From the Top of the World

On this Labor Day weekend my mind goes to backyard barbecues, fairs and the end of summer’s lazy days.  At one time, when summer was not the scorching ordeal it now is, the day of peak attendance at the L.A. County Fair was now.  Presently, thanks to global warming, the fair has to be held in spring.

I fondly remember the huge Ferris wheel, all lit up at night, riding up and up with my girlfriend.  At the top, we might as well have been at the top of the world.  Part of that was the romance of the moment, holding hands as we seemed so precariously seated in that slowly swaying seat.  So high up looking down at all the other amusement rides below.

And then the reality of school beginning the next day.  Ugh. 

Due to all our family turmoil, I was never very good at my classes.  My mind was always elsewhere.  Looking out the window at the other kids on the playground – waiting for the bell to ring for our turn at recess.

This year, as our nation has headed into this weekend of beach trips, hot dogs and a can of Budweiser, there’s an unease in the land. 

We just made it through primary elections with a number of political earthquakes.  On one side of the aisle, many election conspiracy nuts were elected to run in the general election with the goal of denying all votes and throwing their state’s choice of presidential electors to ultra-partisan state legislatures. 

But of course – it’s all rigged.  The voting machines are being hacked by Jewish space lasers or some such nonsense.  Millions of illegals are stuffing the dropboxes with fraudulent ballots.  Rigged, they tell you!

Yes, we’ve gone off the deep end of crazy in this political year.  Same as the last, only more vicious this time.  Poll workers, fearful of threats from MAGA gun nuts, are quitting in droves.  Who can blame them?

Some sixty percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  As inflated rents throw more and more onto the streets and the job market tightens as the Fed puts the squeeze on the economy, there is little joy in Mudville.   More people living on the streets.

The noted historian, Richard Hofstadter wrote of our tendency as Americans for political distrust in his seminal work, The Paranoid Style of American Politics.  He demonstrated how this strand of thought has been woven through our common life together over the many years.  Perhaps, present from the inception on the nation.  It is a mode of thought born of fear and resentment — I’m not making it — And someone’s to blame.

Our friend, Lynn, may think, “We’re all in this together.”  But the rest of us?  Not so much.

The scourge of fentanyl and other street drugs continues to ruin lives.  This past week our House of Hope team was to meet Sheriff Beaty with his two colleagues, the sheriff of Handcock County to the north of Brooke and the sheriff of Ohio county to the south.  We had our QRT program – that’s Quick Response Team — ready to present.

That afternoon we received a call from Sheriff Beaty’s assistant.  He would not be able to make it.  While he had been engaged in traffic control at Brooke High, sitting in his sheriff’s black pickup truck, a woman ran into him.  She hit him so hard that her car ended up in the bed of the pickup, her front bumper going through the cab window.

Our friend ended up with a fractured vertebra, a concussion, and was banged up a bit.  I had supposed the woman ended up either in the hospital or in the morgue.  No.  She was so loaded up with drugs, she was feeling no pain.  “She ended up in jail,” the sheriff later told us.  To only be in jail…she was one of the lucky ones.

Our reading from Deuteronomy today gives us a long-range view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A thirty-thousand-foot moral overview.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous.”[1]

This stark alternative is before us each day.  What, this day, will we choose to give our life and energies to?  What will receive our loyalty and the treasure of our date book and wallet?

The Psalmist, presents the same opposing choices, makes the same case.  Those who choose wisely “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.”

“It is not so with the wicked: they are like chaff which the wind blows away.”[2]

Another view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  Unfortunately, faced with the complexities of real, lived life, it’s not so simple.

Not so simple indeed.  We humans are a mixed bag, a seething mass of inconsistencies and proclivities.  The evil we hate, we so often end up doing, as St. Paul says of his own spiritual struggle.  Or as one of my friends said of their tumultuous marriage relationship, “It’s complicated.”

This last week we received from the coroner the autopsy results of the famed country music star, who, when she sang with her daughter Wynonna, they were an incredible duo, recording a number of hits.

Naomi Judd, for years had struggled with bipolar depression and PTSD…post-traumatic stress disorder.  At 76 the country music legend ended her life with a gun.  The autopsy, just released revealed numerous drugs in her system used to treat her various afflictions.

She, with Wynonna, had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the day after her death.  Her mental illness had finally won the long struggle which had consumed most of her life.

