No We Can’t

The Festival of Pentecost, Year A
May 11, 2008
1 Corinthians 12:3b, Acts 2

Grace to you and peace, from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In this year’s seemingly endless and highly unusual presidential nomination process,
    we have had the chance to take a close look at the relationship
        between politics and religion.
On the Republican side we had former governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon.
    For months cable news channels, magazines, newspapers, the internet and talk radio
    wondered out loud what it would mean to have a President of the United States
        who is Mormon.
    Polls showed that large numbers of voters –
including conservatives who otherwise would support his policies –
would not vote for Governor Romney because he is Mormon.
The “Mormon Issue” forced him to address the question of his religion
in a speech about faith in America,
    not unlike the speech John F Kennedy delivered in 1960,
after questions about his Catholic faith threatened his candidacy.
Despite delivering a pretty good speech about faith in the public sphere,
        governor Romney was unable to win the nomination,
        though we can’t attribute his failure solely to his faith
    (some pundits suggest his always-perfect hair did him in).

Also in the Republican fold was Mike Huckabee
    (who was never accused of having perfect hair),
    a Baptist minister who headed the Arkansas branch of the Southern Baptist Convention
        before becoming that state’s governor. 
He spoke openly about aligning our nation’s laws with God’s laws,
in both traditional Republican morality issues of sexuality and abortion
but also with populist economic policies that would alleviate the struggles
of the working poor and financially destitute.

And of course, there is Senator Barack Obama,
whose relationship with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr,
has caused him some trouble, to say the least,
    but whose political message and language is steeped in religious imagery.
The title of his book – the Audacity of Hope – was inspired by his former pastor
    and is rooted in the core Christian doctrine of hope –
    hope that sin and death are not the end of the story,
    hope that is rooted in God’s promise of a new Kingdom in which
        all are gathered, all are fed, all are loved.
Hope – the cornerstone of Obama’s Yes We Can rhetoric –
is ripped straight from the pages of Christian theology.

Religious language is – for better or worse – part of our national discourse. 
Political leaders and ordinary citizens alike speak of having faith in our great nation.
In describing the fate of our nation in the midst of a Civil War,
Abraham Lincoln famously warned that a house divided could not stand. 
He was quoting Jesus. 
Ronald Reagan often spoke of America as a City on a Hill,
a beacon of freedom and democracy in the face of communism and dictatorship. 
The “city on a hill” image?  It came from Jesus.

I admit to some considerable unease when politicians employ religious imagery for political use.
In part, of course, they can’t avoid it. 
The Bible and the Christian tradition have had an enormous influence
on our language and culture. 
Biblical images and language are in our literature, film, television shows, music, theater . . .
What was written as a book of faith for people of faith
has become a sort of sourcebook for our culture and language,
several steps removed from its origins
as a collection of stories about God and God’s people. 
Nonetheless, when phrases and concepts are lifted from the Bible and applied to politics –
intentionally or not –
we risk aligning our political goals with divine goals,
and attributing divine qualities to political leaders and situations. 

Blurring the lines, it seems to me, is good neither for politics nor for religion.

And so I get worried.  Whether it is Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama
    or any other political candidate or public figure,
    I get worried when religious language gets ripped from the community of faith –
where words of faith are spoken to people of faith –
and is used as a tool – or worse, a weapon – in the political arena.
Because they are taken from their context of faith, these words are often incomplete.
Let’s take Barack Obama’s message – Yes we can.
It is a hopeful message, a hope that for Obama has its origins in the teachings and life of faith,
    for the Christian faith is built on hope, as I have preached on many times from this pulpit.
Yes we can.  As a political message, it has resonated with a new generation of voters.
    It is a message that says, “Yes, we can change the way politics is done.” 
    It is a message that paints a picture of a new Washington, a new politics . . .
        a new Kingdom, a new city on a hill?
It is a message that has helped catapult Senator Obama to a near lock on the nomination.
Yes we can. 
It is a message that might work in the political arena –
    only the voters and history will decide that –
but in the community of faith, we have a different message:
    No we can’t.

Where politics is optimistic about the human capacity to do good –
        Yes We Can –
    theology and the Christian tradition is necessarily skeptical –
        No We Can’t.
I think of the Confession of Sins I said before worship every Sunday as I was growing up –
    we confess that we are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves.
Four words: We cannot free ourselves. 
I said these words every Sunday for most of my childhood and adolescence.
We cannot free ourselves. 
No we can’t.
At the beginning of the second reading, St Paul tells us that
    no one can confess that Jesus is Lord without the Holy Spirit.
No We Can’t.
Without the Holy Spirit – whose gift and presence we celebrate this Pentecost Sunday –
    without the Holy Spirit we cannot confess Jesus as Lord.
No We Can’t.
Martin Luther, taking a cue from Paul, writes in his Small Catechism,
    that we cannot believe in Christ or confess him as Lord
    without the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We cannot believe.
No we can’t.

