This morning, I was privileged to speak at the Kiwannis Club's Annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast in San Clemente. Here is a manuscript of my remarks...
Mr. Mayor, City Council, members of Kiwannis, fellow San Clementeans, thank you for the privilege of being your keynote speaker this morning.
Allow me a pastoral shout-out to my friends from San Clemente Presbyterian Church. That Community of faith has certainly taught me what it means to be good friends, neighbors and civic leaders. They really are a Community for the community.
Will you also let me acknowledge the presence of my good friend, my cycling buddy, a member of my church, a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and the commanding officer of the 2 Battalion/ 5th Marines, preparing to leave next month for yet another tour of duty abroad, Lt. Col. Todd Eckloff.
While I am extending thanks, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the pastors’ fellowship in this town that is so remarkably generous, gracious and hospitable. They know, far more than the Kiwanians or Council Members that I am the least worthy candidate to be giving this address this morning. Because of my schedule and duties, I am almost never able to participate in their gatherings and planning sessions, yet I am always, always welcomed with open arms and full support whenever I am able to join with them. Can I also just mention the tremendous leadership and service that is consistently offered to all of us from Pastor Ron Sukut. Ron was the very first pastor in this town to welcome me to San Clemente Presbyterian almost 11 years ago, he was hands-on involved around the clock partnering with our church’s relief efforts during the wildfires last fall, and he continues to communicate, pray, serve and bless humbly and generously. Ron, you truly are the pastor of this town.
It is also a privilege to join with you in thanking God for the blessings of living in this town. And indeed, like most of you I am sure, I consider it one of God’s greatest joys of in my life.
Last week I had the privilege of hosting and spending time with the wife of the Bishop of Durham of the Church of England. She spent nearly a week here in San Clemente and Dana Point and just loved it. When we were driving down the coast to go pick up the Bishop at the airport, she looked out the window at the sun glistening on the ocean and this women who has traveled the world, lived all over the world, lunched with the Queen and hosted dignitaries said to me, “If anybody lived here, I would guess they would never leave.” To which I replied, “If they can help it, mostly they don’t.”
When a pastor moves to a new church, the religious term is that we are “called” by God to the new position and new place. But when I first moved here eleven years ago, I was reluctant to talk about God “calling” me San Clemente. For most pastors a “call” implies at least some sense of being willing to be inconvenienced or possibly "suffer and sacrifice" for the Lord. Depending on your perspective, you may be "called" to Fresno, or Fargo, or Fairbanks, but you aren’t “called” to San Clemente, you GET to go to San Clemente and when you do you consider yourself either very blessed or very lucky indeed.
This morning, I hope to express my gratitude for the privilege of living and serving here, by hopefully serving you through some thoughtful remarks.
A priest, a rabbi, a parrot, a blonde and a seeing-eye dog all walk into a bar, and the bar tender says, “Is this some kind of a joke?”
Well, in a similar way following that opening, the question I want to pose may seem like one: What do politicians and pastors have in common?
Or to put it more accurately, What do people of faith and public officials share?
Or once more, What do Mayors have to do with Pray-ers? (And by that, I mean the people doing the praying and not the praying itself.)
This morning, I would like to venture a public answer to that question.
What struck me as I was preparing these remarks was that in all the years that I have been coming to the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, is that the emphasis has always been on the breakfast, and more recently on prayer but rarely on the Mayor.
Now, I have never met a Mayor or any other public official that didn’t gladly receive every prayer offered. But in all the years of going to a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, I don’t recall ever once hearing a presentation that sought to bring Mayors and Prayers together. I can recall ever hearing a presentation that had anything to do with the place for our spiritual commitments in public and political life.
And I understand this. We are mostly uncomfortable with mixing mayors and prayers, public life and spiritual life. Preparing for this morning, I remembered another time when I was invited to talk to a government-sponsored gathering as a representative of the local religious leadership. Now, this wasn’t the city council or CUSD school board. But for me, it was an equally intimidating audience and an equally important topic.
I was invited to speak to my son’s kindergarten class and share about my job as a pastor.
