Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard.
A friend encouraged me to revisit a book last week. It’s somewhat of a contemporary classic. Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.
Unlike studies that are concerned with genocides such as the Holocaust, or suffering resultant of natural disasters like earthquakes in Haiti and China, Professor Lear has another concern. What happens when a culture dies? What happens when the proverbial ground beneath a community’s feet shifts so radically and drastically, that people no longer know how to make meaning of their lives?
To illustrate this point he focuses on the Crow Indians of the 19th century. They were a nomadic tribe of hunters. They were a proud tribe of warriors. Yet life took a drastic turn. Reeling from terrible wars with the Sioux, the Crow tribe made a deal with the United States. For help in their fight, the US would provide 33 million acres in what is now Wyoming and Montana. For help battling the Sioux, the government would give the Crow tribe $50K worth of supplies per year. And by entering this alliance, the Crow adopted the position that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Not so. The US provided $50k in supplies only once. 33 million acres was soon cut to 8 million, and then 2 million within another decade. By 1887, the Crow tribe was confined to a reservation. Indian warfare and resistance was banned. Nor were there any more buffalo to hunt. Young Crow men and women had no cultural markers to live into. They had no cultural patterns to help them make sense of their world. Being confined to a reservation left this otherwise nomadic tribe in a state of existential limbo. In the words of their final great tribal chief Plenty Coups, “when the Buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.”
The situation of the Crow bears some resemblance to the plight and perils of another community. This situation of seeming cultural extinction rings familiar to many this morning. This story of social displacement and political catastrophe should resonate with some of you today. Why?—because it is the ongoing story and constant struggle of ancient Israel.
Thumb through the pages of the Hebrew Bible. We encounter a people whose identity and existence is always under threat. Peruse from the Pentateuch through the Prophets. You will read about a people who are constantly negotiating changing circumstances and volatile conditions.
Take a ride with Abraham’s seed through bondage in Egypt; experience the populist revolt against Moses by the masses; break into Canaan land with Joshua and Caleb; experience the corruption of Israel’s own self-serving king’s; and get ushered off into exile somewhere in Assyria and Babylon.
When you spend some time living in the narrative of Israel’s sacred history, you might find yourself empathizing with the prophet Elijah asking, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” You might discover yourself weeping with the prophet Jeremiah, “The harvest is passed. The summer is ended, and we are not saved." Or you might just cry out in frustration like the prophet Habakkuk, “How long, Oh Lord? How long shall we cry violence, and you will not save?” What all these deep and profound personalities share in common is their longing and desire to find a new home.
That was Abraham. When he couldn’t take the evil and corruption of idolatry in his land, he knew there had to be something better and more beautiful than this. So Abraham went out searching.
That was Moses. When he could no longer endure witnessing God’s children enslaved and exploited, Moses went out into the wilderness searching.
That was Ezekiel. When God lifted him out into a graveyard and showed him the skeletal remains of what was once a prosperous nation, Ezekiel began searching.
I cite these figures here because they share this in common. When confronted by unsettling social and political conditions, and when tormented by even more dismal prospects for the future, they searched for a new home. These great figures of faith searched for a new home in their dreams. Each one mined the depths of their despair and tapped into what philosophers like to call moral imagination, a creative orientation to the world. Moral imagination emboldens us to transcend the particularities of the present and imagine a radically different future.
Jonathan Lear refers to this as radical hope. A radical hope envisions alternative ways for those feeling displaced to live. A radical hope paints word pictures of alternative worlds that transcend the limiting options defined by pain and loss. A radical hope presents new possibilities that are not encumbered by a grand past, nor arrested by a grim present.
Moral imagination is the work of the poets. For it is the poets in our midst that see clearly what others cannot envision, and hear acutely when others are distracted. It’s the poets who give us hope. The poets challenge us to imagine. It’s the poets, in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, who “encourage us to voyage.” They encourage us to envision a new home.
This is why I selected the 46th Psalm from today’s lectionary. The Psalms had a particular and distinct role in ancient Israel. They represented sophisticated poetry and depicted new possibility. No matter how dreary the day. No matter how long the night. No matter how amiss the historical moment may be. The psalmist paints an inspirational portrait of God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace. The psalmist paints a landscape of a new home; a home where compassion is the guiding principle and care is the prevailing ethic.
