Friday, August 24, 2012

Sermon: "Why I Pray" (Delivered 8-19-12)


Reading
The reading this morning comes from a sermon from Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he recounts his kitchen table call.  As King was organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he received a telephone call in the middle of the night.  On the other end of the line was a Klansman who told him to leave town within three days or else they would kill him and blow up his house.  King recalls,

“I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief. And then I started thinking about many things. I pulled back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak...’  And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And ‘lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”


Sermon
The progressive Christian thinker Marcus Borg has written about different ways of reading the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  The prophets include figures like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah.  The prophets are bold and disruptive religious figures who challenge the kings and the priests, the legal and religious authorities of the day, to change their ways.  The prophets claim to have received a message from God, that they are God’s messenger, and that God is telling the kings and priests to change their ways.

Marcus Borg writes that when the religiously orthodox read the prophets they make the mistake of focusing only on the vertical dimension of their message.  They focus entirely on what the prophecies say that God will do in the future, but ignore the issues of justice that are immediate.  But, Borg also writes that when liberals read the prophets, they make the mistake of focusing only on the horizontal dimensions of the message.  They focus only the social commandments and ignore the larger religious significance of the prophets’ message. 

Borg goes on to conclude that the prophets ought to be read multi-dimensionally.  There needs to be both the horizontal dimension of social concern and the vertical dimension of ultimate concern.  Borg writes, “Now I am convinced that experiences of the sacred do happen, that the prophets had such experiences, and that such experiences were foundational for what they were, said, and did.”  This sentence seems to just as easily describe Martin Luther King’s kitchen table call.

Like reality itself, we might think of religion as having multiple dimensions.  We might think of religion as having a horizontal dimension: its ethics, social teachings, and vision of community.  Religion also has a vertical dimension:  the sense of awe, wonder, and ultimacy it generates.  And, religion has a depth dimension too, that ability to help people to become deeply introspective and to cultivate a rich inner life.  If time is the fourth dimension, we might say that religion’s fourth dimension has to do with history and the future, with origins and destinations.  I’ll leave it to the string theorists and post-modern theologians to identify other dimensions beyond space and time.

When I say that religion is multi-dimensional, I am of course speaking in metaphor.  There are certain metaphors that we can use to describe ways in which our own life lacks fullness.  We might say that we are feeling flat, that our patience is wearing thin, that our connections are shallow, or that we are narrow-minded.  Flat, thin, shallow, narrow – lacking in some important dimension.  We know what the opposite is like, what it means, as Thoreau put it, to live deep and cut a broad swath.  Wide, broad, thick, deep – multi-dimensional.

This ability to imagine life multi-dimensionally is essential to my message about prayer for Unitarian Universalists.  Prayer means different things to different people in this church.  Some of us do pray, though we pray in different ways.  Others of us meditate or reflect or contemplate or do yoga or create art or take a walk in nature.  Some of us have deep habits of prayer.  Others may try to pray from time to time, and find it frustrating or embarrassing.  Others may try to avoid prayer, might even find themselves looking out the window during the time of prayer each week in church, might spend the silent time composing a grocery list while hoping that this time part of the service ends quickly.  You know who you are.

On the one hand, it is probable that we’ve encountered things in our life that have turned us off from prayer.  We’ve encountered prayers that are selfish; “Please, God, let me win the lottery.”  We’ve encountered prayers that are shallow; “Please, God, let me find a parking space.”  We’ve encountered prayers that are aggravating; God does not care if you score that touchdown.  Some of us may come here with some existential angst about prayer.  One person who prays to be healed recovers while another person who prays to be healed does not recover.  Does God answer some prayers but not others?  Does God only answer prayers if the correct formula of words is spoken?  How can some people claim that their prayers are answered, when the most desperate prayers of countless people suffering from unspeakable devastation go unanswered?  Has this ever been a struggle for any of you?  A stumbling block?  Has the thought of prayer ever left a bad taste in your mouth?

On the other hand, let’s look at the contradictory evidence.  If it is your inclination to be dismissive of prayer, what about those times when prayer seems to make a major difference?  Consider Martin Luther King’s kitchen table call, or Gandhi’s fasts, or Jesus’ going into the desert to pray.  These prayers are of a different sort.

