A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 12, 2016
Psalm 146 CEB
“We have the best government that money can buy.” Now, I didn’t say that; Mark Twain did. But perhaps you agree with it. Regarding politics, Mark Twain also said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” And again, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” Well, that is pretty extreme and pessimistic; you can’t get much more pessimistic than that, can you?
But regarding this election year, I must admit that I am pretty uneasy. Of all the presidential election years that I can recall, I am most disturbed and most troubled over this year’s. And perhaps you are too.
A couple of weeks ago, something I read reminded me of Psalm 146 that served as today’s sermon text. The article that I read suggested that this psalm might be an appropriate election year passage, for a number of reasons.
This psalm reminds us to be careful about putting all our trust in any political leader. “Don’t trust leaders; don’t trust any human beings” the Common English Bible renders it (Psalm 146:3). Or as the old King James Version renders the verse, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” Political leaders are mortal just like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they have moral failures. They can let power go to their heads, and boundary lines between right and wrong can become blurred. They succumb to illness and disease, just like the rest of us do. They may die in office, and their policies, platforms, and original good intentions are in danger of dying with them.
But to fully understand this psalm requires more than just a surface reading. It helps to know a bit of the background and a possible theological basis for this psalm. This is one of the psalms classified as a “Hymn of Praise to God the King.” It appears to me to have a “theocratic” flavor to it, harkening back to the pre-monarchy days in Israel when they were a theocracy and God was still considered to be the heavenly King of the people. That is, in fact, what the word “theocracy” means—“government by a god regarded as the ruling power or by priests or officials divinely sanctioned.”
In Israel’s case, those who originally ruled by divine sanction were the judges. There are stories in the book of 1 Samuel (8) that chronicle the transition of Israel from the days of theocracy and judges to a monarchy and the rule of kings. In reading these stories, it is evident that some were pro-monarchy while others were anti-monarchy. The pro-monarchy faction wanted a king to rule over Israel just like the other nations around them; whereas the anti-monarchy faction felt it was a turning their back upon God who they alone had acknowledged to be their King. And so, the writer of this psalm could boldly say, “Put not your trust in princes [or leaders];” rather, put your trust in God who “will rule forever!”
Now, we are not a theocracy. Theocratic governments have their weaknesses too, a main one being that in reality making sure that everyone does what he is supposed to do falls to morally weak, fallible men just like other leaders. We can look at some of the theocratic governments around the world, and we can give thanks that we are not living under their rule.
We can only imagine what would happen in America if we tried to be a theocracy and certain men and women were “divinely sanctioned” to reveal God’s will to us and make sure we obeyed it. Political life in America would be even more chaotic than it already is!
However, could it be that there are still some good, worthwhile instructions for us in this psalm as we endure the next five months of this presidential election year? I think there are. It seems obvious to me that as we think about political candidates—be they presidential, state, city, county, or otherwise—we should look for the same traits in those candidates that the psalmist attributes to God.
For instance, at the top of the psalmist’s list is the execution of justice, especially for the oppressed (vs. 7). Is the candidate that we support, or we are considering supporting, committed to justice on behalf of all citizens, but especially those who are oppressed and unable to speak up and stand up for themselves? For instance, I have to cast my vote for a candidate who respects and seeks to guard the rights of persons with disabilities. I will not support a candidate who ridicules persons with disabilities and doesn’t seem to care for the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden.
But there are so many other issues involving justice in our nation today as well, and so many factions of society who suffer bias, prejudice, and discrimination. To be biblically-minded, Christian-minded, faith-minded people, we have to be justice-committed people as well, since justice is an imperative in the psalms, the 8th century prophets, and especially the teachings and mission of Jesus!
And then there is the element of compassion (or mercy) and the need to support candidates that seek to provide food for the hungry, as the psalmist puts it (vs. 7). Is the candidate we support committed to helping poor, struggling, lower and middle class families make enough to put food on their tables? Is he or she concerned enough about the “working poor” and precariously fed children of our country to actually try to do something about it? Or is he or she only committed to helping big businesses and taking steps to make sure the rich get richer?
And what about the plight of immigrants, the homeless, the orphans and widows the psalmist speaks of (vs. 9)? All Americans originally were immigrants. And many Americans could be homeless with the loss of one partner’s job. A lot of American families, it is said, are just one or two paychecks away from homelessness. And any of us could leave our children orphans with the snap of a finger, or become a widow or widower in a moment’s notice. What is the attitude of the candidate we support toward immigrants, the homeless, orphans, and widows—all of “the least of these” Jesus was so concerned about? Is our political candidate motivated by true compassion for humanity, especially downtrodden and suffering humanity?
As I consider the political candidates vying for office, and as I consider the great challenges our nation faces, I find myself longing for an FDR-type candidate. Now, I realize that FDR was mortal with human weaknesses as well. He was not morally perfect. And he died in office. But from what I know about him (he died before I was born, remember), he was one who had the best interests of the people and the best interests of the nation at heart. Surely there is someone, somewhere in America with that same kind of spirit and commitment who can rise to the occasion.
I expect the next five months of election rhetoric to be downright dirty and brutal. I can only hope and pray that Americans will have the vision and the wisdom to do the right thing; that we will consider the principle of justice coupled with compassion when we choose our candidates, at all levels of government. My prayer is that of Harry Emerson Fosdick in that great hymn: “God of grace and God of glory . . . Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage for the living of these days!” May it be so. Amen.