Sermon: Wednesday in the City on the Hill

About two weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, I was invited to Washington, DC for a working session with a mostly Evangelical Christian NGO that works, among many other things, on improving conditions in refugee camps around the world.  

I had just been in Washington, actually.  

Liz and I had gone down for the Women’s March on the Saturday after the Inauguration, which I remember as one of the most moving and hopeful experiences I’ve ever had.  

It had been an unusually warm day, particularly so for late January. 

The streets around the Capitol and the Mall had been full – so much so that it took us literally the entire day just to get to Washington Monument, which is where the March was supposed to start.  

We got there and had to turn right around so we could get back to our bus.  

But we didn’t feel as if we had missed anything.

We didn’t because we had come to bear witness to our values, and that is what we did.  

It was a really powerful day. 

As it happens, two weeks later, I was back in Washington.  

And it was then that they told us that after some coaching, we would be going to Congress, and meeting with members in their offices, and trying to speak up for foreign aid in the 2017 Federal budget.  

Some of you have done things like that.  

I never had.  

Actually, it was my first time actually going to the Capitol building, and I was going with another pastor, from a megachurch in Savannah, to call on his Senator, David Purdue. 

It turns out that they knew each other—because, of course, they did.  

It was not unrealistic to imagine that back in Savannah, that pastor might have had a framed picture on his office wall of him shaking hands with the Senator after a Sunday service.  

But after a short time of pleasantries, Senator Purdue said, “Look, I’m going to bring in Sarah from my office on this.  Fill her in on what you’ve told me, and she can take it from there.” 

I thought it was a brush off.  

It wasn’t.  

Sarah was his Legislative Director, and it did not take long to see why the Senator, for all his genuine delight at seeing his friend the pastor, had directed us to her.  

She was phenomenally knowledgeable.  

In a few minutes, she asked deep and probing questions that a full day of working with experts had not entirely prepped us for. 

Moreover, she wanted to hear from everyone, even the short pastor in the bowtie from Connecticut who didn’t know anyone and mostly was just happy to be there.  

It was amazing.  She was amazing.  

For us, this was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime moment.  

For her, it was ten minutes on a Tuesday.  

I suspect that if we’d spoken for any length of time, she and I would have found plenty to disagree about.  

Nevertheless, I left that meeting deeply grateful to know that the work of democracy, people’s business – my business – was in such capable hands.  

It was late afternoon as we headed back to our bus.  

Behind us, the Capitol dome was lit, and for the second time in about as many weeks, I felt this deep sense that here in Washington, I had been a part of something—that I had made my voice heard, that I had come to bear witness to my values—and that, while it was only one voice, and only one among many, it mattered.  

I also left with the sense that the people working in the building understood what it meant to stand up for something you thought was important, and to come talk to them about it.  

That’s what the Capitol represents to me.  

Whether you are liberal, conservative or something in-between, our Capitol is the place where, at its best, the hopes and needs of a nation come to be received. Heard.  Named. 

In the years since then, I’ve thought of that a lot. 

I think about it whenever Kevin Longino of our church mentions he has to go down to Washington on behalf of kidney donation or funding for research into kidney disease.  

I thought about it when Gordon Hartogensis of our church was being confirmed by the Senate for his role at the PGBC, which guarantees pensions, including, as it happens, the pensions of some of our church members.  

It has heartened me to know that these good and dutiful people I know are being received – heard – by other good and dutiful people. 

That’s how it should be.  

And of course, I thought about that on Wednesday afternoon. 

Watching CNN on my laptop here at the church, I was afraid of the violence and the chaotic unspooling of the crowd. 

But what was more heartbreaking to me was their sheer glee, the utter delight they were taking in trashing this place that, to me, represents so much of what is best in us.

Since then, we’ve seen indications that their intent may have been even more serious.  

I’m sure we will hear more about that in the coming weeks.   

There are many who wonder how it could have happened—how the police could have been so woefully unprepared. 

Some have wondered if those guarding the Capitol were not, in some cases, actually sympathetic to the crowd.  

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about that in the coming weeks, too. 

