Saul and Nebuchadnezzar and the Mental Health of Politial Leaders (part 5 in sermon series, “Lessons for Political Leaders in the Bible”

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I.
    Some years ago when I was teaching preaching as my primary professional responsibility, a President of our country who read scripture literally, somehow connected the teaching about the battle of Armageddon detailed in the book of Revelation to an all out nuclear war on Planet Earth that would destroy most if not all of us.  The weight of having at his disposal the codes to initiate nuclear attack on our enemies, which would surely invite the same in return from them, became his preoccupation, and he began to take increasingly notice of the military person or persons never more than a few feet from him carrying a briefcase that people in the know call “the football.”  In that essentially indestructible briefcase kind of carrier, is everything any President of the United States needs to initiate the release of nuclear weapons.  This particular President had begun to ponder the possibility, according to news reports at the time, that he might very well be God’s instrument for initiating humanity’s last war.  The Battle of Armageddon in the book made up entirely of symbols is not to be taken literally.  It was a scary time.  After a few days, nothing more was said of it that I ever saw.  If there were ever an argument for requiring a President to get the approval of Congress before launching/declaring war, and if there ever were an argument for the essential reality of bipartisan commitments to work together for the well-being of the nation if the not the world, that was it.  Perhaps it still is.
    This historical tidbit raises more than one issue of significance, but the one on which I wish to focus today is how important it is for political leaders, especially those with the most power, to be mentally healthy.  Yes, there have been plenty of nut-cases at the helm of many a powerful nation throughout human history; in recent years, we seem to have had more crazy political power people heading up nations than at many other times in history.  One wonders if the sane ones remain in the minority.
    The mental health of our leaders is regarded by many as a very private matter–just as any of us struggling with mental and emotional illness would want to be accorded privacy were we to be plagued with one of the many mental or emotional illnesses that could befall any one of us.  
    For those who have responsibility for others, though, there must be someone watching even at a distance to be sure that the illness burdening a parent or a politician doesn’t lead to hurt or abuse of their charges.   As much as we’d like to be able to say, “That’s a completely private matter,” it isn’t when it leads to hurting others at home, at church, at work, or at the Pentagon.
    A few months ago Jesse Jackson Jr. seems to have disappeared; even his staff acted–and maybe they were being truthful–as if they had no idea where he’d gone.  I can’t remember so much stir about a missing public figure since the former Governor of South Carolina was gallivanting with his mistress leaving no one in the know, including his wife and children, and no one in charge.  
    Reporters dug in their heels and said they’d find out what was going on whatever it took.  Bits and pieces of the puzzle began to drop here, then there.  Finally, we were hearing from the press that Congressperson Jackson had gone on secret medical leave and didn’t want anyone to know that he was receiving treatment for whatever his ailment was, and at the time, few people knew.  Some family members told the Press that Jackson had collapsed at home and was rushed to a hospital, where it was decided that he needed more specialized treatment for whatever his disorder was.  We still didn’t know.  
    Surely, some of you remember that when President Reagan had a colonoscopy and polyps were discovered, the evening news had artists who drew pictures of what polyps in a colon looked like showing their work to the world, each one with a different medical specialist explaining why those polyps had to be removed right away.  Probably never before had so many millions of people around the world been thinking of one person’s colon all at the same time and with such intensity.  Toss modesty and privacy for key public figures.
    Congressperson Jackson, it was finally divulged to the public, was being treated at the Mayo Clinic for serious depression and gastrointestinal complications.  In fact, some of those involved in his treatment were initially calling the treatment being provided:  intensive care for depression.  Well, anyone who has treated and/or suffered from many types of depression know that there is no such thing as intensive care for the dark disease.  Medications have to be tested.  The need for talk therapy has to be considered.  None of these procedures move at any kind of rapid fire pace–much to the frustration of HMO’s.            
    Eventually, Jackson’s treatment team released to the public a more specific diagnosis; they said he was suffering with level 2 bipolar disorder.  This meant that things could be a lot worse.  Not to minimize the horrible emotional suffering he must have been enduring, he was not constantly depressed; he was periodically depressed, and he had, in addition, occasional episodes of hypomania.   
    Here’s a definition of hypomania from MedicineNet.com:

 

A condition similar to mania but less severe. The symptoms are similar with elevated mood, increased activity, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, racing thoughts, and the like. However, hypomanic episodes differ in that they do not cause significant distress or impair one’s work, family, or social life in an obvious way while manic episodes do.  Hypomanic people tend to be unusually cheerful, have more than ample energy, and need little sleep. Hypomania is a pleasurable state. It may confer a heightened sense of creativity and power. However, hypomania can subtly impair a person’s judgment. Too much confidence can conceal the consequences of decisions.  Hypomania can be difficult to diagnose because it may masquerade as mere happiness. It is important to diagnose hypomania because, as an expression of bipolar disorder, it can cycle into depression and carry an increased risk of suicide.  

 

    He checked out of the Mayo Clinic only a couple of weeks ago, and having had the benefit of a second home in DC while he has served in Congress–his primary residence being in Chicago–he has, as a first order of business, had to put his DC home up for sale in the hopes of trying to raise enough money to pay for some of his staggering medical bills, which some sources say exceed 2.5 million dollars.  I guess that means he has a policy that put limits on how much can be paid on any one illness.
    I think this is all very sad, but Jackson has decided to be open from here on out about his mental health.  This will help many others, and as long as he freely shares it isn’t an invasion of privacy.  
    It is also a fact, that if there are decisions resting on him in the conducting of his duties directly to his constituents or in congressional committees, his mental health must be kept in mind.  There’s no way around it.

II.
    Did you know there were political leaders whose lives are chronicled in Judeo-Christian scripture who suffered with mental illnesses?  The two I’d like to mention briefly today are subjects in ancient Hebrew scripture–though not both were Hebrews.  I won’t give any detail to a couple of New Testament standouts, Herod the Great and the truly insane Roman Emperor at the end of the first century, Domitian, who is a prominent figure in the book of Revelation–though he may never have figured that out because of the code language used by the author.
    Saul was Israel’s first King.  After who knows how long, functioning as a loosely-knit confederation of independent tribes joining together to consider matters of mutual interest or need, they begged God to give them a King and, reluctantly, the storytellers tell us, God granted that wish.  One wonders if God had reservations why God would give in to the pleas and demands of the Hebrews that they have a King like all the nations worth knowing or knowing about.  
    If you grew up in Sunday School, you almost certainly know that King Saul was often troubled in spirit, perhaps it was depression, and the only thing that would calm the King was the right kind of music.  His cabinet found a boy who had the magic touch with the lyre, a forerunner of the harp, and when he played for Saul, his troubles left him.  
    Saul, as you can well imagine, loved David like or almost like a son.  And why not?  David seemed to have been the only one in Saul’s Kingdom who could make the dark clouds that saddened and often incapacitated him disappear.
    Sadly, there were deeper problems.  Saul was paranoid.  He began to fear that someone would take his throne someday other than someone of whom he approved, like his son, Jonathan.  David was beloved outside Saul’s court as well, and Saul began to fear that David’s popularity as someone who could dispel dark clouds might get him an appointment from God to be Saul’s successor.  Loving David though he did, his mental illness propelled him into a plan to kill David or have him killed.
    The other leader with mental illness that I’d mentioned is the great and powerful King of the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar developed one of the truly unique expressions of mental illness.  He suffered from lycanthropy.  He thought for a good segment of his reign that he was a wolf.  If you don’t believe me, the next time you read your Bible–probably when you’re in a hotel with no WiFi signal leaving you nothing to read but the Gideon Bible in the top drawer of your bedside table, read it for yourself.  
    Maybe he had a fair amount of body hair already, but he added to that by not allowing anyone to cut his beard or the hair on his head.  He refused to allow his finger nails or toe nails to be cut because, thinking himself a wolf, he needed his claws for protection and attack.  He even paced the rooftop of his palace staring at the moon; as far as I know, no one told any stories about his howling at the moon.
    This polytheistic King believed that God restored him to his right mind, and the praise of the one and only God there is by one of the most powerful people on the face of the earth at the time who happened to be a polytheist, is one of several deeply moving parts of Hebrew scripture.  He recovered.  We have had other kinds of wolves in the White House.  
    One of my all time favorite television shows was “The West Wing,” that engaging drama in which Martin Sheen played the President of the United States and Stockard Channing the First Lady.  I was very devoted to the show and did everything I could not to miss an installment; catching up in those days–not so long ago–wasn’t as easy as it is today.  
    I’m not sure I’d ever thought about how heavily the burdens of state weigh on our thoughtful Presidents until I saw a captivating episode of this great drama, now a part of television history.  Having more problems to deal with than is humanly possible has to be a way of life for one of our Presidents.  Martin Sheen’s character, Josiah “Jed” Bartlett, was no different, but some cracks began showing up in his considerable armor that the staff closest to him along with members of his family noticed.  Eventually he couldn’t sleep.  Five nights in a row, as I recall, and not a wink of sleep.  One of his senior advisors decided he had to do something to try to help his President so this advisor covertly brings a psychiatrist to the White House to meet with the President and hopefully give the sensitive leader personal peace again.
    Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center.  He is author of a book with with a title I think is a compelling:   A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  He makes the foundational proposal that there are some leaders who suffer with certain mental illnesses, particularly certain types of mania or depression, and aspects of their mental illness can cause them to function better in times of crisis than those who, so far as the public knows, have a complete clean slate when it comes to mental or emotional illness.   Should we be guardedly hopeful?
    Historical records were secondary sources for Dr. Ghaemi; his primary sources were medical records of a number of noted leaders who struggled with some kind of mental illness while at the height of power including President Lincoln and Dr. King–Martin Luther King Jr., I mean.  Quoting Dr. Ghaemi:  “Creativity and resilience is higher in people with mania, and realism and empathy are higher in people with depression compared to ‘normal subjects.’”  
    Many of you probably knew–I did not–that both Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Mohandas Gandhi attempted suicide when they were teenagers.  Both suffered with depression as adults, and both would have to be classified as among the greatest leaders in modern history–and maybe in a time frame much larger than that.  
    President Kennedy really got a thorough going over by this Boston psychiatrist.  It makes you want to have your medical records buried or cremated with you!  Quoting Dr. Ghaemi again:

