Life on Maple Street
August 30, Proper 17:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
There’s a classic episode of the Twilight Zone called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
You’ve probably seen it, if not, it’s readily available on the inter-webs.
It’s the story of the little suburban enclave of Maple Street “A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children”
It’s also parable of paranoia, and panic, and crowd psychology at the height of the Cold War.
It’s about fear, and violence and the desperate search for a scapegoat when there are no easy answers.
I saw it again recently on the Syfy channel.
And it occurred to me…I’ve lived my whole life on Maple Street.
Not that my life has been one of fear and violence.
I’ve lived and incredibly privileged life.
One where I don’t really have to confront or even think about real violence or oppression if I choose not to—which is one of the definitions of privilege.
But I’ve lived with the fear that ultimately consumes Maple Street all my life.
I was born after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I grew up in the last two decades of the Cold War.
And as we lived sandwiched between NORAD, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and over 150 MX Minutemen “Peacekeeping” Missile silos, I knew we were pretty much living on ground zero and fully expected the world to end in a horrific nuclear cataclysm.
When the Soviet Union collapsed it was no longer “the Reds” that were going to get us, it was something else…gangs, or terrorists.
I also grew up hearing reports of IRA bombings, and the Bader Meinhof Gang kidnappings and assassinations…planes being hijacked.
And then there was the reality of Oklahoma City, and 9/11, and the Marathon bombing.
And then there were the shootings…all the shootings—Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, over and over and over.
My older sisters did “duck and cover” drills in school.
My kids do “lock down drills”—what to do if someone walks into school with guns.
Fear and dread are constant companions when you live on Maple Street.
Now, it is true that there are genuine dangers out there.
There are people intent on doing harm, and they have the means to do so.
It’s true that in my just lifetime more Americans have been killed by guns (by homicide, suicide, and accidentally) than all the Americans killed in all the wars the US has ever been in. On average, 30,000 people die each year from guns. [http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/aug/27/nicholas-kristof/more-americans-killed-guns-1968-all-wars-says-colu/]
It’s also true that in my lifetime violent crime has decreased dramatically in the US.
Violent crime has been on a precipitous decline in the the States for the past two decades.
But we live on Maple Street, so most Americans, when polled, believe that crime is getting worse. [http://www.gallup.com/poll/150464/americans-believe-crime-worsening.aspx]
It’s that interesting?
We are by and large safer, yet more afraid.
Of course, some of that safety depends on where you live.
And what color your skin is.
People of color (especially black men) are 12 times more likely to be the victim of homicide than people who look like me. [http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/black-americans-are-killed-at-12-times-the-rate-of-people-in-other-developed-countries/]
Now there are a whole host of reasons for all of this.
And if we didn’t live on Maple Street we might be able to take a calm, reflective look at all of this, and craft some solutions…promote and engage in positive ways forward for all of us.
If we didn’t live on Maple Street maybe we could be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” as James advises us today.
But Maple Street is the opposite of that.
There people are unlikely to listen, quick to speak and even quicker to anger.
Maple Street is that place where fragments of information, half-formed theories, and mis-understood or only partially understood events turn neighbors into nightmares…turn residents into vigilantes.
Jesus says today that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.”
But on Maple Street we are constantly encountering the avarice, deceit, slander, and folly of others, and of our own making.
Those defiling things that come out of the human heart also enter us.
We imbibe the venom and toxic bilge that emerges from the human heart all the time.
It enters us and spills into our communities…
And it gets retooled and reconstructed in various forms.
The form of “isms”: racism, sexism, hard-edged individualism, etc., which then, over time, becomes something like “the tradition of the elders.”
Which is another way of saying, “The way it’s always been.”
The way it’s supposed to be.
The way I want it.
On Maple Street.
Rod Serling’s closing narration to the episode is haunting, and catches some echoes from the Gospel.
As chaos engulfs Maple Street, Serling says:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill — and suspicion can destroy — and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children — and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is — that these things cannot be confined — to the Twilight Zone…”
The pity of it is, these things have never been confined to the Twilight Zone.
I have lived on Maple Street my whole life.
But the tragedy of Maple Street has been going on since the beginning of time.
The thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat began when that primeval “something happened.”
When we became aware that, for reasons we can’t fathom, we were no longer living in the goodness of the created order.
Something was out of whack.
In mythological terms when we ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
All that God had created and declared “good” began to look to us, like something else.
When we became aware of difference, and began to long for sameness.
When we began looking for someone to blame for our own discomfort and our own disastrous disorientation away from the good.
Last week I said some names for it were Cosmos, Chelm…today it’s Maple Street.
I’ve lived on Maple Street my whole life, but I’ve also lived among people who try to follow the divine light, the incarnate light that comes down from the Father of lights.
“And they noticed that some of the disciples…weren’t following the ‘tradition of the elders.’”
In other words, some of people live on Maple Street, but don’t act like the people on Maple Street.
There are the people who don’t just hear and believe that another world—a world of justice and peace is possible—but actively work to bring it about.
Doers of the Word.
I’ve lived among doers who care for widows and orphans in their distress.
Doers who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
Doers who are actively seeking solutions not scapegoats to the frightening uncertainties of our time.
If you don’t know who those people are, look around.
You, and thousands of others like you, who are raising children and teaching others how to be kind and generous.
Who are caring for aging parents and volunteering at food pantries and making dinners for those living on the Common.
Who are tending and caring for creation.
Who are working hard at protecting the most vulnerable, and writing, calling, and engaging our elected leaders in passing laws and regulations that protect and promote the common health and well-being of all God’s children.
Be doers of the Word, followers of the light, and engaged in the world, and together, with all the others who also see and seek the light, we can keep the monsters at bay, and begin to live more fully in the light of God’s realm.