Is there room for conservatism in America? (Questions for America Part 2)

This week I am preaching the second sermon in a short series. These Sundays around the fourth of July,  I continue asking questions for America. Today I have just one final question, and it may come as a bit of a shock to you. Steel yourselves. Here it is:

Is there still room for conservatism in America?

I know that many of you think of me as a reliable liberal. Well, I have a confession to make to you. My father used to describe me as a “born Republican.” When I was a toddler, one of my first multi-syllabic words, thanks to a buddy of my uncle’s, was “Reaganomics.” I come from a long line of Western libertarian Republicans, the kind of folks who often say these days: “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me.” I’ll be honest. Preaching about conservatism makes me a little nervous, but these are my roots.

And so I ask: Is there room for conservatism in America these days?

Let’s take a look at Scripture shall we? In Genesis chapter 24, Isaac meets Rebecca, with the help of his father’s servant/matchmaker. After last week’s terrifying account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father, this story feels relaxed. It’s a bit odd, by today’s standards, but the result is good. Rebekah consents.

As we were preparing for this week’s service, our Music Director Mary stopped me and asked, “What’s going on with the ring in her nose?” I teased Mary about being such a conservative. I guess it is surprising to learn that nose piercings have Biblical support. But here you go, any teenagers that are trying to win mom or grandma’s support to get your nosed pierced. One of the examples of Biblical womanhood received a nose ring as part of God’s plan.

I also feel it is incumbent to say: “A nose ring is also almost always, more than a nose ring.” You want to know what statement you’re making before you get a piercing. Jewelry signifies. A hunk of gold in your nose has meaning. In this case, the jewelry is a part of a series of gifts that includes those camels and other livestock. Abraham’s servant is assuring Laban, and Rebekah, that she will be provided for, she will have wealth. The nose ring is gold for a reason.

Now, that might raise your eyebrows. Is Rebekah being purchased? As I said above, the answer is no. Rebekah consents. But the waters are a bit muddy here. Your feminist meters should be ticking. You may think it is odd that in the same sermon I’m asking for room for Conservatism, and talking about feminism. But should feminism and conservatism be opposites? If conservatives are all about values. If they are “values voters,” isn’t one of our deepest values equality? Shouldn’t conservatives be concerned about whether women have an equal say in their marriage, or in the workplace for that matter. We’re in the 21st century. Can’t equality for women be a conservative value as well?

Today we are rankled at the idea that a woman might be bought and paid for in marriage. I hope that is true across the political aisle. But a hundred years ago, dowries were still very common. A hundred years ago, no one would have batted an eye at this story from Genesis. In our grandparents’ America it might well seem to an outside observer like wives were bought and paid for. I wonder, what do we buy and sell today that will shock our descendants?

I wonder whether the generations that follow will be shocked that we thought we could buy and sell natural resources so freely. We’re not factoring the true cost of burning so much fuel, and destroying species with pollution. I find it a little shocking that those who call themselves conservatives today have such little concern for conservation. Where are the conservative conservationists?

I’ve known at least one. Russell Train, a life-long Episcopalian and a federal judge was also one of the founding directors of the World Wildlife Fund. He served as the second director of the Environmental Protection Agency, The EPA. Russell Train was a Republican, a Republican’s Republican, he was a Nixon appointee. He called his political memoir “Politics, Pollution, and Pandas.” In it he wrote:

To my mind, to oppose environmental protection is not to be truly conservative. To put short-term financial gain ahead of the long-term health of the environment is a fundamentally radical policy, as well as being unethical.

Train points out that it was Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) who began the system of national forests and wildlife refuges. He spoke softly, carried a big stick, and designated National Parks left and right. Consider these words about America from one of our most admired Republican presidents:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

Is there room for this kind of conservatism in America today?