A few minutes ago I read from Martin Luther King’s account of his kitchen table call, his prayer offered on one sleepless night as he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott.  This may seem to belabor the point, but notice that his prayer was not directed outwardly.  He did not say, “Dear God, please change the hearts and minds of the mayor and the members of the city council.”  He said, change me.  I’m weak, I’m faltering, and I’m losing my courage.  Help me to be stronger, steadier, and bolder.

I find that when I pray, my prayers are mostly of this sort.  The prayer is that I may be reconnected with my true self and with the better angels of my nature.  There are many forms to this prayer: help me to speak my truth boldly or help me to listen attentively; help me to be courageous or help me to be tender; help me to be steadfast or help me to be flexible; help me to be understanding or help me to be direct; help me to be honest and help me to preserve my own integrity. The prayer isn’t for anything to change, except, of course, myself.

I want to give you an example of this.  It is a recent example, and it isn’t that glorious.  This year’s Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly was held in Phoenix, Arizona, about two months ago.  It was a justice General Assembly that focused largely on the injustice of our nation’s broken immigration system.  We were asked to examine a whole host of justice issues, including racial justice, economic justice, globalization, colonialism, and empire, environmental justice, criminal justice, and more.  During the General Assembly experience we traveled to hold a vigil outside Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail as a form of witness against the human rights violations that are perpetrated under Sheriff Arpaio’s watch.  Before we went to the vigil, we all gathered for a time of spiritual practice and preparation.  We learned a little bit, sang together, prayed together, and reminded ourselves about the behavioral expectations we had for our time together.  We were not to engage the counter demonstrators bearing racist signs and brandishing fire arms.  We were not to act aggressively towards the cops in riot gear outfits.  We were not to get ourselves arrested.  We were not to treat our fellow Unitarian Universalists unkindly either.

So, a few thousand Unitarian Universalists, despite the 103 degree heat, and despite the uncomfortable school buses of which there were not nearly enough, and despite standing all cramped together with a razor wire fence on one side and police barricades on the other side, all managed to behave peacefully and patiently and positively.  And, I think prayer had something to do with it.

Martin Luther King called on those marching in Selma and elsewhere to meet physical force with soul force, and prayer – whether spoken or sung – played a major role in making these acts of non-violent civil disobedience a success.  What those freedom marchers had to endure was exponentially more trying than the worst-case scenario for us in Phoenix.  It is amazing to think of the strength of those marchers facing fire hoses, police dogs, and batons with such courage, such soul force.

Soren Kierkegaard is reported to have said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  A contemporary UU minister made this saying a bit catchier by saying, “Prayer doesn’t change things, but prayer does change people and people change things.”  Prayer does change people.  Prayer can evoke soul force.

It has been asked, “Does prayer work?”  I think it is worth reframing this question.  From time to time, scientists have done studies on the efficacy of intercessory prayer, in which people prayed for other people to heal more quickly.  Some number of years ago, there was one study in particular that led researchers to report that being prayed for was correlated with healing, but then other scientists called the study into question and the findings were reversed.  But, while nobody has proved that prayer changes the object that is being prayed for, it is beyond doubt that prayer changes the subject that is engaged in prayer.

There are a couple of things that I might say about prayer in general as well as a couple suggestions if prayer interests you.  I think the first thing to note is that many Unitarian Universalists get hung up on the question of who or what is being prayed to exactly.  To that, I would offer a couple of different answers.  I believe that prayer can be an intransitive verb.  It is a verb that doesn’t really need an object.  It is not necessary to pray to anything.  One can simply pray.  Take care of your own side of the street, as they say.

A second thing I might say about prayer is that it can feel foolish, awkward, or embarrassing.  I would add that if you feel self-conscious, you’re probably doing it right.  That is kind of the point, to become self-conscious, to let down your guard be honest and authentic.  I think Jesus is absolutely right when he said that prayer is best done as private devotion, not as public demonstration, and that prayer is not about showing off your skills as a poet.

People who have written about prayer mostly focus on it having about four parts:  praise, thanksgiving, confession, and asking.  Those are the core four.  Depending on what resource you go to, you’ll find that all kinds of synonyms are used for those aspects of prayer, and that writers have tried forcing it into catchy acronyms.

Praise involves a sense of awe, wonder, mystery, and respect.  I believe that it is just as possible to praise what is natural as it is to praise what is supernatural.  God, goddess, great spirit, source of life, the Holy, the cosmos, the human spirit – the point of praise is to understand that there is something bigger than you are.

