So that You May Live: Staying Present in an Age of Despair

The following is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon.  The scripture text was Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 6-9 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. You can read the sermon or watch the video below.

One of my spiritual teachers is a woman named Krista Tippett. She’s an author and she has a public radio show where she interviews people, often on spiritual matters. I’ve never met Krista, but I consider her a great teacher. Anyone else follow Krista Tippett?

Well, she wrote a book called Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. And I gotta say, that’s a pretty pretentious title. I mean, if pretty much anyone else wrote a book with that title, I would accuse the author of some serious arrogance. But my dear, sweet teacher Krista Tippett is not pretentious or arrogant.

Rather, she is a compassionate and brilliant storyteller. If you’ve ever watched or listened to her show, “On Being” you know that she conducts a great interview. But recently on her show, she began to respond to listener questions. The very first question she responded to was the question I’ve been asking myself for about the last two year. The question was this, “How can we stay present to what’s happening in the world without giving in to despair and hopelessness?”

Have any of you asked that question recently?

Tippett responded that we need to “acknowledge the pain, stress, and despair that just following the news … causes.” She suggests that one way to deal with this is to limit the exposure of news that we take in. She says we are not equipped physiologically or mentally to be delivered catastrophic and confusing news and pictures 24/7. I think this is so important. We live in a world where the news is on 24/7. My smartphone, and even my smartwatch, is connected to the news cycle. Whenever NBC thinks it has an important story, my watch buzzes and says, “Breaking News!” Did you know that there’s a breaking news story about once every 20 minutes?

It’s too much. So I recently put my NBC app on silent.

Tippett says that in our 24/7 news cycle, taking a break from the news is a spiritual discipline. And I think she’s exactly right. The news is not fake, but so much of the news feeds us a diet of scandal after scandal. This constant diet of news is not so much fake, but it is unhealthy.

There is a spiritual component to this because the constant scandals begin to form us. Scandal is all about naming who the bad guy is. We absorb the way of scandal into our lives without recognizing it. We begin to think that the world runs on scandal and if we aren’t careful, we begin to live lives of scandal ourselves. We want more and more of the drama. We become consumed with knowing who the bad guys are. And when we know who the bad guys are, we can feel good about ourselves as we point the finger against our enemies.

I fear that’s where our culture is leading us. One side points the finger against the other side and soon we’re all pointing fingers.

My dad, whom I love and who is a conservative, says that he’s worried we’re getting closer and closer to a civil war. And there are times when I fear he is right.

And now we’re back to Krista Tippett’s question: how do you stay present without falling into despair?

Disconnecting once in a while from the constant 24/7 news cycle is good advice, but I think our readings this morning have some good advice, too.

Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy. It tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrew people through the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy recounts the laws and teachings from God that will allow the people to live in harmony and order with one another.

And here I want to make a point that changed the way I’ve come to understand the Bible. The main reason that Moses instructs the people to follow the law and the teachings is “so that you may live.”

How do you stay present in the world without fall into despair? You live in a way that brings about the flourishing of life and love. The whole point of the law, the whole spirit of the law, is to bring about life. We often think of the law, especially religious law, as an oppressive thing that kills any sense of joy. Even worse, if the law is meant to give life, what do we do with those laws in the Bible that call for death – for example, those laws that call for stoning people who break a law?

When I first studied these questions in graduate school, I discovered that our Jewish siblings have been asking these questions for thousands of years. Different rabbis, or teachers, came up with different answers. One prominent answer in Judaism is from an ancient rabbi named Ishmael. Rabbi Ishmael believed God was a God of life not, a god of death. So when Moses delivered laws that led to death, Ishmael believed that Moses wasn’t speaking for the God of life, but rather for himself. For Rabbi Ishmael, true wisdom was being able to discern between the ways of life that are from God and the ways of death that are from humans.[1]

Jesus was another ancient rabbi who also believed God was a God of life who had nothing to do with death, murder, or exclusion. For ancient rabbis like Jesus and Ishmael, death, murder, and exclusion didn’t come from God. As Jesus says in our New Testament passage today, they come from the human heart and proceed to create human tradition.

Sometimes we progressive Christians get accused of picking and choosing which Bible passages we like. Well, guess what! Jesus picked and chose which passages of the Bible he lived by. When he was asked to summarize the faith, he said that the law and the prophets hung on two commandments – Love God and love your neighbor.

For Jesus, and for Deuteronomy, your neighbor includes the stranger and the immigrant in your midst. Deuteronomy is almost obsessed with caring for the immigrant and stranger. It states, “For the Lord your God…loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger…” (Deut:10:18-19). It also says, “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land…” (24:14). And it claims, “You shall not deprive a resident alien…of justice” (24:17-18). Deuteronomy tells us that we may live if we love the stranger and immigrant in our midst.

Here’s our problem – we have politicians who want to feed us a diet of fear and scandal, which often leads us to despair. But yesterday at John McCain’s funeral, Barack Obama stated, “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

These phony controversies and manufactured outrage are the politics of fear and they are meant to keep the news cycle moving so we are distracted from what matters. And what matters? According to Deuteronomy and to Jesus caring for the immigrant and the poor among us is what matters. But we have a human tradition of racism in the United States and that racism is being channeled by the powers that be against our Latino and Latina siblings. The current administration is caught in the human tradition of death as it still has not reunited nearly 500 Latino children with their parents. And now the administration is going after US citizens who are of Latino descent who were born near the border, claiming their birth certificates are fraudulent.

To make this situation even more tragic, 80% of Evangelicals support these policies. The word evangelical means “Good News.” I’m here to tell you that these policies are not the Good News of Jesus Christ. They are traditions that lead to death and exclusion. Policies that separate children from parents and that marginalize immigrants go against everything Deuteronomy and Jesus believed in.

Our faith does not call us to participate in the ways of death and excluding others. No, our faith calls us to something bigger. Our faith tells us that God’s love is big enough for everyone. We are loved unconditionally. You are loved. And from that love, God invites us to love louder and bolder, knowing that we can never lose the love of God. Our faith calls us in small ways and sometimes in bigger ways to help make our families, neighborhoods, and our world a more just, merciful, and welcoming place. Make no mistake, as we stay present to this mission, many will try to distract us from it. But we cannot afford to be distracted. Nor can we afford to fall into despair. For God calls us on an exciting mission. God calls us with a purpose – to leave the doors of this church today empowered to love all the more so that we may live.

May we participate in that mission today and forevermore. Amen.

[1]See Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, Heavenly Torah.

Image: Pixaby, CCO Creative Commons.

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