Two Sermons

Carla J. Bailey Nov. 13, 2016

When I was 10 years old, my best friend Debbie Wheeler told Tommy Scorcewski that I had a crush on him, and I was sure the world would come to an end that very day.

When I started college in the fall of 1972, George McGovern was running against Richard Nixon for president. My roommate chaired the McGovern campaign on campus. She was sure McGovern would win, and when he didn’t, she thought the world would come to an end. Of course, not long after that, Nixon’s presidency unraveled and my college friends and I grew cynical about government and truth-telling and power, but the world did not come to an end.

In 1986, when Chernobyl disintegrated and radioactive clouds drifted for thousands of miles, killing life and causing generations of deformities and cancers, many of my friends in the anti-nuclear movement thought the world might very well come to an end.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, when the draft was instituted during the Vietnam War, when the death penalty was made legal in 1976, when Columbine confirmed that our violent culture was reaping violent children, when the World Trade Center towers fell, and when, this past Wednesday morning, I realized I would actually need to preach today, someone, somewhere thought the world would come to an end.

Seven or eight months ago, when it appeared likely that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee, I sketched out an outline for the sermon I would preach today if he should win the election. It has been on my computer desktop—opened from time to time to add a few thoughts, but, truthfully, I never really thought I would need it. Yet here we are. Hence today’s sermon title: “Two Sermons.” I’m only going to preach one today, though there are about a hundred swirling around in my mind, and the one I am preaching does not resemble at all the one I had sketched out for after a Trump victory. I could not anticipate how this would feel, how frightened I am for our nation, for people I love, including my children—most especially my children.

I know that some of you are already uncomfortable with the direction this sermon appears to be going. I’m fairly certain some of you voted for Mr. Trump, perhaps out of party loyalty or general antipathy toward his opponent, or you are among those who simply believe that change, however chaotic and scattershot it may be, was the best choice. Time will tell how this next chapter of executive history will be written. There will be days, events, policy setbacks both foreign and domestic and legislative endeavors about which one of us, your Plymouth ministers, will no doubt preach. We can’t today imagine what those will be, and so I am trying to steer clear of speculation. Instead, I am sticking to a fairly narrow preaching path: What do people of faith do now?

Every day this week I changed my mind on which Scripture text to use as the basis for my sermon, until finally I just settled on one for the bulletin, which is not the one I am using today after all. I have been sick this past week so have been awake in the night a number of times, and I have turned to reading Scripture to find the comfort and encouragement I need to face these next four years. These four passages I am about to read made sense to me in the wee hours, but I should remind you I had a fever. Even so, here they are:

Jeremiah 6:14

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Psalm 8

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mortals that you care for us? Yet you have made us a little lower than You, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have given us dominion over the works of your hands.

Luke 19, from the story of Palm Sunday when Jesus finally made it into Jerusalem:

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would shout out.”

And finally from Matthew 25, just a few verses from a story Jesus told about what is to come in the future Reign of God when God sets about separating the sheep from the goats. You’ll recognize the reference.

“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

For the past few days, it’s been difficult to keep emotional and apocalyptic perspective concerning the results of the election. I have found myself doing the routine things of living—laundry, picking up more cold medicine at CVS, reading emails—and then suddenly the thought comes to me: Donald Trump has been elected president. That thought sends me back to the Internet, where I read one analysis after another. But they are all unsatisfactory, ultimately. Most of the opinions I read, from admittedly the left-wing media—the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune—end up with similar conclusions to these words from Vox, written by Ezra Klein:

A majority of Americans thought Trump unqualified to serve as president, even on the day of the election. Most Americans heard Trump brag about sexual assault on tape. Voters knew Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns and probably hadn’t paid income taxes for decades. Voters saw Trump lose his ability to form coherent, factual sentences after the first 20 minutes of all three debates. Plenty of people knew Trump was buoyed by Russia’s direct intervention in the election. People had read his tweets, seen his bullying, watched replays of his cruelty. Polls show that in narrow ways, the voters saw what I saw—people do believe Trump is unqualified, unkind, dishonest, indecent. It just didn’t matter.[1]

*             *             *

It has been an act of sheer will to pull myself away from the articles and opinions, the speculation about the Electoral College and what it means that twice now in the past 20 years, we’ll have a president who didn’t win the popular vote, the conspiracy theories about Russia’s involvement, the FBI’s questionable actions in the last week of the campaign and on and on and on. The fact that I could not escape my name printed next to the sermon in your bulletin forced me to think in ways I have been educated and nurtured to think—and that is through the lenses of my Christian faith: my call to ordained Christian ministry, which call has primary authority in my life and requires of me to think like a disciple. With that in mind, I’d like to make three observations about where we find ourselves in our nation today.

