Based on the Scripture readings:
2013 October 27
No System to Save
This is a sermon about the connection between affordable health-care, American spy-craft, and the Protestant Reformation. But as always it begins with a prayer.
(Prayer for God's Spirit's guidance and blessing on my words and our conversations.)
You and I live in a complex and fascinating time. We live in a sad and violent time. We live in a moment when bad news arrives in an instant and good news or hope are dismissible sentiments rather than core commitments. We live in an important and meaningful time.
Here in this October we find four intersecting and interconnected events pertaining to our faith: on the fifteenth of October, enrollment began in the Health Care Connector in America; on the 23rd we heard that the National Security Agency spies not only on all of us but also on the German Chancellor; on the 31st of this month comes the 496th birthday of the Protestant Reformation; and today, the 27th, we have these two stories about plagues and prophecies and pharisees and prayers, and the good news is that all of these are connected in a meaningful way.
This is not just how my own mind works -- to make these associations. It appears that it is how God's world works as well as how God's Word works: all around us there are connections between the lessons of faith, the language of piety and the nature and nurture of our rich and fascinating time.
Let me explain. And let me start in the present day and then move backwards in order to look ahead, too.
Whatever you think of Obamacare, or of Obama, whatever you think of our NSA and of the condition of privacy in America and in our world today, there are some wonderful energies in these programs and efforts as well as some severely flawed claims. People do need health care. The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls Christians to follow the healer from Galilee, Judaism invites wholeness and shalom, and the Prophet Mohammed says "God has created a cure for every illness...," so five times a day Muslims treat themselves with water and prayer. The God of Abraham and the people of America value health care. So do we value protection and defense. We want a National Security Agency that watches out for our safety and our status and states. But since October 15th, few would argue that the rollout of Affordable Health care is without flaw. And few would argue that German Chancellor Merkel is alone in thinking she should have some privacy somewhere, sometime, somehow. The systems for healing and the systems for spies seem to be without wise oversight or balance or proportion from our values, purposes, and needs. And in this they hold something in common with much of modern life.
One commentator said that what this month's privacy problems and computer problems have in common is that they both represent the failure of the notion that some process, some technology, some system, procedure, or ability can save us by its size and scope and reach and reason. The current problem with Health Care Connectors, the ongoing problem with the NSA practices, is the common modern-world presumption that if our system is extensive enough then it will be good enough to take care of us, or, in theological and military terminology, that it will save us. There's an assumption at large that we can build a program that will save us, and that's simply not true. Technology can help us, it can serve us, it can benefit us, but it doesn't ultimately save us. Ask Jean Paul Sartre. Ask the Apostle Paul. Joel and Luke and Jesus and the Pharisee and publican in today's scriptures all recapitulate the assertion that programs don't bring salvation, and Martin Luther started a revolution claiming the same. Now I love stories about Martin Luther. He is so colorful and charismatic and human and real. He started out as such a rules-guy, such a follower and an obedient student and son. He went to law school. He believed in order. In July of 1505 he was twenty-two and preparing his legal career when he was walking on the outskirts of Stotternheim, and a summer thunderstorm began to brew at the edge of the woods. The sky got dark and darker, and Luther was nowhere near shelter, and soon it seemed so grim that he could barely see until a bolt of lightning hit so close that it literally knocked him to the ground, and he was struck with simultaneous terrors. He was afraid for his body, of course, but he was afraid for his future, too, because everyone in his area knew that when the lightning hit the forest and the pond it would release an assembly of fairies and witches and sprites. And that was bad. For they would seduce him and distort him and ruin his future, so from the ground he called out to the mother of the mother of Christ - Saint Ann - and almost at the end of law school he made a vow that he would change his life and become a monk if he was saved from spirits. And he was. And he did.
