I’ve been mulling over whether I should post this sermon or not. I preached it on October 18. It’s based on the morning’s gospel reading Mark 10:35-45. At the end I’m going to add a coda, which I didn’t preach because I felt this one was enough and didn’t want to hand the congregation even more to consider. However, from a written perspective, I think it may work better.
Our political process the last few months has fascinated me. Donald Trump’s entry into the Republican presidential candidate pool shifted the dynamics of the entire field. Two candidates already dropped out. The Democratic presidential candidates had their debate on Tuesday, which by all accounts seemed to set an order around qualified leadership with Secretary Clinton leading Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley. Senator Webb and Governor Chafee should say good-bye. We’ll leave the House of Representatives alone.
Political leadership seems unsettled, which, I believe, has to do with a vision for America’s future. Perhaps more so than any time in recent history we don’t have a clear sense of our national direction. Furthermore, the world is very different than it was even a generation ago. We don’t have single nation towards which we can channel our aggression as we did with the Soviet Union a few decades ago. Capital respects no national borders. News and information move so fast today that we don’t have time to digest it.
Our political leaders posture and propose. Whether Republican or Democrat, regardless of policy plans, I believe that deep down they all are variations on the same theme, American Exceptionalism or more accurately, “Reclaiming American Exceptionalism.”
Briefly, American Exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is inherently different than any other nation. We’ve lived with this throughout our entire history. We are exceptional because we were founded as a land of freedom. We are exceptional because we were born out of revolution. We are exceptional because we are “the light of the world. A city built on a hill.” (Mat. 5:14) We are exceptional because each individual matters. Everyone has an opportunity to achieve his or her greatest potential. We are a land of infinite possibilities. We are a great nation second to none.
Our understanding of American Exceptionalism, though, has shifted over the centuries. De Toqueville in the early 1800s saw us as practical, grounded people. Our capitalism’s strength and dynamism became a hallmark in the early part of the 20th Century. Post-World War II we are a global power striding across the globe unchallenged economically, politically, and militarily. This is America triumphant.
However, events today challenge this belief. We see rising economic power in China and India. Our military has not won a war decisively since World War II. We can no longer dictate our terms to the world and expect its compliance.
We hear from each of the candidates his or her vision for reclaiming the American Exceptionalism which followed World War II. Consider some of these slogans:
• Make America Great Again (Trump)
• A New American Century (Rubio)
• Rebuild the American Dream (O’Malley)
• Right to Rise (Bush)
• Fresh Ideas for America (Chafee)
Though not expressly said, each of these implies regaining our status as America triumphant.
But I have another story of America. This one I heard from a man who lived in Pittsfield all his life. I met him a few years ago. His wife was one of my hospice patients. She had advanced dementia, so I really visited with him, not her. As I sat with him and his wife, he told me about life in Pittsfield during the Depression. Like everywhere else, things were tough. People had gardens not because growing vegetables was a hobby, but it was a necessity. He told me about people taking care of each other. People shared food with those who had none. They looked after each other. A stranger might knock on a door at night looking for something to eat or maybe some shelter to get out of the rain and some provision would be made.
The Great Depression was a grim time. A lot of people struggled. Banks failed. Millions were out of work and millions worked in jobs that barely paid anything. No one would ever want to return to it and it’s hardly an example of American Exceptionalism.
But the Great Depression was the crucible which forged the greatness that became post-World War II American Exceptionalism. Although the lessons from the Depression were difficult, they taught the power of love, especially expressed through compassion and empathy. Generosity, even while struggling with scarcity, kept many families together. The American people were exposed and vulnerable. We know FDR’s memorable phrase from his first inaugural speech, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Later in the speech he said, “we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.”
Whether FDR intended it or not, he expressed what Jesus meant when he spoke to the twelve just before they entered Jerusalem for the Passover. The gross division between haves and have nots in first century Palestine exposed the latter to daily poverty and political oppression, thus making their lives vulnerable. This was a vulnerable time for Jesus and the twelve as well. Three years of ministry, though, brought attention from the authorities who felt threatened. Advocating and agitating for the have nots threatened Pax Romana’s balance. “Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” Jesus asked James and John. His words foreshadowed his death. He went on to say, “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.”
Greatness comes when we serve each other. It’s not something we seek rather it’s something that comes to us because of what we do. We’ll be great when we take care of each other. We’ll be great when we pursue the common good. We’ll be great when we live out a Eucharistic theology in which everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough so no one will know scarcity or deprivation. We’ll be great when we stop living in fear and truly embrace the words in 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.” We don’t claim greatness ourselves; rather, it is granted to us by no authority other than history itself.
I’m in no way advocating or claiming that the Great Depression was a good thing and that we have to suffer another one. I am saying, though, that our nation’s vulnerability which came out of the Depression led us to an ethos in which we sought to care for each other by serving one another. It was that ethos that made us a great nation following World War II. It was that ethos that led to rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan and sending GIs to college with the GI Bill.
We must recognize that our greatness as a nation rests upon not a few, not most, but all people having a sense of real hopefulness born out of the way we live in community together. We must live our lives with compassion. We must live empathetically, feeling that the stranger’s needs could very well be ours too. We must live so that we place priority on relational community over individual existence. We must live with hope because it enables us to triumph over fear. We must live the lessons of the gospel because they foster what we say every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We won’t achieve greatness if we seek it out. We can’t be great if we claim it for ourselves. We will be great when we live in faith and by faith. We will be great when we serve one another in order to promote the common good. We will be great when we bind our lives and well-being to each other so all may be free.
Here’s the coda:
I wonder if the church, as the body of Christ, needs to embrace this ethos, too? There is no question overwhelmingly our churches are compassionate. But are they empathetic?
After I put this sermon to bed on Saturday night, I was reading Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. (The book deserves its own blog post. I just finished it yesterday.) An aspect necessary to healing from PTSD is relationship. Shay discusses the multiple dimensions of relationships necessary to stymie the effects of PTSD.
I realized that churches need to have a relationship with the community just outside of its doors. Though the churches may do ministry out of compassion, how many are empathetic to the people they serve?
Public suppers are a good example. Compassion compels a church to serve dinner to people who are lonely or who can’t get a meal. But how many people actually sit with the guests to eat with them and to share their stories? Through those stories we gain empathy.
Being servant to all is not just service, but is relationship as well.
Before preaching this I added some text around empathy.