If conservatism means moving slowly, particularly in areas that will effect the economy and the well-being of the population generations down the line, where are those conservatives? Where are the conservatives who will say, “slow down, we don’t really want to kick 22 million people off of healthcare, do we?” Where are the conservatives who will say, “wait, you want to make a quick buck now and then stick the American people of the future with a huge environmental cleanup bill, I don’t think so.” Where are those conservatives? Is there room in America for conservatism today?

Now, I know that some of you are squirming every time I say the word “Conservative.” I see you. But we’re going to have to, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, Episcopalians and Catholics, all of us, are going to have to learn how to build bridges again if we’re going to do something the environment, or healthcare, or gun violence, immigration reform, you name it. We have gone beyond politicization. We have demonized the “other side.” As long as “conservative” or “liberal” remain dirty words, we’re stuck with a politics that amounts to hostage taking.

The politics of today has a lot of us feeling weary.

I’m not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I’m not sure, but I think the invitation still stands. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “come to me some of you.” He doesn’t say, “Come to me democrats” or “come to me republicans.” Jesus says “All.” He goes on, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The church used to call this verse “the comfortable words.” They are a comfort.

Those words make a little more sense if you know that in Jesus’ time, a rabbi’s teaching was called a “yoke.” Jesus calls his teaching “easy and light.”

Jesus was different sort of teacher. Compared to the rabbis of his day, Jesus probably laughed a great deal more. Make no mistake, Jesus engaged in the politics of his day. He questioned the power of both the Roman Authorities, and their Jewish client-rulers. He also stood up to the religious nut-jobs of his own time. Much of the Gospels involve scenes where Jesus is being questioned by rabbis or lawyers. Yes, sometimes he loses his temper, calls them vipers, but more often than not he comes up with a clever response. He finds a way to laugh, to lighten the load, and to point people beyond their polarities toward love and justice. You get a sense that this Jesus fellow was pretty grounded.

Taking up this yoke, following this way of Jesus requires, in a particular way, some personal conservatism. Jesus wants his followers to be religiously observant. In order to practice faith, you have to be a bit conservative, at least with your time. You have to say “no” to some invitations. The families with young kids who are here in our pews know this well. These days coming to church often means skipping a soccer game or a play rehearsal. But it’s true for those of us beyond the extracurriculars as well. More and more our Sunday mornings, our evenings, our early hours are quickly filled. There is less time for practicing faith.

To practice your faith means that you’ve got to sign off your email regularly. Practicing faith means making time in a rushed world. If you’re feeling weary and heavy laden, maybe try being a little more conservative with your time. I think the conservatives have something valuable to teach us about intentionally making time for family and for faith.

Honestly, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a priest identifies as somewhat conservative. We say prayers here each week that are thousands of years old. Tradition has value. I believe that slow, thoughtful, measured progress can be good, but I am also one who can be swayed by the argument: “We’ve always done it that way.” I’m an Episcopalian, I’ve made that argument. I believe wisdom accrues over generations. I believe there is a great deal worth conserving in our nation, and in our world.

There’s a basic teaching in Christianity that is inherently conservative. The teaching is simple: you can’t save yourself. You can’t. Paul gets at this teaching today in that difficult passage from Romans. “Oh wretched man that I am, who will rescue me?” This bit of Paul is tough to read, but I’d venture that many of us know what Paul is talking about. Most of us have come, at one point or another, to the end of our rope. And most of us have come their of our own volition. We know what Paul is talking about when he says, “I don’t understand my own action, for I do what I hate.” Paul knows. You can’t save yourself. As human beings, we need a savior. We need a teacher. We need to lay down our burdens, we need to come to Jesus. And we will hear those comforting words: “I will give you rest for your souls.”

I know it may come as a surprise for some of you, to hear me ask: “Is there room for conservatism in America?” But on personal levels, national levels, and global levels we could learn to slow down, to consider the ramifications of our actions. We could be less sure of our own capabilities and lean more on tradition, and more on God. If we can’t make room for that kind of conservatism, well then God help us.

