When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10-11)
When the Puritan Divine John Winthrop sailed to this land from England on the “The Arbella” in 1630, he gathered the people on board and prayed that the land they were journeying towards would become a New World that would be a “city on the hill.” It was his hope, their hope, that this City, our country, would become an example of faith, decency, sobriety, honesty, responsibility, and humility to all other nations.
I thought about those holy pilgrims coming here with such high hopes this past Wednesday, January 6th, as we watched with horror the storming of our Capitol by those bent not only on destroying the physical property of that building but also the social fabric and political trust that has held us together for over 240 years. The gap between the vision that ignited the dreams and hopes that started this land and the terrible destruction and violence we watched this week should bring every person who loves this country to their knees in grief and shame.
For over 35 years, in all of my writing and speaking, I have always tried to be very careful to not take a political position, for I have always wanted to speak to all people. That isn’t to say that I don’t believe that our faith must impact our politics—it has to because our faith is meant to influence every aspect of our lives; but, again, I was always careful not to appear and or be perceived as partisan. I believed I didn’t work for the left or the right, but for the God who wanted the left and the right to see each other as God’s children and as disciples of Jesus, who gave His life to reconcile us to God and to each other.
In what I am about to write, I know that some may perceive that my usual restraint is gone, and I suspect that I will offend some. If I do, I ask for your prayers.
It grieves me to say this, but I don’t believe we can avoid the following conclusions: that the one who leads our executive branch fomented mistrust for two months in our political process, invited angry people to our nation’s capital, and then incited them to attack the very symbol of our legislative branch; that the one who swore to uphold the Constitution has by his words and actions been trying to undermine it, circumvent it, and destroy it; that the one who pledged to protect us from all adversaries, became one himself on so many things we hold dear; that the one who said that no foreign terrorists would go unpunished, became a domestic terrorist who thought he stood above the laws of this land; and that the one who held up a Bible to supposedly prove his righteousness on a church lawn at a (largely) peaceful rally in June, may as well have burned, in effect, burned Jesus’ message that says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
As I watched with sadness and sorrow as the angry horde flooded into the Capitol, I not only thought about John Winthrop on the Arbella, but I also thought about what we ought to have been celebrating on that day—The Feast of the Epiphany. This is the event when we remember how the Kings, Magi, and Wise Men came to the child Jesus. A star had led them to the Holy Family, and as they knelt before this young boy, they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As they gazed into His face, those kings knew they had met “the Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords;” those Magi knew they were looking at the One who would reveal the incredible mystery and power of God’s grace; and those Wise Men were showing us that all wise people forevermore would kneel before the One who through His life, death, and resurrection would bring heaven to earth, and earth to heaven.
Does the dream that inspired John Winthrop to call this land the “city on the hill” still have anything to say to us? Can those kings who offered their gifts to the Christ-child speak to our time, conditions, brokenness, and need?
The answer to both of these questions is the same: yes. I affirm and proclaim this yes because I believe that with God, all things are possible. I don’t affirm and proclaim this yes because we are all that wonderful, bright, or talented, but because God is God and because God is good. I affirm and proclaim this yes because there is no darkness where God can’t bring light, no degradation that God can’t lift up, and no lostness from which God can’t find us and bring us home.
We will only be able to recover from what happened this week if we repent; that is, only if we change our minds, hearts, interactions, motivations, and words. Our political process isn’t working. Our inflamed rhetoric isn’t helping. Our divisions are hurting us all. All sides, all parties, and all positions must take responsibility for their part in our current situation. There is no way we should tolerate the desecration of our Capitol.
We have the highest one-day death toll from COVID-19. We have a virus that has killed over 375,000 of us. And we have a virus of contempt, scorn, and meanness that is poisoning the “melting-pot” that drew people from across this world to our shores.
Our only way forward is to repent, feel shame, get on our knees, intend amendment of life, and fervently pray for God’s forgiveness, grace, and wisdom. Even though we are in no way acting like a “city on a hill” for any country to follow, I still believe that the dream, the hope, and the vision which inspired John Winthrop and company to risk their lives to come here can still be ours to live into and to share. Have we been damaged? Without a doubt. Have we been compromised? Yes. Are we ethically, politically, morally, or spiritually dead? Absolutely not!
So, what might the example of the kings who once came to Jesus be saying to us? Our Lord doesn’t need our gold, frankincense, or myrrh because there are other gifts He desires and other gifts we need to give. What Jesus most wants from us now—and always—is the gift of ourselves. Now, this gift of ourselves as a nation and people right now isn’t pretty or holy or nice. We need to offer our broken selves and broken nation to Jesus with the hope and trust that His love and grace can put us back together so that we could, in time, begin to live into the dreams that first inspired those holy pilgrims to believe that this land could be a “city on the hill.”
If we seek God’s guidance, if we repent from our part in the ugliness, if we acknowledge that great change needs to happen within each one of us and in our common life, and if we give glory to God in all we say and do and hope for, we will find our way. But if we continue to foment fear and suspicion, if we continue to vilify and trash whoever may disagree with us, if we seek our own glory, or if we glorify those who want to steal God’s glory, we will have lost our way and forfeited our hope to be an example to any other nation.
I would like to end this reflection with these words: “O God…let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer, p.528)