When All is Not Well Where You Live: Sermon for October 2, 2016

The following is the first in a three part sermon series on Faithful Citizenship.

Lamentations 1:1-6
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

I grew up in a rather patriotic family. Most of my family members had either served longterm in the military or government, or married someone who did. And so my parents flew an American flag for all the federal holidays, they taught us about the patriotic symbols of this country, and when we were old enough they took us to Washington, where my dad grew up, to see Congress, the Museum of American History, and all the monuments.

The idea of America was important to my parents. And they always taught that if you did nothing to make it better, you weren’t allowed to complain. And they were especially adamant about voting. The way they saw it, if you didn’t vote, you shouldn’t be allowed to say a word about anything political issue whatsoever.

I’ve been thinking about their example this fall because, as you cannot have helped noticing, we are in the midst of election season. And this year it is particularly nasty. There’s always a sense of vitriol that comes out in particular election years, but in this one in particular there is an exceptional bitterness.

It’s in this atmosphere that today we start a new sermon series on what it means to be a faithful citizen. And I want to assure you upfront that this is not about how you should vote. It is never the place of churches to endorse candidates or parties, and I’m not about to start now. But when I asked about sermon series for this fall, this was the one that generated the most interest, and I don’t think that’s so surprising given what’s happening around us.

And so, over the next three weeks I want to talk about what it means for a Christian to be a good citizen. This week I’m going to be talking about living in a divided country. Next week I’m going to talk about how to make it better. And the last week I’ll talk about what it means to give your ultimate allegiance not to the state, but to God.

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Today we begin by reading this text from the book of Lamentations. As the name implies, this is a book of laments, full of sad poems. What happened was that Jerusalem, the promised land, the place where everything was supposed to be great, had been devastated. The city had been ransacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple, the holiest place in town, had been destroyed, and most of the people had been taken from the city to Babylon to live in exile.

The writer says that the city is like a lonely widow who “weeps bitterly in the night” and “has no one to comfort her”.

And as I was reading the text this week, I thought about how this was written about Jerusalem, but how for many in our country today, the word “exile” might just describe how they feel about things. Because all is not well in our country. There is pain and anger and hopelessness on every side. And it doesn’t matter how you phrase that disillusionment, at the bottom line all of it means that you believe this country is in some way broken.

And if you believe we are broken, then you also believe that we are somehow in exile. This may not be a literal exile, the way that the people of Jerusalem were physically taken from their land and moved to another one. But this can be exile nonetheless. Because when you believe that your country should be one thing, but it is another, then you are talking about an exile from the place where you are meant to live.

The only thing is, unlike Jerusalem, that perfect place has never existed. At least not yet. Or, at least not for all of us.

I believe America is a good country. But I know that it is an imperfect one too, and one in which justice and equality are still evolving. I knew that four years ago when I was just married and I was completing my taxes for the year. I remember looking at my wedding ring, but then having to check “single” on my federal income tax return because my marriage was not yet recognized by the government. I remember feeling confused by this country that my family had taught me to love, the same one whose flag was sewn onto the sleeve of my firefighter’s uniform. It didn’t feel right. It felt like exile.

But that’s minor compared to other exiles. When I was in Atlanta last week I went to two national historic sites. One was the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, and the other the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site. And in the first place I thought about this country that had been torn in half, and the two sides who were then literally killing one another. And in the second place I thought about how over 100 years later, that war was in real ways still being fought. And how it’s still being fought today.

I thought about how I can love my Jerusalem, because I’ve made it to the city. But there are others who never made it in their lifetimes.

And then I thought about lament. That is what this text is about, after all. It’s about speaking words of sadness and pain. It’s about telling the truth about division and disunity. It’s about being honest, and saying that the Jerusalem you know is broken.

That’s not unpatriotic. That’s faithful. That’s faithful to the fact that the Jerusalem you know is not the city it could be yet. And that’s faithful to God’s will that all of God’s children would find a home and a welcome in that city.

But before that happens, we have to tell the truth.

In a real way, that’s the job of Christians as citizens. We have to look around, see what is broken and who is excluded, and tell the truth about it. We have to learn to use our voices, and yes our votes, to advocate for the healing of a place that is in exile from its best ideas. And we have to use our prayers, and our hearts and hands, in order to do the work of building and rebuilding our own Jerusalem.

The first role of the Christian is to tell the truth about what is broken in order to know how to fix it. And the second is to be invested in our neighborhoods, and country, and world enough that we can join in that work. Not every four years, but every year, and every day. There is no such thing as a Christian who lives in exile from their community. A Christian must be planted in the place where they live, and must work for the good of all of their neighbors, everywhere. That’s Christ’s clear commission to us when he tells us to love our neighbors. We’ll be talking a little more about that next week.

But as I wrap up, I want to return to that story about my parents from the beginning, and how they talked about being good citizens. From the way I described them, you might think that they shared a lot of political opinions, too. But the reality is that if you ever saw their ballots, you’d find that they generally aren’t voting the same way. But somehow, for 56 years now, they’ve made it work.

In a time when this Jerusalem where we live is so divided, it’s small examples like that that give me hope. We don’t all have to agree in order to want better for our country.

We began worship this morning by reading the words of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. This country, this Jerusalem, was never more exiled from itself than in the days of the Civil War. This very church is said by some to have been the site of the first meeting of the Republican Party, which was first organized to work for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, down South families like mine sent sons off to war dressed in gray.

150 years later, in this sanctuary sit people with Rs on their voter registration cards, and people with Ds. And plenty of Is too. There are descendants of Union soldiers here, and descendants of Confederates. And together we see clearly the evil of slavery for what it was. That would be pretty remarkable to the people who sat in these pews 150 years ago.

But at the time, it was that small group who gathered here as people of faith, and decided the time had come to push the issue of abolition, that saw clearly when others couldn’t. It should never be lost on us that they were acting in the public arena because their faith compelled them to not be silent. And thank God they were not.

150 years from now, when the people sitting in the pews look back, will they remember this time in our history, and will they ask “What did the people in these pews back then do?” For the sake of our memories, but more importantly, for the sake of our own Jerusalem, I pray that God compels us all to do the right thing. Amen?

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.