A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The election is over.  Some may be gnashing their teeth.  Some may be rejoicing.  Whatever your political persuasion, it’s been a most frightful season.  Is it possible that we can ever put America back together again?

I’m reminded of one of our boys’ favorite books.  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.[1]  Alexander knew it was going to be a terrible day when he woke up with his chewing gum in his hair.  His best friend abandoned him.  On top of that, his mom had forgotten to put dessert in with his lunch and, One disaster after another.  Alexander knew partway through, it was going to be a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”  And it didn’t get any better that evening.  Yuck!  There was kissing on TV.  Alexander threatens to move to Australia, but nobody is listening.  Australia is his favorite go-to place to escape to when the world is against him.  I, myself, always consider France.  They eat very well there.

As his day comes to an end, Judith Viorst concludes this sad saga:

“The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me.
It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

My mom says some days are like that.  Even in Australia.”

Much of Alexander’s terrible day is the scrapes and knocks a young boy goes through, especially the youngest of several siblings.  Stuff happens, and when it does our immature reaction so often makes it worse.

Amos paints the picture of really bad stuff the self-satisfied, religious elite will endure.  These are they who consider themselves most favored in the eyes of the Almighty, yet do not abide by the will of God when it comes to the poor and the socially marginal.  The religious phonies will indeed endure some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, Amos predicts.

Through Amos’s thunderous excoriation, God breaks through smug self-delusion:

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

     Why do you want the day of the Lord?

It is darkness, not light;

     As if someone fled from a lion,

     And was met by a bear;

Or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,

     And was bitten by a snake.”

And why all this grief for the favored and chosen?  It is because the institutions of religion, divorced from the substance of mercy and honesty are nothing.  It all rings hollow as pretense.

“I hate, I despise your festivals,

     And take no delight in your solemn assemblies……

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

     I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

I come from the tribe of beautiful, stately worship.  Incense and fine vestments.  We have wonderful tracker organs and magnificent, chanting choirs.  We worship in stately buildings.  So why is God not pleased.

It is because too often, it’s only a Sunday morning show.  And not just my tribe.  When church becomes entertainment divorced from the needs of the “least of these,” it’s plastic, ersatz grace.  Such self-congratulatory religious exercises are an offense to the One of the Holy Torah who commanded justice and equity in the land, the One who reminded the faithful settled in the land that at one time they were all foreigners, strangers.  We are that caravan of dispossessed children at our southern border, though we don’t know it — though we dwell in fine houses and live fat on the land in splendid isolation from their desperation.

God, through Amos, promises the religiously smug a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  Many such days, for they are without vision or discernment  Yeah, we’re all there sometimes.

And such will be the case for the nation that does not abide by the very same standards of loving kindness and righteousness. (Remember the Hebrew word – tsaddik – that which we translate “righteousness,” should best be translated as solidarity —  as one who is in SOLIDARITY with one’s fellows.  It refers to a complete human being, one whose life carries the weight of doing what is right and just in the eyes of both God and all humanity.  It does NOT denote a pious goody-two-shoes demeanor.  It carries the full intent of the command to love the “Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

America, I believe, enfolds that commandment in our foundational documents.  We know the watch-words: “Liberty and justice for all.”  A “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  These intentions are the bedrock of who we are.  Or who we wish to be.  They are aspirational, not reality.

Unfortunately, we do not even come close to living up to that standards.  For much of our history, our solemn national occasions have rung hollow.  As Frederick Douglass, out of slavery in the 1800s, confronted the self-satisfied white establishment: “What is your Fourth of July to Me” is a speech Douglass was invited to give at a gathering of the well-to-do on the occasion of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of to the Independence in Rochester, New York, July 5th, 1852.

He gave this speech as one left out of the fine promises assumed for others.  This is an address which echoes Amos’s denunciations of the elites of his day, the piously indifferent.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Woe to that nation which does not live up to the simple standards of decency and fairness for ALL its citizens. 

We have been through one of the most contentious elections since that of Jefferson and that of Lincoln.  We are now at the politics of grievance and tribe.  Personalities and program matter not a wit.  The only determinant is, does the candidate have a “D” or a “R” following their name.

Too many throughout the land feel excluded from the high and lofty promises of our founders, whether they be a floor worker in a factory in the Midwest or a grocery checker in downtown East Los Angeles.  They resent those who abuse their authority whether as police or as a city planning clerk.

They have had it with an economy that has loaded them up with massive student debt or cheated them in a house mortgage with fine print only a well- trained lawyer could understand.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt, we, our loved ones and neighbors are dying like flies.  The incompetence of our government in managing this disease staggers the mind.

Like those whom Amos addresses, like those to whom Frederick Douglas, James Madison, Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony spoke, we have fallen far short.  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy upon us.

