Sunday, May 4, 2014

Paying Your Vows to the Lord

Paying Your Vows to the Lord
A sermon on Acts 2 and Psalm 116
Rev. Douglas Olds
Church of the Redwoods, Larkspur, CA
4 May 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah,h this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers,i what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
    1      I love the LORD, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
    2      Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
    3      The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
    4      Then I called on the name of the LORD:
    “O LORD, I pray, save my life!” …
    12      What shall I return to the LORD
    for all his bounty to me?
    13      I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the LORD,
    14      I will pay my vows to the LORD
    in the presence of all his people.
    15      Precious in the sight of the LORD
    is the death of his faithful ones.
    16      O LORD, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
    17      I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the LORD.
    18      I will pay my vows to the LORD
    in the presence of all his people,
    19      in the courts of the house of the LORD,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
    Praise the LORD!

The novelist Walker Percy in 1971 wrote Love in the Ruins.   One of his characters (p. 320) muses, “Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life?”
Our two Scripture readings this morning answer that question—to what the 3000 Jerusalem converts in our Acts text ask Peter and his brothers, “What should we do?” They’ve just been cut to the heart by the recognition of the Holy Spirit which leads them to understand that they’ve participated with the Roman authorities in Jesus’s death.
 The Psalmist in Psalm 116 has undergone perhaps an even more severe psychological experience within the “encompassing snares of death, the pangs of Sheol’s distress and anguish.” In both cases, the holiness of God has altered their outlook on sin and trust, and both Peter and the Psalmist propose repentance—what the Hebrew bible calls Teshuva—for going forward.
Teshuva is a restitution or ritual thanksgiving sacrifice.  As the setting for the later thanksgiving, the Psalmist has “called on the name of the LORD:   
 “O LORD, I pray, save my life!” …
    12      What shall I return to the LORD  for all his bounty to me?”
The question of the Psalmist, “what shall I return to the Lord?” is like the question of the Jewish converts to Peter, “what should we do?”  For the Psalmist, it is to offer a sacrifice in the temple where he “lifts up the cup of salvation” in thanksgiving, while Peter instructs the Jerusalem converts to [Act 2.38] “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him
             Note that for the Psalmist, lifting the cup of salvation is a form of thanksgiving eucharist in a temple setting, while Peter starts with a theme that is not “seeker sensitive” but employs sacramental suasion as well: repent and be baptized.
 The psalmist repents, committing to pay his vows to the Lord.  What does repentance under distress and anxiety look like?  The Jerusalem converts who appeal to Peter and the brothers are counseled to repent and be baptized, to experience the water closing over their heads while calling on the name of the Lord.There’s more to repentant faith than anguish, and that is restitution, Implied by the Psalmist’s question, “What should I return to the Lord?” Going beyond: “What, Peter, should we do?”  Repentance involves not only the anguished crying aloud of the Lord’s name, but the vow of restitution to make amends for one’s sins. 
Luke, who wrote Acts as well as his gospel, earlier tells the story of Zacchaeus,  the short in stature tax collector who hid in a tree in order to see Jesus and was bidden by Jesus to come down and dine.  [Lk 19. 8]  Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.  For Luke, it is not enough to change one’s mind. For receiving the cup of salvation it is necessary to make a vow for restitution for harms already inflicted. 

