In the beginning, I don’t think America, or the United States, was a nation. I think it was an idea, and then a movement. I mean, it was many things. For some it was an untapped reservoir of resources to be collected and shipped back to Europe. For others it was a chance to improve their lot in life. For many it was the best option out of a field of bad options. For some it was no option at all, but the destination point after a long journey across the middle passage. But it wasn’t first a nation, it was an idea and then a movement toward something new for those who came – and it was the imposition of something new, by and large quite deadly, upon those who were already here.
This weekend the United States celebrates its 235th birthday. That’s pretty old, if you’re a person. That’s pretty young if you’re England, or Rome, or one of those giant redwood trees in Muir Woods out in California, that live to be over a thousand years old. Like all of the above, and like us, the United States is getting older, and one day will die.
It’s strange to think of it in those terms, isn’t it? You don’t think of a country dying, but they do, all of them, at some point. The Soviet Union, dead. The Holy Roman Empire, dead. Mesopotamia, way dead. Empires, like corporations these days, like to think of themselves as “too big to fail.” That didn’t work out so well for Lehman Brothers though, did it? In economies ruled by capital and self-interest, the potential for revolution is always brewing just under the surface, waiting for conditions to become just right for wealth and power to be captured and transferred. Empires are built on self-interest, using power to consolidate power, until power and wealth become their own ends, an unsustainable fantasy, which then collapses and things fall apart.
And we know this, we Americans living in the backwash of the Great Recession and ten years into the war in Afghanistan. Unemployment remains high, consumer confidence remains low, home values are still falling in many places while foreclosures strike block after block. The national debt is soaring, right along with food prices and gas prices. The state of Minnesota’s government has shut down, and the US Senate has cancelled its recess next week to continue debates over raising the debt ceiling and lowering the deficit.
What I’m saying is, this is a rough birthday for the United States. Like turning forty for some people, this is one of those birthdays we might prefer to just stay in bed and wait for it all to be over. Not in the mood to sing “Happy Birthday,” or “the Star Spangled Banner,” or “America, the Beautiful.”
The mood was not so different among the people of Israel in the time of Zechariah, after the exile as the nation was trying to rebuild, a project fueled by foreign capital from Persia. Taken as a whole, the book of Zechariah is filled with a mixture hope that the nation can be rebuilt, and a call for the nation’s politics to line up with God’s politics.
There, I said it: it’s about politics, as is much of the bible. It’s about God’s people, God’s prophets, God’s whole creation rising up, speaking truth to power, remembering the source of all goodness and life, and demanding that life be more humane for more humans.
Specifically, in the passage we hear from Zephaniah this morning, God’s prophet imagines a nation setting aside war to create the kind of prosperity that comes from working with each other instead of against each other. Zephaniah imagines an entirely different kind of ruler than the one they’ve come to expect when he cries out,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to (and we might add, “shining”) sea.
These words are familiar to us, aren’t they? In fact, it’s kind of a beautiful coincidence that we are hearing them together this morning since we are usually together on Palm Sunday, when this passage is also traditionally read. This image of the kind of leadership God imagines for the world, non-violent leadership, humble leadership, peacemaking leadership, is the image of leadership we see in Jesus as he moves among the people and teaches in parables and miracles the meaning of the kingdom of God come near.
The kingdom of God is not simply a spiritual ideal, it’s a vision for how we are called to live with one another here and now. Zechariah and Jesus aren’t describing life beyond the pearly gates, they’re imagining life together on the firm ground of the present. They are not strategizing the sort of revolution that moves power and wealth from one group of elites to another, or one country to the next. They are calling for a world organized around something other than self-interest, something like love.
This is why the psalmist is able to sing,
They shall tell of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your power,
that all the people may know of your power
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom;
your dominion endures throughout all ages.
You, LORD, are faithful in all your words,
and loving in all your works.
The LORD upholds all those who fall
and lifts up those who are bowed down.
It is precisely because the reign of God is built on love, and not self-interest; because it upholds the interests of those who have fallen, and not just those left standing; that we can place our hopes in it, that we can labor toward it.
And we do labor towards it. We, Americans, are working toward the good – just as the Cubans and the Venezuelans and the Afghanis and the Iraqis are working toward the good. Bracket for just a moment the names of the leaders of those nations (and our own). I’m not talking about US presidents or the Castros or Hugo Chavez or Hamid Karzai or Jalal Talabani. I’m talking about the people of these nations, people like you and me. We are all laboring toward the good, imperfectly. We are working our jobs and raising our kids and building community and trying to take care of each other, imperfectly, but the best we can. It’s universal.
And we are not perfect. We are laboring toward the good, in the limited ways that we each know how. We manage to get a lot right, and we continue to get a lot wrong, but we don’t give up. That’s the same about people whether they live here in the US or in Kabul. Along the way we pay our taxes and follow the laws and contribute to patterns of being and systems of governance that we didn’t set up and we trust or mistrust wit
hout truly understanding them. Systems that Paul called the powers and principalities of this world, and about which he is talking when he says,
for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:22-24)
Of course Paul’s answer to his own question is “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And for we who are Christian, who follow Jesus, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and confronted the Roman version of empire, that is our answer as well.
Consider, though, what that means for us. To follow the Prince of Peace, to join the parade that enters the halls of power on the back of a donkey, means to give up on the idea of being right, of being on top, of being in control and to work toward ways of being that are always collaborating, sharing, distributing rather than consolidating power. The war horse tramples, but the donkey plows the field and brings in the harvest. The war horse buys armor and weapons, the donkey creates jobs and puts food on the table. Not everybody can have a war horse, but everyone can have a donkey.
Our debates about how to be a nation, about how to live in community, can get so wrong-headed. We take something that was intended to be a blessing, the whole creation and the opportunity to share it with one another, and we find a way to fight over it. Jesus comments on our quarrelsome nature, asking
To what shall 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.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Following the Prince of Peace, joining the parade, being a part of the movement, means learning to live life full-throatedly. It means singing and dancing and celebrating all the goodness of life, even in the midst of hardship and loss. It also means telling the truth about the brokenness of every nation, including our own, lamenting and wailing for those who suffer because of our failure to act like the family God made us to be. Acknowledging that we don’t always understand our own actions, or their consequences for ourselves or others.
Following the Prince of Peace, joining the parade, being a part of the movement, means becoming, not maintaining. It is the idea that calls people to leave their homes, like Abraham left Haran, like the apostles left Jerusalem, like pilgrims of every land left the shores of Europe and Asia and Africa looking for a new way of being. It means acknowledging that we are always rebuilding the future on the foundations of the past.
This is what allows us to pull the covers back on our 40th or our 235th birthdays and take stock of our lives, our nation, our world. Like Paul, we have to admit that we sometimes do not do what we want, but in fact the very things we hate. We go to war. We grab at power and wealth for the sake of our own security at the expense of others. We will what is right, but we seem unable to do it.
However, resting our hope in God, we become prisoners of hope, refusing to let go of it. Refusing to surrender the idea that leads to movement that leads to change. The nation may celebrate its birthday this weekend, but when we gather around the table and the font we remember that we have already died the death that is awaiting all earthly things, and we are living life in the in-breaking reign of God. That is cause to sing “Happy Birthday,” or [insert name of patriotic hymn here] and to celebrate all that God has blessed us with, and then get back to sharing God’s blessings with all our neighbors, near and far.