Earlier this week I made a trip to Billings and home, up and down the Yellowstone River. I have traveled I-90 over 50 years and always been awed by its beauty whether in the heat of summer or the cold winter. This has been a particularly beautiful fall. Our summer storms were few and far between and even though we didn't get the rain, the colors were beautiful. Our reds are in the lower bushes along the river or some of the grasses across the prairies.The dominant is a burnished gold color. When the sun is shining behind the leaves they glow with a light that cannot be reproduced. God's palette.
Things I memorized years ago tend to pop into my head at the strangest times. One piece of literature I learned in Miss Anne Fletcher’s 8th grade history class (some 56 years ago), I remember in its entirety and it continues to shape a great deal of the way I perceive my country and its culture and heritage and place in the world. It begins, “We, the people of the United State. . .” Perhaps you too learned it in some long ago classroom, laboring over the order of the words, written in an unfamiliar formal language. It is classic18th century writing based on the philosophers of another time. But the ideas, ah, the ideas. These words have been transcribed into many languages, have fanned the flames of rebellion, and caused the beacon of Liberty to shine throughout the world. It says the purpose of this nation is like no other — in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity , do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Earlier the preamble to the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal and that all are born with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These are the basic guidelines by which we are to be ruled as a people and as a nation. Now I am not naive and I know that dream must also be achieved through hard work or as Winston Churchill said about the British fight, “Blood, toil, sweat, and tears.” Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved easily and if you have studied your history, you know that “inalienable rights” were at the root on the Civil War and we are still attempting to fulfill the promise of “establishing justice and insuring domestic tranquility.” We know some battles are not easily won.
So it was interesting to me this morning how a couple of pieces in a puzzle clicked together for me as I was eating breakfast. I started the day by checking my phone for overnight messages, weather report, and news headlines from several newspapers including the New York Times. The lead article for this morning was a story on the Environmental Protection Agency rewriting a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of various chemicals and thus to regulate them. This particular toxic chemical in question, is linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems. The Trump administration appointee is Dr. Nancy Beck, formerly executive at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association. She is now top deputy for EPA. Over 80,000 highly toxic chemicals regulated by the EPA are now less likely to be subjected to heavy oversight and restrictions. Government too often directs burdensome rules at what she has called “Phantom risks.” I thought of the adage about letting the “fox into the hen house.”
Then, just by chance, as I ate my cereal, I read a couple pages in a book entitled “Bitten by a camel” by Kent Dobson. (You have to read the book to understand the title.) The line my eyes landed on was this. Dobson writes, “Perhaps you have read Einstein’s famous line, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” I actually stopped chewing for a moment as I thought, that is exactly what I was just reading about regarding the new direction of the EPA.
Now pick up the idea that for many generations people who worked in local, state and national government were called “public servants”. Although it might be in question, people who worked for government received lower wages than those in private industry, but the point was they spent a lifetime working for and promoting “the general welfare” of the people of the country. People wanted to work in or be appointed to departments where they felt they could do the most good.
There is the sometimes image of “pigs feeding at the trough” of government monies, that is working in a position where they could line their pockets and make the most of the opportunity to change laws and regulations for their own benefit.
Of the many men and women who have recently been appointed to serve in various governmental departments, a fair number of them have a great deal to gain privately by serving in these positions. I try to put the best construction on what people do, but I am not that innocent to see what someone who has worked for the Chemical industry could do to rules that regulate that industry to promote the common welfare. The EPA is supposed to be working for clean air, water and soil and atmospheres in our homes and businesses that are safe. People who have worked in asbestos related industries, or in the coal mines, or in places where toxic fumes permeate the atmosphere have been victims of the chemical industry. Or think of the Love Canal environmental disaster, or the super fund designations in Libby, Montana, or the clean up that has been going on in Glendive at the north end of Sargent Avenue. These are small potatoes compared to some of the clean up work going on in this country. If the EPA now walks along side rather than regulating these industries, we as private citizens are in a world of hurt.
Government is to serve the people, but that has always been an uphill battle. Where there is profit to be made we will find someone’s hand in our pocket. Now granted, we know over regulation is an issue as well, but the standard at all levels is the welfare of “the people” and that is us. We have a right to demand the highest standards to guarantee the safety of our children and the earth we have been given to care for.
My parents raised my brother and me to understand the word “trust”. We learned early on that telling the truth established that sense of trust whether it was in our family or wider spread relationships. In the early days the phrase, “A man’s word is his bond”, meant the individual had integrity and by experience people knew he could be trusted to do what he said he would do.
