“So that we may be like other nations”

To watch video excerpts of a forum presentation of this topic, please click here.

In 1787, the representatives to the Constitutional Convention who gathered at Federal Hall in Philadelphia were determined to strengthen the federal government while avoiding a monarchy at all costs. portrait_of_george_washington-transparentUnfortunately, their conversation about checks and balances was complicated by the presence of George Washington. To say that George Washington was well respected in the early days of the republic would be a colossal understatement. He was the presumptive choice for President and was already known by many as “The Father of his Country.” Even as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention discussed a hypothetical executive whose power was limited, in other words, they knew that at least the first president would become nothing less than an American monarch. Indeed, before Washington set off to assume the presidency, his friend James McHenry told him, “You are now a king under a different name.”

As he made his way from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital of New York, Washington was greeted as a conquering hero at community along the route. For his part, Washington was deeply concerned about the expectations of his people. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote anxiously. “I fear if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant censures.” Washington, in other words, recognized that no human being could possibly be everything that the American people hoped for. Nevertheless, the American people were so eager to locate their hopes in one person that they seemed willing to jeopardize their grand experiment in self-government.

This desire for a king is nothing new. In fact, it is central to the biblical narrative, especially to the the Book of Samuel. The pivotal scene of this book occurs when Samuel appoints his sons as judges over Israel. Though Israel had been governed by judges since the death of Joshua, the elders of the people approached Samuel and said, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” The elders were anxious about the direction of their nation and hungry for change. Aware of their frustrations, Samuel warns his people about the implications of their request:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

The old prophet’s point is clear: his people have no idea what they are asking for by demanding a king. Though Samuel alerts his people about the perils of monarchy, the people of Israel are adamant: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Their logic is almost paradoxical: Israel not only wants a king to save them from their enemies; they also want a king so that they will be like their enemies.

Israel’s desire for a king is much more than a political preference; it is the ultimate act of idolatry. The LORD says as much when Samuel prays in frustration: Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Israel would rather put their lives in the hands of a human being than trust in the God who redeemed them from slavery. Israel’s desire for a king signals a fundamental change in its identity: from those who have been chosen by God to those who choose a God for themselves. Their determination to have a king, in other words, led them to forget who they were.


imgresThis is an unusual election season: not just because of the bombastic rhetoric, not just because one of the candidates is a former First Lady, and not just because the other party’s nominee is a political neophyte. This election cycle is unusual because many people have invested all their hopes in their chosen candidate. Though this is always the case to some extent, 2016 has charted new territory. We have moved from “Which candidate would you like to have a beer with?” to “Which candidate will you trust with your very sense of self?” Indeed, not since the early days of the republic has the line between electing a chief executive and anointing a monarch been so faint. Whereas George Washington was exceedingly apprehensive about his countrymen’s desire for a king, both campaigns have been pretty cavalier about it this year. Of course, the Republican nominee has enthusiastically embraced this desire, announcing that he alone could solve the challenges facing our nation and declaring, “I am your voice!” Though the Democratic candidate has been more circumspect in this regard, the fact is that her entire campaign has hinged on the idea that she is the only viable option. For many, including the candidates themselves, the people running in this presidential elections have become the agents who will rescue us from despair and uncertainty. We have been so eager to put our trust in these presidential candidates that we are at risk of forgetting who we are.

This raises important questions for us as people of faith. The Christian faith teaches that we cannot ultimately locate our hope in any human being. What happens when, in our eagerness to support our chosen candidate, we fail to remember that God is the sole source of our life and salvation? Moreover, how can we faithfully engage the political process in this season when we seem to be collectively forgetting the words of the psalmist: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help”? If we are to faithfully engage the political process, I believe there are three primary tasks before us: discernment, empathy, and prayer.

Discernment

Discernment is a crucial discipline of the Christian life. As Christians, we are called to be realists and recognize that we do not live in a perfect world. Thus, the central task of Christian ethics is to weigh the goods in conflict when faced with a decision. No decision is perfect or without negative consequences. Discernment, however, allows us to make a judgment based on the information available to us and shaped by a sense of God’s Providence. I believe that faithful discernment will lead us to one of four options in this November:

  1. Choose one of the major party nominees on their merits.
  2. Choose one of the major party nominees on the basis of the other nominee’s faults.
  3. Choose a third-party nominee or write in a candidate.
  4. Sit out this election.

