A Time to Speak

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.

Well over 200 years ago, they called a convention to meet in Philadelphia and work out a plan of government for a country without a king. That was pretty much a new idea in those days and no one was quite sure it would work. But they drew up a Constitution and they built in all kinds of safeguards against a president who might get big ideas. because they had fought to get rid of a king and they didn’t want to be stuck with another one.

We have a lot of references to kings in the readings this morning and they come off surprisingly well. I say it’s surprising because we like to think our country has a Biblical background, that the founding fathers were Christians and looked to the Bible for guidance. But the Bible gives us kings, not presidents. It gives us kings, but it gives us kings with a difference because the kings we read about this morning are not giving out orders, not running their countries. The kings we read about this morning are bowing down and making offerings and worshiping a child in his mother’s arms.

So we have a Constitution that is specifically designed to rule out kings but we have a Bible that shows us kings subordinate to God. Now this is a tricky subject because the Constitution also prohibits an establishment of religion. Kings, in the old way of doing things, often governed the church, and the founding fathers didn’t want that either. They didn’t want an established religion. And that also was a new idea – freedom of religion – no government control of the church, and no church control of the government. But they still assumed the church – or synagogue or mosque – would be there to provide moral guidance and call people to a way of life with God at the center.

I think the wise men or kings at the creche provides that picture – remind us that God calls all of us to live lives centered on God. God comes first; kings and presidents come second. I think the founders expected the church or synagogue or mosque to continue to play a critical part in society by holding up standards and pointing to failures. And I think the founders expected that those who seek to serve God would apply their faith to their actions as citizens. I think they expected the clergy and church members to act out of conscience, to contribute to society not just their taxes but their beliefs – to support the government when it seemed to be working for the betterment of all and to criticize it when it seemed to fail.

When it came to the greatest moral crisis this nation has ever faced – the issue of slavery and racial justice – churches and church leaders and political leaders both appealed to God in support of their actions. Churches and clergy took sides on a political issue – the question of human slavery – because it seemed to them it had moral dimension and it was right for the church to take sides. Abraham Lincoln provided a moral voice in his second inaugural address when he called on Americans to “strive on to finish the work we are in . . . with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right . . .” He made it clear that the political conflict had a right and a wrong in God’s sight and that the nation should learn to seek God’s will in establishing the right.

Now I’m saying all this because I have never spoken directly to a political issue in a sermon. I have my point of view, of course, but so do others, and my job is to hold up a standard not to apply it. Or so I used to think. But never before in American history have we had leadership so far from any moral standard, so far from any sense of God’s will for this earth. Worse than that, never before – except in the south in the days of slavery – have we had political leadership so indifferent to Biblical standards of morality and justice. When we have a president who says, “I have never asked for forgiveness,” we have a president who has no understanding of God or the Bible and therefore a President who can’t be trusted to work for peace and justice and the common good.

Worse than that, we have a substantial number of Christians calling themselves evangelical who justify this immoral president on the grounds that God can work through an imperfect tool. They point to David and the fact that David committed adultery and yet God used him for God’s purpose. Yes, but God sent a prophet to confront David with his adultery and David responded, “I have sinned.” Where there is confession of sin there can be forgiveness – and God can indeed use a penitent sinner – God can do more than that – but for Christians to support a sinner with no repentance seems to me to make a mockery of our faith and make all Christians seem like hypocrites.

We live in dangerous times. The New Yorker published an article a few weeks ago called “Life on a Shrinking Planet.” It said that “human beings have always experienced wars and truces, crashes and recoveries, famines and terrorism. We’ve endured tyrants and outlasted perverse ideologies. Climate change is different. . . . The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from four hundred thousand bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima. . . . Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since the year 2000. Last June temperatures in Pakistan and Iran peaked at 129 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest reliably recorded temperatures ever measured.

And yet we have a climate change denier for President. The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords makes us, the largest source of carbon in the atmosphere, the only nation not engaged in efforts to control it. We have, in fact, a president who is removing efforts to save the environment – not just denying, but acting to make things worse. The New Yorker sums it up that “We are on a path to self-destruction.” And we have a president leading the charge, a president with no moral compass, with no concern for the poor and the outcast – the people the Bible calls us to care for most.

I do not see how Christian preachers can fail to identify these issues and call on Christians to act.

I recently returned from ten days in Panama where thousands of Americans live as “expatriates.” I’ve been asked whether I would want to live there and my instinctive answer is “No.” Why not? Well, because I’m an American. My life is bound up with this country, its history, its traditions, its hopes and dreams. I get misty eyed when we sing “America the Beautiful.” But America is not God’s kingdom. I dream of a day when there is a true world community, when Russia and China and Iran and North Korea also have functioning democracies. I pray for a day when this country comes closer to the ideal of freedom and opportunity for all, the ideal of adequate health care for all and adequate housing. But I can only work and pray for that day by taking my part in American life. I can only make a difference by playing a part in the life of this country, and that means not just living here but holding up a Biblical standard and speaking clearly about our failures. As a Christian, I have a standard by which to judge my country, and its leaders, and its institutions and as a priest and preacher I have a responsibility to apply that standard.

When World War II came to an end, a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, thought back over what had happened to his country under Hitler, and he said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

For us, the time to speak is now.

Leave a comment

Your comment