[Interpretation:]  "Remorse" is a feeling that the Jerusalemite converts, Zacchaeus, and the Psalmist felt. Remorse is composed of regret, of feelings of failure to act consistently according to one’s moral standards. That feeling is the precursor to repentance. We read in the Psalm and may infer from the Jerusalem converts that  repentance encompasses feelings of being trapped or forlorn, of anguish, and of despair at theirs and our own lost sin­fulness, as well as a feeling of being alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual foundations,  of having set aside our own inner authenticity and integrity. The Hebrew tradition of the rabbis notes that recognition of sin and remorse, if they are done without desisting from sin and taking vows of restitution,  do not constitute teshuva per se, only its first steps.[1]
Repentance requires restitution for salvation to take hold--for our feelings of remorse to lead to restitution, which requires us in repentance to act on the regret by making vows to “return to the Lord.”  Recognized between the allusions and parallels of our readings, repentance is the preliminary, and baptism is the fulfillment that leads to salvation. After baptism we approach the cup of salvation in communion with an inventory of our repentance, for as Paul notes in 1 Cor  11.29  all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
            The promise of salvation is for all, but it requires each of us to respond with the active vows of changed life for the promise to have effect.  For if we continue in our old ways of sin,
we will live lives of anxiety not knowing fully if our relationship with God is active.  Covenant life in baptism and communion requires repentant faith.  We are justified by that repentant faith, but we are sanctified by our acts.  The Psalmist recognizes the essential need of making vows and carrying them out for a right and thankful response to the saving actions of God.  
 Ps 116.14:  I will pay my vows to the Lord  in the presence of all his people.  Just as Zacchaeus makes his vow of restitution in public, the Psalmist too notes the public nature of restitution.
           This public nature of the Psalmist’s vows of repentant faith seems to me to require a public purpose.  It is not, I believe, in view of these texts to pursue vows of abstinence from private vice alone, but rather there are both public and private virtues that are to be lived out in the Kingdom of God.  Justice and peace in the land and community must be the object for our vows to the Lord.
           [Illustration:] May 31 is the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood, one of the seminal events of the 19th Century. It was, according to David McCullough’s history[2] of the event, a signal moment in the development of a public ethic of natural use of land and of class consciousness. 
The body of water that flooded Johnstown, Pennsylvania that day was constrained by a poorly designed,  72 foot high mass of stones and lead rebar and pipe, much of  the rebar having been scavenged over the years and repaired by mud and hay. 
The lake that the poorly engineered dam created was used for a wealthy person’s fishing and hunting resort, which included as members executives in Andrew Carnegie’s and Andrew Mellon’s businesses, including Carnegie himself.  People in Johnstown had been living with the existential threat of a flood for close to 30 years after it was initially constructed, though insiders and outsiders marveled at how sailboats could glide among the Allegheny Mountains in a flooded valley 420 feet above the plain of Johnstown.  At each heavy rainstorm, the mood in the town would approach hysteria, soon to die down as the rains ebbed. 
Yet when the unusually heavy rainstorm on May 31 took hold, the dam burst and the lake flowed forth from the fractured dam with the volume of flow of the Mississippi River, destroying all in its path and killing 2209 people.
            I bring up this event for its lessons and current parallels.First, in the inevitable law suits, the hunting club was revealed to be undercapitalized and paid out no restitution to families for negligence.  Second, after expressing little remorse for his participation in the exclusive club, Andrew Carnegie, the country’s second richest man, by September pledged the second in his soon to be long list of libraries to the reconstructed Johnstown.  Carnegie had only pledged one library heretofore, and that was mostly a political act to support one of his associates.  Carnegie made a move of restitution to the Johnstown community such as we are discussing today.
Third, there developed in jurisprudence afterwards the doctrine of strict liability for unnatural uses of land.  Building a sailboat lake high in the mountains failed Adam Wesley  Powell’s definition of a natural use for land. 
In the Johnstown Flood, we see the beginning of an ethic of restitution by Carnegie while at the same time changing the corporate structuring of limited legal liability.  The men of the corporation were fabulously wealthy, but the corporate entity itself was sheltered from legal liability for the unnatural use of land. 
The fourth thing we learn from the Johnstown Flood and its after effects is that a limited liability corporation protects from public scrutiny the motives and knowledge of its shareholders.
The fifth thing we learn is that an act of God will eventually fulfill the catastrophe which an historical record of possibility the land demonstrates. It takes only eyes and an historical consciousness to see that the valley received 100 year rainfalls (or earthquakes) on the order of every 100 years.  Give nature long enough time, the catastrophe that overtaxes the shoddy and the unwise will materialize.
             [Application:] We are seeming now to relearn these lessons about unnatural land use in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster from March 2011.  Questions are being asked how the plant could be designed with suspended spent nuclear fuel pools and built on land given to earthquakes and tsunamis.[3]  
Like the hunting club above Johnstown, the Tokyo Electric Power company appears undercapitalized for the cleanup, and the Japanese government has since passed an expansive State Secrets Bill that muzzles investigative reporting, potentially including the condition of the nuclear reactors and the alleged failure of remediating nuclear waste runoff from the damaged reactors.  The government has moved to make whistleblowing a crime.[4]
Yet, as we’ve learned from Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and others, sometimes publicizing negligence and criminality is part of a public act of restitution. 
Whistleblowing is an act of confessing that one has been involved in or known of negligence or criminality and then acts to publicize those events in order that they might not happen again.  It means taking a risk and put oneself on the margins of society without the protection of anonymity.We learned from Ellsberg of war crimes in Indochina, from Manning of negligence in the drone strikes that killed innocent bystanders in Pakistan and Yemen. 
In the case of Fukushima, people in Japan and on the West Coast of America are living with the existential threat of catastrophe when a so called act of God might come forth within the parameters of historical probability, say a more localized powerful earthquake or another tsunami.  Living with the threat of a flood of radiation from the damaged power plant is like that of living according to the threats posed by the damaged dam above Johnstown, though perhaps even radically more threatening and unanticipated.
           In these cases, making a vow to the Lord is something we do when our conscience is scarred by complicity, and fulfilling that vow is taking a risk so that the harm is not repeated. 
The Psalmist speaks of making a vow in the presence of the people. The vow is a public act, and thus has some public good associated with it.  For me, the recent turn of the Japanese government to criminalize whistleblowing if it employed against investigations into the case of Fukushima Daiichi’s precarious  and leaking condition, and the recent turn of the Obama administration to criminalize whistleblowing of secret government actions by prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act are troubling.[5]  These prosecutions are troubling inhibitions of the impetus to come clean, to make vows to the Lord in front of all the people that have a public purpose.

[Conclusion:] I believe these texts from our scripture lessons today speak of the necessity to make vows, take risks, go public, and reduce harms by publicizing the operations of the secretive and liable corporate state.  I believe these texts of repentance, remorse, restitution, and public return are to be applied by all Christians toward a political ethic that opposes the criminalization of whistleblowing so that negligence that imposes unnatural uses onto the land and harms onto its people are halted. 
Secrecy that seeks to evade liability and accountability is the exact opposite of paying vows to the Lord in front of all the people, the opposite of repenting in order to be baptized into the peaceable and just kingdom of God. May such secrecy and evasion not be so for you and me. May we live into our baptisms by being people who make the public vow, for bringing in God’s world of peace and justice.  Amen.    

[1] Blumenthal, David R. Repentance and Forgiveness. Cross Currents 48 no 1 Spr 1998, p 75-82.
[2] The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story behind one of the most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. New York: Touchstone, 1968.

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