Fear and Freedom: Thoughts for the 4th of July

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on July 3, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

It’s Fourth of July weekend and I, as a preacher by trade, instinctively want to put that day in a theological context, so I wonder whether we could raise our eyes for a few minutes this morning from the heat of American politics – the heat and the horror of American politics – and remember the vision, remember that there is a vision, and it’s a vision of hope, not fear.

I’m afraid – my fear is – that for all too many the basic question is not the one we should be asking: “What is the vision,” but “What are you afraid of?” Too many of us, I think, are governed this year by our fears, not our hopes. And there are all too many politicians along the whole political spectrum who are ready to pander to those fears, to stir up fears, even to create fears. To tell us, “Be afraid, be very afraid; elect me because if I am not elected you will be less safe; your job will be sent over seas, immigrants will move into your neighborhood, you will be shot down by terrorists, the price of gas will get back out of control, the price of soft drinks may go up; they will cut your social security, defund your medicare, make you share your bathroom. I wonder if a nation so powerful has ever been populated by such fearful people.  We have forgotten how at another critical turning point in our history we were told that “the only thing we have to fear is – fear itself.  Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that paralyzes needed effort to turn retreat into advance.”  That is as true today as it was when Franklin Roosevelt said it over 80 years ago.

I was no great admirer of Ronald Reagan but he did have a way sometimes at least of calling us back to a vision a vision of a shining city on a hill, of hope, not fear. An appeal not to make America great again as if the best days were in the past but to remember the vision, to look ahead in hope, not behind in fear.  The first settlers in Massachusetts Bay – illegal immigrants, we should remember – the first settlers in Massachusetts Bay were given a vision of a city on a hill. And if we are such a America Onecity, as they foresaw, we will inevitably draw other people here as your ancestors and mine were drawn here by a vision, often, yes, a very selfish and practical vision of a good job, opportunities for my children, the right to practice my religion without fear, to believe or not believe whatever I want. Sometimes it’s ben a pretty narrow and self-centered vision, but it’s a vision nonetheless, a vision about hope, not a vision about fear.

I read a very interesting book some years ago about Russia and the factors that have shaped its history and its relationship with the world. The author made the point that after World War I as Russia descended into chaos the western powers attempted to intervene to prevent the communist faction from taking control. The communists therefore moved back – away from the modern, western capital city of St Petersburg, which had always prided itself on its European culture, its art, its music, its openness to the west and they set up shop instead in the deep interior city of Moscow cut off from the west, suspicious of the west, fearful of the west. You might imagine what would happen if we moved the capital of the United States from Washington to Wichita or Dallas. So the result of western attempts to shape Russian history was the creation of a fearful power, paranoid about the west. Marx at least had a vision; Stalin and his coterie only had fears. For a brief moment Gorbachev tried to change all that, but he failed and Russia lapsed back into paranoia and fear.

It seems to me that it’s bad enough to have Russia dominated by fear but far worse if we move in that same direction ourselves. But isn’t that what’s happening as our political process is controlled more and more by fearful people who talk about building walls rather than opening doors?

It’s 4th of July weekend and it’s a natural time to think about ourselves as American Christians or Christian Americans and ask ourselves what that means and whether we have a vision and if so whether that vision has any relationship with our faith. Too often it seems as if the only people who even ask that question are people who put America first and faith second, whose nationalism is deepened by their faith rather than redeemed by it.

Now, the first reading today gives us one way to think about faith and nation. It’s a really funny story set many centuries before Christ at a time when the Jews were attempting to hang on to some shreds of the glory that David and Solomon had won. They were constantly harassed by other petty kingdoms especially to the north and more powerful kingdoms lurking further afield in Egypt and Babylon. And they were weakened by their own division into two tiny Hebrew kingdoms, Israel to the North and Judah to the south, that spent a lot of time fighting each other. North of Israel was Aram which included a good deal of what we now call Syria. That sets the stage for the story we just read.

Naaman was commander of the armies of Aram, but he had leprosy – or some sort of skin disease – and an Israeli slave girl he had captured told him that there was a prophet in Israel, Elijah, who could cure him. So Naaman told the king and the king said, “Well, go down and get cured, and I’ll give you some stuff to give the prophet to pay him for his cure.” So Naaman went and – to make a long story short – he got to Elisha’s house and Elisha sent a servant out to tell Naaman what to do: “Go wash in the Jordan River and you’ll be cured” Well, that set Naaman off – imagine if you went to the doctor’s office with cancer and the doctor didn’t even see you, just sent a nurse out with some pills.

Naaman was upset already because he had to come ask help from someone in a nation his armies had beaten and the prophet wouldn’t even give him face time. To make it worse the servant told him to go wash in the waters of the Jordan, a muddy little Israelite river. So Naaman went off in a huff saying, “What’s so special about the Jordan? “Don’t we have better rivers in Aram?” But his servant said, “Wait a minute. Look, if he asked you to do some big thing, you would have done it, so why not this little thing? What have you got to lose?” So Naaman did it – grumbling all the way – and was cured.

