Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Feel of Freedom

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 05.26.2016

Scripture Lessons: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Motorcycling is freedom.

I’ve always thought of it that way, always embraced that deep liberation that comes from being unencumbered by several tons of metal wrapped all around me as I move around doing the things I’m meant to do.

This last week was the motorcyclingest week of my life, as the Big Tan Motor Chicken and I racked up over a thousand miles of summer riding.  You are free to ignore your phone, to shut down the endless churn of our compulsive interconnectedness and just be.  At the brisk highway pace that’s a thousand cubic centimeter bike’s happy place, you can’t even glance at that text or that email notification.  You are, instead, where you are.  

I’m also not a herd rider.  I see them rumbling by, the loners and the rebels, in their groups of three or five or fifteen, rugged individualists who’ve somehow managed to coordinate their outfits almost as closely as a JV Poms Squad.  It’s cool in its own way, like the column of bikers who thundered through town to celebrate veterans yesterday, but it’s just not for me.  Riding in a big group requires planning and designating leaders and creating route maps.  Next thing you know there are committees involved, rules and regulations and the like, and as I suffer from Post-Presbytery Committee Anxiety Disorder, I try to do as little of that as possible.  I ride to be free.

And yet it’s a freedom that brings with it connection, even if you’re riding alone.  It connects you to the reality of what you’re doing, as you have to set your pace from the reality of being physically present in the world.  It makes demands.  You feel the temperature gradients that come as you move towards a glowering, dark-sky storm. It’s the freedom to be sweaty when it’s hot, to be slightly numb when it’s cold.

It’s helpful to remember that sometimes freedom can be complicated.  

It always bears with it other dynamics, and we are never truly disconnected. When I was a kid, I can recall chafing at the limitations of childhood. I couldn’t go where I wanted, or do what I wanted. Why can’t a five year old drive? Why can’t an eight year old go hang-gliding? Why can’t a twelve year old ride a moped? I should be allowed to do these things! Aren’t I a person? Aren’t I...and here every child inserts a dramatic pause while looking nobly into the American? Didn’t God make me free? I yearned for that day when I would be a grownup, because as we all know, grownups can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

Man, did that theory not pan out. Because growing up doesn’t quite work that way. You reach adulthood as a fully fledged, honest-to-God, bonafide citizen of the United States of America. You are at liberty to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Only, for some reason, your boss expects you to get to work at 9:00, and at 7:30 on days when you’ve got a departmental meeting. And you find that you actually have to do that work, and that sometimes that work requires you to be in the office long past the point at which the five o’clock bell has rung. You might want to leave, but for some reason the argument that God made us free doesn’t work with your mortgage lender.

Though we are absolutely free, life fills itself up to overflowing with commitments that seem to demand all of work, to a spouse, and then to kids, who as they get older complain bitterly to you about their own lack of freedom. If you only knew, kid. If you only knew.

There lies the peculiarity of freedom. Yes, we’re all made free. But who among us is utterly free?  We’re not.  We’re always, invariably, and paradoxically both free and interconnected.

It’s perhaps that point that the Apostle Paul is trying to make in the odd little passage we read this morning from his letter to the church at Galatia. It starts out in a way that should baffle anyone who actually takes the time to think about what Paul is saying. Because remember...Paul likes to mess with our heads, in the same way that Jesus tended to say things that force you to think.

This little passage begins in verse 1 of Chapter five with a ode to freedom that should get every American heart a-fluttering. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” You can just see Libertarian Jesus standing there next to Washington as he crosses the Delaware, the icy breeze making his robe flutter heroically and whipping through his perfectly conditioned shoulder-length hair. It’s enough to make you want to take out a little American flag and wave it. Go Libertarian Jesus!

After this opening statement in his discussion of freedom Paul puts one last eleven verse attack against his opponents in Galatia...which is a bit on the rude side. You can read it if you like, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. After then we pick right back up again on the subject of freedom in verse 13. Paul’s just told us to be free, stand firm, and not allow ourselves to be enslaved. So how does he follow up? Well, he says this:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” We’re...we’re supposed to be slaves to one another? But...Paul...I thought you just said we’re not supposed to submit to the “yoke of slavery.” You said we’re free!

Though it might seem that way, Paul wasn’t contradicting himself. Rather, he was playing with words to show us something important about what it means to follow Jesus. Paul understood the nature of the church and what Christ has called us to do. In Paul’s argument with his opponents in Galatia, he struggled against the idea that being a member of the church is about following a series of rules or a system of regulations.

