Context

Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I confess I hardly know where to begin today.  The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.

In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets.  He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them.  And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen.  You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen.  He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.

And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful.  The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith.  Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments.  But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.  

It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way.  Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith.  We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith.  Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.

And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:  “You think I came to bring peace?  No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.”  He was on his way to the cross.

At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him.  Thousands.  And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him.  And every single misplaced expectation.  So he talks about division.  And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado.  I think he is lamenting.  I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.  

And I think it breaks his heart to say those words.  Father will be pitted against son and son against father.  I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old.  I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”  

These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way.  When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.  

You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other.  You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God.  And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today.  This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting.  It just sounds so glorious. 

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week.  There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load.  And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.

It means violence.  And bloodshed.  It means misery and suffering.  It means crashed economies.  It means poverty and hunger.  It means destruction.  It’s not going to be like the last time.  There won’t be some dividing line between North and South.  No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor.  It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.

One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context.  But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.”  To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination.  If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”  

Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division.  So prophetic.  There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran.  There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian.  And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.  

The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls.  We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things.   The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.

As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time.  They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone.  They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen       

Another Sacrifice to the Shadow god

So. Another mass shooting. This time at a community college in Oregon. Last time it was at a church in Charleston. The time before that… well, I’m losing track.

I sit here confused. Not stunned anymore–it’s happened too often now. Not brokenhearted. I think I wept enough over Charleston that my well of anguish has run dry and I confess that the part of me that checks my own spiritual, psychological and moral pulse is more than a little worried about that. Not outraged. My outrage, too, is spent.

I sit here confused. And sad. And more than a little worried for the world my grandsons are growing up in. And more than a little fearful for the schools where my wife, my son-in-law and so many other persons I love so dearly are dedicating their lives to guide others down the transforming path of education. I sit here sad, worried, and fearful. But mostly confused.

I’m not confused about what will happen next. That’s all too boringly predictable. What will happen now in this great mediasphere in which we all spend too much of our time and energy is this. We will have a new cycle of anti-gun vs. pro-gun arguments. A few Facebook friendships will be terminated. But this cycle will be shorter than the last one because each one gets shorter as we become more accustomed to, less surprised by these random acts of violence. Blended into that small tornado will be a lot of talk about how we need to do more to care for the mentally ill, but the focus will be more about how we might be able to spot the dangerous psychopaths than how we might actually care for this unfortunate contingent of our population.

I’m not confused about how we came to be in this bizarrely immobilized nexus of violence. I study history. I doesn’t take a genius to graph the rise in gun possession and the radical neo-con reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment against the defunding of mental health care. On a more esoteric level, it would probably be useful, too, to include some pages on the deconstruction of America’s common mythos of mutuality and how in its place we’ve been sold a mythos of individualism mixed with a simultaneous real-life devaluing of the actual individual in any kind of meaningful context of community. I would need to include the decline of the Church and religion in general in all that. No, I’m not confused about how we got here. The story is a bit complex, but not really all that long because it wasn’t all that long ago that it simply wasn’t like this. I know. I’ve lived through the changes.

It wasn’t always like this.

Some history. And a warning before you read any further: in what follows, it is not my intent to trash Ronald Reagan, although I confess that as one who lived through his era and has looked at his record in some detail I really don’t see any validity in lionizing him the way some do. Nevertheless, what follows is probably going to read as though I’m targeting him and blaming him for our current state of affairs. If it seems that way, it’s because, while history is complex and even starting points have roots somewhere, the fact is that everything does have a starting point and more than a little of the difficulty we face now began on his watch. I really don’t mean to malign Mr. Reagan. But history is history.

As both Governor of California and later as President Ronald Reagan let bottom-line accounting overrule both compassion and common sense. The irony here is that this kind of accounting, which is so necessary in a household, is disastrously short-sighted and crippling when applied on the macro-economic scale required by a national economy. I could write a good deal more about the fallacies and short-sightedness of Reaganomics, but I’ll save that for another time.

