterprise, trusts an economic system in which he puts certain people in charge of managing his business, and retires to the coast of Maine (or some equally appealing countryside). He expects to continue to receive his share of the produce.

But his managers deny him his due portion, and his rights of ownership. They deny the authority of the agents he sends to communicate with them—they even deny these messengers their lives, and when they murder the owner’s son they deny their very relationship with the owner, and are in full revolt. They’ve exalted themselves, hitching their star to a lie, the delusion that the vineyard is theirs simply because they’re standing on it and the owner is not. This market is not fulfilling its proper function in service to creation, is not facilitating just distribution.

After telling the story, Jesus asks the crowd, “So what does justice require?”

“New management!” they shout—and no golden parachutes for those scoundrels!

And at this moment, the truth cuts both ways. They have heard the surface of his story, but now must experience a very different application from deep within it. Jesus is pressing out of the grapes of this vineyard a bitter wine for them to taste. God is the vintner in the deeper story Jesus tells, and they are the scoundrels who don’t give God his due, who prefer to be confident in the flesh and believe that God cares just for them and not for the whole creation. They are the ones denying God’s call to change, God’s right to require change, God’s freedom to judge and challenge and transform commerce and education, households and governments.

And we might be the scoundrels, too, if we perpetuate a system that gives tax advantages to its billionaires and its most profitable businesses, while at the same time creating each year millions more households that cannot afford food or fuel to heat those homes, as hard-working low-income Americans who presently wash the floors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac slip down the ladder that once led up, now just down.

We might be the scoundrels, too, if we refuse to recognize that right now, when the economy is weakest, is when the need is greatest for another large-scale bailout, the one described by Joel Berg, Director of the New York Coalition against Hunger: the federal investment that is needed to prevent social service providers nationwide from buckling under the increasing load on agencies that lose ground each year—ground that God the vintner wants to plant with sweet grapes.

Jesus does not exempt any of his hearers from responsibility to the demands of justice, responsibility for the common good. His parables do not allow us to settle in a land of Them and Us. No demonizing is allowed in the Kingdom of God. Blame is a waste of breath, the ruach, the breath of God moving through us to revive the discouraged, instill wisdom, and inspire brave insistence on the truth—even as it cuts both ways.