Sermons in Brown Envelopes

I mentioned last week that the Vermont Conference annual meeting at the beginning of June was a success.

One of the successful things about it, from my perspective, was having the Rev. Robin Meyers as a keynote speaker. Meyers has been a clear theological voice over the past decade calling the church to go “underground.”

That’s a purposefully provocative image. What he means by it is too much to tell today — but the nutshell is fairly simple to grasp:

Jesus’s ministry called people to place their trust in God. His call was a return to ancient Jewish insights like “You were once a stranger in a strange land remember that you are God’s and the stranger is too.” Or, relevant to our reading today, “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Jesus challenged his hearers to put aside all idolatry — not just the idolatries listed in the writings, but everything that circumvented trust from God.

And for awhile that was the way the church functioned. But it wasn’t long before the church itself became the locus of trust and loyalty. It’s thinking was thinking designed to protect the institution and when that thinking was combined with the such things as popes and property, salaries and pensions, the church had become the very expression of idolatry it had meant to challenge.

An underground church challenges it’s own self image — reforming itself in the attempt to realign its patterns of trust. It is underground because breaking the old patterns creates disturbances with the old alliances. Meyers rues the fact that no one passes around sermons in plain, unmarked manilla envelopes — plain and unmarked so that the NSA won’t track them down. You and I know he doesn’t mean that literally . . . The very fact that this is a joke indicates the kind of challenge the church faces: We have colluded with the NSA. I use that word collude with some consideration.

The whole point of my sermon today is to talk about that collusion.

II. Naboth and the King

The main action here is not centered on Jezebel, despite our fascination with her. She’s a foil. It’s really about a farmer and a King. It’s about power — but the interesting thing is that it’s not just a story of the bald exercise of power — it’s a story about good intentions gone bad because of the usual collusion with power is thwarted. Naboth is supposed to trust in the power of the King — he’s good. He wants the best for Naboth.

We don’t know much about Naboth. He never appears again in the Old Testament after this rather unfortunate incident. For that reason alone we could consider him a commoner. But he’s also a farmer and he’s very naive. Everyone knows that you don’t refuse a king without going underground. Naboth is just a poor farmer with no sophistication and before the week is out, of course, he’s dead.

III. The Unsavory and Simon

In our New Testament story of Simon and the unsavory woman, who is, as usual, unnamed. the issue, similarly, is the issue of failure to collude with the centers of power.

In this case the woman, about whom we know, like Naboth, only enough to say that she’s not really welcome there, enters the house of an official in order to be with Jesus. There is some concern in the air about Jesus’ hanging out with unsavories. The prologue to today’s story makes it all clear — Jesus had been engaged in ministry that caused all kinds of people to take notice. Mostly they were concerned.

Anyway, in walks this uninvited outcast, and instead of blaming her, (an act of collusion with the powers that be) Jesus embraces her, and she him, in an act that anyone around the banquet table would have recognized as an act of devotion as to a god. The message is loud and clear — Simon’s well-prepared and planned out dinner, meant to put him on a pedestal in the eyes of his peers, is overturned by loyalty to God. Jesus and the woman display faith, not to the idols Simon well knows he himself should spurn, but to God. In doing so, they are upsetting the old alliances. They soon will have to go underground. The church will soon have to begin passing around sermons in unmarked envelopes.

In the prologue to this story, John the Baptist is one who does some of the asking about Jesus. John’s in prison. Which is where people who subvert these old alliances end up. And he wonders? Could it be possible? Could it be that the Son of God, the Messiah, the One Who Is To Come, could be an upstart too? Could it be that this messiah figure was going to be powerless too? It would be radical.

IV. The NSA and The Marketplace

Last week, after the leak about the NSA data collection program on all of us, President Obama complained about all of us who were making a stink over it. He said, trust us. If you can’t trust the executive branch and congressional oversight, and the federal judges then we’re in a bunch of trouble.”

I tend to agree with the rather mainstream Thomas Friedman, who wrote in an editorial last week noting that all the people who are making noise about this seem to have forgotten that we live in a different world. That they’re “behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.”

But I’m not sure the issue is about intrusion so much as it is about whom we trust. Trust in government for the last decade or so has been at an all time low.

But that low is not because we think the government is spying on us. We may think they’re inept or corrupt. But I think the real issue is that we don’t trust government in the way we trust the free market. By it’s very nature, as an institution designed to protect the rights and goods of all people, it should have some issues with people like Ahab who want, in the condemnatory words of the prophet Isaiah, “To join together land with land until there is no room left for the poor.”

Harvard Law professor, Yochai Benkler wrote in last week’s New Republic about this completely ignored aspect of the Snowden debate:

The technology companies named in the PRISM presentation have all denied cooperating with the program, or even knowing about it. What should we believe? We have two options. One is that the companies are telling the truth and that the U.S. government has for seven years hacked into the systems of some of the country’s biggest companies. The other option is that the U.S. government used a combination of secret court orders, promises of immunity, and appeals to patriotism to get technology companies to cooperate. Whichever interpretation you think more likely, there seems little doubt that the NSA program reveals a deep danger caused by the levels of private surveillance that our law permits.

My argument is that we will not trust the government until it begins to act like government. And even then, so deeply do we collude with those companies who have provided all of the information, I’m not sure that we have any choice but to go underground.

V. Conclusion

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who’d recently been on a missionary trip to El Salvador. She was uncomfortable about the way in which she and her group of privileged Americans acted — assuming positions of superiority among the natives, spending lots of money, talking loudly, etc.

This is a woman who’s heading underground because her deepest impulse is to be in dialogue with her fellow El Salvadorians. They are she, and she they. She has, in the language of James Baldwin — been taught well. She is examining her society and asking questions.

Talk about going underground is so difficult for us, I think, because it is so hard to imagine that conversation. The church, in fact, has been taught not to ask questions. We’ve been taught that conversation is pointless because revelation is King — because dialogue does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that God is in heaven.

When we collude with the king we “live.” But the question Jesus poses, if we let him, is whether that is the kind of life we really want. Jesus’ example is clear


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