To the leader.
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of mischief done against the godly?
All day long 2you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
4 You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.
5 But God will break you down for ever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
6 The righteous will see, and fear,
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 ‘See the one who would not take
refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’
8 But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
9 I will thank you for ever,
because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
Today is Sydney’s birthday.
17 years old. Hard to believe!
I asked her what she wanted for her birthday in worship.
That’s what you get asked if you’re a preacher’s kid!
She asked if we could sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”
I said, “Sure. Any other hymns you particularly like?”
“Be Thou My Vision.”
“You got it. Anything else?”
“Have a good sermon!”
Still not sure how to take that one!
I’ll do my best.
But you know (or do if you’ve looked at the sermon title)
that our societal sin today is politics without principles—
a societal sin I tied to the traditional sin of wrath.
You heard the psalm read—
the explicit exhortations against boasting and lying—
against treachery and trusting in money.
And I’m not going there, I said to myself.
It’s too easy.
Low hanging fruit.
Such very low hanging fruit.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to you, o my God.
And if I offend any of you today, well,
I hope I do so for the right reasons—or in the right way—
or within relationships and a community
in which I can fall miserably on my face!
I want you to know
I’ve been writing sermons now for coming up on thirty years
and I can tell you this is the hardest sermon I’ve ever written.
And I’ll tell you upfront, I may have failed miserably.
I have never written as much for a sermon that I cut—
which was appropriate—the right thing to do.
I wrote pretty much a political rant. Scrapped that.
It was a list of everything at which I take offense—
a lot of which is wrapped up in my values and priorities as a follower of God,
but it didn’t feel quite right.
Y’all have your own sense of how your faith
shapes your political expectations—your political hopes and fears,
and it’s my job to remind you you should,
but never to tell you how.
So policy is off the table …
except for policy that is unjust, cruel—without principles, right?
So I had a list of policies that I think are unjust and cruel,
but maybe that’s just my opinion—my interpretation,
and is a sermon the time and place to unload all that on you?
Plus, I couldn’t get through it without getting really angry,
and what’s our sin today?
And it’s true of every president—every administration:
their decisions and policies will have long-term consequences on people I love
and on God’s good creation,
But you’re not here to hear my assessment of political fallout,
as important and scary as I may think it is.
Nor are you here to hear my opinion of a man
who I think makes it quite clear what kind of man he is,
other than to say, “I will assume your eyes are open,
that you keep them open, and that you believe what you see.”
I have also had several tell me through the years
they would prefer not to know who their pastor votes for.
Politics is not what they come to church to hear.
And I get that—at one level.
And you will not know leaving today who I would vote for.
You get your political news from your preferred sources.
That’s not what you expect or want from me.
However, consider our inversion today
and as easy/as low hanging as politics without principles seems to be,
principles without politics is as much a sin and more of a challenge—
to think we can hold onto certain values and priorities—
to think we can claim the way of God—
and not have it necessarily translate into political investment.
Cornel West, son of a Baptist preacher,
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard,
asserts “Justice is love in the public square.”
a politically charged theological affirmation.
So principles without politics might constitute believing in justice, say,
but being unwilling to wade into the injustice of our justice system—
the mass incarceration of people of color in for profit prisons.
A principle might be believing in equality,
the lack of principle evident in being too comfortable
within the privilege of the systemic racism of our culture
to rock the boat.
The principle of particular political hopes
without caring what means are used to achieve desired ends.
Something I’ve told my classes,
“As theologians with integrity, there are no easy outs from the hard conversations.
In fact, it’s the hard conversations we often most need to have.
Not that it’s my job to evaluate your professions of faith (or your politics),
but it is my job to help you think through them carefully
and be able to justify them.
So here are things I’m telling you need to be justified:
the spiraling national debt (or to frame it differently:
the long term consequences of decisions made for short term gain),
the exorbitant amounts of money spent without question on violence
and the slashing of virtually any money spent to provide for the most vulnerable (and that is nothing new—that is our culture, not this administration),
cutting food stamps for the hungry while paying farmers not to grow food
“You don’t understand economics, John,” you might say,
and I will confess I do not understand economics,
but I know the taste that leaves in my mouth.
Those children separated from their families, put in cages,
without records being kept and the people making money off of them,
the prioritization of making money over offering needed services,
the people desperately trying to escape the horror back home
(in many cases exasperated by our country’s past foreign policies)
trying to escape horror and embrace freedom and hope
who are summarily sent back and killed
and “Oh, but we didn’t kill them,” seems—
And regardless of whether or not what he is working for is appreciated,
how he is has to be justified—how he treats people,
and “Well, he’s a little rough around the edges;” “He’s a brawler,
but he gets things done” does not cut it for me as your pastor.
