A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Text: Zechariah 9:9-12 (NLT)
Who can tell me the story of the Pilgrims in a sound bite?
Well, one of my favorite bloggers cites a sermon in which the preacher tells a revisionist tale about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Nancy Taylor, in her inaugural sermon as pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church, the church whose congregants gave us the original tea party, proclaimed the following:
As you know, the Pilgrims…were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.
I suspect that most of us did not read that account in high school history books. I imagine those in authority in the Boise Public School District would have avoided this tacit approval of drinking beer as unsuitable for young folk. After all, we had enough temptation to resist without an intoxicating account of the beginning of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Joking aside, it does raise questions about what is urgent in our lives and the life of this nation, the USA. It is always challenging to find the right balance for preaching on one of our non-religious, but sacrosanct holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the 4th of July. Joanne Jones and I had more than one discussion about the place of patriotic music in worship. For me it has no place in the worship of God. I pledged to myself long ago that I would not serve a congregation that kept a US flag in the sanctuary. I learned at my father’s knee the importance of separation of church and state.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I do not value this country and appreciate many of the nobler principles on which it was founded. But I also recognize that there are flaws in the system and much wrong that has been done under patriotic banners. In the Midweek Message, I asked us to consider the words of the great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, who declared that “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones,’ he says, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”
The key word here is love. Sometimes love is blind and that can lead to a morass of trouble when the beloved is blindly affirmed in all she is and does. Sometimes love is absent and the critique is harsh, mean-spirited and hardly helpful. To love someone or something truly is to open one’s eyes to see the possibilities and limitations; then to speak truth grounded in that love. You are so beautiful; so full of possibility; so rich in resource, yet there are times and places where you are not living up to your promise; you are not fulfilling your potentiality; you are not sharing that with which you have been blessed.
This week on Facebook my uncle in Texas accused me of being part of the “illegal immigrant problem.” I’ll let you be the judge. My friend Harold Sutherland has worked for many years as an asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security. Harold is a graduate of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and an ordained American Baptist minister. Some of you may remember that for a number of years before he went to work for the government, Harold did refugee resettlement with the American Baptist Churches of the West and the ABC-USA. Harold has a big, compassionate heart. I can only imagine how difficult it has been to do the work he has chosen. It is hard enough to try to resettle refugees. To work as an asylum officer must be excruciatingly painful at times.
Anyway, on Independence Day, Harold posted, with a photo of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s great poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved in the statue’s base. He added this comment: “As the latest immigration debate rages, I want to share this. This has been a powerful symbol of our nation’s history and welcome. I fear that so many angry people here today want nothing to do with the sentiment of Emma Lazarus’s poem and I wonder what we will do, what can be done, and where will we go with this crisis.”
You remember the poem? I learned the last few lines in grade school.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
When I reposted Harold’s post, I added these words. “The sentiment of this poem still moves me, especially as I view the ugly, angry mob in Murietta, CA.” When I saw that mob on the news, blocking the buses carrying children and families from what appear to be obscenely inadequate quarters on the Texas border to other detention centers where they will be processed, then most likely returned to their country of origin, I found it difficult to be proud of my country and at least some of its people. These protestors looked like ugly Americans to me and my heart fell. Where is our compassion? Where is the beacon-hand that glows world-wide welcome, the lamp that leads to safety, the golden door of opportunity that has opened at one time or another to the families of every person screaming hate and turning back those desperate children?
My uncle insists that his Italian ancestors came here legally, so that legitimates his right to be here. That may be so. I know the issues of legality are more complex than I can sort out. But what are we to say to Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, still lifting her lamp beside the golden door? What are we to say the God who made us all and loves us with the same ineffable love? What are we to say to Christ who stands at this table of communion and bids you and me and the all the world to eat and drink? How will we respond to that Spirit of compassion that blows around us, in us and through us when facing our neighbors in need?
Coffin, again, writes that “Individuals and nations are at their worst when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.” In the end, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I must confess that my first allegiance is to the God who made us and all creation, who through Christ is drawing all of creation back to God’s self.
Zechariah, an obscure, minor prophet, lived and worked in a challenging time for his people. After 100 years of exile in Babylon, they had been allowed to return home. In some ways Zechariah was an optimist or at least he was hopeful. He tried to encourage his people by exhorting them to rebuild the temple. Zechariah came from a family of priestly privilege but apparently he had a heart of compassion for the people struggling around him to rebuild their decimated city and reclaim their lost legacy.
His belief was that, in the work of rebuilding the temple, people would not only find meaningful employment but also that deep, covenantal relationship to God. The temple itself was secondary to that relationship to the one liberates and redeems, blesses and loves with a steadfast love. Eventually, Zechariah saw his people fail to live up to his dream, indeed, to their own national vision and the promise of the future. But in the moment he penned today’s text, he was full of hope for the promise of a renewed covenant. This was urgent for him, for his people, his nation.
For his people as for the people of Jesus’ time, the messianic vision became distorted toward a ruler who would come with armed might to drive oppressive enemies away and secure the boundaries and resources of the land for the insiders. But Zechariah says, and Jesus repeats the word, this is not how God works. Look, this king you so desire is coming to you. Shout! Rejoice! But also, beware. This sovereign one is not just powerful, he’s righteous and he’s humble. His power is not in armament or weapons. His power is love and compassion. His mission is to bring peace to the nations. Not what they expected. Not what they wanted to hear.
The risk of all self-righteous patriotism is uncritical love and loveless criticism. It creates boundaries among people that God never intended and refuses to recognize. It creates categories, defining who is in and who is out, categories at which God takes offense and rejects. God simply and eternally continues to widen the circle. There is room at God’s table for all and there is an abundant feast to fill the body, mind and soul of whomsoever will come. So where people take up the sword or the hateful placard against a neighbor, sister, brother, ill-defined as enemy, there is God turning swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. Wherever there are children of God longing for safety, for food, for shelter, for freedom, for love, for home, there is the daughter of Zion rejoicing with all her heart, there is Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, lifting her beacon hand of world-wide welcome beside God’s golden door, there is the king of righteousness and humility repaying two blessings for each trouble and bringing everlasting peace to the nations. May it be so.