November 13, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
We have just come out of an exhausting and divisive campaign and the post election climate continues to be one of anger, blame, fear, and hurt. Although I believe firmly in the separation of church and state, I believe just as firmly that that doesn’t mean faith has nothing to say to the current situation. What is faith if not a means for us to come to terms with our humanity, to understand our role in society, to learn how to treat our neighbor, and to teach us how to welcome the stranger among us even when that stranger is a spouse, colleague, golfing buddy, hairdresser or beloved uncle who in the act of voting differently from you has suddenly become incomprehensible to you? Faith is exactly for these times and so faith should inform not only our interpretation of what has happened to us as a country but also how we go forward from here.
Before I continue I want to say two things: the first is that the emotions of the election are still raw for many of us on both sides of the aisle. Trump supporters are still feeling the joy of their surprise victory and Hillary supporters are still awash in grief, and if we try to circumvent those feelings too quickly with thought, even if those thoughts are couched in the language of faith and delivered in the most eloquent of sermons, we will suffer. Let yourself feel what you are feeling and respect the feelings of others to do the same. I hope especially that Trump supporters will respect the grief of the women and girls who hoped finally to see a face that looked like their own in the White House. This is for many a deeper despair than the simple loss of an election.
And secondly, I fully realize that I can’t resolve the country’s problems in one sermon. In fact, I couldn’t resolve the country’s problems if I had 100 sermons to preach on this issue because I am not a politician or sociologist; it’s taken us many decades to get to this crisis point and it will take us a long time to find a way to become one people again. All I want to do today is offer a few faith perspectives that I think can inform the way that we move forward from here. In reading much of the commentary these past few days, I’ve been struck by how many pastors and religious blogs and even non-religious types are recommending love for this disease that affects our nation: “Just love one another,” they prescribe hoping that treating one another with kindness will fix everything. Well, I do believe that love is the answer in the end but I also believe that going right to the commandment to love skips a few important steps, and if we rush to “love” as the solution without doing some necessary faith work first, we won’t have the strength to stay the course. Instead, our love will give way to weariness, apathy, or worst of all, hate because before we get to love, we have to make sure that we done the backbreaking job of properly tilling the ground to ensure that the love we plant has a chance to sprout and flourish.
So the first place I suggest that we as Christians put our plow in that soil is in perhaps the most non-partisan statement in the entire Bible: Romans 3:23 which says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The only thing that pollsters may have gotten right about the 2016 election is their claim that Trump and Clinton were the most unpopular candidates in any election in modern history. Though there were distinct policy differences between the two, most often the media focused on the candidates’ personality traits and whether the candidates had the kind of character that we want in our presidents. In addition, people on both sides argued over the accuracy of the other side’s portrait of their candidate’s presidential fitness. I don’t think I read a single Facebook argument over the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, but I often had to scroll through hundreds of angry posts arguing about whether Hillary is really crooked or whether Trump is really a racist. In fact, even as I remind you of those debates I imagine that many of you are mentally jumping right back into the fray defending your candidate of choice in your mind and grousing that the “the other side refuses to except reality.”
The reality that we as Christians are called to accept is that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Both candidates were flawed, as are all candidates because we elect human beings, and that means that in every single election, we as voters have to come to a decision about which candidate we are going to support based on what we believe that candidate can offer the country in spite of his or her flaws. There was no perfect candidate in this election because there never is a perfect candidate. We decide which flaws — or to use religious language — which sins we are willing to forgive in order to choose a candidate that we believe can most fully achieve our hopes and dreams. Trump supporters were concerned about the affect of globalization on economically depressed areas of the country, about entrenched politicians, and the future of the supreme court and so they were willing to forgive the sometimes intolerant rhetoric of Trump’s campaign in order to achieve what they feel are extremely important goals. Hillary supporters, on the other hand, were willing to overlook her propensity to secrecy and her links to big money because of their desires to continue to make America a place of welcome to all people. We all made choices about which sins we could forgive and which sins were unforgivable on the basis of which hopes and dreams are most important to us. I say this because if we are to heal the divisions between us, we have to let go of our sense of moral superiority. With the exception of extremists on both sides, most of were forced, as we are in every election, to weigh our hopes against our fears. If we try to love one another while also believing that we are morally superior to our opponent, our love will fail because moral superiority automatically puts our opponent beneath our feet. You can’t love someone you are trampling all over in self-righteousness.
The first step then in healing our divisions is cultivating the humility to listen to one another with an attitude of openness, to acknowledge the validity of the other person’s hopes and dreams, and to take seriously as well their fears. I’m not saying that these conversations are easy: a man who has spent his career working on improving race relations once said, “The best conversations are the ones that make both sides feel uncomfortable.” We need to have a lot of very uncomfortable conversations and we need as people of faith to be willing to humble ourselves to listen to the other side.
