I’ve not known what to say in response to the election; but the challenge and gift of preaching on Sunday, November 13, at All Souls’ Episcopal Cathedral resulted in this sermon. Rather than try to edit it for a blog post, I am simply posting the entire manuscript. The lectionary gospel of the day, which is the text for the sermon, is Luke 21:5-19.
Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, gave his life to care for the developmentally disabled, and he once offered a benediction which began with these jarring words:
May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness.
Vanier’s odd benediction reminds me of the well-known and ironic Irish blessing which says:
May those who love us, love us.
And those who don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping.
If Vanier had only said, “May all your expectations be frustrated, may all your plans be thwarted, and may all your desires be withered into nothingness,” there would be no blessing in his words. But he added: “That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God.”
We all know about thwarted plans and frustrated expectations; they are part of life. They’ve certainly been part of many people’s experience since late this past Tuesday night. The results of the election were more shocking than the Cubs’ winning the World Series.
The longshot won. Statistical genius Nate Silver, the bookies in Vegas, and almost every opinion poll thought that the odds were good that Secretary Clinton would become our first female president. It’s as if Donald Trump kicked a forty yard field goal in the last seconds of the game to win it in an upset.
Wednesday morning, part of the frustration—and anger and grief—that Clinton’s supporters felt was that their stunned realization that about half of the people in their country weren’t frustrated at all. They didn’t want to believe that their fellow citizens had put a man they see as a racist and a misogynist in the White House.
Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, couldn’t understand how anyone could have wanted to elect someone they see as dishonest, too-scripted, and beholden to special interests.
We can all see that we live in a bitterly divided nation, and the division isn’t simply into two different worlds but into multiple ones.
And, I think we all share fear in common. Fear voted and fear takes to the streets. Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas claims that, “If there is any mood that characterizes American culture, it is the mood of fear. The most powerful nation in the world runs on fear” (Approaching the End, p. 89).
Our children feel it. On Wednesday, a 5 year old boy in a Buncombe County school said to his young friend, an immigrant from Mexico: “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you. I won’t let them send you back.”
All of us—left, right, center; red, blue, and purple—feel gripped by powers and realities we can’t comprehend or control and which diminish and demean us. The fear we have in common is the greatest threat to the love we could have for each other. Fear keeps us from singing and dancing together as beloved children of God.
Near the end of his life, Jesus was teaching in the Jerusalem Temple; and, for the Jewish people, it was the safest and holiest place on earth. God had pledged always to meet them there. The ark of God’s promises resided at its heart. There, the people prayed and praised, admitted their sins and received God’s mercy, remembered who they were and recommitted themselves to faithfulness. They could not imagine themselves or their faith apart from the Temple.
As Jesus was teaching, some people talked about how magnificent and beautiful it was, and Jesus unsettled them when he said: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” That was unthinkable: it would be the end of the world as they knew it.
They asked Jesus: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” He said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” When the Temple is destroyed (which happened in 70 CE), Jesus said, people will announce that everything is unraveling, winding down, and giving-out. Fear will take to the airwaves and to social media to say: “Civilization is collapsing. Catastrophe is on the horizon. The earth is slipping off its foundations.”
Jesus used the rich and disturbing imagery of apocalyptic—earthquakes, wars, famines, plagues, portents in the sky, and persecution—to describe how dangerous, uncertain, and fearful the world would feel when the Romans reduced the Temple to rubble. And, astonishingly, he said: the end of the world as you know it is not the same thing as the actual end of the world. “Do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
The Temple, for all its beauty and significance, was a human construction. There’s nothing transcendent or permanent about any of our religious or national institutions. To look to them as ultimate, as essential to our identity, is to make idols of them. They cannot bear the weight of our expectations. All things human, even the things we most trust, can falter, fail, and fall. When they do, Jesus said, it will feel like the end, but it isn’t.
Even, he said, persecution is an “opportunity to testify”—to bear witness to the abiding realities of faith, hope, and love in the face of anxiety, despair, and fear. Don’t, he urged his followers, live your lives thinking about what you will say and do when the trouble comes: “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” If you focus on what might happen, then the dread of it will run and ruin you. Live in the present, not in your anxieties about what the collapse of once-dependable things might mean.
Richard Rohr recently said that Jesus offers us the “AAAAA recovery program”: Be alert, alive, awake, attentive and aware (Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, p. 134). The world has not come to an end, there are signs of God’s presence hiding in plain sight.
The challenge and invitation for us is not to surrender to our fears, but, instead, to renew our confidence in Jesus’ way of self-giving love.
He calls us to love our neighbors and our enemies, even when we’re startled to discover that our neighbors and enemies are sometimes the same people.
Jesus’ way is not naïve: when we love our enemies, we still recognize that they are enemies. When we live by mercy in conditions of brokenness, we don’t minimize the brokenness. When we seek peace, it is because we know we don’t have it.
Rather than “do unto others as they have done unto you,” Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you base you behavior on the actions of others, you will live your whole life in reaction to your pain. Be proactive for peace. Take the initiative to listen. Be first with grace.
Build a future of peace, a tomorrow of joy, instead of living in the rubble of resentment. Open your heart to what can be rather than nursing the wounds of what should have been and what might have been.
Historian Jeffery Burton Russell, after his massive study of the figure of Satan and all of the human evil it symbolizes, reached this conclusion:
Love is the remedy for evil. We are called to fight evil, but we are also called to know how to fight it. Evil is not effectively resisted with hatred and with guns. Evil cannot be defeated with evil, negation with negation, terror with terror, missile with missile. The process of negation must be reversed . . . The only response to evil that has ever worked is the response of Jesus . . . That means what it has always meant: visiting the sick, giving to the poor, helping those who need help . . . Above all, it means fostering children, loving them, not harming them, so that future generations may be less twisted. . . . The prescription is the same as it has always been; it remains only to follow it at last (The Prince of Darkness, conclusion).
We can live Jesus’ way of love, because he loves us first, always, and without limit or condition. He sees us and knows us for who we really are. He knows why we are like we are, how we’re wired-up, our wounds and strengths, and the sources of our hopes and fears. Seeing it all, he loves us. He joins us in our struggles, grieves with us, and weeps with us. He inspires our resolve to seek wholeness and gives us courage to confront the shadows within. Jesus loves us.
And he loves everyone else. He understands the people we find impossible to understand. He knows why the people we find most offensive are like they are. He cares as much for their flourishing as he cares about ours. He is as tender and forgiving with the people who anger us as he is with us. He cherishes the children of our enemies as much as he cherishes ours.
According to Annie Dillard:
Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav noticed that if dancers could persuade a melancholy person to join them, his sadness would lift. And if you are that melancholy person, he taught, persuade yourself to dance, for it is “an achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it into joy.” In 1903 [a year in which Russia passed a number of laws “hobbling Jews”], this same Rabbi Nachman said, “I have danced a lot this year.”
Sometimes, we have to, we get to, dance before we feel like dancing and let the feeling catch up. I know it’s a difficult thing to do, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Frederick Nietzsche said: “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Because God is still God and the world has not ended, the rhythms of rejoicing, the cadences of confidence, the harmonies of hope, and the lyrics of love are still sounding everywhere—even here, even now.
Sing and dance, child of God, sing and dance.