Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Becoming the American We Dream

The following sermon was preached at St. Paul's the weekend of July 3.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
3 Pentecost - Proper 9 - Year A (RCL) - July 2/3, 2011
Romans 7:15 - 25a; Matthew 11:16 - 19, 25 - 30
Preacher: The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

            Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest….”                                                                                                                         Matthew 11:28
            On Friday, the government of Minnesota shut down because the Democratic Governor and the Republican controlled legislature could not reach a deal on the state budget.[1]  Both sides agree that the budget needs to be reduced in a significant way.  They disagree about how this is to be accomplished.   The Governor wants to increase tax on the wealthiest Minnesotans; the legislature refuses to allow the question of increased taxes to be put on the table.  In the meantime, many state residents are experiencing what for now are inconveniences and what could well become, for many, severe hardships.
            At the federal level; the President is locked in a battle with the Congress, most specifically, the House of Representatives over the federal budget and the national debt which has soared out of control.  It is apparent to almost everyone with any sense that federal spending must be drastically reduced, but, again, there are bitter, ideological disagreements about how this is to be accomplished.[2] 
            The President and most Democrats adamantly feel that revenue, in the form of increased taxes, at least for the wealthiest Americans; must be put on the table.  The Republicans, who control the majority of the House, refuse to allow the question of increased taxes to be put on the table feeling any increase of taxes will undermine the growth of the economy at a time when the economy needs all the energy it can muster. 
            The issue of raising the national debt ceiling has been thrust into the midst of this issue as a means of leverage; the Republicans tying authorization of raising the debt ceiling to the budget debate in a way that many people of different political stripes consider a very dangerous game of chicken.  The sad and sorry truth in the Minnesota government shut-down, and the federal debt and debt ceiling controversy, as well as in many of the very serious political conflicts abounding in the nation today, is that partisanship, as well as special interests - are driving the behaviors and actions of our governing leaders and they seem unable to transcend this for the sake of the nation, the states and the people. 
            This incapacity to work it out has the potential of doing great damage to us all.  Where do we stand as Christians in all of this?  Should our Christian faith inform our understanding or posture at all?  Needless to say, I don’t think our faith can be compartmentalized.  Christianity is a way of life; therefore our faith informs every aspect of our lives, including our politics and our sense of citizenship.
            Without question, Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian, ethicist and political philosopher was one of the great thinkers of the modern age.  Early in his ministry, Niebuhr was described as a “leftist liberal.”[3]  In the 1930s, with both communism and fascism on the rise, his thinking shifted dramatically to what many described as neo-orthodoxy and theological and political pragmatism.  Niebuhr famously observed, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”[4]  As we prepare to celebrate our Nation’s birth, it’s an opportune time to reflect on democracy and citizenship and what it means to be a Christian in our American context.
            Despite Niebuhr’s statement, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary,” he was not naive about democracy and did not wear rose-colored glasses where democracy was concerned.  In a chapter titled “Man and Society: The Art of Living Together” found in his now classic 1932 book Moral Man & Immoral Society, Niebuhr analyzed power and the use of coercion in modern society and offered a sober and cautionary assessment of the western democratic situation.  His words speak as insightfully and truthfully to our own time as it did to his own.  Niebuhr wrote:

“The rise of modern democracy, beginning with the Eighteenth Century, is sometimes supposed to have substituted the consent of the governed for the power of the royal families and aristocratic classes as the cohesive force of national society.  This judgment is partly true but not nearly as true as the uncritical devotees of modern democracy assume.  The doctrine that government exists by the consent of the governed, and the democratic technique by which the suffrage of the governed determines the policy of the state may actually reduce the coercive factor in national life, and provide for peaceful and gradual methods of resolving conflicting social interests and changing political institutions.  But the creeds and institutions of democracy have never become fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them.  It was their interest to destroy political restraint upon economic activity, and they therefore weakened the authority of the state and made it more pliant to their needs. With the increased centralization of economic power in the period of modern industrialism, this development merely means that society does not control economic power as much as social well-being requires; and that the economic, rather than the political and military power, has become the significant coercive force of modern society.  Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions of the state to its own purposes.  Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society.  The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power.  It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”[5]

