Sermon Preached by Rev. Todd Weir
November 23, 2014
Passages about divine judgment make me anxious. This is partly out of theological conviction, because I do not have any interest in the hellfire and brimstone, a God of thunderbolts and smiting the sinner. That is a god I left behind. I believe in the God of grace and second chances, who is love incarnate.
However, this does not solve all my spiritual anxieties. It is wonderful to imagine an all-good and all-loving God, but I am not always good and loving, so how do I deal with this gulf between me and the ideal? This is how the idea of a judgmental god slips into our consciousness in the first place. I fail at love, so wouldn’t god judge me, because I sure do! Much of our religious energy is expended on seeking some assurances. Do I belong God, and how would I know, when am I good enough, and when have I done enough? So humanity has sought the favor of gods by sacrificing bulls on the altar, or by asceticism of giving up all worldly pleasures-food, sex, dancing, rock and roll, poker-to try for a purity to please God. A woman once told me that a nun in her Catholic School said that we came closer to God through our suffering, just as Christ suffered for us. She raised her hand and asked, “How much suffering do I need to do, and how will I know when I have suffered enough?” She was sent to the principal’s office, but she was ready to suffer, and she really wanted to know so she could get it right.
I am more likely to try earning God’s favor by doing good in the world. If I do enough causes, stop the pipeline, examine my white privilege, reduce my carbon footprint, stand with immigrants, boycott Walmart, will I have bridged the gap between God and me? Is that what this Gospel passage means, that if I feed and clothe enough people, and make sure they get some cold water, God will accept me? Do I need to run myself ragged doing this, or is once a week enough? I sure don’t want to end up over there with the goats, those carbon burning, social program cutting, war mongering selfish loophole grabbing people of a different political party than me. (You know, Democrats and Republicans. I’m a progressive!) On no, that was judgmental on my part, and I believe in a non-judgmental God, so I guess I need to feed that many hungry people now to make up for failing to love my enemy.
What if trying to do stuff to earn God’s favor, whether through sacrificing bulls, or doing good in the world, is just the wrong spiritual quest in the first place? What if we can’t really overcome the gap between ourselves and the loving God by our own power anyway?
Chris Arnade worked on Wall Street. He made a lot of money and yet he was still not happy. He saw homeless people all the time on his way to and from work, so one day he started photographing homeless people in the South Bronx. He always talked with people first and asked if they were willing and how they would want to be photographed. One woman, a prostitute on a quick smoke break, said to him, “Honey, take the picture the way I am. Don’t make me look like anything else, because God loves me the way I am.” She told him her story of how her mother was a prostitute, put her on the streets at 13 and she hoped she could make enough to keep her little girl off the streets, God willing. Arnade is now known for his remarkable photos from the South Bronx, showing people in all their brokenness, shivering in their blankets, needle marks on their arms; and he also captures some of the beauty of their souls that is not blotted out by suffering.
What captured my attention is an article he wrote for the Guardian about atheism. Arnade is an atheist who developed a strong disdain for religion. What he noticed while photographing is that most of his subjects had strong religious beliefs that were sustaining to them.
They have their faith because what they believe in doesn’t judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless
In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners. We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility. Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.
http://www.alternet.org/belief/atheism-intellectual-luxury-wealthy?page=0%2C1 a photographer of homeless people in the South Bronx.
Arnade does not mention any religious conversion from this experience. He seems to still be a self-critiquing atheist. But there is a conversion of a sort, an experience of connecting to others who live so differently from himself, it seems he had a humanist conversion of the heart. And as I read Arnade and look at his pictures, I hear something important for this Gospel lesson. First it is a call to notice, to not avert my eyes and walk on by, whether a person is sitting on Main Street looking for spare change or in Syrian refugee camp or an Ebola quarantine in Liberia. I don’t need to be afraid or guilty, for they are all just people (maybe even somewhat like me, longing to know if God notices and accepts them.)
Arnade and Jesus’s parable also calls me to be aware so that I do not objectify people as I serve them. Do not feed the hungry just because it is the right thing to do, do not work for the good because it makes me feel good, nor out of a desire to change the world, or especially to gain God’s favor. It is not about me. Love is often found when we stop trying to find it or earn it, and just start living it.