“What Do You Pray For”

This sermon was inspired by Margaret Aymer, Professor of the New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas; Hildegard of Bingen; writers from the Washington Post, and the rapper Kendrick Lamar.

            The letter begins like this:

July 30 2018

CONFIDENTIAL

“Senator Dianne Feinstein

Dear Senator Feinstein; I am writing with information relevant in evaluating the current nominee to the Supreme Court. As a constituent, I expect that you will maintain this as confidential until we have further opportunity to speak. Brett Kavanaugh physically and sexually assaulted me during high school in the early 1980s.”

Many of us know that this letter, and everything that follows the first few sentences that I read. It was written by Christine Blasey Ford three weeks after Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. The letter and the story that surrounds it now dominate virtually all of mainstream media. Ms. Blasey Ford has asked for an independent FBI investigation of her charges and in light of the fact that six current Republican senators who serve on the Judiciary Committee—the committee overseeing the Supreme Court nomination process—voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, this seems like a reasonable request.

Yesterday, the press advisor to the Senate Judiciary Committee resigned when it became known that he was fired from a prior political job because of a sexual harassment allegation made against him. Since her letter came to light, Ms. Blasey Ford has had to leave her home because of death threats made against her and her family. She herself is now on trial, making obvious the connections between this story and the nomination of Clarence Thomas and his sexual harassment of Anita Hill. The circumstances surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination are confounding, and the stakes are undeniably high on many fronts.

The writer of the Epistle of James understood turmoil and high stakes. I reference “the writer” of the book of James because as with many other texts, we’re not sure who wrote it. There are six different men named James in the bible, but there is some consensus that this text was written by Jesus’ brother and not either of the two disciples named James. James writes amid a surge of turmoil and violence in Judea, as Jews became more and more frustrated with corruption, injustice and poverty, especially in Jerusalem where James lived. What emerges from this text can be summed up as the contrast between godly leadership that is informed by holy wisdom and worldly leadership that practices jealousy and resentment.

In the text, James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” In our world, how you are perceived as a leader largely depends on your gender; and being wise and understanding are not usually the first words that come to mind. For men, leadership is synonymous with being strong and assertive. Self-starters, hard-chargers. But, strong, assertive hard-charging women get a different, derogatory name.

Who, in our country or in the world would most people name as a good leader? We can name barrelsful of strong, competitive and assertive types. But, following from the example of the life of Jesus, James is calling us into a different kind of community and a different kind of leadership all together, leadership that is antithetical to where we are today. James lays out the qualities of this holy leadership:

Pure

Peaceable

Gentle

Willing to yield

Full of mercy

Without hypocrisy

Naming this leader is much more difficult—but don’t get hung up on the adjective,” pure.” It does not mean “perfect.” Rather, it means pure of heart or having unselfish motivations. Even still, the bar is almost impossibly high. I’m grateful that I’ve come to know a few of these leaders.

As Hildegard of Bingen says, when we live by these qualities, we cultivate a fruitful field. But it is God’s divine power that nourishes, and only God can send irrigation and “bring forth the fruit of holiness, justice and righteousness. Here grows the very tree of life, and through prayer and attention to the will of God we encourage holy leadership in each other.” Through prayer and attention to the will of God. Hannah prayed for a child not only for herself but for a child that she would ensure would become a Nazrite—a follower of God who would live by certain vows. When she asked, her selfless prayer was answered.

First Church, what do you pray for? As people of faith, how do we reconcile that we live both in the world that tempts us and also in a community of faith. James urges us to consider where our loyalties lie, and how we know. What are symbols of status and prestige to us? What things do we possess that we don’t really need? How can we help others with what we have? How can we live a more selfless life?

Right now in my hall closet are four black leather jackets and there’s another one in a box somewhere. I’ve had a one-hundred-dollar bill sitting in my desk drawer at home for several months. I bought a Minnesota Viking helmet decorated with several team member autographs at an auction, which means that I paid at least double what it is actually worth. I am not proud of what this demonstrates about my loyalties, or what it shows about my worldliness and my Godliness. James referred to this contrast as “the cravings that are at war within me.” I want to ask you to take a moment to meditate and pray on the cravings that are at war in you.

(pause)

And what about hypocrisy? Nothing defeats a leader or destroys a community more quickly or more completely than hypocrisy. Our national leadership, many of our local ones and even our churches are drowning in it. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is sinful and illegal. Victims must be believed and supported. His or her perpetrators must be held to account, if not in this world then in God’s time.

In early August, eight Minneapolis police officers posed in uniform in a racist campaign ad with Tim Pawlenty that threatened immigrants. Police Superintendent Arredondo condemned the officers’ actions and Mayor Frey was quick to say that the police officers broke city law. To date, no disciplinary action has been taken. Don’t be bitter, envious, or selfish. Don’t brag or lie. That is the way of the earth, it isn’t God’s way. Where envy and selfishness are, there will be disorder and sin.

Kendrick Lamar puts it another way: “Blessed are the bullies for one day they will have to stand up to themselves. Blessed are the liars, for the truth can be awkward.”

First Church, what do you pray for? There is another leadership quality that the book of James doesn’t mention. When she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford’s resilience will undergo a high powered repeat of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Three surviving members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during that 1991 confrontation will question her. And she will probably be asked the details of every moment of the alleged attack. How much she had to drink. Why she went upstairs. What she was wearing. When God asked Solomon what he wanted, Solomon responded, “Give me the wisdom and knowledge that I will need to lead your people.” Because Solomon didn’t ask for personal wealth, honor, for long life, nor for the death of his enemies, God rewarded Solomon with the knowledge and wisdom he asked for and much more. But the unjust, those who don’t follow God’s purpose, will not be open to holy wisdom. The book of Solomon describes that holy wisdom is not an inherent human quality nor one that can be taught, but comes from outside, from God.

When Christine testifies this week I will be praying for her and I invite you to pray for her too. Instead, give yourselves to God, resist evil and evil will leave you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

Amen