Questions for America: Part One

This week and next, I am preaching a short sermon series. Returning from vacation this last week, coming home to America in time for the celebrations of July 4, I have had some mixed feelings. (Who doesn’t have mixed feelings coming back from vacation?) But these feelings are specific, and to me troubling. As a kid, I loved the fourth of July, the fireworks, the hotdogs, flying the flag. As an adult, especially this year, I feel the weight of responsibility that comes with citizenship in our republic. This year, more than most, I’ve marched. I’ve written letters. I’ve called my representatives and senators, and I don’t see many immediate results. Honestly, I’m a little frustrated with the state of our nation. So today and next week, the Sundays surrounding July 4, I have a series of questions for America.

Before we get to the questions, let’s take a look at the Bible. We have spent the last few weeks in church hearing stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the matriarchs and patriarch of our faith traditions. We’ve been reading the “founding stories.” The beauty found in these stories is stunning. God takes Abraham out under a cloudless night and says to Abraham “look at the sky. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” Sarah laughs, when she hears God’s plan that she will conceive in her old age. She’s 90. Laughter is appropriate, holy. Sarah laughs, and at long last Abraham and Sarah have a son, and they name him Isaac, laughter. The stories are beautiful, and, if we’re honest, the stories are problematic.

Last week we heard the story of Hagar, Abraham’s mistress who bore his first son Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar are rivals, and their sons grow rivalrous as well. After seeing Ishmael taunt Isaac, Sarah wants “the other woman” and her child out. Hagar and Ishmael are left out in the desert to die.  The story is painful, ugly. How could we believe in a God who would allow such inhumane treatment? Well, these texts are problematic, and there’s a great deal going on behind the scenes. Still I am struck by these stories, because just when I think: “I can’t believe in a God who would bless such behavior,” the text turns. God shows up for the characters who were cast out.

All this backstory is recalled ever so briefly in in today’s lesson. Speaking to Abraham, God calls Isaac, “your only son.” Now God should know better. As we heard last week, God saved Ishmael in the end. Ishmael will also found a dynasty. Abraham will be the father of many nations. The founding story is beautiful and problematic. Today’s text is frightening, and a pattern for salvation. We’ll get deeper into the Bible in a bit.

As I thought about the beauty and the problems of these founding stories of our faith, I found myself also thinking about the beauty and difficulty built into our national stories. When I lived in Washington DC, I used to love to visit the monuments on the National Mall at night. If you’re traveling to Washington, I can’t recommend a nightime visit to Jefferson and Lincoln more highly. You’ll often have the whole place to yourself, and the way the park service lights the marble at night is magic. Standing in his psuedo-Greek Temples, looking out over the Tidal Basin, I loved re-reading Jefferson’s words, lit up against the dark sky. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The monument does its job. You can’t help but contemplate beauty of our founding story.

The United States were built on the bedrock of equality. And yet, there in the text we can hear the problematic element of our founding story as well: “All men.” As Angelica Schuyler sings in the musical Hamilton: “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.” Knowing what we do about Jefferson also begs the question, ”How could the architects of freedom also perpetuate the enslavement of Africans?” Our founding stories are both beautiful and problematic.

Like Isaac and Ishmael, like Sarah and Hagar, our founding stories set up rivalries. In America, often those rivalries are based in racial identity. Toni Morrision has said “Race” is the fundamental metaphor neccessary to understand the “construction of Americanness.” “American” has been defined as “white.” This was literally true at the time of our founding. Enslaved African Americans were only counted as 3/5 of a person by our constitution. And they only counted in order to give their owners more power and representation. Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities have also had their personhood legislated. We have set up racial rivalries across American History.

I entitled this sermon series: “Questions for America.” My first question is this:

“To whom does America belong?”