What is the fine rhetoric or our anthem, its lofty vision — to the dejected family sitting at curbside with their worldly belongings piled up as trash?  What is the vision to the mother and father with no food in the cupboard?  What are the promises of this nation to that black family mourning the death of a son beaten by police at a traffic stop?  What mean these promises to a mentally ill homeless person living on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles?

We Americans on the conclusion of the election of 2020, find ourselves at each other’s throats.   We vilify those we judge to be responsible.  We seethe with anger and boil over with plots of conspiracy. 

Someone has to be responsible for this pitiful state of affairs.  Are we at the dead end of Sartre’s play, “No Exit”?  Are we doomed to a Hobbesian war of “all against all?”

LISTEN UP!  Amos does have a saving word, a restorative word.  Those with ears to hear, let them hear:

“But let justice roll down like waters,

    And righteousness (solidarity) like an ever-flowing stream.”

The cure is simple.  This truth is not so far away, so high that we need send someone afar to bring it to us.  It is right here, planted in the heart and mind of each of us.

We know what must be done.  We need only take a deep breath, accept the reality of our condition and allow the Divine Wisdom to flow through us.  We know how to treat neighbor as self.  This truth is not hidden or so obscure that only the smartest can discern it.  We know that when one suffers, all suffer — all are diminished.  We know this.  We learned it in Sunday School, in kindergarten.  We learned it at a parent’s knee.

As the South African saying goes, “I cannot be who I am meant to be unless you are who you are meant to be.”  That’s the principle of “Ubuntu.”  Call it “solidarity.”  We all rise together.

Let justice roll down like waters and solidarity like an ever-flowing stream.

What will get us there?  Listening, to start. 

As Joe and Kamala become our next president and vice-president, I would suggest the first order of business for them would be to pack suitcases, board the bus, and embark on a national “Listening Tour.”  Get out into our cities and suburbs, into our prairies and the foothills of Stone Mountain.  Talk with those who make the “amber waves of grain” happen.  Speak to workers on shop floors and students in the classrooms of our nation.  Simply listen.  Not just to the words but to the sentiments.  To the aspirations.  And ask that toughest question: “What are you willing to do to make it better?”  Of each of us — What am I willing to do?  What are you willing to do?  Today, we might have to do it all by Zoom instead of on the road.

If American does climb aboard, this train is bound for glory.  The glory of a reborn people fully alive.  Indeed, the glory of God!

At the end of it all, I want to be accounted among the tzaddikim — The Righteous.  I want to be numbered as among those abiding in Divine Solidarity with all the others.  Don’t you?  What greater hope?

What are we willing to do to become grounded in the reality of global warming, to become grounded in our national plight of poverty and homelessness, mental illness, addiction? 

Where might we make a difference for a child in a crap school deprived of the necessary resources and good teachers?  Are we willing to share and demand fairness in our tax codes that we overcome present economic realities – where just thirty some families have as many marbles as one half the nation? 

America, “I set before you the ways of life and death.  Choose life that you and your descendants may live.”  That you may enjoy the bounty of this land.

Are we, in the face of this pestilence, willing to do our part — to wear masks and social distance?  Yes, it’s a pain.  So was Valley Forge and the Edmund Pettis Bridge march.  So were the beaches of Normandy and the killing fields of Vietnam.  So is slogging through a chemistry textbook and learning all those Latin names in a zoology class.  A total pain.  Citizenship is hard, requires effort.  Every single day.

Matthew reminds us that the reality of this holy vision is like unto an approaching bridegroom to the wedding feast.  Our sole responsibility is to be ready to celebrate the feast.  We are simply asked to rejoice in the happiness of the couple soon to be united as one. 

We are summoned to embrace opportunity before us, lying fallow in fields of despair and anger.  We but must ready hearts to greet it, like an approaching bridegroom.  Like a bride anticipated at the altar as she approaches down the center aisle.  Christ only enters the open door of the heart and mind.  Love does not force.

Look at the promise, as the feast is ready and the band strikes up the beat.

“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul.  I want to get lost in your rock-n-roll and drift away, drift away.”  Drift away into the delicious imagination of God’s glorious possibility.  Set before us.  Always approaching, never quite arriving. 

Such a nation will flourish.  Such a people so grounded are like a mighty tree planted by a living stream.  Such a people will flourish and be a blessing to the nations.  Such a nation will do its part.

Let our God’s honest truth and mercy flow through us.  Today, tomorrow – we need it more than ever.  

Yes, there are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.  Even in Australia.  Even in America.  Sometimes an adder hidden on the wall.

But we are not left as orphans with no hope.  Let God’s ever Loving-Kindness, God’s Justice, God’s Truth, God’s Liberty – a vision already implanted in our very being — flow through us.  Amen.

[1] Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1987).

November 8, 2020, Pentecost 23

Proper 27

“A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18;
Matthew 25:1-13

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