The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats

The Rev. Katharine Flexer Headshot
The Rev. Katharine Flexer

In 1930, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a piece entitled, Are You a Liberal? Your Answers Tell: Columbia Professor Evolves 15-Minute ‘True and False’ Test Which Discloses Whether One Has Advanced Views. Here’s to great headlines.

The Columbia professor in question was Adelaide Teague Case, a former child of this parish from the time of the illustrious John Punnett Peters, rector here for 26 years and a national leader in social issues. Adelaide is on the calendar of observances called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, an Episcopal saints calendar full of dates when we remember and honor luminaries of the faith. Adelaide Case was the first woman to teach at an Episcopal seminary, and she taught and wrote throughout her life on issues of peace and social reform. Case also participated and led in organizations advocating for labor and pacifism – organizations that would later be labeled ‘socialist.’ ‘It is the business of the Church to take an active part in social reforms,’ she said – which is one of the statements on the quiz that you are supposed to answer ‘true’ to if you are a liberal. (You are also supposed to answer ‘true’ to ‘It is a religious duty to learn the laws of health and apply them’ and ‘ ‘false’ to ‘What a person eats or drinks is nobody’s business but his own’ – a sign that the definition of ‘liberal’ has shifted over the years.) On the other hand, if you are a liberal, you will answer ‘false’ to such statements as ‘Although some persons take advantage of our industrial system to gain unworthy ends, at bottom our industry is organized on a fundamental Christian basis.’ Hmm. Perhaps Adelaide would be called a socialist today after all.

And if you want to know more about her, our wonderful archivist Jeannie Terepka is writing a series of blog posts on Adelaide Case and the influence of St Michael’s on her thinking – she’d be delighted to tell you more.

What a legacy for us to consider, now in our time, when the term ‘socialist’ is again being used to apply to anyone who questions the reasons for the unequal distribution of wealth in this country. This past week’s news of the President trying to silence the four freshman congresswomen with claims that they ‘hate this country’ seems a far cry from the reception of public preachers and teachers of Adelaide Case’s day. I think the St Michael’s legacy urges us to a different response.

Christian theology, particularly that of the last century, spent a lot of time on the question of the church’s role in public political debates. Some have argued that the separation of church and state should mean that the church has nothing to say about the workings of the state. Some have pointed to scripture to say that Christians should uphold any and all authorities as appointed by God. Others have put the exercise of faith directly in the public sphere, claiming faith should direct our public policy and political decisions. Most find themselves somewhere in the middle, finding that our faith and beliefs must inform our interpretation of the world around us – but not knowing in this world of hyper-partisanship how to do that thoughtfully.

This is when we need prophets like Amos.

Amos is a tough voice in scripture, and a tough sell on a murderously hot day. But bear with me for a moment. Last week we heard Amos answering back to criticism coming from the king Jeroboam and his paid prophet Amaziah. Go away from here, Amaziah says. Criticism of the king is not welcome. If you don’t like it, go to another country. How about Judah? But Amos answers, no, I have to say what God tells me to say, like it or not, and he told me to prophesy here in this country. I have things to say, and you had better listen to me. This week Amos continues his tirade: ‘Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…the time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land,…a famine of…hearing the words of the Lord.’ God does not bless what you do, people. Pay attention. And no, I’m not leaving.

We know that people of faith have a voice to speak to the issues of the day. But we sometimes forget how to use it. As one commentator noted this week, we tend in our current climate to jump to a partisan opinion without naming what is the morality of the issue first. Telling people of color to ‘go back to their country’ is immoral. But so too is sitting back and criticizing without working to change things. Amos’ call for repentance is not just aimed at the king; it is a prophecy for all the nation.

There’s an Irish poet and theologian named Padraig O’Tuama, who writes, ‘It seems that much of what our religion calls repentance is another way of saying ‘take responsibility.’ It’s not always easy; it sometimes requires us to change and it takes sharp words…If religion is going to help us…then it must help us in our growing up.’

It’s easy to feel outraged these days. It seems to be our main national mood: outraged alternating with distracted. But our faith nudges us to do something, not just feel.

The Episcopal Church has a public policy arm and organizations that work for peace and justice. Taking part in those, working and advocating in the public sphere, is certainly one way to act out what we believe, as are numerous other groups outside the church. But perhaps even more pressing for us today is to change how we act in our everyday lives. Repentance means to ‘change our hearts and lives,’ to turn around and face in a different direction, inside and out. It’s something we do over and over again. We never have a lock on goodness – which is why we need to say our confessions and hear absolution over and over again. How in our own lives are we caring for the needy and the poor? Where is our money going, in how we spend it; where is our time going, in how we live? What do we do in our daily interactions with family and friends and strangers on the street, when we see their need? How, even, do we deal with our own neediness? Are we willing to ask ourselves these questions – and honest enough to tell ourselves the answers? That, I think, is where growing up demands that we go.

Yes, it’s summer, when the living is supposed to be easy. And yet the relentless beat of our politics goes on, and the unending needs of those around us continue. People come to be fed week in and week out here at St Michael’s; people get sick and suffer; we struggle with our own weakness to respond. May we listen, turn again, and start anew.