All of these are principled choices if they are the result of faithful discernment. I would, however, like to offer a few words of caution. If you choose to vote for a third party candidate, take care that your argument does not boil down to “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Though it’s hard to argue with that logic, it’s also important to remember this fundamental assumption of the Christian faith: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To put it bluntly: every one of us is evil. There is no morally pure choice in any situation, particularly when human beings are involved.

Furthermore, keep in mind that sitting out this election does not liberate us from the decision-making process. Unless we are ineligible to vote, we are participating even if we stay home on election day. In other words, while not choosing may very well be the principled path in this election season, it is still a choice.

f8ead6054a219b93848c0d77df2909c6Finally, I would warn against what one might call the “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” phenomenon. This refers to the bumper sticker that was popular around 1975, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after receiving the electoral votes of every state except Massachusetts in the previous election. Those who had this sticker on the back of their cars were making an obvious point: we bear no responsibility for the current state of our nation. Nevertheless, one of the consistent themes in the New Testament is that we are both responsible and accountable to one another. We function in community; we do not have the option of existing in isolation.

There is another important aspect of discernment. This has been an election of clickbait headlines and sensational stories. As Christians, one of our primary responsibilities is to decide what is truly worth our attention. Be cautious about where you get your information, and take care not to get swept up in the sensationalism that has driven so much of the coverage of this election.

Empathy

When we wake up on November 9, the election will be over and we will have to find a way to live peaceably with one another. It’s important for us not to assume that everyone who makes a different choice for President is stupid or wrongheaded. We all have reasons for discerning the option we have chosen. With that in mind, I want to commend to you an “exercise in political empathy.” At the end of July, Scott Gunn, the director of Forward Movement, posted the following on Facebook: “Please try to list one positive reason why someone might vote for the presidential candidate you do NOT support.” Give this a try. Write down your reason. The point is not to change your mind, but to recognize that we all see the world differently.

Prayer

It is easier to be empathetic to all of the candidates and their supporters when we pray for them. In 1 Timothy, the author urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Pray for the candidates by name. It is one of the ways that we remember that those who have stood for election this year are, like you and me, ultimately dependent on God for their life and salvation. 

More importantly, prayer is the way we acknowledge God as a true reality. It allows us to recognize that our salvation does not depend on a presidential candidate or any other human being. In the end, prayer allows us to recognize that God is our king. Acknowledging that God is our king empowers us to entrust our lives and the life of the world not to a human being, but to the God who created and redeemed us.

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The God who will be God

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

I have to be honest. Before I had a child of my own, I never changed a diaper. It’s not that I actively avoided it; it’s just that if the opportunity ever presented itself, there were always people around who were far more eager to take advantage. Of course, that changed when a baby moved into my house full time. I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the process. To my mind, changing a diaper was a little like changing my own oil: I knew that it was a fairly straightforward process and that people do it every day, but I couldn’t imagine being one of those people. Naturally, I eventually overcame these misgivings and have changed many diapers more or less successfully. Nevertheless, though all it really required was a willingness to get a little dirty from time to time, those initial feelings of trepidation and anxiety were very, very real.

In our reading from Exodus this morning, we hear of a similar trepidation from Moses when he encounters God at Mount Horeb, though his was arguably more justified. The Exodus is the defining story of the Hebrew Bible. Its narrative of liberation and redemption shaped the way Israel understood itself and its relationship with God. The prophets recall the Exodus both to offer comfort to their people in exile and to challenge those who mistreat the downtrodden. The New Testament uses the imagery of the Exodus to describe our liberation from the bondage of sin. The Exodus, in other words, is a potent reminder that God offers freedom to those who are oppressed. There is, however, another reason that this story exists at the very heart of our faith, a reason that is beautifully illustrated by Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb.

In many ways, Moses was an unlikely candidate to be the agent of God’s liberation. Though he was a Hebrew by birth, he grew up in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. He lived a comfortable existence until one day, in a fit of righteous anger, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. Moses fled into the land of Midian, leaving his cares behind and embracing a new life in a foreign land. He tried to forget everything he knew: the family he abandoned, the misery of his people in Egypt, and his own violent anger. He sequestered himself from society and tried to outrun his human frailty. It was in the midst of this self-imposed exile that Moses came upon the burning bush.

