Based on the Scripture readings:
2017 September 10
In mid-July, I was driving near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, listening to the car radio. I was with my son on a hot afternoon passing Scranton and Hershey on the way to Gettysburg to visit the battlefield, and I asked him to find the NPR station to listen to All Things Considered. He did, and on the way down Route 15 somewhere near Clear Springs we drove along a cliffside through a bit of a canyon. It was the sort of place where you can lose a radio signal, and that's roughly what happened, but not exactly. What happened was that the news on NPR came in clearly until all of a sudden it shifted 100% to an Evangelical Christian station, and I heard about twenty seconds of a salvation hymn. Then it went back to NPR for twenty seconds, then back to the Christian message, and the pattern continued until I turned the device off.
I thought to myself, you are not in Newton anymore. We never lose NPR here. But I was moved by the juxtaposition of these two distinct narratives, not exactly oil and water but different sorts of news, and I opened my heart to ponder what it meant—these parallel presentations. It became a symbol for my summer.
When we pulled into Gettysburg, we started searching for a specific dinner spot that had us drive through downtown twice, although downtown is only half a mile long. And my son pointed out how many businesses were flying Confederate battle flags, and he asked if they were there to identify a commitment or as a historical marker. I said I was pretty sure they were historical because of how the battle literally moved through downtown and we drove our food back to our hotel and forgot about it during an after-dinner swim.
The next day we did our big tour of the museums and battlefield. On the west side of the memorial, the spot where Robert E. Lee commanded his troops for the losing effort, there are many monuments. The largest of these is about sixty feet high, carved in granite, and has Lee on his horse in front of the field where he directed a terrible slaughter. And when we walked this field we saw a man and his child with yet another Confederate battle flag. He was making a procession, almost a liturgical walk, in and out of the field and around the statue, wearing a soldier's cap and holding the flag high, as if to bless or take blessing, but what struck both of us most was that he had a five-year-old girl with him and was speaking quietly to her, teaching something unheard and unknown to us, and I simply could not watch the two of them. As we got close I turned my body and eyes away from him, from the flag that still symbolizes so much, and I felt a chill in the 85 degree sun. To me it was a divisive display.
In the last year or so, we have experienced many major divisions in the world about much more than radio stations or flags. Here in this congregation, we all come from a variety of cities, states, and nations, and divisions are not new to us, but they have touched our lives in new and distinct ways recently. They've gotten louder and sharper. As though we were near a cliffside or passing through a canyon.
Recently, some have said that one religion is more dangerous than another and that one race is more important than another. Some say that it has been a long time since they have felt important. Some judge genders or identities, and they try to quote God in their judgment, and too many find more time to tear apart than to unite. Some say that the Christian Church has little role in political issues, and others want to come to church to explore these topics as people of faith. In the last year or so there have been a lot of divisions and questions and challenges inside and outside of the Church.
But we're inside the church just now. And I'm staying in. For a whole variety of reasons including the fact that this is the place where we can not just quote God for a word of judgment but listen to God together for a life of hope and power. This is where we talk about how eternal life has an impact on daily life. This is where we test our opinions against God's convictions. So that we can live anew individually and communally and nationally. So I'm staying in.
But also, I'm going out. Because Church is a place of mission along with community, and the literal translation of mission is "sending forth," so we all have a place beyond this room as well as in it.
If you've ever studied any Psalm, you know this perfectly well. Our ancestors believed that religious sentiments and national identity went together. God didn't just choose good morals but chose Israel, a nation, to live amidst others in the best of times and worst of times. America is not a chosen, Christian nation, but Christians have a role in tending America, and recent times reveal a need.
But there's more. When you read this morning's Psalm, you find a message evident elsewhere and essential everywhere. It is, as the Psalm says, that God takes pleasure in the people and in particular the humble. So the way to tend our moment is together in humility, which does not mean submissiveness but instead strength, and there's a need for that, too.
The connection between faith and action moves even further forward in Paul's Epistle. Because he starts out asserting that the call to love our neighbor has everything to do with corporate, communal, collective life, and then he goes on way beyond lesser prophets. He says we have a debt to love, we owe our neighbor love, we have an obligation wherethrough God locks us into active concern for our world. Indeed, twice in five verses he says this is the way we fulfill the law.
I wrestle with this last bit. Because I have plenty of debts, obligations, and regular payments to make in my life already. But Paul, quoting Jesus, says one stands behind all the rest: the need to love our neighbor. It is the essence of our faith.
There is a word to describe the essence of Jesus' mission, and it's a three-dollar theological word, which is 'atonement'. Smarter people than I have said that the way to understand this word is by splitting it apart and describing "at-one-ment." God wants us to be at one within our divided selves, our divided communities, our divided world. Jesus prayed that they all be one, and it's the motto of our denomination, the UCC. At-one-ment is the vision and the mission and the work for a world with divisions. It's what we teach our children, sing from our choir, and pray silently and aloud. It's why we give away money. At-one-ment is what happens during communion. It's how we view our role, our nation. So I'm going to take another swing at it next week.
This week we are passing by a cliffside. School just started, and some of us can think of nothing else. Hurricanes and earthquakes are moving, and many can focus on nothing else. The Patriots are 0 and 1, which may teach something about humility. But the scriptures' cliffside is the one unafraid to ponder multiple narratives, ancient questions, and offer a call to engage our nation with love. So that is also our theme for this fall: how to love our neighbor, by staying in the church and by going forth, which is our constant covenant, thank God. Amen.