Rebuilding Common Life

Randall Tremba
June 10, 2012
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

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1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said: "You are old and your sons are corrupt and take bribes; appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.

This coming Thursday is Flag Day and that got me thinking about our nation. The founders of our nation lived as subjects under a king until they couldn’t take it anymore. They revolted against the monarchy and embraced a radically new way of being a nation, a republic of and by and for the people. No other sovereignty would be permitted, not even God, at least for a while. More than two centuries later we are still trying to figure out what it means to be a republic.

So when I noticed Flag Day was this coming Thursday (June 14) it got me thinking about our nation and about our pledge of allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. You know, one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. One nation. Our nation. Indivisible.

But if you’ve listened to your neighbors or the news lately, you know we are not indivisible. We are a divided nation.

This past week I was reading E. J. Dionne’s new book: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.Of course, we don’t need Dionne or anyone else to tell us that discontentment plagues our nation.

You can’t help but notice sharp divisions over abortion, same sex marriage, illegal immigrants, the role and scope of government, tax rates, financial inequality, environmental protection, healthcare, and now the proposed ban on big gulp sodas, which, I suppose, is not unlike the way government bans the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to minors who aren’t old enough to know what’s good for them. Really, you might say: can’t we leave those decisions about cigarettes, alcohol, soda, seatbelts, pornography and immunization against smallpox to parents? Must the nanny state coerce us so much?

Should the government act like a parent?

Now that’s a question that divides us and has for a long time—and no wonder. After all, we are a nation, or if you like, a “family” of 300 million people. Some of us would do just fine without any parental aid while others would never make it. If you have a family with more than one child—or are part of a family with more than one child—you know about different capacities. Now think: 300 million!

Should those who can’t make it on their own be left behind for predators to devour?

That’s a question that divides us—more so recently, according to Dionne, than when our nation had a stronger republican fabric, which is to say a stronger communal sense of duty to others in this one nation, this commonwealth, built on a common life cultivated and protected by local, state and federal governments. That republican sense of community is one of our nation’s founding ideals. The people are sovereign. We look after each other.

But of late another founding ideal has gained ascendency over the republican communal idea, namely the ideal of the rugged individual, the person who is self-sufficient, in need of nothing or no one and certainly no nanny government. According to Dionne, the creative tension in the American idea of nationhood has been between the historically conservative ideal of traditional communal values undergirded by duty and responsibility and the historically liberal idea of change, progress, and personal rights. His book asks: what’s happened to the balance? What’s gone wrong?

Yes, it’s discouraging. But take heart. This is not the first time we’ve struggled to find our way through difficult times.

I’ve also been reading a book by John Barry: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.You may know of Roger Williams as the 17th century founder of Rhode Island, at the time the only refuge for conscientious objectors to the Puritans who ruled the rest of New England on behalf of God. Think: Taliban in “Christian garbs.”

The governing authorities of Massachusetts were ready to hang Williams for his heretical and criminal idea. His idea was that the state should not coerce people to attend church or punish them for holding certain beliefs about the Trinity and such. Williams would have been hung, as many were, except for a friend who helped him escape through the wilderness.

Eventually, the English Parliament would hear of his predicament and reluctantly offer some protection for his radical idea of separation between church and state. Imagine that! Well, actually, it was hard to imagine then. It was unheard of in the world at the time.

Thanks to Roger Williams and his advocacy of personal freedom, Americans have been leery ever since of the state running the church or the church running the state. Which means, I suppose, it was a bad day for America when our Congress under duress of the cold war, slipped “under God” into our pledge of allegiance. What does that mean? What happened to the sovereignty of the people?

I suppose it means: “desperate times require desperate measures,” which brings us to Sept. 11. But first let’s ponder the desperate times portrayed in the Old Testament lesson for today.

Twelve hundred or so years before Christ the Israelites were a loose confederacy of 12 tribes vulnerable to attacks from the more powerful Philistines and their more deadly weapons of iron, not unlike native American tribes vulnerability to the long guns from Europe 400 years ago.

Give us a king to govern us, cried the people. So Samuel prayed to the LORD,and the LORD said, "Listen to the voice of the people; for they have not rejected you; they have rejected me from being king over them.Listen to their voice and then solemnly warn them of the ways of the king who shall reign over them."

By they way, if the only choice is between monarchy and theocracy you might want to choose monarchy as Roger Williams learned in 17th century. Pity the people ruled by those who know God’s will for everybody else. Fortunately we have better choices these days.

So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people: "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take, take, take and take. He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots; he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and give them to his favorites. He will take one-tenth of your grain and give it to his officers. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves."

Did that prognosis make the people change their mind? Let’s see.

The people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel. "No!” they cried. “We want a king over us, so that we may be like other nations, so that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles." (1 Samuel 8)

It wasn’t the first or last time the “the people” would ignore political and economic consequences and demand something that would hurt and harm them because they were blinded by fear and enthralled by a messianic quick fix. And less you think this is only about politics and governments, think again. Consider this: Who or what do you allow to rule your own heart because you are afraid?

Not too long ago, our terrified nation cried out for protection against terrorism. In exchange for safety and security we readily gave up liberty and justice for all. And in the process our common life collapsed even more.

Much is in ruins in our nation today. But all is not lost. We can rebuild. It’s time to stop shouting at each and start listening to each other. It’s time to work together for our common life.

Which brings us to the gospel lesson for today. Jesus said: a house divided against itself cannot stand. (Mark 3) No, we don’t have to be like-minded on every matter but we can at least be kind enough to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt we expect for ourselves. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We can talk less and listen more. We can be more kind.

No, we can’t go back to some dreamy, family farm golden past or start over from scratch. The God we serve in Jesus calls us toward the future, calls us to build and rebuild with the tools we have and with the tools and ideas that a free society and free people can and will discover and invent in the future. We can build a kinder society.

You may think this is only about governments and politics, but think again. As Beatles John Lennon put in his song “Revolution”: You say you want a revolution; well, you know, we all want to change the world; you say it’s the institution, well, you know, you’d better free your mind instead.

So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without grace unfolding. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4. From The Message by Eugene Peterson)

And it’s for those things that we pray, work and long for.