SERMON:9 Pentecost c 8 11 19
You've heard me begin many a sermon with a reference to the collect, the opening prayer in the service, which orients us toward our readings and our calling for the week ahead. During the past week Molly and I have been on vacation and I prayed this collect numerous times for a simple reason: I wanted to bring back a thoughtful sermon on a difficult subject.
The collect asks for the spirit to think and do always, those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.
I had this large challenge looming over me: to think and do always those things that are right.
I also had in my mind a FaceBook meme I'd seen recently that showed a young man with a backpack speaking with Jesus. The young man asks "So why do allow things like war, suffering, disease, crime, homelessness, despair, and so on to exist?" And Jesus responds, "That's interesting that you should ask because I was about to ask you the same question."
Further, I had had a very lengthy and interesting conversation with a close friend, a friend from my journalism days in Fairbanks, Alaska nearly 50 years ago. He, like many of my friends, is interested in my relatively late call to the ordained ministry. He asked me why the church has been so quiet in response to some of the negative tactics and behaviors utilized by Donald Trump.
I was puzzled that he said this. Not that I expect him to follow religious commentaries, but I felt there had been lots and lots of criticism of the direction the country's leadership was taking. I told my friend I'd seen dozens of articles and posts commenting critically on the scandalous methods and appointments and policies of the present administration and I told him I'd forward some of them to him. My friend was appreciative and he has responded and continues to respond with surprise and enthusiasm as I've sent him more and more.
I bring up this subject today for two reasons: one is that both our Hebrew Bible reading and our Gospel this morning make clear we are responsible for doing the right thing. For Abram that was doing as God asked. He didn't do it for the reward God gave him. He did it because he believed in God and what God wanted. In the Gospel Jesus described a master and slave relationship, observing that the slaves should always be doing what the master expected of them just as we should always be doing what God expects of us, which is to love our neighbor.
The other reason is that just as my friend asked the question there was a new national gasp of horror as our president attacked personally a member of Congress who opposes many of the current administration's policies. Not only did Elijah Cumming get attacked personally for policy differences, he was attacked as a racist and a bully and his home district in Baltimore was derided and ridiculed.
Molly and I recently spent a few days in Baltimore with our daughter and her family. I have had 40 year interest in the city and especially its seaport because when I entered the field of seaport management in Alaska, Baltimore was the prime example of a working port with a people-friendly waterfront. And it still is. But Baltimore has had political difficulties, including a series of police scandals that resulted in an investigation that found that the police force operated outside the law. They actually said it operated as a gang.
Well we know little about political dysfunction in this town. We see signs of recovery and hope, however, and I assure you there are similar signs in Baltimore. But to have the city maligned as rat infested and a disgrace by a leader whose job it is to lead people to better actions and better relations, this was a low, low act. It reflected not on Baltimore but on the person who demeaned himself to make such remarks. The implicit if not explicit racism of these attacks, on Baltimore and its Congressman are unconscionable, irrational and a dog-whistle symphony for white supremacists.
I would like to think the Biblical reasons are what motivated me to address this so fully with my friend and with you. But once again I find myself confounded by the chief executive of our nation and his inability to address issues rather than personalities, to speak to principles rather than offer ad hominum attacks.
This came on the heels of repugnant attacks on four members of congress who fearlessly stood up to him and who happen to be female and non-Caucasian, including the "send them back" chants inspired by our president. Rather than calm down the crowd calling for, I don't know, deportation or expulsion from our nation of elected members of Congress, he delighted in the rowdy crowds and stood silent rather than remind this audience they were citizens and elected members of the US Congress.
Then in the aftermath of the two shootings in Dayton and El Paso Mr. Trump failed to call the attacks racist acts by white supremacists. When enough attention has been drawn to his silence he said he opposed all forms of hate, whether by white supremacists or antifa, the label applied to a loose organization of anti-fascist / anti-right wing groups that counter neo-nazi, racist, and white supremacist gatherings, often using direct action tactics and violence themselves.
The notion of analogizing white supremacists and their adversaries is outrageous. The use of false equivalencies by this president and his administration has been developed into a rhetorical absurdity. Remember there were "many good people" on both sides of the Charlottesville rally that ended up with a dead protester?
Easy access to assault weapons may be the perfect symbol of the times we are living in. The gun lobby and the gun industry hold our Congress in thrall even when our national gun death toll eclipses that of any nation many times over. Our Congress has permitted this plague to exist and grow, and gun rights fanatics to deny even hearings on gun control legislation. When it comes to gun control, Congress has no shame and no spine.