Now, my son is currently a freshman at San Clemente High School, but I distinctly remember how nervous his teacher was at the idea of having a pastor come to class. Since neither taking an offering nor giving a sermon would be appropriate we finally settled on doing a mock wedding where one of the little boys got “marry” his teacher (and thus fulfilled one of my child fantasies.”)
But my favorite moment was when we gathered in a circle and I asked the kids what they thought that pastors did for work. They were a pretty sharp bunch of kindergartners, so they quickly answered, “Pray…teach about God…lead worship…care for people.” Deciding that I needed to stretch out the discussion a bit, I asked my son, “Brooks , what else do I do as a pastor?” Thinking that this would be a good chance for him impress his little friends, I waited for him to say, “You lead the people of God, Dad, teaching them to grow in faithfulness and righteousness, so that we might live as a Community declaring the presence of the Kingdom of heaven come near in Jesus Christ.” But he didn’t say that. What he said was, “Well, you try to make people laugh.” (I think try being the operative word here.)
Let’s face it, most of us, most of the time, we want to keep political life and spiritual life as cordoned off as possible. We want them to be near each other, but we don’t want them to overlap, or intermingle. Except on rare occasions. As the sign in one public high school said, “In case of earthquake, fire, tornado or terrorist attack, the ban on school prayer is lifted.”
It is not that Americans are irreligious, it’s just that, except in rare circumstances, we believe that religious belief should be relegated only to the edges of one’s personal life. According to Stephen Carter’s book The Culture of Disbelief, while Americans feel positive about faith, we believe it should function like a kind of hobby in a person’s life.
In other words, it is perfectly okay by most people in our world to have God in your life, if your faith is something which adds to your life but doesn’t rearrange your priorities. Something which you enjoy but you would never insist that others should consider. As long as your devotion to God is no more than your devotion to golf or the Angels or surfing, everything is fine.
However, once your belief in God affects the organizing center of your life, than people in our culture—even people in conservative Orange County—tend to view you as unbalanced, fanatical and slightly ridiculous. As being a bit “off-center.”
And indeed, this morning, I want to suggest something that will make some people nervous, though I want to demonstrate why I think they needn’t be.
I want to suggest that if we are people of faith then we need to live from our faith as the center of our lives in every arena life. Indeed, that is what I challenge my congregation to every single week. If we are followers of Jesus Christ then must live from Christ as the center of our lives; allowing our commitment to Christ to rearrange our lives--and not just our private, devotional lives, but all of life. That our faith in Christ must show up, not only on Sundays in the pews, but in classrooms, and board rooms, in command centers and in day care centers.
And today I’d like offer some practical suggestions for some common ground for all of us as people of faith, regardless of faith conviction to be able to work together for the common good.
So while being deeply aware that I am walking on sensitive terrain, let me go back and rephrase my opening question:
What do people of faith and public servants have in common?
If you recognized the New Testament reading from this morning, you have already realized that I have tipped my hand, haven’t I? Because what we all have in common, is that if we are people of faith, then, we ARE ALL public servants.
And the title of servant, regardless of tradition, is I think a common ground and common job description for us to consider, though I really only feel comfortable in speaking from within my own.
As a Christian, the title of servant is given to all who would follow Jesus Christ. This is what St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about his own vocation in 2 Corinthians 4:5: we proclaim…Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants...
So what this means to me is that whether a public servant is a person of faith or not, as a person of faith I am a partner with all public servants, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, in “seeking the welfare of the city where God has sent (us).”
What this means, faithful public servants, Mr. Mayor, City Council, City Staff and deputy Sheriffs and Fire Fighters, school teachers and all the rest of you, is that we who are people of faith consider ourselves as instructed by God to serve alongside you, as servants, for the good of the city that God has led us to.
And so in a spirit of partnership, let me offer three encouragements for how we can all, public officials and people of faith, serve together as a community of public servants.
If I was just speaking to a Christian or Jewish audience, I’d say, think Biblically. But since I believe that in a pluralistic world there is absolutely nothing to lose by being as respectful as possible, I’d like to suggest that every one of us can find a basis for serving in the sacred writings of our traditions. And that we should.
