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The Way You Can Trust

Sermon - 12/16/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 146

We have been looking at the Psalms that have been selected in the lectionary for the Sundays of Advent.  This morning we come to Psalm 146 for this 3rd Sunday of Advent:

1Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
   I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
7   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10The Lord will reign for ever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!


This has to be one of my favorite seasons.  All of the hoopla, the special events.  People waiting and watching all across the country, people eagerly anticipating that day when the chosen one will truly bring peace and a new direction for our nation and world.  This really is the season of joy.  The season of presidential campaigns J.  You thought I was talking about something else?

What I especially love about this particular campaign is when you take a look at the 4 top candidates (according to the polls), what do you find?  A woman, an African-American, a Mormon, and an ordained Preacher.  I mean, where else in the world would you see such a collection as this, who each have a chance to become President of the country. 

I'm particularly fascinated by the sudden rise of that preacher, the Reverend/Governor Huckabee, who of course is an ordained Baptist preacher.  He served as a minister before he became Governor of Arkansas.  Did you know that he was born the same year I was?  Huh.  Do you suppose? J

Even more fascinating, at the opposite end of the political spectrum (from Governor Huckabee) is Barack Obama, who is equally as rooted in the Christian faith and speaks quite passionately about the importance of values that come out of his faith.  And then you add to that Governor Romney, who is trying hard to woo over the Christian Right (a group traditionally that has viewed his Mormon faith with great suspicion), and I've never seen a presidential campaign where religion in politics has played such a key role, and have been discussed so much.

And so I have to point out, as did Charles Krauthammer in his opinion piece on Friday in the Register Guard (an editorialist that normally I don't find my self agreeing a lot with) -- he was right on, as he pointed out that the constitution specifically says that there shall be no religious test for any candidate in public office. 

That means that the issue for us as voters is not -- and should never be -- 'is this candidate more Christian, or more godly than the other candidate'?  But rather, which candidate (regardless of their religious beliefs) is the best person to lead our nation?  That is the issue.

But here's the thing, the reason why I bring this topic up on this 3rd Sunday of Advent -- it is precisely out of their religious values that candidates Obama and Huckabee (as well as several of the others) believe that we as a society have a greater responsibility to assist the poor and vulnerable than we are currently doing.  To execute justice for the oppressed, to give food to the hungry (as the Psalmist says in our Psalm for this morning).

Newsweek (this week) reports that Huckabee "do unto others" world-view comes out of his faith, and led him to push for more money for schools and a healthcare program for poor children that became a model for other states (while he was Governor of Arkansas).  "Tax cuts for the rich", he writes in his book "From Hope to Higher Ground" (it seems if you're going to be a presidential candidate you have to write a book these days), "makes a false and callous assumption that the poorest people in our nation, with inadequate salaries, lack of nutritious food, substandard housing and non-existent or under-funded healthcare, can somehow afford to patiently wait while someone else's wealth eventually splashes onto them".

Sounds like something Barack Obama or perhaps Jon Edwards might say.  And that's not to endorse any of these candidates, but simply to cite an example of how religious values impact the policies of such candidates.  And that's precisely the kind of talk I want to hear in this campaign season, as I hope you do as well.

As I argued last Sunday from Psalm 72, the biblical vision of the role of government is to defend the cause of the poor and to give deliverance to the needy.  It's very clear, read that Psalm, it's there in the text, laid out for us.

Well, this morning's Psalm offers a wise word of caution to taking that particular perspective too far.  It warns us against putting too much trust in the 'princes', that is, the leaders of government.  Mortals, who are bound sooner or later to disappoint us.  The only one we can truly trust, says the Psalmist, is of course God.  As the motto on our currency states:  "In God We Trust". 

Well, what exactly does that mean, to trust in God?  We think of Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem, with no idea where they're going to stay when they get there.  So what happens?  They end up in a stable, that makes a nice scene for a Christmas card, but is hardly a sanitary place to give birth to a baby.  What were they thinking?  Or what was God thinking?

I cannot tell you how many would-be Mary's and Joseph's we see in our office, that come to the church or call us because they're stranded.  They've come to Eugene and have no place to go.  No means to support themselves.  Or, they're traveling through and their car breaks down, and they have no way to get home.  And it happens over and over again.

I got a call this week from a college student on her way home for the holidays.  And she had her ticket, but she lost her ATM card, and had no means to get any cash, was completely broke, and had a long trip ahead of her -- 2 days.  No way to buy any food or to come up with anything should there be some kind of traveling emergency. 

And I said:  "Why are you calling me?"  And she said:  "Dad! . . . "  J

Well, she made it home, she arrived last night.  The funnier part of that story was that I tried to send her a check by priority mail, she had called several days in advance -- but she never got it.  She called a second time -- "Dad!".  Well, lo and behold, we have a couple who have become part of our church who live in Orange, California, so I called up Jerri and Bill and said "Help!", and so they lent her the money.  Maybe it was the work of God, I don't know.

