The problem of other people
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
I sat down at my laptop and thought for a while about whether I should try to write my children's sermon first or my pulpit sermon, and I thought and I thought, and I realized they're the same sermon.
But of course they are the same sermon, remember that classic book: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? There's a lot more truth in that sentiment, and a lot more Christian truth in that sentiment than we wish there was.
Remember his original list? It went a little something like this:
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt someone.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milks are good for you.
Live a balanced life--learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, stick together.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the styrofoam cup--they all die. So do we.
I don't want to be trite, but besides "pay your taxes" it's basically all there. And yet, adulthood somehow feels too complicated, too murky to live the Kindergarten rule of life,, like we have gotten ourselves into a situation, individually or societally that feels much harder to play nicely within, and much more fraught to try to unravel.
I take heart in the fact that this is probably the weirdest most complicated time to be an adult in the world We have these phones and TVs that are telegraphing thousands of people's thoughts into our brains that we were never ever meant to hear,, it used to be that just the one king or emperor lording over us that would be able to put propaganda in front of our eyes, and now it's coming from all sides, everyday, non-stop. I also take heart in the fact that the same problems we face today-- violence, greed, uncertainty, are the problems humans have always always faced, and were the conditions under which the words of the prophet Micah were spoken and written. Though there has not always been kindergarten to set us off on the right foot-- the work of taking care of one another, of making friends with everyone, and of making nice after a fight is work that we have always had set before us, and that we have never done well.
The words of the prophet Micah this morning come at a time when sin and wickedness are rampant among the people and God says through Micah:
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city! Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked? Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
The people are not right with God, they are not right with one another, and time and again the impulse is -- instead of making right with one another -- to offer sacrifices to God:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And this feels like such a familiar impulse today -- when we hurt someone or disagree with someone, all the way from a little thing between two people, to an enormous thing between two political parties or two countries, we are so prone to do anything we can about it except make it right. We'll tell our side of the story to our friends to get people on our side, we'll make up stories in our head about how the other side deserved it, or how they're really just The Bad Guys, we'll decide that it is not our job to fix whatever is going on, or that they really ought to apologize to us first. We'll go so far as to ignore them, pretend they don't exist, decide we are no longer their neighbor, in the biblical sense. And we are even made prone to the persuasion from others about who is and is not our neighbor, what good conflict management is and is not, who is the villain and who is an ally. It's enough to make you wish that there was a kindergarten teacher around to whip us back into shape, but so often the people in charge of our metaphorical classrooms are the ones leading the way on the bad behavior. This bullying and name-calling and cold-shouldering, these behaviors that feels unthinkable in kindergarten suddenly seems so much more acceptable as adults.
We are so prone to do anything else but bury the hatchet,, as if to say, "God we know we are not living in harmony and in unity with our neighbors and in our communities, but how about I just call those other guys [evil], and we'll call it even", or "how about we bring you one unspotted calf and thirty jugs of oil and we'll call it even". To which God replies, No, I have no use for your burnt offering, I have no use for your oil that is not what I asked for. What I asked for was for you to love each other, to do justice, to love mercy mercy, and to walk humbly. The burnt offering is not what I asked for, but what I asked for is much harder to deliver on, isn't it.
We had a little thing called the midterm elections on Tuesday and I forget sometimes how offput I am by the way that our discourse paints with such blunt brushes. We'll confidently refer to counties as monolithically Red or Blue, and you look at the results and split will be like 55-45 which is my mind would much more aptly be called an eggplant county or an indigo or amethyst county but we have this baffling winner-take-all approach that allows for us to disregard the often 40+% of people with whom we disagree. Think about how if there was a kindergarten class of 25 kids and 20 of the kids wanted to shun the other 5, the teacher would have a come to Jesus moment with the class, or if 15 kids wanted to bully the other 10 or if 13 wanted to bully 12 or if 12.51 kids wanted to make life hell for the other 12.49, the teacher would have a cow. We would not move on to reading, we would not move on to art, we would not go to recess, we would not let the food fight continue until we had fixed it. It would become the most important--the only thing--that was happening in that classroom. So why does it seem so acceptable now?
When there is dissension and conflict among the body, a burnt offering does not solve the problem of other people. When there is dissension and conflict among the body, creating a villain narrative about the other side or simply pretending that they don't exist does not solve the problem of other people. When there is dissension and conflict among the body, an electoral victory does not solve the problem of other people. What will solve the problem of other people is the same brutal and difficult and painstaking work today as it was ten years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, 2500 years ago, and the work is this: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God and one another, and to not make excuses to not let convince ourselves or others or be convinced that we are off the hook in favor of something else, something less costly.. Or, perhaps in simpler terms:
Don't hit people.