September 2019

Spin Control

Jeremiah 18:1-12
© Stacey Steck

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard one or more of the following statements:
I was just following orders.
My subordinates must have done this without my knowledge.
My opponent is just using this small misunderstanding for political purposes.
It’s not about the money.
I’m just glad to be able to help the team.
Even though my opponent won more votes, our second place finish shows momentum is building for our platform
We will find the person responsible.
This is an isolated incident.
The woman gave it to me to eat.
The serpent tricked me and I ate it.

Spin, the mostly political, but also personal, practice of making the best of a bad public relations situation, is like putting makeup on a monkey; it has mostly to do with denial, or at least plausible deniability. The monkey will always be ugly no matter how many people you get to say otherwise. Put more academically, the purpose of spin is “to forestall negative publicity by publicizing a favorable interpretation of the words or actions of a company or political party or famous person.” You may remember Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a classic tale of an elaborate spin finally undone by the wonderful naivete of a child. In that story an entire town was in denial while the Emperor paraded before its citizenry in nothing but his birthday suit, all of them worried about being uncovered as “stupid or incompetent,” the persistent theme of that particular spin job.

Denial is a fairly natural human tendency. It is hard being honest all the time, because being honest means owning up to, and confronting, our failures or shortcomings, or put in more theological language, our sin. Leaving aside those people whose wearing of their honesty on their sleeves is its own form of denial, I think most of us hope that no one discovers our misdeeds, and that if they do, that we can come through it relatively unscathed. And so we outright lie, or we shade the truth, or we shift the blame, or any number of other methods of spinning the discovering of our sin so that we don’t have to go to jail, or forfeit privilege, or lose face, or, heaven forbid, actually repent and apologize. The kind of ignorance gained by denial is truly bliss, if only for a short time, for as we are told in the Epistle of First John, “If we say that we are without sin, the truth is not in us and we deceive only ourselves,” and sooner or later our denial catches up with us.

The people of Jeremiah’s time, or more specifically, the leaders of the people in Jeremiah’s time, were in a serious state of denial. For them, there was nothing wrong that more politics, or more spin, or a bigger army couldn’t fix. If there was a problem, it was that Jeremiah guy running around condemning them all the time, reminding them that “Thus says the Lord,” followed by a list of all the ways they were forgetting what God had done for them, or ignoring the Sabbath, or neglecting the poor, or chasing after gods who were no gods at all. They were simply unable, or unwilling, to accept the fact that they had strayed so far from the covenant God had made with their ancestors that God needed to send prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel to tell them to shape up. And so they try to spin God’s own words by dismissing Jeremiah as a crackpot who didn’t even know the history of the faithfulness of the very God he claimed to represent; after all, their God would never forsake them no matter what. Ah, “If we say that we are without sin, the truth is not in us and we deceive only ourselves.”

The depth of this denial, this self-deception, was so deep that in this eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah we see God as close to despair as God can be, so close that we learn of our God, the Creator of the Universe, the maker of covenants, actually “shaping evil” against them, “devising a plan” against the very people chosen to be a light unto the nations, which is to say, to make God known everywhere. God is ready to destroy the hope of the world, to throw it down like a piece of stubborn, unyielding clay and to start over again. Not since the flood of Noah had God been this close to wiping the slate clean. And so Jeremiah is sent with the message, “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” And what is the response? “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” Listen to that! “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” And even though this last statement does sound more like someone’s summary of what was actually said, rather than a direct quote, the spin is, for once, more accurate than the truth, for that is how we tend to behave.

As we have observed, we human beings are masters of one kind of spin, but the good news of the Gospel is that God is master of another, the spinning of that potter’s wheel, the shaping of history and lives and meaning and beauty. God is the spinner of purpose and intention, power and invention. We spin our mistakes. God spins planets. We shift blame. God shifts the stars. We are into plausible deniability. God is about implausible generosity. The biggest difference between us though, is that when God spins, people win and when people spin, people lose. You see, what God is spinning on the potter’s wheel is the fulfilment of the promises of creation: peace with God, shalom with one another, the absence of shame and guilt, all things we – in our daily efforts at spin control to try to save ourselves from the consequences we deserve – all things we are working against, just as they were in Jeremiah’s time.

