Proper 16: August 23, 2020



We have a great deal of musical talent in our congregation, so I suspect a fair number of you recognized our prelude and know a bit about its history. You might know the tune best from the hymnal. It is number 81 in Glory to God, the hymnal we use at the town church, and number 434 in the red hymnal we use here at St. Luke’s. In the hymnal, the tune is paired with a set of lyrics from the same lyricist who gave us “Amazing Grace,” titled “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” I am not sure when they were first paired. The lyrics are very slightly older than then tune, but somewhere in the 1800s the two were merged.

The tune is about 20 years younger than the lyrics. Composer Joseph Haydn was a proud citizen of the Austrian, or Austro-Hungarian Empire, and on a trip to England, became a little jealous of “God Save the King” or Queen, depending on who is in charge at any given moment, but in Haydn’s time, it was a king. On his return to Austria, he got to work, and wrote this tune, originally set to lyrics praising the Austrian Emperor. First performed in 1797, it became the national anthem of the Austrian Empire until that empire’s demise following the First World War.

A few years later, in 1922, the newly formed Weimar Republic in Germany adopted the tune for its own national anthem. Germany, or given the German separation, some part of Germany, has used this tune for its national anthem continuously since then.

If you have not put it together yet, that tune was used for the Nazi national anthem. After the war, East Germany picked something different, while West Germany just dropped the first two verses, at first semi-officially, and them completely after reunification.

I am not going to recite those lyrics, either the ones dropped or the ones that they kept. Nor will I go into the lyrics of the hymn or even the original lyrics used for the Austrian Emperor.

The point is that this tune has had many lives and has been put to many uses. Some of which we may approve, some of which I hope we all do not.

At least for me, it is hard to let the tune speak for itself—I know there are gifted musicians who can listen to a piece of music and pick apart the influences and thought process of the composer. I am not one of those.

But thinking about the way this tune has been used, and abused, got me thinking about scripture. Particularly, in this moment, Romans 13.

Romans 13 begins: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

In this section from the 13th chapter of Romans, Paul writes about the obedience we owe to government, and the authority held by governments. It is a chapter that governments and government officials in countries with a large Christian population like to hold up as they demand obedience.

Much as Haydn’s tune was abused by propogandists to stir up nationalist passions and dreams of past glory in Weimar and then Nazi Germany, Romans 13 is abused to demand obedience, to try to declare not just governmental authority, but governmental morality when it has been called into question. Recently, a former Virginia Attorney General joined the list of those who have abused the text in this way.

The thing is, that reading of Romans 13 requires completely separating it from the larger context not only of scripture, but of Romans. Paul was an exceptionally organized thinker. He was not writing soundbites, but comprehensive documents addressing the life, worship, and practice of the early church, and so usually, to understand something Paul is saying, you need to look back to how he built up to it. Which is why we are starting today, with Romans 12.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

I can think of no better message in the final months before a Presidential election in this country.

Last week, the Democrats had their convention. The Republican convention starts tomorrow. Already, campaigns, political action committees, or PACs, and other advocacy groups have started buying ads. We have had decades of TV and radio ads, and so for the most part, we all understand how they work.

We’re still learning how social media campaigns work, but the pattern that we recognize is this: ads on social media work best when they don’t appear to be ads but seem to come from a real person. The diffuse nature of social media can have a great democratizing effect, but it also can make it difficult or impossible to track down the source of something. The goal is not just to get you to make a purchase, or change how you vote, but to do that and then to use you to get your friends and family to do the same.

The data that companies and campaigns have about you means that they can, if they so choose, write an ad that is specific to you. It is even possible to create an ad that is only shown to those of us who are here, in person, at St. Luke’s today.

This level of tailoring is, on its own, creepy, but not necessarily dangerous.

Where Paul’s message, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” comes in is the other way, beyond microtargeting, that social media ads work.

Political marketers try to make you feel strong emotions, particularly sadness, fear, and anger. Political marketers can use and abuse your emotions just as others can use or abuse Haydn’s tune or Paul’s letters. They write ads designed to make you feel something because when we are sad, scared, or mad, it is harder for us to think. We are more likely to share, repost, or copy and paste something before we think better of it. Before we think about whether or not something is true, before we think about whether or not something is going to hurt other people in our community.

I know that here at St. Luke’s today we have people who will vote for Biden, and we have people who will vote for Trump. I know that some of you joining us on Zoom, or watching this video later will vote for Trump, and others will vote for Biden.

And, therefore, I know, that in a few months, after the election is over, some of you will be upset. Some of you will be angry. Some of you may well be afraid.

I ask of you what Paul asks: “Do not be conformed to this world”

Do not allow national, regional, local, or even social media to tell you what the people sitting around you, living around you, worshipping with you think or believe.

Do not conform to political strategies that will try to drive your vote by creating a red team and a blue team.

Paul continues: “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,”

When you engage with someone who thinks, or plans to vote, differently than you, try to listen more than you speak. Really listen, do not just wait for the pauses so you can get your talking points in.

Paul continues: “so that you may discern what is the will of God”

Slow down. Discernment is a process, not a conclusion. It does not happen quickly. Consider if what you want to say is true, but also consider if what you want to say is helpful, and finally, consider if what you want to say is kind.

And, if you have listened to me today and thought: “Pastor Rob is exactly right. People should listen to me more,” remember, finally, how Paul concludes today’s text:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

Do not think too highly of yourself. Never forget you might be wrong. Republican, Democrat or Independent, Paul says “we are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

Whatever happens November 3, act in such a way that on November 8 you can come to worship, or sign into Zoom, or whatever it is we are doing by then, and greet your neighbor in the peace of Christ.

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