On Wednesday night, our Congressman, Jim Himes, said that he’s been working in the building for over ten years, and he’d always assumed that, if it came down to it, there had to be some sort of button somewhere that could lock down everything in an instant.  

Turns out, there isn’t.  

What does it say about us that now there probably will be? 

I am afraid that still more might be yet to come.  

My understanding is that chatter on some platforms has called for an aggressive presence at the coming inauguration.  

For myself, I am deeply grateful that what we have already seen was not far worse—that there was not some sort of colossal response that birthed a generation of home-grown self-styled martyrs. 

You may also have seen the altered campaign signs in the crowd outside the Capitol building, reading “Jesus 2020.” 

You could take that in any number of ways, I guess, but no matter how you slice it, they were, collectively, as clear a sign as any that there were Christians, and loud and proud ones, too, who were right there, taking it all in.  

I truly don’t know what to make of that. 

In any case, the point is this: the crowd outside the Capitol on Wednesday came to bear witness to their values, and that is what they did.

These are not the values that have made our nation great.  

Might does not make right.  

Extremism in defense of liberty breeds extremism, not liberty.

And the power of our ideals to lead not only our nation, but the world to a more excellent way is only as strong as our virtue as a people. 

I don’t know where in America people were cheering as they watched.  

But I bet I can name the places around the globe where they were.   

And believe me, they were.  

We sometimes forget that the world is watching.  We must not.  

It is clear that those who came before us did not. 

If you go back and actually read the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous words about our nation as a “city on a hill,” which I encourage you to do, you’ll see that part is abundantly clear.  

These words, some of the most famous words to come from the Congregational tradition, our church’s tradition, are especially important for us now.  

Because Winthrop’s point was not only that, at our best, we would be a beacon to the world.  

There was more to it than just that part.  

Winthrop was also anxious to caution his community that our worst would now be in plain view, as well—that, like it or not, our sins would be a scarlet letter which we wore before the world.  

The hypocrisy of our leaders, the emptiness of our promises, the wickedness of our impulses would condemn us.

It always has.  Not just on Wednesday.  

But that is what we take on when we choose the challenge of life in a democracy, and even more dangerously, when we take upon us the yoke of Christ.  

Because the yoke of Christ is not some sort of get out of jail free card. 

The yoke of Christ is not VIP access to an eternity without consequences.  

If all salvation means to you is Heaven on the other side of death, and permission to walk tall now with all of God’s blessings yours to use as you see fit, well, friend, you have not truly been convicted by the fiery love of Christ.  

When Christ commands us to be peacemakers and justice-seekers and healers, this is not a suggestion.  

Christ is not hinting that our movement would probably benefit from having some of those.  

Christ is telling us about the world he expects us to build.  The direction our institutions are to go. 

And each of us is a part of that work.  

Each of us is called to put our shoulder to the wheel in service to the kingdom and its king.  

That is what it is to be a Christian.  

We have taken up residence in a city on a hill. 

Not as occupiers.

Not as self-styled defenders, which is a mantle easily claimed and rarely kept. 

We come as those who bear witness to a light that is greater than any of us. 

It’s a light that can only humble our own plans, pretensions, and needs. 

That light always calls us far beyond ourselves to new frontiers and new commitments and new voices. 

To come to the Capitol to speak your mind, to bear witness to your values and to our God, is surely Christian.   

But destruction, violence, fear and delight in the face of chaos are not.  

Mobs are not the ones who bring freedom.  

They’re the ones who work with Pilate.  

They chose Barabbas.  

They choose Barabbas every time.  

So this morning, I am praying for justice. 

I’m praying for accountability, which is the only way for genuine healing to be possible.  

I am praying for peace.  

I am praying that hope will flood the streets of the city on a hill once again.

I haven’t forgotten that it has so many times before, making us better than we were. 

I haven’t forgotten how hope equips us to rise to the moment. 

I haven’t forgotten how hope is always what finally shows us the way. 

Change is gonna come.  

It is the voice of sin that calls on us to try stopping the waters God is stirring.  

It is the voice of the Gospel that tells us to greet them with joy.  

May it be so. 

May it be soon. 


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