Abraham’s Nations and Ours

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on March 4, 2012 by Christopher L. Webber.

What was God up to when he promised to make Abraham “A father of many nations”? You have to ask, “Was that smart?”  Consider what happened: there are today “many nations” indeed in the Middle East and they look to Abraham as their ancestor and we will be lucky if we survive the battles they have with each other. Iran and Iraq and Syria and Israel and Palestine would all claim to be Abrahamic nations, descendants of Abraham, and they hate each other and don’t even get along very well with themselves.

So what did God have in mind?  Let me suggest a bigger picture than just the Middle East. I think the readings today, all three of them, might challenge us to think about the whole concept of nation.  Why do we have nations in the first place? What about America as a nation?  Do we as a nation have a place in God’s plan?  Some would say, “Yes, a very special place.” But here we are, 225 years along, and still fiercely divided over what it means to be an American and what America’s role as a nation is in the world.

They tell us that just before the Pilgrims landed they heard a sermon from their pastor saying that they, or we, should appear to other nations as a “city on a hill” a visible example to others. Some talk today about what they call “American exceptionalism.” What is God doing in this nation? And can I say something useful in a sermon about subjects so mired in politics?  It seems to me that the Bible ought to throw some light on a subject so much a part of the Bible. I pointed out last week that the Bible ends with a vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and the kings of the earth bringing their glory into it. Indeed there is a picture in Revelation of a multitude from every nation and tribe gathered before God’s throne. So that’s a positive picture of nations.  And all along the way from Abraham to the apostles, Genesis to Revelation, God is at work in human history calling slaves out of Egypt to make a nation and calling the Babylonians to take the Jews back into captivity and using the Persians to set them free and using the Romans to create a peaceful Mediterranean world in which the gospel could spread easily.

So nations are always playing a major role in the Biblical story. And in post-Biblical times, when there was a need to reform the church, Martin Luther would have been quickly silenced except for the support of German princes who sided with him against the Roman power.  Lutheran churches became the established church in some of the German states and in Sweden and Norway and other nations.  And we as Anglicans would have a very different history, or maybe no history at all, if Elisabeth I had not supported a reformed, catholic church for England against the Pope and his national allies on the one hand and the extremes of Protestant reform on the other. The world-wide Anglican communion today is often described as a family of national churches and why should we think of ourselves that way unless we play a part in the national story?

Let me suggest first of all, then, that God is at work in national affairs and that we as Christians do have a role to play in our country’s life.

There was an interesting bit of by-play on this subject last week, by the way, when Republican candidate Santorum apparently heard for the first time about a speech candidate John F. Kennedy made in 1960 in which he disclaimed any influence of his church on his decisions as President. Of course, Santorum isn’t old enough to remember the context of that speech and the deep-seated suspicion about a Roman Catholic candidate for the presidency that used to exist. I’m not old enough to remember how Al Smith was defeated in 1928 by those suspicions but I do remember how real it was in 1960 and how the fact that Kennedy won changed things and made it possible for Santorum to say that of course his faith would influence his decisions. He can say that because of Al Smith and John F Kennedy, his predecessors as candidates of Roman Catholic faith. They fought that battle and he doesn’t have to. Nowadays we can even imagine a Mormon as president – something the Republican party in particular once opposed.

Nowadays I think a lot of us assume that the candidate’s faith doesn’t matter whoever it is or whatever their nominal faith and I have to wonder whether that indicates that a lot of people have never met anyone whose faith made a difference. I’m not sure that’s progress.  Why are we here this morning if faith doesn’t make a difference?  One way of looking at the Bible is that it’s the story of the difference that faith makes and maybe more in nations than individuals.  But it’s even more complicated than that because, you see, God not only created nations and not only draws us together as Americans or Russians or Chinese or or English or Irish or Norwegian but God also draws us together in churches and synagogues and mosques and just as Moses had to tell the Pharaoh that his religion set him in conflict with Pharaoh’s government so people of faith have often found themselves in conflict with their national government.

This country exists because faith does make a difference, not because it doesn’t. The Puritans came here to escape our church, the established church of England, and so they established the Congregational Church and then Roger Williams founded Rhode Island to escape the Puritans and Molly Dyer was hanged on Boston Common because of her refusal as a Quaker to obey the Puritan government of Massachusetts.  The Congregational Church was established in Connecticut until long after the Revolution because states are free to establish religion if they want to and Connecticut did. There was a tax to support the Congregational Church. Separation of church and state notwithstanding, I’m still required to conform to the laws of the state in performing a marriage.

So how and where do we draw the line in our nation between a proper and improper influence of faith?  It seems to me that a faith that doesn’t influence our national life is a useless faith. It seems to me that creating a National Holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr is a definite affirmation of the role faith can play in national life. It seems to me that Rick Santorum has every right to let his faith influence his decisions just as Martin Luther King Jr. did.  I couldn’t respect him if he didn’t. It might be useful for the other candidates to tell us whether they have a faith that makes a difference and what that difference is.  We need to know that so we can make intelligent choices.  But to take all this seriously would mean hard work both for the candidates and for us: to study the Bible thoughtfully and carefully and listen to each other and respect other viewpoints but still make decisions that reflect our faith.

