“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, 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.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And 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 you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So 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. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
And that is our Gospel passage after a particularly divisive, troublesome presidential election.
One where many people are protesting the President-elect, while others riot. While still others face everything from off-color comments to threats and intimidation and even physical violence because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, immigration status, and political affiliation, all in the name of the election. Some of the people who have experienced these things are my friends. Some belong to this congregation.
Graffiti in Boston lashed out at the President-elect. Hikers found swastikas, racist graffiti, and campaign references on Mount Tom this week. The world seems to have gone crazy, and it’s come right on up to our back door in western Massachusetts.
Knowing all of this, and that this is the text what we’re given, preachers around the country, including myself, are given this question: “What shall we say?” (1)
What shall we say, given that so few congregations are made up of people who all have the same or even similar reactions to the election?
What shall we say, then, given that almost all of us are pastors to both people who are happy about this election, people who are genuinely frightened, and still others who just want everybody to calm down for a second?
What shall we say, given that preachers are human and we each have our own opinions and concerns and even fears?
My seminary classmates and I graduated in 2011. For the majority of us, this not our first presidential election in the parish; we also preached after the 2012 election.
But this is not 2012.
All Presidential elections are divisive, but this one was different. Nastier, you might say. Some people always feel nervous, too, about the results of every presidential election, but this year the national panic reached a fever pitch as the two most unpopular candidates in history faced off. We lashed out at each other. We are still lashing out at each other.
It is an understatement to say the least, but America is not its best self today.
My colleagues are preaching in congregations of Black and Latinx and LGBTQ voters who are afraid: for their safety and for their rights. Their congregations are part of the body of Christ.
Other colleagues stand before congregations in the rural South who are pretty much all feeling quite proud of our President-elect. Their congregations are also part of the body of Christ.
We have both here at Our Savior’s, and we are the body of Christ.
So what now shall we say?
I can tell you what I will not say. Though I believe that God is in control, I was also a history major. God being in control has never precluded bad things happening, and God being in control is small comfort when you consider history.
God being in control has never meant a positive social climate where everyone gets along and all are safe. Those climates have never existed, at least not for every person.
Rather, faith seems to flourish most under duress. I think of the rich and beautiful history of the Black church, with beautiful and heartfelt spirituals that date back to the horror of slavery. Of leaders like Richard Allen who refused to let the white church treat them as less than human. Of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, male and female, who refused to let the Church or broader society do the same.
When my seminary classmates and I huddled together on Wednesday and Thursday trying to figure out what to say to you all, we all joined in on a private Facebook message. I remarked that I was struggling – how are we to be honest about our own concerns, and echo those in our congregations who are concerned and afraid, while also being the pastor to everyone? The election is over and the aftermath is ugly.
So now. What shall we say?
My friend Katie, a Methodist pastor in the state of Washington, responded: what would you need to hear?
Such a simple, profound question. Katie is good at that.
What would I need to hear?
Katie knows my convictions about preaching. She knows that I want the sermon to be for everyone. But until that moment I had seen this as an impossible task. But what went from what must have been the Holy Spirit to my brain to my fingers made me cry.
What would I want to hear? “That we will not forsake each other.”
Whether you are happy or whether you are neutral or whether you are truly dumbfounded and afraid about this election or whether you just want everybody to calm down, it’s difficult to argue that we are not now more divided than we have been in recent memory. We don’t live in the same realities anymore.
The Gospel this morning includes folks speaking to Jesus about the temple, how big and beautiful it is. And Jesus told them that soon, not one stone would be left upon another, but all will be thrown down.
We cannot trust in institutions to save us. Not the institutional church and not the government. “God is in control” does not mean that everything will always remain as it is and never get scary. We must not forsake each other.
If the church has anything useful to say today, it cannot be a cheap platitude. So this is what I’ve got: we have to learn to see each other again. We’ve got to learn to disagree and be civil again. We’ve got to learn to see each other as human again. It’s going to take some hard conversations. None of us is going to like what we hear, and we have to fight to make sure that people feel heard but are not allowed to abuse others. We must stand up for those being hurt.