What we didn’t get to read today is the best part of the story. We didn’t hear how Naaman tried to heap gifts on Elisha and how he took bushels of Israeli soil back with him so he could stand on Israeli dirt when he prayed. It seemed to Naaman that there were gods for Aram and gods of Israel and the God of Israel was obviously powerful so Naaman thought he’d like to stay in touch with this Israelite God so he would bring some of the Israelite dirt back with him to Aram so he could stand on it when he prayed to Israel’s god.

Now I hope we’ve come a way since then. When I moved here three years ago I would have liked to bring a bushel of Connecticut topsoil with me, but for gardening, not for prayer.   I hope none of us would feel a need to take a chunk of California with us if we worked for a company that sent us off to work in Russia or China. spaceearthOur God is not an American God. I think we know that. God is not limited to America, we know that. The Creator of the universe can hear prayers from every imagined corner of this round earth, and we know that. And God is listening to prayers offered in Russian and Chinese and a thousand other languages as well as ours, and American prayers – we ought to know this – have no preferential treatment in the halls of heaven.

There’s a very early Christian document called The Epistle to Diognetus and that letter puts such ideas in perspective: “Christians,” it says, “live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is for them a foreign land. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”

Now that puts things in perspective. Do we think of ourselves as living here as foreigners, as aliens, possibly as illegal immigrants? Does it ever occur to us to think of ourselves as citizens first of heaven and only secondly as Americans? But isn’t that exactly the perspective we need in thinking about this year’s elections? It seems to me that the way this year’s election is shaping up that perspective could be very useful. That perspective could be really useful in compelling us to clarify if only for ourselves who we are as American Christians and what vision we have for our world.

I hear people asking, “Is this really what America is all about?” We need to have answers for that question. What seems to be coming clear is that this year’s elections are not more of the same, the “same old same old.” In other years we have tended to edge one way or another but never change course entirely. It’s been 150 years since we made a radical choice. I wonder whether those who went to the polls in 1860 to choose among Stephen A Douglas, John Breckinridge, Abraham Lincoln, and CaoitolJohn Bell fully realized the consequences of their choice. For almost a hundred years elections had come and gone. Federalists had won, sometimes; Democrats had won sometimes; Whigs had won sometimes. Candidates and even parties had come and gone, but the country had survived and even prospered. But 1860 was different. We moved in four years from being a loose federation of agricultural states  to being a centrally governed industrial nation. Fewer than two million voters, less than 40% of the electorate changed America forever.

The question being asked is whether 2016 is also different, if our politics is changing in fundamental ways, if there is still enough in common, to hold us together. I wonder what the consequences of our choices this year will be for next year and beyond. Does anyone, for that matter, know what the consequences of Brexit will be and whether Europe, too, is changing in fundamental ways. I think most of us assumed that England would do the sensible thing and be a united kingdom in a united Europe, but we were wrong. I think whatever the incredible aspects of this year’s election are, we still assume that sensible people will prevail and nothing really radical will happen. But is there anything in human history that would lead us to believe that? Does the crucifixion tell us that sensible people ultimately prevail? I think not. I think we’ve taken it for granted that at least in the west we’ve outgrown the horrors of war, that we’ve been on a path toward deeper unity. But maybe not; maybe we can’t take it for granted anymore that Europe will not revert to anarchy, that we can finally slowly overcome our divisions, that the arc of history is moving toward unity. Perhaps not; perhaps the sin of pride and self is as deeply rooted as the Bible tells us; perhaps faith does make a difference, and we need to be very clear about what the difference is and look with a new urgency at the differences among Christians that prevent us from holding up a standard and a vision.

One thing we should know is that the world does change, that choices make a difference. So surely Americans who call themselves Christians need to ask what it means to have a deeper loyalty than a narrow nationalism and a faith that overcomes fear. The Gospel today tells us how Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God. To be politically correct, we might prefer to say, “The realm of God.” But after 50 years of Queen Elizabeth everyone still talks about the United Kingdom – or did until a week ago. But one way or another, the gospel suggests a summons to a fundamental allegiance to a power not of this world; it’s a summon to take hold of a different standard, to judge our common life not by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or the latest rulings of the Supreme Court or actions of Congress – if that isn’t an oxymoron. It’s not political statements we need, but kingdom righteousness, realm righteousness, basic Biblical standards: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Reach out to the wounded stranger lying beside the road, the one even respectable people have no time for. Care for the stranger in your midst.

Re-reading the Book of Numbers recently, the fourth book of the Bible, I came across the commandment that, “there shall be both for you and the resident alien a single statute . . . you and the alien who resides among you shall have the same law.” The prophet Malachi, in the last book of the Old Testament asked, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?”

Christians are people who know, or should know, that “Love is patient, love is kind. . . (love) does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Can we bear some of that in mind in making choices this year, in talking with others about the election, in thinking through what we are called to stand for, what it means to be a Christian – for whom every father land is a foreign land – who are not surprised when their fellow citizens opt for values that seem far from the kingdom of God?

Notice finally one other thing: In the Gospel today, when Jesus sent the disciples out to proclaim a glorynew world, God’s realm, God’s kingdom, he told them to seek for peace and where no peace existed to wipe the dust of that place from their feet. Naaman would have understood. Don’t stand on ground alienated from God, in a land that has turned away from peace. Shake it off and move on. Set your feet on the solid rock of faith in the city on a hill. Be a shining light of faith in a world of doubt and fear.

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