I talked last week about the abolition movement and if we can think back to that I think we can recognize that it can’t have been easy to work out a Christian response to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Yes, Moses freed the slaves, but the Hebrews themselves owned slaves later on and most of the Bible seems to accept slavery. St. Paul, our patron saint, sent Onesimus back into slavery and said, “If you are a slave, don’t worry about it; serve your master well” (1 Cor. 7:21) so he can be cited as supporting slavery but he also said, “In Christ there is no longer slave or free,” (Gal. 3:28) so he be quoted as opposed to slavery. So how do we decide?  How do we find guidance? Are there principles that can guide us on the death penalty, illegal immigrants, abortion, contraception?  What about war? Should Christians be pacifists?  Are some wars wrong and others right?

What would Jesus do? That’s a pretty good question to ask for a start.  I would love it if the candidates would engage these questions seriously on the basis of their faith.  Presidents make decisions daily that ought to be based on faith and a sense of God’s purpose in history so I’d like to know whether a candidate who wants my vote has a faith that makes a difference and if so, what difference.  How do you decide, for example, whether and when to withdraw from Afghanistan or stay involved?  A basic Christian principle, even more broadly a religious principle, is respect for human life, for justice and freedom, so you can argue that we ought to be in there working for justice and freedom in Afghanistan but we also ought to be concerned for justice and freedom in this country and the harm done to this country by expending lives and wealth elsewhere. So how do you weigh the lives of Afghans against those of American soldiers and diplomats, how can you tell whether we are actually creating greater freedom and justice overall?

There are no easy answers but we have to begin with the right questions.  For some it’s a simple question of power and money: what will make the most money for American companies? What is the most effective use of American power?  I think those are the wrong questions for Christians to ask.  I think we should always begin with our neighbor’s need, not our own. And I think, at the very least, it’s the preacher’s job to suggest the right questions and even principles and not just for individuals but for us as a society, a church, a nation. Let me be take a very specific example: suppose there’s a vote on a new school tax. I think there are two basic ways of looking at it, two kinds of questions to ask. One is, “What’s in it for me?”  And that might lead me to vote for it if I have children and against it if not but either way that would be based on purely personal grounds, on self-interest. On the other hand, I could ask, “What’s best for my neighbor?” There’s probably no more basic Biblical principle in the Old Testament and New Testament both, than to love your neighbor as yourself.  That would take into account the needs of my neighbor’s children or my neighbor’s ability to pay a new tax.  So our response could go either way, but either way it would be based on a response of faith and I think we always need to ask that kind of question and come to that kind of answer.

Now let me come back to the larger question for Americans. What about this country?  Do we have a special role in God’s purpose in human history, are we, should we be, a city on a hill, as William Bradford said, or even “a shining city on a hill” as Ronald Reagan said. I was interested to learn last week that it was Stalin who first used the term “American exceptionalism.”  He was upset by the American Communist party wanting to be treated differently. But the term has been picked up by others especially, I think, on the right.  I hope it’s an accurate term. I hope we can use it in faith, in faith that God is at work here in this country, in all of us and each of us and finds us exceptionally useful to God’s purpose. I think this is an exceptional country in many ways and I think the Christian churches have played an important part in shaping who we are and how we act and that makes me proud of this country but prouder still to be a Christian and to believe that God does call us to be sensitive to God’s purpose and to respond in a way that makes a difference not just in this country but even in world history.

Let me, then, come back to my first question: was it smart for God to use Abraham to create nations? I would answer, “Yes and No.”  Short term, No. Nations have been oppressive and aggressive. I understand why some people think the smaller the government the better.  Maybe you remember the Kingston trio singing: “They’re rioting in Africa, They’re starving in Spain,” and going on to sing: “The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch;  And I don’t like anybody very much.”  

Human beings are like that.  Nations are like that. But nations, on the other hand, are also a giant step up from the law of the jungle and the warfare of tribes and able to provide more freedom and justice than anyone would have without them. And nations may be a step toward even larger societies like the European Union that has brought together nations that had been at each other’s throats for centuries. I’ve seen it suggested that the tides of immigration, legal and illegal, and the growing power of international corporations are making the old nation states increasingly irrelevant. The first George Bush didn’t invade Iraq without putting together an international coalition. When Libya fell apart, it was international cooperation that made the difference. Maybe we can begin to see the dim outlines of a world order beyond nations where nations work together toward common goals. The dream of the United Nations hasn’t made much progress but anything that brings warring nations together even to shout at each other seems to me a step forward, maybe at long last a step beyond Abraham toward God’s larger purpose and maybe even a step toward the Biblical vision of a new Jerusalem in which the old divisions fall away and all tribes and languages and nations are united at last in standing together before God’s throne and united in praising their Creator.

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