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Stars and Stripes Forever?

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Jul 02

Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

What we wouldn’t give for a “light” burden these days, an easy yoke. So many burdens seem so very heavy. The news all around us is terrifying. Politicians bandy about aspects of legislation that could mean illness, disability, and a hastened death for way too many Americans. Violence in our neighborhoods endangers our safety and security. Fiscal issues threaten both rich and poor, though in very different ways. We worry about the environment, weather, and climate change. News bytes wreak havoc on our sanity, while trolling and anonymity bring out the worst in people. Our country is at a crossroads. In all our 241 years, has it ever been this bad? As we approach our annual 4th of July festivities this year, we wonder: maybe our stars and stripes aren’t forever?

It is good to be here together this morning. As many of you know, my list of responsibilities ebbs and flows, with what is needed for our ministry as it changes from year to year. For the past several months, I have been holed up in the basement, literally, with the extra recordkeeping that our Capital Campaign has entailed. It is an exciting time – a time of change, or letting go of the way it has been for a long time, to make way for something new. Today, as our building changes, we also shift into summer mode for real – 10am worship, which I see that you all remembered, our pick-up choir, lemonade on the lawn, and robe-free clergy. It is good to do things differently, whether for a season, or from year to year. It helps us see how things change, and how they stay the same.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by a colleague to a gathering to talk about how parish ministry had changed in the last 60 years. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of his ordination, back in 1957. It was a fascinating discussion, especially since I was ordained 30 years ago this August. My colleague’s ordination process consisted of an M.Div. from HDS, a summer reading list of several books, and a meeting with a more senior colleague. Quite a contrast with the long list of requirements for those who are currently preparing for ministry – the process can take several years, with hundreds of hours of clinical pastoral education, multiple meetings with Committees on Ministry, psychological evaluations, an ordination paper and finally an ecclesiastical council. We may be more thoroughly vetted, but are the extra requirements helpful? What do we learn about ministry, and how do we learn it?

We also talked about the electronic innovations that have changed the way we communicate and make decisions. We talked about the needs of our parishioners, and the involvement of leaders in our congregations. And we talked about how things have stayed the same: listening to each other is more important than ever.

Hillary Clinton said much the same when she spoke to Wellesley’s graduating Class of 2017 a few weeks ago. When she and Lindsay Miller graduated from Wellesley in 1969, they were angry. They didn’t trust the government, and were protesting a war they didn’t believe in. Civil rights protests were erupting, and environmental issues loomed large. Hillary told this year’s graduates that the Class of 1969 and the Class of 2017 had something in common. She said: you didn’t create this world that you are graduating into – but you have the chance to change it. Get involved, she advised them. Pay attention to the issues. Talk with people you disagree with – and listen to them, really listen. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. After all, she reminded them, she was speaking to them as the former President of the Wellesley Young Republicans.

How do we do this? How do we strike up a conversation with those we disagree with? In these recent days of fear and division, if you’re like me, you alternate between checking the news, to try to keep up with what the administration or congress or the Senate is proposing or seeking to change, and trying to find a way to escape it. Often, we are tempted to grab a blanket and head to the beach to lose ourselves in a good book, or play games with our kids or grandkids, or even clean the basement, just so that we can ignore what is going on. The division in our country is as significant as it has been in most of our lifetimes, and many of us have barricaded ourselves into our positions, so much so that we have no idea how anyone could possibly support any aspect of the other side. While we may each have different priorities, or even different American values, I think we can agree that we are witnessing a very different way to do government. Some of us are relieved – and some are terrified.

I recently had the chance to talk with a friend who welcomes this change of government, feeling strongly, in her words, that people shouldn’t have so much of their hard-earned money taken by the government to give to other people. While I might frame the issue as favoring individual and corporate wealth over essential public spending -- a clean and safe environment, supporting families, access to health care and education, voting rights, women’s rights, and civil rights – others see it as reigning in out-of-control government expense and regulations.

Another friend spoke of visiting friends who are ranchers in Wyoming. They own a hundred acres, but due to EPA regulations, can’t allow their own cattle to graze on their own land, and instead have to rent different land. To them, the EPA regulations have threatened their family’s way of life. Others see it as protecting public resources, keeping the water supply clean for others. When are local decisions adequate, and when are federal rules needed? Whose interests prevail when land is privately owned? What interest does the public have? How do we find a way to begin to discuss this?

I feel as though over the past few decades, we’ve watched our society’s pendulum swing from the collective community of the post-WWII era to the individualized opportunities of the computer age. We’ve become focused on meeting our own needs, taking care of ourselves, and believing that if everyone would just take care of themselves, that we’d all be okay. We’ve gotten out of the habit of building community, getting together with neighbors, and mixing with people who have different opinions. Remember the book Bowling Alone? Membership in bowling leagues has plummeted, but we’re bowling more frames than ever. We’re in touch with more people through social media and dozens of cable channels, but our connections are more shallow, or hidden behind anonymity.

I feel like we need to work on building community, and although I don’t think it was his intention, our new President has provided the incentive for many to do just that. That is why I have hope these days – people are leaving their isolated homes and venturing out to gather and figure out how to work together for the things they believe are important. People are reaching out to neighbors or to people they meet in public. Blue state residents calling and talking to red state family and friends. But we’re going to have to do more than just talk about how we agree. We’re going to have to talk about the differences in our understanding of the role of our local, state and federal government in our lives. How do we do that?

I don’t know about you, but I was actually comforted by this morning’s scripture.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Humanity came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

If people want to complain, you just can’t win. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So this isn’t new. Reading this, I could have gone either way: hopeless that this has been going on for 2000 years, or comforted that our problems aren’t new.

It reminds me of a friend whose church was complaining that she preached too much from the Bible. She had no idea where that was coming from – wasn’t that her job? -- until she read through some old church history … and found that the congregation had been complaining about the same thing about the preacher … for 300 years!

So, Jesus points out this same issue – but hear again the preceding verse:

'But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

Children know how to play. I remember when Drew was two or three years old. He and Linda were in Manhattan, waiting to cross a busy street. Linda was holding Drew’s hand, but there was a large puddle at the curb, so Linda said to Drew, when I say, “Jump”, you jump. Drew looked up at her smiling, like this was fun. The light turned green, Linda said, “Jump!” and Drew jumped … right into the puddle.

Busy people, hurrying through the marketplace, not reacting to what is happening in the world around them. Is there a connection? Is Jesus pointing out that when we miss the joy and sorrows of life, we risk turning into people who complain about everything, and who make no rational sense?

This week, my family and I are headed back to Minnesota to celebrate my dad’s life – which means I’ve been writing both this sermon and his memorial service. The connecting thread I’m finding is that my dad was a problem solver: Crossword puzzles, sudoku, fixing things, computer software installations, frozen pipes, whether that is a young hockey player’s tongue stuck to a goal post, or a frozen household pipe. When I took Dad on his first White Mountain hike, he designed a training program that involved climbing stairs at our high school athletic field.

Linda and I joke – well, it isn’t a joke – that if our friends call with a problem, and they want someone to listen to them, they ask for Linda. If they want to fix the problem, they ask for me. Like a good relationship, our country needs both right now, listening and problem-solving.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. These days are not easy. But these are the seeds of a new America, and they can be a turning point for our nation. I invite you to get involved. Invite others to join you. Listen to each other, and put yourself in their place. Feel the joys of life: of moonlight across the water, or the call of a cardinal, or the smile of a child. Risk sharing the sorrow, lifting the burden for a neighbor. May we reach out to one another and may we choose life and prosperity for our communities, for the world, and for our nation and its spacious skies and purple mountains majesty. Amen!

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