Monday, November 14, 2011

Merit, Entitlement, and Grace - Kurt Nelson

Mark 10: 17-27
Rollins Chapel, 11.13.11

This term has been for me,
if nothing else,
an exercise in forcing myself to read the news theologically.
And sometimes an idea takes hold,
which simply will not let go.
Even if I want it to.
I was taken by a very strange op-ed piece by NYTimes columnist Ross Douthat,
His article calls out our near-worship of merit,
and the ways it has pushed us to the brink.
And ultimately I was convinced,
That I too am a worshipper of merit.
Even thought I'd prefer not to talk about it.

Its been a big week, after all, for important news.

Friday was Veterans Day.
A day forged by those wishing never to fight again,
since become, in some corners,
a celebration of valor and American exceptionalism.
But thankfully voices ring out
reminding us that this is a holiday
of grief for the horrors war,
and prayer that war should cease.
Even as we remember those who serve so honorably.

The weeks biggest story, probably,
is the unfolding scandal at Penn St.

Where its becoming clear that some very important men,
in the leadership of the University,
and the leadership of the all-important football program,
turned a blind eye to alleged terrible crimes against children.
And in the wake of their firing,
many of students,
took to the streets to riot,
and many in the media
seem to care more about football success, and legacy
than about the protection of innocents.

And Id love to talk about the idol of football,
and the idols we make of iconic figures.
Love to talk about the idol of national security.
Love to talk about something outside of me
that deserves an angry finger pointed in its direction.
But ultimately,
this week,
that finger points instead back to me,
and my cherished idea of merit.

Douthats article highlights the story
of Jim Corzine,
who from humble beginnings,
became CEO, then senator, governor, and CEO again.
Most recently the head of a trading company
gone bankrupt by breaking all the rules
he pushed for as a politician.
Douthat claims this story is the epitome
of our countrys celebration and even worship of merit.
Assuming that hard work and intelligence can save us.
Assuming merit is the only thing we need.
And an end in itself.

And, true, merit is largely a positive thing.
We should
pursue those things at which we excel.
But, of course,
being good at something doesnt make it good.
And its easy,
especially for smart, talented, hard working people,
to turn from merit,
to entitlement.
The idea that we deserve success,
simply by virtue of who we are (smart, talented, hardworking)

This is, I think a fair characterization of our culture,
our campus,
and if Im being honest,
We believe we really prevalent ways,
that we deserve success.
and this idea is, I think, profoundly unchristian.

And of course, when I start thinking about entitlement,
I see it at every turn.

We are entitled to national security,
at the hands of the few.
Even if it means a little waterboarding from time to time.
We are entitled to our football legacy,
even if some are harmed in the wake.
Bankers are entitled to their obscene profits.
People are entitled all the water, electricity and gasoline that they want.
So long as they earn enough to afford it.
Political battles are largely fought,
over what percentage of income we are entitled to,
while maintaining our entitlement to good roads,
social security, schools, end of life care, and the like.

And entitlement pops up in daily life
Half-mocked, half-celebrated by countless "reality" shows
Celebrating the affluence of the few,
and their lack of real world skills.

And entitlement comes up in campus culture,
not only in misdirected riots,
but in the constant argument over what grades are deserved,
the havoc wreaked by a B minus.
In the idea that we are entitled to an open social scene,
unfettered by drinking laws,
or campus rules.
And in the most mundane of ways:
A friend of mine was once in graduate school,
at a particular, top-notch American University,
which shall remain nameless.
He would often wander down to main campus,
to collect the books and furniture left behind during move out.
And he witnessed on day,
in a stairwell of a residential dorm,
a young man walking down the stairs,
unburdened, save for his phone,
on which he was texting.
And his father was in tow,
not far behind,
struggling to carry three boxes simultaneously.
And the father tripped,
dropping all of his boxes.
The son turned back and said, simply,
Come on, Dad.
This is, perhaps, the picture of entitlement.
which isnt born in these top-notch colleges.
But it is at times refined and perfected there.

And of course,
when I start to think about it,
Entitlement looms large in my very self.
Every inconvenience,
every frustration reveals in me,
a sense of deep entitlement.
Im entitled to my time.  My talent.
My money.
A short line for the ATM.
a fast internet connection,
cell phone service.
I deserve a life free of inconvenience, right?
I am, after all,
and hard working.
And I try to do my best to be good.
So dont I deserve the rewards?

And thus I come to a text like todays.
In need of a good shake up.
And shake us up it does.

Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor,
then youll get whats due.
Its harder for a rich person to enter heaven,
than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

We try hard to take the edge off these statements.
Try to make them symbols,
or allusions.
I have a colleague who was so troubled by this text
when she was young,
that she went crying to her mother,
why doesnt Jesus love rich people?
To which her mom responded,
Dont worry, were not rich.

But rich we are,
if were well fed, well clothed, and well educated.
And deep down,
I think we feel as though we deserve these things.

And if we let this story
these words,
sink in.
I think they convict us.
All your hard work,
all your piety.
All your success and seeming good,
says Jesus to the young man,
whom he loves,
All those things, really, serve only you.
These are harsh word,
hard to hear.

And they have, this week,
reached me.
Im left pondering two simple lines,
which Ive spoken almost every Sunday,
of almost every week of my life.
 we confess that we are in bondage to sin,
and cannot free ourselves.
Some days I really believe these words.
And some days,
I wonder if I cant just pull myself up by my proverbial bootstraps.

Wishing instead,
that I could just talk about football.
Something, anything outside myself.

But today I confess that I work in service of merit,
in service of entitlement.
in service of myself.
And cant let it go.
I confess,
that I am in bondage to sin,
in bondage to entitlement
and cannot free myself.

And in that place,
I can hear the word of God whisper:
For you, it is not possible.
But for God, all things are possible.
This is grace.
The radical idea,
That we are not deserving of Gods love,
runs so counter to our culture of merit.
So counter to entitlement.
This idea that we do not earn,
nor do we deserve
all the goods and gifts that come our way.
But they are given to us freely and wonderfully still.
We are beckoned forth,
and shaken up, to ponder the radical idea of grace.
The idea that there is enough good for us all.
Given to us, freely.
and undeserved.
Called forth to wonder,
what if this is really true?
And what would it look like to live as if it were?

Of course, I dont know the answer to those questions,
because neither do I live as though grace is real,
But I'd like to discuss them later.

But one of the things I think it might mean,
is all that good,
all that hard work,
all that merit
ought be focused not on ourselves,
but for others.
When we acknowledge that these are gifts,
we are, perhaps, slightly more inspired to put them to use for the greater good.

This idea of grace is not, I dont think,
grounds for a new economy.
And undermining the culture of merit is not,
I dont thing, a good strategic plan for a college.
And I dont think political change comes easily in its wake.
But it is still there.
Beckoning us to wonder,
if there isnt a truth deeper than economy.
Deeper than policy,
which ought to ring out in the fullness of our lives.

And so together we confess,
and come to hear the good news,
that we are loved.
Not because of our merit,
but in spite of our entitlement.

This is the good news that can both afflict and comfort us.
The news meant to shake us out of our complacency,
if only just a little bit.
The good news meant to make us ask together,
what if grace were really true?


  1. For those who couldn't make the discussion, we decided the best means by which to combat entitlement are:

    1. Meaningful encounters with people who are not so luck as we.
    2. Worship experiences.
    3. Forced manual labor.

    We decided Tucker does reasonably well with 1 and 2, but needs work on number 3. Stay tuned...

  2. Another great one, Kurt! Thanks very much for sharing.