In the second letter to Timothy St. Paul (our patron) writes:
I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Pride parades in Cincinnati always had protesters. And, because I was in the uniform while I walked with the cathedral congregation, they would give me the death stare and even call me out saying that my soul was in far more danger than other “sinners” in the parade because I was a shepherd leading his flock astray.
And this text from Second Timothy was a main source of their attacks. I was one of the teachers these “sinners” were accumulating to themselves to suit their own desires.
Because it’s been used in that way by some Christians against others, it’s tempting to dismiss a text like this—to reject and run from it. But I’m not willing to do that. There’s too much at stake.
I get a little cranky when we Episcopalians change “The Lord be with you,” to “God be with you.” I don’t think it’s wrong exactly. And I don’t think people who like it are bad or anything. But I do get cranky.
Because “Lord” has a rich theological history. In Hebrew Lord/Adonai is the word used to replace the divine Name that God gives to Moses and which we cannot say. And Lord is also part of the first creed of the Church, “Jesus is Lord,” which, in turn, carries a political weight that the word “God” by itself cannot. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.
The word “God,” on the other hand, hanging out there on its own like that just seems too generic. It’s a vague term that could mean almost anything. When I hear “God be with you,” my usual reply, at least in my head, is “Do you have a particular god in mind?”
My good friend, Father Phil Brochard, rector of All Souls Church in Berkely, California (where the “God be with you” option is usued regularly) gives me a hard time about this, saying, “There’s only one God.” But I think that’s just not even close to true. There are many, many gods, they have real power, and they don’t care about our wellbeing. They don’t care about us at all except for the ways we can serve them.
In March I read an article about the ten year anniversary of the finale of the HBO show the Wire. It was set and shot in Baltimore, and it looked at crime, and the criminal justice system, and the school system, and newspapers, and more, and showed how all of it was deeply interconnected, and how forces beyond the control of most of the people in those interlocked systems shaped their lives.
When the interviewer pointed out that many people talked about the show as Shakespearean, the show’s creator, David Simon corrected that idea:
The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people… for no decent reason.1
It’s a show that’s as realistic and gritty as any ever on television, and it’s a show about (without ever naming them) the powers—the gods—that are beyond mortal control, and who move the people of Baltimore around for their own mysterious purposes.
• Moloch: a god that demands human sacrifice, makes idols of guns (to the point of suppressing any kind of imagination about how else to solve problems), and floats drugs into poorer communities.
• Empire: the spirit of the state, makes its own survival the primary task of our lives.
• Mammon: the god of wealth keeps its servants rich and the rest poor, and it also keeps certain ways of organizing our political life—two party system, systems of campaign finance, and the rest, in place to serve itself.
• And other gods like racism and sexism and more are at work in the show.
I think the Wire is a good show. but it’s worth mentioning this morning because I think it’s real. Those gods, and more, are real. and they are brutal to us and to the rest of Creation.
And they WANT us not to believe in them. It’s easier to keep us enslaved when we don’t even acknowledge their existence. As long as we keep thinking that if we just make a few more facts a bit clearer, if we just explain things better, and tweak a few policies then heterosexism and racism and xenophobia will go away—as long as we ignore the very real and powerful gods behind them—we will continue to be enslaved to them.
On Thursday a few hundred people of faith gathered at St. Mark’s Cathedral and prayed and sang and called on the power of another God—the God who liberates the imprisoned and the oppressed. We called on that God to free imprisoned parents and their children, and to free us from our own ignorance and complicity in the systems that would demand such imprisonment. And then we marched from St. Mark’s Cathedral to St. James Cathedral to show those other gods that even though people of faith might be divided in some things (a sign that we ARE still enslaved and so are still in need of liberation ourselves), we are united in worshiping the God who in Jesus Christ seeks out his sheep and brings them back from the where they’ve been scattered, who sets prisoners free, and who cares for and loves the poor and those the fallen gods would use and discard, and that THAT God is MORE real, MORE powerful, and MORE at work in the world than those other gods are.
So this is why I don’t want to reject and run from the text we started with…
Today we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul (their shared feast day is this coming Friday):
• St. Peter a laborer, a simple fisherman, and
• St. Paul, a rabbi, a teacher, a cosmopolitan Roman citizen.
Two very different saints united as martyrs in the middle of the first century in the persecution perpetrated by the Emperor Nero. They ministered in the world the Wire describes, under great powers, too. And in their time, like ours, so-called “teachers” worked to make faith in Jesus Christ conform to those other gods. turning faith in Jesus Christ into a myth of Empire by claiming things like Romans 13 gives unchecked divinely sanctioned power to those who rule.
But these two saints trusted the God of Life and freedom over the gods of slavery and death—the very particular God who took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the God who gathers the scattered sheep, who heals and feeds and loves, who routinely crosses borders and boundaries, and sets captives free, and witnessed to that God with their own lives, and persisted in the proclamation of the message about that God, in the most unfavorable time. In another unfavorable time, couldn’t we—shouldn’t we—too?
1 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/03/the-wire-david-simon-hbo, italics mine.