From its earliest history, the place just across the river from Columbus, Georgia that eventually settled on the name Phenix City was known for its lawlessness. At one point, owing to the largest municipal bankruptcy of its day, the city council raised money by heavily taxing its primary industries of illegal gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution, although there was not even a superficial attempt to shut down any of these booming businesses. The wild reputation of the town going all the way back to its Native American days was so well-known that even the US Army at nearby Ft. Benning prohibited its soldiers from visiting it.
But, in 1954, a Sunday school teacher named Hugh Bentley, decided to do something about this generational trend. In response to his vocal public position, his house was bombed. But, in solidarity with him, a local attorney, Albert Patterson, joined Bentley’s efforts. Patterson decided the best way to stand against crime was to actually start enforcing the existing laws. He won the race for state attorney general despite flagrant election tampering by local officials. For his unflinching public stand against corruption, he was assassinated in the street in broad daylight as he came out of his office.
In response, the governor sent in national guardsmen who did round the clock raids and in less than two weeks’ time, they had shut down every single brothel, gambling house, and the local KKK. When Patterson’s son who would eventually become governor learned of his father’s murder, he decided to enter politics winning the seat of state attorney general and eventually prosecuting the man who murdered his father. In a single session of the grand jury, ten percent of the town’s population of around 7000 was indicted. The tide had turned. By 2007, Business Week had named Phenix City Alabama the nation’s #1 Best Affordable Suburb for raising a family.
“What do you mean when you say ‘the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”
This theological theme of personal responsibility for our actions weighed against consequences that fall on the innocent runs through each of today’s lessons. Among other reasons for choosing to tell it, the story of Phenix City demonstrates the degree to which sin is visited on succeeding generations and at the same time what can happen when one person says, “No longer.” With Hugh Bentley’s intentional choice, the circle widened from one person, to the professional community, to the state, and finally to the national level.
Mary Demmler uses the illustration of throwing a large rock into the middle of a pond. The physics work equally effectively for the just and the unjust. On the one hand, each of us must take responsibility for the rock we throw. But we must also take into account the ripples, taking responsibility for what we started. And, by the same token, we can draw courage from knowing when we do something right that those actions will also cause a ripple, and it might help us hang on to know that help is on the way.
When Ezekiel told the people that they would each pay for their own sins and could no longer think in terms of pushing the consequences onto their children he wasn’t denying the ripple effect. He was trying to take away their excuses.
God is being prescriptive and descriptive – telling us to take responsibility for our own choices – and in the second case to recognize that our choices set the stage for our children and that their circumstances will be constrained by how we have blocked the scenes in advance of their arrival on the stage.
So, which is it, you ask. Will my sins really ripple out through generations or stop with me acknowledging them? Will my positive choices also ripple out and help to connect me to the rest of the body so that the body works better instead of infecting it so it cannot work at all? Am I saved by grace or must I work this out for myself? And the answer seems to be “Yes.” Or, in true Jewish fashion, the answer is another question.
“What do you think?” Jesus asks. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said go and work today and he answered No, but later changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same and he said “Of course!”, but then did nothing. Which of the two obeyed the father?”
Well, of course, the one who despite how he started out, managed to finish strong because he CHANGED HIS MIND!!!
There you go, it’s in the Bible: That challenge to us to change our minds about how we think about things. It is elementary to talk about feeling remorse over something we have done wrong. Young children feel as much.
We are challenged to go beyond remorse and move toward reconciliation, recognizing the critical need to repair our connection to each other and to change our minds about thinking of only how something might affect my life today and to consider how it affects so much more. We are also challenged to determine that unhealthy practices that may have existed for generations in our families stop with us.
Jesus challenged the good religious leaders of his day to see that a focus limited only to ritual details was keeping them from learning lessons that thieves and prostitutes were learning left and right; that is, that there is no such thing as a crime that hurts no one. We simply cannot throw a rock in a pond and it NOT ripple the water.
It is hard to do the right thing every time. I want to follow the Gospel, but sometimes it feels naïve, or reckless. How do I manage my innate need of protection against what seems to be the compelling call from Christ to empty myself of personal rights instead of guarding them against others’ trespass? My capacity for putting others interests ahead of my own is not very big.
Last month during all the storms, the chorus of endless verses of the same song was “At least everyone’s ok.” And, in the middle of a crisis, that’s enough. But, afterward, we return to understanding that having food and water and not being physically injured doesn’t necessarily prove that everyone’s ok. Ironically, following up on Fr. Stuart’s sermon last week, continuing to strive together, to collaborate on building community is an indicator that we are healthy. Sadly, even healthy striving can cause conflict to surface.
Paul tells us that when this happens, we cannot bow our backs and dig in our heels. But, we must move toward each other in mercy, considering others as better than ourselves and making our first priority their interests, and not our own. I confess to you today that I am still working at this practice. But I can also see that it is having its effect on me and reorienting me toward the other members of the body of Christ, members I don’t ordinarily notice. I am finally convinced that the way things ARE doesn’t have to be the way things REMAIN.
Friends, Jesus is calling us; calling us to learn these lessons, to recognize the Spirit’s work in our hearts, and to change our orientation from individual exceptionalism to universal belovedness. He is calling us to take a stand for the right, and pray long and hard before throwing our rock into the pond.
The time is now: “Turn, then, and live,” says the Lord.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
October 1, 2017 Year A