ENTRUSTED WITH THE MYSTERIES OF GRACE

Sermon Delivered by Douglas Olds (all rights reserved

Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, May 25, 2008

First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo

Scripture Readings: 1 Cor 4: 1-5

Mt. 6: 24-35

 

 

             “Do Not Be Afraid!” 

This amplified statement reverberates through the stadium filled with Bangladeshi Christians. 

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

The minister punctuates each turn in his sermon with this phrase. 

Christians in Bangladesh make up less than 1% of the national population.

They are swallowed up by Muslims with which they share an historical enmity.  

 

“Do Not Be Afraid!” 

My friend Ruth the minister’s wife looks around at the crowd for the reception of this message.  At the

entrances to the stadium, the Muslim military police presenting automatic rifles stand particularly transfixed.

They are listening for the solution to the mystery of living free from fear that is being announced confidently

under the shadow of their cocked guns.

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we Christians have a message that the whole world is eager to understand only dare we proclaim it: that it is possible to live without fear.   

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is addressing the conditions of anxiety and the role that servicing

mammon-wealth plays. Underlying this anxiety is fear, which mammon is adept at exploiting by giving the

illusion of certainty and risk-free existence. 

 

LET US PRAY:  Almighty God, make still our hearts and calm our souls as we contemplate the teachings of your Anointed One.  Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ, to your eternal Glory.  Dampen every voice and spirit within us but your own, that we may follow Christ in freedom and in joy.   We pray this in His Name, AMEN.

 

 

  In the Kalahari tribal villages of Africa, in the words of a recent interview of Rene Girard, “if a man or a woman acquires a valuable or beautiful object like a fine hunting knife or a colorful blouse or sweater, they are torn by conflicting emotions. 

They appreciate and treasure the object, and yet they feel exposed and threatened by having something which others don’t have.  The object becomes a psychological hot potato, something to be concealed for a while and gotten rid of as soon as possible.  It will have been given to another member of the tribe within a few days, and within another two or three weeks it will probably be found in another tribe miles away.  People tend to feel more comfortable not having an outstanding possession and thereby sinking back into a less conspicuous and less envied position within the group. 

“Such behavior does not come naturally. It must be …established [by] custom. 

In the Kalahari, training to give things away starts from six weeks to six months after birth.”[1] 

By this custom, we see the attempt to rid a society of the anxiety that highly treasured possessions bring.

 

Anxiety prompts us to prepare for threats because of the supposed and unpredictable hostility of natural and social forces that make up our surroundings. 

Our anxiety-ridden psyches expect that some lurking threat exists to displace us from a comfortable or socially advantageous position. Anxiety is a condition of the powerful and is positively correlated with privilege.

 

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount passage we just read, is addressing the problem of anxiety, specifically,

 the human consciousness that perceives a hostile universe characterized by scarcity and the unpredictability

of the forces of nature. 

 

Jesus recognizes that anxiety is perverse: by laying up stores of wealth and provisions because of the threat of scarcity, the mammon-obsessed person hoards and serves wealth, governed by the animal spirits of greed and fear.  These animal spirits whipsaw back and forth in the psyche of anxious humans who pursue a program of grabbing all

one can, when one can, in order to save up for the next potential threat. Our greed is based on fear, and our

 fear is based on having unjustly amassed necessities.

 

The writer of the Letter of James has a term for whenever the soul is pulled in contrary directions:  Dipsychia, “double minded.”  In terms of money, the double bind is the current of greed opposed by the headwind of fear that underlies the tempest anxiety of the mammon-serving human being.

 

These double-minded urges create distortions of financial bubbles and economic shortages, and perhaps

there is no greater evidence for mammon than in the scale of the financial derivatives market.  Here are some facts from the Bank For International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland: 

In 2007, derivatives contracts were outstanding to the amount of $516T, 10 times yearly gross world product and

three times the world’s productive asset base.

 

In the six years since the anxiety-provoking 9/11, so called “hedging” as attempted risk transfer exploded by a factor of five.  By way of comparison, LTCM in 1998 had a $5B loss that almost brought down the financial system. Yet with the current scale of derivatives, we are confronted with a complex financial web of anxiety that is 6 orders

of magnitude more massive than LTCM: $516 Trillion versus $5B!

 

But the mammon system goes beyond fear and greed and leads to pipe dream notions of achieving “risk free” certitude through financial accumulation and innovation.  Mammon accounting based on reciprocity among anxious economic agents, where scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours leads to tit for tat, so that free loaders and slackers

are punished, sometimes (as in the case of non-productive drug addicts) with draconian three-strikes and

you’re out lifetime prison sentences. 

This scapegoating is the product of human anxiety and the desire for control and certainty inside a universe

not of our own making.

 

Into this mammon system, Jesus bears the message of an alternative system of anxiety-free tranquility and

God’s free grace through Providence. 

Do Not Be Anxious!   

Jesus message is that God is not like mammon, and therefore we can know that God’s affirmation of grace, while mysterious, is different than the affirmation offered by mammon. 

While mammon offers the person the lie that he or she is the essential arbiter of his or her needs and achievements,

God offers the unconditional care of Providence

—do we believe it?—

And also God offers surprise!

 

God cares for us more than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. 

We must only confine ourselves to the surprises of today. 

By this, God is promising not to deprive or test us more than we can endure. If the burden of uncertainty seems too much, we might refuse to envision disaster tomorrow by letting tomorrow take care of itself.  For it is today that

we wait to hear God’s voice, it is today that we yearn to glean God’s goodness.  God is making us a

promise in this passage, and it is good that we contemplate it.