This morning we heard Jesus’ words about Welcome. Welcome the little ones. Christians believe in fundamental welcome. We hear that this is a nation with Judeo Christian values, but how often do we welcome the way Jesus would have us? How often do we see Americans as Americans? How often are Asian Americans and Latin Americans asked, “Where are you from?” and then “no, really, where are your people from?” How often are black citizens denied basic protections for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even life?

Did you hear the story of Aaron Bailey, another unarmed black man shot by police officers, this time in Indianapolis, last week? Yes, Aaron had a criminal record. But wasn’t he more than his record? Did you know that Aaron was a volunteer at Christ Church Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis? Did you know he was a regular guest at their Sunday breakfast? Who counts as American? Whose lives matter? To whom does America belong?

There is a fundamental problem in our national story. Racism has been called “America’s original sin.” I believe it is important to name it as such. But this story also has beauty, and the beauty has the capacity to overcome sin. Over our 241 years (I think I got that math right), over our 241 years of history, women and people of color have asserted their rights to citizenship.

Historically we have believed in equality, in freedom, and in their expansion. As a nation, we do not believe freedom is a finite resource. You don’t need walls to protect freedom. Walls fence us in. Freedom grows when more people are free. The more free our neighbors are, the more free we are. Freedom grows exponentially. But if we start policing hard lines of belonging. If we say: “you are American, and you are not,” it leads to some of the darkest moments in our history.

My question about who counts sends me back to our story this morning of the binding of Isaac. Historically the Jewish and Christian people have seen this scripture as a story of salvation. God spares Isaac. In the end God does not demand the sacrifice. (The irony for Christians is strong. In the end God does not require the sacrifice of an only child, and yet when God’s only Son came to us, we killed him. We demanded blood. But that’s another sermon). We’ve read this story as salvific historically, but for readers today it still seems barbaric.

I’ve never been able to fully embrace this story, and as I read it in preparation for today’s sermon it was the silence that stood out to me. Where is Abraham’s protest? Why does he just quietly prepare to heed God’s command to kill his son? For that matter, where is Sarah? She fiercely defended Isaac in last weeks story, where is she now? Where is her protest?

Traditionally, even in the New Testament, Abraham and Sarah’s silence is intepreted as a sign of their faith. “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” the book of Hebrews tells us. I’m not sure I buy this story. I want to know where the missing verses are. Where is Abraham’s argument with God? Where is Sarah’s persistence?

This is my second question, it’s for our text today and for America:

“Can protest be prayer?”

For this question (as I’m sure you can tell for most of my questions in this series) I have a strong opinion. Yes, I believe, protest can be prayer. As the ACLU bumper stickers proclaim “Dissent is patriotic.” Full disclosure, I borrowed the phrasing of my question from another preacher.

Over our vacation these past two weeks, we had the opportunity to worship on a Sunday morning at the Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is the tallest steeple in America, built to be “an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation.” It’s a huge cathedral of a place. We went for the architecture, and to see a big successful diverse church. But we went especially to hear one of my homiletical heroes, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, give a sermon. She’s an incredible preacher.

I borrowed my question: “Can protest be prayer?” from Dr. Butler. In a sermon she preached the day after the Women’s March (she marched in Washington DC), Dr. Butler talked about what she realized as she joined the gathered crowd of pink hats on that January day:

Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.

I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore.  I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up.  And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices.  Together.

Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy, and protest can be prayer.

I can’t believe God required Abraham and Sarah’s faithful silence. I think God answer’s the question “Can protest be prayer?” with a loud yes! God wants dialogue. God wants people to stand for justice. Faith isn’t always quiet and polite. Faith can be nasty. Protest can be prayer.

Tell Abraham and Sarah. Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends and cousins, and the people on social media. Are you feeling distressed? Stand up. Pray. Get out there on the streets. Ask yourself, am I praying for this country with my silence? Could I be praying with my feet?

