July 22, 2012



Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 22 July 2012

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Reading from the Psalter:                                 Psalm 23


It was an exciting time to be a seminarian when I went through the process fifty years ago.  The Dead Sea Scrolls had recently been unearthed and much of what they contained was being made public.  Out of the sands of the Sahara Desert were coming documents of the New Testament era and the very early days of the church from an old monastery at a place called Nag Hamadi.  We were the first generation of students exposed to the contents of this literature and it afforded us valuable insights into the Palestine of Jesus’ day and the way the teachings, doctrines and creeds of the Church evolved.  And there were occasions when our tutors and lecturers had to unlearn what they had learned in seminary when they had been students.

And something else was becoming available to English-speaking theological students.  The Second World War had ended less than two decades earlier, and in that period German theologians of all traditions had been battling with their own consciences to come to an understanding of why so much of the German Churches had supported Nazi-ism.  A similar exercise was going on among European Roman Catholic theologians as to why their Church had been sympathetic and even supportive of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain.  At the time it had been easy enough to do what they had thought was the teaching of Holy Scripture – that rulers were to be obeyed because they held a mandate from God.  The same issue arose among American Christians in the 1970s around the time that the Watergate scandals broke out and revealed what had been going on in the Executive Branch of Government in Washington, D.C.  Many devout Episcopalians, which in those days often meant card-carrying members of the Republican Party, were aghast at the thought that they had been instrumental in electing someone who had to resign his office in disgrace.

These days we wonder why the churches, including and especially the mainstream churches, have diminishing memberships, and that is true on both sides of the Atlantic and in all languages, and I would like to suggest that, at least in part, it is perhaps due to a reaction on the part of the younger generation of the 1950s and ’60s to that blind acceptance by their parents and grandparents of what their rulers said, while ignoring what their rulers were doing.

The sad thing is that devout, Bible-loving churchgoers do not always read their Bibles, and when they do they read only those passages that are reminders of their childhood.  Yet the Bible has many reminders that just because a ruler rules, that does not mean he (or she) rules in the way that God would have a ruler govern.

Our first reading this morning is a case in point, but it is by no means unique.  Here we have Jeremiah, who lived and worked close on six hundred years before the earthly ministry of Jesus, uttering words of the harshest criticism against the rulers of his day.  What he said is translated into English words that sound comparatively gentle to our ears, but that amounted to a Divine curse in the Hebrew of ancient Israel.  To pronounce “Woe” on someone was the opposite of pronouncing “Blessing”.  We might quaintly say, “Oh woe is me”, but what we are really saying is that I am cursed by God!  So when Jeremiah begins this prophecy with the words, “Woe to the shepherds” he is pronouncing divine condemnation and punishment upon the rulers of Israel.

As the prophecy continues, Jeremiah declares that the Lord will raise up a righteous Branch, one who will reign as a king, who will deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness, so that the people will live in safety.  We might think of this as a job description for a ruler, and how few rulers have lived up to that job description.  As we look at the world, anywhere in the world, and at any time in world history, we must acknowledge that few rulers, be they of royal hereditary descent or elected of the people (or, even, nominated for election by the people) have governed by these criteria.  Yet if a ruler in exercising government fails to do so by these criteria, then the pronouncement upon that ruler is “Woe!”  They are accursed by the Lord because they are governing in a way other than that which the Lord directs, and, therefore, they are setting themselves up in opposition to the Lord.  And that means that the people of God are not bound to obey them; indeed they are called to disobey them, since the Lord God has said that we should place no god, let alone a man, before him in our loyalties.

That was the dilemma that confronted many Christians in the Germany of the 1930s as they saw an apparent saviour of the German nation rise to power.  But German Christians are not unique in this regard in our times.  Christians chose to serve in high office in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and one of the recently slain leaders of Bashar al-Assad’s governing clique in Syria was a Christian. 

And the terrible thing is that some of the worst dictators of the twentieth century in Africa, the Americas and Europe have been practising Christians.  One of these was a man who ordered the press to publish prominently on the front page of their Monday editions each week pictures of him attending church, and who directed television stations to make that event the number one topic of their Sunday evening newscasts.  We lived for a while in a country where the church-going president ordered that his name be the first words uttered in any newscast on radio or television!  Such demands are on a par with the kings of the Old Testament lands who caused statues of themselves to be erected at which everyone should do obeisance – and the word for that is idolatry.

So how is the ordinary disciple of the Lord to behave?  If we are not to give obeisance and obedience to earthly rulers who take unto themselves too much power and authority and the trappings and the affluence that goes along with that power and authority, what is it that we are called to do?  Oddly enough, it involves taking heed of one of the best-loved passages of Holy Scripture, the twenty-third psalm.  The words of this psalm are so well-beloved and we say them or sing them with such a warm glow in our hearts and minds, that we do not even notice just how strong a political statement they are, and in some circumstances how totally subversive they are.  

The English translation begins, “The LORD is my shepherd” and that conjures up in our minds a romantic rural scene.  The Latin version begins, “Dominus regit me”, “The Lord is my king” or, even, “The Lord rules me.”  The Greek version, created by Greek-speaking Jews, has it that the Lord treats me as does a shepherd.  And the Hebrew, from which all the other translations and versions come, describes the Lord with a word the basic meaning of which is husband – the Lord is my husband!  One might wonder, if David did in fact compose these verses, given that he had several wives, whether what we find in these verses is a description of how he treated his wives and their children.  Incidentally, I just wonder how many wives would say that the words of the twenty-third psalm might describe how they are treated by their husbands. 

But the twenty-third psalm goes on to give what might be called a job-description for a ruler.  He provides me with safe shelter and a constant supply of water.  He boosts my confidence and morale while leading me safely to where he knows I should be.  Even in the most serious bouts of sickness and disease he sees to it that I have all I need.  He makes sure that I have more than enough to eat and drink, and finally he treats me with absolute justice and fairness.  For such a king I will show constant loyalty and will be true to him for ever.  That is to express the twenty-third psalm in more modern language.  Very few, very, very few rulers have lived up to this standard down through the ages, and very, very few governments and rulers today can be said to come anywhere near this standard – even those who like to proclaim that they are directed by the will of God.

It does not take much courage to utter such words of loyalty to the Lord God as we find in the twenty-third psalm within the safety and sanctuary of a place of Christian or Jewish worship in this country.  But imagine saying those words at a public rally in a country living under a dictatorship – or even in some parts of this country.  Imagine saying them as the armed forces of the government train their rifles on you, or the batons of the riot police rain down on your head.  Imagine saying them while undergoing excruciating torture, and men and women have done just that, even in our own lifetime, even members of our Anglican Communion.  “I give my loyalty to God.”

For most of us, living in Port St Lucie, Florida, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is comparatively easy to be a witness to Christ, but most people who worship for an hour or so on a Sunday morning fail to witness to the righteousness and justice of the Lord God to whom we have prayed and offered praise during the rest of Sunday or the rest of the week.  Yet failure to do so may lead, without our being aware of it, to what happened eighty years ago across Western Europe.   Being one who mouths the words of the twenty-third psalm means living out the sort of life Jeremiah spoke about in our first reading, a life of dealing wisely with each other, practising justice and righteousness towards one another.  Only so are we entitled to claim that the Lord is my shepherd.

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