It is only eight or nine years since I first came as a visitor to the United States. I remember making my way from Hartford, Connecticut, to New York, to Washington, to Boston. The highlight of that visit–apart from coming to the National Cathedral for the first time as a tourist–was the Ellis Island Museum in New York, newly refurbished as an Immigration Museum. I saw there something of the life-stories and the memorabilia of the millions of immigrants who had made their way from Europe over a period of some sixty years to find a new life in a new land. It was a profoundly moving experience. They were people who owed Europe nothing. They were escaping in so many cases from poverty, unemployment, persecution. I saw through their eyes something of what the American dream was all about: a nation in which all people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is something here that those of you who come from Ohio will understand. The Buck Eye state may well take pride in its great industrial centers, in its farmlands, in its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in its claim to be the mother of Presidents, but–like so many parts of the United States–it also has a long established tradition of giving a home to those who come from outside. It was after all from the early years of the nineteenth century that you attracted immigrants from Europe–first, from Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, and Wales; and then, at a later date, from eastern and southern Europe. No doubt many of those new citizens had first passed through the Immigration Hall on Ellis Island. And then, of course, after the watershed of the Civil War, black people from the southern states made their way to Ohio to find work in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, in Toledo.
You may not have an Ellis Island Museum in Ohio–after all you were not the point of entry to the United States–but you will understand its impact upon someone like myself who wanted to understand the great American dream, the great American ideal.
I was reminded of that visit and of what it meant to me as a guest for the first time in your country by this morning’s readings. They have one common feature: they all have something to say about the powerless, the dispossessed, the despised.
Our Old Testament lesson tells of the prophet Nathan’s denunciation of King David because of his adultery with Bathsheba and his treachery in plotting the death in battle of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Our New Testament lesson tells of the Apostle Paul’s passionate conviction that since we are all justified by faith, then Jewish Christians must not keep their distance from their Gentile brothers and sisters. We are all one in Christ. Our Gospel reading tells of Jesus’ dealings with the woman of an immoral life, who had scandalised the Pharisee who had welcomed Jesus to his house by washing Jesus’ feet, and of our Lord’s teaching that her love was proof enough that her many sins had been forgiven.
From the Old Testament, Uriah the Hittite stands as a representative of all who are powerless. From the New Testament, the Gentiles stand as representatives of all who are dispossessed. From the Gospel, the woman of an immoral life stands as a representative of all who are despised.
The powerless; the dispossessed; the despised. Still they present themselves today wherever we turn. They come in various guises. They take a variety of forms. They call in question our sense of wellbeing.
I can only presume to speak about my own country, but I cannot fail to take note of the problems with which we are wrestling in the United Kingdom at the present time–asylum seekers, increasingly ugly racial tensions, the growth of an underclass. And, of course, on a far broader front there are the questions that concern us all–international debt, religious fundamentalism, the trafficking in human lives, the threat to peace and security and basic human rights by corrupt and oppressive regimes. In all these complex, critical areas of life, the powerless, the dispossessed and the despised are to be found in ever-increasing numbers.
The Scriptures still have the power to disturb, to challenge. There is a Gospel perspective that we dare not ignore. We may not know how to translate it into practical politics. We will almost certainly not be of one mind. And none of us is helped by those who speak as though there is only one approach, one solution. There is no magic formula, no quick-fix.
But important questions remain for all of us.
How do established communities with a proper regard for their own security and well-being accommodate the powerless, the dispossessed, the despised? Is there a moral basis for government, for living together in community, for social action? How do we ensure that the perspectives, the values, that belong to our traditions of faith are kept at the forefront of our minds?
Some will find their imperative for all these things in the biblical command simply to love our neighbor as ourselves. Some will cry out for a wider recognition of the truth that all life is one, that we are deeply, profoundly, interconnected, that what happens to any one person happens at some deep level to all persons everywhere. Some will speak the prophetic word of judgment, which leaves us in no doubt that people who sow the wind, albeit it other people’s back yard, will reap for their children and their grandchildren a whirlwind that will leave no stone unturned.
But the questions remain; and day by day there are other questions to be asked about the ways in which all these things might be approached.
President Dwight D Eisenhower used to say concerning the importance of religion: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is.” Men and women of faith, of deeply held religious convictions, do not always find it easy to be so accommodating, so inclusive, in their approach to matters concerning religion. But on a broader front–when it comes to government, to living together in community, to social action–I want to plead for a recognition of the wide variety of insights, approaches, responses, that people are able to bring. And not least of all does this seem to me to be the case when we come to the needs of the powerless, the dispossessed, the despised.
May I therefore suggest three words that seem to me to be important: Conviction, Compassion, Commitment?
CONVICTION: because the work of government, the work of living in community, the work of social action demands principles, priorities, values. They require people who believe there is work to be done and who want to get on with it. People will not be of one mind when it comes to the most sensitive issues with which we are confronted; but that does not seem to me to be the most important thing. What matters is that there is some vision–even competing visions–of what it’s all about, of what it’s all for.
COMPASSION: because it is very easy for all of us to get trapped in our little worlds, in our vested interests, in the mindset of our peer groups. It’s easy to forget why we’re there and the people whom we are called to serve. There is nothing soft about my use of the word compassion. It is a word that for me has grit and determination. It says to all of us that the work of government, the work of living in community, the work of social action are all to do with people, with the quality of people’s lives–as individuals, as communities.
COMMITMENT: because the things that are worth doing are never easily accomplished. And the more complex, the more sensitive the issue, the more the process requires of all of us. There is a slog about life: there are arguments to be mastered; people to be persuaded; legitimate interests to be protected; budgets to be balanced; and–when everything is done–a readiness to take the brickbats, the misrepresentations. The work of government, the work of living in community, the work of social action require endless patience, courtesy, endurance, a good deal of understanding and support at home, in the family. That’s what I mean by commitment.
But all these things–conviction, compassion, commitment–you will understand, and not least of all in the light of the questions and the challenges posed by our Scripture readings in this service concerning the powerless, the dispossessed, the despised. There are things here, of course, that take us beyond our local responsibilities. Let us not forget, as we give thanks in this National Cathedral for the state of Ohio, the good things, the very good things, for which we all have reason to be profoundly grateful; but may it be on this State Day, in the context of faith and worship, that we might all find a rekindling of our goals, our hopes, our values, of the things that make it possible for us to dedicate ourselves again to the people whom we are called to serve.