For me as a Christian, this sacred, or in my case, biblical thinking, leads me to this key conviction: The Creator God is busy at work healing all the world, by reestablishing his loving reign and rule through his people. And everything I do as a public servant whether I am standing in the pulpit or walking down Del Mar, or sitting in a PTA meeting, is to try to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer: Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven.
For me, as a Christian it leads to ask this question, that I learned from New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, in everything, I do: What would it look like, if God were running the show?
Now again, this will make some of us nervous. Talk of God and Kingdoms bring rise to the ideas that Christians want some kind of Theocracy. But that is not the Biblical Ideal. The Biblical Ideal is from the very beginning of the Book, from Genesis. It is the idea that God is the only ruler and that all humans are to work together as his servants, his stewards, reflecting God’s values and intentions into every arena of life. God is the ruler, not any person and all humans are called to be the image of God, to reflect God, to represent God in every arena of life.
What would it look like if in everything I did, every decision I made, every allocation of resources, every judgment call, every family decision, I was representing as a servant and a steward the God who is truly the ruler of this planet?
This is what I want you to consider: Today, wherever you go, look at your feet. See where you are standing and commit that in some small way, you will make that space that your feet take up, a bit more like God intends the world to be.What would it mean, if we, as a community of public servants were all committed to one common goal, to make this community in some small, humble way, bit by bit, more and more like the way God intended the entire world to be?
Now granted, in a pluralistic world with many different theological beliefs to come up with a shared understanding of service might be difficult. And this is going to mean that many of us need to spend a good deal more time, learning and practicing our faith commitments for the common good.
We also are not always going to agree on everything and our worldviews and our biases must be open to examination and more and more conversation. And since this is tricky stuff, it requires the second and even more practical suggestion, that if we are going to be a community of public servants, we must…
There is an old line, “Sticks and Stones will break my bones, but names will…put me in therapy.”
Perhaps the most disheartening moments for me as a San Clementean are when I read the editorial pages, or when we enter an election cycle. Spin, accusations, half truths seem to rule the day. We get lost in lawsuits and arguments that should be discussed as neighbors and friends.
The public conversation takes on a disconnected and destructive tone, does it not. And we wish there was a better way.
In the Christian tradition, we believe that words have power. That far worse than any stick of stone are the words that we use with each other. Because we believe that speaking makes things happen. God spoke and the worlds were created. A human being confesses faith and their destiny and direction of life is changed. And especially, that when we speak the truth in love to each other, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, we contribute to each person becoming the person God intended them to be.
Let me suggest that this one powerful principle can change everything. Always, in every circumstance, Speak the truth in love.
Speaking the Truth in love doesn’t mean calling someone a fool with a smile on your face. It means very clearly in the New Testament, to speak the truth, so help you God, in relationships of love.
If nothing else, can we commit as a community of public servants that we will always in every circumstance seek to speak the truth in love? With my church leaders, this means that we commit to two things:
1) Always seeking to discern truth and build the relationship at the same time.
2) If you can’t speak the truth then build the relationship.
3) If you have a relationship, then for God’s sake, speak the truth.
If we are going to be a community of public servants, then how can our words become in every public situation a reflection of how much we care about this community and the people we share it with?
Put bluntly, we must walk our talk. If we are people of faith and if we want to be effective public servants, then Our Sunday commitments must have Monday-Saturday results. And we must do so before a watching and increasingly skeptical world.
Another thing that people of faith and public officials have in common is that the very mention of them evokes cynicism from people. We now live in a world where pastors and politicians are both considerable less credible than used-car salesman.
This should challenge us. If we are people of faith who are trying to serve each day from the central conviction that there is a God who is the true King of the world, who wants the world to be healed and the people of the world to experience his loving will, then everything we do should reveal that.
This means for us that as people of faith must be consistently committed to being public servants whether we are standing in our sanctuary, tutoring in our schools, or partnering with business people or caring for our neighbors.
For us at SCPC, this conviction was only confirmed as we underwent our big remodel on our campus. We developed a great amount of respect and appreciation for our city staff and as a church we began to see our selves as a significant presence in the downtown T zone. We also have seen a number of new families come to our church who live in Talega and have committed ourselves to be a congregation that bridges any divisions between zip codes and works together for one San Clemente.
