Sunday, October 16, 2016

Complicated Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 16, 2016

Year C, Proper 23: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Complicated Us
            Did any of you watch the “town hall” presidential “debate” last Sunday night?
            It began with the candidates declining to shake hands and went downhill from there. It wasn’t much of a town hall or much of a debate. Instead, it was a new low in a seemingly endless presidential election season that has been filled with so many lows.
            It was a bad night for our democracy, a bad night for our country.
            And, I guess not so surprisingly, things have gotten even worse in the week since, with ugly accusations and frightening threats, disturbing and disgusting stories of sexual abuse and assault both long ago and recent, and ominous warnings about Russian meddling and a stolen election.
            In the United States, we’ve had rough elections before, of course, but nothing at all like this. We are in uncharted territory.
            And, what is yet to come?
            We got to this depressing and frightening place in our history for all sorts of reasons: an economic recovery that has been uneven at best, the unnerving threat of terrorism originating in the Middle East, along with eight years of the first black president and rapidly changing demographics and culture that have left some people, especially white men, feeling like they’re losing their country, losing their place, losing hope that they and their children will get to experience the “American Dream.”
            Plus, for better or for worse, these are two very well known candidates. Most, if not all, of us made up our minds about their character and abilities long ago, helped along by cable news channels that echo the same opinions and accusations over and over and over again.
            Finally, in this election we see the very American tendency to divide people into the simple categories of “good” and “bad.” Throughout our history, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, we’ve believed that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, either one or the other, with not much in between.
            And, usually, we think that we know who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.
            And, of course, we’re the good guys!
            We need to grow out of this good guy / bad guy stuff, and fast, because it’s simply not true – and it’s increasingly dangerous.
            The truth is that people, all people, are complicated, very complicated, filled with mixed up emotions and motivations – sometimes so confused that even we don’t know why we do the things we do, or don’t do the things that we don’t do,
            The truth is that people are complicated, both as a species and as individuals.
            We are capable of horrific selfishness and cruelty, using other people for our own pleasure and purposes, gobbling up way more than our fair share of resources, and looking away with disdain and disgust when our brother or sister begs for the crumbs that fall from our table.
            At the same time, we are capable of such unbelievable creativity, achievement, and generosity, painting beautiful pictures, composing music and singing songs that touch our hearts, curing diseases, learning how life and the universe work, and sacrificing our lives for others, sometimes even for people we don’t know.
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            If you were here last week, you may remember that, throughout Scripture, God has the habit of choosing people, very complicated people, for the most important jobs – people we would most definitely reject.
            So, Jacob, who stole his older brother’s birthright, becomes the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
            Moses, who had a speech impediment, is put in charge of the leading the people of Israel on their forty-year journey out of Egypt into freedom.
            And, David, the youngest son becomes Israel’s greatest king, never losing God’s favor despite being a spectacularly terrible sinner.
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            In today’s parable, we meet two rather complicated people, the widow and the judge.
            At the start, Luke tells us that this parable is about the “need to pray always and to not lose heart.”
            Now, that’s a perfectly fine interpretation and certainly an important lesson to learn and remember, right? Plus, who am I to argue with St. Luke!
            But, part of the power of Jesus’ parables comes from the fact that they contain a bottomless well of meaning.
            We could spend the rest of our lives pondering the parables and always gain new insights, learning more about God and ourselves.
            The judge, who is described as someone who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” is certainly not a very appealing character, though don’t you wonder what happened? What happened to him, what made him no longer fear God or respect people?
            Sounds like he’s living a pretty miserable life, so maybe we should have some sympathy for him.
            And, that miserable life is made that much more difficult by the widow. We’re inclined to have sympathy for her because, well, she’s a widow – and we know from the Bible that God has a special concern for widows and orphans.
            But, as Amy-Jill Levine points out in the book we’re reading this fall, we’re not told much about her. We don’t know if she’s rich or poor. And, we don’t know whether her cause is just.
            We do know that she’s persistent, but that’s not necessarily positive. In fact, you could argue that the widow harasses the judge. Levine points out that we’re not told that she keeps coming to court. Instead, she might be haranguing him on the street, or in the market, or outside his home.
            Finally, the English translation is very mild. The judge gives in, saying to himself, “I will grant her justice, so that she might not wear me out…”
            But, the word translated as “wear out” is actually a boxing term, so it could be, and maybe should be, translated that the widow is threatening to punch the judge in the face.
            So, has justice really been done? Or, by giving in to her, did the judge do the wrong thing because he was tired, or even frightened, of the widow?
            Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy?
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            Last week’s “debate” was brutal and depressing, but there was a tiny glimmer of light and hope at the end.
            A person in the audience asked each candidate to name one thing they respect about the other – not so easy after everything that’s been said and done during the campaign, and even just that night.
            Hillary Clinton said she respected Donald Trump’s children, saying that they’re “incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.”
            For his part, Trump complimented his opponent, saying, “She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up, and I respect that.”
            And then, finally, they shook hands.
            Now, please understand I am not saying that these two candidates are equal in terms of character, experience, or skill, but I am saying that, as hard as it may be for us to accept or believe, it is possible to be terribly sexist and maybe even abusive towards women and also be a loving, supportive father.
            I am saying that, as hard as it may be for us to accept or believe, it is possible to trash women who make accusations against your husband and to shade the truth about emails and other stuff, while also being a tenacious fighter for worthy causes.
            People are complicated – we are complicated – and, while God doesn’t love our sins, as hard as it often is for us to accept or believe, God does love the judge and the widow, God loves Hillary and Donald, and, yes, God loves us, complicated us.