I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday. (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road)) The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, are Hosea 1: 2 – 10, Colossians 2: 6 – 19, and Luke 11: 1 – 13.
The other day, someone (“Kyle”) added a comment concerning the paradox I had placed into my piece/sermon, “Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair?” The paradox is a classic one invented by the mathematician and logician, Bertrand Russell. It states
A barber posts the following sign in his window, "I cut the hair of all those men in town, and only those men in town that do not cut their own hair."
This particular paradox was created to illustrate a problem in set theory and logic. It is related in part to the page in most legal documents that states “this page is intentionally blank.” Of course, there is writing on the page so it is obviously not blank. And that is a paradox; a statement or situation which seemingly defies logic.
The paradox in the Bertrand Russell problem is that if the barber cuts his own hair, then he belongs to that group of men who cut their own hair. But that is the one grouping of men whose hair the barber does not cut. If someone else cut’s the barber’s hair, then he does not cut his own hair and the sign says that he does. Either the sign is wrong or nobody, including the barber, can cut the barber’s hair.
Now, “Kyle” tried to make a big deal out of this problem by pointing out, among other things, that such a situation doesn’t occur in real life. I didn’t say that it did and I pointed out that it was a created problem to deal with a particular set of situations that we might encounter.
Now, as it happens, sitting on my desk is a book by the philosopher and economist, Charles Handy, entitled “The Age of Paradox.” It is a companion to his book “The Age of Unreason” and it speaks to the contradictions of society. I really hadn’t thought that I would be using it this week. But as I began to re-read the book, I encountered some interesting thoughts.
Handy pointed out that we live at a time where it seems that the more we know, the more confused we get. And as we increase our technological capacity, we also seem to become more powerless. And while we have developed some of the most sophisticated armaments in the history of the world, we can only watch impotently while parts of the world kill each other and we are entrapped in wars of our own making (italics added as my own thought). We grow more food than we need but we somehow cannot feed the starving. We can unravel the mysteries of the galaxies yet we cannot understand other humans.
We know that learning takes time but we demand immediate results from education. We call for quality education but we seem to think that funding education is wasteful. We call for an end to wars in this country yet we see the solution as more war. We call for an end to poverty but our solution is to allow the rich to keep their money but over the past few years the gap between the rich and the poor has increased, not decreased. We call for an end to hunger yet the solution of food pantries and food banks only seems to create more problems, such as diabetes. We say we are solving the problems but in doing so only create more problems.
We demand the truth and we will listen to any prophet who can tell us what the future holds. But prophets do not foretell the future. What they do is tell the truth as they see it; they warn of dangers ahead if the present course is not changed. They point out what they think is wrong, unjust or prejudiced. They offer a way to clarify and concentrate the mind.
But they cannot tell the people what to do, despite the fact that is what many people want them to do. It was Jesus who told us that we should seek the truth and the truth will set us free but we are afraid of that truth.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis. There were those who feared that violence would erupt in that city when the news of Dr. King’s death was announced and that the city should be prepared to meet such violence should be met with additional force. These authorities also recommended that Senator Kennedy not go to a planned political rally that night, saying that they feared for his safety and that they could not provide the protection that he needed. It seems to me that the only ones who feared for their safety and unwilling to do their job were the authorities, the ones charged with keep the peace and insuring the safety.
On that night, when violence erupted in 76 cities across the United States, no violence erupted in Indianapolis. And I will always believe that it was because Robert Kennedy spoke the truth to the people that night, just as he had spoken the truth so many times during that ill-fated 1968 Presidential campaign. (See “A Quote from Bobby Kennedy” and “A Ripple of Hope”, a movie about that night in Indianapolis)
But what people probably don’t remember is a speech that he gave earlier that day at the Indiana University Medical School. It was a speech to a largely white audience and they were extremely uncomfortable hearing him speak of his vision for the future. Several students asked the same question, “where would the money for his programs come from?” And he replied, bluntly, “From you. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who will become doctors. Part of a civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don’t see many people coming here from the slums, or off of Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here.” The students reacted by hissing and booing Kennedy. As one observer pointed out, only Senator Kennedy or perhaps Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith”, Robert Redford as Bill McKay in “The Candidate” or Warren Beatty as “Jay Bulworth” could have responded in such terms. (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/dec2006/bobb-d21.shtml, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/robert-f-kennedys-indiana_b_99363.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/books/06/06/review.rfk/index.html) I cannot help but think that there isn’t a political candidate who would say what Senator Kennedy said on that day or would have said anything at all without first making sure that the polls agreed with his comments or that a focus group thought they were appropriate. We only want to hear the truth that we want to hear, not the truth that sets us free.