 

I went through the John F. Kennedy medical records in his archives….His behaviors have been well known — his hypersexuality, his high energy.  What I do is to go into the medical records and show how those symptoms really are consistent with this temperament called hyperthymic temperament, which means mild manic symptoms all the time. And then I base these diagnoses not just on the individual’s symptoms, but family history, because these illnesses are genetic….He was treated extensively with steroids, which worsened his manic symptoms. He was even treated with a neuroleptic, an anti-psychotic, when he was in the White House, for a period of depression….As those drugs made his hyperthymic symptoms worse, he was a less successful as a leader.  I think that was the case in the first year or two of his administration. Then his doctors got it under control.  They basically forced him to stop using so many of those drugs…,and this correlates with the last year of his administration, when a lot of his policies changed remarkably, and he became that major civil rights advocate, that very resilient Cold War leader whom we now look back on and value very much.

      

 

III.
    The following letter was mailed to each member of Congress a few weeks before the most recent presidential election in our country.  The writers refer to themselves as “we the undersigned” or “we the people.”  They are serious Obama haters, or at least they were four years ago.  

 

To: U.S. Congress
The 2008 presidential election in America is the most crucial election in this country’s history, not because the issues are that critical but because of Senator Barack Hussein Obama. Sen. Obama likely suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). NPD is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. The following are some of the symptoms of NPD that can be seen in Sen. Obama. He subtly misrepresents facts, opportunistically shifts positions, ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world, is overly confident and acts presidential despite commensurate merits and his modest life achievements, considers himself above the law, talks about himself in third person, has messianic vision of himself and his “mission,” displays false modesty while often evincing haughtiness, sublimates aggression and behaves as eternal adolescents.  [And until Obama came along we never saw any of these behaviors on Capitol Hill.  Right!]  NPD is the prime disorder experienced by madmen of history — from Hitler to Stalin, Mao, Kim, Osama, Khomeini, Saddam and Idi Amin. These men wreaked havoc and killed millions. Yet, they were confident they were right in what they were doing. Few suspected their insanity because narcissists are often intelligent and cunning.  It is time we people of the world demand that those who aspire to become heads of any country, particularly of the USA, submit to rigorous mental check ups. Millions of lives depend on the sanity of these leaders. If the physical health of presidential candidates is important, how much more important is their mental health?  Therefore, we the people, urge the lawmakers of all democratic countries and particularly the U.S. Congress to raise the issue and make this requirement into a law. It makes no sense that pilots should be required to submit to a psychiatric evaluation for operating commercial aircraft while no such test is needed to run a country. A narcissist in the White House would spell disaster for mankind.

 

 

I bring up a sensitive topic–as if I haven’t already done so.  During President Reagan’s second term in office, he showed signs read by those closest to him, those who loved him and supported him, as diminished mental capacity.  During most, perhaps all, of Reagan’s presidency, Lesley Stahl was the chief White House correspondent for CBS.  She wrote about these concerns in a book, Reporting Live, published fourteen years after the Reagans returned to California and she went on to other journalistic responsibilities.  
    Given an appointment to say her farewells to the man about whom she had written and spoken so much, she was told before entering the Oval Office by Press Secretary Larry Speakes that she was prohibited from asking any questions on any subject.   Ms. Stahl’s husband and daughter were with her for this momentous occasion.  She recalls that when they entered the office President Reagan just standing there looking at a sculpture of a rearing horse.  Now, in her own words:

 

 
Reagan was as shriveled as a kumquat. He was so frail, his skin so paper-thin. I could almost see the sunlight through the back of his withered neck…His eyes were coated. Larry introduced us, but he had to shout. Had Reagan turned off his hearing aid?  Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the President of the United States is a doddering space cadet. My heart began to hammer with the import….I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of my diagnosis.

 

    Stahl never made that report to the nation.  She like others just weren’t sure what to make of the fact that when the bright lights went on and the cameras began rolling President Reagan seemed to “recover.”  Still, “The Gipper was slipping while he was occupying the most powerful position in the world, and the public was kept in the dark.”
    Robin McKie was the Science Editor for The Observer in 2001 when he reported on the concern of Dr.James Toole, then president of the World Federation of Neurology, who had gone public with his admonition that from this point on presidents and prime ministers must be scrutinized for signs of mental instability.  He said,  

 
A crackup by a world leader would have the most devastating consequences; yet, nothing has been done to monitor their psychological wellbeing….Without safeguards, their symptoms are likely to be missed by their peers, with potentially catastrophic consequences….[R]ecent discoveries of lesser mental disabilities in leaders could still have had devastating results. A good example is Woodrow Wilson, US President at the end of the First World War, who suffered a stroke and was not able to function fully….In the US, a physician is now appointed to monitor the President’s health, both physically and mentally. If she or he becomes worried, the doctor can alert the White House staff. The trouble is that the White House staff members all owe their jobs to the President whom they are unlikely to agree to suspend unless his condition reaches a state that is impossible to cover up. By then, of course, it may be too late.

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The Rich Young Ruler and Spirituality for Political Leaders (Sermon 4 in Series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

 

 

 

I.
President George H. W. Bush intentionally began his presidency with a prayer before the nation.  I share that moving prayer with you now:

Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.”

For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord.

The Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers; may He not leave us or forsake us; so that we may incline our hearts to Him, to walk in all His ways… that all peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.

We would do well to ponder the essence of that prayer.  It reveals an appropriately humble understanding of the way our nation should use its advantages and its power.  Power is not for abuse.  Power is not for muscle-flexing.  Power is for protection and for helping those who are unable to help themselves.  May we hear and heed that message in our day, Gracious God.
To be able to pray a prayer like this one reveals that President Bush had a meaningful personal connection to God that he was unafraid to let his constituents glimpse.  Furthermore, it reveals hope deeply embedded in the heart of nation’s leader despite having fought in a war and having served our nation as Director of the CIA where, of necessity, he had to see the seediest layer of inhumanity and utter evil alive and at work right under our noses.  When someone like that sees us from the grimmest possible angle and still has hope for the nation and confidence in a God of love and goodness my attention is captured and not just for the duration of the prayer or the day I heard or read it first.
One other observation.  This kind of prayer cannot be prayed by someone who has an occasional brush with God; rather, it clearly comes from the heart and lips of someone who is spiritually grounded.  Even if the President had the help of a writer polishing the finished product, the sentiments of his heart of hearts are reflected in this prayer.
Though I am focusing primarily on a spirituality based on a positive connection to God, I do not think all of our leaders should have to have some kind of attachment to any religion.  I want to make sure you know that I know there’s such a reality as healthy sectarian spirituality.  Robert Fuller describes it:

Spirituality exists whenever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things….We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder why we are here…or become moved by values such as beauty, love, and creativity.

