The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
In 1905, the famous German sociologist, Max Weber, developed an analogy to define contemporary social life. In times past, Christians organized their lives around their sense of God’s calling, or Beruf, which was the sum total of the obligations God placed upon them by their particular position in the world. Although capable of manipulation and rationalization, Weber believed that this sense of vocation allowed those who lived by it to translate their religious beliefs into the fabric of their everyday lives.
But now, Weber argued, we live in a time period where that sense of calling no longer touched us in the same way. The religious relationships that we used to understand our calling have been displaced by another vision of self-creation fueled by individual ambitions and goals. Instead of being based in our fundamental relation with God, this sense of calling persists as an inner drive to achieve and make the most of the opportunities before us.
The “Protestant work ethic,” as he called it, was responsible for the exponential economic growth in the United States – a country Weber enthusiastically studied and hoped Germany would imitate. But this shift from calling to ethic came with a cost. It made Americans all too adept, he wrote, at “turning people into money.”
More importantly, it created a form of social life that encased the soul of each individual in a stahlhartes Gehäuse, which has been translated as either an “iron cage” or a “shell as hard as steel.” The material comforts gained by the Protestant work ethic gave its adherents a false sense of freedom. Americans, he believed, developed a new kind of rationality, in which lives are measured by the goals we have reached, the money we have made, the possessions we have accumulated, rather than the relationships we have maintained or the values he have lived by.
Taken to its logical conclusion, “rational calculation, “ he wrote, “reduces every worker into a cog” in a vast “machine.” This mindset is so thorough that it determines even the possibilities we can contemplate. Americans can only imagine how we might “transform” into “a bigger cog” in the vast machine that encompassed every aspect of our society.
Weber was not the only one worried in his time about the price paid when religion is displaced from the center of our lives. Another vocal critic at this time was the poet, T. S. Eliot. Where Weber saw a hardening on the outside, Eliot saw an erosion and dry rot that begins on the inside before working its way out. In his poem, The Hollow Men, published in 1925, he wrote:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Weber saw the loss of religion as a necessary and unavoidable evil, the price of business humanity pays for prosperity. In contrast, Eliot saw this loss as catastrophic, signaling the end of humanity itself:
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In other words, for Eliot, we only know ourselves when we remain aware that the “eyes” of God are upon us. Our humanity is bound up with the belief that we are God’s creatures acting within a world that is his kingdom.
Therefore, Eliot believed that the only remedy to the ills of contemporary life is worship. Worship saves us from ourselves by teaching us to lament our lost humanity and the fact that our world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.”
A great deal of water has passed under the bridge since Weber and Eliot wrote these reflections on contemporary life. Looking back on them roughly a century later, it is clear that both underestimated the staying power of religion in public life. Rather than being a spent force, we live in a time period when religious beliefs threaten to undo us and destroy the bonds that tie us together.
Nonetheless, Weber and Eliot offer views that continue to ring true today. We live in an increasingly competitive world, in which the prizes go to those who remain disciplined and single-mindedly focused on their goals and ambitions. Staying in the game often requires that we sacrifice relationships and values that we hold dear as these relate to our family, our friends, or our God. Therefore, Weber’s image of the steel shells that separates us from one another remains powerful, prophetic, prescient.
The price we pay for this separation, however, is not just isolation. When we are shut off from each other, we lose ourselves in the process. For in the end, we find our humanity not in what we achieve or earn, but in those relationships that make us who we are. Therefore, Eliot was right to worry that, without God in our lives, we would become less than human – unable to live fully human lives. We would become hollow, stuffed, lifeless.
Is there an escape from Weber’s steel shell and Eliot’s hollow humanity? Our Scriptures for today tell us that we will be liberated only if we place our relationship with God at the center of our lives. In one way or another, each of our readings makes this point. In our reading from Exodus, we remember the moment in which the Ten Commandments are given to God’s people. The reason God gives these commands is not merely to be good, but to make sure that we are God’s people. By acknowledging God’s action in our lives, by forsaking idols, by observing the Sabbath, by treating others honorably, we create protected space for our relationship with God to live and breathe. This relationship brings true freedom and liberation rather than the false liberation of being a bigger cog in a machine.
In our reading from Psalm 19, we are promised that God’s law is bound up with our flourishing. The law of the Lord, we read, revives our “soul,” rejoices our “heart,” enlightens our “eyes,” so that we might shine from the inside out. Where so many things bring hollowness, God’s law brings healing and wholeness.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we are told that this right relationship with God has been bought for us by Christ on the cross. Jesus’ death gives wisdom that is wiser than what the world knows. It gives us power to live as if the power of sin and death were not.
Finally, in our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a whip of cords to cleanse the temple of the moneychangers, who commodified the religious practices of the people. Like the practice of making people into money, the practice of making God into money ruined the relationship with God that Jesus placed at the heart of the Kingdom he proclaimed. Jesus’s actions were driven by his passionate belief that the steel shells created by these monitized relationships had to be broken open in order to place God at the center of the Gospel he preached.
The ultimate break through, however, would not be the whip he wielded but the death he endured, the truth of which was revealed on Easter day, when his crucified body rose to bring us life and liberation. This is why he proclaims “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” By living as members of his resurrected body, we will discover a relationship with God that is more intimate, and holy, than what any law or sacred building can provide.
Lent is not only a time to give something up, but to let something go. We let go of those ideas and patterns we have followed that lead to sin and death so that we might receive those things that bring life and peace. Lent is a time when we ask God to unlock the cages that imprison us and break through the hard shells that entrap us, because these things stand in the way of living in right relation which God and our neighbors. Lent is a time when we ask God to come into our lives again so that we might be whole rather than hollow. May God’s liberating power break us free of the forces that enclose us and cut us off from one another. May his love make us real. May God lead us into right relation so that we might meet face to face, without fear, full of faith and in friendship, now and forever. Amen.