This sermon was offered on November 13th, 2016 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin.
As you will hear, or read, November 13th was the date of this year’s Annual Meeting. Our practice at Saint Andrew’s has been to offer the State of the Parish Report in lieu of a sermon on that day. We decided to break with that practice this year and address the emotions we are all feeling around the presidential election results.
While the sermon itself does not directly reference the readings assigned for the day you could feel the room react to the Gospel text. It is my prayer that the sermon was heard in the context of that reading form the Gospel of Luke. You can find that reading here.
The sermons I post on line are usually a cleaned up transcription of an audio recording. I take the liberty to correct my grammar and syntax, to reduce the number of times I use the word “and.” And to make small adjustments here and there to preserve my own vanity. In this case, and in honor of my CPE instructor who worked very hard to help us understand that when we are willing to be vulnerable and stand with someone who is in pain, “We are enough,” I have allowed the text to mirror exactly the words I spoke form the center aisle at the 8:00 service. I have also attached an audio recording of the sermon.
Those of us who wear this collar often joke that ours is a ministry of interruption. You arrive at the church in the morning with a to do list, a well-planned day, lots of things to accomplish, and then it starts. You have to decide what’s more important, the thing on my to do list or fixing the copier, the thing on my to-do list or repairing the network, or speaking to the cleaning company about the contract. There are lots of mundane and silly things that interrupt your day when you are a parish priest. But there are other things that interrupt our days that aren’t so silly, and things which immediately rise to the top of that priority list. When we get the call for pastoral care, when we learn that someone is hurting or is in pain, we immediately drop all of our plans, set aside our to do list, and we go.
Now that’s not an easy thing to do, to walk into a room or into a space where people are hurting, where people are in pain, and where people are struggling to make sense of what’s happened to them or to the people that they love. It’s a challenging and difficult thing to do. When I was in seminary I participated in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. This is a summer long program designed to give aspiring clergy an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a pastor, and to learn how to live in that place. I’ll never forget our principal teacher during that summer telling us that he wasn’t there to fill our toolbox with techniques, and things to say, and tricks to use to help ameliorate the discomfort and pain when we walked in to that space. What he told us was that we just needed to be present, to show up, to listen deeply and carefully, and that we were enough.
This morning it was our plan to offer the state of the parish report in lieu of a sermon. Today is our annual meeting and for the last several years, in order to save more time for the business at hand, we’ve offered that report at this moment during both liturgies on Sunday morning. But we have set that to do list aside this morning because we are in pain.
I want you to listen very carefully to my choice of pronouns here; we are in pain, we the people, we this community, we all of us.
Some of us are in pain because the words that have been used to malign us seem to have been validated by the election on Tuesday. Some of us are in pain because our vote is being maligned and motivations are being assigned to that vote and that action that are not ours. Some of us are in pain because the difficulties with which we struggle day after day seem to have been found less important than some other agenda. And some of us are in pain because the results of this election continue to be challenged through protest and demonstration. All of us have reason to feel pain right now.
I think for me, and I hope for all of you, the greatest pain in this moment is the recognition… the thing that we can no longer ignore… that we are so deeply, deeply divided. And that there is such a great distance between us. No matter what your politics, no matter where you stand on these issues, I think as Christian people for us the deepest source of pain is the recognition of our disunity, our dismemberment, and the polarities at which we find ourselves.
So I go back to the teachings of my CPE instructor in search of a way to manage and to address, to be pastoral in the midst of all of this pain, and I think that the first thing that we need to do is to be willing to listen to one another.
It’s difficult because this moment is so emotionally charged that it doesn’t take much at all to put us on the defensive, or to make us angry. And I think that it’s our tendency to assign motivations, and intent, and feelings to large groups of people when what we really need to be doing is listening to each other as individuals. “What is it that you’re feeling in this moment? I’m not trying to fix you. I’m not trying to change your mind. I’m trying to understand who you are and what you’re feeling so that this gap, this chasm that exists between us can be reduced. We need to listen, but listening won’t be the end of where we need to be and what we need to do.
You walk into a place where there is pain and you listen deeply and you stand in solidarity with compassion and grace with the person who is hurting and then you begin to work to ameliorate that pain. We as followers of Christ, as a baptized people, gathered together and formed as a community by our baptismal vows, have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love our neighbors as ourselves; to work for justice, to respect the dignity of every human being. And we know, because we are a people of the book, that words matter. Words matter. Words shape our understanding of ourselves and others. Words form the lens through which we interpret the world around us. And words can either lift up, and heal, and set free, or words can wound, and hurt, and oppress and destroy.
It’s time for us to pay attention to our words. It’s time for us to speak up. We have seen an increase in the incidence of hate crimes. I know of a Muslim woman in town whose child is being taunted on the playground, being told that their family will be deported. I’ve seen the pictures on the social media and the news of racial epithets being spray-painted on cars, and churches, and synagogues, and ugly notes being left people who are simply trying to live their lives here in this community. I’ve also seen the pictures of storefronts and car windows being smashed. There is too much violence in our community right now and we are all hurting.
As we go forward we need to live in to the promises that we have made to one another, and to God, and to this community; and use the words that have been given to us to begin to bind up the brokenhearted, to pour oil on the wounds, to replace the ashes with a garland of victory; to say we are all, all of us beloved children of God, that all of us are due the respect that comes from being the beloved child, that all of us deserve and need to be honored and held up; and that no one should be held down, held back, or pushed out because of the color of their skin, or their background, or the people whom they love, or where they are from. We are better than that.
You can argue that this is a political statement. And any time three people come together it’s about politics, but this is just who we are and what we believe, and no matter where we stand on the policies of our government, or of this land, we all need to agree that in this country we are all created equal; that we all have a place in this nation and in God’s kingdom. And we need to begin to work to re gather the children who have been scattered and to close the divide that exists between us.
Listen to one another. Listen to someone to whom you have never listened before. And hear their pain. Hear who they are. And then when the moment is right share your own story. It’s in these one-on-one interactions and conversations that we begin the work. We’ll be taking a little bit of an opportunity later this morning after the 10:30 service and offering one another an opportunity to just sit, and to listen, and to share. If this isn’t a safe place to do that then there is no such safe place. So please, please, as we come to this railing this morning allow yourself to shed the tears. And have compassion on the tears of the person whose kneeling next to you. Know that in this act we are made one, we are proclaiming our identity as one, and we are beginning two walk together once again.