Thanksgiving follows naturally from praise.  Thanksgiving is basically taking an inventory of the good things, and especially the good people, in your life.

Confession does not mean beating yourself up.  It means being honest with what you’re struggling with.  In King’s kitchen table prayer, he says, that he is weak, faltering, and losing his courage. 

Finally, there is asking, the articulation of the desire for resolution, for wholeness.

To the extent that we see our lives as one-dimensional, prayer may not have much meaning.  One dimensional worldviews will tend to produce functional and pragmatic answers.  Don’t just pray there, do something.  But our lives are not one-dimensional.  Not flat or thin or shallow or narrow.  Our lives have depth and height.  We’re invited to expand into that fullness.  Prayer can impact our lives along those other dimensions.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sermon: "Susan, Elizabeth, Lucy, Olympia, and Friends" (Delivered 7-1-12)

A few months ago I attended a memorial service at a very conservative church down the road from us.  In that church’s main hallway there is a large bulletin board with photographs of all of that church’s leaders.  All of the leaders had something in common; they were all men.  The ministers of that church: all men.  The board, officers, and elders: all men.  Chairs of committees: all men.  Sunday school teachers: all men, with the exception of classes for second grade and younger.  And over at the far end of the bulletin board, a grouping of photos of women: the leaders of the women’s auxiliary.

When I arrived here in 2003 I had my picture taken to be added to the wall of photos of ministers.  The photo was taken and framed – God, do I look young in that photo! – and was ready to be added to the wall alongside Frank, Vern, and Dave, the first three called ministers.  There was a decision to be made.  Do we remove the photograph of Paige, who served for one year as our interim minister, or do we leave her up?  I was consulted and my response was to leave her up.  I didn’t want it to be just a wall of dudes.

The conservative church believes in the literal inerrancy of scripture.  Their wall of photographs reflects that they follow what is taught in 1 Timothy 2:12 in the New Testament.  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.  She is to keep silent.”  As Unitarian Universalists we reject the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.  We reject literal readings of scripture.  We reject the history of oppression, discrimination, and conquest that has been justified through a selective reading of scripture.  As Unitarian Universalists we reject 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34.  As one of our hymns puts it, we strive to “build a church that shall be free – free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed… [and] free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.”

So I suggested that the wall in the foyer should make that clear.  It was either that or draw straws and photoshop one of the dudes.  If the idea of, say, “Laverne Barnet” strikes you as uncomfortable, I would remind you that biblical scholars have shown that as early editions of the Bible were passed down, the names of women were often omitted, erased, or had their gender reassigned by giving them a masculine form of a feminine name.

In religious life, in fact I would say in all of life, there is a need to balance the negative turn with the positive turn.  In religious life, it is one thing to know what it is that you reject, what you deny, what you don’t believe, what you won’t accept.  This is extremely important.  But then, it is important to take the next step, the positive turn, the claiming of what it is you do believe, and what you’re called to do about it.

On this Sunday closest to Independence Day I want to speak about four women.  I’ve chosen these four women because they participated in, in fact led, one of the greatest and most important social movements in the history of our country and in human history.  The tie in with Independence Day is obvious, and would be obvious even if we weren’t going to be marching in a parade in celebration of a century of women’s suffrage in Kansas.  This social movement was about claiming the rights that are fundamental to any democracy.  It was about nothing less than human liberty.  The tie in to our faith is equally obvious.  These women were all Unitarians, more or less, some more than others.  And, I’ve chosen these women because they answered the call to not only speak about what they do believe, but to do something about it.  They answered the call with lives of sacrifice, service, and dedication.  And, finally, I’ve chosen these women because their struggle has significance for us today in a country and a world where full women’s equality has yet to be achieved, in a country and world where women’s rights are under attack, and in a country and state in which voter suppression strategies increasingly threaten the democratic process.

Allow me to speak with unfortunate brevity about Susan, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Olympia.
The lives of the first three women, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, are deeply intertwined.  This “triumvirate of nineteenth century feminism” inspired each other to action, and were in turn inspired by the massive social, religious, literary, and cultural upheavals of the early eighteen hundreds, in which Unitarianism and Transcendentalism played a major part.

