Sunday, March 19, 2023

Sermon, the Fourth Sunday in Lent

'We are not worker-bees to be used up and discarded, but stewards of what has been entrusted to us, and what a great treasure has been entrusted, the sum total of our lives. And such a baptismal identity demands thought and only a thinking person can make responsible choices before God. '

Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

‘Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force… Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplishes anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed… and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.'

These words were written at New Years’ 1943 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to his closest friends, ten years after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. If we had only these words, we might think Bonhoeffer must have felt that it was the non-intelligent people, the dummkopfs, the mentally febrile in Germany who had allowed the Nazis to come to power and to stay in power. But we must read on.

'There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid…The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them… And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem… It becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.'

Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that stupidity is not what we normally think it is, the result of being uneducated or of being mentally slow. Instead, he says that stupidity is an infection, something that can be caught, a more or less automatic response to the presence of a strong force in religious or political affairs.

'Under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being…'

Haven’t we all encountered people who fit this description? People with whom argument or debate is unfruitful, who anger easily, whose thoughts and beliefs are reduced to the statements on yard signs and bumper stickers? Because we cannot reason with them, we angrily call them ‘stupid’ and attribute their intractability to some heretofore unsuspected character flaw. But, Bonhoeffer says, they are truly not independent. They are indeed ‘under the influence,’ if you will, not of alcohol or drugs, but of power, hypnotized by the power of another person or a social movement. They can therefore say things that don’t make sense and believe things that don’t make sense.

You may be wondering when I’m going to get to the Scripture readings. Be patient.

'It becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person…'

We can’t convince a person who has been made stupid not to be so. We can’t make someone else think. We must wait for them to be set free from the power that holds them in bondage, which prevents them from thinking independently. Only God can do that, and so we pray, even as we give our reasons.

 The Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson are the most educated people in first-century Judea, in religious and other matters. The man born blind is uneducated. He is even thought, due to his blindness, to be stupid or especially sinful, a belief still all-too-common today that physical suffering must simply be a symptom of some spiritual malady, a punishment for wrongdoing.

 And yet it is this man who is wise. The Pharisees cannot see what is in front of their faces – that in Jesus God’s self-giving love is active to heal and save. Even though they are very intelligent, they have been made, or have allowed themselves to be made, stupid. In today’s parlance, they cannot think outside of their box. Perhaps we should get rid of that phrase – thinking outside the box, because it implies that there is some thinking that can take place ‘inside-the-box.’ But when one is caged, physically, mentally, or spiritually, there is no freedom of thought. One must be set free to think in order to think. The man born blind has experienced a liberation, the giving of his sight, and so is set free to think things through.

 People who have religious faith are often accused of being unthoughtful, credulous, zombie-like automatons; in a word, stupid. The subtlety and complexity of thought among many of those who have faith ought to be a clear sign that this is not necessarily or even mostly true, but it’s way too good of a put-down to be let go of so easily.

But Jesus does not come to the blind man with power in the sense of force, to gain his blind adherence. Instead, he takes his time, allows the man to think through what has happened to him, and so the man’s emergence into light is a gradual but steady dawning. His understanding of Jesus is a process. He starts with the fact of Jesus’ healing him, and everything else springs from that fact.

God does not want robots for servants, but human beings as worshipers and as co-laborers in his kingdom. We are not worker-bees to be used up and discarded as necessary, but stewards of what has been entrusted to us, and what a great treasure has been entrusted, the sum total of our lives. And such a baptismal identity demands thought and only a thinking person can make responsible choices before God. This was one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite descriptions of what it means to live as a Christian – to live responsibly before God. 

A thinking person is free, in the words of Aristotle, to follow the evidence wherever it leads. And so it was in the early 2000’s that the philosopher and noted atheist Antony Flew became, not a Christian, but at least a convert to the belief that a designer had created the universe. In a book that he co-wrote, There Is A God, he set forth the reasons for his change of mind. The response from his former co-non-religionists was predictable; they said he had become senile.

Bonhoeffer concludes the section of the letter on stupidity by saying,

'(T)hese thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from people’s stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.'

Well, things may not have changed much in eighty years. Those in power, on the left and on the right and everywhere in between, seem, at least as evidence by their constant appeals to our lower nature, not to be very interested in our inner independence and wisdom. But if we believe that God sets us free to think, to follow the evidence where it may lead, we may be less influenced by the whims and the wills of those who have worldly power but instead see ourselves as those who live responsibly before God. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.’

So enlightened, may we live as children of light, bearing fruit that is good, and right, and true. Amen.