No matter where you stand today, this is going to be hard. Your votes are in the past. I am not, nor will I ever be, concerned with how you voted. What matters is what we do now.
We cannot forsake each other.
Jesus today describes circumstances of duress that have existed throughout history: wars, rumors of wars. Famine and earthquakes. Betrayal by family and friends. Jesus’ promise that “by our endurance we will gain our souls” at first seems like little comfort.
Jesus invites us to not prepare any defense in advance to those who hate us. I wondered about that this week, a week with so many in-person and Facebook arguments and counterarguments. I decided on something.
Jesus isn’t talking about sending us the perfect argument so that we’ll be right and those who hate us will be wrong and we’ll feel superior.
All arguments are contradictable. That’s why we call them arguments. Jesus isn’t going to send us a magical mic-drop moment so that we would be super impressive because we didn’t even prepare.
I don’t know about you, but when I prepare for an emotional conversation, I stew. I get madder and madder. I mount my defense and I prepare my evidence. And what often happens is that all of that goes out the window when both I and the other person first acknowledge that we deeply love each other.
Any argument can be contradicted. Even your most bomb Facebook argument where you’re actually logically right but the other person lives in another reality and uses another kind of logic.
What cannot be contradicted is humanity. What cannot be withstood or contradicted is pure, overflowing grace. What cannot be withstood or contradicted is radical love of one another.
This does not mean that this will be easy. We will be uncomfortable. We will make tons of mistakes. And there are, quite frankly, conversations that cannot happen yet. Not until our emotions calm down. We are not our best selves right now. We must avoid telling each other how to feel or what to think. We have to let each other work all of this out for ourselves and we have to protect people from harm. Election results are not a license to beat up and intimidate minorities. Racism, homophobia, and intimidation are against our values as Americans and as Christians and, regardless of how we feel or how we voted, we must. Say. No.
We must not forsake each other. We must not forsake the vulnerable. We must comfort the afflicted. We have to dare to see things through the eyes of others. Some of us will have to tell each other hard truths. We have to be willing to listen to hard truths. We will have to have the courage to bear witness to each other’s pain and realize that some of us are more vulnerable than others and protect those people because that is what Jesus would do.
Lutheranism came to America in small immigrant communities. The first Lutherans to live here were Norwegian and Swedish and German, among other nationalities. They did not speak the language most people spoke. Most were not rich; they mostly settled in cold climates relied on each other. And they learned to sing beautifully, perhaps because the pressure that their circumstances put on them hammered their voices like gold into perfect harmonies.
Garrison Keillor once wrote of us singing Lutherans:
“If you ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Lutheran-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’, they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Lutherans they’ll smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!
Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment.
I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.” (2)
Because of your voices swelling with mine to promise that we will not forsake each other, I am inspired to believe, as crazy as it seems, that God will not forsake us either.
On Tuesday night, some of us gathered to sing and offer prayers and gather around the table. We sang “they will know we are Christians by our love,” and read the Gospel text from John which has the same words, from Jesus to us. I did not intend this to be a kum-ba-yah moment, and it wasn’t. The command to love one another is the only moral commandment in the entire Gospel of John. My John professor in seminary speculated that this was because it is harder to fulfill than any other commandment. We have some hard conversations ahead of us. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to say and hard to hear. This, as Jesus says, will give us an opportunity to testify, and by our endurance we will gain our souls.
So what shall we say today?
The only thing that we can say. The only thing that we can ever promise. That regardless of how we feel today, our singing and gathering here around this table and eating of the same loaf and drinking of the same wine – forming us together into the body of Christ – means that we will not forsake each other.
So let us, as much as it depends on us, work and love and humbly listen as if someone else’s faith and well-being depends on it, because it just might.
Let us not forsake each other so that maybe all of us, no matter how we feel about the future, will be able to believe that God will not forsake us either. Amen.
1. Title of sermon is respectfully borrowed from Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdman Publishing, 2011.
2. Garrison Keillor, Church People: The Lutherans of Lake Woebegone. Prairie Home Companion Series. Highbridge Audio, 2009.
3. Title photo source: http://allsaintsmtka.org/sundays-2/music/hymns-of-our-faith/