Susan B. Anthony is by far the most well-known of the three.  She is the one featured on the one dollar coin and the one we learn about in school.  Susan B. Anthony was also the last to join the cause of women’s rights, becoming inspired after reading an account of a speech by Lucy Stone in a newspaper published by Unitarian Horace Greeley.  Susan B. Anthony was born in western Massachusetts in 1820 and was raised as a Quaker.  After working as a teacher in her twenties, in 1849 she moved to Rochester, New York, where she regularly attended the Unitarian church.  Rochester was a hotbed of activity in the early women’s movement.  In 1848, the first convention on women’s rights took place in nearby Seneca Falls.  It produced a bold declaration that was ratified two weeks later when a second convention was hosted by the Rochester Unitarian Church.  That convention made history because a woman was elected to preside over a public meeting, the first time that had happened.

In Rochester, Susan B. Anthony met Lucy Stone, whose speech had inspired her, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Susan and Elizabeth became a formidable duo working together to advance abolition, racial justice, temperance, and women’s rights.  In 1872 Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election and was denied the right to speak at her own trial.  She was fined one hundred dollars for this act of civil disobedience, and she steadfastly refused to pay.

Susan B. Anthony worked for rights in close partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was born in 1815 in New York, the daughter of a wealthy attorney and congressman.  Stanton received the privileges of a top rate education.  When her cherished brother died tragically on the eve of his graduation from college, Elizabeth, who was every bit her brother’s intellectual equal, promised her father that she would continue the family’s legacy.  Her father sighed and told her that he wished she had been born a boy.  Interestingly, Susan B. Anthony has an early experience with education that proved to be influential.  In primary school one of her teachers refused to teach her long division because of her gender.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was raised as a Presbyterian but an encounter with religious revivalism left her in despair and led her to reject Christianity and organized religion.  Unlike Susan B. Anthony, who never married, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did marry and had seven children.  Susan B. Anthony liked to build alliances and cultivate relationships while Stanton prided herself in shaking things up.  For example, Anthony and Stanton suffered a falling out over Stanton’s outspoken rejection of religion, which Anthony and others felt would alienate potential allies.  Stanton’s advocacy for divorce rights bothered her suffragette sisters who preferred to be more politically calculating.

A third figure who we heard from earlier in our reading was Lucy Stone, whose speech at an early women’s rights convention so inspired Susan B. Anthony.  Stone was born in western Massachusetts and became a Unitarian after she was kicked out of her Congregationalist church for being too much of an activist.  Stone is simply too feisty not to mention.  She was the first woman in the state of Massachusetts to earn a college degree.  She married a devoted abolitionist named Henry Blackwell, a man who was so smitten that he proposed to her within an hour of meeting her.  She refused.  He persisted.  Two years later they were married and their marriage ceremony began with them speaking a joint protest against the laws of marriage that made the husband superior to the wife.  They also printed their protest and had it distributed to their wedding guests and it was even reprinted in the New York Times.  Lucy Stone kept her last name, a scandalous act.  Interestingly, the men in the Blackwell family seemed attracted to radical women.  Henry’s brother married Antoinette Brown, the first woman to be ordained by a congregation in the United States.

In addition to the triumvirate of Susan, Elizabeth, and Lucy, there are dozens of women’s suffrage advocates that deserve mention, but I want to mention just one.  Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone were Unitarians committed to winning the vote for women, but the Universalists were represented as well.  Olympia Brown, a Universalist, was ordained in 1863 and was the first woman whose ordination was recognized by a denomination.  She served congregations in New England but also was active in speaking and organizing for women’s suffrage.  Olympia Brown, at the urging of Lucy Stone, came to Kansas in the summer of 1867 and delivered, over the course of a single summer, 300 speeches advocating for suffrage.

In 1887, Olympia Brown left parish ministry to become a full-time organizer for women’s right to vote.  She worked tirelessly for this cause until victory was achieved and the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1919.  Olympia Brown was 85 years old and still marching in the streets.  She lived to legally cast a vote, something that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone could never do in their lifetime.