I think that is why I feel so adrift these days and I know I am not alone. Who can we trust? It seems we cannot trust our political leaders and we are told we cannot trust the news media. A new player in the ‘trust’ game is social media. Too many people depend on this as a reliable source of information; here they seem to feel safe and secure. And we are learning by sad experience that Facebook and Google, like the wolf who meets Little Red Riding Hood in the woods, are not to be trusted.
Today, 2017, we have to read and listen and attempt to sort out what is trustworthy and what is bunk. Ryan Zinke was Montana’s U.S. Representative, a supposedly trustworthy position. When Trump appointed him Secretary of the Interior he quickly broke any position of trust when he immediately began bilking the U.S. taxpayers out of thousands of dollars for jet trips for political fund raising (which is against the Hatch Act, I.e. illegal) and personal junkets. He is not alone, being joined by several other Cabinet officials, some who have resigned and others, such as Zinke who should resign.
Since the election, we have been blasted with the term “fake news” to the point we don’t know where to turn for reliable information on current events. It is part of the old adage that if you say it often enough, people will come to believe it, especially if they never read or they listen only to people of like mind. The problem we are learning is that during the last election “fake news” filled social media and it was all from Russia. There is a new world facing us and Russian hackers planned and executed a cyber attack on our political system that turned our democracy on its head. Congress is still investigating the attack and whether or not the Russians had assistance to get into our system and will this become a common problem. It will if we remain as gullible as in the past.
Once again I am trying to understand how winning becomes the all important goal to the point that Americans would work with a foreign power to undermine our voting system which is the very basis of our democracy. But, of course, we can go back to Watergate where winning was the end game.
Now there is great concern that a news conglomerate is working to buy up as many networks as possible making real the fact that we will not have access to an unbiased news source, that everyone will only hear what we are fed by a single point of view. I have read about Henry Luce, the founder and editor of TIME magazine. Luce was the child of missionaries to China in the pre-World War II era and always showed Chinese issues and leaders in good light. His propaganda fed the American people a line about the Chinese leaders, Chiang Kai-Shek and his powerful wife that served only their purpose and was not always what the Chinese people needed in their war against the Communists. Senator Joseph McCarthy stained the post World War II era with his lies against so-called Communists causing people to lose trust in American government and what it stood for. President Truman called it “the big lie."
Today what is happening within the walls of the White House is released only through leaks from people who work for the government. The president’s inability to work to ‘promote the general welfare of our people’ has resulted in chaos. One result of Cabinet positions not being filled is that FEMA, run by the department for homeland security, has not had a leader since July. Puerto Rico is in ruins and the death toll is beginning to rise from things like unclean water. Puerto Ricans are Americans and people in trouble who need help. The President, tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of suffering humanity revealed a lack of understanding and immaturity. I am wondering if the victims of the California wildfires can trust the government to be there for them in their disaster?
Can we trust the government to deal with our trade negotiations, nuclear issues with North Korea and Iran? Do I trust the people who have access to the ‘nuclear button’? Much of the good will we have built up in the three hundred years America has existed is disappearing faster than we can explain what is happening. One foreign advisor said, “We cannot trust America any more. If every decision that is made changes with each leader, no one will want to work with your country any longer.” I have relatives in Sweden who write to me and say, “We are afraid of Trump and what he could do to the world.” The trust level we have built up over years of helping others in national disasters, of welcoming the stranger to our nation, of being a trustworthy friend to those allies who supported us as we them in past wars, our bank account of goodwill, is fast disappearing and we are becoming a bankrupt nation. The purpose of trust is to build up a feeling of safety among our people. With the white supremacy issues and the rising tide of racism, no one feels safe and our government seems only to stir up the flames of hatred. Anger and fear rule as the shootings in Las Vegas reveal and we allow it to happen every time we look the other way or say, “Well, it isn’t affecting me.”
Rebuilding broken trust in any relationship takes a long time. Without an informed electorate, ready to stand up and be counted where it matters most, it could take another 300 years to regain what we have lost.
(Just wanted to share my thoughts for today.)
Sermon 10/08/17. Savage Matthew 21.33-46
In a follow-up from last week’s lesson, Jesus is continuing his discussion with the Pharisees. The subject, as it always is with the Pharisees, is that of an overwhelming sense of righteousness. “We are good people and God will surely bless us more than those “others” who cluster around Jesus and make it difficult for us to get near". Because Luther’s main theology centered around the great need people have to “feel good” about themselves I thought it might be worth a look at some Lutheran teachings today because Luther taught “we are never good enough”.
