Tag Archives: René Girard

The Logic of Leveling vs. Scarcity and Scapegoating [OR Jesus, Pops, and Pithy Sayings] Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10

**sermon art: Jesus Christ Preaching by Jose Trujillo (oil on canvas)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:17-26  He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it? 10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

[sermon begins]

Growing up in my house meant growing up with a step-dad who would spout pithy sayings often in the form of warnings.  I’ve shared a few of Pops’ sayings with you in the past.  It’s surprising how the sayings come to mind as preachable given the amount of eye-rolling and foot-stomping that greeted them at the time.  One such saying bubbled up when I’d want to go do something with friends. Pops would then give me grief, I’d respond by telling him that my friends were allowed to go, and he’d say, “Would you rob a bank if you friends were doing it too?”  Classic.  I never saw much use in that particular logic as my friends never invited me to rob a bank. Nor did I ever think I would tag along on such a quest even if they did.  Regardless, Pops felt it necessary to regularly warn me of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  Warnings are often wasted on the wayward.  We don’t like the flaws in our logic challenged so we roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit the messenger. Pops likely didn’t deserve my disdain.  Similarly, Jesus’ likely didn’t deserve the contempt he received in response to his warnings either.

Warning is one way to think about what we hear today in the “woes” recorded in Luke’s gospel.[1]  There are connections between the language of woe that Jesus uses and the language of woe used by Old Testament prophets.  Prophets didn’t pull any rhetorical punches either.  They wanted people to hear the bad news about their current behavior and call people to repentance, to new ways of being in the world as God’s people.  The woes that Jesus lays down are for those of us who are rich, full, laughing, or admired.  Sure, we have options.  We could roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit Jesus or the Bible or the preacher in the pulpit, wasting Jesus’ warning for the wayward.  Or, we could let the warning of the woes settle over us.  Let the warning of the woes challenge our wayward living much like the prophets used to do.  The prophet Jeremiah challenges his listeners not to trust in mere mortals.  By extension, this means we can treat our inherently wayward opinions and circumstances with a bit of mistrust; with a healthy, well-deserved dose of skepticism.

Let me give one small example of what I mean by a healthy dose of skepticism.  Periodically, those of us preachers who show up for preachers’ text study will debate the pros and cons of sharing personal stories.  In this small example of an ongoing debate, it makes sense to wonder why we preachers tell stories about ourselves.  After all, the goal is to point to Jesus in the act of preaching.  It goes without saying that it’s not about spotlighting the preacher.  A healthy dose of skepticism can help challenge the privilege of the pulpit while also trying not to end up the hero of our own stories and sending sermons off the rails – an important, mostly behind-the-scenes task.  Similarly, Jesus’ woes to the rich, full, laughing, and admired can instigate a need to self-justify.  We can find ourselves saying things like, well, I’m not that rich. Or I used to be poor.  Or even more problematic, we can find ourselves trying to justify why other people are NOT rich or full or laughing or admired.  It’s like we read the four blessings and the four woes listed by Jesus as a particular challenge for us to see where we end up in his list. In the meantime, while we’re justifying things all over the place for ourselves and other people, the opening verse of the reading says that “[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed all the leveling language in Luke’s Gospel in quite the same way before.  Maybe it’s because we only get Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, during Year C of the Lectionary Readings when Easter is almost as late in the Spring as it can be.[2]  The last time that it came up in Sunday’s worship readings was in 2004, fifteen years ago.  While preparing and thinking about Jesus coming down to the level place, John the Baptist’s quotes from Isaiah came to mind about smoothing rough ways, filling valleys, and lowering mountains and hills.[3]  Mary’s Magnificat also came to mind about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly.[4]  The leveling is NOT a reversal of bringing the low high and the high low only to change places and repeat the same bad news. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in Luke’s Gospel enacted what was proclaimed and sung by John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother Mary.

