Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last week, in our Episcopal church, the prayers of the people began with these two petitions:
Let us pray for the Church and for the world.
Grant, Almighty God, that who confess your name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world.
Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.
(Followed by a short period of silence, and then: “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”)
How does praying as the church, the holy people of God, united as one, inform our ability to pray for justice and peace in the nation?
The passage from Jeremiah in this week’s lectionary addresses not only where Israel seeks security, but its very identity as God’s chosen. In the book, Chosen Nation, Braden Anderson argues that Jeremiah, writing in the time of King Josiah’s reforms, was embroiled in a battle over competing interpretations of the Davidic covenant. One side makes Israel’s security into its god. The institution of kingship, by which Israel hoped to be “like the other nations,” is given a blanket affirmation. Israel’s protection is to be provided by its own creations.
The other side understands kingship in relation to the more basic covenant at Sinai. Here, Israel is constituted as a people by the memory of the One who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that God might consecrate them to Himself, a people separated out by holiness. Unlike the nations who secure themselves through treaties and kings, Yahweh is Israel’s protector and king.
For Anderson, the concern of prophets like Jeremiah for a proper understanding of Israel’s covenant indicates that the identity of the church, engrafted onto Israel in Jesus Christ, is “theopolitical.” His argument links our weekly worship to Jeremiah’s concerns for Israel’s covenant. If we are to avoid making the church simply derivative of the nation, we must pray for the nation as the church, holy and catholic. If we are to live out our prayer for the peace of the nations, our own nation in this case, we must do so in such a way that our distinctive “theopolitics” makes a difference.
Let me offer two examples of the church attempting to live out its prayer for the nation’s peace, asking “which of these truly embodies our theopolitical identity?’”
First, a few days ago, a small town nearby had their end of summer festival. I stood with my wife and daughters on the side of a the road as a parade of community organizations marched or drove by, tossing candies and chips to children standing ready with open shopping bags. It was a true celebration of community efforts and social solidarity. One by one, they marched by: the Lions Club, the school marching band, the farmer’s co-op, a string of private owners of antique tractors polished and running beautifully—each, in its own way, proclaiming the deserved pride of the paraders. A semi trailer owned by the Frito-Lay Company, located a few miles outside of town, especially exemplified the beneficence of the parading organizations, adding vast quantities of corn and potato chips to the rain of candy falling upon the crowd.
Somewhere in the mix of these organizations, came marching the body of Christ, in the form of a contingent from a local church. Clad in bright new T-shirts bearing the church’s name (apparently non-denominational), insignia, and a bible verse, they too exercised their beneficence by handing out small bags of pretzels labeled with their info and a bible verse.
A second example comes from a video documentary I used to show to college students about Jean Vanier and the community called “L’Arche” he founded in Trosly, France. The L’Arche house in Trosly became a home for disabled men and women previously living in asylums and with families struggling to take care of them. (For those new to L’Arche, a brief description its history can be found here )
Vanier noted that, when he first brought the disabled out in the community, “it may have been too fast,” as some residents responded with fear. Gradually, however, neighbors came to accept their presence in the community. The documentary displays this vividly when it shows the men and women of L’Arche participating in an annual town festival. Wearing party hats, tooting toy trumpets, mimicking the high stepping form of the marching band, the elation of the disabled men and women is palpable. They seem to embody the spirit of town’s celebration.
Which of these examples truly incarnates our prayer for justice and peace in the land? What form should the church’s presence take? In the first example, I suggest, the body of Christ mimics (though not with irony or fun) the form of presence of the community organizations and corporations. Like them, they display their organizing skills, initiative and entrepreneurial savvy. Their form of presence says, “Like you (but perhaps in a deeper, ‘spiritual’ way) we are prepared to make positive contributions to civic life. We have incorporated your most effective traits, and (with our Bible verses) can account for the metaphysical ground of your celebration.”
L’Arche in the town festival, on the other hand, is a distinctive—though not contrary—presence. They make society’s marginalized and oppressed visible. Not only is their presence significant for the community, but their deep capacities for joy and celebration point to a distinctive source of life. As Vanier articulates, the capacities for joy in the disabled have their roots, not in self-confidence, but in the immediacy of their dependence. Vanier describes this as a profound cry for friendship—the friendship of other people and of God.
Which of these examples truly incarnates our prayer for justice and peace in the land—the display of our effectiveness as citizens, or our vulnerability (and joy) displayed visibly?