champion of the people


You wouldn’t want to read every sermon I preach, but here’s the first one in a long while that was designed for a Mennonite context. I filled in at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship over the Fourth of July weekend and got to re-use some Joy of Giving material that seemed especially suited for the day. 

Zechariah 9.9-12 // Year A – Proper 9 // July 6, 2014

championThis week I was thinking about how everyone should have a crazy uncle.

In my life that was and still is Crazy Uncle Marcus, my mom’s older brother. Marcus has a smile that takes over his whole face and an infectious laugh and an ornery streak. When we were young, he was always ready for anything. He’d toss me a ball for hours on end. He taught me how to put a worm on a fishing hook. And oh the games we would play.

One game in particular had to do with climbing to the top of things. We’d race up a big rock or a pile of sand, stumbling over one another in a rush to the peak. Trying to be faster, stronger, smarter. The first person to summit the mound would stand at the pinnacle, lift her arms in victory above her head and yell out “CHAMPION OF THE PEOPLE!”

I love Champion of the People moments.

It reminds me of my college basketball-playing days at Missouri State University. We were accustomed to being champions. We were accustomed to a certain kind of excellence, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, better, better. We were used to winning, and it was woven through everything we did. If we won, we celebrated. And if we lost, we were punished in hopes that we would find renewed motivation to win next time. Those days we did wind sprints, mostly: free throw line to baseline to half court, up and down, up and down the basketball court in twenty-six seconds. And you know what we called those wind sprints? We called them champions.

How appropriate to think of it this Independence Day weekend, as all across this nation we celebrate that founding myth: that freedom is achieved through conquest, through winning. We belong to a country, that is a championship kind of country. Success, victory comes by being bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. We have it, don’t we: the largest economy, the best universities, the most creative entrepreneurs, the strongest military. Even, for the briefest of moments, we had hope that our world cup soccer team might get closer than ever to champion.

Don’t we just love these Champion of the People moments?

Our foremothers and forefathers in the faith did too. The ancient Israelites, after wandering through the desert and enduring the persecution of slavery and homelessness somehow convinced God that they needed a leader, a king, and so the monarchy was born. King Saul, then David, then Solomon and many many more: the legends are still with us: untold riches and power and military might. Weapons and horses providing protection, and God’s presence in the ornate Temple in Jerusalem keeping the king safe, a divine warrior who would not let his people come to harm.

A theology sprang up to help the people celebrate their rulers. Royal Psalms were written, celebrating the king, his power, and the salvation of God that he ushers in. In Psalm 2 the Lord says, “I have set my king on my holy hill. I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” I can just imagine how they loved those champion of the people moments.

The people placed their hope in this certain kind of king. But hope can be a disappointing thing. Consider again our foremothers and forefathers in the faith, for instance.

After some years of prosperity, the Israelite monarchy began to crumble around them. Power struggles and in-fighting and competing loyalties reared up. King after king after king failed to live up to expectations. The Israelites themselves were conquered and driven into exile. Their symbols of success were destroyed and their champions were taken captive.

And so their hope shifted. Their theology stayed the same, but their hope shifted from the present to the future king. They believed, they found comfort in the idea that someday a warrior king would come again, divinely anointed to exercise his great military might, to rise up in a show of power and to rescue them from exile. To save them from their enemies and exact revenge.

Hope can be a dangerous thing. As the prophet Zechariah says in our scripture today, hope can become a prison, when it’s placed in the wrong kind of champion.

In 2008 I was in divinity school in Nashville, TN and Barack Obama was running for president for the first time. It was an exciting year for many, myself included exciting to have an energetic, hopeful candidate who seemed more ordinary and less aristocratic than the usual suspects. This could change everything, some of us thought. An unprecedented number of people in my generation took an interest in politics, put up bumper stickers, and donated money to this campaign, inspired by that slogan, “Change You Can Believe In.” People were hopeful that this could be the change we’d been waiting for. Perhaps some of you hoped so too. Perhaps in some ways it was.