George Washington kept a prayer journal, and this prayer from that journal is atypically undated:

O eternal and everlasting God, I presume to present myself this morning before thy Divine majesty, beseeching thee to accept of my humble and hearty thanks, that it hath pleased thy great goodness to keep and preserve me the night past from all the dangers poor mortals are subject to, and has given me sweet and pleasant sleep, whereby I find my body refreshed and comforted for performing the duties of this day, in which I beseech thee to defend me from all perils of body and soul….

Increase my faith in the sweet promises of the gospel; give me repentance from dead works; pardon my wanderings, and direct my thoughts unto thyself, the God of my salvation; teach me how to live in thy fear, labor in thy service, and ever to run in the ways of thy commandments; make me always watchful over my heart, that neither the terrors of conscience, the loathing of holy duties, the love of sin, nor an unwillingness to depart this life, may cast me into a spiritual slumber, but daily frame me more and more into the likeness of thy son Jesus Christ, that living in thy fear, and dying in thy favor, I may in thy appointed time attain the resurrection of the just unto eternal life. Bless my family, friends, and kindred.  Amen.

I would not call this a model prayer, one that all of you or any one of you should attempt to emulate.  I’m sorry that the first president of our country was weighed down by a fear of God that he had been taught was only proper piety.  I am drawn to his concern about falling into a spiritual slumber, however.  That is a brilliant and stirring core to this prayer.
My sisters and brothers, we desperately need political leaders who are spiritually grounded, and I don’t mean “religious politicians.”  The religion or spiritual system to which they are connected is of little importance as long as it is inclusive and based on the reality that God is love and that the divine love extends to all people around the world who ever have and who ever will live.  A president who believed that his or, someday, her religion was the one for all people in this nation and in every nation would be a tremendous danger to all of us.  God does not love U.S. Americans more than God loves all the others who make up the one human family.  In the racist South, when and where I grew up, we sang a children’s song that we cherished even though we rejected its message by the time we hit our teen years:

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.

It seems that in many times and places perhaps most times and places political leadership falls to those with money rather than to those who do not have access to abundant funds.  Of course, there are exceptions.  I can think of Lech Wałęsa in Poland.  He is a human rights advocate and one time trade union organizer.  He founded the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union–not without consequences, of course. Wałęsa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and was eventually elected as the first President of that nation as it began breaking free from the strictures of Communism.  He was never wealthy.  Before getting involved in politics, he had been an electrician–an hourly worker probably.  He had no higher education either, but he nonetheless was a remarkable leader who knew first hand the struggles of the people he served as president.

We know that Jesus talked about how difficult it is for many wealthy people not to be completely enamored by and preoccupied with their wealth. You probably know Jesus’ famous image of the complications faced by a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle as his way of talking about how challenging it is for people with great amounts of money to look away from the money and focus on other important matters–such as spirituality.
I noticed in The Christian Century this week an announcement of a book, a brand new book I think, about how because of the way wealthier folks are sometimes vilified in Scripture the church, unless it’s collecting from said wealthy people, spends great deal of time and energy condemning them.  Apparently the aim of this book is to say that the wealthy people deserve care and compassionate ministry as well as the poor, but that is a rabbit to chase at another time, although a very important rabbit.  Oscar Ameringer has said:

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.

II.
For the purposes of our considerations today we have a young man, a contemporary of Jesus, who is very wealthy and very attached to his wealth.  He is never named, but he gets this nickname by the Gospel writer; it sticks:  the Rich Young Ruler.   He likely had given some thought to the reality that wealth wasn’t giving him the spiritual richness in living that he desired.  He was rich in the ownership of precious metals, gems, livestock, and land.  He was, however, poor in spirit.  This is what prompted him to seek out Jesus.  Was this the only time he’d ever sought Jesus’ counsel, or was he in the habit of calling on Jesus with regularity?
He comes to Jesus to say, “Yes, I’m wealthy; yes, I’m in a position of power.  Still, Rabbi, I feel that something is painfully lacking in my spiritual life.”
Jesus said, “If you want to feel more closely connected to God you certainly can keep your position of political influence and power, but in your case you’re not able to keep your eyes away from your wealth so you will need to sell all you have, give the proceeds to the poor and then all will be well.  You will be able to be focused on God, and you’ll be able to be focused on carrying out your political responsibilities with real compassion for the people you serve.”
The Rich Young Ruler didn’t bite:  “I don’t feel connected to God even though I have kept all the religious rules I was ever taught.  I’ve been a good prince, and I’ve never been naked in an inappropriate place where the pavaratzi could see me and sketch me in such a state for humiliating public distribution.  I’ve never brought shame to the crown and most importantly never to God.  I see that the poor are attended to as long as they don’t whine about welfare and the lack of available faith healers willing to care for poor people. And, Jesus, I’ve never believed or acted as if I were above the most rudimentary spiritual exercises just because I happen to be a person of wealth and of power by appointment.  I pray as the commoners pray.  Still, it’s as if the God you proclaim who wants us to be relationally connected to Godself and not to rules that we have been taught will rather automatically create a connection with God is no where near where I live and reign.  I believe that I could a better servant of God and a better leader of the people if I felt spiritually alive, but the stark, sad, embarrassing truth is that I’m a ruler who has everything–almost everything.  I feel dead spiritually.  I’d give up everything I have to feel alive spiritually.”
Jesus said, “Good, because that’s what’s going to have to happen.  Give up the riches.  Distribute all the proceeds to the impoverished, and you’ll wake up one day free from that distraction.  You can give your energy and focus to making, then keeping your spirit healthy and whole.  God has always been close to you, but now you’ll sense the divine presence within; and you’ll feel alive, fully alive.”
The Rich Young Ruler came back quickly, “Now, Jesus, you know I didn’t mean that literally.  My wealth came as an inheritance.  I couldn’t give it up.”  And the Gospel writer tells us that after the filthy rich young man had run out of excuses he walked away from Jesus overcome with sadness because he was wealthier than all the shrieks in Saudi Arabia.
Jesus says, doesn’t he?, that spirituality is connected to spiritual exercises–like prayer and fasting and such.  But you can’t stop with the spiritual exercises.  You can have a meeting with the Dalai Lama on a daily basis for prayer and reflection, but if you don’t make your spirituality something active based on your spiritual exercises then nothing will occur.
In this case the ruler realized that that his power based wealth could not be the primary focus of meaning in his life.  Political leaders should recognize that, and those who believe that power is an end in itself are either dangerous or careless or both.  Political leaders should live to serve, and they can do so more effectively with strong spiritual foundations.
Here are words from President Jimmy Carter, the first portion spoken in his inaugural address and latter portion spoken to the nation as a whole on Thanksgiving Day nearly three years later:

I would like to have my frequent prayer answered that God would let my life be meaningful in the enhancement of His kingdom and that my life might be meaningful in the enhancement of the lives of my fellow human beings.

I call upon all the people of our Nation to give thanks for the blessings Almighty God has bestowed upon us, and to join the fervent prayer of George Washington who as President asked God to “impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.”

III.
We need political leaders who keep their spirituality healthy and seek out answers to spirituality-based questions that they have.  There’s not a thing in the world wrong with a president or a senator or a governor having a spiritual advisor, or a collection of them.  If anyone in politics were to ask me, and no one has, I’d say in our increasingly diverse world spiritual insights from a number of religious traditions should be consistently kept in mind.  All healthy religious voices need to be heard and considered.
A wise American president will realize that not all Americans who have religious connections are Christians; we are a tapestry of multiple religious traditions woven together, and woven into the tapestry of American religion are the threads of agnostics and atheists as well.  The ideas that we are a Christian nation or that Christianity can be forced onto all citizens need to be tossed for good.  A politician who wishes to be a strong leader with a sturdy spiritual foundation can’t live in a dream world and absolutely cannot serve keeping alive the secret notion of ultimately winning all citizens to her or his religion.  Do you remember President Obama’s daring press conference in Turkey back in 2009 at which he declared before a predominantly Muslim nation and, in a sense before the whole world, that we are not a Christian nation?  I was astounded.