Two years ago we began a church-wide discussion where we asked the question: What legacy do we want to leave in the year 2035? In 2035 when I will certainly no longer be the pastor of the church, when many of our members will have gone on to glory, when the young families that are hear now will be the old guard and the teenagers will be the leaders, what will this church stand for, what will we have accomplished, what will we be about. And do you know what the overwhelming answer was: Our legacy is to bless our entire community.
We dream of being considered by the people in our community as one of the most significant assets in the community. We want people who are NOT part of our church to thank God for our church. We want people who don’t believe in God to consider our church to be one of the reasons why San Clemente is such a great place to live.
We want the entire Tri-city area to be a place where the sense of community, commitment and neighborliness helps us raise our children to be exceptional people, and offer people a greater quality of life. We dream that some day, universities and businesses will look upon an application and see that someone was raised in SC and they will be more in demand.
We want to see all the churches strengthened, to deploy exceptional people from our congregation into all walks of life, who by their examples and their commitments challenge all people from San Clemente not only to make this a great place to live, but from this place make a difference in the whole world. We want our entire community to be the kinds of place where the values that we share mean more than the property values of our houses.
We dream that someday a realtor will be trying to sell a young couple on the value of raising their kids in this community, in this school district, in this web of relationships, values, ethics, compassion that we pass on through the generations and that realtor-when she lists the many reasons why someone should move to San Clemente—will mention the churches before she mentions the beach.
We need to live out our faith with a sense that we are servants, partners together to make this town all that it can be because we know that it is rare place and because we know that together we have been given a rare privilege and calling—we are servants together for the common good.
At the end of the Academy-Award winning film, Saving Private Ryan, an elderly man stoops down in a graveyard staring at the headstone of another man whom he had known for only a couple of days fifty years earlier. The man is obviously in heart-wrenching emotional turmoil. His chest is heaving, his face screwed up as he tries to hold back tears that glisten in his eyes. He can’t speak and swallows hard. His wife, gray-haired, soft-faced and bewildered stands next to him.
“James, what’s the matter?”
He barely croaks out, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life.”
“What?” she asks incredulously, looking to the gravestone.
“Tell me I’m good man.”
Suddenly a look of understanding comes over her face. They had never talked about it before, and she didn’t know the details, but she understood. “You are,” Mrs. James Ryan says resolutely. And then she moves back with the rest of the family, letting her husband have this moment alone.
With a surprisingly quick step, he snaps to attention and salutes the gravestone of Captain John Miller, who died in 1944 in the French countryside near the end of World War 2.
Most of us know the story of the film by now. In the days following D-Day, a small squad of soldiers is sent deep into enemy territory to retrieve one army private and pull him out of battle. Every one of his brothers had died in the war and the General George C. Marshall himself had ordered that this one son of a family that had suffered so much was going to go home.
But once James Ryan was found, he and the band of men sent to locate him completed Ryan’s task of holding a bridge until reinforcements can come. That task cost Captain John Miller, the officer sent to find and save Ryan his life.
After taking two bullets to the chest, Miller sat on the bridge looking at Ryan. He pulled the then-young private close and whispered, “James, earn this. Earn it.” And then he died.
Fifty years later, in the memorial park at Normandy, he would say to the marker that represents John Miller, “Everyday I think about what you said to me back on the bridge….I hope that at least in your eyes, I have earned what all of you have done for me.”
My friends, I believe that is the motivation for all those who would be public servants. As a Christian, I am motivated to serve others in response to the sacrificial serving love of Jesus Christ. But I am also motivated by the gratitude I feel for living here and enjoying this most remarkable town.
With gratitude for what we have been offered, for what has been entrusted and for what we are able and called to do, we are to “earn” the trust, the sacrifice, the confidence, and the responsibilities that we have been given.
As a Christian, I want to be considered a good man, a good pastor, a good father and husband in my Lord’s eyes. But as your friend and neighbor, I also want to do a good job with my duties, so that together this town can be led by a community of public servants who in everything we do, think sacredly, speak carefully, live authentically.
Wherever your feet take you, my fellow public servants...remember the trust that you have been given, and the blessings you have been granted...and earn it.