Paradoxically, it is only with God’s help that we can believe in God.
It is only by God’s gift that we can even accept God’s gift.
It is only by God’s grace that we can live in God’s grace.
We can’t do this on our own.
No we can’t.
We can’t do any of this without God.
No we can’t.

Today, Pentecost Sunday, is often referred to as the birthday of the church.
In the first reading from the book of Acts,
we heard the story of the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to the early church.
Once endowed with the Spirit, the apostles spoke in various languages
and proclaimed the Good News of God to a diverse gathering of people.
It was the Spirit of God,
    not any special abilities of the apostles,
it was the Spirit of God that allowed them to speak God’s Word to so many people.
They couldn’t do it, or anything else for that matter,
    without the Holy Spirit.
It is no mistake that the early story of the Christian Church
    begins with the giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2.
We can’t be the church without the Holy Spirit.
No we can’t.

Countless people in the Bible, countless heroes,
were not much until the God’s presence and assistance fell upon them.
Think of Moses, the mumbling and stumbling leader of God’s people
    who in the book of Exodus, chapter 4,
feared that the people wouldn’t accept him as a leader,
particularly because he wasn’t very eloquent.
After giving Moses several signs that he could use to show the people
that God had indeed chosen him as their leader,
God sent to Moses his much more eloquent brother, Aaron, to speak for him.
And then God spoke to Moses a promise:
    “I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do.”
Without that promise of God, without God’s teaching and leading,
    Moses couldn’t do it.
    None of us could’ve done it.
No we can’t.

Some might say that this message – No We Can’t – is too negative.
    People want to come to church to be positive, they’ll say,
        to be uplifted. 
    How are you going to grow the church by telling people, No We Can’t?
Hogwash, I say.
These words – No We Can’t – are truthful words, honest words,
    words that speak to the heart of the human experience.
I think that’s why author Kate Christiensen has just won
the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her book The Great Man.
In this and her other books she writes about people who are at the edge of failure,
    who are broken, who are crashing into the edges of their human limitations.
Most of us are familiar with our human limitations,
even if we try to push those limits from time to time.
Most of us know that there are plenty of things to which we should say, No I Can’t.
We are not invincible,
and all too often we hear of people who suffer from the delusion of invincibility
and put themselves – and their loved ones – through all kinds of pain and suffering.
But there is much in our lives to which we must say, “No I Can’t.”
We live in a society in which people are doing more and more,
    and in which we expect – realistically or not – more and more from each person.
Think of the number of sports and activities you did as a child,
    and now think of the schedules many of our young people have today –
    our society is constantly telling us not only “Yes you can,”
but, “Yes you must!”
    You want to go to a good college?  You better do this . . .
    You want to be a good mother?  You better do . . .
    You want that promotion, that pay raise?  Here, you better do . . .
As expectations and pressure and stress and responsibilities pile on,
    creating a suffocating atmosphere for so many,
    we need a place where we can say, “No we can’t.”

We need a place where we can collapse in exhaustion and, with Jesus,
    let out a cry of “it is finished.”
The world – along with some smiling, slick television preachers –
is telling you, “Yes you can” and “Yes you must!”
    but in this place we hear a different word:
“You need not,” and indeed, “You can not.”
No you can’t.
Let it go.  Let go of the unrealistic visions. 
Drop your burdens here.  Fall on your knees.
Come here.  Let go.  And die.  You can’t do it all.  No you can’t.
No we can’t.

When God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,
    God placed limits on their abilities.
If we had no limits, we descendants of Adam and Eve, we’d be gods ourselves,
and we wouldn’t have any need for God.
But that is why we come up here each Sunday to receive the sacrament of God’s presence,
    with our hands held out as a beggar’s hands,
    for in this simple action we recognize our limitations
and acknowledge our need for God.
When we walk up this aisle and hold out our hands,
    we say No We Can’t do it ourselves.  No we can’t.
We need something else.  We need someone else.  We need God.
That’s what this day is about, this Pentecost Sunday.
For when Jesus was returning to his father in heaven,
    he knew that we here on Earth continued to have needs.
He knew that we couldn’t do this church thing, we couldn’t do life, alone.
And that is why he promised to us the Holy Spirit,
    to comfort us, to love us, to guide us on our earthly journey.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come.  We can’t do it without you.
No We Can’t. 

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “No We Can’t

  1. I wondered when I saw that title, but then… I liked it.
    Without the Holy Spirit…
    boy, that’s a tough message for all of the “but we have free will” people out there.

  2. I was tempted to make “Yes We Can” a final Good News statement, to say that “Yes, with the Holy Spirit we can do these things” (similar to Phil 4:13 – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me). But I did not want to re-introduce the Yes We Can Obama slogan with its political baggage and equate it to the Gospel message.

  3. Yeah, but it would be good to have some sort of H.S. empowerment idea.
    My husband asked me, so what’s the deal about Pentecost? What’s is about? And the first thing I could think of to say was: “Pentecost is about power.”

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