One of the great strengths of the United States is…we have a very large Christian population–we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.

The Obamas are a spiritually grounded family, and all kinds of churches in DC thought the presidential family would surely join their particular congregation.  It was entertaining, sometimes funny, to hear representatives from these churches telling television reporters–and they were as serious as they could be–why the Obamas should worship regularly with them.  I enjoyed hearing about their decision to connect with a small congregation out near Camp David.
We need leaders who do not let political responsibility eclipse in their minds their need for a healthy spiritual life from whichever tradition they find the most encouragement, inspiration, and clarity of contribution to our citizens and the wider human family.  It is clear here that spirituality along with the strength it provides and the service to which it sends us cannot be a fractional part of the whole.  Yes, spirituality needs some of its own uninterrupted time in anyone’s life–not just the leaders who literally carry the weight of the world on their shoulders–but the benefit of a healthy spirituality is that we and our leaders can take it into the most conflicted places, the most tenuous of moments when decisions must be made that can never be undone, and into those places where we have no sense of what must be done for the well-being of the most people.
Not all systems of spirituality have much to offer those leaders who would be peacemakers.  There are those leaders, therefore, who are always more than ready to go to war based on something read in the holy writ of a given religious tradition–therefore always trying to bring God, or the gods for polytheists, into the justification for war.  In Homer’s Iliad he dramatizes powerfully how an omen believed to have been sent by Zeus himself kept a bloody battle waging on:

Over the [warriors] an eagle flew, holding in its talons a blood-red serpent. The serpent struggled with the eagle and the eagle with the serpent, and both had sorely wounded each other. But as they flew over the host of Greeks and Trojans the serpent struck at the eagle with his fangs, and the eagle, wounded in the breast, dropped the serpent. Then were the Trojans in dread, seeing the blood-red serpent across their path, for they thought it was an omen from Zeus.

The Trojans, ready to let this particular battle go and retreat, did not because they thought the bleeding serpent dropped into their midst was sign of what would happen to them if they failed to continue the killing.
A healthy spirituality discourages a hunger for power.  Though not a political leader per se, Jesus could have wielded much more power than he did.  In his time of desolate deliberations in which he defined what his ministry would be, he said no to the ways of power enhancement and yes to the ways of meeting the needs of the neediest first.  This pivotal decision was made in a moment of profound soul-searching, certainly a part of a healthy spirituality.
You know, if ours was a Christian nation, not that there can be a Christian institution of any kind–only people can embrace faith–life would be much different from the way it is.  A Christian presumably would be living according to the teachings of Jesus.  I don’t see much of that.  Too many of our political leaders are afraid to show open compassion and concern for those who are poor and those who struggle otherwise.  It’s simple to prove that Jesus gave most of his energy and attention ministering to the hungry, the ill, the excluded.  But these are not purely Christian values.  Many of the same concerns certainly show up in other major religions.
So, what spiritual system is it that allows political leaders to vilify the needy?  I can’t think of one; therefore, I’m concerned when there is no evident trickle down compassion proving that spirituality for this politician or that one has been swept under the carpets altogether.   We need political leaders who have a passion for the poor, and I think that is rare, as I alluded to earlier, with an aristocratic political leadership base, leaders who have no understanding, even if their intentions are superior, of what it means to struggle to put food on the table or to pay a bill or to find ways to have heat in the dead of winter.
President Kennedy prayed this prayer on the last Thanksgiving Day he would enjoy:

Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings–let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals–and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world….[L]et us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.

Pragmatically, we need political leaders bold enough to act on healthy spiritual values, which are certainly connected to mentally and emotionally healthy people, but also to people who have the grit to act on their convictions including their spiritually-influenced convictions.  Real religion isn’t just a facade used when invoking God as the God of our nation, mistaken by many to be God’s favored nation.  Religion is getting your hands dirty because you as a political leader have said that service to the neediest trumps money and raw power any day of the week.
Amen

Deborah: The Wisdom of Woman (sermon three in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

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I.
     There are two companion reasons that women have not served as frequently as men in positions of political leadership throughout history.  Of course, in some places women have served just as consistently as men, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Those two companion reasons that women have not served are:  1) that men dominating societies liked running things and made conscious choices about how to keep women from serving in the positions men wanted to keep; and 2) the persistent assumption that women were/are morally inferior to men.
    The idea that women are by nature morally inferior to men goes back to the horrible branding of all women by the behavior of Eve in the Garden of Eden where she apparently was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit. Anti-women’s groups have certainly gotten their mileage out of dear ole Eve. We all know with a little bit of careful reading in Genesis 3 that what Eve did was no worse than what Adam and the Serpent did. Therefore, Eve is no more dastardly than Adam or the serpent.
     Much has been written and spoken about the superior gender: male or female.  In several areas of life some women have demonstrated prowess over male counterparts. Politics may be one of those areas. The following are ten of the most successful women political figures, past and present. No man could do or could have done a better job in the context.  

  1. Sixty-seventh US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  Some see Secretary Clinton as the epitome of triumph in the face of adversity. Although her presidential run against President Obama was unsuccessful, she achieved a high-ranking appointment in his cabinet. While she might have been the butt of a few bad jokes during her husband’s presidency, who’s laughing now?
  2. Governor Sarah Palin, proof that I didn’t create this list.  She was the youngest person and the first woman elected Governor of Alaska, Palin served there from 2006 until her odd and oddly timed resignation in 2009.  Four years ago, we knew her as the wildly popular vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
  3. Margaret Thatcher holds the record for being the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. Thatcher is also known for building a strong relationship between her country and the United States through President Reagan, for increasing home ownership, and reducing the government’s role in business.  She was forced to resign in 1990 after instituting some very unpopular taxes.  (I did several internet searches and couldn’t find any hits, not even one, for “popular” taxes.)
  4. Indira Gandhi fought her way up the political ladder and became Prime Minister of India in 1966, making her the first woman leader of a democracy in the world. Gandhi served as Prime Minister until 1977 and was reelected to the same position in 1980. Although her own bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, her importance to India and to clarifying the importance of women in politics will live on.
  5. Personal friend of Judge Stapleton, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as an attorney for many years before becoming the first female Supreme Court justice. She was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan.  She retired from the Supreme Court in 2005 for several reasons, perhaps the most pressing one being to care for her ailing husband.
  6. Angela Merkel is the first woman to serve as and the current Chancellor of Germany; she’s the first woman leader of Germany since it became a modern nation-state in 1871. Forbes Magazine sees her as the most powerful woman in the world. 
  7. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt from 55 to 48 BCE, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty. She tried to enlist the help of Julius Caesar while trying to keep Egypt free and eventually bore him a son.  She won the protection of Rome through an affair with Mark Anthony, having three children with him. Cleopatra was a highly educated woman who studied philosophy and international relations and was well ahead of her time.
  8. Queen Elizabeth I. Queen of England from 1558 to 1603.  Her rule was characterized by acts of tolerance and government reforms.  Like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I was highly educated, and she turned her court into a great center of learning. Elizabeth remained single for life, although she was constantly under pressure to marry to form political alliances. Elizabeth is famous for defeating the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 but also for the long wars during her 45 year reign, now referred to as the “Elizabethan Age.”
  9. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1978. Becoming Prime Minister of Israel in the late 1960s was a real political feat for a female at that time. Known for being powerful and tough.  Meir retired from politics when her Labor Party fell from power as a result of the Yom Kippur War.
  10. Susan B. Anthony was an activist her whole life, fighting for equal rights for everyone. She worked to abolish slavery, reform education, and to gain for women the right to vote. She was the first woman ever to vote in a presidential election in 1872, even though she did so illegally and was arrested for her vote. Anthony continued to work tirelessly for women’s rights until her death in 1906.  If not for her work, women most assuredly would not have achieved the right to vote in 1920.