When Mr. Reagan was Governor of California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s it seemed to him like a good cost-cutting idea to close down all the state mental hospitals. It looked good on the bottom line and helped to “balance” the budget— to match income to outflow on an annual basis as he moved to give new tax cuts to corporations.

In 1980 when he was elected President, one of his first acts was to discard the Mental Health Systems Act which President Carter had signed only a month before. Again, it seemed like an easy way to cut a huge chunk of change out of the budget which would enable him to cut corporate taxes. So for one year-end report and a corporate tax cut, you get a better looking bottom line. But what happens next?

Here’s what’s happened. According to USA Today (2014) it now costs us, nationally, about $444billion a year to care for the mentally ill in our current non-system system. Most of that is toted up in ancillary costs that have to be paid for through interesting tricks in accounting since the category itself is largely defunded. It’s paid mostly by counties and communities, very few of whom have personnel, funds or facilities specifically designated for or prepared for dealing with mental illness.

Today in California there are 124,000 homeless people. 40,000 (1/3) of them are on the streets because they are mentally ill and simply incapable of managing themselves into a residence (2013 Sacramento Housing and Regulations stats). According to HUD figures, the cost to the state is $40,000 per year per homeless person, most of it in police, community services, shelters, and temporary series-hospitalizations, which means a total cost of $1.6billion per year to take care of mentally ill homeless persons living on the streets of California. Another 30,000 mentally ill in California are housed as inmates in our prisons at a cost $50K per annum each. That’s $1.5 Billion (Dept. of Corrections), for a grand total of $3.1billion per year. But according to the state’s Medi-Cal estimates, it would only cost about $900million to provide the necessary psychiatric care in home-based or institution-based residential systems like we had before Reaganomics. That would be a savings of $600million per year.

Aside from the cost in dollars there have also been staggering social costs as the homeless mentally ill become a ubiquitous feature of our urban and suburban landscapes. When I was a kid, my buddies and I took off in the morning and came back home when the street lights came on. We rode our bikes for miles and hung out in the city parks unsupervised by parents. I can’t imagine my grandsons doing that now, and for every blog I’ve seen on free-range parenting, I’ve seen an equal number of responses from people who think the idea borders on neglect because the world now is just too dangerous for that.

So when all is said and done, the free-range mentally ill are actually costing us considerably more than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. In light of all this, it seems grossly illogical to complain about or be perplexed by mass shootings by mentally ill people when we are failing to provide any treatment whatsoever for 40% of severely schizophrenic and bi-polar persons in our midst. Historically speaking, our budgetary priorities created the problem. Historically speaking, our refusal to properly regulate guns because we refuse to balance individual freedoms with collective responsibilities weaponized the problem.

So where does that leave us? We’re not willing to more strictly regulate firearms, to insist that they only be available to well-vetted, well-trained persons for use in a specific context, even though the 2nd Amendment begins with the words “A well-regulated militia.” And we’re not willing to pay for the necessary care and therapy for those poor souls whose mental illness makes it impossible for them to find a place where they fit in the world, which pretty much guarantees that from time to time the more violent among them will find access to some of the more than 300 million firearms abroad in this country and use them to act out their own pathologies and short-term mythologies in ways that are dangerous, tragic and horrifying for the rest of us.

And here’s the part where I’m confused. Apparently we’re okay with that. Apparently we’re okay with these random outbursts of bloodshed and violence. We must be, or else, like Australia, we’d do something about it. But apparently this continuing sacrifice of innocent victims is a price we’re willing to pay, although why we’re paying it, what it’s buying us, has never been explained in a way that makes any sense to me.

Why are we willing to continue tolerating these increasingly frequent episodes of bloodshed? Is this a sacrifice demanded by our society’s unnamed but clearly violent shadow god? Is that why so many treat guns as if they are somehow more sacred than the human lives they steal so abruptly? Is protecting corporations and the wealthier individuals among us from an additional 1% or 2% in taxes more sacred than providing care for the mentally ill?

We know what the problem is. We know that it rises from the easy availability of firearms intersecting with the lack of care for the mentally ill. We know this, so we know that fixing those two things would stop the bloodshed. But we don’t seem to want to. And why that is–why we just don’t want to– might be the most important question of all.