These issues are but a few--admittedly the most major--of the troubling issues confronting us. In the course of my extra week of sermon preparation I also have read more articles and commentaries and I have found myself wondering what I should do and how far should I go in doing it. Everyone knows about the separation of church and state and the expectation that no one is going to suggest voting for or against a person or a topic from the pulpit. That does not mean that acts that violate our principles and our sensibilities should not be pointed out or must go without comment.
There may be people in this church, in this very gathering, who voted for Donald Trump. There may be people in our church who intend to vote for him in 2020. That is no one's business. But what is everyone's business is that the incumbent president of this country has demonstrated willful ignorance of and indifference toward a long list of principles and practices on which this country was founded and which until 2017 guided the occupants of our White House. This ignorance and indifference and the acts they have enabled include despicable and hateful acts toward women, persons of color and other minorities. This is not only an act against those persons and their demographic group. This is an affront to all persons of integrity, for all who believe our country's greatness is its diversity. And that our nation's soul is in peril.
For me as an Episcopal priest, as a person who ardently desires to fulfill my baptismal covenant and do all I can to respect the dignity of every human being, the actions and attitudes I have described indict our president and bring immense shame on our country. Our national hypocrisy has never been so boldly exposed.
Perhaps most of all we need to say "enough!" We need to say it to our neighbors and our friends, we need to say it to those we know and those we don't, we need to say it even to those who support Mr. Trump for one reason or another.
We need to shake things up so that our nation's highest office can once again be seen as one possessing dignity and thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion, intellect and high purpose. We need to stop this leadership charade.
We don't need to do this for political reasons. We need to do this because our calling is to help others, not to ignore or impede or challenge them. Our job is to help, not hinder.
As a nation we cannot sit by while a political minority makes Machiavellian "ends justify the means" decisions about immigration, trade, military affairs, guns, Russian election interference, and dozens of other issues of national import. These are serious issues which deserve serious treatment, not Twitter warfare or name calling on friendly networks.
I thought a close look at the Baptismal Covenant in our Book of Common Prayer might strengthen me for the events that have taken place and, most likely, those to come. If you want to follow along in the BCP, the five key questions of the Baptismal Covenant begin on page 304.
When we "...continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers" it means feeding people, both sacramentally and through bodily sustenance, as in our food pantry; it means also we follow Jesus, like the apostles taught us.
When we "... persevere in resisting evil..." it means we avoid it ourselves and call it out and protest it when we encounter it, as I am doing in this sermon."
When we "...fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord" it means we wake up to what is going on in us and around us and we do something about it, for God's sake.
When we "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" it means we take Jesus' perpetual message of peace and love and we apply it in every corner of our lives, both private and public.
When we "...seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbor as (our)self" it means we help people, especially those who are marginalized or persecuted, whether they are citizens of Baltimore, members of Congress who are persons of color, would-be immigrants at our border or neighbors visiting our food pantry. We look for the spark of holiness in each person we encounter and we serve that person as we would serve Jesus. And in case you were wondering, yes, this applies to those with whom we disagree.
Finally, when we "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" we stand up to abuses of power and privilege, we defend those who are maligned and marginalized, and we work to restore systems that have been distorted to better reflect our national values. We stand against children in cages, families separated at our borders, and insufficient resources and records to reunite them speedily.
What do we do?
If we look around us we realize there are movements and programs that invite us to participate in the reversal of a couple of the political disasters we are living through. The flames of blatant racism that have been fanned in recent weeks will be publicly opposed at an anti-racism rally at The Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck after church this morning. If you want to be on time, leave us after Communion at the 10 am service. On Aug 17, next Saturday, at 1:30 pm New Yorkers Against Gun Violence will hold a rally at Church and Market Streets in downtown Poughkeepsie. And if you want to help the Republican controlled Senate decide to address the plague of guns in our nation, email Senator Mitchell McConnell to call the Senate back into session to address vote on two bills that represent a start in gun reform in our nation. One of our New York US Senators, Kirsten Gillibrand, is organizing the effort to move the Senate on this. Ask me for the email to urge the Senate to vote.
Those are things we can do to address a couple of the scores of issues that are crying for attention. But we also need to take care of ourselves, to avoid discouragement, to find peace and to share it with joy. Keep praying. Pray for our president and his misguided minions. Pray for peace for the world and for yourself. Ask God to fill you with hope and confidence in what we can do to right this listing ship of state.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding through us and millions like us bring about the change for which our nation cries.