It’s not about what you eat or don’t eat, or how and when you observe the sabbath, or any of the other laws that governed the Hebrew people. It’s not about simple obedience to a particular way of being. It’s a totally different way to approach allowing...through faith...God to live and work in you in the same way that God lived and worked in Christ. Paul realized that this was a revolutionary thing. It was the most important thing that differentiated this new Christian faith from all of the other faiths that moved in the Greco-Roman world. That’s one of the primary reasons that Paul was so very vocal in opposing the folks who wanted to turn back the clock.

But though Paul was declaring our independence from the oppression of the law, he wasn’t saying that we are free from one another. Elsewhere in his letters, he talks about the church and our lives in Christ as one thing, as we’re all made part of Christ. Instead of viewing our in obedience to demands that are outside of us, Paul saw that a life lived according to the love that Jesus both taught and embodied is something different. It is freedom, but it is a freedom that expresses itself through our love and care for others.

Paul reminds us that we are not independent from one another. We depend on others...on our friends, on our families, on our communities. Human beings require other human beings, and though we might like to imagine that we are each our own totally self-sufficient little island, that just isn’t real. That is not how the world is, and when we pretend that the freedom to which God has called us has no boundaries, we deceive ourselves.

What freedom does not mean is destroying or tearing down the very things that build us up. As Paul lists the countless ways we harm and destroy one another, he’s aware that to yield to such things is to become enslaved by them. All those hatreds and angers and bickerings that seek to control us are to be cast aside, because they are enemies of both our unity and our liberty.

The freedom to which we are called has nothing to do with those things. It is a freedom to love and rejoice in one another, to support one another, and to live fully aware that as children of the promise we have nothing to fear.

That is the freedom to which Christ has called us.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.


Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 06.19.2016

Scripture Lesson: Galatians 3:26-29

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is meeting in our biannual General Assembly this week, as thousands of delegates fly across the country to Portland, Oregon, where they’ll gather and sing and make important statements about things.  This year, the big push is to divest from the fossil fuel industry because of the threat emissions pose to our environment.  It seems odd to me that we’d fly thousands of people in jet aircraft thousands of miles to debate this issue, which is why I’m smugly following it on #twitter.

in the peculiar position inhabited by so many generally progressive but majority Anglo institutions.  We think/write/meet about diversity on an almost pathological basis, wringing our hands about just how flagrantly Anglo Saxon the Presbyterian church tends to be in appearance every Sunday.  The church commissions studies, and create materials, and talk about welcoming the Other.

This rarely goes well.

Obsessing about demographics was one of the first things done at this year’s Assembly, as participants were asked to register their identities as racial/ethnic persons.  What it found?

As a denomination, we're still almost entirely only margin-of-error more diverse than the Aryan Brotherhood.   

The analogy is painfully close, even more so if the Aryan Brotherhood was entirely comprised of  skinhead septuagenarians, 'cause our efforts to be generationally diverse haven't exactly been radiantly successful, either.  We want to reach out to the young people.  We love the young people.  But they don't show up at our services or come back after college, no matter how earnestly we strum our guitars and do the Facebook and try to figure out how to use Snapgram and Instachat.  

Why?  Why are we so bad at diversity?

I think, honestly, that we're over-thinking it.  That's what Presbyterians are best at, after all.

Wait.  Can you think about over thinking?  Doesn't that make it even worse, sort of a meta-analysis paralysis?  Hmmm.  Perhaps we should form a task force to explore it.

Overthinking doesn’t work.  The answer, I think, paradoxically revolves around not obsessing about diversity, and not obsessing about labelling and categorizing every human being you encounter.  

It is that faith that is described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Galatia.

That letter, a portion of which we’ve heard today, was most likely written sometime in the mid-50’s CE. It was written at a point in time when the boundaries between the new Jesus movement and the synagogue were still very blurry. What did it mean to be a follower of the way that Jesus of Nazareth had proclaimed? What did you have to do? Paul, who’d established the church in Galatia, was not alone among the early Jesus followers. As the message of his life and his teachings began to spread, many of the people who embraced him as the promised messiah of Israel argued that he was exactly that: the one who had been promised as the new anointed one of Israel.

To follow Jesus, these folks argued, you had to first embrace all of the laws and customs and practices of the people of Israel. You had to keep kosher, staying away from the bacon double cheeseburgers and at least some of the sushi. Rule of thumb: if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. You had to keep the laws of ritual purity. For the guys, it meant that becoming Christian required one further step after baptism. Not a big deal, really...just sit still while I sharpen these scissors. Don’t flinch...unless you really want to join the Women’s Group.

