Worship Reflection Sunday, July 2, 2023

“We Are In This Together”

C. K. Chesterton, an Englishman, was a well-known writer at the turn of the last century. He famously described the United States as “the nation with the soul of a church.” He did not mean that the United States was holier than any other nation. He did not mean that we are more religious than any other nation. He did mean that the US is better than any other nation. He meant that the United States is a nation bound together by a common creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, that governments are instituted to secure these rights, deriving their just  power from the consent of the governed.” That is our national statement of faith. This is the belief that binds us together. E Pluribus Unum–one out of many. We hold ourselves and each other accountable to this creed.

We used to think of the United States as the great melting pot. We were a nation of nations–people from every land and diverse cultures coming to a new world to become a new nation, a great experiment in democracy.

If we are to believe the majority of wise people who sit on the bench of the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court, we have achieved that dream. We no longer need affirmative action, they say, because there is no racial bias or discrimination in college or university admissions, and legacy policies giving privilege to people who put their names on buildings will soon be a thing of the past, so they say. They would have us believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is not necessary, because we have achieved gender equality. So they say. They would have us believe that gun owners need more protection than transgender and non-binary citizens. So they say.  But they are wrong. They are dangerously wrong.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the United States in the early 1830’s, wrote a book about what he saw. In that book he said:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

The corollary to that last statement is that when the US ceases to be good, it will become just one more empire full of sound and fury, signifying nothing of real or lasting importance.

De Tocqueville put a heavy burden on the church, and he invested great hope in the church. In this cynical age, when people wonder if anything but money makes a difference, we need to claim this great hope. The tragic truth is many of our elected and unelected leaders have strayed into a far country. Like the Prodigal Son, they lost their way. They live in a land where only money talks, so people have to walk in order to be heard. Just last Tuesday, Barbara, Kirk, and I and some friends joined the nurses who were on a one day strike in front of St. Francis hospital. I wrote about this in our Communicator. The administration is paying $8,000 a week plus room and board for strike-breakers, but they are unwilling to talk with people who not so long ago were celebrated as heroes and essential workers. The failures on the part of the administration are real. It is important for members of the community to show support for the nurses by going online, just put “nurses strike” in your search engine and you can read all about it.  I believe that the nurses’ struggle is our struggle. We have people in this congregation who are nurses, and we have members of this congregation who have been and who will be patients in this hospital.

For us, for followers of the Way of Jesus, we are called to be in solidarity with nurses and people everywhere in the fight for economic, social, and racial justice, because this fight, this struggle, is rooted in the gospel. Turn to Matthew, Chapter 10. The chapter begins with the calling of the disciples, and Jesus’ instructions to them. He tells them in verse 10, “I send you out as sheep among the wolves, so be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”  He warns them that following him is going to change their lives and create some problems for them. He says, If you follow me, you will be dragged into court. When you are persecuted in one town, move on to the next. He says that fathers and sons and mothers and daughters will be set against each other. He straight out tells the disciples, “I did not come to bring peace on earth, but the sword.” In every way possible, in this chapter, Jesus is telling his followers that the status quo is not acceptable. Change begins when the present pattern of organization becomes disorganized. Conflict is uncomfortable. But if everyone stays in their comfort zone, nothing can change.

Then in verse 40, Jesus tells his followers: “Whoever receives you, receives me . . .  if you give as much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because you are a disciple, you shall not lose your reward.” This promise of a reward is not a bribe. It’s not like, if you are nice now, I’ll give you a cookie later. No. Your reward is in giving the cup of cold water, taking concrete action to create a new situation, beginning with standing in solidarity with people who are the most at risk, the people who have the most on the line.

The test of discipleship is kindness, but it is more than a random act of kindness, the test of discipleship is solidarity. Discipleship is not only acting on behalf of others, doing for others. Discipleship is standing with others. The “cup of cold water” is a ministry of social engagement. It raises many questions for me. How are the resources in our community being allocated? Who makes decisions and who holds them accountable? How do people get power and how do they use the power they have? Why do we have food deserts? Why do 200 to as many as 400 people show up at the Lord’s Dinner for a meal? Was de Tocqueville right? Was Chesterton right? Is this a nation with the soul of a church?

Jesus said: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The status quo is not acceptable. Personal change is necessary. But we also have to learn to think systemically and institutionally. See, Judge, Act, is the methodology of discipleship that I learned in school. First, look at the situation and its social dimensions. Ask questions. Who is defining the issues? Whose values and experiences are central, and whose values and experiences are marginalized?

Let me get personal as I end this meditation on the text. Let’s ask each other: In what ways is PVCC making an impact on our community? Let’s name the ways out loud. Think especially of ways that this church makes a difference on members of the community who are marginalized and most at risk? What cups of cold water do we offer? To whom? What does this teach us about our community? Matthew’s Jesus is telling us that the days of playing safe are over. Tragically many elected and unelected leaders have forgotten where we come from, they don’t know where we are as a society, and they are afraid of where we are headed. They have taken their inheritance and gone to a foreign land to be entertained on yachts and in private clubs. But we must believe that there is a new day coming. There is a beautiful world in the making. And we are part of its making.