II.
     The “judges” in ancient Israel were powerful leaders in the days before the monarchy–that is, before the days of Israel’s first king, King Saul.  These leaders usually acquired their political positions after they led Israeli troops to be successful in battle.
     The first such judge, Othniel, set the pattern: the oppressed Hebrews cried out to God, and the spirit of God came Othniel who judged Israel’s concerns as worthy and then himself went out with the troops to battle.  The Hebrews believed their win was God’s doing so they praises God and got Othniel a contract.  
     We don’t know how Deborah rose to power–through a similar incident or strictly because of her wise judgments.  In the book of Judges, there’s a story of Deborah and a song of Deborah placed side by side.  In the song, Deborah describes total breakdown of order in Israel. Travelers had to go around Hebrew territory to avoid danger; in those days there was no rescue, someone sings, “Until I arose, Deborah, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).  Somehow Deborah brought order back to Israel.  How this happened, again, neither the song nor the story tell us.
     One day, Deborah called General Barak and said to him, “Did not the God of Israel command us, ‘Go and pull toward Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men from the men of Naphtali and Zebulun. I will draw Sisera, the head of Yavin’s army, and his chariotry and masses to Wadi Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.”‘
       Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
     Judge Deborah responded. She said, “I will indeed go with you, especially since you will get no glory on the way you are going, for into the hand of a woman will God deliver Sisera.”  This is exactly what it happened.  Deborah went with Barak to Qedesh.  Barak gathered the troops, and ten thousand men went with them.  Deborah won the battle.
      What prompted Deborah to call Barak in the first place?  Maybe the people asked that she call him. The people not only regularly went to her for guideance, but also they came to her for a particular kind of “judgment.” The poem provides a hint as to what they wanted: “Then the people of God went down to the gates:  ‘Awake, awake, Deborah.  Awake, awake, sing a song.  Arise, Barak, take your captives.'” (Judges 5:12).  This heart-wrenching outcry may have motivated Deborah to begin the war of Liberation.
      Deborah calls Barak in her role as a prophet, a catalyst through whom God works. Moreover, Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not the God of Israel command it?
    God had already spoken to Barak, and Deborah’s call is a second summons. Still, Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel after him, others were called by God to be envoys. He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the front lines where the warriors assemble.
    Readers have often been bothered by Barak’s reluctance to go without Deborah, declaring that his hesitation makes him “less manly” or tarnishes his potential glory. But Barak has good reason to be insecure: Yavin, after all, has nine hundred chariots!
    Prophets play several roles in battle: they stir and inspire the troops.  They declare God’s timing for fighting to begin. Prophets are such an important presence in battle that Elijah and Elisha are called “Israel’s chariot and cavalry.”
    Many readers of this story have been particularly troubled by the presence of women in war, believing that women are out of place there and assuming that ancient Israelites would have felt the same way.  Yet, most of the Assyrian prophets were women, and reports from both the ancient and more recent Near East show a consistent pattern of the presence of women to inspire the troops and taunt the enemy. There is no reason to think that biblical readers found anything strange about Barak’s request to Deborah, as either prophet or woman.
    “Sisera mustered all his chariotry, nine hundred iron chariots, and all his people from Harosheth‑Hagoyim to Wadi Kishon….Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise, for this is the day that YHWH gives Sisera into your hand. Does not YHWH go out before you?’….Barak quickly descended from Mount Tabor and ten thousand men after him….YHWH distressed Sisera and all the chariotry and all the camp by the sword before Barak and Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot….Barak chased the chariots and the camp to Harosheth‑Hagoyim and fell on Sisera’s camp with the sword. Not even one remained.”
     On Mount Tabor, Deborah the prophet announces the victory. She herself does not go down to the battle. Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander. Her role is to inspire, foretell, and celebrate when a celebration is in order. Her “weapon” is the word, and her name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah). The battle itself is not essential to the story.  It is important only to remember that God fought and won: God “distressed” Sisera. Deborah announced God’s victory, Barak facilitated it, and God carried it out. The Song of Deborah provides a glimpse into how God defeated Canaan: God brought a flash flood that made a bog of sliding mud in which chariots were useless.
     Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess‑woman, adding the word “woman,” ishah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebi’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”‑woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” eshet.
     The song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle.
     The fullest sense of Deborah as mother is revealed in her name, which is not only an anagram of “she spoke”; it is also a noun meaning “bee.” Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.  (Much material in segment two of this sermon has been borrowed and sometimes quoted directly from Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky; she was Professor of Hebrew at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  An amazing career cut short; death took her in her early 60’s.)

III.
    Mary Wolestonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley who authored Frankenstein, was a determined women’s liberation advocate in England well ahead of her time.  Her very important book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, remains a significant piece of literature.  May I share some quotes from that work that jump out at me?

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

“…men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”

“I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists. I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

*At this point in the Gathering, the Pastor left his prepared notes and spoke without notes of any kind.  There is no transcription.  You may listen to the last part of the sermon by finding the link to it on the church’s website’s home page.   http://www.silversidechurch.org

Weeks or months from now, the sermon may be transcribed and offered in print.

Herod the Great on How to Deal with the Competition (second in sermon series, “Lessons from Political Leaders of the Bible”)

I.
Well, here we are smack dab in the middle of another election season. It is both interesting and frustrating as well as a reminder of what life in a modern democracy has become. I am not a political scientist, but my general observation of American politics as a diligent voter for about 40 years along with my limited knowledge of American political history lead me to believe that there have been many more campaigns characterized by mudslinging than fact sharing.  In both national and local elections there are few truly clean campaigns. I suspect there are more clean campaigns locally than nationally, but that’s just the hunch. It also seems to me that the higher the office, and therefore the more that’s at stake, the more willing candidates are to diabolically discredit and/or hurt opponents as a means of trying to help themselves get elected.
According to the Lehrman Institute, the presidential election of 1800 is widely taken to have been the nastiest in the political history of our nation.  Political scientists typically point out that nothing about that campaign reflected well on the two Founders of our country who ran against each other.  The race was between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson.  Adams had been George Washington’s Vice President. Washington, however, died in 1799 and was out of the picture by the time the race between Adams and Jefferson was formal.  Historians at the Lehrman Institute describe the race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as “raucous, bitter, and unpredictable.”  Professor David McCullough has given us a taste of how the two camps publicly described the other.  Thomas Jefferson was, according to the campaign of John Adams “a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a ‘howling’ atheist.”  John Adams, said the Jefferson campaign, was a “Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, ‘quite mad.’”
Historian Joanne B. Freeman wrote: “With partisan animosity at an all-time high and no end in sight, many assumed that Adams and Jefferson were engaged in a fight to the death that would destroy the Union. Of course each side assumed that it alone represented the American people, its opponents a mere faction promoting self-interested desires.”  Jefferson’s biographer, Willard Sterne Randall, wrote: “In the first knockdown, drag-out campaign, Americans proved they preferred newspapers to pamphlets to books, and, further, that they preferred their newspapers crammed with items of scandal. It was the first modern campaign.”
The two candidates, as sometimes happens today, actually agreed on a number of political policies and goals.  There was nothing similar, however, about their personalities described as follows by the highly regarded presidential historian, Joseph J. Ellis:  Adams and Jefferson were the “odd couple of the American Revolution: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian….Adams, the highly combustible, ever combative, mile-a-minute talker whose favorite form of conversation was an argument; Jefferson, the forever cool and self-contained enigma who regarded an argument as dissonant noise that disrupted the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head.”  Having collaborated on drafting the Declaration of Independence and later having served together or at least at the same time as diplomats in Europe, by the time of the campaign there seemed to be no positive connection whatsoever between them.
In one of several newspaper articles damning Jefferson, a critic asked his readers to imagine what the nation would be like with Jefferson at the helm.  What that journalist saw, he wanted everyone to see.  “In a short time, licentiousness and immorality would meet with the most public approbation, every restraint would soon be thrown off, and men would soon bring themselves to be infamous debauchees, assassins, cheats, thieves, liars, hateful and hating one another, a curse upon the earth.”
Many of us agonize at how religion is used and abused in political campaigns today; well, it’s been going on in this country almost from the beginning.  Mudslinging in the presidential campaign of 1800 began early, and it started at church. On Independence Day, 1798, the congregational clergyperson who was president of Yale University delivered a sermon condemning Thomas Jefferson’s supposed atheism. In this widely circulated sermon, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, President of Yale as we have said, slammed Jefferson.  Dwight was neither widely loved nor widely respected though we do name him when we are listing the great preachers in the earliest history of our country.  Those who didn’t like him frequently criticized his arrogance and his thirst for power; critics often referred to him as “His Holiness Pope Timothy.”  Anyway, his view of a nation with Jefferson as its president, Jefferson regarded as a friend of France, would see this, as Timothy Dwight preached it:  The “Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed in a dance of Jacobin frenzy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat….Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes.”
The religious divide, and it was very real, ran largely along geographical lines.  Timothy Dwight’s brother, Theodore, wrote in an editorial:  “We want no Southern lights in these parts.  We have Northern lights; we have gospel light and political light sufficient to exterminate Jacobinism.”  Joining in, a minister in New York wrote:  “Though there is nothing in our constitution to restrict our choice, yet the open and warm preference of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christianity, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation and a rebellion against God.”
The fact is, both Adams and Vice Jefferson were Unitarians by conviction.  Of the two, Adams was more willing to acknowledge the role of religion in public life; in the spring of 1799 while filling out Washington’s term, he issued a call for a day of fasting and repentance that many Presbyterians were pressing him to do. It seemed harmless enough, but the designated day backfired on Adams.  “Fasting and prayer” might have been OK, but “fasting with repentance” was not!  Growing groups of people began to assume that Adams was aligning himself with the Presbyterians even though the Presbyterians wouldn’t have had him.  What the young country feared was movement toward a national church from which many of them had fled in England.  The Revolution barely over, memories of blood in the streets and devastated families still burned painfully in the memories and the hearts of those who had seen more than enough.  I say again, this is not what Adams wanted at all, but he couldn’t beat the perception.  The citizens of this young nation believed a multiplicity of denominations was good for the nation and that it must never fall back into the lack of separation between state church and religious expression.
As election day approached, the attacks on Jefferson escalated. Pay very careful attention to this name I’m about to say.  The Reverend William Linn, Dutch Reformed minister of New York, joined in the frenzy.  The Reverend Linn claimed to have found irrefutable evidence that Jefferson was secretly a Muslim–oops, no wait…I have my elections mixed up–that Jefferson rejected biblical revelation, one example of his skepticism being his refusal to believe in the historicity of a universal deluge in the days of Noah.  Furthermore, Linn kept spreading around, “Jefferson doesn’t even go to church.”  Linn was wrong about that, but right about Jefferson’s skepticism regarding the historicity of much of the Bible.  In any case, Jefferson won the election.