This is what we see in the 46th Psalm. The poet is presenting us a vision of a new home. We don’t know when it was written. Nor do we know the particular circumstance to which the poet is responding. But it doesn’t matter. You take your pick. Enslavement. Exile. Economic exploitation. Unbridled injustice. Ancient Israel endured it all. Yet despite all of that, the poet was still able to sing, “God is our refuge and strength. God is a very present help in the time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear. Though the earth should change. Though the mountains will shake. Though the waters will roar and foam. God is still in the midst of the city.”
In times of trial and tumult in our nation and world, this is what you and I must remember. We can find comfort and inspiration in Psalm 46. If you are seeking a new home, remember that God has already provided the city plan.
This is our role and responsibility as Christians, particularly during this moment of political tumult and radical change. As people of faith, the most important question is never where we stand politically in terms of partisan politics. Nor should the primary questions be concerned with political parties or even national identity. Such a fragile allegiance is little more than a crass idolatry. There is a deeper, more fundamental question that you and I must ask ourselves. Where do we stand in relationship to God’s kingdom? Are we first and foremost residents in the city of Cambridge, New York, or the United States? Or are we first and foremost residents in the City of God?
Let me be clear. I am not appealing to some sort of otherworldliness or spiritual escapism here. But rather we know that the Kingdom of God makes eternal demands upon us that should shape our temporary orientations in this kingdom.
The kingdom of God encourages us to:
honor service over celebrity,
extend compassion rather than seek power,
and to concern ourselves with what we can give rather than what we can gain.
Sure. I get that our society is saturated with a scintillating and tantalizing celebrity culture. The temptation is real. We consume meanness as entertainment. We regard the accumulation of power as the source of our protection. Even among Christians. Aligning with those in power has become the path to social credibility. But this is a dangerous strategy. None of us can ever achieve good success if we love our titles more than our task. We will become slaves to our own self-praise and in the process move further away from God’s eternal reward. For if we build our hopes and self-worth on the thin ice of this world, we will soon have our hearts arrested by the frozen waters of inevitable change. All idols of power and privilege that you and I erect will eventually fail.
Might this be a source of the wedge that is bitterly dividing our nation today? Could it be that too many of us have placed too much trust in the security markers of this worldly kingdom?
Some of us have put our trust in our class positions and educational attainments. Rather than using our privilege to aid and assist others, we have used it to cordon ourselves off from the vast majority of our society and world. We’ve been off in Martha’s Vineyard while the kingdom was burning. And we wonder why so many look at cities and regions like our own with suspicion, if not outright contempt.
Similarly, could it be that some have placed too much trust in the security of skin color? Whiteness was supposed to be my all-access pass in this kingdom. So when economic possibilities began to erode for the vast majority in this nation, not to mention our world, it’s easier to regard fellow citizens of color as enemies rather than allies. We allow would be king’s and wanna be emperors to exploit our racial, regional and religious differences. And rather than seeing that this nation’s exploited share more in common than not, some get intoxicated by the narcissism of minor differences. Futile appeals to white nationalism, male supremacy, and all other ideologies of the socially insecure will only hasten the destruction of this temporal kingdom. Desperate people trying to reclaim a home what was never theirs in the first place.
Yet when I read the 46th Psalm, I am reminded that I am in search of a different kind of home. A home that is not subject to the vacillations and vicissitudes of life. A home that is built on the solid foundation of righteousness, justice, and love. And a home whose doors swing on welcome hinges, and that provides VIP passes to the most vulnerable in our world.
You and I must continue to dream of such a home. Because it is only our dreams of that home which might improve the conditions of our current home. Here I am reminded of Ana Castillo’s powerful book Massacre of the Dreamers. Castillo tells the tale of Moctezuma, the chieftain of Mexico in the early 16th century. Moctezuma heard rumors about warriors coming to overtake his kingdom. He called together all of the dreamers from across the empire to provide insight. The dreamers confirmed the rumors. His kingdom would indeed come to an end. But being a man of fragile ego and insecurity, Moctezuma ordered that all of the dreamers be put to death. And this was his greatest sin. For when the empire came to an end, as all empires do, there were no dreamers left to imagine new life. There were no dreamers left to cast a new vision of a new home.
So I have stopped by here this morning to encourage all of the dreamers in the house. Somebody who realizes that God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in the time of trouble. Dreamers who know that though kingdoms will rise and fall, justice and truth pressed down to the earth will rise again. Dreamers who are searching for a new home. Dreamers who can lift their voices and say:
Come, we that love the lord, and let our joys be known.
Join in a song with sweet accord, and thus surround the throne.
For the men of grace have found that glory has begun below.
Heavenly fruits on earthly ground, for it’s from faith that hope may grow.
We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.