The Sunday Sermon: A Better Vision

Isaiah casts a vision of a better time to come, Paul exhorts us not to be weary in doing what is right, Jesus offers apocalyptic prophecies of end times and persecutions … I promise you that I didn’t choose these readings this morning: they are the gift of our lectionary. But they do have much to say to us today, and not just in the obvious ways.

On this Sunday in 2008 I lost a family from my parish because I didn’t preach that the election of Barack Obama heralded the full inbreaking of the kingdom of God. My congregation included people with widely varying political views; even within the choir there were people who, the previous Tuesday, had staffed the phones for McCain and some who had staffed the phones for Obama. For those who supported Mr Obama, it was a moment of great and idealistic hope for systemic change, but such change is slow and halting, not a straight line, more like a labyrinth, as we are now learning.

We Americans are a diverse people and, even within the cathedral community, we are a diverse congregation. There are undoubtedly people here today who on Tuesday voted enthusiastically for the winners, some who voted enthusiastically for the losers, and some who voted for a candidate they knew couldn’t possibly win. There are also people here who celebrated happy milestones in their lives this week – a baptism or marriage. There are people here today who lost a dear friend or family member to death in recent days. So, like any other Sunday, we are a mixed bag of emotions, joyful, heartbroken, confident, fearful, confused, serene …

But we are all here, together, for a common purpose. We gather today as on every Sunday to receive the bread of life and to remember who we are and whose we are. Celebrating or grieving, we do it in community, and our worship reminds us that we are one body in Christ, joined together by one baptism, sharing one mission. That reality transcends all other loyalties, all other circumstances.

On a day when we might be distracted by the drama of the past week, the Collect reminds us that what’s important is the hope of eternal life in Christ. That hope remains, regardless of any human event. God is much bigger than a president or a Congress.

In the Gospel Jesus reminds us that no one can change God’s ultimate plan for humankind. The only Savior is Jesus, and God’s love outdoes anything an individual can do for better or worse. We all need that reminder today: don’t place your hopes in any human being, because human beings don’t have the last word. Only God creates out of nothing, only God endures.

This Gospel passage almost feels like a contemporary commentary. Human institutions will let us down. False prophets, including pollsters, are not to be trusted. Families and friends betray us. People lie. Bad things happen, but we can endure, because we put our faith in a Savior who transcends all human limitations.

The surprising thing about Isaiah’s hopeful vision is how ordinary it is: people die of old age, babies grow to maturity, families have homes to live in and stable sources of income; the earth produces abundant food. To our ears, these aren’t pie-the-sky fantasies, but reasonable standards for any enlightened society. In this country they should all be goals long ago achieved and taken for granted. But the fact is, there are millions of people in this country for whom this is still a hoped-for, some-day dream. Our elders are not guaranteed skilled and compassionate care in their last days. Health care costs bankrupt families. The US infant mortality is worse than 27 other developed nations, and in some states the rate is below countries that have been wracked by war for decades. Our same-sex couples now live in fear that their marriages will be invalidated and their children taken away from them, that they will be denied employment with impunity because of their family configuration or because of whom they love. Our Latino families fear the knock on the door that will separate them. Climate change and our insatiable appetite for energy are torturing the planet, causing extreme weather, pollution, and famine.

For many of us, Isaiah’s vision feels further away today than it did a week ago.This is the hard part of democracy. Things don’t always turn out the way we want. But we don’t stop doing good, because we are people of a vision. And now we must roll up our sleeves once again and get back to work developing the kind of society where the vision can become a reality.

Isaiah and the other prophets constantly remind us that God has limitless capacity for new creation. We know that our God can redeem the most hopeless situation, can bring new things out of old, can bring life out of death. The Gospels proclaim this in the clearest terms in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the history of the Church proclaims it in two thousand years of persecution and yet growth, corruption and yet reform, decay and yet renewal. God’s creativity knows no bounds, and death is never the end of the story.

A relative in the UK asked me on Wednesday why the election of Mr Trump is such a big deal. After all, he said, the American people haven’t changed. I agree; we will be as optimistic and great-hearted a people as Americans have always been; but what we have all observed is that the shadow side of this nation, the racism, sexism and xenophobia that has always been a hidden part of our national makeup, has become much more visible. Thanks in part to the conduct of the campaign, It has become more acceptable to act out those attitudes, whereas a decade ago we were at least not seeing the openly hostile and violent behavior that we are witnessing now.

In one sense this is a positive step: you cannot cure an infection without exposing it, and you cannot heal a national sin without bringing it into the open where people are forced to own their complicity. So, while it is frightening and heartbreaking to see swastikas painted on public buildings, to hear hate speech at rallies, to suffer open discrimination and disrespect, it presents an opportunity for the church to act on Jesus’s words, and to witness to truth, justice, and love. We see the bad behavior and we can name it as sin and we can work to address it. As our Bishop said to us at this week’s diocesan convention, we must now be the conscience of the nation.

Someone once asked me why we pray for people in prison, when they deserve to be there. My answer was that we do what we do, not because of who others are, but because of who we are.

Over the last few months there’s been a lot of blame, a lot of harsh language, a lack of civility and kindness in public rhetoric. Most of us probably have something to repent. Now is a good time to remember and reclaim who we are.

The Catechism tells us that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to God and each other in Christ. The church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. We pursue our mission here when we love Christ, serve others, and welcome all; when we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, stand up for the powerless.

Maybe such general words aren’t concrete enough as we look at what lies ahead in this country, as we anticipate more open discrimination and an even greater disparity between rich and poor. Maybe we need to name specific actions we might take to testify to our faith as Jesus instructs.

I recently saw a comic strip which offered a suggestion for how to help when you see someone vulnerable being harassed or verbally abused (this specifically referred to a Muslim woman on public transportation, but it transfers to other situations): approach the victim and sit or stand with them. Engage them in friendly conversation about anything at all. Totally ignore the abuser and encourage the victim to do likewise. Offer to go with them to their destination or to a safe place. The combination of standing in solidarity with the victim and paying no attention to the bully can be an effective way to shut down unacceptable behavior.

Another action we can all take: seek out opportunities to be educated about your own level of privilege, so that you don’t inadvertently add to the pain others are already suffering.

A third action: refuse to engage in conversations blaming, shaming, or attacking people for having different political viewpoints from your own. Such conversations only deepen the divides among us, and we are called, not to division but to reconciliation.

We are blessed to be participants in God’s work of renewal and recreation. We have the privilege of sharing and implementing God’s dream for the world. We now have an opportunity to witness to the divine mercy and love that empowers us to endure; and to hold fast as one body to the blessed hope of everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
November 13,2016

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