The spinning God does on the potter’s wheel Jeremiah was sent to see had a purpose, a purpose bigger certainly than Jeremiah’s opponents could discern. It was beyond their imagination, or at least beyond their collective, long-term memory, that God’s purpose was for the whole world, not just for them, even though they had been chosen especially for that purpose, that through their faithfulness, they might lead the other nations into the same type of covenant relationship Israel enjoyed with God. It wasn’t just that God was peeved with disobedient children. And so if, like clay that simply won’t conform to the shape the potter intends, Israel refuses to live in such a way that truly demonstrates the glory and love of God, can we begrudge God the option of trying again with a more pliable people? Is not the purpose of God larger than the petty doings of a pathetic people? Were not others waiting to experience the blessing Israel had chosen to snub?

The visual metaphor of the potter and the clay is not hard to understand. God’s people were like a pot that just wasn’t turning out right, a pot the potter decided needed to be started again from scratch. What may be harder for us to understand is what is at stake in God’s relationship with the world, and just how important God has made us to be, first as the nation of Israel, and now as the church of Jesus Christ, and just how important it is that we allow God to be the Spin Doctor rather than us. You see, in the midst of this passage is the wonderful message that God has not only chosen us a partners in fulfilling the purpose, but that God doesn’t simply give up on us when we fail, but gives us the chance to return and be that light to the world. “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

Getting out of the habit of applying spin control to our mistakes is no easy task, especially when we live in an environment in which spin is clearly more valuable than truth. But we can begin by learning to place our trust in God’s ability to spin rather than our own. This is what Jeremiah had to do. He was one man against a whole people, one lone voice of truth against a machine of spin. And though the prophet’s life was no picnic, God did indeed provide for Jeremiah, saving him repeatedly from those who sought to end his life. For us, it is not so much a matter of remaining true to delivering God’s pronouncements to intransigent governments as it is of demonstrating daily the power of humility and trust in God that comes with honestly confessing our errors and seeking the forgiveness of those we’ve hurt or wronged. If politicians have earned our mistrust, it is more their application of spin to an already bad situation than the misdeed itself that raises our ire. How much more time might we have for the shalom God desires for us, were we simply to say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and leave behind the work and worry of trying to convince people of something they will probably never fully believe anyway?

As we learn in this passage from Jeremiah, that’s all God wants: for us to turn from our evil ways and amend our ways and doings. And when we do that, we have more power than we could ever imagine, for we are the instruments of God’s purpose to bring all the nations streaming towards the shalom that God has in mind for all of us. It was for this reason that God contemplated, and even completed, the destruction of Jerusalem, so that its citizens might not thwart God’s purposes but fulfill them. Knocked down a few pegs by the Babylonian invasion of their city and by spending generations in a foreign land, God’s people came back stronger than ever, a pot on the potter’s wheel that came a lot closer to being what God wanted it to be. But I have to believe that God would rather have avoided all those generations spent, indeed wasted, in captivity, just as God would rather avoid them in each of our lives, the lost moments and even years of spin we will never get back, when all we need to do is repent.

For some weeks now, as a congregational response not only to the benediction but more importantly to the grace we have experienced in worship, we have been singing a hymn called “Spirit of the Living God,” the lyrics of which include “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” As we heard, the congregational response to Jeremiah’s benediction, and more importantly, the grace contained in God’s call for repentance, was somewhat different: “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” I think it is safe to assume that to God’s ears, “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me,” is preferable to “we will follow our own plans.’ May each of us seek a path of humility that relies on God’s abilities to spin, rather than our own. Amen.

The Divine Pecking Order

Luke 14:1, 7-14
© Stacey Steck

It’s a good thing for me that you are not beholden to the finer points of the Old Testament Law, because if you were, I’d be unfit to serve as your pastor. You may not know what is the favorite Biblical passage of a majority of teenaged boys participating in Confirmation classes all across this land, but I do: It is Leviticus 21:18-20. “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease, or scabs, or crushed testicles.” Fourteen year olds love to huddle together around their Bibles, reading passages like this and looking for others like them, in part because they can suddenly say out loud in church certain kinds of words which will get them into trouble when uttered almost anywhere outside of their health education class.