II.
The issue of dealing with the political competition in ancient Israel was influenced by some very interesting dynamics.  Even though the Hebrews by and large believed that God and God alone was the kingmaker, there were those ambitious types who tried to tell God what to do and who, in fear that God might not take their advice, had persons they rejected as suitable to follow them on the throne killed off so that even God couldn’t elevate to kingship someone whom they detested.  That attitude doesn’t seem to square at all with the theology that someone God had appointed to the throne should have held.  Admittedly, the King or Kings of the Jews at least early on had tremendous power.  As there was no separation of religion and state, and none even envisioned, the King automatically called the shots in both realms–not that they were clearly divided in the minds of the people or in practice.  For example, the laws the King was ordained to uphold were religious laws.  There was no separate body of civil laws; everything went back to the developing religion to which they all ostensibly adhered.
Many years later, in England, a Roman Catholic King, Henry VIII, looked back to the pattern of the ancient Hebrews with envy, and when he had a falling out with his pope, Henry with the help of members of his court, notably Thomas Cranmer, established the Protestant Church of England in which the King was head both of secular and religious affairs, and there were distinctions between the two in Henry’s time and place.  Once that was accomplished, Henry leaned back and took a breath of rest and said, “Now THIS is how governments ought to operate.”
Back to ancient Israel.  The first King God appointed for the Hebrews, as the story was told, with many of them begging God in prayer to give them a monarch, was Saul.  Saul had many good qualities, and some not so good.  He will show up again in this sermon series, but one of the words of praise we have to give Saul has to do with his courage and bravery.  He frequently went into the thick of battle with his soldiers to name one of several admirable traits.
Saul liked being King, and he had strong feelings about who had what it took to take over for him when his time to retire came.  What sent him into a rage, however, was that from all indictions both God and Saul’s people–not to mention Saul’s son Jonathan–loved David, Saul’s court musician; and many saw David as heir apparent to Saul’s throne.  The mere thought threw Saul in fits of rage.
As if God had no part to play in kingmaking at all, Saul decided he had to have David killed off, or do it himself, so that he couldn’t be an option from which God could choose.  Pretty sneaky and pretty bold, not in admirable ways.
There are people in our country today who believe that elections are nothing more than dramatics, people foolishly believing that their votes count–even if they’re from Delaware–when God, not any group of humans is choosing leaders, including presidents and popes. Even in a democracy they believe God has foreordained every leader who ever has or ever will serve as Commander of Chief not just in our nation, but in every nation.  And why would Christians not believe this when influenced by the highly influential Apostle Paul?  Paul wrote in what is now called the thirteenth chapter of the letter to the church in Rome that all leaders in power were put there by God Godself–including, apparently, the Emperor who gave Pilate the nod to move ahead with the execution of Jesus.  One wonders if Paul still believed that misguided theological perception a little later when another Roman Emperor had him, Paul, executed.  As he waited to be called to his own execution, did Paul think the Roman Emperor who said, “Today’s the day,” was put into that position of power by the one and only God there is?
One of the key political and spiritual descendants of old King Saul was the King of the Jews in power at the time of the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great. Now, you will know that Rome was ultimately in charge of all Jews during the whole Jesus’ lifetime, but Rome allowed the peoples over whom it ruled to have their traditional religious opportunities as well as community practices and structures so long as they did not interfere with what Rome wanted.
In the case of the Jews in the time of Jesus the Jews were allowed to have a king, as long as that king didn’t upset any of Rome’s applecarts.  Herod the Great was happy to oblige and in effect was little more than a puppet king, although in fairness we would have to say that in relationship with the Romans and perhaps because of some persuasive powers for influencing them he was able to accomplish some amazing things for his people most notably the restoration of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
As Herod aged, he became increasingly jealous of his position as King of the Jews and equally as paranoid about anyone who might someday have the position and the throne he cherished.  He must have come to believe that he would never die and that no one would ever sit on that throne but him.  If he thought for even a second that someone was plotting to take his throne, that person was dead within hours; I don’t know how many total there were of those, but I do know that two of them were his own family members–his wife, Miriam, and her brother.
He was at his peak of angst, paranoia, and publicly acknowledged insanity when the Magi arrived from the East about the time of Jesus’ second birthday and made the horrible mistake of going to King Herod and asking a question with these particular words, “Where is he who has been born to be King of the Jews?” Immediately Herod knew he had a threat to his throne that had come into his space without his knowledge.  He decided to play along with the Magi as if he too were interested in knowing where this person was so that he like the Magi could offer his respects.
When the Magi realized what a crazy politician Herod was, they visited with toddler Jesus and left without saying another word to Herod.  Herod was irate, as usual, and he computed that based on what the Magi had told him, this one born to be King of the Jews must be about 2 years old so he ordered the executions of all little boys in around Jerusalem, 2 years of age and under.  He did not have the authority from Rome to pronounce the death sentence on anybody, but the truth was Rome wasn’t going to be concerned about the death of some few baby boy Jews. If they even heard about it they would turn their heads.
This horrific historic episode nicknamed “The Slaughter of the Innocents” didn’t involve masses of children–fortunately just a few, but one dying at the hands of a paranoid, power hungry madman was one too many.
You may know the details of the story and how Jesus escapes Herod’s death squads. According to one of the Gospel writers, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was warned by an angel of God in a dream to get Jesus and Mary out of there and that led to a rapid road trip, which also got nickname, “The Flight to Egypt.” Sunday school teachers in the modern world have had great difficulty telling the story to children using traditional language, which by the way they shouldn’t be exposing children to in the first place.  Anyway, when “The Flight to Egypt” is mentioned, children in our time can’t help seeing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph boarding a plane from Nazareth to Cairo.

