Princeton University Religious Life

Shaking the Nation

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
November 6, 2016
Haggai 1:5b – 2:9

          One of the things I most loved when I moved to this area nine years ago was discovering how much colonial history fills our campus and towns.  The aesthetic of colonial era architecture is my absolute favorite.  My late father used to enjoy reminding me that my ancestors fought on both sides of the American War of Independence.  I’ve always been glad that my American forebears prevailed.  The American project of democracy, flawed as it has been and is in practice today, really claims my imagination, my loyalty, and my practical support.  But I’m worried about democracy in the United States these days.  I become fearful when I hear that some elected officials and others are determined to oust whoever is our next president from that office under any pretense if that person is not a member of their own political party, regardless of whether a majority of Americans exercised their constitutional right to franchise to make that person President.  I become fearful when I hear that some senators are vowing to obstruct the process of approving any new Supreme Court justices, no matter how many current Justices may retire or die, if those new nominations are made by a President who is not in their political party.  Apparently they’ve forgotten that they swore an oath when they joined the Senate to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” and that the Constitution requires them to act upon nominations to our country’s highest court.  That oath concludes, “So help me God.”

            I read about a poll this week that puts me in a distinct majority – I am part of the 80% of the American public who think that this has been an extremely negative election cycle.  Like so many of my fellow Americans, I cannot wait for it to be over, and I really pray that it will be over by Tuesday night.  It has been tawdry, ugly, mean; it has summoned from all the very worst of who we are.  I appreciate the image used by one journalist who wrote that this election has moved a rock aside, and what was always under it has come wriggling out into the light of day – our racism, absolutely undealt with in this country, barely examined; our misogyny, our reduction of female human beings to ratable hunks of meat; our anti-semitism, our Islamophobia; our hatred and fear of the alien in our midst – the refugee, the immigrant; our predilection for mob justice – our threats and truly violent words and actions against political opponents, the press, and any people we feel entitled to hate; our gleeful readiness to disparage the elite and educated, or the less educated and less wealthy, or the poor and ignorant – each group turning the other into the enemy.

            There are Christians in every political camp – Democrats, Greens, Independents, Libertarians, Republicans (I said that in alphabetical order!).  I would like to reflect with you this morning on what we Christians, who span every political, racial, gender, social/economic, national/ethnic, ability, sexual identity, and any other category of humanity we can recall – how do we present a Christian witness and alternative as this campaign comes to an end and a new President moves into the White House?  Who do our God and our country need us to be?  What is our witness – to what can we testify – in the face of all the ugliness, combativeness, and outright hatred experienced by so many?

            Christians are called in every moment to testify to the truth, and so let us not, in that journalist’s imagery, move the rock back over the hole that has spewed so much ugliness.  Let’s keep the genie out of the bottle, Pandora’s box stays opened, whatever metaphors you want – it is time to keep the demons that plague this nation in full sight before us, no matter how embarrassing, frightening, challenging.  They will remain to torment us if we don’t deal with them now, as they have in the past – insidiously, viciously distorting our national soul, distorting our identity as Christians as well as our political vision for our democracy.  This is not who we are called to be – spiritually or politically.

            As I get older I become more convinced that it is spiritual discourse rather than political discourse that has the power to make us whole, make us just, make us fair.  Political rhetoric, social or economic rhetoric – these can each provide excellent factual support for arguments for just and compassionate societies, but at best they are supportive arguments.  I think that the only effective arguments for becoming who we need to be are moral arguments, and in particular spiritual ones.  These are the arguments that go to the heart of what we truly value, and they go to the heart (and not just the head) of our motivations, of what we will put our bodies on the line to accomplish.  Spiritual arguments get to the heart of what we believe, and when we can be motivated to act on what we believe, we are unstoppable.

            What do we, as Christians, believe?  We believe in the radical equality of human value.  Jesus Christ, as my old minister liked to say, stood on that mount and delivered that sermon to a huge and unruly and diverse crowd of regular human beings and he told them, “YOU are the light of the world!”  Every person is made in the image of God and we are of radically equal human value.  We still need, to our discredit, anti-discrimination laws so that some humans will not be treated to lesser rights, opportunities, respect, or length of life.   We need positive laws now to curb our prejudices, but we need the Gospel to change our hearts.  And when our hearts are changed we won’t need laws to deal with voter suppression, the redlining of neighborhoods, Title IX.  We won’t need anti-discrimination clauses regarding religious belief, sexual identity, political opinion, physical ability, and more.  When our hearts are changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ we will know that every human being is the bearer of equal and infinite human dignity, equality, and worth.  The immigrant among us will be known as a cherished sojourner, the refugee as a person to whom our faith calls us to provide a ministry of hospitality, an outsider is an angel we entertain unaware of their God-sent presence in our midst.  These are days in which an oppositional spirit to the Gospel is abundant – what a critical time for we who are Christian to live by faith and to make ourselves witnesses to the Gospel in the midst of suffering.  What a critical time for we who are Christian to be testifying to the Gospel with every ounce of our strength.  Now and after Tuesday our country is going to be in special need of the message, the spiritual discourse, with which we have been entrusted, of justice, equality, compassion, and love.

            These are challenging days, but that part isn’t new.  Our text from today from the Prophet Haggai speaks to a time in Judah when everything was unstable.  After several generations of exile in Babylon the remnant people were back home.  They had been traumatized, now their economy was in shambles with both shortages and inflation.  Everything felt vulnerable, shaky, imperiled.  And yet:  the responsibility before them was to rebuild the great Jerusalem Temple, Solomon’s gorgeous temple.  The people said, “We don’t have the money, we don’t have the stability, if we try this we could go under.”  And God prophesies through Haggai saying, “No, you do it!  Now is the time, no matter what the times look like.  I will support you.  I am with you.  I’m going to shake the nations and the money will come together.”  I love that image of shaking the nations like they are a box and seeing the shekels fall out.

            God’s message to the ancient Judeans is God’s message to us today – “I am with you.  Do what these day require, and go witness, testify and build.  I’ll provide the resources – I know they don’t look very abundant to you now.”  I feel like God is shaking this nation right now – what is tumbling out of it is our hatred, discrimination, and sin.  God will support us in addressing it all, that we may indeed become, as a nation, a lantern on a hill, providing light and direction and hope.  This is a critical time for we who are Christian, and God promises to be with us all the way.



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