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Sermon Part I “Heaven for the Climate”
I take as my text this morning’s sermon words from a book of Mark: “Go to heaven for the climate. Go to hell for the company.”
Hey, it’s “Mark” Twain, right? He wrote books, yes? Now, I grant you that this is not exactly the gospel of Mark, mind you, but I would argue that these words of Mark Twain are a lot more faithful to the intent of the gospel than much of what religion has written and practiced in the gospel’s name. This theme of heaven for the climate and hell for the company was one Twain explored a good bit in his writings. In “Tom Sawyer”, Tom is being pestered by Miss Watson (if I remember correctly), she tells him to behave or he won’t get to “providence” or heaven like she will. Tom replies that if she is going to be there he is not so sure he wants to go. Heaven for the climate, hell for the company. Later, in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Huck has written a letter to the authorities to turn in the escaped slave Jim. The law and those promoting a particular brand of religion insisted that turning in an escaped slave was the good, right, religious, and moral thing to do; failure to do so would result in jail in this life and hell in the next. But as Huck is writing the letter he turns to look at Jim, really look at him, and then he tears the letter up and says, “All right, I’ll go to hell.” Twain himself describes this key moment in the book as, “a sound heart beating out a deformed conscience”.
Ouch. “A deformed conscience.” Not, mind you, a conscience deformed by the instruction of bad people intending to warp a growing mind into doing bad things. Rather, a conscience deformed by ‘good’ people intending to shape a growing mind into doing ‘good’ things. That’s a kicker, isn’t it? If these are the people going to heaven, and the likes of Huck Finn are going to hell, well, heaven for the climate and hell for the company.
In what might seem to be a total non sequitur, I raise all this because in two weeks’ time we will be recognizing the 500th anniversary of Reformation. There are many good and bad things that can be said about the Reformation. One of the good things is this: it is difficult enough to try to convert bad people from being bad. The far more difficult conversion is that of the “pious” and “good” because they do not see any reason for conversion, not in Luther’s time, not in Mark Twain’s time, and not in ours.
This is a problem we face profoundly today, perhaps in more than any other time in history. “Doing good” can be an ambiguous thing because once people are convinced of their own rightness and goodness they can commit the most appalling evil. In the name of ‘good’ we have the horrors of 9/11 and Charlottesville—people claiming to be righteous committing the most appalling evil. Yesterday and today, people justify evil in the name of God. After all, it was good people, religious people, who condemned Elijah, threw Jeremiah in a well, crucified Jesus, and assassinated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton asks, “When will we learn that ‘being good’ may actually mean having the mentality of a ‘Christ killer.’” Heaven for the climate, hell for the company.
Of course, the other genius of the Reformation is that it reminds us that we, too, think of ourselves as ‘good’ people. When faith is doing its job, it does not justify us and extol our prejudices as godly. Rather, faith at its best challenges us to live into our deepest humanity and to move us beyond our prejudices into humility.
Scripture Reading Exodus 32:1-14 The Golden Calf
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the one who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on your ears and on the ears your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that God brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.”’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on the people.
Sermon Part II “Hell for the Company” The Reverend George Anastos
Last week our Teaching Minister, The Reverend Dr. Eric Smith, preached on the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. The narrative of the people Israel continues this week, and it is no mistake, biblically speaking, that what follows is the story of the Golden Calf—the story of the easiest, and most consequential of those ten commandments to break: creating idols—gods whose purpose it is to serve ourselves.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20:4-5a).
The easiest, and most consequential commandment to break. Heaven for the climate, hell for the company. It was good people, religious people, who condemned Elijah, threw Jeremiah in a well, crucified Jesus and assassinated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I take as my text for this second part of today’s sermon, words from the book of Marx: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Mark, Marx, whatever.
It occurs to me that with Groucho’s quotation we are not so much laughing at what he said, but expressing joy in who he is, because he can laugh at himself and not take himself too seriously. And refusing to take oneself seriously goes a long way to vaccinate against idolatry.
Idolatry, as we all know, has more manifestations than simply a golden calf. Idolatry is deifying our own beliefs, justifying ourselves in our own righteousness, being convinced of our own ultimate goodness. We progressive Christians are as prone to this as any conservative ones. Our trap often lies less with being smug in what we believe (though there is real danger there), and more with being smug in what we do.