The assumption, on the part of Paul’s opponents, was that in order to be a part of the Way of Jesus, you needed to completely subsume your identity into one of the pre-set binary categories of the ancient world.

This really, really made Paul angry, because it flew in the face of everything he knew about Jesus, his teachings, and the faith that define the path.

Paul, the mystic, understood that the heart of the Way tore apart those categories and distinctions.  If you followed Jesus, those divisions simply no longer had any relevance.  And so he took those binaries apart, one by one.

In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, Paul said, no Judaioi or Hellenai.  This is meant to have different cultural resonances than the ones we hear in it now.  My wife is a Greek Jew, but that’s not what Paul meant.  By Jew, he meant the Jewish people, of course.  That’s still the same.  But by Greek, he meant “everyone who is not a Jew.”  Greek meant “Greek speaking,” and in the Roman Empire, Greek was the common language spoken among many cultures, like French in the 19th century, or English today.  To the Galatians, Paul says: the dynamics of race cannot be the primary defining feature of your relationship with one another.

In Christ there is no slave or free, Paul said.  This was a distinction in the ancient world that had none of the demonic racial overtones of American slavery.  It was an economic category, one of social status and power.  Those who were owned were, in their culture, just the poorest of the poor, who either by birth or through an accident of fate found themselves in a position where they didn’t even have ownership over their own bodies.  The power imbalance created by this dynamic was still horrific, leading to abuse and cruelty towards those who inhabited the place of objects in their culture.  To the Galatians, Paul says:  You cannot allow this socioeconomic divide to impact your obligations to one another as followers of Jesus.

In Christ there is no male or female, Paul said.  Here, a feature of humanity that had social implications in the ancient world, one that paralleled the status distinctions between slave and free.  And yet it’s an even more fundamental distinction, one that goes beyond our decided-upon categories and into some pretty essential chemistry and plumbing.   To the Galatians, Paul says:  even this category, even this one.  Once you have committed to the path of grace, mercy, and compassion established by Jesus, even that cannot be a primary factor.

Where Paul’s three-fold injunction bears most weight is in how it impacts those who occupy the power position in any given culture.  If you have an inherent advantage, for reasons of status or wealth, following Jesus requires you to set that advantage aside.  You must see the Other, no matter who they are, as being just as you are in the eyes of God.

You also don’t annihilate their identity, assuming that they are just the same, or that they must conform to your way of being.  You don’t expect another soul to cease being themselves, bringing the richness of their language and culture into relationship with you.

There, being aware of our distinctives can help, but there’s a shadow side to that awareness.  If we are over-aware, hypersensitive to differences and distinctives, it can hinder the shared walking of the path.  If what we see, first and foremost, are categories and labels, then we’ll lose that sense of gracious connection that is at the heart of the path.

It is that shared identity that we need to hold in front of us, in all that we do and say as we journey together.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

The Prince

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 06.05.2016

Scripture Lesson:  Psalm 146


This next year, we’re going to be thinking a great deal about what it means to lead and be led, what it means for someone to be in charge.  What makes a person a leader?  What makes a leader effective?  Why does this endless election season make us wish Jesus would just come back already?

The dynamics of leadership and power are a source of some fascination for me, and so I recently read a classic book on leadership that’d I’d been meaning to fully digest for some time.  Oh, I’d read excerpts, but I’d never waded through the whole thing.  So, in the interests of actually knowing something, I read it.   The book:  Niccolo Machiavelli’s Renaissance classic The Prince.  It’s got something of a reputation, as leadership literature goes, although for some reason my seminary chose not to include it in my Pastoral Leadership Excellence course readings.

“I’m reading Machiavelli” is one of those things that Sessions usually don’t like to hear from a pastor.

I mean, sure, Niccolo’s little book was so well received that his name has come to describe the coldest and most calculating approach to power.  If you read the Prince, it’s easy to see why Machiavelli gets that reputation.  The Prince instructs princes and monarchs on the use and maintenance of power.  It extols the necessity of violence and deceit.  It talks about merits of being feared rather than loved.  It suggests that the best way to maintain power over a people you have conquered is to take their land and property and give it to your friends.  In several pungent sections, it counsels the systematic extermination of other ruling families as the best way to insure that you maintain power over your domain.  Don’t just kill your enemy.  Kill their whole family.

