“Hope is a Verb with its Sleeves Rolled Up”
Sermon for 9/11/11:
(First Methodist Church, Boulder, Colorado)
The other day I read this line from the eco philosopher, professor David Orr: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Nothing generates hope like seeing people with a powerful vision working together to see it happen. In fact, that is the very meaning of “community,” working together at a common task.
Consider the spectacle of the “Arab Spring” where people, many of them young adults, are waging a non-violent effort in Syria and Egypt and Tunisia (armed in Libya) to assert their rights to some kind of say in their political lives. Courage is afoot and courage is the number one sign of a spiritual life. “By their fruits you will know them,” said Jesus. Courage is a sure test of healthy fruit.
We are living in a time of deep concern, real insecurity about jobs and the future, of the first “ni, ni” generation (European sociologists write about the first generation that is “neither educated , nor have work,” thus “ni, ni”), of despair. Despair is the opposite of hope and despair is very dangerous. Indeed, Saint Thomas Aquinas said that “despair is the most dangerous of all the sins. Not the most serious—that is injustice. But the most dangerous because when one is in despair one does not care what happens to oneself and therefore is indifferent about what happens to others.” And, Aquinas also taught that the teaching of despair is “the most dangerous thing one can do on this earth.” Such teaching is everywhere in our media at this time; we are being pounded with the cynicism and despair of our times, bombarded by the media on a regular basis and the antics of our political class.
In today’s Scripture readings (Matthew 25) we go deeper than the selling of cynicism and fear and cheap despair, that is for sure. We need to go back to the basic teachings of Jesus such as today’s gospel reading which I believe is the epitome of Jesus’ teaching. One reason is that it combines Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the historical person. Christ is the image and likeness of God in every being and certainly in every person. Jesus himself is teaching here about the distinction between himself and Christ. Christ is in everyone and every being. He himself is a particular person. Jesus calls us to recognize the Christ in all others—especially the poor.
Ours are a time for drinking ever more deeply of the teachings of Jesus—like the late feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle who wrote that: “Christ is a name which for me expresses solidarity, hence suffering with, struggling with.” (see p. 276)
Gospel Matthew 25 is all about: Solidarity. With whom do we share solidarity? How good are we at solidarity? Albert Nolan was a distinguished warrior against Apartheid during the struggles in South Africa, a Dominican theologian and author of “Jesus Before Christianity” among other excellent books. He was the first person in the 750 year history of the Dominican Order to turn down the election as Master General of the Dominican Order, because he preferred to remain with the struggle of his people and ministry in South Africa to battling the ecclesial pooh bahs in the Vatican, said to me on the occasion of my dismissal from the Dominican Order: “North Americans don’t know a damn thing about solidarity.” (That would have been about 18 years ago.)
Do we know anything more about solidarity today? The 9/11 tragedy ten years ago today, also brought up issues of solidarity. The shock of it all brought tremendous outpouring of support world-wide. We all felt solidarity with New Yorkers and others. Billy Joel’s concert helped bring that spirit alive for us. But much of that support was squandered by our invading the wrong country in our reptilian brain response which yielded revenge and administering death and punishment on over 200,000 citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan who had nothing to do with Al Qaida or the offense done our country. In addition, over 6000 of our servicemen and women died and tens of thousands more lost limbs and endure sleepless nights and carry deep psych wounds from these wars, the longest wars ever engaged in by Americans. (I have a friend whose twin brother served three duties in Iraq as an army medic. He tells me it has taken six years for his brother to even begin to return to normal again, to sleep decently and to not be hyper angry and tense. These casualties in war are not numbered among costs of war even when lives are profoundly affected in a negative way.) And of course our own economy is reeling from the trillion dollar debt incurred there and our politics is ablaze with dysfunction because, among other things, our government put both wars on a credit card.
And now, ten years after that event, we ask anew: Where is the solidarity? What about solidarity with oceans and fish and forests and polar bears and future generations of humans? Are we learning anything about solidarity? Solidarity is about whose plight you choose to share. It is about our living out our interdependence. Who are your allies? Who or better what are your enemies. In today’s Gospel reading, one of the greatest teachings from any spiritual leader East or West that has ever been taught to human beings, Jesus makes clear where he stands on the subject of solidarity. Not with the pooh bahs of the Empire; not with the generals of Chile, not with the Vatican generals (the hand-picked secretary of state under JPII , Sodano, was the very cardinal who as ambassador to Chile under Pinochet so embedded himself in Pinochet’s dictatorship, even though thousands of good Christians were being tortured, imprisoned and murdered, that Pope John Paul II gave him a special medal of approval), not with the pooh bahs of the corporate establishments of those who want to rule the world, not with the pooh bahs of Wall Street. No. Jesus is clear: Find solidarity with the least of these. Help Main Street. Help the unemployed.