Moses_&_Bush_Icon_Sinai_c12th_centuryThis encounter is more than an a call story. Sure, it is the commencement of the greatest prophetic career in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it is the ultimate illustration of that oft-quoted truism that God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. God commissions Moses in spite of his inadequacies. Yet this story is less about Moses than it is about God. Moses, deeply aware of his failings, responds predictably to God’s commission: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses couldn’t imagine being the kind of person who could lead his people out of bondage. God’s call forces Moses to confront the human frailty he had so desperately tried to forget. Yet, God doesn’t dispute Moses’ human frailty. God doesn’t encourage Moses or tell him that liberating the oppressed isn’t all that hard. Instead, God responds with a powerful articulation of who God is: “I AM WHO I AM.” Another way to translate this is “I will be who I will be.” God is the one who will be God; God is is not hamstrung by expectations or beholden to the powers of the world. Moses has it exactly right when he questions his ability to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not Moses, but God who will liberate God’s people. Moses acknowledges this on the far side of the Red Sea when he sings, “I will sing to the LORD, for the LORD has triumphed gloriously…The LORD is my strength and my might and has become my salvation.” The encounter between Moses and God at Mount Horeb is the ultimate expression of a truth at the very heart of our faith: we are to locate our trust, not in our own strength, not in our own power, but in the very being of God.

On this third Sunday in Lent, we are well into this season of penitence and renewal. We often think of Lent as a time of spiritual accomplishment. We heroically forego chocolate or doughnuts or strong drink for 40 days and 40 nights, proving our mettle and our worthiness of God’s favor. This perspective, however, misses the point of this holy season. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature and and our utter inability to save ourselves, and then we are invited to put our trust in the grace and love. The disciplines and deprivations of this season remind us that we are dependent not on ourselves, but on the salvation that comes from God alone. The journey of Lent is about standing with Moses on that holy ground and recognizing our inadequacy, acknowledging that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, and then turning and locating our trust with the God who will be God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who is the source of our life and salvation. The message of Lent is simple: we are frail, but God is God. In this political season, it is easy to pin all of our hopes for the future on individual candidates, frail human beings all. Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb, however, reveals that no candidate, no policy, no campaign promise can save us: only the God who will be God can bring us into the fullness of life and joy.

Shortly after my daughter was born was born, my wife had a brief illness that landed her in the hospital overnight. Because I wanted to remain with her and we both wanted to have as much time with our newborn as possible, the baby stayed in the hospital room with us. As it turns out, hospital rooms are not an ideal place for a 10 day old to rest. Indeed, she refused to sleep for the duration of the night. At one point, my daughter was inconsolable and my wife was in excruciating pain. As I rocked the baby and patted my wife’s shoulder, I wept, because I realized there was nothing I could do. My love for these two people far outstripped my capacity to bring them comfort. I was utterly inadequate to the task. Though both eventually fell asleep, this moment was a potent and painful reminder that I have no power in myself to save myself or those closest to me. All I could do in that moment was put my trust in God. 

There are moments in our lives that we are confronted with our incapacity to save ourselves. It is in these moments that we are called to put our trust in the one who keeps us, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; to surrender ourselves to the one who liberates us from anxiety by offering a peace which surpasses all understanding; to remember the God who will be God.

The only thing we have to fear

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

History_Speeches_1147_FDR_First_Inaugural_Address_still_624x352When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the United States had been enduring the most significant economic crisis of its history for almost three and a half years. After the market crashed in 1929, the average household income plummeted more than forty percent. Half of the nation’s banks had failed, and crippling drought drove millions of people from their homes and livelihoods in the Great Plains. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed. It was, in other words, one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Roosevelt acknowledged this with astonishing candor in his inaugural address. He refused to sugarcoat or downplay the challenges of the Great Depression: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he averred. This context makes that immortal line all the more surprising: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For Roosevelt, fear was more pernicious than any of the adversity we had endured or any of the calamities we had yet to experience. Fear was a bigger obstacle than unemployment, drought, or financial ruin. And so before the First 100 Days, before the New Deal, before he did anything, Franklin Roosevelt argued that that the biggest challenge our country faced in responding to the Great Depression was to cast out fear.