But over the last six years, the wars have not ended well. The inequality between the rich and the poor has only grown. Poverty rates remain high. Gun violence continues. Partisan politics have become even more entrenched. Hope has not been realized, and so it has shifted to the future. Who will run in 2016? In whom can we place our hope this time? Surely things will change if we just get the right people in power. Hope can become a prison.

Perhaps closer to home some of you may have been closely following the happenings of Mennonite Church USA. Certainly your beloved pastor and my dear friend Samuel and ally has been part of the proceedings. The institution struggles to right itself in a situation of great conflict, which comes to light in the issue of sexuality. Can gay and lesbian people be fully part of the church? And so we’ve waited with expectation, some hopeful that conferences and powerful church leaders would lead us toward a welcome that would allow all of us to be fully part of our wider church. And despite the allies we have in high places, that has not happened. People are hurt, outraged, frustrated, disengaged, angry. We had hoped for better. We had hoped that those with formal authority, the institution would champion our cause and affirm our place. Hope can become a prison.

I’ve seen other champion kind of hopes dashed this week. The Supreme Court: surely they’ll rule with an eye toward women and the working poor. Surely there, there in the hands of justice are power and might there that we can place our hope. But we should know by now: hope can become a prison.

Hope can be a disappointing thing if it is given to the wrong kind of champion.

And the voice of the prophet Zechariah calls, giving us a different image of a champion of the people: he will cut off the chariot and the war horse. He will command peace.

One of my co-workers, a white woman, had only been with our agency a couple of months as the volunteer coordinator when a new position opened up. It was a more powerful position, a supervisory role with higher pay and better hours, and the higher ups thought she’d be a good person for the job. Of course she took it. But after a day she got to thinking. There’s another person, an African-American person who was more qualified. Someone who had been with the agency years longer, someone who knew the ins and outs of the work, someone who was well-respected and would be an excellent supervisor and yet was passed over for the promotion. And so my co-worker went to the bosses and told them she had to turn down the job after all. And she told them who they should hire instead. To this day, this woman has my unending respect. She earns less, and her social capital is smaller, but in this moments was a true champion of the people.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton puts it this way: Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

We were on a road trip my senior year of college, from Springfield, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. We’d played a bad basketball game. I’ll be honest, about half the time that year we just weren’t any good. And so after the loss, things looked grim. The drive back was long. The team was disappointed and tired. The coaches were upset and had let us know in no uncertain terms that this was not how champions played. As we settled into the charter bus for the long ride home my gentlest, kindest teammate leaned over to me and said, “Sarah, we’re sad and frustrated, we feel like losers, but just think how happy the the other team is right now.” I think of this moment often, and how with this simple logic, she turned everything upside-down, which is the work of a true champion of the people.

We grasp for institutional validation, for socially acceptable forms of authority, for a sense of power and success that is so often defined by bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, faster, faster, richer, richer. And the voice of the prophet calls: rejoice! Your king is coming. He is victorious, and he rides not on a horse of war but on a donkey. Your champion comes in triumph, but not bringing shows of wealth and power. He brings with him peace.

Joshua Casteel was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib when his conversion happened. In the words and face of a jihadist he somehow encountered the gospel of Christ and saw the wholeness of humanity that both lies underneath and transcends all the grasping at military power and the trappings of war. He became a conscientious objector. He could no longer question the enemy. He told his commander that he no longer wished to be a soldier. He was transferred to non-combatant duty and staffed open-air burn pits where toxic trash burned day and night. Weapons, paint, toxic materials, it was all burned there, and when Joshua returned to the states after six months he had stage IV lung cancer. It is a heartbreaking story, the death of this peacemaker, who said no to one kind of power to find another.

There’s a certain image our world has of a champion, a certain idea of our society thinks a champion should look like: bigger, bigger, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. A wealthy king, a powerful Messiah. There’s a certain way we think a savior should look.

And then we hear the biblical story, our story, we hear this message from the prophet, and the images of success that we carry most days of our lives are turned upside-down. The journey with the divine presence, the journey of faith and life, asks us to hear this message instead. Poorer, poorer, slower, slower, smaller, smaller. My friends, Jesus was a champion of the people, he is our champion of the people, and this is what he looked like.

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