            Niebuhr well understood a basic fact and reality of the human experience: Sin.  Human beings are sinful.  In understanding this, Niebuhr was consistent with Christian thought from the time of Christianity’s inception.  Certainly St. Paul had a deep awareness of the reality of human sin and articulated the conundrum that so often confronts us as human beings:  I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate! (Romans 7:15).
            What a keen recognition about human behavior and instincts.  How complicated we are:  having knowledge of right and wrong and good and evil, but also psychologically and spiritually complex; marked and marred by hidden motives and a subconscious that often is at work in subtle and sometimes despicable ways inclining us to self-interest and selfishness….None of this undermines the goodness and rightness of morals and values in and of themselves....What it does, however, is make clear our vulnerability as agents of the moral right and of the moral good. Paul expresses this:
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do....Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:16 – 23).
            Just at the point Paul seems to throw up his hands in disgust at the recognition of his own sinfulness; he acknowledges the one thing that can draw him out of the conundrum:  Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24 – 25).
            As Christians we bring a positive resource and value to the table of the moral and of the civic life: We bring the grace and power of Jesus Christ, our Christian faith and all that comes with it....We bring a vision of the kingdom of God, of the “City upon a Hill, referred to in 1630 by Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop[6], an image later invoked with hope and solemnity by President Ronald Reagan[7].   
            In his 1630 address, “A model of Christian Charity,”  Winthrop outlined the characteristics of this City and its inhabitants:  “We must, “he wrote, “entertain each other in brotherly affection.  We must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.  We must uphold familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.  We must delight in each other, make each others’ conditions our own – rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.  So shall we keep the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace[8] 
            Needless to say, this is an ideal, even Utopian vision…It’s an ideal dream….And it must be acknowledged that Christians and the Christian Church are not above the same moral challenges and predicaments, the same propensity to sin,  that face all human beings and institutions.  Any serious reading of Church history makes this clear.  But this same serious reading of Church history, indeed of Scripture itself, also makes clear that the higher calling and values of which the Church and the Christian faith is a repository, are the very resources that have been used to reform us, and that have often helped to reform society throughout history.  These continue to be a tool and resource for us and for personal growth and improvement and for growth and improvement of civic life and citizenship...
            These higher calling and values are summed up in the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.[9]  The Christian faith brings us the value, the deep value of love; sacrificial love.  This does not mean that we are to disregard our own needs; after all, love of self is included in the commandment.  But, as John Winthrop’s words make clear, we are always to regard our neighbor’s needs at least as important and significant as our own.  We are always to have a deep and abiding concern for the common good.
            Perhaps this sounds obvious and trite, but in a society that has increasingly emphasized individualism at the expense of society; and selfishness at the expense of altruism; this is no easy matter; which is why the additional resource we as Christians bring to the table is equally important:  the capacity to recognize and name sin and our human propensity for it; individually and corporately.
            This country needs us, as Christians who are citizens, to be faithful, knowledgeable and strong in our convictions and also in our capacity to be rigorous in seeing ourselves honestly and clearly, with as critical an eye and understanding as that of Reinhold Niebuhr.  This country needs us to be courageous enough to name and confront sin and selfish interests at work when and where we see them, and especially when these undermine the common good and the common welfare, thereby promoting injustice.
            Reinhold Niebuhr felt strongly that the individual person has a greater capacity and potential to behave morally and altruistically than any collective of human beings....He felt that the greater the number of human beings involved in a collective; the greater the chance they would act out of selfish motives and interests, including and up to the collective of the nation and the less likely it was that individuals in that collective would have the moral strength and courage to stand up to the collective even when it was committing great evil.[10]  I find myself provoked and challenged by Niebuhr and, overall, in general agreement with him.  Certainly, the rancor and partisan behavior, and the frequent serving of greed and self interest at all levels of today’s politics underscore the truthfulness of his observation.                  On the other hand, although it may begin with an individual of conscience, I think it takes the strength and numbers of a collective, a critical mass, to stand up to the evil of a collective.  I also think our history and core values and core documents as Americans, when read in the light of our Christian values and truths support this.     
            “We the people of the United States…”our Constitution begins. It is about us as a people, as nation....It is a Constitution that had and has, as its primary intention, our life together as a community, a nation of people....The Constitution was drafted to help us “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of our liberty....”[11]  These values are consonant with the commitments of our Baptismal Covenant -“to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being;” and “to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbors as our self.”[12] 
            Independence Day is a day to remember and celebrate what is best about us as Americans.  It is a day to revere the core principles, highest values and deepest altruism that led to the founding of this country and that have sustained us as a Republic and a people ever since and to recommit ourselves these........We are not perfect and it is likely we never will be, but that shouldn’t stop us from striving to be perfected. 
            We have been blessed with a vision, with dreams of liberty and justice  for all people....It is a wondrous vision; it is a daring dream....During this July 4th observance, as we celebrate Independence Day and our nation’s founding, let give thanks to God for the blessings and liberty we enjoy.  Let us also remember our hope and our solemn calling to work toward becoming the America we dream.

            Let us pray:

Lord God Almighty, in whose name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[13]

[1]   See Davery, Monica – “Minnesota Government Shuts in Budget Fight”  - NY TImes, July 1, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/us/01minnesota.html?scp=1&sq=minnesota%20government%20shutdown&st=cse
[2]   See Landler, Mark et al “In Defecit Plan, Taxes Must Rise, President Warns” NY Times – June 29, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/us/politics/30obama.html?ref=federalbudgetus
[3]   See Wikipedia “Reinhold Niebuhr”  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr
[4]   See Wikipedia “Reinhold Niebuhr”  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr
[5]   Niebuhr, Reinhold Moral Man and Immoral Society:  A Study in Ethics and Politics  Introduction by Langdon B. Gilkey (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 2001 - Original copyright Reinhold Niebuhr 1932) p.  14-15.
[6]   Winthrop,  John “A Model of Christian Charity (1630) – found in A Patriot’s Handbook:  Songs, Poems, Stories and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love Editor:  Caroline Kennedy  (New York:  Hyperion Books, 2003) pp. 32 – 33.
[7]   Ronald Reagan – “Farewell Address to the Nation”  - January 11, 1989 See http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganfarewelladdress.html
[8]   “A Model of Christian Charity”
[9]   See Book of Common Prayer 1979 – p. 351.
[10]   See, for example, Neibuhr p. 9 beginning “”Most rational and social justifications of unequal privilege are clearly after thoughts etc...”
[11]  “Preamble” to The U.S. Constitution
[12]  See Book of Common Prayer 1979 – p. 304 – 305.
[13]  Book of Common Prayer 1979 – p. 242.

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