III.
We have all noticed and responded differently, according to our political tastes, to the ludicrous comment by Mitt Romney’s campaign indicating that they refuse to run a campaign influenced by fact checkers.  I can’t think of any way that can be a positive, sensible statement, but I could certainly be missing something. To me what the campaign is obviously saying is that they are going to use whatever lies are necessary to discredit President Obama and apparently to help Romney and Ryan look a bit more on the up and up.  They especially want to help the vice-presidential choice for the Republican Party who has a history in the development of the Tea Party of being able to change reality in his own mind and/or simply to alter, based on non-facts, the way large groups who listen to him think.
Now I ask you not to take offense to what I say today on the basis of political commitments.  I hope those of you who know me know me well enough to be assured that if somebody on the Democratic side made the same comment about the irrelevance of facts the way Romney’s campaign has that I would be equally as critical. Those are matters that reflect the lack of moral fiber–whatever political party they may be attached to.
Robert Reich wrote in a Kansas City newspaper:

A half-dozen fact-checking organizations and websites have refuted Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s claims that President Barack Obama removed the work requirement from the welfare law and will cut Medicare benefits by $716 billion.  The New York Times even reported that Romney has been “falsely charging” President Obama with removing the work requirement.  USA Today calls the Romney campaign’s claim that Obama has “funneled” money out of Medicare to pay for the federal health care law a “false line of attack” that’s directly contradicted by Medicare’s chief actuary.  Most political campaigns are guilty of exaggeration. Some distort the truth. But rarely if ever has one resorted to such bald-faced lies.  It is not okay to sling mud if the mudslinging is based on lies. It might be okay to mudsling if the mudslinging is based on truth. I’m not sure about the latter of those in the political arena. In Christian theology and ethics we have learned to be influenced by the primary desire to be forgiving and to see others in the best possible light, even if they have a done a wrong.

What about the time coming when there’s nothing left of any positive light in which to view a political candidate?  In a democracy why would people elect or allow a liar to stay in office, someone who blatantly misled them repeatedly? But that’s not today’s issue, really; today’s issue is how should a political leader deal with the competition.  Regardless of whether or not your ethical and moral values are based in any kind of faith tradition surely lying is not an acceptable alternative.  I say this despite the fact that some political observers of this country say it is impossible to get elected without telling a few lies, that the highest principled politician cannot promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth all the time but most of time if possible.
I know of a few people who were unaffected by the choices President Clinton made regarding his personal life while he was the President of the United States. I see a very valid argument to be made for the personal lives of our leaders being none of our business or at least the relational lives of our leaders.  Once the cat was out of the bag, though, with reference to President Clinton’s involvement with an intern, people could not help but respond, and I can’t think of anybody who defended the President’s behavior. I can think of many people who agreed with me, and I don’t often have that experience, that the news flash was not our business and had no impact on President Clinton’s ability to be an effective leader. Of course, I say that aware of people here and elsewhere who didn’t and don’t think Clinton was an effective president.  If Clinton were to run for office of some sort again, you absolutely can bet your bottom dollar that the Lewinsky connection would continue to come up in news reporting and campaign debating, not to mention in the political speeches of opponents. This is true although similar activities we’re going on it and around the White House with other presidents long before anyone ever heard the name “Bill Clinton.”
I was painfully disappointed with the behavior of Mrs. Dole during her run for the North Carolina Senate seat. What she chose to make an issue was the religious commitments of her opponent, Kay Hagan, who ended up winning, and she may have ended up the winner because a number voters were disgusted with Mrs. Dole’s accusations, which were blatant lies, that her opponent was an atheist. It should be perfectly all right for atheists be elected to office in this country, and I think it’s going to take that to break the power of the religious right trying to erase the separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state, causing them to believe and behave in ways that are in their minds God’s will.
If you keep up with politics away from Delaware and Capitol Hill you certainly knew about this contest and that the dignified, compassionate Elizabeth Dole allowed her supporters to have her calling her opponent, who is a person of faith and very active in her church by the way, an atheist.  Part of their rationale was that Jesse Helms made an art of lying that kept him in his Senate seat for a surprising number of years.
Religion as a point of contention in politics is still ever present.  Kennedy the Catholic. Lieberman the Jew. Romney the Mormon. Jimmy Carter the born-again southern Christian incapable of understanding a world outside Plains, Georgia.  I nonetheless salute Jimmy Carter as the president in my years of voting with the highest consistent degree of integrity before, during, and after his term.
Religion should not be a part of the campaign and should not be a part of how we deal with the opposition, but there are contingencies.   Kennedy’s opponents and the undecided voters in that election were not sure to what degree Kennedy would allow the pope or the bishops and archbishops closer to home, well-connected to his family, to influence him and call the shots because of the strict hierarchical nature of that religious movement. People naturally wondered what kinds of special devotion and additional support Lieberman would be arranging for Israel because he is a Jew. Most people know very little about Mormons except that Donnie and Marie Osmond are in that camp.  I don’t know exactly what to make of Mormons; there isn’t just one kind of Mormon.  Perhaps people know that one time it was legal for Mormon men to have multiple wives. In most places that is not legal any longer. This not to say that the practices have been given up altogether. Romney has only one wife as far as we know.  I’m more concerned about the branch of Mormonism fixated on the end of the world and the life beyond for Mormons only.  I don’t know where the Governor stands on that.
We have moved from cultures that literally saw political opponents killed to a culture in which we kill with words and do so proudly if it helps our woman or our man get into office.  Giving up the murder of opponents is a step in the right direction to be sure, but the truth is still lost in the confusion.  Ultimately, all that can matter is the truth.
Amen.

Amenhotep II and the Creative Use of Foreigners (NEW SERMON SERIES, Sermon One in “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

Amenhotep II and the Creative Use of Foreigners (NEW SERMON SERIES, Sermon One in “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”).

Amenhotep II and the Creative Use of Foreigners (NEW SERMON SERIES, Sermon One in “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

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I.
     David Weissbrodt is the Special Rapporteur on Non-Citizens at the United Nations.  The following statement is his:  “The architecture of international human rights law is built on the premise that all persons, by virtue of their essential humanity, should enjoy all human rights.”  It’s a noble sentiment and a grand goal; Amnesty International, however, believes that our country, among several, is falling short when it comes to upholding the human rights of immigrants.  In a very recent report by Amnesty International, the following observations were made, and I am quoting verbatim from the report:

 

  • Recent immigration policy in certain border areas has pushed undocumented immigrants into using dangerous routes through the US desert; hundreds of people die each year as a result.
  • Immigration enforcement in the USA is a federal responsibility. Federal immigration officials are increasingly working in collaboration with state and local law enforcement agencies but improper oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling.
  • Increasingly, state laws and local policies are creating barriers to immigrants accessing their basic human rights, including rights to education and essential health care services. While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting US citizen children.
  • Recent legislation enacted or proposed in several states targets immigrant communities and places them, Indigenous communities and other minority communities at risk of discrimination.
  • Immigrant communities also face a range of barriers to justice when they are victims of crime such as human trafficking, domestic violence or bias crimes.

 

     Though it wasn’t planned this way, given the reality of how much work immigrants do for this country, not their own, a sermon related to them seems perfectly in order.  I guess we’ll see soon enough if my assumption is correct.
     One of our citizens recently said this to a reporter:  “I don’t want my kids picking fruit, mowing other people’s lawns, or working as chauffeurs for the wealthy so I think there’s a place for immigrants here.”  What a humanitarian!
     Some of those who decry the receiving of any immigrants have the sense that letting a few in, only lays the foundations for what eventually will us overtaken by floods of foreigners.  The numbers don’t seem to support such fears.
     In the last ten years, according to CNN reporter John Cookson, an average of 700,000 people each year became naturalized US citizens.  That’s about one immigrant each year per 500 residents.  If you’re a clock watcher, then you would want to know that we add a legal immigrant to our rolls every 79 seconds.  In the 1990s, the annual average was an addition of 500,000 legal immigrants annually.  In the 1980s it was 200,000 annually. Because of population growth, however, the change in how many legal immigrants we have received has grown from 0.1% annually to 0.2%.
     For many years, most legal immigrants came from Mexico followed by new citizens originally from India, the Philippines, and China. Gradually, Asia has become the leading region of origin though most of us who worry about immigration still think the Mexicans are about to overtake us.
     Governor Romney’s staff has outlined his perspectives on the subject of immigration.  Here are the points he stresses:

1) Securing our borders is the number one priority for immigration policy.
2) Those who have come into the US illegally should not be given amnesty or an easier pathway to citizenship that puts them ahead of those who followed all the rules to have their requests considered by the proper authorities.
3) An employer verification system is an absolute necessity if we are going to be certain that available jobs are not given to illegal immigrants.
4) Illegal immigrants should be required to return to their home country.
5) Giving tuition breaks to the children of illegal immigrants cannot be tolerated.
6) Federal funding for cities that function as “sanctuary cities” should be reduced.
7) The United States needs to be made more appealing to legal immigrants.
8) Ending illegal immigration strengthens legal immigration.