On Tuesday I dare you, celebrate. Remember the beauty of our founding stories. Remember the promise. All people are created equal. Then ask yourself: “To whom does America belong?” Ask yourself: “Can protest be prayer?” Then, let’s ask those questions together of our country. This fourth of July, let’s ask some Questions of America.

Faith and the American Dream

Today Jesus sets the bar pretty high, don’t you think?  That last sentence is really the clincher: “Be perfect, you know, like God is perfect.”
Really Jesus?  You wonder how he thought the disciples would respond:  “Oh, oh, now I get it.  Be perfect, like God, that’s where we were going wrong.  Thanks Jesus.”

Now, I’m being tongue in cheek here.  I think part of the problem I have with this Gospel is a problem of translation.  You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is telos, telos.  If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos.  It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional.  To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection, knowing that in life we will not reach the goal.

This week I want to posit that to be a Christian and to be an American, is to go on a journey, to chase a dream.  In this sense, the image at the heart of the reading from Hebrews has always captured my imagination.  Abraham stands outside his tent under the stars of the desert night.  God promises him and Sarah that they will have descendants “as many as the stars of the heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand.”  Abraham has faith in this dream, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  Abraham has faith in God’s dream.  He set out from his homeland, not knowing where he was going.  He lived in tents.  The author Hebrews wants you to hear this: Abraham camped out.  His dwelling was temporary.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob: they were a people on the move, chasing a dream.

My family has a bit of a running gag when we travel.  The joke centers around the GPS systems in rental cars.  Before we set off we play around with the various options of the navigation system.  My sister take charge when it comes to the voice that will be guiding us.  There are typically a few options of genders and accents.  After a bad experience in New Orleans, my sister is convinced that the British lady gets you lost.  So we are guided by an American.  The real joy of GPS in a city you don’t know, for our family, comes when you reach you destination.  As we get close to where we are going my mom says, “wait for it….wait for it” until we hear the GPS announce “You have arrived.”  
“You have arrived.”  We love the sense that sentence conveys.  You’ve made it.  You’ve found a place of comfort and privilege.  You’re in.  “You have arrived” used to speak of a certain level of access in society.  When you receive the right invitations to the right parties you know that “you have arrived.”  So it is reassuring when the small electronic voice tells you that indeed, you have arrived.  Even if you’ve only found the local Chipotle.  I think Americans today are very concerned about “arriving.”  We want to “achieve” the American Dream, to “arrive.”  We have some loose understanding of what “arrival” will look like that involves a good job, a good partner, maybe a labrador, and 2.5 kids.  You know, white picket fences.  But then, when we have that fence, the job, the dog, the spouse, and the kids, the voice doesn’t come telling us “you have arrived.”  See, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with what we’ve come to think of as, “The American Dream,” and I think it is because a lot of us have dreamed a dream that is too small.
See, if in the letter of Hebrews Abraham and Sarah had a GPS, they would never hear “You have arrived.”  Instead we hear that they “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”  Faith, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, is the animating force which allows us to live by a dream, to journey toward a dream.  It takes faith to dream a dream so big you know you will never see it fulfilled.  It takes faith to live toward a dream you will never fully realize.  
It took faith, 236 years ago, for a group of freshly minted “Americans” in what was then an agrarian backwater of the world, to declare their independence from the British Sovereign.  The founders had a dream.  They were convinced that God did not send tyrants to rule over them.  The founders believed that all men, today we would amend their statement.  “All people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  That word “pursuit” is a word that describes Abraham well, and hopefully continues to describe our American project well.
I think the founders of our nation understood what it was to dream a great dream, to dream a dream that was bigger than themselves.  I think whatever progress our nation has made in this world, it owes in part to the depth of the founders dream.  A point of personal privilege, for me it really is kind of amazing to spend today in James Madison’s church.  In the three years that I’ve been at St. John’s, I have always been away this week.  As I prepared to preach I thought a great deal about that founding generation.  Madison, the great architect of the separation of Church and State, helped build a parish while the White House was still in ruins.  So worshiping here, Imageat St. John’s, carries for me a special sense of inheritance.  We are the inheritors of the freedoms of our founders.  Their dream is still worth celebrating.

