A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 20, 2016
This is one of those hybrid Sundays, one in which several not obviously related foci converge and challenge the worship planner to come up with something that at appears coherent. I told Jan that I had all the hymns carefully chosen for “Reign of Christ” Sunday, the celebratory culmination of the liturgical year, when I remembered that this was also Stewardship or Gratitude Sunday as well as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It is important in the traditions of our congregation to recognize all these events. So back to the drawing board to ensure that the Reign of Christ, stewardship, and Thanksgiving were all acknowledged in today’s service. If you’re missing “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” I suggest attending tonight’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in which it will be the opening hymn.
Disingenuous and misleading political rhetoric aside, we do not live in a theocracy. We live in a representative democracy or a democratic republic. I mention this because some of the political rhetoric we hear drawn from biblical material comes from a theocratic setting and ought to be considered with that reality in mind. We can claim that we are God’s chosen people, that God is on our side, that this is the new promised land, but our misuse of those ideas, especially for political gain, does not make it so. Now, since it is obvious that we do not have a monarch in this country, at least, not yet, we need to show care in applying Old Testament prophetic proclamation or Christian identity to our current political scene.
Ancient Israel was organized as a nation around the claim of a covenant with Yahweh, One God, Creator and Ruler of the universe. The covenant proclaimed the allegiance of a people to that One God and God, in return, claimed them as a chosen people. When things went well, God was blessing them and when things went badly, they believed that God was punishing them. Hebrew scriptures are shaped by and reinforce this mindset.
The challenge for us, as people of faith, is that we do not believe the world works this way. We know that God does not operate like this, blessing us when we are good and punishing us when we are bad. Bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Even this statement suggests that some of us are either altogether good or utterly evil. In truth, we know that most of us are a very human mixture of varying qualities and behaviors. Even saints and apostles wrestle with temptations and imperfections.
When the prophet, Jeremiah, goes after the “shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of [God’s] pasture,” he’s offering a political commentary appropriate to a theocracy. God will execute judgment and punishment on those kings who do not care for God’s people and their common life. And that judgment may spill over onto the folk that follow those leaders. Since we do not live in a theocracy, how do we make sense of this text in our time, especially if we do not believe God operates with a system of directed rewards and punishments?
Well, one way to look at it is to try to separate out the political and the theological threads and then re-weave them. That is, I think Jeremiah is spot on to say that there are always bad consequences to bad leadership. Kings who think they are above the law, who believe their nation is their personal play thing, who ignore the needs of their people, who engage in entangling alliances for their own benefit, who abandon their responsibility to govern with justice and righteousness, will reap the effects of their decisions. History confirms this. We’ve seen kingdoms come and go, empires rise and fall, but as Lincoln so wisely quipped, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” At some point a child will cry out, “The emperor has no clothes,” or the people will stand up and say, “No more,” or the whole house of cards will simply topple under the weight of its overinflated sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.
Perhaps we saw something of this sort in the recent election among people fed up with the incapacity of our current bloated system to govern with justice, righteousness, or concern for the common welfare. Still, while some folk expressed their concern for their own well-being, others took the opportunity to let the racist, xenophobic, sexist, homo-hating, ableist, ageist fears and ignorance of their shadows come raging into the open. It is, and ought to be, a frightening prospect for us to consider the political and governmental outcomes of such a coalition. But I will argue that God did not do this to us. We did it to ourselves. Remember, we are a representative democracy and the people, within the confines of our political system – rigged or not – have spoken.
A dilemma arises then for those of us who are people of faith, living within this representative democracy. What are we to do? Do we accept the political consequences with little or no comment and wait for a better day, perhaps one with Jesus in Paradise, in the sweet bye and bye? Do we cooperate with corrupt systems because Paul advised the early church to obey earthly authority and Jesus said to give Caesar his due? Or, counter-cultural as it may be, do we have a witness to bear, a word from our tradition to bring to the conversation, a Christ to follow, even to embody, as we make our way through this very world?
In Bible study, we talked about kings in general and the kind of king Jesus turned out to be. Remember, in that ancient theocracy, how God tried to talk the people out of having a king? Samuel tried to convince the people that God was enough. But they weren’t having it. Everyone else had a king, they wanted one, too. God warned them of the consequences, but the warning fell on deaf ears. Now here they were, centuries later, stuck with the inevitable consequences of their demand – city in ruins, temple destroyed, leadership led into exile, struggling to make ends meet in a decimated land. It was British historian and moralist, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, who opined in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” I’m going to make a guess that by “great men,” he meant men who lusted after and obtained dominating power, like the woeful shepherds of Israel who scattered and destroyed the flock. He’s not referring to greatness of heart and soul.
The very greatness of Jesus comes in his refusal to take power, at least the kind of power Lord Acton was writing about. His was a greatness of heart and mind and soul and strength, fixed surely in his abiding love for God and neighbor. He refused to be the Messiah that so many of his followers wanted him to be. At his trial, and at the foot of the cross, they mocked him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They could not wrap their minds around the reality that he had come to be a servant king. That oxymoron was beyond their grasp. Perhaps the idea of it stretches us more than we can bear.
How can one be a servant king? Anyone who aspires to be the leader must want power or, at the very least, be willing to compromise, to make some peace with the power that comes with the office. The irony that Jimmy Carter, the one president who, in our times, may have had a grasp of the significance of servant leadership, held office for only one term and was considered largely unsuccessful in the role.
Our Seasons of the Spirit theme for Reign of Christ Sunday is “Christ Over Chaos.” There is something to be said about the desire of the Holy One to bring a sense of order to sacred chaos, but it is also fair to say that the servant king comes as Christ creating chaos. He challenges human-shaped systems, political and religious, that oppress people, stifle the fullness of life, maintain peace at the expense of justice, privilege wealth and dominating power. The servant king by his very nature disrupts those systems, creating chaos, and demanding a re-ordering that recognizes justice, righteousness, compassion, peace, harmony, and the well-being of all creation as the true order that God shaped from the sacred chaos back in the beginning.
The thing is that God does not coerce. God reaches out to us with the lure of divine love. God compels our cooperation in this ongoing creative enterprise. God’s Beloved Community does not come through political systems, governmental regulations, the rule of kings, or the power of presidents. It really cannot come that way. It comes as we, individually and collectively, respond to the call of the servant king – to follow, to bear witness, to proclaim the word, to do the daily work of justice, righteousness, compassion, peace, harmony, and the well-being of all creation. Jesus, the Christ, leads the way but we must walk it for it to have any meaning or effect in the world around us.
We know it’s not easy to be a servant king. Look at the mockery and ignominious death that came to Jesus, and, really, just because he wanted to do the right thing. But we also know that in his faithfulness to God he tapped into a power that far exceeds any other power known, the power of love. Fragile as a flower and strong beyond any defeat, love wins the day. A servant king! For love serves by its very nature and in this love, in this service, is life abundant and eternal. This is our story; this is our song! The power of love overcomes the might of empire, the scandal of crucifixion, the false claim of death. The writer of Colossians says of the servant king, “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God [is] pleased to [be reconciling] to [God’s Self] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of [Christ’s] cross.” This is our hope and encouragement – to follow the way of the servant king, creating chaos where it is called for and participating fully in the sacred reconciliation of all creation to God who was and is and always will be love almighty. Amen.