This week the prophets (both Amos and Frank) challenged us to consider our identity. There is no denying that we inherently desire connections to form our identity. Some of us feel that more strongly than others, very often due to our upbringing. Some families instill strong ties through ritual and story, often being clear that the ethnic identity is to be worn as a badge of honor. Sadly, one of the historically proven ways of lifting up one’s group identity is to put down other groups. This has played out in the form of all sorts of ethnic and national rivalries and wars. To see the violent expression of forming group identity by means of persecuting the other, we need look no further than the conquest stories of the book of Joshua in the Hebrew scriptures. Being the chosen people was meant to be a form of blessing others, but our forebears in the faith clearly missed that memo on occasion. When Abram first heard from G-d that he was chosen, the covenant went like this, “I (G-d) will bless you so that by you all families of the earth will bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:1-3) This ideal remains elusive even today, which is why I’m convinced that the calls to radical hospitality that are ever-present in the Bible are there, i.e. we need constant reminders to work at overcoming our natural tendency to lift up by putting down.
There is a natural, perhaps hard-wired, tendency to close ranks around those who are like us, which makes accepting those who are different very difficult. It is not bad to gather with the like-minded, indeed, it is a great way to accomplish great things. But, once we gather, we need to avoid circling the wagons. As desirable as being in the “in group” is, the higher calling of our faith story is to throw open the door widely and keeping taking the other in until all are in the in group and there is no other. This week, Frank called us to examine the exclusivity of the in group of those with greater resources (and thus power). It is so tempting to talk about “them” but if we are honest, “them” is “us.” This in group forms around its addiction to material goods. You don’t have to possess lots of material wealth to be in the group, you simply need to want more. Look no further than the current television ad campaign where a man in a suit asks a group of children, “which is better, more or less?” The humor of the campaign is in the foolishness of ever answering “less.” This addiction permeates our market-driven culture. It has also made clear that there is a very powerful god vying for our devotion, Mammon, aka the Almighty Dollar. When we create a culture around the accumulation of wealth, we actively deny the existence of the God of Abram, who blesses the chosen in order not only to bless them but to bless others. The reason that the words of Amos sting today is that we have become the same as the money-loving, poor-oppressing culture that he attacked in his time.
The good news is that we still have the opportunity to listen to the prophets and change our ways. Among those prophets are Dr. Bob and Bill W. As the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, they knew a thing or two about addiction. It is no stretch to consider them as prophets, for they claimed that they didn’t create the 12 Steps, but that they were a gift from God. The primary reason that AA works is that it is based on drunks helping drunks. Stand up at an AA meeting and you experience both confession and radical hospitality when you introduce yourself with your name and your addiction. “Hi, I’m Ian and I’m addicted to accumulating material goods.” To which the group responds in unison, “Hi Ian!” How many of our traditional worship gatherings could use a litany like that? The first of the 12 steps is to admit your powerlessness and your need for a higher power to restore you to sanity. Identity in this in group comes from acknowledging and accepting your brokenness. And once you find yourself (and thus find yourself in a group) you need to seek God in order to be made sane and whole again. Given the sometimes abusive nature of institutional religion, it should come as no surprise that some members of 12 Step groups have a hard time naming their higher power as God. For many of those folks, they look to the group as their higher power. How brilliant! If, as Christians, we truly believe in an incarnational deity then we should be seeking God in human form and what better place than a group of broken, humble and connected people? So many of our cultural and systemic problems are rooted in our disconnectedness, so we surely can find needed wisdom if we were to heed these prophets who call us to find God in the connections forged in humble acknowledgment of the presence of God in our individual and collective pain. May we begin to find the recovery from our modern addictions that are at the same time ancient, for though the manifestations may change, the sinful heart remains until it sees its brokenness and seeks a return to sanity.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com