July 5, 2020

Pentecost 5 - Year A


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 2020 July5_FrIan

Proper 9 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


May God shed grace upon us
and crown our good with fellowship
from sea to shining sea.


Happy Independence Day! It’s the day we celebrate the birth of our nation. The celebrations this year are interesting: muted because of the coronavirus, but rebellious…because of the coronavirus.

The 4th of July is always somewhat muted for us here in California anyway because of our laws against fireworks. All I remember getting as a child were those black snakes things that ruined the sidewalk and the occasional sparkler. Fortunately, PCPA, where my dad worked, had a big fireworks display conjured up by the set crew…but it wouldn’t happen until after the cast and crew returned from the show at the theatre in Solvang, so it was always around midnight. But it was good. Now, here in California, our nightly news is interrupted by fireworks displays in New York or DC because of the time zones differences, and as if we care about their fireworks displays. And our own civic displays often take the form of brightly colored glowing fog!
But being a nation is more than celebrating our foundation.

And one of the distinctive
characteristics of the United
States is the American Dream.


It is praised and criticized around the world. James Truslow Adams, in his 1931 book The Epic of America, wrote that the American Dream is


“that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”


Overseas, it is often mischaracterized and met with skepticism, and Adams’ characterization is what I experienced when asked about the American Dream when I lived in the UK:


“It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.”


And then, I would endeavor to describe as Adams did:


“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”


Many think that the American Dream is threatened by this global pandemic. It’s not just about not being able to gather together for the annual fireworks display; it’s the further displacement of not only the 40M who officially live in poverty, but also the working poor, the sick and the marginalized in America, and a good proportion of those higher up the economic ladder. The wealth and health gaps are getting wider with this pandemic, making it harder for millions to

“be able to attain to the fullest
stature of which they are
innately capable.”

This means that we need to avoid inappropriate responses to the various challenges that we have been and will continue to be facing during this national Shelter-at-Home. The Lesson from Romans and the Gospel are our warnings. What the words of Paul and Jesus are inserting into our national conversations is: “Don’t do the wrong thing!” They aren’t saying, “Do the right thing.”


They are warning us,
“Don’t do the *wrong* thing!”

Romans 7 is often thought of as Paul’s sudden expression of his personal crisis. In fact, I was assigned the essay question, “Does Romans 7 indicate that Paul had an ‘introspective conscience’?” The answer is “No”. It’s made clear in places like 2 Corinthians 1 and 4, and explicitly in Acts 23:1, that Paul, “up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” The “I” in Romans 7 is the “universal I”. We know that the Law to which Paul refers, the Torah, requires that we care for the poor and the marginalized. So, let us not have inappropriate responses to the challenges we are facing today.


Jesus, too, warns of inappropriate responses. His examples, though, are of inappropriately responding to what God is saying to us, using the packaging of John the Baptist and of Jesus to justify ignoring the messages that are being delivered. The Baptist called people to repentance, a message that the people didn’t want to hear, so they jailed him and cut off his head. Jesus came to lift up the marginalized, share the love of God with them and enable them to do the same with others, and they vilified and crucified him. Everyone missed God’s messages.


We must avoid inappropriate responses to the challenges we are facing during the global pandemic. It has thrust into our faces economic, social and health issues that we have repeatedly failed to respond to appropriately. “The America We Need” is a NYTimes opinion series on emerging from this crisis with a fair, resilient society. It’s a collection of OpEds with a mixture of topics including politics, economics, sociology, idealism, and more. Many of them, just looking at their titles, are warnings as stark as Paul’s and Jesus’ that we cannot afford to have inappropriate responses to these challenges. But like Jesus portrays John and Himself in this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, we and the decision-makers can happily distort or ignore the warnings by killing the messenger.


The NYTimes Editorial Board, in its introduction to “The America We Need” series, seeing the American Dream through a purely economic lens, states:


The erosion of the American dream is not a result of laziness or a talent drought. Rather, opportunity has slipped away. The economic ladder is harder to climb; real incomes have stagnated for decades even as the costs of housing, education and health care have increased. Many lower-income Americans are born into polluted, impoverished neighborhoods, with no decent jobs to be found.


The Board then cites some of the grim responses of communities during this pandemic. It is truly Jesus’ words:


‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
Inappropriate responses which harmed real people.