Jesus came down and stood on a level place with the twelve, and also with “a great crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Naming those locations means that the crowds were full of Jews as well as non-Jews otherwise known as the Gentiles.  Crowds of people showed up from all over, some were Jesus followers, some were Jews, and some were Gentiles.  It’s chaos. People reaching out and touching Jesus, people unbound from the social norms of their day milling around a level place.

Leveling works against our primitive urge for scapegoats. Rene Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity late in life after studying scapegoating and the Bible.[5]  Girard expected to find consistencies in scapegoating between other ancient manuscripts and the Bible.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.

The Gospel of Luke in general, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in particular is a prime example of how the Bible levels the highs and lows of social norms that we tend to describe as “just the way things are.”  This is especially true in societies like ours where “the blessed” are often considered to be the rich or full or laughing or admired while “the woed” are the poor or hungry or weeping or reviled.  Somehow, we misinterpret blessings and woes as deserved and bestowed by God – subconsciously justifying each person’s social location.  The problem is that we end up treating our neighbors based on what we think they deserve rather than on the greatest commandment, so named in all four Gospels.  The greatest commandment goes like this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’[6]  In Luke, the 10th chapter, we’ll hear this greatest commandment coming up in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus, preaching on the level place, is able to name the blessings of the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled not because of a far off someday but because he calls and invites us all to be a part of the leveling here on earth – seeing each other as siblings in Christ over and above our primitive urges toward scarcity and scapegoating. The primitive urges that increase the risk of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  The good news is that Jesus meets us in the chaos of the level place.  Rather than recycle the same bad news with a new set of faces, he invites us into the good news of our shared humanity, beloved as children of God, and freed into loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Alleluia! And Amen.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Rolf Jacobson. Sermon Brainwave podcast #648 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany for February 17, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1106

[2] Easter is scheduled annually on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html

[3] Luke 3:1-6

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[6] Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34–40; Matthew 22:46; Luke 10:25–28

Equality Is Not False Moral Equivalency (OR Those Meddling Midwives) Exodus 1:8-20a Romans 12:1-18 Matthew 16:13-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 27, 2017

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Exodus 1:8-20a    Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives

Romans 12:1-8   I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[sermon begins]

Conversation about eclipse glasses started weeks ago.  Mom would be visiting from Palm Springs so she’d offered to order enough for her, my family, and my sister’s family in Arvada.  Nine altogether.  Glasses in hand, she received the recall from Amazon that the glasses were bogus.  A kerfuffle developed in my safety conscious family until my sister the math teach connected with a science teacher down the hall.  Rest assured, these new ones would work.  And work they did.  I was here at the church during the eclipse.  My mom and I stood outside the sanctuary with our certified eclipse glasses and looked up, taking in 93% of totality beyond the bell tower.  Very cool.  And very fun to share this moment with Mom.

At a dinner party this week we heard from people who had seen the eclipse in totality – 100% of the moon in front of the sun.  They were able to remove their glasses for 2 ½ minutes and be wowed by the ring of the sun, solar flares, and a 360 degree sunset.  It sounds amazing.  One friend said that there is no comparison between totality and the 93% in town.  So while Mom and I were having our moment, other people were having a completely different one.  Apparently eclipse viewing is not created equal.  To be honest, this idea of equality has been on my mind recently.  No surprise that it would come to mind related to eclipse viewing.

It all started when a young friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago that he didn’t think people truly believed in equality.  Equality meaning that all people are of equal value in the human story.  Before these thoughts about equality were percolating, I’d already been thinking ahead about the Bible verses in Romans 12 and the Exodus story of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.[1]

The Romans letter gives us familiar reminders.  In verse 4, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” And, immediately in verse 5, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”  The Apostle Paul writes that we are “many” and “one” at the same time while also reminding us that we “differ.”  We can almost hear the squabbling and power plays among those Roman Christians to whom Paul is writing.