In 1920, at the age of 85, Olympia Brown returned to the last church she served and delivered a 45 minute sermon entitled “The Opening Doors.”  In this hopeful and passionate address she speaks of increasing social freedoms, scientific discoveries, and learning as revealing the character of the divine.  She preached,

“When the other day I saw crowds of women of all conditions coming into the polling booth all filled with great enthusiasm, forgetting old prejudices, old associations and former interest, only seeking to know how to serve the state… I said, they are grander than I thought.  There is a Divine Life in them which this new experience is revealing…  The Opening Doors lead to no dark dungeons, open no burning lake, give no evidence of everlasting punishment.  But all gladden us with assurances of Divine Goodness and indicate the final triumph of the good.”

Looking back at her life, Olympia Brown remarked, “The grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal.”

I want you to hold this number, 27 million.  More women, many more women, chose not to vote in the last presidential election than were legally barred from voting in the 1916 presidential election.  In fact, based on reports of voter turnout, it is safe to estimate that nearly 50 million American women eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential elections did not bother to go to the polls.  Men failed to vote in even greater numbers.  Today when voter turnout is extremely high, at most 60% of eligible voters will vote in a Presidential election.  At most 40% will vote in a mid-term election.  At most 20% will vote in a primary.  Other elections, such as municipal elections, may attract less than ten 10% of eligible voters.

Today, civil liberties and civil rights organizations are concerned about a new wave of voter suppression laws and tactics that are sweeping the country.  In recent years, dozens of states have passed laws making it more difficult for people to vote.  The most common laws require voters to show a photo identification when going to the polls.  Other laws require people to produce a birth certificate or proof of citizenship when registering to vote.  Still other laws make early voting more difficult and make it more difficult for voters to change their registration, whether it is your address or your party affiliation.  Some states have even gone so far as to attempt to ban or restrict third party voter registration drives. 

Personal experience:  I have always been deeply committed to voting as both a civic responsibility and an act of faith.  Between the age of 22 and 26, I had 9 different permanent addresses in 4 different states, and I voted in every election I was eligible to vote in.  I was able to do this because registering to vote did not require a lot of jumping through hoops, and third party voter registration drives helped a lot.  I remember moving into a new apartment and needing to register to vote.  I entered voter registration into an on-line search engine.  This was before the age of Google.  And, the first selection that came up was the voter registration program of the World Wrestling Federation, which they called, “Smackdown Your Vote!”  And I thought, sure, I’ll smack down my vote, and two minutes later I was registered.

Voter suppression laws, from photo ID requirements to birth certificates to restrictions on third party registrations, disproportionately hurt several classes of people including the elderly who may have difficulty producing a photo ID and, if they were born in a rural area, may not have ever had a birth certificate.  It hurts the poor and racial minorities who are far less likely to have identification and for whom taking a trip to a municipal building during business hours may be a hardship.  It hurts young people who already vote in lower numbers and move frequently.  It is estimated that five million eligible voters – a large percentage of which are racial minorities – might be turned away because of these new voting laws.  This does not count an additional five million Americans who are barred from voting because of a criminal record.

Legal attempts to make voting more challenging are justified by their proponents as a way of combatting voter fraud.  The problem though is that voter fraud is not a problem.  An intensive government program aimed at preventing voter fraud yielded just 86 convictions during a period between 2002 and 2007 in which 300 million votes were cast nationally.  According to this report, during a period in which 50 million votes were cast in Texas, there was only one incident of a person imitating another person at the polls.

There is a tremendous dissonance between the lives of our radical Unitarian and Universalist forebears like Susan, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Olympia and the often apathetic and indifferent populace we encounter today.  It is a tragedy to think that so many people take for granted a right that was won by generations of activists who marched and spoke out, who went to jail and went on hunger strikes.  We should be aware that the same forces of oppression that originally limited voting to land-owning white males continues to seek to disenfranchise voters today.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Sermon: "Austerity as Idolatry" (Delivered 8-5-12)

Reading
The reading is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Austerity as Ideology” from her 2012 book When I Was A Child I Read Books.

Austerity is the big word throughout the West these days, with the implicit claim that whatever the Austerity managers take to be inessential is inessential indeed, and that whatever can be transformed from public wealth into private affluence is suddenly an insupportable public burden and should and must be put on the block. Everywhere the crisis of the private financial system has been transformed into a tale of slovenly and overweening government that perpetuates and is perpetuated by a dependent and demanding population. This is an amazing transformation of the terms in which our circumstance is to be understood. For about ten days the crisis was interpreted as a consequence of the ineptitude of the highly paid, and then it transmogrified into a grudge against the populace at large, whose lassitude was bearing the society down to ruin… In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.