But I don’t believe that The United States is incapable of enabling the American Dream to thrive. The US has been, and is capable of responding to national crises. During the Civil War, to keep the Union strong and unified, Congress and President Lincoln enabled settlers to establish themselves and their livelihoods through the Homestead Act; funded the foundation and expansion of state universities – including the University of California – through the Morrill Act; and underwrote the transcontinental railroad. During the Great Depression, FDR and Congress established the rights of collective bargain, regulated the financial industry, and created Social Security.


So, yes, we can do this. We can revive the American Dream. But we cannot respond to challenges inappropriately. In his contribution to the series, “The Ideas That Won’t Survive the Coronavirus”, Viet Thanh Nguyen believes that COVID-19 is already killing off the myth that this is the greatest country on earth. I don’t agree with him; I think that myth was debunked a long time ago, we just didn’t want to hear it. The ideas that he thinks should not survive, though, are inequality, callousness, selfishness, a profit motive that undervalues human life and overvalues commodities and American exceptionalism.


One more idea that needs to die with the coronavirus, and there are signs that it already has: the tying of the American Dream to financial success. Political scientist Samuel J. Abrams, along with the American Enterprise Institute and the research center NORC at the University of Chicago studied the American Dream. Together they discovered that most people in this country say that they are living the American Dream. An “overwhelming majority” of the over 2,400 respondents stated that they are living the American Dream. BUT, they also found that the American Dream is not solely about “having a successful career” or having “a better quality of life than your parents,” what were traditionally thought to be the essentials of the American Dream. And even more surprising was that only 16% thought that it was “essential” to “become wealthy”.


Instead, the 2 essential qualities of the American Dream were “to have freedom of choice in how to live” and having “a good family life”. These topped the list at 85% and 83%, respectively! For Democrats and Republicans alike! Among them, 41% said they are already living it, and another 41% said that they are well on the way. Only 18% said that the American Dream was out of reach. There were notable income and generational differences. However, it was clear that individuality and family, not wealth and real estate, are at the core of the American Dream.


Data were collected in 2018 and published in February 2019. So was the earlier poverty statistic:roughly 40M in 2018. The nation and the world were very different then. With unemployment around 30M and millions about to be evicted from their homes, the American Dream has no doubt diminished. Having the freedom of choice in how to live and having a good family life are much more difficult when one has no opportunities to attain their fullest stature.


So, we cannot have an inappropriate response, as individuals, communities or as a nation. We must heed the warnings of Paul and Jesus. We have been warned:


…when [we] want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.


We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.


In both Romans and in Matthew, Paul and Jesus are not speaking of trivial, everyday matters. They are addressing matters of life and death, matters of the soul. Like Pastor Karen emphasized last week about inclusion and in other sermons, our response to the challenges we face today and who we are as a nation is a spiritual matter. In one commentary, the term used for the “I” of whom Paul is speaking is “unregenerate humanity”! Unregenerate: no remorse, no repentance, and stubbornly so. That is not how we think of ourselves as Americans, but many others do, and that is who we will be if we can’t face today’s challenges. We will have failed as a nation; we will have failed one another; we will have failed to hear God’s messages to us as Christians. We cannot afford to make inappropriate responses to these challenges.

I love this country; it is my home. While in the UK, I made my friends celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day with me. They were kind of glad to, because, when it wasn’t raining, they got BBQ out of it. I do love the United States, and I am proud to be a citizen. Part of being a proud citizen is to acknowledge and accept that we as a nation and a collection of individuals have made mistakes that have damaged countless numbers of human lives both here and abroad. Acknowledging our inappropriate responses, our mistakes, does not make us unpatriotic, it makes us conscientious. What makes us compassionate is to do the right thing for all Americans, and to be a part of doing the right thing for all God’s people around the world.


A nation in which the wealth of the top 1% is greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 80% is unsustainable and un-American and un-Christian. We as Americans, not just our politicians, and possibly in spite of them, need to dredge up the very-American eternal optimism (that so many around the world find distasteful) which so often has brought us together as communities and a nation to find the right path forward.

Come to me, all you that are
weary and are carrying heavy
burdens, and I will give you rest.
For my yoke is easy, and my
burden is light.

That isn’t for you and it isn’t for me. We haven’t begun the burdensome work of facing today’s challenges. Jesus’ invitation is to those slogging their guts out to make sure we have our lattes. Jesus’ invitation is to those who don’t know if they will ever have another latte.

Jesus’ invitation is for the tired
the poor, the huddled masses
yearning to breathe free.

Let’s start the heavy burden of making sure that every person can again believe they can live the American Dream and enjoy these truths that we hold to be self-evident, that:


…all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


God bless you. God bless your loved ones. God bless America


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