This is Game of Thrones writ into the bloody mess of human history, and a dog-eared, well-worn copy of the Prince probably rests in the library of House Lannister.

But what’s most peculiar about The Prince, and what I did not anticipate, is that it does not read like a celebration of power.  It contains none of the cold-hearted celebration of the powerful individual that one finds in Nietzsche or Ayn Rand.

Machiavelli writes it as a lament.  He does not say, “this is the way things should be.”   Over and over again, Niccolo argues that while princes must lead through power, that same power is morally inferior.  What princes do to maintain authority is evil.  Period.  Given the context of the writing, this was understandable.  The Prince was written in 1513, and dedicated to the a member of the Medici family, who had earlier that year  imprisoned and tortured Machiavelli after they overthrew the government of Florence.  

“Human beings being terrible, fallen, wretched creatures,” he starts innumerable sentences, all of which end with a justification for doing something wet, unpleasant, and nasty to your political opponents.  The reason that monarchs can’t just be kind and compassionate is that leadership concentrated in the hands of a single person is inherently wrong.  

What’s equally fascinating about Machiavelli, and what I didn’t realize before reading him, is that The Prince only pertains to his thoughts on princes and monarchs.  It isn’t his political philosophy, just his advice to monarchs.  His preference, as revealed in much of his other, lesser known writing, was for government by republic.

Rule by one person, he argued, left a country weakened, for two reasons.  First, because that person was always trying to cement power for themselves and their line.  Their interests were rarely the cold-eyed interests of the state they were attempting to maintain.  Second, because a single individual doesn’t have the variety of gifts that are needed to respond to changing situations.  What might be a strength in one crisis or moment becomes a weakness in responding to another.  A war may call for a brash leader, bold and fierce.  But that same leader might not have the temperament to govern in a time of peace, or in a time of famine or disease or economic crisis.

That doubt about power, about the ephemeral dynamics of any power focused on a single individual, that’s hardly a new thing.  

We hear that basic skepticism in the 146th Psalm this morning, as a song of praise is presented that’s at least as filled with doubt about princely power as anything Machiavelli ever penned.

Psalm 146 comes at the beginning of the end of the Book of Psalms, and is the first of a Hallelujah chorus that brings this collection of ancient Hebrew music to a close.  It’s literally that, as Psalms 146 through 150 all begin and end with the Hebrew phrase hallelu-yah, meaning Praise the Lord.

The song continues, unusually, with a call for one’s own soul to praise the Creator, something that only happens in two other Psalms in the 150 song collection.  

What is particularly fascinating, given the context of this Psalm, is how vigorously it rejects the power of the princes and kings and rulers of this world.  Psalms, after all, are typically liturgical, meant to be sung in the context of the temple...which is right there in the heart of Jerusalem, at the heart of royal power.  

Our songwriter reminds the listener that those who have power or find themselves in a position of leadership are just as ephemeral and fleeting as any living creature.  The emphasis, for the psalmist, is a contrast between orienting your life towards a particular power structure and orienting yourself towards something greater.

The assumption, written and rewritten into these verses, is that justice is fundamentally part of the divine will.  The universe, all humans, all creatures, all of it falls under the sovereign power of God, and that power bears no resemblance to the self-serving power of a king or a prince.

A prince, after all, has certain things they need to do to retain power, as Machiavelli so pungently observed.  But God?

What possible need does the Creator of the universe have of the machinations of power?  The answer:  none.  What matters instead, to the God who is all knowledge and compassion?  What is significant, for God who knows the suffering of the poor as deeply as the pleasures of the prince?

The emphases presented by the Psalmist reinforce what matters to the divine.  Justice for the oppressed.  Food for the hungry,  freedom for prisoners.

The people who matter aren’t those who hold wealth or influence or the reins of authority.  What matters to God are those broken and bowed down by life, those who’ve lost social status, those who are strangers in a strange land.

That, or so we hear, is what matters to God.

And in this year when we’re asked to turn our fealty over to one person or another, when we are all lined up as partisans for this or that, there’s stuff Christians need to hear from Machiavelli about princes.

In particular, we need to be aware of the danger that lies when we place fealty to an over fealty to the well-being of a people.  There is a distinct, human, and dangerous tendency to want a face on our power.  We need it personified.  We identify, not with the principles for which a person stands, but with an individual.  They become a celebrity, a projection of ourselves.  Instead of seeing the principled interests of our nation, of our people, of our tribe, we attach to a particular soul, with all of their flaws and appetites and hubris.

