Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
This morning marks the fifth and final sermon in a series that the Cathedral and other churches across the country have been engaged in during the runup to the midterm elections. We’ve based this series on that wonderful scripture from the prophet Micah: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. We have heard sermons on being just, being kind, being humble, and loving your neighbor as yourself. And I’ve been given the subject of the intersection of religion and politics. Let me just state the obvious: I clearly drew the short straw in this sermon series. I might also note that I’m fairly confident that my name was penciled in while I was on vacation.
But seriously—because we are in a serious time—it’s important that we reflect on this intersection in our own lives and in our public lives as we seek the common good, one for another. So where do we even start? I would say that a good place for those of us who are Christians is to start with the Way of Jesus and Scripture. The gospel lesson appointed for today comes at the very end of the fifth chapter of Matthew, which begins with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes, one of Jesus’ seminal teachings in all of Scripture. The passage at the end of that fifth chapter is probably one of the most challenging teachings. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s a tall order, isn’t it?
If I were to ask you, who are your enemies, how would you respond? I think some years back we might have, as a collective, had a difficult time filling in that blank. Today, unfortunately, not so much. It seems that in our public political life we too readily and quickly deem our enemies to be those who hold a different point of view, a different political point of view. And if you don’t believe that’s the case, just look at what is happening in our country. How in the world can it be okay for someone to break into the Speaker of the House’s home, calling out for her, and then, when not finding her, attack her husband with a hammer? How in the world can it be okay for a guy to show up with a gun outside the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh? How can it be okay for a group of men to plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan? Clearly things are not only wrong but incredibly dangerous in this country.
We too quickly are categorizing people with the scantest of information. Quaker Gene Hoffman said that “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” As Christians, we’ve got to go deeper, beyond scant information and hasty characterizations of people as a consequence. Another way into this issue is to reflect on our baptismal covenant. What do we vow to do? What are we in covenant to do? I’m going to remind you of two of the questions that we commit to.
• Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
• Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
We answer, “With God’s help, we will.” Note that these are active words: seek, serve, strive, respect. They’re not passive. Jesus was not passive in his day when he saw injustice and oppression. He showed up, He spoke up. So, too, must we.
One of the books I read in preparation for this sermon I highly commend to you. It’s written by Cathedral friend and member of the Cathedral Dean’s Council, Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas. It’s entitled Citizen: Faithful Discipleship in a Partisan World. In its foreword, another Cathedral friend, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean of the Seminary of the Southwest, puts it this way, “When good, polite, and well-meaning people of faith, in a sincere effort to get along, avoid the subjects of politics and religion, they abdicate both their civic and their religious responsibility, and they leave the conversation to those who will exploit division. The incisive diagnosis, the call to shared values, and the word of hope offered by the Christian gospel are silent, and the country and the world grow more fractured and more severely damaged. Realizing God’s dream for human flourishing recedes, and the church of Christ is weakened. Those who are commanded to love God and to love neighbor and to be a community to heal the world cannot escape the responsibility of politics.” I agree. I also want to be clear that, like the Dean, I make a distinction between being political and being partisan.
How do we go about getting to know, to listen to, and to learn from those whose views may differ from our own? It takes effort, time, and intention. What is behind people who would show up on doorsteps of public officials intending to do harm, sometimes in a deadly way? What’s behind that? What causes these actions? One insight that I’ve found incredibly meaningful is from an article in the current issue of The Christian Century. It’s an interview with an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who lives in the West Bank, who along with a Palestinian, co-founded a nonprofit called Roots. The organization was founded in about 2016 and the whole premise is bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, face-to-face, just to have a conversation and to hear one another’s stories.
Suffice it to say, that on the surface, one would easily call them enemies, but as Gene Hoffman reminds us, an enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard. In the article, Rabbi Schlesinger talks about how he was brought together with a neighbor, a Palestinian, and as he listened, he was undone. All the things he’d been taught to believe and understood to be true were challenged by what he heard. He literally became nauseous by hearing another’s story. He asked, “How had I not heard these stories and met these people, living 30 years right next to them? …How could that be?” Yet now, person by person, two by two, transformation is occurring. He says this about their process, “Roots is not political—we’re not a political movement. But we are having a deeply political effect because we’re changing people’s ultimate understanding of who they are, what they’re doing here and how they should be living their lives. …You have to rethink: How could it be that we’re so similar?”
How could it be that we’re so similar? Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking. We’re called to love and to pray for those with whom we differ.
Delving into our history as a nation and thinking about a time when it was incredibly dark, dangerous, and deadly, I can’t help but reflect on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln and how he led this country in that difficult time. Some of us are visual people and I’m going to ask my friends with the cameras to bring up an image that has tremendous meaning for me in this cathedral. It depicts, as you can see, Lincoln on his knees praying. It is a sculpture that was created by Herbert Houck. The story goes that Houck’s grandfather came upon Lincoln out in a field, kneeling in deep prayer as he was preparing to give what we would come to know as the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was a man of deep and abiding faith who sought the counsel of the Almighty so many times. Lincoln is purported to have said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Our Canon Historian, Jon Meacham, has just published a biography of Lincoln entitled And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. He talks about the intersection of religion and politics in Lincoln’s life. Meacham says the following, “To Lincoln, God whispered His will through conscience, calling humankind to live in accord with the laws of love. Lincoln believed in a transcendent moral order that summoned sinful creatures, in the words of Micah, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God—eloquent injunctions, but staggeringly difficult to follow.” Note that our Canon Historian says difficult, not impossible.
I want to leave you with a quote from Lincoln. “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” Lincoln said in his White House years. “Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance on God, knowing that all would go well, and that He would decide for the right.”
My brothers and sisters, there’s no question that we are in a dark and dangerous time, but we are not without hope. For I, too, believe in the God who created us, who loves us more than we can ask or imagine and who is always prepared to guide and direct us. The same one who promised to never leave us or forsake us to the end of the age. This is a time for us to stand up, speak up, and for heaven’s sakes, vote. Vote for those who share those values that you hold dear. Those who seek, serve, strive, and respect the dignity of every human being. Those who can see the common good and work actively in pursuit of it so that all God’s children may experience something of the kingdom of God in our time, in our place. We can do this. We must do this. And with God’s help, we will. Amen.