Austerity has been turned against institutions and customs that have been major engines of wealth creation, because they are anomalous in terms of a radically simple economics… The alienation, the downright visceral frustration, of the new American ideologues, the bone in their craw, is the unacknowledged fact that America has never been an especially capitalist country. The postal system, the land grant provision for public education, the national park system, the Homestead Act, the graduated income tax, the Social Security system, the G.I. Bill – all of these were and are massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the population at large. Even “the electrification of the countryside,” Lenin’s great and unrealized dream, was achieved in America by a federal program begun in 1936… These arrangements are pragmatic in nature, and therefore expressive of an effective freedom at odd with ideology. But the ideologues consider such things a straying from the true path.




Sermon
About a year ago I took a trip out to Topeka to attend a clergy organizing event. Our meeting was held at the Topeka Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter run by evangelical Christians that sleeps nearly 300 people each night and serves over 500 free meals daily. About a third of us in the room were religious liberals, including a Unitarian minister, a Jewish rabbi, and several pastors of liberal Christian congregations – UCC, Disciples, and so on. About a third of us in the room were ministers of African American churches – missionary Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and so on. And, a third of us in the room were extremely conservative white evangelical Christians. This made for a frustrating gathering. The meeting was called by community organizers who were interested in learning whether there could be a broad-based faith movement to advocate for poverty and health services in Kansas.

The meeting began with the director of the Topeka Rescue Mission speaking and the gathering quickly became surreal. The director passed out a one page handout. The letterhead at the top of the page was from a law firm in Louisiana. The subject of the memo was the national debt. The memo performed a little exercise in which it asked what it would look like if our country was like a household. Take the United States budget and the national debt and divide it by 100 million, knock off eight zeroes. The memo announced that the US government is like a family that makes $21,000 per year but spends $37,000 per year, thus adding an additional $16,000 in debt to its existing debt of $140,000. The director of the homeless shelter parroted the Louisiana law firm in concluding that the only responsible thing for the government to do is to slash its spending. Unfortunately, this would cause a tidal wave of people, a flood of families, searching for the meals and cots of the Rescue Mission. It is inevitable.

There were a lot of things happening in this exchange. My sermon this morning will explore what was actually going on in that room, and about what is going on in our state and country. I believe that what was going on in that room is a form of economic idolatry. And, for the next twenty minutes or so we’re going to be exploring the intersection of economics and theology, politics and psychology.

The conservative evangelical Christians in the room, politically speaking, were Dominionists. They believe that this is a Christian country, that Christians should hold all elected offices, and that we should all follow a Christian legal code. This is a group of people who look extremely favorably upon the Kansas governor and legislature. At the same time, folks like the director of the Topeka Rescue Mission are suffering from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when you hold thoughts or ideas or beliefs that are incompatible. When you experience this, the result is discomfort, anxiety, and restlessness. The psychologists who study cognitive dissonance tell us that when the discomfort becomes strong enough, we do one of two things. We either change our beliefs or we seek out additional information that makes our beliefs consonant again.

Here are the thoughts causing the cognitive dissonance that the conservative evangelical Christians in the room experienced. Cognition number one: the State of Kansas is being led by devout Christians. Cognition number two: it is a Christian duty to take care of the poor and vulnerable. Cognition number three: services for the poor and vulnerable are being reduced. If you hold all three of these views, you’re going to experience cognitive dissonance. If that dissonance is strong enough, you either change your views, or you seek out additional information, such as a memo on the national debt from a law firm in Louisiana that explains that the government cannot possibly afford to provide services to the poor and vulnerable.

The website of the Topeka Rescue Mission provides evidence that it tacitly accepts this position. “Over the years, funding across social service delivery systems has been cut dramatically or eliminated entirely in some areas. As a result, many who were recipients of these services are now fighting daily to survive and unable to remain in their homes… Sadly, we do not expect the epidemic to decline. Instead, we are preparing for a rigorous increase of individuals in need of support.”

Of course, we know that the memo on the debt was rubbish. For one thing, law firms don’t generally release statements concerning national economic policy and it is hard to imagine why anyone would take one that did seriously. The memo’s basic premise was flawed. A national budget is not like a household budget. I don’t know about your household, but in my home we cannot print our own money. Federal and state governments have broad powers to decide what their income will be in a given year, quite unlike most families. Debt operates in a very different way for nations than it does for individual citizens.

