There are a lot of reasons to be really down about the state of the world and of our country right now. It seems as though everyone is on edge, many people are angry all the time, and we are in the midst of enduring two political conventions whose sole purpose seems to be to try to artificially create some enthusiasm and positive momentum for two wildly unpopular presidential candidates. This concludes a year which began with the murders of the pastor and some members of Emmanuel Church in Charleston and has continued with tragedy after tragedy of killings by and of police officers and senseless mass murders around the globe. We are indeed in the midst of a long, hot summer, both literally and figuratively.
But this is not the first long, hot summer that America or the world has endured, so my first word to you today is probably not the one you are expecting to hear. Get over it! Quit letting these events paralyze you or keep you depressed or angry. When is the last time the flag wasn’t at half mast and Facebook wasn’t obsessed with the cause du jour, whether it be the French flag or the American flag or the police colors or whatever? We certainly need to be aware of these tragedies and prayerful about them, but we cannot allow ourselves to be obsessed with them. There are people around the world who literally have to fear a bombing or kidnapping at any moment or the possibility of starvation for themselves or their children.
Everybody likes to think that the arc of human history is toward the good. Every day in every way we are getting better. Well, that is baloney. Basic human nature has not changed. We are by nature sinful, tribal, clannish people who separate ourselves by race, religion, language, nationality, politics, and football. We are motivated by power, wealth, and land. If somebody hurts us our instinct is to want to hurt them back; if somebody takes something from us our instinct is that we want them punished. We can become different than this, but it doesn’t come naturally or easily. It comes through confession, humility, and submission to God.
It has only been 70 years since the atrocities of Hitler and the Holocaust. In America we have had slavery, the War Between the States, Reconstruction, lynchings and segregation. And then there was the year that was kicked off by the summer which was originally tagged the long, hot summer. It started when I was 12 years old, in 1967, and went through the summer of 1968. If you were alive you have probably blacked a lot of it out of your memory because it was such a painful and chaotic time.
During that period there were 159 race riots across America. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated two months apart. The Vietnam War continued to rage as did vehement disagreement over it in this country, the depth of which is hard to imagine for those who were not alive during that time. Then came the presidential campaigns. If ever there was a time to feel despair over the future of America, that was it, at least in my lifetime.
The Democratic convention took place in Chicago. Expecting protests, mostly about the war, Mayor Richard Daley assembled a formidable force of 23,000 law enforcement officers and national guard troops. The city refused to grant permits allowing people to protest legally, but 10,000 protestors gathered in Grant Park anyway. For the most part this was white protestors and white law enforcement officers. Things got very ugly, both inside and outside the convention hall. TV coverage went back and forth between the chaos within and the chaos without.
The nominations process was very different then and not at all dependent upon the system of state primaries we have now. The incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, dropped out of the race on March 31. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race and won the nomination despite not having been on the ballot in a single state primary. The final delegate vote at the convention included 1 ½ vote for Bear Bryant. Must have been Auburn fans trying to get him out of Tuscaloosa. The nominees of the parties that year were Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, so the choice 48 years ago wasn’t exactly stellar either.
The long, hot summer was a very low point – it felt as though everything was unraveling – but we survived. Eventually we lived into new civil rights laws and the era of desegregation and equal opportunity. We are not there yet by any means but we have come a long way. The Vietnam War came to a humbling end and we began the enormously difficult struggle to heal rifts in families, communities, churches, and society which this war had brought, plus the horrific experience of returning veterans from that war. Full healing from that war still eludes us in many ways.
So what we are experiencing in this, another long, hot summer is not new. If it seems worse it is because it is in our face constantly with the 24 hour cable news cycle, Facebook, and Twitter. If it seems bloodier it may be because unhappy people have a more deadly array of weapons available and it is much easier to be an isolated person today than then and options for how to deal with mentally ill persons seem to have regressed.
Anyway, the first thing I want to say to you is that Christians are called to be hopeful people, not because people are basically good but because God is in charge. It is virtually impossible to be a hopeful person while glued to a 24 hour cable news channel or by being overly attached to social media. So limit the amount of time you watch news or spend on social media. Cut out talk radio completely. I read news from several sources a couple of times a day and almost never watch it.
How can you use that time instead? Take long walks, listen to music, learn to knit or garden or do wood work. Take a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway or hike to a waterfall. Bake someone cookies or take a meal to someone who has been struggling. Volunteer at AIM or become a mentor at a school or help built houses with Habitat for Humanity. Read and study your Bible more. Do what your mother said and look for the best in people rather than the worst, and if you can’t find something good to say then don’t say anything. Especially on Facebook!
