Solving the World’s Problems

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. John’s Church, Washington, Connecticut, on September 2, 2012.

Technology is changing the world.  We all know that. We hear talk about a “global village.” We know it’s coming because when we call the computer help line we find ourselves talking to someone in Bangladesh. We worry about jobs moving out to China  and the Chinese worry about ideas coming in that they can’t control.

I came across this statement the other day  about the way in which we can expect  new technology to make the world  a more peaceful place: “It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities  should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange  of thought between all the nations of the earth.” You might expect that the “instrument” referred to  is the computer or internet, but the trouble is that it was said in 1858  when everyone was euphoric about the new era being ushered in by the  first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Now that we could be in such close touch  how could we possibly still have wars?  And of course that was just two years before the Civil War and then the Franco-German War and two World Wars and the Holocaust  and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and so on. And it rather overlooked the fact  that some of the bloodiest wars in history have been fought between people  who knew each other very well. The Civil War, for example, was between neighbors and family, and the Irish troubles and Balkan Wars were not between people who were exactly  strangers to each other.

I have no hostility at all  toward the people of Outer Mongolia; I don’t even get much upset by people in Iowa. But there are three Episcopal Churches in Litchfield  and the members know each other to some degree but they like having separate churches. Why is it, do you suppose, that we imagine that we can end crime and unemployment  and all kinds of hostility  local and national and international if only we knew each other better? You see claims now being made about  the potential of the internet as a force for peace. One expert has declared that thanks to the internet  the children of the future “are not going to know what nationalism is.”

Well, don’t be so sure.  Early in the 20th century it was thought that the airplane would help end wars – then they invented bombers.  Others thought the radio  would make us better friends –  but then they invented talk radio.  Sometimes when I have nothing better to do  I turn my car radio to a talk show and listen to the way improved communications make people more reasonable.  Try it some time.

No, improved communication,  improved education, is not the answer. There’s a problem we keep hoping to solve,  trying to solve, and not solving, because, I think,  we insist on resisting some age old wisdom. We heard it this morning in the gospel:  “It is from within,” said Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within.”

Do you remember the cartoon strip called “Pogo”?  Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” I think that’s a good diagnosis of the problem.  A diagnosis is not a solution  but you need a good diagnosis  before you can solve a problem.  If you have the wrong diagnosis,  you won’t get very far.  In the gospel this morning,  Jesus is providing a diagnosis,  pointing to the way  people in his society were trying to solve the problem of evil by a careful observance of the laws, ritual washing in particular.  But clean hands wasn’t the problem. Clean hands has to do with physical health,  it doesn’t help our spiritual health very much. Physical problems are the kind we can solve  with better education and so on. But clean hands are not the problem. The problem is within  and we would rather not face it.

We would rather not face it.  We like to imagine that the problem is out there somewhere  and soluble  if only we can communicate better,  bring our technology to bear. We’ve accomplished so much with science,  we have so much wealth  and technical knowledge, we just assume we can get everything worked out  if we just spend a little more or learn a little more  or try a little harder; if we wash our hands more often,  lay more cables across the Atlantic, post more web sites, follow more friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, it sounds good, but ask the people of Syria.  or the people of Sharon, CT, where I live. We had Route 4 blocked off a mile or so away  from where I live two weeks ago while the police investigated a murder,  and it wasn’t a random crime. The killers knew their victim very well.  You may not even have heard about it.  It’s a common story.  Hardly newsworthy. Happens all the time  among people who know each other very well and have all kinds of information available.

All today’s gospel really does is remind us  there is such a problem, and that human ingenuity can’t solve it. Because WE are the problem: you and I,  who are human beings, who are not angels,  and from within whom comes the evil.  We deplore it if it happens to make the news  and try to conceal when it doesn’t.  Most often it doesn’t make the news;  it just creates tensions and misunderstandings and flare-ups of anger sometimes escalating into violence and divorce,  often creating divisions in small communities as well as big cities,  sometimes even separating Christian churches.  It is always there; it comes from within; it makes us, if we are reflective,  always dis-satisfied with who we are and how we deal with others.  We know somehow that it doesn’t have to be that way  but we find ourselves helpless to change.

This gospel today is not good news.  All it tells us is the bad news,  the truth about ourselves, but it may point us toward the good news that  we need to hear.  The good news is not in this reading today  but let me tell you about it anyway so as not to end on a negative note.  The good news is first of all, forgiveness.  OK, so human beings have this tendency to evil, and that’s bad, but there is forgiveness, and that’s good.  In fact, the reason there IS a gospel  is that there IS good news, it’s what the word means. There is forgiveness  and it comes from God.

All this evil, Jesus said,  comes from inside. So why do we look for solutions  from the same source? If we are the problem,  we aren’t likely to be the solution also. Nor is there anything we can do that  will produce a solution.  The gospel today begins with one more  attempt to solve the problem. Jesus’ disciples are accused of failing to keep the law by washing their hands at the right times.  The issue wasn’t hygiene – they knew nothing of that – but to win God’s favor. We may have sinned,  they thought to themselves, but maybe if we wash our hands more often, we can be forgiven. And Jesus is just pointing out  that you can’t wash off sin. It’s not there on the skin where you can  soap it away: it’s inside and no soap will reach it.

What will reach it?  God.  The reason the disciples went out  to tell the world about Jesus was that they knew at last what was needed  and they knew it was available, that it was free for the asking.  They went out to share that news  and now it’s our job to share it too.

The gospel, the good news is,  that Jesus came, died, rose – for us.  He came to tell us, to show us, God’s love and forgiveness. He came to open a way back,  to free us, to heal us. There are many ways of putting it,  but it all comes down to forgiveness which God holds out to us and asks us to hold out to others.  It begins with recognizing who we are.  The Gospel makes that clear: we’re sinners in need of forgiveness.  We need to know that, know who we are.  Then next we need to know who God is:  a Creator who offers forgiveness  and calls on us to forgive others so that our lives and our society  can finally, really, be changed.

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