In an article entitled, “The Federal Budget is not like a Household Budget,” UMKC economics professor Randall Wray writes, “Whenever a demagogue wants to whip up hysteria about federal budget deficits, he or she invariably begins with an analogy to a household’s budget… On the surface that might appear sensible; dig deeper and it makes no sense at all. A sovereign government bears no obvious resemblance to a household… With one brief exception, the federal government has been in debt every year since 1776… In January 1835, for the first and only time in U.S. history, the public debt was retired, and a budget surplus was maintained for the next two years… [until] in 1837 the economy collapsed into a deep depression that drove the budget into deficit, and the federal government has been in debt ever since.”

Furthermore, Randall Wray points out the following, “Since 1776 there have been exactly seven periods of substantial budget surpluses and significant reduction of the debt… The United States has also experienced six periods of depression. With the exception of the Clinton surpluses, every significant reduction of the outstanding debt has been followed by a depression, and every depression has been preceded by significant debt reduction.” I am not pretending to be a trained economist. I am only saying that economic systems are complicated, much complicated than simple analogies to household budgets allow for.

The position that says that the amount of debt our nation carries requires significant cuts in spending – cuts to education, health care, social security, veteran’s benefits, pension plans for public employees, public health, mental health, the arts, job training, public broadcasting, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, higher education, food stamps, public assistance, and so on – has been called the austerity position. It is a position of severity, harshness, strictness. The push towards austerity is especially prominent in Kansas, which has made cuts to social services, health, education, and the arts. These significant cuts resulted in a reported budget surplus of almost a half billion dollars, which calls into question the assertion that the government cannot afford to provide services. And, then there is the fact that in May the legislature approved and the governor signed an income tax cut for the state’s highest earners as well as small businesses, a tax cut that many believe will create future deficits leading to additional cuts to health and education.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman refers to those who propose enormous cuts to public services as the “Austerians.” Reading about them, I was struck by the way that the language of these economists leaves the realm of economics and enters the realm of theology. Writes Paul Krugman, “Finally, there’s the continuing urge to make the economic crisis a morality play, a tale in which a depression is the necessary consequence of prior sins and must not be alleviated. Deficit spending and low interest rates just seem wrong to many people… the trouble is that in the current situation, insisting on perpetuating suffering isn’t the grown up, mature thing to do. It’s both childish (judging policy on how it feels, not what it does) and destructive.”

L. Randall Wray argues just about the very same thing. “The hysteria about federal budget deficits and debt, has nothing to do with economics. There is no credible economic theory and no economic evidence that can lead one to conclude that the US needs to reduce its budget deficit during a time of widespread unemployment. It is a morality play, plain and simple.”

The worship of austerity is like the worship of those small and violent deities that demand human sacrifice.

In her essay “Austerity as Ideology” that I read from earlier, Marilynne Robinson, like Paul Krugman and like Randall Wray, argues that the Austerians do not promote their agenda based on any evidence, only on ideology. “At the very best,” Robinson writes, “there are two major problems with ideology. The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality. It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe. And the second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault here lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary.”

In truth, if I could fault any of these writers, it would be to fault them for being too generous in their treatment of the advocates of austerity. Are the proponents of austerity well-intentioned true believers, misled ideological purists? That’s too generous, too generous by far. To me they’re greedy bastards.

Robinson’s essay ends with a meditation about what is actually of worth. I’m going to conclude with an excerpt of her essay. “What are we doing here? We may never know… The universe is lifeless now and will be lifeless then, so negligible is our presence in it… We make wealth, and we destroy it. Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being… The great temptation of money is that it seems to give us tokens, markers, by which things and people can be truly said to succeed or fail… Eliminate the overwhelming cost of phantom wars and fools’ errands, and humankind might begin to balance its books. After all, its only debts are to itself.”

Or, to put it more simply, austerity is not only an ideology, but also a form of idolatry. It is a form of worshipping what is not worthy of worship. It is the worship of numbers in the ledger book, numbers that do not correlate in any meaningful way with human well-being. There are other ledgers we might imagine and value, ledgers of fairness, spreadsheets of human well-being, balance sheets of health, exchange-rates of love, bottom lines of justice.