As people of faith, Paul’s argument lays down a challenge for us.  Do we believe in the equal value of prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and the compassionate as laid out in next verses?  And, if we do believe in their equal value, how do not create false moral equivalencies?  Moral equivalency means that we would hear everything that every prophet, minister, or teacher SAYS as having equal value.  One of the ways that we do this is by saying things like, “Well, I’m a sinner so what right do I have to call out someone else’s sin?”  Or, “Who do you think you are to decide who is on the side of right?”  These are important and often faithful questions, to be sure.  But let’s also think about the way scripture sets these questions in tension with clear moral outcomes.  The midwives in Exodus are one such example.

The midwives’ story is the alternate first reading in the lectionary for this Sunday.  Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite Bible characters. I simply can’t resist them when they pop up on the schedule. They are Hebrew midwives commanded by the Egyptian king to kill boy babies delivered by the Hebrew women.  “But the midwives feared God…they let the boys live.”[2]  The king confronts them and asks, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” Shiphrah and Puah reply, “[the Hebrew women] are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”[3]  I laugh every time I hear their reply to the king. The midwives are called to the work of life and they find a way even when the king commands them to be instruments of death.  There is no moral equivalency as told by this story. The king’s demand to kill the boy babies is wrong.  The midwives saving these babies is right.

God calls us into the work of life, too.  Like the apostle Peter, we follow “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When we see death, God sees resurrection life.  When others rationalize people’s suffering as something deserved or beyond anyone’s help, Jesus tells us that they are God-given neighbors for whom we are to care.  Sometimes resurrection life means live-births midwifed by Shiphrah and Puah. Sometimes resurrection life means giving money for hungry people to both eat and work toward feeding themselves.  Sometimes resurrection life means calling out white supremacy as an egregious legacy of chattel slavery in America.

As much as the U.S. Constitution and Christianity had to do with advancing Civil Rights in this country, the same could be said in the other direction. The U.S. Constitution and Christianity also keep the 400 year legacy of racism alive and well with embedded racial biases. I have no trouble claiming that paradox because I see myself as a microcosm of it.  One of the confessional claims of our faith tradition is that we are simul iustus et peccator which means we are saint and sinner at the same time.  Why wouldn’t it be so when it comes to racism as well?

René Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity through his studies of mimetic theory, scapegoating, and the Bible.[4] He died in 2015 at the age of 91. Girard expected to find consistency between other ancient texts and the Bible when it came to scapegoating.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.  He argued that scapegoating is a primitive urge for cathartic violence.  This simply means we feel better when we get rid of our identified bad guy(s). Violence escalates as the scapegoat is more clearly identified as the problem.  Peaceful feelings ensue once the scapegoat is removed or killed.  Problem solved.  Mr. Girard argued that Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat “condemned by all rightful authorities.”[5]  He also argues that the cross reveals scapegoating for its lie.  It doesn’t solve anything.

Let’s take scapegoating in our present moment.  For white supremacists, the scapegoats are black and Jewish. For other white people like me, white supremacists make easy scapegoats. By focusing on white supremacists, we absolve ourselves from the subtle ways we maintain racial bias in religion, government, law enforcement, real estate, education, and commerce.  The cross lifts a mirror towards all of us – convicting us of our own sin and turning us towards our neighbors. The cross of Christ levels the ground on which we stand. When we see hierarchy and power and race, God sees children – many children who make one body and who differ in their gifts by grace.

As God’s children, it’s good to wrestle with the question that Jesus asks, “…who do you say that I am?”[6] In fact, we are free to wrestle with that question because we are first and foremost children of God, baptized and set free. But God knows that the lives of our neighbors and, by extension, our own lives, are at stake in our answer to Jesus’ question.  Later in the Gospel according to Matthew we are challenged by Jesus to see his face on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, and the stranger – the scapegoats, if you will.  Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you might discern the will of God…”[7]  The Apostle Paul knows that we need reminding because we forget that we have a living God who shows up whenever death is chosen over life.[8]  Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”  We confess and remind each other, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Amen.

 

[1] Exodus 1:8-20a

[2] Exodus 1:17

[3] Exodus 1:19

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 16:15

[7] Romans 12:2

[8] Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher: “Speaking Up For A Living God.” On August 20, 2017 relating to lectionary Bible readings for August 27, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4955