We fixate on them, rather than looking past them to God’s purpose for human life.

This is the very essence of what it means to create an idol, and it is a blight that impacts almost all of the political spectrum.  It is a danger wherever human beings organize themselves, up to and including this whole church thing that we do.

As we move forward into this strange and difficult year in the life of our nation, it is worth holding that in mind.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

The Worthy

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
05.29.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 7:1-10

Hamilton is such a peculiar thing, and a reminder to me of just how poorly I’d do as an investor.

Hey, says the playwright at the party, I'm writing a hip-hop musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

Uh huh.  I can feel my eyes rolling.  Not putting any money into THAT.

So of course it's soaring.  As it should be.  It's engaging, it's funny, it's historically grounded, remarkably subtle and intelligent.  It was written by a Latino, intentionally cast in the rich warm hues of American diversity, using the forms and styles of both classical Broadway belting and rap.  Mostly rap, which I used to enjoy back in the day but haven’t listened to in decades, now that it's descended into subsentient misogyny, consumerist grasping, and the celebration of violence.

But it does this odd thing.  It embraces the fundamental humanity of the American creation story, staking a claim on that narrative.  This is part of my story, the musical sings.  It is the story of the immigrant.  The call to shake off the chains of oppression?  That's a common story.  The human mess of love and conflict that lead to Hamilton's death at the hands of Aaron Burr?  That's human.  Being human, it's a story we all understand.
Here, a Broadway musical, a raging success, sold out shows stretching out to the horizon.  

You just can’t get tickets, can’t at all.  There’s just no chance.  

Well, that’s not entirely true.  You can buy tickets to the show, without doubt.  All you have to do is go to a reseller, and there are typically thirty or forty tickets available for any given show.  

Like the show this upcoming Wednesday, where you can find tickets ranging in price from just under a thousand bucks to just over two thousand.  

Or you could wait until the touring company comes to DC, which it two thousand and eighteen.  Then, they’re available...but only if you’ve bought two full annual subscriptions to the Kennedy Center.   Which will end up costing you just as much.   It’s one of those things you’d never, ever suspect, the concept, so wildly and remarkably unlikely as a triumph.

How to process it?

For all of its retelling of the Founding Story, it sure isn't right wing, not by the standards of borderline fascism that have come to define the shout-radio fueled madness of American ultraconservatism.  Here, a willful recasting of the American narrative, shattering expectations of color and race.  Here, a musical that defiantly celebrates immigration as central to the American experience, at the same moment that off-the-rails conservatism seems to have forgotten that completely as it throws its love to fascist demagogues and race-baiting charlatans.  Hamilton, in form and intent, resists the shallow, false idol that the right worships in place of the American dream.

But neither is it a creature of the far left.  The radical left has only contempt for the founding narrative of the United States.  It was just the monstrous self-interest of racist oligarchs, wealthy white men who understood "freedom" no further than their own power over their land and the souls they claimed the right to own.  Or so I've heard, sitting in the back of classrooms and listening.   From this perspective, America was always a lie.  That's all it ever was.

And yet here it is, this thing that, in this fleeting moment, our society has collectively decided has worth.  It is praised and celebrated, winning both the gold ring of Broadway sellout crowds and Pulitzers and MacArthurs.

What is it, exactly, that gives something...or someone...worth?  What makes for value and worthiness?

That question is one of the potent images underlying the story of the centurion today.  Luke’s telling of this tale is interesting, maintaining a peculiar distance from the stories told in the other three Gospels.  

Mark doesn’t tell this tale at all, although there are analogues between this story and the story of the Syrophoneician woman in Mark 7.  It’s similar, in that there’s a non-Jew and a healing that happens at a distance, but otherwise, it’s kind of a stretch.  Mark just doesn’t bother with the story.

John’s gospel, which wanders its own path, describes a very similar event in chapter 4.  Jesus has arrived in Capernaum, where he encounters an official, one who approaches Jesus because someone in his household is sick.  In this case, it’s his son.  The official begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his boy, but Jesus does not.  Instead, he says: Go, your son will live.  The official returns, and finds his boy healed.

Matthew also tells the story in Matthew chapter 8, in such a way that .  It’s in Capernaum, and there’s a centurion and a sick servant.  But in Matthew 8, the centurion approaches Jesus directly, person to person, and asks Jesus for help.  Jesus says, sure, but unlike in John’s story, the centurion demurs, telling Jesus he’s not worthy.