A number of years ago I read a profoundly upsetting and very controversial book titled “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It).” The author Robert Lupton, who has worked for forty years on the front lines in Atlanta to reduce poverty, argues that the “compassion industry” is “almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise.” But, he goes on to counter, the “outcomes [of our compassion] are almost entirely unexamined.” He gives statistics to argue that years of charitable giving at home and abroad have made barely a dent in reducing poverty. In fact, it often has resulted in the opposite: it actually made the situation worse by promoting dependency.
The book was painful to read. We evaluate our giving, and our religiosity, Lupton argues, “by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served.” (That comment upset a lot of people.) Short-term mission trips are a case in point. Such “junkets” involve expenditures of between $2.5-5 billion annually, yet they produce little lasting change. He tells the story of one school in Central America that got painted four times in one summer by church group after church group. If the money spent by all these groups on travel and expenses were given to the local village, the local painters could have painted every house and every civic building in the entire village, rather than being unemployed while the church groups “helped.” He argues that we get more than we give because it feels so good to the givers. Lupton grieves that “our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency.” He never states this directly, but indirectly he makes the point that our feel good charity can become an idol because we may measure from the satisfaction we receive without considering the outcomes for those we purportedly were helping.
Lupton goes on to note, however, that there are ways out of this trap. He proposes a new “Oath for Compassionate Service” for the charity industry to adopt, much as the medical community has adopted the Hippocratic Oath. Lupton’s Oath lists some key guidelines, such as: subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served, listen closely to those you seek to help, and above all, do no harm.
Today we are marking the last year of a ministry where we listened, empowered, did no harm, and accomplished a lot of good. This is a charity that we began eleven years ago—committing our abundant resources to the children of Kenombe village, Rwanda. This year is the last year we will have “Rwanda Sunday” and ask you to sponsor children’s nutrition and education. Let it be said, however, that any of us who wish to continue to sponsor children are more than encouraged to do so.
Whenever we complete a ministry such as this it is always wise to review and assess: did we accomplish what we set out to do? We can look at the money we donated and the lives changed because of our commitment to these children as one way to measure.
The harder question by far is one of idolatry. For whom were we really doing this—for the children, or for ourselves? Do we judge our ministry, “by the rewards we receive through service, …[or] the benefits received by the served”?
I would not be so crass as to raise this question if I believed that what we have done in Rwanda was toxic charity. Quite the opposite: we can honestly evaluate on the benefits received by the served. As you will hear yet again this year in our Christian Education hour after church, the nutrition and education we financed have resulted in numerous children gaining the education and skills not only to decrease their dependency, but to eliminate it all together. The financing provided the opportunity; the work and the realization of the dream were accomplished by the Rwandans themselves. These children grew to adulthood and have become breadwinners for their families and inspirations to their neighbors. They have started businesses and have strengthened Rwanda’s economy. The project was designed to teach the children to fish and it has succeeded beyond our hopes and dreams. Yes, considering the outcomes, we in fact accomplished what we set out to do. Considering the outcomes, we did not unwittingly make our own Golden Calf. Considering the outcomes the benefits were profoundly on those served. I thank you for your years of dedication. There was a lot of trust involved in your generosity; that trust was upheld, this church lived into its mission.
Now, to get back to our text from the book of Marx, but to paraphrase it: We should refuse to join any church that would have us as a member. God knows if you are anything like me you can convince yourself of your own rightness quicker than you can say ‘Groucho.’ But maybe, just maybe, as we did in Rwanda and are doing elsewhere, we can participate in a community that invites us to share what we have in abundance, to be humble in our charity, to remain open to correction and to remember not to take ourselves too seriously. We can be part of a community less concerned with a heaven above in the future and more committed to this earth in the present. It’s good to have a church that will have us as members, and it is good to have members that will take First Plymouth as their church. Oh the places we will go and the things we will see. Amen.
October 15, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Heaven for the Climate
September 17, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Nature vs. Nurture
September 3, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Hard Core Reality
August 27, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Who Do You Say That I Am
August 20, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – The Long Journey Home
August 13, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – What We Learn In Childhood / We Practice as Adults
July 2, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – When Hope Despairs / When Despair Hopes
June 18, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Who We Want to Be / Who We Are
June 11, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Farewell
June 4, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Rebirth (Pentecost Sunday)
May 14, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Ways and Dwellings
April 16, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Burying Jesus / Resurrecting the Church
April 2, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – The Lazarus Church
March 26, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Who Sinned?
March 5, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Sermon
February 26, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Making Our Way Down the Mountain
January 29, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Meeting Head On / It Starts With Us / Seeing With New Eyes
January 8, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – O Rest Beside the Weary Road
December 24, 2016 – Rev. George Anastos – The Giver, the Gift, and the Gifted