“America! America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”
Sermon at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan
November 13, 2016 (26th Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 98; Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19
In the last congregation I served, soon after I arrived, I began the practice of praying for our elected leaders by name; that meant we prayed for our President George W. Bush and our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. One member was horrified: how conservative is our new pastor? he wondered.
Let me forewarn you: we will observe that practice in this congregation as well, praying for our current President Barack Obama and our newly elected President Donald Trump.
We are, after all, citizens of a democracy. Democracy allows for change, for better and for worse. Democracy can be quite messy as our nation’s history reveals. President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address this week, November 19, 1863, in the face of the horrors of the Civil War; citizens spilled blood, not against foes from distant shores, but against family members and neighbors. Our great President said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Familiarity with history is essential: imagine the fear people must have had for this great country’s future as Seminary Ridge (as in the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) stood littered with the lifeless bodies of young soldiers.
And now this week…
Our Lutheran tradition places great weight on the exercise of power. Government, far from being a swampy cesspool that must be drained, is the necessary venue where decisions are made for the common good. We believe political service to be a noble calling from God just like a pastor or doctor or farmer. While democracy does not bring about the kingdom of God, good government does do necessary things like providing for the easily forgotten, protecting the defenseless, and seeing that roads and bridges are built and well maintained.
Having served as a pastor in Washington, D.C. for thirteen years and having counted many fine public servants, Democrat and Republican, as parishioners and friends, I know how thankless the calling of government work can be. Count me out when talking about draining the swamp: I give thanks for hard-working and decent public officials.
While we Lutherans believe government a noble calling, we do not deem it a blank check. Bad government tramples the rights of the innocent, inhibits religious liberty, and despoils God’s good creation. None of us who call ourselves Christian dare acquiesce to horrific name calling or mistreatment of Mexican immigrants or African Americans, people in the LGBTQ community or the disabled, women or Muslims. We have a calling as citizens: we must hold our president accountable to the highest standards when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and we will pray that he will achieve such breathtaking heights of decency and compassion so that all people in this land are treated equally with liberty and justice for all. And when our president lifts up the lowly, he will receive our utmost support.
I love today’s Psalm 98: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” This Psalm’s beauty is achieved when all creation sings in harmony to the glory of God. Lyre and trumpet, sea and porpoise, flood and hill—all make a joyful noise to the Lord.
Let us not jeopardize this glorious song. The moment anyone, president or citizen, starts singing off key, recklessly endangering creation’s song of praise to God, let us call him or her back to our Creator’s perfect song.
You know that God sent God’s only son so that the broken, despised, and poor might join this song. If the Bible is anything, it is a musical score that insists on the inclusion of the voices of widows, orphans, and refugees in singing a new song. The moment we see these blessed poor thrown from the choir loft, we have no option but to demand that our political leaders restore them to the choir. Whenever even one broken soul is left out, creation’s music turns sour.
These days should not surprise a single one of us who has listened to Jesus. He just told us moments ago: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…they will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.” As desperate as this sounds, never forget what Jesus added: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
For far too many months now we have heard the obnoxious music that attacks and repels, humiliates and accuses. It has been jarring and ugly, dissonant and destructive. We are here at 65th and Central Park West for one reason and one reason only: to sing a new song to the Lord. We dare not join in the horrid music that this world too easily sings; rather we are called to sing a new song. Moses and Jeremiah, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Anne Frank—they sang music that seeks the best for God’s suffering creation. We remember these blessed ones, not because they were rich or powerful, but because they strove to sing Mother Mary’s song, “My soul proclaims the greatest of the Lord because he has put the mighty down from their thrones and exalted those of low degreed and the rich he has sent empty away.” The history of God’s people reveals this is never an easy song to sing. History is one story after another of those of low degree being trampled upon. The church’s finest hour in every age has occurred when God’s people have struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to ensure that the hungry are filled with good things in God’s name.
Some people in our nation are very happy this morning, some are furious, some are heartbroken, some say, “wait and see.” Whatever your feelings, we gather here as a hopeful people who believe God’s love for the oppressed and forsaken will prevail.
At the end of this Mass, we will sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.” I pray, in one glorious harmony, we will sing, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”