Make no mistake, while some have experienced as the American dream, others have lived a nightmare.  While the generation of founders outlined new freedom for themselves, they denied that freedom to the enslaved African Americans who worked their plantations.  Think about that.  The architects of freedom owned people.  Still today our agricultural and service industries are reliant upon the labor of 12 million undocumented immigrants.  Each year the US government allows only 5,000 visas for this kind of work.  Because we deny so many of these laborers a legal a permit to work and live in the United States, they are paid below minimum wage and work without recourse to regulations which protect workers’ health and safety.  The dissonance between the so-called American dream and what many have experienced as the American reality is not easy to resolve.  I struggle to resolve that dissonance.  

I want to read you a couple of short paragraphs from a poet whose career began here in Washington.  I want to share these lines, because for me they speak to the depth of the dream, why it is worth talking of the American dream.  When he was first published, this poet was working as an African-american busboy at the “whites only” Wardman Park hotel.  The poet’s name was Langston Hughes.  His poem, “Let America Be America Again,” is from 1935.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!  

That is the power of a great dream, a dream bigger than the first dreamers, a dream so big that it can be picked up generations later, by the son of people whose freedom was denied by the original dreamer.

There are signs of life like this for the American dream all over our world.  The dream is no respecter of national borders.  When I was in college, I was often in theology classes with a man named Daniel.  Daniel was one of the most articulate and patient students I ever met.  Daniel was also one of the “Lost Boys,” the orphans of war in the Sudan who walked hundreds of miles across the Sudanese desert to escape war in refugee camps.  He received a visa, and he came to America with a dream that he would be educated.  Daniel is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Mathematics at the University of California.  Try and tell Daniel that the American dream is dead.

When I lived in Honduras I met two young boys with really interesting names.  To understand why their names were so fascinating, you have to understand the phonetics of the Spanish language.  You see in Spanish, each vowel only ever makes one sound.  The letter “U” always sounds like “oo.”  “A” always produces the sound “ah.”  “I” is always “ee” and so on.  In Honduras, in the rural village of Talanga, I met a boy named “Usmail.”  Spelled out his name is written “U.S. Mail.”  He was named for the letters that came with remittance checks from his father, probably and undocumented worker.  His mother named her child in thanksgiving for the source of income that provided shelter, food, and medical care for her family.  The other boy I met in the capital, Tegucigalpa.  His name was “Usaid,”  US AID.
I tell these stories because I think they represent the state of the American Dream today.  For America’s sake, the dream can never fully be realized.  If it is realized, than the dream is too small.  No one person’s success realizes the dream when others are suffering.  We work, with faith, toward the dream: faith in our Creator who both endows us with rights and charges us to safeguard the rights of others.  We know that in our lifetimes, we will never fully realize the promises of that dream, but we hope that “from a distance we can see and greet” the dream’s fulfillment.
We pause this week to celebrate the dream of America, to remind us that the American dream is not easy.   The American dream really has little to do with whitewashed picket fences.  The American dream is really not to pull into Chipotle and hear “you have arrived.”  Those dreams are too small.  Our God is the god of a journey.  The journey isn’t easy, and the idea of travelling constantly toward a dream we will never see fulfilled may seem daunting.  But take courage, for as Catherine of Siena said, we follow a savior who did not say “I am the arrival point,” but “I am the way” and “all the way to heaven is heaven itself.  To dream a great dream is to take a journey bigger than any one of us.  To chase the American dream means that until the day we die we persistently pursue happiness, and life, and liberty for all of God’s creatures.  So, this week, as we watch those fireworks, as we are filled with the awe that is the American dream, let us ask ourselves: Where is the American dream leading us today?