Whether that’s his casual relationship with truth,
or the way he uses wealth as a bully—to not pay bills or to solicit dirt,
or the documented scams that promise money will go to a charity or to education—
whether that’s the way he mocks and denigrates individuals,
people groups, ethnicities, nationalities.
And if we have to argue whether he’s truly racist
or just using racist and white supremacist dog whistles,
I’m going to say the argument’s moot.
In discussions of whether or not he has the right and the authority
to do what he does—in debates about the legality,
what seems too much lost is the question, is it right?
Is it admirable? Is it noble? Does it make the world a better place?
Or are those antiquated questions of a time long past—
or a time that never was?
And what does it do, time and time again,
to have as the president a man we interpret to our children—
have to interpret to our children, over and over again,
“We don’t act like that; we don’t talk like that; we don’t treat people like that.”
Now maybe that was all too specific.
But how do we talk about something important without being specific?
Maybe it’s all skewed by my perspectives,
and maybe you have a sense of how all that can be justified.
Well then let’s have coffee. I promise just to listen!
I am fundamentally opposed to anything that might be called a bully pulpit,
and we can arrange a time and place to model respectful dialogue, opposing views.
Wednesday, Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic:
“We are living in the Era of Rage”—
which in light of our worship emphasis might be paraphrased:
“We are living in the Era of Sin.”
And I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious.
Stephanie Anthony, presbyterian pastor in Geneva, Illinois,
friend of a friend, was at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday.
Arthur Brooks, past president of the American Enterprise Institute,
a conservative think tank, spoke on forgiving your enemies.
Now remember, this was the day after the acquittal after the non-trial.
Stephanie wrote: “I appreciated one segment of the address that has been reported about at least on the New York Times website. Dr. Brooks asked for a show of hands of everyone who was in a relationship with someone they love, either friend or family, with whom they disagree politically. The report goes on to say that just about every hand in the room shot up, except the president’s. That was true. What came after that poll was the statement Dr. Brooks made that said (not a direct quote, but from my typed up notes and I’m too tired to go back and find it in a video online), “If this is not true for you, you live in an echo chamber.” His address went on to challenge us to get out of echo chambers, intentionally put ourselves in situations with people with whom we disagree, and get about responding in love as opposed to contempt which is tearing the country apart. I thought it was very well done.
There’s no other way to say it other than the president completely shifted the feel of the whole event. Shaking not one, but two different papers to an intentionally bipartisan audience who were present to unite in the spirit of prayer was taunting and disappointing. His address also took the content of the event in a dramatically different direction. It was no longer an encouragement about loving others, especially enemies, and instead became a justification for division, denial of other’s expressions of faith, and something that felt much more like a campaign rally than an address grounded in faith and the practice of prayer.
One of the media’s go-to representatives
for the perspective of the evangelical church’s support of Trump,
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas,
in response to Trump’s vindictiveness said that Trump
“absolutely hates phoniness…and the president thinks
there’s something inherently phony
about saying that you’re praying for him
while you’re working 24/7 to destroy him”
Oh, because Jesus was completely unaware
of the phoniness that surrounded him,
you know when he first taught forgiveness of his enemies.
He was completely unaware of Judas imminent betrayal—
oh, wait, no, he said something about that—
completely unaware of Peter’s imminent betrayal,
oh, wait, no, he said something about that too.
“After someone told Trump that Jesus commands us to ‘love our enemies,’
he asked Jeffress what the pastor thought about it.
‘I said, ‘Mr. President, to love your enemies means to want God’s best for them,
but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be unified with them. Truth divides people.’ ”
He didn’t know that Jesus commanded love of enemy.
Someone told him.
That level of ignorance about Jesus
from someone who says he’s a Christian,
from someone supported overwhelmingly by the evangelical church is unfathomable to me.
Not not doing it.
Not knowing it.
This the darling of the evangelical church and of Mr. Jeffress.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing
but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16a).
Obviously Mr. Jeffress and I are looking at different fruit.
What fruit do you see?
My friends, every colleague I respect is deeply suspicious of our president.
And maybe I’m in my comfortable echo chamber—
except it doesn’t feel at all comfortable to me.
Here’s the thing:
I grew up in Germany. Most of you know that.
