Sermon – November 13, 2016 – Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 26
Who Are We?
Why Are We Here?
What Shall We Do?

So, how was your week?  Sleepless, anxious, excited, hopeful?  I’ve hear all of this, some more than others.

Couple of years ago, the bishop shared with us a suggestion for how to proceed with congregational reflection. He suggested posing three questions, who are we? Why are we here? What then shall we do?

I don’t know about you, but I think questions like these are urgently in order in the wake of Tuesday’s election.  That election was the result of a political process that it turns out was not rigged. It was an expression of preference by people who call themselves Republicans and people who call themselves Democrats, with a few independents thrown in. For many, the outcome has resulted in anger and fear. Protests have erupted in dozens of communities around the country, individuals who are members of minority groups have been targeted with taunts and even threats. That has even happened in our own home town here. Others are satisfied with the results because they felt ignored and disenfranchised. They see the results as a vindication of their own anxieties and they look forward to change.

So amid the handwringing and the chest thumping, what are we as the church to do in the face of this political process, what are the people of God to do?

Who are we? While we may identify with a political party, or with the Cubs or the Twins, or we prefer dogs to cats, none of these is our primary identity. None of these links us to the ultimate power and purpose of our lives, and none can claim our principal allegiance.  Politics, baseball, and especially cats, make lousy religions.  They have funky rules that are always changing.  They are fickle. And you will always be disappointed.  Especially with cats.

Our identity is linked first and foremost to the person and mission of Jesus Christ. That’s why they call us Christians.  We live out that relationship in the community of the church, the body of Christ. There we are named as children of God, established as partners and heirs of Christ’s gracious kingdom and bound to one another and God through our baptisms.  The source and norm of our identity and vocation are located in the Scriptures first, and they are the lens through which we regard all else. We particularly identify with the expression of that faith through a Lutheran perspective. Our community’s greatest gift to the whole of the church is the reclamation of the gospel claim that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and by no other means. Not politics, not our resumes, not our wealth, not the color of our skin, not our worldly preferences or by whom we love. We are therefore, first and always, disciples of Christ, not because of who we are but because of who Christ is.

Why are we here? If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then ours is a particular mission and vocation. It is a mission and vocation of hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, advocacy for the least, healing, and the proclamation of this good news to and for all people. As believers living in a broken world, ours is to make these claims whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, and to do this work through all and any just means possible. We are believers in an active God who is always at work for the good of God’s people. And we believe that God works for the good, and calls his community to do likewise, through all human endeavors. That includes governments, schools, workplaces, organizations of goodwill, bureaucracies, families and the host of human systems. Into all these places the community of Christ is called to seek and promote that which honors God and serves the neighbor.   Jesus lays this out without nuance in our gospel lesson this morning, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  That is why we’re here.

So, what then shall we do?  First, we pray.  We are gifted with the promise that the God who is the sovereign source and end of all things hears and answers our prayers.  We lift up our anxieties, our hopes, our fears.  We pray for courage, for openness, for our neighbors.  We pray for our government and our President and all those in whose hands we place the responsibilities of civic life.  We pray for those in fear and in danger.  We pray for peace and national well-being.  For starters.

Then, maybe a real good next step would be to listen to one another. If we had been, maybe we would not have missed the anxiety and hurt of a swath of people who feel that our system has been rigged against them, that good jobs and a place at the table have been denied them. These are legitimate and heartfelt concerns.  By all indications, that was a foundational reason that people voted for change. We cannot escape the irony that those same anxieties and frustrations have been expressed unambiguously by parts of the community’s that are now opposing each other. On these issues, you could hardly pass a playing card between the anger and frustration and disenfranchisement of many of the prevailing voters and the participants in minority advocacy groups.  But we haven’t been listening and we need to start. In my premarital conversations, we do a communication activity where one is to express exactly what one wants and the other is to repeat it back to them. It’s called assertiveness and active listening.  Saying what you want, and hearing with integrity what the other says.  At least half the time this exercise collapses because the one whose turn it is to listen preempts the other’s voice by their own need or uncertainty about their partner’s motives.  For example, one partner says, “I wish you would pick up your dishes and put them in the sink when leaving the table.” And the partner responds, “I hear you saying you think I’m a pig and don’t pull my own weight around here. You are always harping on me, “do this, do that. I’m not so sure this is even a good idea.” That’s an exaggeration, but it is typical of how we listen and speak to one another. What then shall we do? We can start by hearing one another. Never before in my experience of watching public debate and the political process, and I watched a lot, have I seen us collapse into these echo chambers where we preclude the opportunity hear one another.   Here’s some news folks. Cable news, talk radio and Facebook are not necessarily the greatest resources for respectful conversations.  And all the people said, Amen!

