In recent months my preaching has, in general, tended to stay away from political issues and current events. I said little about the impeachment while it was happening, in part because there seemed so little to say about a process that was moving ahead to its forgone conclusion.
Last Sunday, however, I looked at recent events in the context of the encouraging words of Jesus: “You are the light of the world,” calling all of us to be that light in these dark and tumultuous days.
Following that, a member sent me an email last week. With that member’s permission, I can tell you that it said in part: “In view of what we have witnessed today with Trump, Barr, and the Department of Justice, I think we need a powerful dose of your Biblical and theological insights in the days ahead. These are perilous times.”
A confession: Those of us who preach like to hear that people want to hear our “Biblical and theological insights.”
But my own insights pale next to those of the author of Proverbs and of Jesus.
Now, we might take some comfort in the suggestion of the Book of Proverbs that, while a scoundrel goes around with crooked speech, pointing the fingers, with perverted mind devising evil, “on such a one calamity will descend suddenly.”
Oh! Are you talking about…?
Well, our minds can easily conjure up any number of “scoundrels” on whom we would like to see calamity suddenly descend. But we know life usually doesn’t go that way.
So instead let us listen carefully to the proverbial wisdom that tells us: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands in rest—and poverty will come on you like a robber.”
It doesn’t happen all at once, but when it does, the results are disastrous.
Jesus tells of a house built on sand: “The rains fell, and the floods came, and winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
It didn’t happen all at once, but when it did, the results were disastrous.
There’s that famous response in The Sun Also Rises: one of the characters is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
A little sleep, a little slumber.
In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of Government at Harvard dispel our common idea that democracies fall to violent revolutions, “at the hands of men with guns.” They tell us: “Now democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a wimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judicatory or the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals or soldiers, but by elected governments themselves….Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions” in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and Turkey, to name just a few countries where democratic backsliding began at the ballot box.”
They conclude: “Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”[i]
Last week saw yet more erosion as the President, fresh off his impeachment acquittal, continued on his campaign of revenge and retribution. Days after dismissing Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his National Security Post, the President suggested that the military should look into disciplining him.
Then came the back and forth with the Department of Justice, in which the President responded to Attorney General Barr’s request that he stop tweeting about cases by tweeting that he had every legal right to intervene in federal criminal cases. The President, many are telling us, is saying the quiet parts out loud.
The Washington Post noted that “Past presidents in both parties have respected long standing traditions that are aimed at preventing political influence from the White House on Justice Department investigations, especially criminal inquiries that involved administration officials or friends of the president. The current president has repeatedly ignored those traditions, making contact with F.B.I. officials and communicating with top Justice Department officials through Twitter and in person. His claim in Friday’s tweet that he has ‘so far chosen’ not to interfere in criminal cases is contradicted by a record of his actions during his three years in office.”
Reflecting on all of this, Eugene Robinson wrote that “Public faith in justice is a delicate, precious thing. Once squandered, it is incredibly hard to regain,” concluding, When four assistant U.S. attorneys asked to be taken off the Stone case, they were sounding an alarm. We must all pay attention.”
Of course, we aren’t—at least most of us aren’t. The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in 1748: “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”
“This is how democracies die,” one person wrote last week, “—not in darkness but in full view of a public that couldn’t care less.”
A little sleep, a little slumber.
The rains fell, and the floods came, and winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
The crisis in our nation has been building gradually, but along with many others, I fear that we are approaching a time when the fall will come suddenly. Our own Senators, as with most in their party speak meekly and mildly of being upset, but that is all. Looking around the nation, Columnist Max Boot says: “And the public? I don’t see massive marches in the streets. I don’t see people flooding their members of Congress with calls and emails. I don’t see the outrage that is warranted — and necessary. I see passivity, resignation and acquiescence from a distracted electorate that has come to accept the President’s aberrant behavior as the norm.”
Once again, we in the liberal church are called to important work—maintaining and rebuilding the institutions of our democracy. While we used to be able to assume that many outside the church held our values and expectations, we are now called to define and clarify what those values are and learn to speak about them in ways that can persuade others. This is not about moral superiority.
It is about, as Jesus suggests, hearing and acting on his words, building on a foundation of rock.
We look to those who in the past hundred years have stood for justice and truth in difficult times when so many were giving their voice and their action to injustice and lies.
We look to the leaders of the Confessing Church in Germany who resisted Nazism, spoke against the rising tide of antisemitism, and challenged Christians to a new understanding of faith.
We look to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in our own nation—and all who marched and protested in many ways—who would not be silent in the face of racial injustice in the North as well as the South.
We listen to their words and look at their actions, recognizing that if we fix our eyes on the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where the groaning of the world is most bitter, and where God seems nowhere to be found, we shall encounter the crucified and risen Christ in that very place. This faith is what calls forth our resilience and our resistance and sustains us in the darkness.
The shadows of these days do not need to mean defeat. John Calvin put it this way: “Though clouds obscure the clear view of the sun, they do not entirely deprive us of its light. So, in our adversity, the rays of God’s grace shine through darkness so that we need not give in to despair.”
God never forgets God’s mercy, God’s desire that all people would know justice, that all might be fully alive, fully in contact with all that gives life. We will always struggle with evil, for that is a part of living.
But the witness of scripture reminds us of the power of God to sustain us in our weakness, in our despair so that rather than giving up, we might keep going, finding what is both tough and encouraging.
And we remember the witness of others who show us that even in adversity, even in failure, we can still attempt great things, we can still pursue justice and seek to build up the common good of this nation.
These were people who built their actions on the foundation of prayer, on the foundation of scripture, on the foundation of faith. And their work endured and changed the course of nations.
So I’m wondering this morning—what do we need, as individuals and as a congregation, to make sure that our foundation is strong as we do the civic work that needs to be done in these days—as we speak truth to power, as we show our leaders the limits of their power and call our leaders to be true to their high calling?
Do we need more opportunities to pray together?
Do we need to be looking at scripture together?
What do we need?
For a long time now, the people and the vital institutions of our free society have been pushing back against a president offering the country a remarkable combination of authoritarian inclinations and ineptitude. Our nation and our institutions need our outrage and our demands for justice especially in these times when so many of us have become numb and weary and silent.
A nation cannot follow God. A nation cannot be led by God.
But individuals can be responsible before God as they live their public lives.
In a church like ours, with a tradition that affirms the right of individual conscience before God, we must continue to seek and use the freedom we have.
So remember how the second scripture lesson this morning ended: “When Jesus finished these sayings, the crowd was astonished at his teaching…”
Actually, the Greek word for their response suggests an even stronger reaction: they were so amazed as to be practically overwhelmed.
We, too, feel overwhelmed in these days.
So remember as well that parable of the two men and their building projects that Jesus told. It’s in your bulletin. Take it home with you and read it again. Read it each day this week.
It seems pretty straightforward: the wise man built on a rock; the foolish man built on the sand in a dry riverbed. The rains came—one house stood and one house fell.
But here’s the thing with this and all parables. The meaning is never as straightforward as it seems. This isn’t an allegory—we shouldn’t try to discover what the rock, the house, the sand, the rain, and so on “mean.” Instead, after the sermon is over, this parable keeps asking us about what we are doing and what we are failing to do. This parable keeps asking us where God’s grace is sustaining us and where we are being swept away.
This parable comes to us in our uncertain days and keeps questioning our actions even as it constantly calls us to action.
No wonder those who heard it were astonished, even overwhelmed.
We certainly are.
And even so, we called daily to act in our time and in our place out of what we have heard from Jesus.
[i] [i] How Democracies Die, pg.5