Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
you have brought us this far along the way.”
I’m taking as my text today words we haven’t yet heard, at least today. They are from the Eucharistic prayer that we will pray in a few moments, which is taken from the Lutheran Book of Worship.
My reason for doing so is I want to talk about the theme of God Matters, and they are especially appropriate to that, as I hope you’ll see.
God Matters is the title of a book of essays by the English Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe. The title is an intentional play on words: it is both about matters pertaining to God (using “matters” as a noun), and it is about why God matters to us in the first place (using “matters” as a verb). In short, his thesis is that the things of God make a difference in human life.
Now, this is not quite a farewell sermon, but I want to explore that statement in relationship to a question that has been a big one for us here at St. Michael’s over the last several years: Does God matter in politics? And I want to start with my great intellectual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Heschel.
Now, Heschel is best known for his social activism: marching at Selma to advocate for civil rights; or standing in front of the White House to protest the Vietnam War. But he was a rather unlikely candidate for such a role. Theologically he was quite conservative, emphasizing the importance of God’s self-revelation at a time when a lot of theologians (especially Jewish), would have preferred a more logical, rational account of God.
In fact, Heschel was sometimes accused by his detractors of adopting a radical political agenda, primarily to catapult himself out of the relative obscurity of a rigorous Jewish theologian. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For Heschel, his political activism was the inevitable consequence of his theology. He passionately believed in the dignity of every human being, each of us being created not only by the same God, but in that God’s image. To Heschel, a human being is nothing less than a symbol of God, so any act that denigrates another person is a blasphemy against God. The fact of racism, therefore, he found to be spiritually intolerable. Likewise the act of war. And such regard for human dignity is what allows us to say not just that the war against Ukraine is a geopolitical crisis, but a moral calamity.
In a piece on Heschel in First Things, David Novak writes, Heschel saw racism to be an issue of the denial to a group of Americans the basic dignity that is the right of every human person. Thus Heschel writes: “There is a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation.” Racism, in other words, was in Heschel’s eyes wrong not because it violated a secular idea such as the equality of all human beings before the law, but because it violated the religious idea of the dignity of all human beings before God.
Novak tells this story to illustrate the point: In September 1963, about four months before Heschel uttered his condemnation of public humiliation (in his book, The Insecurity of Freedom), I was in Lumberton, North Carolina, as a student-rabbi, leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the one small synagogue in town. I remember walking to the synagogue early Yom Kippur morning from the rooming house where my wife and I were staying. It had rained heavily the night before, and the gutters in the street were full of mud. Approaching me on the narrow sidewalk from the opposite direction was an old black woman, toothless, dressed in a faded calico dress, a ragged straw hat on her head, and tennis shoes with holes in them on her feet. Her head was bowed. And when she was about twenty feet or so from me, she stepped in the muddy gutter to let me pass.
“Doesn’t the Torah teach,” Novak asks, “that it was I who should have humbled myself before her age? But to that old black woman, I did not represent the Torah or basic human decency. To her I represented centuries of those who have publicly humiliated her people.”
Heschel’s call for social justice in the face of racism went beyond the liberal call for a just society. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. (another prophetically minded political activist), Heschel understood that God’s justice could only be found in a more loving, compassionate, inclusive community. Equality is not enough.
But Heschel goes further. If God’s justice is to be found in such a community, then God is in need of us to help bring it about. Such community does not come into being just by the wave of a cosmic wand, but by the active engagement of real human beings in striving to bring it into being. And this leads Heschel to a really radical idea: for God to be God, God needs us. Citing a rabbinical teaching that we strengthen—empower—God to the extent that we comply with the Divine Will, Heschel goes a step further to say that to the extent that we fail to comply with the Divine Will, we diminish God, so that God is not fully God to us.
That was the theological source of Heschel’s politics: the political arena is where human beings either work toward enacting and fulfilling God’s vision for the human community, or it is where we block and diminish it. The idea that politics and faith ought to be separate, therefore, was unthinkable—any more than the idea that life and breath can be detached.
Heschel summed all this up with one of his signature aphorisms: “Either God is of supreme importance, or God is of no importance.” That is, if we human beings separate off some part of our life and say that God has no place there, or has nothing to do with it, we are essentially saying that God is of no real importance to us in any aspect of our lives. If God is the creator and ruler of all things, then for God to be God, all things must be a part of God’s rule.
So what has all this to do with our upcoming Eucharistic prayer? Well, the phrase, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears” obviously invokes that hymn of the Civil Rights era, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And it goes on to assert pretty clearly God’s role in every part of human life—with an urgency that no prayer in our own Book of Common Prayer quite does. And by invoking that embeddedness of God in human affairs at the very beginning of the communion prayer, we are asserting that we are living in continuity with the Christ whose presence we are calling into our midst: the Christ who teaches the way and pattern of God’s vision of community. It has been said that Judaism is not a doctrine but a life, a continuation of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Leah, Rebekkah and Rachel. I would like to think that something similar could be said of Christian faith as well: it is a continuation of the life of Jesus, who because God matters, left no part of the lives of his followers untouched—whether personal, spiritual, economic, relational … or political. As Herbert McCabe puts it, “The life of Jesus is nothing other than the life of God projected onto our history, and enacted sacramentally in our history, so that God’s story becomes our story . . .” Every part of it. Amen.