Trust But Verify

My friend Susan, a priest at All Saints, says that she is never disillusioned by the church.  That’s because she has no illusions about the church.  Whatever else the church is, it’s a fallible human community like all others.  How often have I arrived at a new parish but to be accosted by all and sundry wanting to make sure I understood their side of the various conflicts that had been roiling that congregation.  Sometimes for years.

Archbishop William Temple used to say that the Church is the only institution that does not exist primarily for its own members.  The poor archbishop, I fear, had far too lofty a view of our frail humanity.  Church folks can be as self-centered as those of any other grouping.

When I was in college, I was a promoter of California’s new fair housing law, which so-called conservatives were wanting to repeal.

My then girlfriend’s parents owned several apartment buildings and definitely felt that they should not be forced to rent to “undesirables” – read Blacks or Mexican-Americans. 

When I would attempt to make the case that we should all be able to get along and live together – isn’t this what the gospel teaches?  I was told in no uncertain terms that that was religion, but apartments were about business.  Two different issues.  Needless to say, under that disagreement my then girlfriend and I soon parted company.  And these folks were good Methodists, regular church attenders. 

Unlike my friend Susan, I did have illusions about Christian community. 

As Mark Twain would quip, “It would be easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a little more redeemed.  He, in his day, discovered the same spiritual blindness of the Church when it came to the issue of slavery.

The prophet Ezekiel proclaims that he has been made a sentinel for the house of Israel, to warn the wicked from their ways.

“If I [the Lord] say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.  But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life…I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’”

The message is always, “Choose Life.  Choose Life.”

That, AND that we are our sister’s, our brother’s keeper.  We have a mutual stake in one another’s well-being.

This is a difficult proposition in our American hyper-individualistic culture.  The Gospel ethic cuts straight across that stance.  Hear Paul this morning: “Owe no one anything, EXCEPT to love one another.” 

It’s the same ethic as that of my favorite fictional L.A. detective character in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels when it comes to effort put forth to solve murders, “Everyone counts or no one counts.”

Matthew enjoins his readers to do all possible to retain a member, even in the heat of disagreement and bad behavior.

I know that I sometimes get taken advantage of because of being too trusting.  I assume that most are honest, upright actors.  But even in the church, especially in the church, so much is at stake, we do get crossways with one another on occasion.

In the days at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear Armageddon was a real possibility, our state department went apoplectic when it looked like Reagan and Gorbachev were on the threshold of banning all nukes.

They did not trust Reagan’s over-optimistic assessment of Gorbachev as an honest broker.  How could we possibly believe those “dirty, rotten Commie so-and-sos?” 

Reagan’s answer?  “Trust but verify.”

That’s the one thing he said that I believe carried weight.  And hope.  I confess, I was not a fan, considering how he eviscerated our mental health establishment in California.  But as I said, this response resonates as true. 

About eighty percent of folks will behave in ethical upright ways.  Another fifteen percent might be ethically squishy.  And maybe five percent or fewer are of a larcenous heart and will rob you blind.

A welcome respite and antidote to our hyper-partisan culture comes in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s book on the middle of our nation, The Overlooked Americans.[1]  To get an assessment of the country, the author interviewed hundreds of people – all sorts, from all parts of the nation and of all political stripes.

What she discovered is that we have much more in common than the pundits and radio shock-jocks would lead us to believe.  A key question the author asked of all interviewees was what democracy meant to them.

What she found was an affirmative answer to Rodney King’s tormented question, “Can we all get along?”  A definite “yes” was the overwhelming answer of almost all respondents.

As a whole, we citizens had a capacious and generous understanding of the national covenant that binds us together as a people.  Some of our answers:

“…everybody has a choice, everybody has a vote, everyone mattering” – this from a single mom in Appalachia.

“Where everyone gets a fair say with decision-making, to some extent…People should help make decisions for the country and to have the freedom to have free speech and practice any religion, without being persecuted” – a neurologist from Memphis. 

Despite differences in age and section of the country, most answers seemed similar.  Maybe we can all get along.  And where we have differences, “trust but verify.”  Cut each other a bit of slack.

It all takes a bit of tending.  In a discussion between Marilynne Robinson and President Obama, quoted by the author, Robinson remarked on our national experiment with self-rule: “[Democracy] was something that people collectively made and that they understood they held it together by valuing it.”  “We cannot take it for granted…It is a main thing that we remake continuously.”[2]  It is based on our valuing one another.

When going through some of my brother’s things, in his workshop – a very large space – I came across one huge safe.  Then another.  And yet another.  These things weighed hundreds of pounds and were almost six feet tall by four feet wide and two feet deep.  One after another until I counted at least six of them.  Two of which were still in their shipping containers.  He had a forklift to move them.

My friend wondered what was going on with his thinking.  The answer?  Paranoia.  Tom didn’t trust much of anybody.  The world was obviously out to rob him blind.  I offered to loan my friend my psych textbook on paranoia.  It explains everything we were seeing.

The Gospel answer?  Life’s too short to live in continual distrust of one’s fellows.  Bad for the heart also.

The ethic of the Jesus movement is that of a generous spirit.  Most of us, even in the church, will do the right thing.  Our differences?  “We can work it out,” to quote the Beatles.  “We can work it out.” 

The church is like a big family.  We are not just a random assortment of individuals who happened to stumble in off the street.  We belong to one another.  And that’s the reality I witness every Sunday here at St. Francis.

Yes, like any family we have our differences, but there’s no evil intent implied or expressed – like any family.

I can still remember our late controversy here at St. Francis over the Thanksgiving gravy.  On one hand we had the giblet’s faction and opposed was the giblets-free opinion.  In my mind’s eye I could envision schism over gravy of all things.  Giblets were essential.  Giblets were an atrocity.  Which would it be?  As my grandmother would often exclaim in disgust, “Oh, good gravy!”

The problem was solved by having two gravy selections.  You choose. Would that all church controversies could be worked out so amicably.  Maybe this solution comes under the category of WWJD.  Or at least, it’s as close as we could get.

As one of my favorite hymns puts it: “Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love:/The fellowship of kindred minds/Is like to that above.  We share each other’s woes,/Our mutual burdens bear,/And often for each other flows/The sympathizing tear…When we asunder part,/It gives us inward pain.”

This is indeed a journey where everyone counts, where everyone is precious in the Lord’s sight.  Let us continually pray for the grace to live out this vision.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Currid-Hacket, The Overlooked Americans: The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What that Means for Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2023).

[2] Op cit, 29-30.

September 10, 2023
15 Pentecost, Proper 18

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40;
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20 “Trust But Verify

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