At a time when there should be great opportunities for personal fulfillment, society demands more and more of our time. We have gained many freedoms over the year but it seems that they come with less equality, more misery, and ultimately feeling that success comes with a highly disproportionate price.
Too many people today see themselves as cogs in someone else’s machine, hurtling God knows where, destined to be a nameless number on a payroll or the raw material for some sociologist’s or economist’s statistical report. We try to walk a path that leads somewhere but which ends up nowhere. What others may call progress only seems like an empty promise.
We hear the words of Jesus to ask and we shall receive but we don’t really know what to ask for. We are told to seek and we shall find but we don’t know where to look. We are told to knock and the door will be opened but we don’t know which door to knock.
These are the paradoxes of our age but to call them paradoxes only puts a label on the situation; it does little to solve the problems that have been created.
Could it be that in our search for our own well-being and comfort we have misplaced our priorities? Could it be that in our focus on our own lives we have failed to remember that we are a part of a community?
In re-reading Charles Handy’s thoughts, I discovered that Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations” was a professor of moral philosophy and not economics as one might presume. His theories on the nature of economics come from the basis of a moral community. Before he wrote the book that we most know about, he had written another book, “A Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he argued that a stable society was based on “sympathy”, a moral duty to have regard for one’s fellow human beings. All financial markets are to do is provide a mechanism for separating the efficient from the inefficient; they are not a substitute for responsibility. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox”, Charles Handy)
What is missing from the equation in this time and place is a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it would be better if I used Genesis 4: 1 – 8 as the Old Testament reading for today. (And for those who have forgotten, this is the story of Cain and Abel.) Are we our brother’s keeper? Do we not have some sort of responsibility to take care of other people? And perhaps I should have used the Gospel reading from two weeks ago and asked who we count as our neighbor?
What expectations do we have in this society today? Are we a community of people or just a collection of people living on the same planet?
If we think about it, the beginning and middle of the Gospel reading for today is about such a community, a community in which, no matter how we may feel, we have an obligation to take care of each other.
The first thing that Jesus did when He began His ministry was to form a community. To follow Jesus meant that one would be willing to share His life. At the beginning, many followed and were willing to join but as it became clear what was expected of them, many quit. And even when the authorities thought that they could disband the community through death and oppression, it continued to grow. We are reminded that the early church was actually a movement known as “The Way.”
It was an open community, known as a caring and sharing community, especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. It was a community founded on a love for God, for each other, and for the oppressed. Their refusals to kill, to practice racial discrimination, and to bow down before imperial deities were a matter of public knowledge. Theirs was a life-style based on faith and a testimony to that faith. (Adapted from “The Call to Conversion”, Jim Wallis, 2005)
We see the beginning of that community in the Gospel reading for today. We may not like it when a neighbor knocks on our door late at night but if the request is a reasonable one, we are apt to respond favorably. What good would it do to give a scorpion if a person needed an egg? We would only do so if we were selfish and greedy. But, in the Kingdom of God, our care for others is as great as it is for each of us.
The words of Hosea become strangely prophetic today. We have to wonder what the people thought when Hosea married Gomer, a prostitute. And then he named his son Jezreel. Now, Jezreel was the name of a place and a town in Israel associated with the bloody violence of the power politics that the kings of Israel had used to gain the throne and power. It was to reinforce the message of God’s coming judgment. Similarly, by naming his daughter “Lo-Ruhamah” and his next son “Lo-Ammi”, Hosea was communicating to the people of Israel their loss of God.
Now, I know that there are some who relish in this prophecy; who see in Hosea’s prophecy a justification for their own pronouncement of judgment and vindication of their vision for the future of this country. But their vision runs counter to the vision offered in the Lord’s Prayer, of a community open to all. When we say “grant us” and “free us”, we are not speaking individually but as a community.
But the loss should not be seen as a permanent one because God has rejected His Children. The promise made to Abraham still remains in effect, provided that we respond. In Christ, we are reminded that there is a covenant between God and us. If we are to find our way in this world, we will find it through Christ. As I read Paul’s words to the Colossians, I am reminded that we are responsible for our own faith. We cannot nor should we expect others to tell us what to do or where to go.
Now, there is a fine line between living in a community where one presumes leadership means control and direction and one in which we work together. We live in a world where too many people want the former when what is needed is the latter. The former leads us to a life without direction, without meaning, and down a path to nowhere. It is a life without Christ and one in which, as Paul wrote, one in which we are dead.
But in Christ, we find a new life. And in this new life, we begin anew, to build a new community, a community in which people can find their direction, their purpose, and their life. It is not an easy task, to be sure, but one in which we are called upon to begin today with our acceptance of Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.