And I have a deep and profound horror
of ever coming to the point where I would look back
and feel the terrible regret and shame of thinking I never said anything.
As a pastor, as one called to proclaim the way of God we see in Jesus,
I was silent as another way was chosen
and as the consequences of having chosen another way became apparent.
And what I see in Trump and in much of our culture is not of Christ.
It is not shaping a reality that is of Christ—
that shining city on a hill.
“That’s not his job” is a valid response.
But that criticism is my job.
Presbyterian hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
wrote a new hymn this past week
to the tune of “Lead On, O King Eternal” called “O God of All the Nations.”
O God of all the nations, your ancient prophets saw
that kings and institutions are not above the law.
Integrity is precious, and truth will one day stand;
Your way is peace and justice, and love is your command.
O God, when times are troubled, when lies are seen as truth,
When power-hungry people draw praise and not reproof,
When greed is seen as greatness, when justice is abused,
We pray that those who lead us will know what they must choose.
We pray they’ll gather wisdom and lift up high ideals,
To guide our struggling nation along a path that heals.
We pray they’ll have the vision to value each good law,
To put aside ambition, to seek the best for all.
O God of all the nations, may those who lead us see
that justice is your blessing, that truth will set us free.
Give all of us the courage to seek the nobler way,
So in this land we cherish, the good will win the day.
A friend commented, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it
without getting snarky, but that’s really good.”
Maybe I’ve failed this morning. Failed you. Failed my calling.
Maybe I’ve taken the easy road of being snarky.
I know I did with that Dallas pastor.
But I didn’t mean to on the whole; I tried not to. You see, I’m not sure I’ve ever been as regularly furious,
and there’s part of that that feels right.
How do we distinguish prophetic rage from partisan rage— anger that’s appropriate from anger that is a deadly sin?
Etymologically the word “wrath” comes to us through Old English
from the Proto-Germanic meaning “strength.”
Isn’t that a good thing? God’s promise of assurance?
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid,
for I am your God; I will strengthen you …” (Isaiah 41:10).
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”
“[T]hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength …
“[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of the power of God”
And yet our Scriptures also explicitly name strength weakness.
“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,
so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships,
persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ;
for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
So what is the strength of God?
We talk about the omni’s in class— the traditional attributes of God:
omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable.
The classic way of thinking of God.
And I tell my class as I’ve told you before—told you regularly.
That’s not my experience of God.
In my experience, the strength of God
(and so the biblical idea of strength) is associated with love
and the persistent grace that does not leave you angry.
Oh, it might make you angry.
But it does not leave you angry.
He seems angry to me all the time.
Andy Lester was a professor of mine (and of my wife’s actually).
He wrote a book called Coping with Your Anger: A Christian Guide
(I’ve mentioned it to you before), a clinical study
in which he suggests anger is always the response to a perceived threat
that is then either appropriately or inappropriately expressed
You know, be angry but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
Trump must see threats all around him all the time.
He always seems angry—always blaming—always attacking—
threatening—because he never feels safe or secure.
And that is tremendously sad.
And it is too easy to come down on him,
without looking at ways we are responsible for him—
for what he represents that he is reflective of our culture and so of us—
what we have allowed—condoned—not confronted—resisted—
or not confronted and resisted effectively enough.
And as I’ve said, I am so consistently angry these days.
So where do I locate my anger? What do I claim as strength?
What do I identify as being threatened?
For him, I think it’s him. It’s always all about him.
I hope—I pray I see a way of being being threatened—
I pray I see other people being threatened—
values and priorities I hold dear—the way to which I gave my life.
And strength in that way does not lie in being mean—
in blaming others.
but rather in justice and grace and love.
It’s never that we’re to ignore what’s going on.
It’s never that we’re not to be angry,
but that our focus is not our fear in response to some threat,
but our commitment and our joy.
For we do believe ultimately
that fear and anger and violence (as much damage as they do)
are what the world sees as strength that God knows as weakness.
And I know that’s ultimately—
while most of us live much more immediately
and much more immanently than we do ultimately.
Sydney, I don’t know that I had a good sermon.
Not sure what I said—how I said it was good—was appropriate.
But I do believe that what I tried is vitally important—
that these are the conversations we avoid that we need to be having—
need to figure out how to be having.
Maybe today is nothing more than a lesson in how not to.
But when your child is celebrating her or his 17th birthday,
I pray the world will be a better place
because of us and not in spite of us—
because we chose to have the hard conversations—
to talk about the specifics—
and to grow in the strength of God
that casts out fear in grace and hope.