“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.

The Magic of Pentecost

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

imgresIn July of 1997, Bloomsbury, the British publishing house, released a new young adult novel. The previously unknown author was a single mom from Scotland who wrote the manuscript on a typewriter in a coffee shop while her baby slept in a nearby stroller. That little novel and its protagonist eventually became an international sensation. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its six sequels have been translated into 67 languages, inspired eight blockbuster movies, and made J.K. Rowling, that single mom, a billionaire.

Despite its immense popularity, the Harry Potter series is not terribly groundbreaking. It is essentially an incarnation of the archetypal hero’s journey: Harry Potter is a young orphan who lives with relatives who, predictably, mistreat him in the most cartoonish way imaginable. On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard when he receives an invitation to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he learns that his parents, who were also wizards, did not die in a car accident as he was told, but were killed by a powerful dark wizard named Voldemort. As you can probably guess, the series builds to a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, the results of which I will not spoil for you this morning. Part of the reason that the Harry Potter series was so compelling is that it matured with its audience. The first books were definitely geared toward younger readers. They spent much of their energy describing the wizarding world, exploring what daily life would look like if magic were part of the routine. harry potter hermione ron warner bros.To be honest, it wasn’t all that interesting. The students at Hogwarts learn how to transform mice into water goblets and make household objects float through the air with their wands. Neither of these magical skills seem particularly useful. As the series continues, however, the magic fades into the background as the characters begin to wrestle with life and death questions. In the later Harry Potter books, in fact, the villains rely on magic far more than the heroes. Ultimately, magic is not the point of the Harry Potter series; it is instead the means by which the characters tell their stories.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day in the Church year when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the popular imagination, the Holy Spirit is the Christian equivalent of magic. Even in our own liturgical language, the invocations of the Holy Spirit could be seen as a kind of spiritual alchemy: we call upon the Holy Spirit to bless the waters of baptism or transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the biblical witness, the Holy Spirit does seem to empower God’s people to do things they would otherwise be unable to do. The Acts of the Apostles provides numerous examples of this phenomenon, and of course none are more famous than the incident we heard about this morning.

After he is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven in Luke’s gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they have been “clothed with power from on high.” Ten days later, the wait is over: Peter and the other disciples receive the Holy Spirit and imgresimmediately begin speaking in multiple languages. Some assume that they are drunk, but most are amazed at what is unfolding. No matter where they had come from, everyone who had gathered in Jerusalem was able to understand what these Galileans were saying. Those of us who are native English speakers have trouble understanding what a relief it is to hear one’s own language in a foreign land, since we generally assume that everyone speaks English. Yet thanks to the disciples, these pilgrims to Jerusalem who had come from the very ends of the earth felt a little less like strangers and a little more like they had come home. Needless to say, it was a memorable moment; indeed, it was almost magical. These ordinary men harnessed the power of God and accomplished something impossible.

That is generally where we end this story. For many of us, the point of Pentecost is simply to remember this polyglot miracle. On Pentecost, in fact, many churches will invite parishioners to read this passage from Acts in multiple languages at once, as if to capture what it might have felt like to listen to the disciples. It’s a liturgical opportunity to experience the magic of Pentecost. Now, leaving aside the fact that in Acts people actually understood what the disciples were saying, dwelling on the magic misses the point. The ability to speak in many tongues was a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, but not its purpose. The disciples were not empowered to speak multiple languages so that they could beef up their resumes; it was so that they could reveal the story of God’s salvation to anyone who would listen. Indeed, as soon as the crowd turns its attention to Peter, he quotes from one of the prophet Joel: “In those days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” For Joel and for Peter, the presence of the Holy Spirit is an eschatological sign that God’s purpose for us is being worked out. The Holy Spirit is God’s signal that the whole creation is being redeemed. The Holy Spirit is a gift that empowers us to see the work of God in all things.