First, to look over the reading for today — Jesus is warning the Pharisees their lack of acceptance of God’s Messiah (that is the landlord’s son) will result in their downfall. In the parable for today the tenants were afraid of the landowner, but also they seemed to believe he was an absentee landlord, one who really didn’t care. He was far away so he sent others to do his work for him, first sending slaves and then later his son, so the tenants came to believe they were in charge of the situation. The Pharisees had lived under this idea for generations and now, they (Pharisees, tenants) were threatened by Jesus’ ability to look into their hearts, they afraid of the power of God, and they were afraid of the crowds of people who followed Jesus and listened to and believed his teaching. As we enter the month of October and the recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the work of Martin Luther, the basic doctrines of our Lutheran teaching take on renewed importance. I like the premise that the church is always in a state of reformation. Reformation, that is renewal, never ends. Nothing ever remains the same. Our personal lives are not static. We are always being called to look at our world and see how can we best proclaim the gospel today. Not that our doctrine is holier than the doctrines of other denominations, but the men and women who have studied the scripture from a Lutheran perspective give us something important to review, to renew and to use.
The core or the heart of Lutheran identity has always been our relationship with God. We say with clear conviction that we know we are saved by God’s grace and by no action of our own, that justification by faith is a free gift and is apart from any works we do. Our work in the world is underscored by the church’s motto, “God’s work, our hands”. We are knowingly pushed into the world by the power of the word of God and the absolute certainty of God’s love and grace to save us. Pretty awesome thoughts.
Jesus instructs his listeners to pay attention to the teachings of God recognizing that Jesus is the Son sent by God in the fullness of time, when the harvest is ready. That is the command that pushes us into the world, that we are workers in the vineyard and ready to bring in the crops. Luther was once asked why people would do good works if it did not earn them any heavenly “brownie points” . “Because they will want to”, he said. Luther believed that when we recognize the gift we have been given — that we are loved by a God who wants only to be loved by his creation, (Augustine said God thirsts to be thirsted after.) when we are overwhelmed by the sheer force of that love, our one main desire will be to do God’s work around us. Everything we see is seen in the light of God’s love. We see the face of God in the “other” — that is, those outside our boundaries. (ex. India, beggars waiting for the Christians after worship because they knew the God they worshiped wanted them to do good works and might give a little something.)
In the light of God’s love and grace, even the commandments benefit from a more expanded viewpoint. The 5th commandment is You shall not kill. Murder can become those times when we do not help our neighbor to survive in times of need, when we have more than enough, the neighbor has nothing and we do not help.
A renewal of the sacraments are also part of viewing the world in a Lutheran way. How do you recognize a sacrament? It is a gift of God’s grace, commanded by Christ and there are physical elements attached. Today we receive the gift of God’s grace through Holy Communion. This sacrament and our baptism are daily reminders that we are sent into the world to be witnesses of God’s love in all we do and say. Holy communion received on a regular basis is meant to renew us, remind us our sins are forgiven, to lift us up, giving us the strength we need to walk the journey we are given in this life. The daily reminder of our baptism, water, the Word of God and the cross are the marks we bear that make us recognizable as Christians to the world and to each other. When I am blessed to officiate at a baptism I get chills when I say the words, “Sealed by the Holy Spirit, you are marked with the Cross of Christ, forever.” A child of God, forever. As I told my confirmation students, “because of your baptism, you can run from God, but you can’t hide.” Psalm 139 gives us the ultimate question, “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” We belong to God and God belongs to us in a relationship that is for all eternity. It is the physical elements of bread and wine and water that are reminders and also give me the strength I need to love and to serve my neighbor each and every day.
Often one of the criticisms of organized religion is that our denominations want to bind people with rules. People say, “There are too many rules. All those “thou shalt not and the should and could and have tos”. I don’t want any part of that.
Reading the epistle lesson from Philippians (3.4b-14) for today we get Paul’s answer. The Pharisees were tightly bound by the Law. Rules were the way their lives were lived — rules for everything. Paul begins the lesson by talking about his upbringing as a Pharisee. He could see the world of the Pharisees from the inside out. He was the devout Pharisee, believing he was blameless and righteous under the law. In the eyes of his fellow Jews, Paul had it all. He belonged to the upper ranks of Jewish society. He had intelligence and power. He belonged to the right group. He had everything his world said was important. But then, in the next verse he says, Yet, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Paul practically lays out the ideas of the Reformation for Luther. These were the words that lifted Luther’s burdens and helped him know his chains were broken, that he was set free. Not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ. We do not set ourselves free, it is all based on the righteousness of Christ. These are such important words — I make the resurrection my goal because Christ has made me his own. Everything else is forgotten — all the lies, the burdens, the sins, the sorrows. We are set free in Christ — not only freed from sin, we are set free for life in Christ. The hymn Amazing Grace sometimes includes these words “My chains are gone. I’ve been set free.” Freedom in Christ — Dr. Martin Luther King cried in one of his famous speeches, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!” And that really is the cry of the Reformation. Nothing can bind me — there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen. Amen. And Amen.