In retirement I have come to count on preaching on Memorial Day Sunday and Labor Day Sunday. Settled pastors don’t want to preach then. They may take a vacation day to be with their families. Members of the congregation often do the same, so attendance is down. That calls for a supply preacher. This year, though, congregations have asked me to provide pulpit supply on both Labor Day Sunday and the Sunday after that.
The Sunday after Labor Day Sunday this year is the 11th. It is the 15th anniversary of the murderous attack that incinerated thousands of people in New York–also the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of that other aircraft that was meant to attack Washington.
It also falls right at the beginning of the final run-up to this awful presidential election in the United States.
So what should I say on that day?
I avoid politics and culture-war rhetoric in the pulpit. I am a pastor in a mainline denomination. At every level above the local congregation these denominations often act like the religious arm of the Democratic Party in the US. At the same time many of the members are in sympathy with those denominations and independent churches that sometimes have acted like arms of the Republican Party. So we have what I have called blue churches and red churches. My own politics, both by family tradition and conviction, tends toward something center-right. But I have tried to keep it so that no one can tell from my preaching.
So I have no intention of directly addressing the election or even issues of war and peace that follow from the events of 15 years ago.
But I personally feel more alienated from this democracy than I have ever felt. I think many people also feel this way. Of course, there are the solid supporters of both candidates who do not see any moral equivalence between them at all. Their side is good and the other side is bad. But I am guessing that far more people than usual are just disgusted with the whole process and wish there was another way. Also I am feeling, and I think many people are feeling, pretty pessimistic about the future of America and the West.
I feel like I am in exile. This election has no chance of restoring me.
In that context, without directly mentioning the election and only speaking of 9/11 in terms of lamentation, I think people might find a sermon on Jeremiah 29:5-7 helpful. Those verses also address me and my pessimism. Those verses tell the exiles to:
‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and allow your daughters get married so that they too can have sons and daughters. Grow in number; do not dwindle away. 7 Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper’ (NET Bible).
Now Jeremiah himself usually seemed like a pessimist. Yet when the worst happened and the national hopes of his people were dashed, he gave a message more optimistic than what we feel today. He contemplates several generations before things change. So he says you should try to build up the society you are forced to live in, marry and have children, and join your own well-being to the well-being of the society around you.
Today some are for the Benedict Option. In theory this is not quite the same as withdrawing and separating from society (Although, in practice, I think it sometimes is. There is a division about this among the homeschooling parents that I know). Here is Rod Dreher explaining what he means by the Benedict Option: a strategic retreat.
No matter who wins this election many of us will feel even more alienated from government and those of our fellow citizens who voted for whichever horror gets elected. We may be tempted to opt out, to “go Galt” (a reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), to lash out at others and then retreat into disengagement.
The key for the exiles in Babylon was to accept their exile without falling into negativity. After the election, a majority of Americans will probably feel like they have been carried into captivity. Maybe Jeremiah gives us a way to think about that and to still understand the solidarity that makes an attack on New York City or a gay nightclub an attack on us all.
I do not think it means Christians just surrender to culture. The Book of Daniel, probably written at a later time, looks back on the Babylonian exile as a time when Daniel and his friends set an example of standing up for their values. I don’t think Jeremiah telling the exiles to marry meant they were supposed to find some ancient equivalent of OkCupid and match up with Babylonians.
Jews throughout history have tried to live in various cultures without losing their own unique heritage. So as I consider what I will say on the 11th, I am going to be meditating on this article by Samuel Goldman, which draws on the experience of diaspora Jews. Here are the practical suggestions:
First, internal exiles should resist the temptation to categorically reject the mainstream. That does not mean avoiding criticism. But it must be criticism in the spirit of common peace rather than condemnation. Jeremiah is famous as the etymological root of the jeremiad. Yet his most scathing criticisms are directed against his own people who have failed in their special calling of righteousness, not the “mainstream” culture.
Second, Jeremiah offers a lesson about the organization of space. Even though they were settled as self-governing towns outside Babylon itself, God encourages the captives to conduct themselves as residents of that city, which implies physical integration. There need be no flight to the hinterlands.
Finally, Jewish tradition provides a counterpoint to the dream of restoring sacred authority. At least in the diaspora, Jews have demanded the right to live as Jews—but not the imposition of Jewish law or practices on others.