Paradox of Status Quo

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First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
Date: July 21, 2019
Scripture: Romans 7:15-20 and the Hindu Mahabharata
Sermon: “Paradox of Status Quo”

Romans 7:15-20
I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

Hindu Mahabharata:
I know what is good but I am not inclined to do it;
I know also what is bad, but I do not refrain from doing it;
I just do as I am prompted to do by some divine spirit
Standing in my heart
Mind over matter. While food is probably the most harmless conduit to incriminate ourselves, for I am sure we all have stories about the after effects of an all you can eat buffet, I want to suggest that the correlation between will power and self-control are powerful metaphors to begin an examination about our strong survival inclination to maintain the status quo if that means we can stay in our comfort zones. Being disciplined and taking action is much tougher than gorging ourselves on what we like—and I think that is the problem playing out in our country right now.
For as much as Frog and Toad strive to get rid of temptation, briefly succeeding by removing the temptation, the transformation is short-lived, for at the end of the story Toad reverts to where he was at the beginning of the story—he will start the same cycle again this time with a cake. We see ourselves in Frog and Toad.

Our efforts at self-control are always potentially undermined by temptations that we would prefer not to have, and that are only available to us because those who are out of control make them so—the opioid crises, alcohol, even the current immigration crises can be traced back to those in power who have exacted their will. And that is the paradox of will power. The few in power exact their will thereby creating a system where mind of over matter is no longer a luxury, it is needed for survival. That is why communities, such as Weight Watchers, or Alcoholic Anonymous, or grief support groups are invaluable, for it really takes a community to help us to achieve will power.

This story about cookies, to me, echoes at a very deep level the struggle that one of my heroes battled—this is a real hero—not from Star Wars or Marvel Comics—a pastor who grew concerned about the growing militarism and growing racism in his country—he appealed to other pastors, but rather than standing up for the oppressed, most churches enjoyed the status quo. The time was 1938 and the pastor was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who painfully witnessed churches in Germany brush off the growing moral crises by rationalizing their new Supreme Leader’s actions: they stayed in a box protecting themselves. Like tying a string around the box, they were strung along by a false German nationalistic narrative. Like climbing a ladder to put the cookies out of sight, they benefited from hierarchical structures Hitler constructed. And like the birds taking the cookies far way, Bonhoeffer fled to America.

Dualistic consciousness gripped the German churches and remind me of the dilemma Frog and Toad illustrate—If we try to change our ego with the help of our ego, we only have a better-disguised ego. That is why patterns of rationalization and believing a false narrative perpetuate a system in order to preserve the status quo. Which is why the status quo is a very powerful narrative when it comes to racism and xenophobia. I think this is how many in the Christian community can rationalize supporting a culture that is distracted and takes the easy way, even if our earth and fellow human beings are harmed. Clergy have done the people of God a great disservice by preaching the Gospel in a way that keeps people in their comfort zones.

One of my favorite parables illustrates what happens when a church gets stuck in the status-quo.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.
Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. Some were foreigners. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.[1]

Why does it seem the nature of institutions to get stuck in the status quo of self-preservation, no matter what? How do we awaken from our spiritual comas and engage in sacred activism? By connection—connecting with one another and escaping the talons of false narratives that satiate our dualistic egos that love to judge and imprison people based on gender, sexual orientation and skin color.

Most of us have white skin and live in a system where we benefit from our skin color. I don’t want to be racist, yet I know that because of my white skin, people of color who do not know me will assume that I have the same values of those of our current political administration. I know I can walk out of store inadvertently forgetting to pay for something—but the police won’t be called as an apology of my absent-mindedness will do. I know I can walk the campus at Creighton late at night and not be questioned. I know if I walk into a retail store with four black women that I will receive help before they do. It’s the system of white supremacy from which I benefit. I can be aware of all of this and I still am tempted to just enjoy my white privilege and live in my white neighborhood and benefit from the existing status quo.

“Go back where you came from” reveals an aspect of double-consciousness, for unless one is Native American, our generational genealogy theoretically classifies most Americans as immigrants. This past week, Twitter feeds reminded me of lyrics from The Hamilton Mixtape: “And it’s, it’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants ‘Immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word.” The dynamics of patriotism, colonialism, racism and xenophobia dynamically ignite one another in Hebrew and Christian texts, fueling institutionalized systems of patriarchal religious organizations that also mirror a double-consciousness because sacred texts are manipulated to justify misogyny and bigotry.

Today, July 21st, reveals a paradox we experience here at First United Methodist Church. Most here are bothered by what is happening at the border. You can learn more about that today during the fellowship meal. But we are a long way from the border—that’s why the strategic air command is located here. If you are afraid of Canadians or Mexicans tunneling and showing up in your basement, then Omaha is a great place to live. One way to break the status quo of immigration is to be part of the immigration team—excited to say that we will be sponsoring our third refugee family who arrives from Burma this Wednesday.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1939 and helped start a faith community at the Finkenwalde Seminary, which he talks about in his book, Life Together, to understand dual consciousness that kept so many churches addicted to cultural status quo and ignoring social action.

But too much social action is like eating too many cookies—one can sugar crash and get exhausted. Emotional reactivity to all the hurt and pain and injustice in the world has the potential to seduce us and pull us away from peace within and therefore peace without. The contemplative life helps us to soften our attachment and no longer perpetuate the status-quo. Meditation allows us to discover our prophetic task, which may be much different from what our preconceived notion of sacred activism might have been. Even though everything feels so urgent, we need to nourish our soul and take a few minutes every day to touch down into that place of stillness and quiet from which that deeper voice can emerge and be heard, and affirm what is, in fact, ours to do. That is why the faith community is important, to help us break out of the paradox of the status-quo of doing too much or doing too little, and be transformed into the spiritual being the Divine created. Tonight, the words of mystic Mirabai Starr will challenge our attachment to the false self and the status-quo of dualistic consciousness. True will power occurs when we connect to the silence internally, then we can make sense of the chaos externally.