Sunday, September 06, 2020

Fourteenth after Pentecost

 Psalm 119

33 Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

35 Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

36 Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

    preserve my life according to your word.

38 Fulfill your promise to your servant,

    so that you may be feared.

39 Take away the disgrace I dread,

    for your laws are good.

40 How I long for your precepts!

    In your righteousness preserve my life.

There’s something about the beginning of September and the need  to review my summer reading list.  

Maybe it’s a bit like that recurring dream where I wake up on the day of the exam and realize I forgot to take the course.  I wish I was joking.  Last year, the challenge was to only read books I bought at the dollar store, and this year it was to read books that have been hanging around too long.  And some others.

So the first was “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War” (by Steve Inskeep).  You don’t need to read this book, it’s all in the subtitle.  My first lapse in the program was reading “Trumpocalypse” by David Frum.  In this case, all you need to know is in the title, four years in a single word.

Next was Rachel Maddow’s wonderful book, “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.”  The industry, of course, is oil, and the book connects the dots between fracking, hacking, and authoritarian leaders.  Needing to have my faith in democracy restored, I then read Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Washington.  Excellent book, but it didn’t have the desired effect—something I hope to talk about in the near future.

The rest of the reading was a blur.  Helen Castor’s fine biography of Joan of Arc, a wonderful little book called “Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames” by Lara Maiklem, as well as Simon Schama’s “Landscape and Memory,” a book I’m embarrassed to say I have owned for over 20 years.  Finally, I finished Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” (borrowed from Dr. Jim in 2017).  It explained a lot.  And remaining current, I’m still reading “White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.  Again, I hope to say more about the book in a future sermon near you.  

Sometimes I think it’s appropriate to step back and consider why we read.  Some seek a distraction, entering a new (sometimes fictional) world.  Some seek insight, learning about new topics or diving deeper into topics already familiar.  Some seek assurance, words of comfort or conviction, or words that connect us to some higher need.  Some seek confirmation, words that reinforce what we already suspect or believe.  And some seek all of these, and leap from book to book happy with whatever comes.

So we open our Bibles this morning, and we read this:

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

The psalmist has opened the law and seeks several things at once.  Like an eclectic reader, the psalmist is looking for instruction, understanding, direction, and a heart for others.  The psalmist wants to find meaning, assurance that God’s promises are sure, and salvation.  

The first thing we should note (according to Walter Brueggemann) is the variety of ways the psalmist describes Torah.  Beyond simply “the law,” Torah becomes statutes, decrees, commandments, ordinances, precepts, ways, and promises.  It takes us out of a legalistic mode, and opens a library of guidance, the foundation on which we may stand.   

But Brueggemann takes this a step further, and highlights the danger of choosing eight verses in the middle of a psalm.  It would be easy to read these words and conclude that the primary concern is our personal relationship with God (B. calls this the vertical axis) and ignore the horizontal axis that’s at the heart of Torah.  Jesus found the heart of the law in Deuteronomy (“Love the Lord your God”) and in Leviticus (“Love your neighbour as yourself”), creating a mandate that holds both axes together.  Only in the context of a loving relationship with God can we find a way to love those around us.  

Love your neighbour.  It would be an understatement to say loving our southern neighbour is getting harder by the day.  Elections are divisive by their very nature, but 2020 has taken this to the next level.  It would be simplistic to set this at the feet of an individual (yet tempting), when these deep divisions have grown over decades, with fewer and fewer points of agreement by the day.  

One of the truly frustrating aspects of our time is the seeming demise of truth.  It was the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”  Somehow this wisdom slipped away, with everyone struggling to see a way forward.  It’s one thing to disagree on the solution to a problem, but quite another to disagree on whether the problem exists at all.  

The book that only took me three years to finish—Fantasyland— attempts to locate where this split began, where truth became just another dimension of personal expression.  The author, Kurt Andersen, points to the 1960s.  He argues that what we label as “counter-cultural” became the mainstream, and that all the ideas that we associate with hippies (“mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth”) belonged, in fact, to everyone.  I’ll let Andersen give you some examples:

The 1960s gave licence to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly—superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age Shamans; fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials.

I think you get the picture.  In effect, we entered a profoundly self-centred age: “What I believe is true because I want it to be true” or “What I believe is true because I feel it to be true.”  Experts are no longer needed, nor the certainty of science, when my feelings about a topic become my truth.  And I hope you see (based on Andersen’s quote) just how ecumenical this idea is: it’s not a left-right thing, or a liberal-conservative thing.  People on the left are just as likely to dispute the science of genetically-modified foods as people on the right dispute climate change.  Pick your truth.

This would be the moment in the sermon that I offer some solutions, or maybe just a poem while I back away from my metaphorical pulpit.  I don’t have a poem, so I guess I’m stuck suggesting a way forward.  In a word, it’s education.  Apropos to the week, we need to get back to reading and learning about the world that surrounds us.  We need to travel, and experience different cultures and learn new points-of-view (here in Toronto, you don’t need to travel far).  And we need to be intentional about addressing gaps in our knowledge: at the library, on the internet, or with a learned friend.  Only through education will we gain perspective on the problems that face us.  Only through education will we find some common ground.   

The psalmist is clamouring to get into this conversation, and point out something that we might not see on first reading.  Each verse begins with a variation on “teach me”—turning to God for understanding.  That’s the beginning.  But each verse ends with the result. 

With understanding: I can follow to the end.

With understanding: I can obey with my whole heart.

With understanding: I can find delight.

With understanding: I can follow your word.

With understanding: I can live without fear.

With understanding: I can live without disgrace.

With understanding: I can be preserved.

God will give us these things, and remind us to trust in God alone.  God will give us these things, and allow us to see others in a new light.  God will give us these things, so that we, in turn, give them to others. 

Most of all, may we cherish the law of love and kindness, now and always, Amen.  


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