It’s Luke who keeps the centurion at a distance, with two delegations arriving to talk with Jesus.  Luke knew importance, as a literate historian writing for a literate first century audience.  If someone was truly worthy, a person of value in society, they don’t just walk right up to you.

Their people talk to your people.  You get approached by their assistant, or their agents, or their manager.  A person of least as quality is measured in both the ancient and the modern known by their ability to have people do for them.

Which, as the tale is told in Luke, is just what the centurion conveys when the second delegation approaches Jesus.

And yet worth...the thing that truly matters about a not the power to have folks do what you tell them.  In Luke’s story of this event, what matters most significantly is the faith of the centurion.  It is that he trusts, that he allows himself to see the possibility of restoration and believe that it might come to pass.

That theme is the core unifying thread between each of the variant stories we encounter, the essential connection that each of them share where the details may be variant.

What is worthy, and what makes a being worthy, is their faith in God’s capacity to make things whole again.

Our culture tends to spin worth a little differently.

What matters, or so we are taught, is our net worth.  What matters, or so we too often hear, is our power.

But the shape and form of what Jesus teaches, and calls us to believe in, is a very different sort of worth.  It is value that does not place store in wealth and political power.  It is worth that does not find its ground in the approval of the crowd.

What matters, what has worth, is the frustratingly intangible character of faith.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

Part of it All

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
05.22.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson: Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31


It was a most peculiar book, one worth reading in a most peculiar time.

The book?  Beyond Freedom and Dignity, written way back in 1971 by B.F. Skinner.  He’s not necessarily front-of-mind for most of us these days, but Skinner’s name is worth knowing.  Buhrrus Fredric Skinner was the father of behavioral psychology, an experimentalist who explored how and why certain patterns of behavior are formed and created.

Meaning, he spent a whole bunch of time with rats.  Skinner’s essential view was this: living things avoid pain, and seek reinforcement.  That’s why they make decisions.  In fact, it’s the only reason living things select a course of action.  If it gives a reward, they do it.  If it causes discomfort, they avoid it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

To test this, Skinner called an operant conditioning chamber.  It’s simple, really.

You get a rat.  Or a chicken.  Or some other animal that people don’t feel particularly attached to.  Then you put it in a box.   That box has a button.  You teach the creature that if it presses a button it will get a reward, something that feeds it.   So it will press that button.  Yay!  Snack!

Or you have a section of the operant conditioning chamber that’s electrified, because, well, that’s how Skinner rolled.  Whenever the subject creature engages in a particular behavior, you run a little current through the floor of the chamber.  Zap!  Amazingly enough, the subject will eventually stop doing the thing that causes them to get a shock.  Ah, the insights of science.

Operant conditioning chambers are now called “Skinner Boxes.”

As far as Skinner was concerned, there was no real difference between humans and animals, and therefore, the best way to view human behavior was through the lenses of reinforcement and avoidance.  We are just machines, conditioned to respond in certain ways to certain inputs.

That, in fact, was the point of Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  Skinner viewed those concepts as antithetical to human progress.  If what we really are is nothing more than conditionable meat machines, then the idea of moral agency must be abandoned.  Liberty and freedom are just, Skinner argued for two hundred pages, illusions.  And dignity?  That just assumes that our actions give us value as persons, that our choices make us good people.  But if choice is an illusion, then integrity, dignity, and moral value are meaningless, and assuming they exist just gets in the way of progress.

I’m not the biggest fan of Skinner.  But he’s worth reading, in the way that it’s worth knowing in detail precisely what it is you disagree with.

Because Skinner’s vision of a choiceless, mechanistic world prangs darkly off of the assumptions we hear from the Book of Proverbs today.  

In Proverbs, as in the rest of the Bible, Wisdom literature has to do with the way we function in the universe.  What actions are likely to create a positive outcome?  What actions are likely to cause us shame or harm?  Wisdom is fundamentally practical.

As it manifests in the book of Proverbs, that practicality is expressed in several ways.  First, the familiar pithy little nuggets of moral guidance, taut little sayings and maxims and aphorisms, all of which point in the general direction of how to live a life that’s less messed up.  If you do this, then you will do well.  If you do that, well, things won’t go so good.  These sayings don’t provide any guarantees, but what they do is this: they make it much more likely that you will not fail.

