A sermon preached in the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral on November 13, 2016, the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, by the Very Reverend Judith Sullivan, Dean of the Cathedral.
As the leaves fall and the days grow shorter, we move closer to the end of our cycle in the Gospel of Luke. In just two weeks, we enter a new liturgical year in the season of Advent, and we will begin again to tell the story of God in Jesus Christ, only then according to Matthew. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Today, just as Jesus has done, the Church turns its face towards Jerusalem and we find him in the Temple, teaching and preaching. He has already made his triumphal entry with palm branches and singing for the Passover feast. He has already cleansed the Temple. The events which will lead to his arrest and trial are already in motion, moving quickly to a conclusion that we already know. Our encounter with Jesus next Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, will be on the cross, and it will be the final reading in our appointed texts from Luke. So it is no wonder that on this penultimate Sunday of the year, that the reading from Luke is imbued with a sense of the apocalyptic—of suffering, of the temporality of this life, and of the end times.
For Luke’s original audience, who lived near the end of the first century, the destruction of the temple was a recent event. And for them, all the circumstances that Jesus describes as signs of the end times had become part of the present reality: False teachers, wars and insurrections, famines and plagues, persecution and betrayal. They were a community in crisis with no relief in sight.
Living two thousand years later in relative comfort and security, we cannot claim to understand their fear and dislocation. We are not struggling for survival nor are we a people persecuted for our faith. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know something about crisis.
For many of us, this past week has been very difficult. If not apocalyptic, we might paraphrase Judith Viorst to describe last Tuesday as “a no good, terrible, very bad day”. No matter how you voted, if you voted, and I hope that you did, the result of the election is deeply disturbing. It held a mirror to the deep fault lines in our country, to the deepening divisions among us according to culture, geography, education level, and gender. And if there were signs, if there were rumors, we missed them and we were unprepared for an unexpected outcome. Many of us are grief stricken, heartsick, and afraid about what all the signs failed to predict and afraid of what has already been confirmed since by some domestic terror events in this city and throughout the country.
Despite the goading of political pundits and commentators who are now trying to gloss over so much, we cannot pretend that any of this will resolve quickly. Inflammatory statements have inflamed, threats have generated fears, and grief must run its course.
Let’s not mince words this morning: Racism, sexism, sexual abuse and exploitation, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and discrimination against people who are differently abled are sins. Period. If a vast segment of the body politic refuses to grasp this, the body of Christ must. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus did not equivocate and neither should we. This is the standard to which we must all be held and it is the standard upon which we must insist from our elected officials and our democratically elected government.
This fall we have spent quite a lot of time talking about American politics and the Kingdom of God, thinking about and discerning our response to this election cycle as followers of Jesus. It has not been easy. Politics are highly seductive because they often weave together our best hopes and our worst fears with ideas and some lofty ideals which often resonate with our religious values. Politics also offer the promise of bringing change and of making a difference. Sometimes they succeed in this and sometimes they do not. Like our great nation, because they are so profoundly human, they can disappoint.
I speak from firsthand experience because for several years of my younger pre-ordained life, I worked on political campaigns and worshipped actively and hopefully at the temple of the Democratic Party. [You won’t find this, by the way, in my bio on the website.] It’s very ironic to me that political work changed my life and brought me back to God. I saw up close and personal that political candidates and elected officials are mere mortals, not messiahs, and that even the best-intentioned, best-crafted public policy is not the same thing as the Gospel. Finally, after a bruising and deeply disappointing political loss in 1992, the so-called year of the woman, my heart and pride were broken open enough to see and to believe that the love of God and the way of Jesus provide a remedy for the suffering of the world that secular politics cannot.
That way of Jesus is a way of resistance and compassionate solidarity that is far broader, far deeper than the platform of any political party. Its heart is focused on Kingdom values of love, compassion, forgiveness, and inclusiveness. And naïve as it may sound, this, sisters and brothers, is the way for us. We must pick ourselves up off the floor and stand in solidarity with all who are afraid and vulnerable now and that includes anyone who has been injured or fears injury in body and in spirit, everyone who has been denied fullness of life, everyone who has been demeaned, everyone whose dream has been once again bitterly and unfairly deferred.
I am in that group and I suspect that you are, too. Solidarity means that we are not alone and that we will not grow weary of fighting for the dignity and safety of every child of God. I’m not sure what that will look like for us here and for the greater Church, but we will find the way together. I envision a period of Gospel based activism the likes of which we have not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The safety pin on my stole today is a dependable sign of that solidarity in this beloved community of God, the body of Christ, and I encourage you all to wear one. One of my favorite passages is from the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews. It has brought me strength in the past and it brings me strength today: “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” And from Thessalonians today, “Brothers and sisters do not grow weary of doing what is right.” Please hear the emphasis on doing.
Jesus’s way of compassionate solidarity also extends to those whose opinions are different from ours. If there will be healing across political differences, we are each called to tear down our own arrogant temples of pride, certainty, superiority, and ignorance. A wise teacher of mine once said when you draw a line between yourself and others, you should always expect to see Jesus standing on the other side of that line. Make no mistake, loving our neighbor as ourselves extends to red states and to blue states. There are real concerns, real pain, and a real sense of powerlessness and fear behind much of the voting that was done last Tuesday. If we care about our neighbor, we need to care about this, too.
Finally, we consider compassion for ourselves. Put down your cell phone. Stop posting on Facebook. Turn off the news. There is only so much of this that we can absorb. And then sit quietly, expectantly, listening for the still, quiet voice of God assuring you of the beauty of your own soul and of the tranquility to be found in resting in God for a little while.
This is not the apocalypse. Because we are followers of Jesus, we know that as difficult as it may be too see, all works together for God’s purposes. We know that we are loved and that we are not alone. And we cannot imagine God’s capacity to transform human constructs, even those which we find abhorrent, and God’s capacity to surprise.
The postscript to the Gospel story is that the first century community does survive the crisis and the fateful moments described in Luke’s gospel today. Jesus encourages them to faithfulness and these early followers of Jesus who do not yet call themselves Christians carry on with extraordinary courage in the face of grave challenges. They trust in the promises of God; they endure; they gain their souls. You can read all about it and more in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
There will be a postscript for us, too, because this story goes on, the coming of God’s kingdom goes on, and so will we go on. Remember that we must never be fooled by what looks like victory in human terms, and not in God’s terms. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends towards justice.” The book is not closed on us, my friends, and there is much to do. We begin. AMEN