 

     In fairness, I must now tell you something that President Obama has said on the same subject; otherwise, the IRS could accuse me of using my pulpit to encourage my congregants to vote for the candidate I personally endorse in which case they have the authority to fine me and deny the church its nonprofit status.  They are serious about such crackdowns and have called out a handful of churches; shockingly, all of the outspoken pastors cited and fined had spoken against Bush the younger while he ran for a second term.  By the way, not a word of warning has ever been uttered against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which constantly lobbies political leaders and tells Roman Catholics which candidates to support.
     Anyway, I’m not going to cost Silverside it’s nonprofit status so here’s a statement from our Commander in Chief, but not the one that got him the most praise as well as condemnation this week:
quote from the President:

Our failure to act responsibly on immigration at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others.  And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.  I’ve instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation. But if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.

 

 

 

II.
    There are many favored stories from the life of the Hebrew, Joseph, and chances are that more people in modern times learned about Joseph from one of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals than from their Bibles.  It was a high-powered production with lots of heart and a fine story line, pretty much following the biblical chronicle–including use of the flawed description of Joseph’s prized clothing item (in some translations of the book of Genesis) that has a key part in the plot.  
    Many of us learned as children from our Bible stories or as adults from Sir Andrew that the piece of clothing Joseph loved most, a gift of favoritism from his father, Jacob, was a coat of many colors–thus, the name of Sir Andrew’s rendition of the pivotal biblical story, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”  Alas, the coat was not multicolored.  The coat was not multicolored, but long-sleeved.  This was a lovely gift from father to the son who worked in the house rather than out in the fields under the relentless sun.  Truthfully, Weber, brilliant person and musician that he is, might well have known the biblical story was about the gift of a long-sleeved coat, but if you’re going to try to sell tickets on Broadway and in London’s West End, what musical title is going to draw in larger crowds–“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” or “Joseph and his Long-Sleeved Coat”?  Well, the answer is clear.
    Still the biblical story is about, in part, a special closeness between father Jacob and two of his twelve sons, the youngest two, Joseph and Benjamin, and particularly the strong connection between Joseph and his father recognized materially, before the eyes of many jealous brothers, with this long-sleeved coat that said as a symbol, “Joseph may not work outside and raise crops and livestock to feed us give us products to sell at market, but he keeps the household going; and we all benefit greatly from a well dusted home and healthy meals on the table day in and day out.”  
    Eventually, Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave traders and told their heart-broken father that he’d been mauled, then eaten by a wild animal.  Joseph ends up in Egypt, foreign but eventually fair-haired boy of the Pharaoh, and he moves up the ladder of success and responsibility until he is the powerful nation’s chief financial officer.  When there is a drought in his homeland, his father sends some of his brothers to Egypt to negotiate or beg for food, whatever it took.  They did both before an official whom they didn’t know to be their own flesh and blood, their brother whom they’d wished dead–a humorous and poignant episode.   
     From all indications, it was the brothers of Joseph going into Egypt originally to get food for their families and taking it back to Canaan who eventually decided to stop the back and forth thing  and stay in Egypt. From all indications Egypt welcomed Joseph’s family members certainly in part because Joseph himself had been a model legal immigrant.
     There they stayed, and there they flourished.  Over the years there were many persons of Hebrew origin living and working in Egypt. And for the longest time the Egyptians, including their Pharaoh, believed that the Hebrews were a fine addition to Egyptian communities and the nation’s economy.
    Finally, one day when, as the biblical writer tells the story, a Pharaoh came to power who knew not Joseph. When this new Pharaoh came to power, the Hebrews frightened him.  He did not know about the reason that they had initially come into Egypt. He did not know why they they had been given positions of responsibility and authority.  All he could see was a day coming when there would be more Hebrews than Egyptians in the land. He feared that the Hebrews would take charge and require the Egyptians to become subservient to the Hebrews. The only solution he could come up with was to beat them to the punch.
     Significant numbers of Egyptians were not favor of this change.  This would have been tough for several reasons.  One, their friends were Hebrews.  Second, their children had married Hebrews so they had Hebrew in-laws and grandchildren.  Third, few Egyptians failed to recognize the countless positive contributions the Hebrews had made.  Four, the Pharaoh’s policies would undo a way of living that had done away with racism and cause it to hit full blown.
     We are not talking democracy here, though.  Of course, the Pharaoh’s wishes were enforced.  Suddenly, the most highly regarded Hebrew scholars in universities were sent into the fields to make and tote huge bricks for the Egyptian building programs; life was turned upside down.  Only the Pharaoh was pleased with life as it evolved into what he had demanded.
     They are more problems than anyone can count when trying to identify the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The Exodus was the escape from Egypt by the Hebrews who detested the conditions of slavery that they endured so long because of the Pharaoh’s hunger for power and/or his paranoia. After suffering for years at the Pharaoh’s hand Moses shows up as the leader appointed by God to bring the people of Israel, that is the Hebrews, out of Egypt to lead them to a place they will eventually know full freedom, though not permanently.  
     It doesn’t really matter to the value of the story to know exactly which of several pharaohs was the one who determined that the most creative use non-citizens was to enslave them.  A good candidate, though, is Pharaoh Amenhotep II.  What a place history has reserved for him!

 

 

 

III.
          I’m sure you’ve heard from various sources that one of fates of female illegal aliens in this country is sexual abuse or sexual enslavement.  I saw the following paragraph in the Huffington Post:

Globally, more than 100,000,000 women live outside the country of their birth, more than double the number in 1960. Migrant women face additional barriers to access to justice for violence committed against them, including lack of awareness about local laws and procedures, language and cultural differences, geographic isolation from authorities and services, fear of retaliation against family members in their home countries, and discrimination by law enforcement authorities. For migrant women who lack authorization to live and work in their country of residence, the possibility of deportation can be manipulated by abusers to trap them in violent relationships and insure their silence.

 

     Years ago, I was visiting with a friend in Galveston, Texas. He was taking me out to see the Strand, which was Galveston’s area for artsy types, the place you went to see stage productions, the work of artists of all sorts including photographers and potters, and so on.  Almost to Galveston, still aboard the ferry with Jhoel’s SUV as I recall, we realized that there was a commotion just ahead of us, and when we got close enough to see what was going I immediately became sick to my stomach.  
     The border police had intercepted some kind of small boat filled with illegal immigrants. The ones they were dealing with in our sight were all male so either all the passengers on this boat were men or else women were being dealt with at some other nearby area. There probably were 25-30 men, not a huge group, and they were corralled in a grassy area pretty much surrounded by border police. Each of these men was in handcuffs, and apparently the police gave them the option of being in either of two positions while they waited for who knows how long to be put in jail.  The men could either lie on their stomachs with their faces more or less in the grass, or they could be up as far as to be on their knees.  
     I thought how humiliating and frightening this was for them. I knew nothing about the situation, and I realized then as I realize now, that they might have been very dangerous criminals, perhaps people trying to smuggle dangerous weapons into our country or people working somewhere along the drug link.  The visual was enough to create a permanent impression in my consciousness, and I was aware that even if these were dangerous, many who were not dangerous–those seeking asylum or those seeking food like the Hebrews risking their lives going into Egypt in search of food–were often treated in the same manner since the border police have no way of knowing initially who is harmless and who would do us harm.

 

So, did you know that Canada has more foreign-born nationals than we do? And Australia has more immigrants than we do? Those societies have become, in 10 to 15 years, genuinely pluralistic, diverse, immigrant societies. And here’s the kicker: They have figured out a way to do immigration right, where they take smart, hardworking, talented people whom their economy needs.

 

Non-citizens do not have to become our servants or people we use for our pleasure.  They shouldn’t be moved to the bottom of the list of those who could be considered for citizenship if they can’t do anything for us, even if they are skill-less.
     Did the writer of the book of Leviticus understand the words attributed to God correctly?

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

     Jesus most certainly had immigrants in mind when he used the word “stranger” in his teachings.  For example, he once praised people who lived in a morally upright manner without any real awareness of it.  They told Jesus that they appreciated his words of praise, but that they didn’t think they’d done anything out of the ordinary.  Jesus insisted that they had, and they wanted to know how.  This is what he told them:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  Whatever you did for any struggler, without knowing it, you were doing it for me.