And second, wisdom expresses itself through poetry and song, as we hear in this excerpt from chapter 8.  Here, Wisdom is both described and personified.  The voice we hear is of Lady Wisdom, the wise woman.  That’s a consistent theme throughout Proverbs, but here, her identity is more clearly defined.  She’s not just your smart friend.

She’s expressed as part of the world, as an essential part of both the creation and purpose of everything that is.  However the universe is crafted, she is a part of it.

Within ancient Wisdom literature, there are a number of core themes, all of which play around a sane and appropriate use of the world around you.  The wise do not seek wealth above all other things, because wealth is not the goal.  The wise know that the hunger to possess destroys.  The wise listen to criticism and concern, and adjust accordingly.  The wise know that God loves the poor and the rich equally, and that when wealth is created on the suffering backs of the poor, God will hold the powerful to account.  

Wisdom looks at the world, and carefully considers every action.  The wise know--more than anything else--that chasing after the desire of the now can compromise the life you hope to live tomorrow.  Because nothing is more foolish--in the Biblical definition of foolishness--than being so blinded by one’s own hungers and self-justification that you can’t see the harm you’re about to inflict on yourself and others.

Wisdom and foolishness are the two poles of Proverbs, and the dynamic between the two of them is the essence of the human moral struggle.  It’s also viewed as grounded in the real, in the now, in the meat and flesh and life of creation.

In that, it bears a strange similarity to Skinner’s behaviorism.  Reinforcement and aversion are, Skinner would argue, just the way the universe guides life, the way we are shaped and formed in response to our environment.

Wisdom, however, goes deeper.  It looks not at the immediate gratification of reinforcement, that hit of pleasure that comes in a moment, but at the long arc of a life.  It’s not about immediate mechanics, but grounded in the larger purpose of a life.  That purpose is something chosen, something that requires us to step back and look more deeply at the consequences of our action and engagement.

And that’s important to keep in mind now, now in particular.

Why?  Because Skinner’s behaviorism is at play in our lives like never before, in ways that are worth being aware of.  How?  I’d suggest that the entire business model of social media is just one giant operant conditioning chamber.  It exists to mold behavior.

I say this as someone who’s been in the deep of that world for a decade.  I’m in that box, but that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of it.

What is the business model of Facebook?  To make you spend more time on Facebook.  That’s the reason for Twitter and Snapchat and Pinterest and Instagram.  I’m not sure about Google Plus.  Does anyone really use Google Plus?

How does it work?  You know how it works.  Put up a post.  People “like” it.  People share it.  You get followers.  Your SnapChat score goes up, whatever the heck that means.  

Press the button.  Out comes the reward. Human beings are social creatures, and social media provides us with that little burst of seratonin we get knowing that we’ve been noticed.  

That’s the whole point, and it’s why it’s so easy to fall into patterns of repetitious behavior that border on compulsion.  It’s a medium that thrives on reward, that reinforces a way of living just as surely as a

But it does not, for the most part, encourage reflection.  It does not call us to have a long view.  It is just the moment, just the he

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN

A Taste of Power

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
05.08.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Ephesians 1:15-23

Gift giving has changed a little bit over the years, as time has passed.

Not so much for Mother’s Day, which in my household still involves the usual chocolates and handmade cards and breakfast in bed.  That hasn’t shifted, nor shall it ever.   Dark chocolate deliciousness must always be the gift, forever and ever, AMEN.

But other gift giving has changed.  As the children grow from being children into men, gift-giving is less and less about stuff.  They have more than enough stuff, stuff enough that for all of the stuff that has poured into our house, my offspring really don’t desire any more.  We’ve got giant bins of Lego, untouched for years.  We have enough Thomas the Tank Engine tracks in storage that Metro could probably use them to rebuild the system.   We have enough unused gaming systems and abandoned iPhones that collectively have more storage and processing power than most of the supercomputers of my childhood.   Material gifts are immaterial.  

Why not get what they most want?

What we offer, now, is the gift of power.  Not magical power.  Not their own orbital battlestation.  Not a small army of robots.  Not by shoehorning a Dodge Charger Hellcat motor into our minivan.  We offer power as our culture presents power.  Meaning, cold, hard cash, moolah, a little bit of cheddar.  This is the gift that my no longer young ones most desire.  Give me the ability to do what I want.  To have.  To travel.  To explore.  To do, in this moment, as I wish.

Money represents work, represents energy, represents a way to symbolically transfer labor for goods and vice versa.  It is power.