It's ironic that in the ensuing years he would be a huge critic of rules-guys, start to condemn monasteries, and lose his faith in the cult and culture of Saints. And all of this for a few central reasons. The scholar Roland Bainton writes that in our day, Roman Catholic thinkers all agree that in Luther's day the popes were secularized, flippant, frivolous, sensual, magnificent, and unscrupulous. Pope Francis today is so different from Pope Leo the Tenth that it's almost impossible to call their office by the same word. In fact, this week the Pope suspended a bishop in Germany for excessive spending. But in his day, Luther encountered the idea that a system, a technology, a process could save you. If you did the right things and in particular if you paid for the right things, you were approved by the Pope for salvation by God. The system was called indulgences, and it worked so well that it paid for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as well as two big projects in Saxony. The system of indulgences was simple and clear. It assumed that people were not well and needed not only heath care but heavenly care. And we do. It assumed, further, that the Pope had the keys to the church, to God's kingdom, as Jesus said St. Peter would in Matthew 16. And these keys could get people out of purgatory, which was where so many went after death, so if you bought a papal indulgence -- and these are the Cardinal's worker's words, not mine -- "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." It was a seamless system. But Luther said it didn't bring salvation. And Luther was not opposed to building the church or building a basilica or following rules. He wasn't against governing bodies. He was opposed to the notion that there is any human system that can operate God's grace of salvation; for Luther the only thing that can save people, hold people, heal people, grace people is God.
And on that notion was the reformation of the whole Church. On that notion from the scriptures.
You can read the scripture from Luke this morning, and you can come away thinking that the Pharisee is quite a jerk. But he isn't really. He's doing what he's been asked. He's fasting, he's praying, he's tithing, and he's following the rules. This is not the behavior of a bad person but someone honoring a system. He is many people that we know and like. Furthermore, the tax collector's wisdom in this story is not to critique the Pharisee or to condemn his own conformity to the dominating system of Rome's empire; the tax collector's wisdom is to say "God, be merciful." God, be merciful. Neither the empire of Rome nor the regulations of any religion liberate our life or preserve our spirit. We need God, he says. Engaging God, seeing God as merciful, knowing God as loving, following God in a life of meaning and mission is what Jesus in Luke would say matters.
This same dynamic is there for Joel, too. And with quite a measure of optimism and hope. And with quite a dose of power that almost seems Protestant. Look back at our oldest story today.
Joel's people had lived through a plague. It was a plague of locusts. His poetic description is amazing: "Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children and their children another generation. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten." Total devastation. You might think that these are only Biblical images, but there is a plague of locusts in Madagascar this month that has ruined twenty-five percent of the harvest so far. There was one in 2004 in Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia -- in our day. In Joel's day, anyone with any brains wondered if there would ever be recovery, healing, new life. They wondered if this was the end. And Joel said this: no. Our crop systems failed. Something about our theology and worship was bad. But there is a God, and God says there is a future. And here, in the oldest of our stories today we find the newest of our revelations: we find God's reformation idea. God says that my solution to your needs is you. Not you relying on yourselves. But you together with me. God says I am changing the economic, gender, social, and cultural conditions. Children, young women, and slaves are empowered. Process, precedent, and privilege are being suspended. And you will become prophets. And you will -- in what would become Martin Luther's language -- you will become priests. Not for the power, not for the position. You will become the bearers of faith and responsibility and accountability and promise and hope as a commitment, not a sentiment. And I will be with you. And I will not leave you. Change your hearts, not your garments, says Joel from God. Be responsible for your faith, for your community, and I will be responsible for being with you into the future, says God.
Joel and Luke and recent experience and almost all of history reveal that systems do not save us in the way that everyone needs to be saved. They serve us, they help us, they benefit us. Governmental systems and religious systems. But in the end it is something about God that saves us. Something about discerning what to do with our money, how to find meaning, clarifying our mission and, like the tax collector, preaching God's mercy, which you all know means God's lovingkindness, which you all know means God's womb-like-ness -- God's embrace for us to receive, emulate, and pass on.
Some commentators say that the whole story in Luke comes down to a five word assertion: God reverses the world's way. Joel is close to that, too, in six words: God changes our experience and expectation. God doesn't just take away a system that we need, but brings us a renewing grace, a reforming hope, which has more than the sum of our parts to calculate its whole. And we talk about those every week. We practice those in mission and stewardship and worship and prayer. We examine our own conformity with the world around us, face its complexities, violence and beauty, and share the spirit that God puts in everyone. We tell our children of it and pray that they tell their children and another generation. That's why we have this church. That's why we send things out from this church. That's why we come back to this church. Not for its procedures but its premise and promise of God.