Proper 24A Sermon (2008)

Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Matthew 22:15-22;
1 Thess. 1:1-10

CONTAGIOUS FEAR — CONTAGIOUS FAITH

Fear. Panic. Anxiety. These capture well the state of mind of many in America today. Recently, the American Psychological Association released the findings of a survey they conducted of 7,000 American households. The study noted that eighty percent of Americans were stressed about the economy and their personal finances. Half were worried about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. More specifically:

  • 56% were concerned about their own job stability.
  • 60% of respondents reported feeling angry and irritable,
  • and 52% reported laying awake at night worried about this.

The report concluded that, “The declining state of the nation’s economy is taking a physical and emotional toll on people nationwide.”

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University, offered a prescient assessment of the nation’s economic condition earlier this year. He noted that the U.S. economy is suffering from a “crisis of faith.” He meant by this a growing lack of trust in our economic institutions and the securities that have backed much of our debt. At the center of this crisis is the use of, and problems surrounding, the extension of credit. It is worth noting that the word “credit” is part of the language of faith. It comes from the Latin credere – to believe or to trust. The present active form of this word opens the Apostle’s Creed, credo – “I believe.” Creed and credit are related words. In the case of credit, belief or trust is placed in the borrower and her or his willingness and ability to repay. Our current economic crisis is in part about misplaced trust or faith between debtors and lenders.

So far, neither a $700 billion bailout package, nor a Fed rate cut, nor presidential calls for calm, have stemmed the tide of fear, nor do they seem to adequately speak to the underlying issues that precipitated this crisis of faith. The underlying causes of the current economic crisis are not simply financial, but spiritual. At least five of the seven deadly sins came into play: gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, and ultimately pride all came before the fall. These led to absurd economic practices that bordered on the criminal.

So as we see face the consequences of the current economic downturn, and as we reflect upon the spiritual causes that led to the fall, this is a moment when the Bible and people of faith have both an accurate assessment of the underlying issues that led to the current economic debacle and a timely word that can calm fears.

First, the assessment. I would suggest that much of the problem has to do with a flawed notion of freedom as having no limits, no boundaries. In our recent political climate, for example, hasn’t “free market” seemingly become synonymous with deregulation, with removing all limits and boundaries to the market itself? In short, to thinking that the market can play the role of God in providing safe limits and boundaries?

Now, in a system of government that rightfully refuses to play God, we can’t expect that it would be God who provides the safe limits to the free market. But this is very important for us to understand: As people of faith in the one, true God, we must recognize that there is some personal reality behind the market. The market is not a god itself. We cannot trust it to set the safe limits which only we ourselves can set. So in a free society, if the persons who govern us aren’t setting the safe limits, who is? The financiers? Wall Street? This is why this is all about a matter of trust and faith. We have to decide who it is we most trust, the persons who govern us, or whoever is primarily in charge of the markets themselves. Over the last thirty years, the political climate has been such that we’ve seemingly grown to distrust the persons who govern us the most. The perennial cry has become to have government get out of the way of the market. But the crucial question I’m trying to ask here is: have we made the market into some kind of god that is above government, that the market is somehow wiser and safer than government. We have come to know that government isn’t more than the people behind it. In a democracy, that’s supposedly all of us, especially those we elect. Is the market any different? Is it somehow not more than the people behind it in ways that we can trust more than ourselves in a democratic system? Or is that what this economic crisis is teaching us? For thirty years we have thought we could trust the free market more than free government. And now we’re not so sure. After years of deregulation, are we finding that there is a role for government — that is to say, for we ourselves through those we elect — to set some limits and boundaries on the market?

What I would like to suggest this morning, then, is that we need to be involved in the political process precisely as people of faith, faith in the one, true God. Not in a way that imposes our faith on others, but in a way that has the fruits of our faith involved in the democratic process. By that I mean, it’s not as much a matter of telling others what we believe so that they can believe the same thing. It’s more a matter of living the faith in ways that is contagious. The theme in the Learning Hour this morning, as we gathered at “The Well,” has been “Living Messages,” that you and I come to proclaim the message of Good News more by living it than telling it. St. Paul, throughout the letter to the Philippians which we read in recent weeks, talks about having the same mind as Christ who poured himself out for us on the cross. He talks about imitating Christ and imitating those who imitate Christ. As we begin the letter to the Thessalonians this morning, we hear the same theme. This young, small fledgling church already has a reputation of imitating Paul and Christ such that they have become “Living Messages.” Their faith is contagious.

I’d like to tell you a quick story about what I mean. Extemporize story of youth and fighting world hunger.

This morning’s Gospel, despite what it sounds like, doesn’t divide between politics and faith. Jesus gets out of the trap with his clever quip about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. But it is most clever in what comes before it. Jesus asks about the image on the coin, using a word that would recall for most Jews a central tenet of their faith: human beings are made in the image of God. So Jesus’ little quip is really saying, ‘That coin has Caesar’s image on it, so you can give it back to Caesar. You are made in God’s image, so give your whole self to God.’ Giving our entire selves includes the political part of us, too, that has to struggle with the best ways to live in peace with our neighbors.

Brothers and Sister in Christ, we are here this morning to once again be fed and nourished with the life of our Lord, who faced death on the cross for us, and was raised to new life. He had already lived a life of prayer that was able to put aside life’s real anxieties and live in trust and peace with God. Our Lord showed courage and faith in the face of apparent scarcity, two fish and five loaves to feed five thousand; he showed calm in the face of storms on the sea. In going to the cross, he faced the lack of trust and the power of scapegoating that so often has its way in this world. He stood up to the powers of selfishness, and teaches his followers to likewise trust in a God of abundant life by showing us how to shape our lives in loving care for our neighbors. This is the contagious faith that this nation and world needs more of right now. This is the faith we come to be fed with again here this morning, and each and every week, that we might go into the world again and again with the right kind of faith to make a difference in a world of fear and anxiety. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 19, 2008

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