One of our big problems is that we put some people up on these tall pedestals and think that they by themselves can fix everything, and they come to believe it. And when we put them on the pedestal, some other people become determined to knock them off. We make everything into us versus them. But nothing gets solved, nothing gets fixed, until it is just us – all of us pulling toward a common goal. Politics, religion, school, law enforcement, all are the same. Success requires working for and desiring good for everyone, not just for oneself.
In today’s reading from the Old Testament, Belshazzar, king of Babylon during the time of the exile, threw a big party for a thousand of his lords. To add novelty to the party, he arrogantly sent his servants to bring out the silver and gold cups which had been looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. The king, his lords, his wives and concubines all drank wine merrily using these cups and praised their gods who they believed had placed them in this position.
Immediately King Belshazzar saw a hand writing words upon the wall in the room, and he was naturally terrified. He could not read the words, nor could his wise men. The queen reminded the king that Daniel had been able to interpret the dream of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, so Daniel was brought in. Daniel lectured Belshazzar for his arrogance and hubris and for not learning from his father’s mistake.
Daniel reminds him what had happened. Nebuchadnezzar had sacked Jerusalem and looted the Temple and carried off the exiles to Babylon, and he became puffed up with pride and self importance. Though he had all he needed, he built a huge golden statue and ordered that everyone bow down and worship it. He had a dream, and Daniel interpreted it to mean that because of his arrogance his kingdom would be taken from him and his mind would desert him and he would live in the wilderness eating grass like cattle. Daniel told him to practice righteousness and show mercy to the oppressed and he might be spared.
But within the year the king was walking on the palace roof and was again puffed up with pride. He said, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my power and for my glorious majesty?” And that did it. A voice from heaven declared the judgment, that his kingdom would be taken away and he would be driven out of human society.
And now Daniel lectures the son, Belshazzar, who learned nothing from his father’s story. He says, “And you, his son, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven!” And he told him the meaning of the Aramaic verbs which were written on the wall: mene, mene, tekel, and peres. The words mean “numbered,” “weighed,” and “divided.” Daniel interpreted them in this way: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.; your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Belshazzar died that very night, a quick fall from being the most powerful man in the region.
You have been weighed, you have been measured, you have been found wanting. Politicians, preachers, military leaders, police officers, members of the media, black, white, Indian, Hispanic, Asian, it fits us all. Of course every life matters. But not at the expense of anyone else’s life. People who follow Christ are called not to get caught up in the world’s dramas of blame, revenge, and power. We are called not to place ultimate hope in a human being, but in God. I can’t attribute this quote, but it is accurate: “I’m not as good as my supporters think I am or as bad as my enemies think I am.”
I’m pretty sure that as Jesus looks out over the world he still does a lot of weeping over the fact that we just can’t figure out how to be at peace. If the question Christians should ask themselves is, “What would Jesus do?”, I think the answers in light of current events are very easy to find but not at all what we want to do. Our human nature is so strong that makes us want to retaliate, to judge and condemn, to look out for our self interest.
But Jesus. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Forgive seven times? No, seventy times seven.” “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” “The first will be last and the last will be first. The least among you shall be the greatest.” All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what to do.” As hard as we try to rationalize these words away and say that’s not what he really means for us to do, we are left with the image of him carrying his cross to Calvary to offer his life for the sins of the world.
Perhaps the most frequent exhortation in the Bible is uttered in the most fearsome situations: “Do not be anxious. Do not be afraid.” My opening charge to you was, “Get over it! Quit obsessing over and being paralyzed by the bad things that happen and the depressing election choice.” My closing charge is, “Do not be afraid.” God goes with us. God will be with us through thick and thin, good and bad. Believe in God, even when he seems to be silent.
If you look, every day you can find reasons to hope. They are not likely to be found on the campaign trail. Maybe you saw the story of prisoners who broke out of their cell to save the life of their jailor, who was having a heart attack. Maybe you saw the picture of the white policeman carrying a small black child in a Black Lives Matter protest. Maybe you saw the black police chief of Dallas saying that if you are upset with the way law enforcement is being done, come down and apply because we are hiring and we will send you to your neighborhood to make a difference. Maybe you heard Senator Tim Scott courageously tell his story of being profiled over and over, even though it didn’t fit the narrative expected of him. Maybe you yourself have been especially mindful of being kind and respectful and patient with people of other races or police officers or someone who doesn’t think like you do politically. These are all reasons for hopefulness. Let’s all pay attention to the handwriting on the wall and be determined to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:3-11)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 24, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson, SC