Current political rhetoric so loud on the airwaves is busy talking about the demise of the middle class. It should of course for these are the facts of our time. The signs of our times. The only ones who are still doing well in our economy are the richest 1%. That is a fact. And those in the middle are losing employment, undergoing underemployment, losing health coverage, their mortgages, and more. But it is rare to hear on the same airwaves the word “poor” mentioned even though we have more poor in the US today than ever recorded in our history. Moreover, one of 3 in the middle class are falling out into the poorest classes. What happened to the call for a “preferential option for the poor?”
The gap between the very rich and the poor has widened so dramatically in the past 10 years in our country that we now rate 42rd in the world just above Uganda and Jamaica and just below Camaroon and the Ivory Coast in the issue of balanced distribution of wealth. A fair distribution of wealth is not just about who has the most money in the bank (or stocks or portfolio) or who has yachts and second and third and more homes. It is also about: Who owns the media and is defining the news for us every day and disseminating information and putting certain ones (the same old same old) on TV to speak their worldview but rarely if ever inviting others with alternative world views. It is about who holds the money to garner still more power by turning news into entertainment and talk radio into hate radio. It is about who has the money to elect legislators who will pass laws that favor their class and not the poor or the middle class. And who appoints supreme court judges that tell us corporations are people who are free to spend whatever they want on political yes men even though you and I, average citizens, have no money to combat their propaganda with. And who is backing politicians and presidential candidates to do the same. And who will support religious organizations that never mention the rights of the poor but present a perverted kind of religion, a preferential option for the powerful.
Jesus clearly says: Look to the poor for solidarity. And thru history there have been persons whom we honor for their wisdom and courage who have done exactly that. Consider St Francis of Assisi who was upper class because his father was among the richest in his village. Yet he learned to identify with the poorest (including the animals!). Consider Gandhi: A lawyer, well educated, upper class Indian who learned to identify with the untouchables and the oppressed. And consider Dr. MLK jr whose father was pastor of a very successful black parish in Atlanta but who stepped out of his privileged place to lead the poor and the oppressed. The same is true of a key leader, Nour, of the Egyptian revolution.
Each of these persons CHOSE to take what they learned by their privileges of education and travel and knowing how the system worked to confront a system that was unjust and therefore unsustainable. Each one consciously chose to identify with the lower class struggle. This is solidarity. This is when history is changed—when the middle and lower classes team up together (with those with conscience from the more privileged classes as well).
These people give us hope. They give me hope. Today, large numbers of middle class and powerful class people can see the obvious: An economic system and political system that favor only the wealthy is not sustainable. We need solidarity. We need to “roll up our sleeves and go to work” to confront a dying civilization with authentic values such as Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel reading. It is in this way that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”
There is a young man named Jim Keady who was a theology major at St Johns Catholic University in NYC who learned about the “preferential option for the poor” that liberation theology taught as a direct result of the Second Vatican Council and the return to the Gospel teaching. Jim was also a coach of the school’s soccer team. It turned out that the school was offered several million dollars to sport the NIKE symbol on all its outfits including those of the coaches. Jim researched the NIKE factories overseas and found them wanting in basic needs of the workers, some working 12 hour days in horrible conditions; no rights for the workers at all. Jim stood up and told the school: “Do not do this. I will not do it; I cannot in conscience wear that label on my outfit.” He was fired. He is still, ten years on, fighting that battle for justice. He gives me hope. He is a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Jesus. He loved the poor of Indonesia and other places more than he loved his own job security or his reputation.
German theologian Dietrch Bonhoeffer, remembered for having stood up to Hitler and having paid the ultimate price for it, put it this way: “”Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its pleas for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
Dorothee Solle, an authentic follower of Jesus, writes simply: “To feed the hungry means to do away with militarism. To bless the children means to leave the trees standing for them.” Is that so complicated? Is the teaching of Jesus obtuse? I think not.
Such stories should give us all hope. So too the school superintendent in California who recently chose to return $800,000 of his salary to the school system for the children because he and his wife did not need the excess wealth. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. We have lots of work to do, our species, and our country, at this time in history. As a species we are spending $38 thousand dollars per second on armaments. Such folly! Of that amount, the US is spending over 50%. Yes, we produce more weapons than ALL the other countries of the world combined. Isn’t it time for us to roll up our sleeves? There is work to do.
The work we do is a work of love and where there is love, there is hope. Where there is justice-making, there is hope. Where there is love there is hope. Where there is healing there is hope. Where there is learning there is hope. Where there is beauty-making there is hope. Where there is truth telling there is hope. Where there is feeding the hungry there is hope. Where there is celebrating there is hope. Where there is forgiving there is hope. Where there is praising there is hope. Where there is birthing there is hope.
We honor the dead most not through monuments of stone and marble but in developing the courage and spiritual warriorhood to live out their finest values and make them our own. May we all be so inspired on this anniversary day.