 

Anxiety in service of mammon leads to the distortions and shortages in economic markets and in the

punishment and scapegoating of economic slackers. Yet one of the mysteries of grace plays out in the recent finding published in the March 20th journal of “Nature.”   In that journal, under the title of “Winners Don’t Punish,”

 we discover that self-interested economic agents intent on maximizing their welfare should, under

evolutionary theory, not be punishers of others who either freeload or otherwise defect from economic cooperation.  Economic welfare would be served by an ethic of turn the other cheek, IF people and nations actually turned the other cheek. 

 

Here is God’s grace in the economic system: wealth and ethics mutually support each other if people live

and let live regardless of the other’s behavior and ethics.  God’s plan, rather than mammon’s, is that grace abounds when we accord grace to the guilty and uncooperative. 

Grace and wealth flow positively to the self and the other when the other is pardoned. 

This graceful accounting seems to be an attribute of the evolutionary system that God has set up. 

God’s accounting is not like mammon’s, which is built on scarcity and punishment.

 

In this, we are privy to a mystery of God, which brings wisdom: we don’t need to punish, we are free to anticipate the needs of others without reciprocating in kind for slights or defections or slacking off.  Grace itself is a mechanism of the evolutionary mystery.

 

We are therefore privy to one of the mysteries with which God has entrusted Christians. 

 

This being Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, I suggest that we Presbyterians are trustees over other mysteries. What makes the Presbyterian Heritage distinctive are those particular mysteries entrusted to us by God that we apportion through living devotion and practice. 

We are stewards and servants—my preferred translation of Paul’s Greek is “trustee”—

we are trustees over mysteries which include the heritage of our church, as opposed to the idols of certainty

with which mammon entices. 

 

Here is a brief list:

 

First, hierarchy in church governance is a temporary and ad hoc solution to the mysterious presence of incompleteness in God’s restored creation.  The more complete understanding of restored communal order is

egalitarian, but our Presbyterian heritage gives a temporary place to special, accrued wisdom in its

constitutional offices, while we recognize that in the age to come, all such offices will be abolished.

 

Second, doctrine is tentative and provisional. 

God is alive and working in, with and through humanity. Truth is subjective, relational, and evolving.  This is

what we mean when we say the Gospel is contextual.  The Presbyterian Heritage is alive to the mystery of a God who is on the move, engaged in a dance with the whole of creation.

 

Third, in the words of our Book of Order, “deliberative majorities give better results than inspired solo acts.”  Our heritage gives a distinctive place to the mystery of diversity through inclusiveness in God’s community. 

Knowledge is located contextually in the life experiences of the fully alive human being in relationship with the fully alive God acting through nature and other fully alive human beings. 

 

Fourth, disinterestedness is a virtue in our Presbyterian Heritage.

It is from our tradition that our Book of Order writes of the neutrality between church interests and the state, [quote] “We do not wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power [unless it] be equal and common

to all others.” [unquote]

 

Fifth in this non-exhaustive list of mysteries over which we act as trustees is the power our heritage accords

to the story. 

Your stories are welcome here.

Your mysteries are welcome here.  

At our best, ours is the community that finds meaning in the stories of others and breaks down the barriers

that serve to dishonor other stories.

It is a mystery that God has chosen story to impart God’s truth to us through scripture,

and it is our Presbyterian Heritage that we act as trustees to the sacred reality of God in each other’s stories. Human knowledge remains incomplete.  We keep in touch with our incompleteness through story.  Our tradition remains

alert to the raw material of truth even in what has been rejected by power.  So that we are open to those whose

stories include the

 --miscarriage of doctrine,

--the twisted trajectories of human justice,

--and the moral agonies that are unsuited to simple solutions. 

 

We are open to the broken-hearted and the broken-minded--we are open to their mysteries—because we realize

 that God is revealed through the mystery implicit in each unfolding story. 

 

We realize that God holds the rope of meaning in each person’s story, and that it is only God who can shine through brokenness.  We recognize then in brokenness the mystery of the grandeur of God, the God who makes Godself

known through the marginalized, the poor, the weak, and the ailing.

 

Because of this, let us conclude with our first mystery as detailed by our reading from the Sermon on the

Mount: Do Not Be Anxious.   

 

Anxiety conflicts with the child-like trust in the home to supply basic physical and emotional needs.   The lamentable state of the human being comes about when child-like trust and tranquility is replaced by the imprisoning

lie that the person is the parent of the decree that regulates the future, supposedly bringing about a certainty

that can be banked upon. 

Anxiety is the price we pay for this lie of mammon. Because it based on a lie, anxiety is faithless. As such, this false certainty is opposed to the true mystery. 

As Paul suggested in our first reading, our most significant asset is our single-minded devotion and trusteeship for the mysteries of the one True God. 

These mysteries become the foundation of our wisdom.

Because God teaches us to exchange the lie of certainty for the truth of tentativeness and mystery, and to trust the goodness of the mystery of life, we give thanks to God, the giver of all good gifts. 

For this is grace: the gift of mystery of what comes next which makes us fully alive.  

When we don’t know what comes next but are prepared to be surprised, it is then that we are fully alive. Fully alive to God and to each other.  

 

This is the way it should be if we have a Good God. Let us go forth as if we believe that we have a good God with all things in hand,

Being not Afraid,

being not Anxious.

 

Let us live each day for its surprises and mystery.  AMEN.



[1] Girard, Rene; Antonello, Pierpaolo; and Joao Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.  (New York: Continuum, 2007), p. 126.