“A society grows great when old people plant trees the shade of which they will never sit under.” — Greek proverb
It was off-the-cuff, an aside during the sermon two Sundays ago, wherein I had to get from the lectionary reading, Jeremiah’s grim explanation of the reasons behind the fall of Judah to the joy du jour, a sacrament, all the promise and hope in little Maggie Philippa’s baptism.
Suddenly, just about the point in the sermon when I was to pivot from the prophet’s lament to our faith’s promise, I found myself talking about President Obama.
Hopefully, it wasn’t too much of an intrusion. The Jeremiah text is unquestionably about the health of a nation, or more pointedly about the various maladies and sicknesses that plague and undercut a nation. I’d begun the sermon with Hillary Clinton’s having that week called a sizable portion of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” And Donald Trump, mostly unnamed, has been behind my preaching a lot over these last months.
Within the separation of church and state that we observe, try to maintain and believe in (because it also protects the church from having the state dictate what we Teach and believe), the church will not choose or advocate for a candidate. That’s your job, discerning and picking behind the voting booth curtain between real, imperfect people and the policies and programs they say they will support. It’s for you to determine according to how you believe each would govern and what you believe about governing.
But if our faith is going to mean anything at all (or at least more than spiritual window-dressing or the pacifying opiate it’s been accused of being), we must be defiant — “Protest-ant” after all — and unafraid to take on the issues of justice in the day and the world God presents us.
To my point two Sunday’s ago — the church, confessing faith in Christ, has no other choice but to stand up for people who are being put down. No, not for some candidate maligned by the liberal media! But the targets of his frequent tirades in hate. Our Christianity commits us to working with and for folks of color, Muslims, Mexicans, women, queer folk — and in the debate last Monday night, some lone fat guy and a beauty queen — who are being maligned, denied or persecuted. (If you have any doubts about my position that as Christians we are called and expected to stand up for the underdogs, check out Jesus in the Beatitudes or in the Judgement of the Nations.
On that Sunday of Maggie’s baptism, my task was first to acknowledge the prophet’s spot-on fear that there was no balm sufficient for the need of his nation — the text from Jeremiah essentially explains the slow-motion demise of the last 20 years of Judah.
And then I wanted to turn on a dime and raise up the assertion or assurance of the eponymous spiritual hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” wherein Christian faith is confident that in Jesus we have found the medicine sufficient for our sin-sickness. We would end the sermon with our singing, for ourselves and for Maggie, that there is without question a balm that heals sin-sick souls.
I was talking about the faith into which we were welcoming Maggie. I preached that “We are baptizing this little girl this morning into a faith that is unafraid and unapologetic about service and sacrifice, about courage and about selflessness.”
But all of a sudden, there I was talking about President Obama. Sermons are like that sometimes… Of course, since it was unscripted, I don’t have my exact words. But I remember my comment something like: “Remember how President Obama began his first term talking about how we were going to have to redeem the notion of necessary sacrifices. That we as a nation and as individuals were going to have to give up putting ourselves first and take on some sacrifice, you and I, as surely as the generations before us did.”
I heard someone ask just yesterday if President Obama might not go to seminary next year, as “he was preaching again!” In my sermon, I think I went on to say something about how the President didn’t get very far with his exhortation, with this theme, and how today, such a suggestion would not just be ignored into silence; it would be political suicide.
But sacrifice is the lifeblood of our faith. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service.” That was Ghandi. But I think he’s paraphrasing Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10: 39).
Trump suggested, in the midst of his public fight with the parents of a Muslim-American man who had given his life in service to this country that they were not the only ones who’d experienced sacrifice. That he for the benefit of his business ventures had had to sacrifice.
Beloved, it might be political suicide for anyone but Trump to speak of sacrifice. But it’s integral to the living of our faith.
A favorite passage from Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country“ explains, “I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering.”
We sacrifice all the time. In ways big and small. In fact, I would suggest that most of the really important things you do with your life involve some degree of sacrifice. Giving up something for someone else. Going out of your way or slowing down for others. Choosing not to do one thing, so that you can do another. Holding our tongue, and our tempers. Giving something of value to you up so that others might have what they need.
I planted a tree in front of my house when the UCC was sponsoring its Mission 4/1 tree planting effort. It was just a 15 ft. high stick of a Gingko. But it made me happy. Reminded me of Martin Buber’s “I contemplate a tree” — his metaphor for the relationality in which we are to really recognize one another (a theme from last Sunday’s sermon about the rich man and Lazarus!).
When I planted it, I expected it would outlive me. And that in some sense, I would never see its glory. Rather, after I was gone, it would continue to grow to its full stature and beauty there on 17th Street where I was no longer.
Some of you know, the tree was broken off at the trunk last spring. That morning, as I had carried my bike out of the building, I had noticed the first green sprouting of the beautifully shaped leaves appearing. When I came home the same night, all that was left was about 3 feet of jagged, broken trunk. It made me heart sick. I was so sad that I couldn’t even consider replacing it right away.
But I remember another line from Paton’s novel, “The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”
I will replant a tree again. And surely, starting over 3 years later, I will see even less of its journey to maturity and its full glory. But those who come after me will enjoy its shade for years to come. And there is a reward in that…
See you in church,