Choices set before each of us – but it’s so tragically complicated.

We Americans again have a critical choice set before us.  Will we go with the crazy, or will we choose a generous democracy that includes all.

It is no exaggeration to say that a whole lot is on the line in the next two elections coming up.  From the top of the political and civic Ferris wheel: DEMOCRACY itself is on the line.  The whole enchilada!

Will America become a theocracy where a small minority subjects the rest to the pinched dogma of Christian nationalism?

Will unlimited money have the final say in our political life?

Will gerrymandered districts so subvert the choices of the majority that any notion of Democracy will have become meaningless?

Will women lose the rights to their own bodies and souls to a group of misogynistic men arguing about “legitimate rape” and whether a ten-year-old must be forced to bear a rapist’s child?  A ten-year-old girl for God’s sake!

America, we must be in this for the long haul.  The thirty-thousand-foot view.  As with those of the Jesus Movement.

The “Cost of Discipleship” is a whole lot more than proper etiquette before the altar.  It is much more than fussing over which candles to light first or extinguish in what order.  More than even showing up once a week to hear a brilliant sermon, or even a mediocre one.

It’s about engaging the issues of the day, in our corporate or private lives with the values of the gospel.  It’s how this all plays out under the mandate to love God and neighbor – one and the same duty.  It’s about daily seizing the joy that is to be offered each day.  And passing it around.

Jai sometimes – okay, often – thinks my rhetoric is over the top.  But, for hyperbole and exaggeration, I can’t hold a candle to Jesus.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and other, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Hard words, indeed!

If I dare to paraphrase our Lord, what he is saying is that this discipleship thing is a life stance that places all relationships and priorities under a long-haul mandate.  “Love God and neighbor as self.”  Every relationship, yea, life itself is to be seen through that lens.

This is not a eat-your-spinach (or Brussel sprouts, or rutabaga) command.  It is the joyful summons into eternity.  Into a life of overflowing blessings and delight.  And struggle.

I don’t know if there is the possibility of political absolution, but I must confess that I was once in the tank for one Richard Nixon.  I, a Nixon campaign worker when he ran for governor!  Coming out of a very Republican household, that was the brand of politics served up each evening at dinner.

With the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, I began to question that allegiance.  In for the long haul, I realized that my politics must comport with the Gospel values taking deeper root in my life.

For the long haul, I in fact abandoned the other party when it sold its soul for a fruitless and inhumane war in Southeast Asia.  The lies, the subterfuge – it was all to the destruction of what I had come to affirm.  Leaving was the cost of discipleship at that moment.  I ended up being a delegate to the California convention of the Peace and Freedom party.

Cause for great disappointment!  It took three or four hours for the gathering just to come to agreement on who might chair this assembly for the next three days.  Every cause imaginable was vying for attention.  Shouting over each other.  From the “Free Huey Newton” people to the animal rights folks – no one was listening.  All shouting over each other.

I remember our distraught pastor’s wife through flowing tears, commenting as several from our local Peace and Freedom club crossed the parking lot after the first day, “If this is our only hope, God help us.  God help us all.”  I was pretty bummed out as well.

No, I needed a politics for the view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A political perspective for the long haul, not the ephemeral cause of the day.

What Jesus seems to be counseling here is revolutionary patience in the cause for Gospel Solidarity.  Count the costs, this journey will take everything you are – it’s not an add-on — but the results will be beyond your imagining.  Guaranteed!

As we try to walk our faithful discipleship journey at St. Francis, it is Gospel Joy to my heart that Joseph is nudging us towards a program of tutoring for neighborhood kids.  Truly, whatever is done for children, from the thirty-thousand-foot view, is never wasted.

Taking up our cross, in this place, for this effort, means setting aide our inertia and calling friends to recruit tutors.  Pestering, if necessary.  It means finding some to run the recreation program so contained young people don’t riot or fall asleep.  It means help for preparing healthy snacks.  This may be your summons to a deeper engagement with the Jesus Movement in our place and time.  Listen to the whispers of the Spirit.  She can be trusted.

To close, this from my favorite author, Wendell Berry: “Love is what carries you, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”  Amen

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15 ff., New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Psalm 1, NRSV.

September 4, 2022, 13 Pentecost, Proper 18
Labor Day Weekend

“From the Top of the World”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33

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