Another thing we can do is to remind ourselves that each of us is created in the image of God, that God regards each of us as one another’s neighbor, and let that inform our address to one another. You all know the juvenile and petty name-calling that characterized this campaign cycle at every level. Libtard, redneck, Nazi, moron and a host of words that are not fit to repeat from the pulpit.  All of us are accountable for these things and all of us need to repent and seek one another’s forgiveness. These words, these names are meant to tear down and not to build up. They have no other purpose, and if we use them then we are accountable for them. Let’s just freaking stop it.

Because words matter.  Another thing that is incumbent upon us is to tell the truth. Some people, some groups are afraid and hurt because of some of the sentiments that have been expressed in this campaign. That’s the truth.  We need make no apology by responding in faith to advocacy for and solidarity with those who feel unfairly targeted by this rhetoric. Already school administrators at every level have been required to intervene in attacks on individuals because of their race, religion, sexuality or national origin.  Parents tell me that young girls wonder aloud if the rules have changed on how they can be viewed and treated by boys.  That is simply wrong and we all know it, and to ignore the consequences of this rhetoric flies in the face of Scripture’s call to practice justice and to love the stranger. And when our institutions and leaders fail in these things, we can with good conscience seek remedies that ensure the protection of and give voice to their concerns.  Even as we do so, we need to tell another truth, that not everyone who seeks political remedies for policy questions like immigration and national security or jobs do so as bigots or racists or jugheads.  But when people leverage our systems to peddle hate and contempt as a way of doing business,  we must challenge and condemn them with one voice.

We need to remember together that each of us is responsible for this good news of hope and reconciliation, of God’s promised presence and God’s intended good for all people.  Not long ago the church adopted a motto for our work in the world, “God’s work, our hands.” No amount of handwringing or shouting from the sidelines accomplishes that work. As we believe that God institutes means for promoting and sustaining this world so too do we believe that we are partners with God to those ends. Someone in conversation with a member of my family said the other day, “God puts who God wants in the office of the presidency.” That is simply ludicrous. God did not put Donald Trump in the office of the presidency anymore then he put Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or the other 41. People did that, and it is the people – especially those of us who name our primary allegiance to Christ – who together are called to hold government accountable to the least, to seek and promote civil, respectful debate, to respectfully imagine that those with whom we disagree may seek the same ends by other means, and to pray for those charged with these awesome responsibilities.

So we need to get busy, because, brothers and sisters, we are in this together, not because of how we vote or where we live but because of who we are, children of God, disciples of Jesus, the body of Christ.  I am proud to be the pastor this community and so full of conviction that we can be a model for how we love and serve our neighbors and each other though the time be favorable or unfavorable. We have socialists and rock-ribbed conservatives who are among the most active members of this congregation. People who model for us, lead us and get this. Let’s do that even better together. Let’s hear each other respectfully, encourage each other enthusiastically and pray together fervently and hold each other accountable to the gospel that Christ died and rose in love for all people, let’s be kinder and more patient with each other, and then let’s take it out the door.  These are things for which we are stewards, for which we are accountable to for this community, this country and for the generations to follow.

We do so into the midst of flawed systems and institutions with skills and gifts that might seem inadequate.  We might be weary, discouraged or just done.  But God works through the imperfect with the instruments of his choosing, gives us, as Leonard Cohen reminds us, bells to ring.

Cohen died this week, and I am grateful that he shared these insights in his song “Anthem”,

“Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There’s a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

Our government, our systems, our relationships are imperfect, they are cracked, but nevertheless God brings his people to the opportunity to bear that light.  May we have the courage and faith to do so.