It is good to be back with you. It is good to have something of a voice back. I noticed the day after The HighPatheticals party that a lot of you needed the support of the pew in front of you to sit and stand. You had some after effects! I had after effects too. But they were unrelated to the concert. I developed an illness that severely affected my throat, voice, chest and diaphragm. And so Pastor Liebster served as my voice last week. With vacation theretofore for several weeks, Pastor Brookover stepped up as well as Pastor Liebster. I thank them and Pastor Stouter also for helping with Contemplative Worship.
The malady that had me down for much longer than I experienced before started small. It was insidious. It was first just an internal itch in my throat that was easy to ignore. That’s the way it is about a lot of bad things in daily life. We ignore them. We deny them. We turn our eyes away from them, thinking that this too will pass. It is not too long before an evil that began quietly and was seemingly non-threatening morphs into something awful and beyond our control. Even then our denial systems are so practiced that we think we can steel ourselves against it or, worse, normalize it, again just thinking that this will pass.
We forget that evil is never dramatic at its start, as Hannah Arendt so insightfully wrote after the demise of the Third Reich. Evil begins with the banal. It softly and then loudly and incessantly claims itself as normal. By the time evil is loud and its secret no longer kept, we too often find ourselves in its thrall, kept from speaking out because of our own unintended complicity or our outright fear of its power now over us. That always happens when evil grows among those who are not paying attention. And it always happens with those who are kept from paying attention, especially by autocratic powers that insist on a culture of obedience and secretiveness to maintain their appearance of purity, to maintain the evidential good of the institution they believe they serve, to maintain their power.
My meta-description here is about how sin becomes egregious evil on an individual and social-institutional basis. Of course, this description always applies to any number of current affairs that are regrettably far from fake news. But I am speaking particularly about the evil again exposed this week in the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, with the revelation that over a thousand abuse cases in one state were covered up for decades, we see not only that the priest predators were protected and the victims ignored. We see again that a large organization put its reputation and income stream above the spiritual and physical interests of the victims it was by its holy charter obliged to protect. Christ’s command to let the children come to him was about being a sacred and safe place now and eternally for the innocent. It is true that this evil within the Roman Catholic Church is no different from so much that has happened in evangelical and mainline churches, and not so different from other insular cultures wherein dark secrets are held at all costs. The power exercised to keep secrets and superiors in position is not so different whether it is exercised with sacred vows or non-disclosure agreements. But in the case of the church, a truly sacred trust was broken with all of us human beings who as such need people of integrity, whose word meshes with their own souls, so to care for our souls. “How can we pray when we feel betrayed; when our hope is robbed by those meant to inspire?” (Zack Stachowski).
I could comment at length about why this has happened and happens still, about the psycho-social dynamics in candidacy processes for Catholic priests and Protestant pastors. That is for another time perhaps. Much must be done structurally and theologically to redeem the human side of the church. Lots of resignations of those in authority would be a good start. And much more privilege of lay voice and leadership. It is also helpful to remember that when clergy do go wrong, the word of God itself is still effective. The power of God’s holy body and blood is not dependent upon my moral character, as the 7th century dogma against Donatism states. But I am sacred duty bound with your and God’s help to attend to my spiritual and moral character nevertheless so that none are scandalized and turn to unfaith.
What we must lay claim to again and again and again is honest confession of individual and communal sin. The very fact that we say we believe in a merciful Lord is negated by the secrets we keep and systemically protect. We fear confession because it means we give up control and we do not trust that the consequences will be healing. But confession is met with divine grace. And divine grace does nurture the maturity and wisdom Paul calls for in the Ephesians text today. “Be careful then how you live; make the most of the time, because the days otherwise are evil!” Take the words of Jesus so seriously that you will not take them literally. By prayer and sacrament enjoy Christ as your own life-giving power in every moment. Not to internalize Christ, to suppose he’s just an external accessory, to act as if he can be set aside for self-interests at any moment is to be a slave to your impulses and is to render speech about God as mere gossip.
Of course, no one is without sin. No one can claim no need for repentance. To be realistic about that, and thus to turn to God for our vocation and life’s justification is the best freedom available to us! That is the life into which we commend sweet Agnes by Holy Baptism this morning. That is the life we claim each time we “remember our baptism.” The life of freedom, which is to practice the discipline of growing in and enjoying God (!), is when all our talents are marshalled into praising God and celebrating our creaturehood as carriers of God’s image. It is the life of service for which we gave thanks this week in the example of Kofi Annan. It is the kind of life that the great, the vast majority, almost 100%, of priests and pastors I know that is marked by passion and discipline of compassion and wisdom in the care of souls. It is the confident enfleshment of divine spirit. It is the kind of life that in the end, yes, garners R-E-S-P-E-C-T, when spiritual wisdom can tell the Blues Brothers you’d better “THINK,” when freedom feels like a ride in a Pink Cadillac, when such a one as Aretha Franklin showed in her way what a priest-pastor-authentic-and-free-human-being can be. And so we are thankful for her. We are thankful for all whose lives show that God’s promises are valid. We are still thankful that the Church, for all its dire need of a makeover inside and out, still is God’s promised place for healing. And that is our deepest commitment here; to be a healing place; we, with Aretha and all the saints, God’s hands and voices here.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX August 19, 2018