The gospel according to Mark was written during one of the darkest chapters in the history of God’s people, a time of great uncertainty and fear. Most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the time of the Jewish War, which was Rome’s final showdown with the recalcitrant residents of Judea. Though the Jewish people always retained certain privileges in the empire, including the freedom to worship their own God in the Temple, their repeated attempts to oust their occupiers finally exhausted Rome’s patience. While this was not the first time Judea had experienced violent retribution from the Roman authorities, most people in Jerusalem recognized that this time would be different, that Rome’s vengeance would be absolute. Mark captures the totality of the anticipated destruction when he quotes that ominous prediction of Jesus: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The situation was indeed bleak for God’s people: Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile forces, the Temple was about to be destroyed, and the Jewish way of life was about to come to a violent end. If ever there was a time to fear, this was it.

Yet, Jesus specifically enjoins his disciples not to be afraid. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when you see armies at the gate, when you feel that your world is coming to an end, “do not be alarmed.” This advice is almost shocking, especially in light of the fact that Jesus goes on to list a host of other calamities, including uprisings, earthquakes, and famines. Nevertheless, Jesus asserts that the greatest trial God’s people will face is fear. This diagnosis seems almost laughably naive when we think about the state of the world. The calamities Jesus describes are painfully familiar: destructive weather events have become commonplace, millions of American children go to bed not knowing where their next meal with come from, and just this week, terrorists murdered hundreds of innocent people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. It seems that every day our equilibrium is shaken, that every day we are reminded how truly vulnerable we are. As we bear witness to all of this human misery, devastation, and death, how are we not to be alarmed?

It’s easy to read the last line of this passage with a sense of dread: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” as if to say, there is much more to come, or “you thought this was bad, wait until what comes next!” But the word that Mark uses, the one our version translates as “birth pangs,” is very specific to birth. It is a word that connotes not only the agony of childbirth, but also the joy that comes with bringing another human being into world. Those of you who have children know: even though the process of raising a child can be difficult and painful, there is an persistent and inescapable joy that exists at the very heart of being a parent. The hours in labor, the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, all melt away when you hold that child in your arms. This is why Jesus specifically refers to birth pangs: not so that we think about pain, but so that we think about birth, so that we remember the joy at the heart of the gospel. This is a joy that has the power to cast out fear. It is a joy that has the power to remind us that God is present even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a joy that Jesus embodied on the cross, when he put his life and his death in God’s hands, when he trusted that both his life and death were part of God’s story. Indeed, by framing the end of the world as we know it within the context of birth, Mark affirms that God is present in all our beginnings and endings. This astonishing statement demands a mature sense of God’s Providence, a persistent and inescapable belief that everything; every beginning and ending, every victory and defeat, every life and death; that everything belongs to God. This fundamental truth of our faith is incompatible with fear; Jesus tells his disciples not to be alarmed not because he is naive, but because fear prevents us from recognizing that even the things we are afraid of belong to God.

On Friday, more than 125 people in Paris were killed by terrorists acting at the behest of ISIS. In the wake of the attacks, countless religious leaders from every tradition have condemned the attacks, giving voice to our collective grief and outrage. One imam in particular offered a particularly cogent reflection: “Terrorists have no religion whatsoever. Their religion is intolerance, hatred for peace.” The so-called Islamic State’s view of the world is warped, not just because it is predicated on violence and extremism, but because it assumes the world can be cleansed of anything inconsistent with its narrow and twisted interpretation of Islam, that the ap631649421158world God created somehow contains people who do not belong. This intolerance cannot exist in true religion, because true religion requires us to trust not in our own will, not in our own prejudices, not in our own power, but in the power of God. True religion requires us to recognize that nothing exists that is ultimately apart from God. This morning, it would be tempting for us to adopt a posture of vengeance or of apathy, to clamor for retribution or throw up our hands in despair. These responses, however, are ultimately rooted in fear, because they forget the all-encompassing reality of God’s Providence. The gospel calls us courageously to claim joy even in the midst of our darkest moments. It calls us to remember that the towers and temples in our lives, though built with toil and care, will fall to dust, but that our hope is ultimately founded on God. It calls us to put our trust in the God who is present in our beginnings and endings. Above all, the gospel calls us to cast out fear and remember this fundamental truth of our faith: that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God.