“We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Our faith reminds us of our common weaknesses, but the Bible also warns us that there is a huge difference between a sinful person and a sinful institution. Those very same sins which we may have been willing to forgive in a candidate can become dangerously destructive when augmented by the power of the state.
There is a wonderful passage in the Old Testament (I Samuel 8:9-12) in which the people of Israel go to the prophet Samuel and say, “All of the other countries around us have kings. We want a king too. Please ask God to give us a king.” The prophet Samuel consults with God who says, “Say to the people, ‘[A king] will take your sons and [make them] run before his chariots… He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and all of orchards and give them to his courtiers…. And in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves but the Lord will not answer you on that day.”
The people of Israel nevertheless insist on getting a King and the rest of the Old Testament describes an ever shifting ground as kings who strive to honor God’s ways give way to kings whose fatal flaws drive the Israelites to despair and destruction. Yes, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God but sin when combined with power is given teeth. The flaws that we were willing to overlook in a campaign cannot continued to be ignored when the candidate of our choice becomes president. We will never know how Hillary’s personal flaws may have damaged our country or White House, but Donald Trump’s willingness to flirt with right wing extremists in order to win this election remains a real threat to our society. I would hope that Christians on both sides of the aisle will concede that Donald Trump’s flirtation with hate groups, his rhetoric against immigrants, and his casual disregard of women cannot become the predominant characteristic of his administration, and the prophetic voice of faith insists that we take seriously the damage that could result from continuing to be willing to overlook those flaws in this man.
I have a son whose birth certificate reads, “St. Michel, Haiti.” John is black and a naturalized citizen, born outside of these borders. I have a niece who in the past year came out as gay and who struggles as well with her gender identity. I have two other nieces who are bi-racial, and both of those nieces as well as my son John are themselves involved in interracial relationships. I stand in a pulpit which thousands of people throughout our country believe should be solely the province of men and I have two sisters who likewise by their ordination are, in the eyes of many, consigning their very souls to hell. When I was young, my family was the portrait of a Norman Rockwell painting, a white middle class family living in small town America but within one generation, through family and career choice, we have become a poster for diversity. Moreover, I am the pastor of a church with members who are gay, with members whose primary language is not English, with members who are the parents of gay children or of children who like my son John were born in a different country. I want to give Donald Trump a chance to be a good President, but I am also very personally aware of the suffering that my own family and many of the people in this congregation could endure if his failings become the dominant characteristic of his administration. If Donald Trump is going to be a president of character for all of the people, we have to follow the lead of the prophets who called the Kings of Israel to resist the temptations of power to give teeth to their own failings and instead rise to a higher calling. A great step in healing our divisions will come when people on the left believe that people on the right will not brush off those fears as unrealistic but will say with us, “I promise that if such things come to be, I will stand with you in denouncing them. I will hold my President accountable too, and insist that he rise to a higher calling.”
Jesus said that we should be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. The call of the Christian in any time of upheaval and discord is to love one another, but Christ doesn’t call us to a sentimental love that relies on easy feelings of charity and civility: Christ calls us to a difficult love that has first plowed the ground necessary for that love to grow.
We will cultivate humility so that we will not wield our love as a hammer from a position of moral superiority but as a grace offered between equally sinful human beings.
We will cultivate prophetic watchfulness realistic about the damage that can be done when the flaws of mortal human beings are combined with power and be ready to intervene on behalf of the behalf of the most vulnerable.
And then finally, we will be ready to love and when we do, we will be able to love as Christ loved, with grace and sacrifice, throwing our very lives into the fray.
Last June, after the shootings in the Orlando LGBT night club that killed 49 people, members of an anti-gay hate group picketed the funerals of the victims, carrying signs that read things like, “God hates Fags.” The police couldn’t legally prevent the demonstrations so a group of volunteers formed an “Angel Action.” They dressed in long flowing robes with wings held up by wire shoulder straps that spread out to each side in a voluminous curtain, and on the days of the funerals, they formed lines between the protestors and the grieving families entering the churches. And as they stood, they sang. Those families knew that there were men and women spewing hatred on the streets just beyond but for that moment, all they could see were angels, and all they could hear were voices singing, “Amazing Grace.”
Christ calls us to denounce hatred wherever we see it, whether it be from the extremists on both sides, or in the subtle jabs between neighbors, or even in our own hearts.
Christ calls us to to be a bulwark against bigotry, to speak up against cruelty, and to welcome the stranger, listening to their hopes, their dreams, and their fears.
And Christ calls us regardless of our political persuasion to throw our very bodies and voices into the fray, not in anger, not to meet hate with more hate, not as a sledgehammer of moral superiority, not as a soldiers in a battle against our fellow citizens, but as an angel brigade determined to shield the vulnerable with the sight and song of God’s grace.