If the truth be told, I think they look for these kinds of passages for two additional, and interrelated, reasons. The first is to do what teenagers seem to be experts at doing, that is, to create an “in group” and an “out group,” to reinforce their ideas that there is a “cool” group and a “loser” group, obvious physical differences being a key defining feature of those in the latter category of “loser.” But the other reason they do it, I think, is actually to see whether they themselves measure up, to see if they have any kind of physical attribute which would disqualify them from the social acceptability they crave. Generally, this is safe reading because the lists read are not full of traits widely characteristic of teenaged boys, and because that age group is not generally given to the kind of reflection which might extend the idea of these prohibitions to less obvious physical differences, or to use the Biblical word, to the “blemishes” of our emotional or psychic lives. If they did reflect a little more deeply, they might realize that there is no one without some kind of “blemish,” something which prevents them from being perfect, and which therefore disqualifies them from being God. But as we know, most teenaged boys think themselves invulnerable and invincible, God-like characteristics if ever there were some.

You are by now probably wondering which of my legs is longer, or whether I have scabs you just can’t see, as I began by observing that in some circles I could be seen as unfit for religious duty. It is true that my right calf is slightly larger around than my left calf, but the real reason I probably would have been disqualified in days of old is because I am afflicted with what are generically call “tics,” involuntary muscle contractions that typically manifest themselves in arms, legs, and sometimes face. For those of you who are familiar with Tourette’s syndrome, tics are a very mild cousin of that more famous affliction. When I was a scrawny fifth-grader, my tics presented themselves most acutely in my face and were therefore easily observable, and mimicable and useful for separating the “cool” group from the “loser” group. Although it was not an easy time in my life, it was a useful one for it opened my eyes at perhaps a younger age than my peers to the fact that each of us has something which marks us as physically imperfect (as if there really were such a thing as the “perfect” human being). Some people have birthmarks, others need glasses, others have a curvature of the spine, or allergies, or dyslexia. The truth behind all the taunting that I received for my obvious difference, was the denial, or at least a silence and a hiding, of the ways in which each of my tormentors was also less than perfect.

What my peers were trying to create, of course, was a playground pecking order. Perhaps there are some here for whom the term “pecking order” may be unfamiliar, and if so, let me remind you that it refers to the internal social dynamics of flocks of chickens and other domesticated birds to determine a ranking of importance and benefits. Chickens “peck” one another with their beaks as a means of dominance and so the term pecking order has been applied to describe who pecks and who gets pecked. There is a top chicken and a bottom chicken and lots of chickens in between and the higher up you are, the more you do the pecking, and the less you get pecked. If you’ve ever been pecked by a chicken, or worse, by a goose (which can break your arm), you know it is not a pleasant experience and thus it behooves lower ranked chickens to try to move up in the pecking order, although at the expense of other chickens. A playground pecking order, such as school children seek to establish on the basis of such things as physical differences, involves the same dynamics, but of course does not stop after elementary school and exists in almost every area of society, including religion, a fact not lost on Jesus while he is dining at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, a group of people for whom the idea of the pecking order had been raised to a fine art. The party situation Jesus describes about the honor involved in being seated closest to the host was one such manifestation of a first century religious pecking order. The pecking would have been in the form of making sure the people below you knew they were beneath you and why, not only during the party, but also before and after. The high society page of the local newspaper is not a new invention, and it was as true then as it is now that it is not what you know but whom you know that matters.

