Sermon for St. George’s July 30, 2017
Several of us are walking along the beach, a beautiful clear early summer day. Our conversation is inconsequential, but then on of us volunteers that he has recently visited an old college friend, a long time Republican. He has found it eye-opening to listen to this friend’s views about the president and why he and 50% of Americans support him. Our group grows tense as one of us hotly contends with the 50% figure, and the argument is on – back and forth about what percentage actually voted, whether 50% is accurate or a lie. And the person who began the conversation loses it – shouting and yelling and refusing to speak any further with us about "people who may view the world very differently than you do," claiming we have no real interest in what they think and only want to condemn them.
I walk faster, move ahead down the beach, dismayed to hear people I know and love actually screaming at each other – echoing the fractured conversations occurring so widely now – in our media, around dinner tables, at meetings and rallies. Or not – conversations not had, avoided, stuffed away to avoid conflict, to try to preserve harmony.
And I realize my friend on the beach was right – we often don’t want to really hear about a world view that clashes with ours; we are more comfortable assuming that the character flaws of an individual disqualify him or her from serious consideration, and that hence his supporters don’t need to be taken seriously either.
I don’t know about you, but ever since the election, and probably months before it, I have had an uneasy sense of how to BE in this chaotic chapter of our nation’s history. I read way too many op ed columns – mostly by folks I agree with. I walk my dog with a friend most days, and we spend at least half of our time ranting (fortunately the other half on food and restaurants). I fume as I read the morning paper; I provide a running, sneering commentary to the evening news hour, and Bill is quite tired of it.
And, I’m a minister – I’m supposed to be constructive, spiritually grounded, open, compassionate and forgiving – forgiving above all. I’m supposed to love my enemy and encourage others to do the same. And, at our best, that’s how all of us can be, and sometimes we are. But this season is not bringing out the best in us, not in most of our leaders, and not in the political swamp that is Washington, not in me.
And so I have been glad to be pushed, challenged to speak this morning, on the dilemmas we face in terms of what responsible leadership and citizenship look like. I think today’s appointed readings can help us here.
First, we have the poignant passage in which the newly crowned and very young King Solomon encounters God in a dream. Solomon acknowledges his inexperience, likening himself to a little child, barely knowing how to go out or go in. He also shows his awe in the face of governing a great people, and he asks for an understanding mind, able to discern between good and evil. Humility, respect for his task, understanding and a moral compass – this is Solomon as he embarks on his kingship. In the dream, God is pleased – especially because, unlike so many, Solomon has not asked for long life or riches or revenge on his enemies, and has sought to know 2
what is right. And so God grants him the wisdom he seeks and throws in long life and riches as well – even though Solomon did not ask for them.
So it’s just a dream, and it was thousands of years ago – but isn’t it still what we long for in our leaders? Doesn’t it remind us of how things might be, or ought to be? Don’t we feel that somehow leaders who can know their limits and strive for wisdom and the courage to do the right thing will be blessed – if not by some supernatural being like the one Solomon worshiped, then at least blessed with approval and support from those they govern and with a measure of success in their policies? Don’t we have the right to hope for this; don’t we have the responsibility to work for it?
But the working is so hard. I know very few people who hold profoundly different political views than I do, and although I say I’d love to be in conversation with these people, I’m not sure I’d be very good at it – I’m not sure I’d do any better than the blow-up on the beach. Can St. Paul’s message in Romans help here? Perhaps. I love it that he says "we do not know how to pray as we ought" – that would be me, and then "the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Sighs too deep for words – this is, for Paul, how God works within us in troubled times.
And then Paul sails off into his wild, radical passage of assurance and hope, beginning with the dismayed question "What then are we to say about these things?" For him, nothing, nothing in all creation, now or later or in any way, is able to separate us from the love of God, and for him that love is shown in Jesus Christ.
I’d love to just let the beauty of the passage stand and simply accept Paul’s conviction, but some elaboration might help. One way Christians understand Jesus is as a human being embodying the love and presence of God. As such, Jesus shows us what it is to be fully human – that it is in each of us to embody in our own various and unique ways, God’s love and presence. When are able to do this, we are indeed not separated from God’s love – we’re part of it, we’re being God’s love in the world.
That’s our challenge, nothing less – to be God’s love in the world, and to discern, to be wise as to what love demands from each of us. Is it activism, is it informed criticism, is it giving money, is it shutting up and listening to others who hold different views, is it waiting patiently. Love certainly doesn’t just mean being polite, being nice – I think God’s love is both muscular and tender, compassionate and tough. And so are we, but our choices are hard, and good choices are necessary.
Here we have some help from the gospel passage, from Jesus’ own teachings. Matthew’s gospel gives us here a whole series of small things that become big things, hidden things whose value emerges, careful sorting of what is worthy and what is not. Jesus is gritty here, down to earth – he talks of seeds and yeast, buried treasure, nets full of good fish and trash fish. Reading this, to me, the question becomes then – what have we got? What do you have, what do I have with which we can start. What resources can we use – old ones or new, to grow ourselves and our body politic into the kind of country we long to be, the one our founders envisioned? 3
Blustering on the grand scale (as I confess I’m wont to do) doesn’t help. But volunteering in a free shower, laundry and lunch program does. It keeps me grounded to interact with the people our social safety net helps or ignores; it gives me a sense of making a teeny difference, even though I contribute only 3 hours a week. What about writing? Letters to politicians at all levels offering honest critiques, support or ideas. One small message in the sea – but not inflammatory, not hateful. What about talking with our children and grandchildren, not to tell them what we think, but to find out what they think and get a glimmer of what the world they will increasingly shape will be like.
I was struck by David Leonhardt’s op ed column in the New York Times on July 18. Like me, he has watched with dismay as political discussions just spiral into nastiness, and he offers what he calls "a quieter step, one that’s worth taking no matter your views". He suggests doing something he calls radical – that we change our minds, at least partially on one of the hotly contested issues our nation is so torn about. Leonhardt says "pick an issue you find complicated and grapple with it." Whether it’s immigration policy or health care, tax reform, many others – we might read up on both sides of it and perhaps come to some different conclusions. His point is that even small steps we can take to question our own beliefs and at least consider other positions can lead over time to a spirit of compromise, Leonhardt reminds me of a wonderful quote from the great commentator Eric Sevareid who said, years ago that is is important to "retain the courage of ones doubts as well as of one’s convictions in an age of dangerously passionate certainties." These suggestions are small steps, small ways of winnowing out what is worthy, what is trash. They are consistent with Jesus’s parables about great things from small beginnings, finding hidden treasures, new things out of old.
There is so much to worry about, and it is so easy to be overwhelmed. Coming here, to this rocky coast for a time, coming here to this small wooden chapel in the trees, these too are ways we can unearth treasures hidden away in our souls, these are ways we can empty our nets of what is rotten and of no use, ways we can gather up and hold closely the truths, values and wisdom of our years.
"What then are we to say about these things?" Our answers will be different, but may a spirit of love and discernment guide us as we make our way through this thicketed passage. Amen.