Asbury First United
Text: Luke 7:31-35
(In The Screwtape Letters C S Lewis brought the gospel of hope to Britain in 1942, using the device of imaginary letters sent from a fictitious arch demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a lesser demon, Wormwood. Today’s sermon borrows Lewis’s device, though of course the content and the interpretation of Luke 7 are fully the responsibility of the preacher of the day.)
My Dear Wormwood,
Again it is my pleasure to write your annual review, you devil you. No uncle was ever prouder of a nephew than I am of you, Wormwood, given the excellent, successful year you have had making devilry among the good people of planet earth. As chief representative of the fallen angels in this part of the universe, I have a close relationship with the Prince of Darkness Himself, our Father below. You may rest assured that news of your various nefarious victories will sink to his hellish level.
Your work, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful. I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your destructivity. You have kept them fighting among themselves, morning to night, like children in a marketplace, mainly sighting their own interests, assured that the one truth they each hold is the only truth, the only crayon, in the box. One questions the other’s sanity, as they did John the Baptist. The other question’s the former’s morality, as they did Jesus. Good: as of old, you have muffled both the word of repentance and that of forgiveness. So you treated the prophets before. Excellent, Wormwood, excellent. I could not have done better myself, even when I wore a younger devil’s tail. Keep at it, nephew, keep at it, set them one against the other, a man against his own house, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being. Oh the thrill we have to observe such needless division! Good boy. With this letter I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting divisive hatred.
Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affectionate Uncle, Screwtape, Superintendent of demons in the near Milky Way, to let you go without a little avuncular advice. Call it a little devilish Dutch uncle advice, to keep you on your way. Down below they celebrate this weekend, the great hope of a land of the free, and a home of the brave, a community with liberty and justice for all, a place where those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little. Ouch! It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric. We have destructive work to do, Wormwood. Here are some bits of wisdom from me, your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.
Be most careful, Wormwood, not to let any of these groups you have so carefully set upon each other, with daggers drawn, get the idea that wisdom is justified by deeds, that wisdom is justified by all her children, that wisdom comes in more than one color. Make sure the blue stay blue, and the red stay red. Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its ringing cry of hope, its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin they all share. Keep them fighting. Keep the Presbyterians denouncing pride, and forgetting about sloth and falsehood. Keep the Methodists denouncing sloth, and forgetting about pride and falsehood. Keep the Lutherans denouncing falsehood, and forgetting about pride and sloth. Yes. Excellent. Children in the market place. Varium et mutibile semper. Purple is dangerous to us. If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there—your cause is lost. Keep them shouting at each other, like children in a marketplace, one group wanting to play weddings and another wanting to play funerals, pipes vs. wails, dances vs. weepings. Take the purple out of their crayon boxes. You want division, Wormwood, division: gated communities, the demise of public schools, lines of suburban\urban separation, racial disease and distrust, class separations, ideological fences, and a verbal war of all against all. Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.
Here is an example. I hear the good heart of one of their leaders saying something about “No Child Left Behind”. That is their President’s current idea. It troubles the devil out of me to hear such good loving thought. When he said, “we oppose the soft bigotry of low expectations”, it troubled me like the devil. When he said, “we will meet violence with patient justice”, that made me squirm like the devil I am. And now this heavenly notion of No Child Left Behind. Wormwood! Wormwood, this is peril for us! This is peril for the interests of Beelzebub everywhere. Be on the lookout! If that country ever got behind that idea, and every child had medical care, education, respect—oh, it worries me. Keep them pinned down, keep their leaders pinned down, Wormwood, in tragic conflict, in financial red ink, in culture wars. And be vigilant! Sometimes they get the idea! Why, just last week an 11 year old Boy Scout, Brennan Hawkins, was lost in the Utah Mountains, and 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him! The lost was found! Curses. Oh, the joy they had in it, too! It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, neighbor to church to experience love. There is no greater joy! It makes my blood freeze. The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.” (NY Times, June, 2005) Oh Lordy. See, Wormwood, see what happens when they really mean it, “No Child Left Behind”. If they stick to it we will be out of business in your part of the hemisphere. Another example, Wormwood. We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being. We want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment division. But this country and its mainline churches, especially the Methodists, have always championed social mobility, like that in the churches of Paul, way back when. Paul’s urban Christians were status inconsistent, and so are the living churches today. That Paul was a thorn in my flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last. We need to keep people in their place. You remember how angry I became reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. That kind of stubborn hope makes my blood freeze. That poor, violated, forgotten, betrayed, downtrodden woman, Wormwood, she kept going—and with a vision of hope! That will never do, nephew. We need to keep people in their place. Walker wrote (oh it curdled my deviled eggs): “The gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one's people that has not previously been taken into account.” That kind of perseverance really freezes my blood.