There are at least two things noteworthy about Jesus’ observation of the pecking order of his time. The first is that it doesn’t stop with the upper echelon of the pecking order, the upper crust, so to speak. He goes on to address those who were so far down the scale that they weren’t even invited to the party in the first place, the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” These folks didn’t even have the chance to exhibit the lack of humility Jesus critiques in the others! They wouldn’t have gotten through the door, much less to the table, and then to a position at the table higher than they ought to have been. Jesus is talking about people so far outside the thinking of the upper crust that they may as well not even have existed, and for that reason barely existed at all, living in streets and alleyways and tombs, begging and scrounging for food, waiting to crawl into pools of healing water but having no one to help them. But make no mistake. These people too are part of a pecking order, like the ones found in prisons and homeless shelters. But that does not disqualify them from places of honor at the table. The Gospels are full of descriptions of such people, and how Jesus not only noticed them, but invited them to his own party, not at the position farthest from the host, but at the positions of honor nearest him.

The other noteworthy feature of Jesus’ critique of the prevailing pecking order has to do with the ideas of value and reward which are just as much a part of your average social hierarchy as knowing where you stand. In essence, Jesus says to his host, “do not invite those who will be of value to you,” those who will help you maintain or enhance your place in the pecking order, but rather those who seem to offer you no value at all. “You will be blessed,” he says, precisely “because they cannot repay you,” You see, the problem with pecking orders is not the intrinsic idea of social organization. People will always organize themselves; all of nature is organized and God organized it. The important question about pecking orders is how they are constructed and how they are maintained. Organizational structures become a problem when they are driven by things like the value which can be extracted from the people who comprise them. People are not commodities with value you can place on them or natural resources that can be mined or exploited, at least not in the Bible I read. You will not be surprised to hear that the pursuit of value, whether economic or emotional, is not the highest virtue in the Gospels and in fact, probably falls somewhere down the list close to greed and gluttony. The fact that we have a choice in how we construct our pecking orders was, however, a surprising idea for those who had invited Jesus to their party.

At first glance, it would seem then that Jesus is laying out a divine pecking order that places the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind closer to the host than the Pharisees. Jesus is frequently turning societal notions of things like honor and shame, master and slave, clean and unclean on their heads and this sounds a lot like that. But to say here that Jesus is simply replacing those at the top with a different set of characters seems to miss the point of the party. Remember that the punchline is one of blessing: “you will be blessed…repaid at the day of the resurrection of the righteous.” And if the guy Jesus is talking to, the one who invited him to the party in the first place, if that one guy is blessed by associating with those previously at the bottom of the pecking order, how much greater the blessing for everyone, for all who attend the party together no matter where they stand in somebody’s pecking order! If Jesus has turned a notion on its head, it would seem to be the one that suggests that there is really any difference between any of us that should cause us to try to create a social hierarchy that would value one person over another. The key feature of the divine pecking order is that there is no pecking at all because there is nothing to be gained from it, and everything to be lost. You see, the only value that matters is the value that God places on us, a value worthless in the currency of our daily pecking orders. Hidden behind the carefully cultivated facade of the daily pecking order is the truth is that each of us is in the same barrel of imperfection, each of us “blemished” in one form or another, each of us bearing wounds and scars, sins and shortcomings, social and spiritual disqualifiers for communion with God except for the grace of that same God. You see, there is not one of us who is not counted among the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Your poverty or your lameness or your blindness may not be exactly the same as mine, but it exists nonetheless whether you want to accept it or not. When Jesus tells the man to invite the usually uninvited characters to the party, it is not merely a piece of good advice, or a way to make his point. No, he is describing what God has already done for us in Christ, and calling us to go and do likewise. Like those in the story once excluded but now invited, we cannot repay our host, for love and grace are truly invaluable, but we can make sure that where we have a choice, we demonstrate the divine pecking order rather than the daily one, by being hosts whose hearts, hands, and voices throw one heck of a good party for everyone.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is one such party, even if the church is a provisional host, a physical, though not spiritual, stand-in for Christ himself. As we approach the table this morning, let us remember that we come through no intrinsic value of our own but only that which God has imparted to us, that even though we come as flawed and wounded people in mind, body, and spirit, none of that matters to God. Let us realize that we have been invited through the grace of God, not because we have been such great hosts ourselves. And as we come, let us rejoice that we need not peck at one another to get our share of this bread and this cup, that no one deserves it any more or less than any of the rest of us, for God gives freely in the divine pecking order of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.