We invoke the Holy Spirit regularly in the Church. In our sacramental life, in our pastoral interactions, even in our committee meetings, part of being in the Church is inviting the Holy Spirit to be present to us. For some, this is probably pro forma; there’s a sense that a church experience only counts if we mention the Holy Spirit in prayer. For others, there is a magical quality to this practice; by invoking the Holy Spirit, we are guaranteeing God’s approval. The Church’s language about the Holy Spirit, however, is far more than some magical incantation. It enables us to see God working in all things. When we use the language about the Holy Spirit in the Church we are affirming that everything we do, whether it is baptizing someone into the Body of Christ, or being with someone who is sick, or simply meeting about church finances has the power to tell God’s story of salvation.

In a few moments, Emily will be baptized into Christ’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. She is, obviously, an adult who comes to us from another tradition. As we welcome her into the household of God today, it is not as if she will suddenly and magically receive God’s favor. Indeed, God was at work in her long before she visited The Redeemer. Instead, as Emily is baptized today, she will become for us and for the world an icon of God’s promise to redeem all of creation. As we invite the Holy Spirit to seal Emily in baptism, we are recognizing that her life has the power to tell God’s story of salvation. On this Day of Pentecost, this day when we embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit, we too are called to tell this story of salvation, revealing to the whole creation that God is at work in all things.

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.

Cloak Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, which is easily one of the most schizophrenic days of the church year.  The day begins with exuberant hymns and shouts of “Hosanna” and concludes with silence and somber reflection.  It is a day of contrasts, a day of ambiguity, a day that prepares us for the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week.  I think, however, it’s important for us not to see Palm Sunday exclusively as an opportunity to get ready for Holy Week, but as a day that possesses its own significance.

Entry into JerusalemOur reading during the Liturgy of the Palms today came from Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  As our deacon read the familiar story, I was struck by some unfamiliar and surprising details.  Unlike the other gospel accounts, the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as they greet Jesus.  Furthermore, Luke identifies the members of the crowd as disciples of Jesus, which is a detail that is not present in any of the other gospel accounts.  Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Luke tells us that the crowd spread their cloaks before the Jesus, but makes no reference to branches.  Though John is the only evangelist who mentions palms (John is making specific reference to Sukkoth, the Jewish feast that involves waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”), Matthew and Mark tell us that some kind of trees were involved in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  I’ll admit that it was a little unsettling to distribute palm branches to our congregation as we listened to a gospel lesson that makes no reference to branches of any kind.

These disparities lead us to ask what specific message Luke wants us to derive from his account.  What is Luke trying to say about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how it impacts us?

Luke’s most obvious omission is the fact that the crowds do not shout “Hosanna” as Jesus enters the city.  “Hosanna” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word frequently addressed to God that means “Save us.”  As I mentioned above, it is shouted during Sukkoth, when the people of Israel remember the time that their ancestors resided in temporary dwelling places after the Exodus.  It is a word that points to God’s saving action in history.  And one of the frequently occurring themes in Luke’s gospel is the fact that Jesus represents God’s salvation.  It is in Luke’s gospel that Mary refers to God as “Savior” in the Magnificat and it is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus proclaims that “salvation has come.”  For Luke, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s salvation.  In other words, it would have been redundant for the crowds to shout “Save us,” because God was already saving them through the person standing before them.

This brings us to the fact that Luke identifies the welcoming crowds as Jesus’ disciples.  In the other gospel accounts, one can make the claim that the crowds who shouted “Hosanna” when Jesus enters Jerusalem are the same crowds who shouted “Crucify him” during the Passion.  But for Luke, this is not necessarily the case.  Luke identifies the crowds that greeted Jesus as disciples, and also includes the detail of the Pharisees grumbling about all the hoopla.  It seems that Luke is making a very clear contrast between the disciples who greet Jesus with joy and the Pharisees to try to shut them up.

Perhaps the reason Luke presents Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in this way is to indicate that we have a choice.  We can joyously greet the salvation that has come in the person of Jesus Christ, or we can try to smother it.  We can cheer the world-changing power of the gospel, or we can try to stifle its message of transformation.  We can selflessly remove our cloaks and give of our possessions to make way for the gospel, or we can remain insular and self-absorbed.  Luke’s unique message is that we have a choice.  What will you choose?