Most folks that we see, who come to us in those kinds of situations, either don't have the common sense, or don't have the means, or don't have the family and friends to assist them.  To plan ahead.  To prepare for emergencies.  And so they head out without any means, without any backup plan.  Trusting that God will provide, or at least something like that.

Sometimes I think trusting God is just a phrase we use that means 'someone else will bail us out when we get into trouble'.  And when no one else does, well, there's always the church.  And somehow I just don't think that that's what 'trusting God' means.  Surely it must mean more than that.  It's not just about making arrangements and planning for contingencies, or setting something aside for emergencies. 

The Psalmist says that we can place our trust in God -- why?  Because God keeps faith.  God executes justice for the oppressed.  God gives food to the hungry.  God sets the prisoners free.  The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.  The Lord watches over strangers and upholds the orphans and the widows.  And as we heard in the text from Matthew, Jesus says to go and tell John what you've seen and heard:   the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the poor have good news proclaimed to them.

The only question is, how does God do that?  How does it help me if I'm not someone on that list?

And we have all those wonderful stories from when Moses liberated the captives out of Egypt, Jesus healing the blind and feeding the crowds.  But what about today?

In our Tuesday evening class, we have been talking about the Christmas stories and taking a close look at the stories in Matthew and Luke and comparing them.  Stories that are quite different.  And while those details vary differently, both of them say Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit while Mary was still a virgin.  And the authors of the text we are using -- Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan -- point out, however, that the emphasis on both of those stories is not on virgin birth but virgin conception.  That it's not about the biology of Mary, but the destiny of Jesus.  That this child can not only claim divine origins (as did Augustus Caesar, under who's reign he was born), but that he would soon -- in a very real way -- compete with Herod for the title "King of the Jews" (that's the point Matthew makes), and with Caesar for the titles "Lord" and "Savior" (the emphasis that Luke makes).

And the point of the Christmas stories is not that we should wonder about how he was born, but that we should marvel on who he would become.

That prompted someone to E-mail me later, concerned, do we still believe in miracles?  And I said "of course".  I see miracles as the wonders and the mysteries of life, not necessarily as supernatural events.  If miracles are always and only the supernatural, then we have robbed ourselves of some of the greatest miracles of life.

And in regard to the Christmas story, I considered the fact that Christ came at all, to be the miracle.  How that happened biologically, for me, is not important, though I realize it may be for some.  But you see, the greater miracle is who he is.  To which my questioner replied:  "Amen".  Couldn't agree more.

And that brings me back to presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who compares his miraculous rise in the polls to the feeding of the 5,000 by Jesus, and says that both are due to the same miraculous power.  That causes me to raise this question:  If God engineers election results, wouldn't that constitute election fraud? J I just don't think that's the way God works in our world.  I think politicians, like athletes, would be unwise to attribute their success to God, as if God chose them for that role above all others.  Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God didn't just help to elect President Bush, God also helped elect President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  If you're following the news at all, you realize those two are not exactly good buddies.  Or also President Clinton and President Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Prime Minister Abbas in Palestine and Prime Minister Ohmert in Israel. 

If there is any miracle wrought by God it's not that any of these were elected but that they haven't killed each other yet.

The Christmas story, you see, isn't about a collection of miraculous events -- stars guiding Magi, angels appearing to shepherds, a pregnant virgin, and a spare stable -- it's about one single world-changing miracle:  Immanuel.  God with us, in a tiny little baby.  To look at that scene with wonder and awe.  What an incredible thing that God has wrought.

And when that baby grew up, he demonstrated to us not only how God works in our world, but how God wants us to work -- by trusting the way of God as he did.

You see, in a very real, measurable way, God does give food to the hungry, as Jesus did, when we have enough trust in God that we share our food with others. 

In a very real, concrete way, God frees the prisoners when we have enough trust in the way of God that we call for an end to torture such as water boarding (which by any means is cruel and unusual punishment) and we call for the adherence to the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus rights for those in Guantanamo Bay.

In a very real and visible sense, God opens the eyes of the blind when we have enough trust in the way of God that we will follow the truth wherever it leads, and we rely on science (not on politics) to determine our environmental policies and our school curriculum.

In a very real and tangible way, God watches over the alien strangers when we have enough trust in the way of God that we welcome the immigrants in our midst and we work for true immigration reform that treats them as honored and valuable workers, not as criminals.

That is the way of God.  The way that values every human being as a child of God regardless of where they are born, regardless of their race, their gender, their language, their sexual orientation, their religion, their occupation, or age.  That is the way of God.  The way we can trust.

The way that will change the world, the way that will bring God's reign to earth.

Peace on earth, and goodwill to all.  The way of God.


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