I tell you, nephew, it bothers me when liberty and justice break out, when I read about a young woman, Della Mae Justice, who was a 15 year old foster child living in a hut with a dirt floor, until her uncle came and found her and took her into his own home. He was an attorney in Kentucky. She said it was like little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers. Listen to this Wormwood, and see if doesn’t freeze your blood:
“It was not easy. I was shy and socially inept. For the first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn’t have any idea what the right clothes were. I didn’t know much about the world, and I was always afraid of making the wrong move. When we had a school trip for chorus we went to a restaurant. I ordered a club sandwich, but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn’t know how to eat it, so I just sat there, well, staring at it and starving and saying I didn’t feel well.” (NY Times, May, 2005)
Her uncle educated her at Berea College, a school set up especially for hard working, children of the poor who want a fine education. Now she is an attorney in his firm. Wormwood! Be on the lookout! This kind of story will find its way into a pulpit if it is not snuffed out. See who we have on our side in the newspapers.
What would happen down there if this idea, no child left behind, took hold? You would have middle aged parents whose own children have grown up adopting others! You would have adoption outpacing abortion, so that abortion was not only safe, legal and rare, but rare, rare and rare! You would have liberty and justice! There would be understanding and space for gay children! Perish the thought, Wormwood, perish the thought. I hate kids and dogs, too.
And this war in Iraq. Good bit of work, there, Wormwood. Now, if you can just keep the purple crayon out of the box. My own fear is that there will emerge a consensus in the USA on how to fix this problem. Here is my suggestion: keep the blue critics of the invasion stuck in their anger over what, they judge, should never have happened—that will keep them from facing a clearly new and frightfully difficult situation with resolve, humility, and imagination; and keep the red supporters of the invasion stuck in defense of past confusions, misinformation and misjudgment—that will keep them from finding the resolve, humility and imagination needed to change course to finish the job; and keep them from talking with each other to find the purple ground—divide and conquer, Wormwood, divide and conquer. Otherwise they may find a way to gather the will of the country to finish what some judged should not have been started, and others claimed was already finished two years ago. They may find a way to invert the critique of the invasion into a plan for peace. Where the invasion was pre-emptive, the pacification could be responsive; where the invasion was unilateral, the pacification could be universal; where the invasion was imperial, the pacification could be sacrificial; where the invasion was unchartable, the pacification could be manageable. That would be our purple defeat, the defeat of all our devilry. Confusion, miscommunication, mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew. They must not be allowed to remember a similar past conflict and its dual lessons. You helped them forget the first: they should never have gone in. Now help them forget the second: they should never have come out, until the job was done. Why, then America would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation where No Child is Left Behind.
Let me be blunt, Wormwood. When you see a red woman and a blue man determined to think together, learn from each other, and work side by side, and they have lunch at a table adorned in purple, burn the restaurant. We just cannot have that kind of synthesis going on. Thesis, yes. Antithesis, yes. But no Synthesis. Red we can stand, blue we can handle. It is the color purple that is our downfall. We cannot afford that kind of creativity, new creation, new thinking. I read that Bill Moyers and James Watt were going to have lunch to talk theology. That’s what I mean, Wormwood. Burn that restaurant.
Let me be blunter, Wormwood. When you see a church, the last place people actually gather, if they gather at all, across the red and blue divide, putting on a robe with a purple hue, weaken that church. A denomination that stands for children, for the poor, for social mobility, for justice, for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right drain that swamp. What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country.
I have one specific request, dear nephew. Keep your eye on that church in Rochester. They are growing. They are building. They are blue and red together. They love children. They are learning to tithe. They are starting to invite. Work on them, Wormwood. Make them fear the unknown. Make them tentative. Make them forget their children’s programs. Make them accentuate gender, race, ethnic, class divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can. I will check your work at our Halloween review.
Remember our theme song: When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord (Blake).
Ah, Wormwood, so much lasting harm to do, so little time! So much opportunity for mayhem, so little time! Keep your dark side up, my boy.