That gift was almost always, if I’m honest with myself, my favorite gift as a teen.  It meant I could do what I wanted, get what I wanted, that I could extend my will out into the peculiar world of our economy and have things that I’d otherwise not be able to manage.

Because wealth is power, as we social creatures have constructed it, power that we use in our lives to express and extend ourselves.  If you have wealth, you are free to do as you wish.  You can have that gaming system.  You can travel.  You can eat as you wish, where you wish.  You can have commonly understood ownership over a patch of earth.

It kinda sorta works.  But it also fails, in the same way that giving your mom a card filled with twenties isn’t likely the best gift today.  Sorry, mom.  

Power is inherently problematic, something our society really and deeply struggles to grasp.

That power, our power, the way we understand and share power together, manifests itself in some peculiar dynamics.  Take, for instance, the recent case of Haiti and the peanuts.  Haiti is the deepest mess of messes, a nation that barely functions.  The hardscrabble agriculture attempted by its farmers is not enough to feed those who live there, leading to chronic malnutrition among Haitian children.  For the subsistence farmers in Haiti, just getting by is often impossible if there’s a bad harvest, which leads many to flee the countryside into the deep, desperate poverty of the cities.

This last year, the USDA came up with a plan to use excess peanuts from the American harvest to insure that Haitian children had enough to eat.  We had the food.  They needed the food.  It seemed simple enough.  Only the challenge, given the power dynamics of our economic system, was more complicated.  Because if you flood Haiti with free peanuts, Haitian peanut farmers can’t sell their crops, meaning more people are forced to abandon their farms, which means more hungry people without work in the cities, and a nation rendered even less capable of feeding itself.  

Our power dynamics, the dynamics of wealth and mammon, seem strangely unable to resolve this seemingly most straightforward of problems.  People are hungry, there’s more than enough food, but the system itself just can’t manage to make that work.  Just as  six thousand years of human war has never quite managed to bring about peace, the power of mammon seems never to have quite managed to resolve human need.

That truth rings peculiarly against the texts for today, all of which talk about power.

Ephesians sings about it the most, in a unique voice.

This letter is one of what Bible scholars call “deutero-Pauline” letters.  That means that it was most likely not written by the Apostle Paul himself, but by one of his disciples writing in his name.  Scholars believe this for a variety of reasons.  Ephesian 2:20, for example, seems to assume that the apostolic period is over, which would be odd had Paul been the one writing it.

It also has one of the most peculiar styles, one of the oddest voices, in all of the New Testament.  Paul was a precise, thoughtful, analytic thinker, clearly trained in rhetoric and a gifted writer.  The author of Ephesians, on the other hand, wrote in a strangely circular, oververbose style, writing sentences that just went on and on, sentences that could be diagrammed with a spirograph, that went in fractal loops like a Mandelbrot set.

Even if this isn’t written by Paul, it’s still clearly written from the perspective of someone who was formed in the crucible of Paul’s teaching.  From that foundation, the author of this letter presents us with how we are to deal with life, once we’ve had the audacity to assert that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.   That’s the entire point of this first chapter of Ephesians, and it’s some pretty bright white line stuff.

Ephesians is not the letter to go to if you’re looking for permission to goof around as a Christian.  Because as the opening of this letter establishes, God is in charge.  Over and over again, themes of authority and power are stated and restated, with the word “power” surfacing again and again.

“Power,” in the Greek used by the author of Ephesians, is dunamis.  It gives us the words dynamic and dynamo.  In describes the interplay of energies, it give us words like dynamics.  As we human beings tend to understand it, it is wrapped up in the idea of control, of ruling over.  Or we hear it as destructive, like dynamite.

We hear this opening, this swirling praise of power and glory and authority, and we conceptualize that in terms of the familiar.  We visualize gold and shine and sparkle.  We see a mighty monarch on a throne.

But power, in the Christian understanding, is a little different.  God’s power is not expressed as ours is expressed.  Where we use power over one another, God is abundantly giving.  Where our power tends to seek its own interest, clotting and congealing around itself, God’s power is always pouring out in grace and possibility.

In that, God’s power is like the love of one who cares for us.  Like a mother, yes, who pours herself out body and soul for us.  But also like a father, or like a grandmother, like a friend.

It is that form of power that builds and restores, that form of power that sets things into right relationship.  It is creativity, turned in grace towards one another, as unselfishly giving as the morning sun or a spring rain.

In every exchange with others, in every moment where you can turn your life’s energies towards them, let that be the taste of power that they receive.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.