First, I believe that God is acting in all things at all times. I first read that radical thought in the book The Responsible Self, by H. Richard Niebuhr (Harper and Rowe, 1966). At one and the same time, that concept made my faith experience both painful and liberating. God is acting in all things, in all people, all places, all moments. We are very skilled at identifying God’s hand in wonderful things—crediting God for all the good we see in the world. And we all feel good when we humbly thank God for all those blessings. But believing God is acting in all things at all times requires us to do some heavy theological lifting. Where is God acting? Everywhere. When is God acting? Now. How is God acting? Well, that’s the hard question, isn’t it?

I know this sounds just a little too predestinationist—that God has everything all planned out for us, beginning to end, you know, predestined—and I am certainly not saying that, as if we are all just characters in some cosmic play already written with a foreordained final act. Let me assure you—nothing could be farther from my religious construct. There isn’t some divine, cosmic script whose lines we are compelled to speak without our own will or interpretation, ad-libbing or improvisation. No one, not even God, knows what happens next.

What I am saying, and it is, I believe, the point H. Richard Niebuhr was pressing to drive home—faithfulness to God cannot depend solely upon evidence of our good fortune. Our blessings, multitudinous as they are, did not come about because God’s magic wand touched our heads as we slept in our cribs, skipping over the cribs of the less fortunate. No, believing that God is at work all the time means that I must summon from the depths of my being trust in God. Who am I that I should understand the mind of God? Or that I should be given sight to recognize God’s hand at work? Should I not instead offer to God my deepest, most humble gratitude that I am alive, that I know how to love, that I care that the world is a mess and that I feel an obligation to do something about it? Our theological work after this election is not to wonder how God let this happen. That is arrogant theology. No, our theological work is to respond to God’s desire for us to love, right now, this moment, everyone, everywhere. For some of us, the most loving thing we can do for a while is to walk away from the bully. I know that seems counterintuitive to a love ethic. But if the only other choice we can come up with at that particular moment of confrontation is violence, it may be more loving to walk away. Do you see what I’m saying? God at work in all things at all times means whatever we are doing anywhere and anytime is a response to God who is at work.

Second, we who have made the decision to be disciples of Jesus now are forced to confront what cost that may incur. Let me tell you a story. In 2002, Dartmouth College invited Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers—to be its Commencement speaker. The decision caused quite a stir, particularly when it meant he would receive an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth. The backlash was vicious in that way of Ivy League–speak—cutting, cruel, cold and bloodless. But the invitation had been made and accepted, and graduation day soon came along. The ceremony went forward, and the speaker was introduced. In that quiet moment between the applause and Mr. Rogers’s first words, a strong male voice rang out from the graduating seniors’ section: “We love you, Mr. Rogers!”

Fred Rogers’s speech that day was magnificent. He ended it by saying “I like you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”[2]

You may have recently seen other words Mr. Rogers said often to children: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” That is powerful wisdom for all of us, especially for children. But here’s the thing—we’re not children, you and I. We’re adults. We need to be the helpers, and now is the time for us to help.

This election has generated fear in those who already struggle to trust their safety. In just three days, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, over 200 incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation across the country were reported.[3] There were many examples of vandalism and epithets directed at individuals. The targets were African Americans, LGBTQ persons, Muslims—particularly girls and women wearing hijabs—people not speaking English, young women and Jews. Disturbingly, the most commonly reported location where incidents of harassment occurred were K–12 schools.

I imagine many of you have heard of the simple action of wearing a large safety pin on your shirt to show that you are a safe person. Safety pins have become a symbol of solidarity with refugees and other migrants since the historic Brexit vote to leave the European Union this past June. Now, many of us across the United States want to wear the safety pin as a sign that we are safe persons and we are allies for anyone who feels personally threatened in this aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. You’ll find bowls of safety pins in the Guild Hall and Jones Commons. Worshippers at the early service were given safety pins to wear. I encourage you to pick up a safety pin and wear it, but with this one caveat: If you choose to wear a safety pin, that means you are willing to be an ally, and that may place you in some uncomfortable if not dangerous situations. Wear the safety pin if you are committed to nonviolent presence, if you are willing to let someone know, quietly, that you will stand with her or him, call 911, record what is happening and so on. You may never be in a position where you’ll have to make that kind of decision. For you, wearing the pin will provide you opportunities to bear witness to solidarity with those who are legitimately afraid because of the things Donald Trump has said and done. Think how you’ll answer the question “Why are you wearing a safety pin?” Wear the pin but don’t be naïve.[4] Quiet presence goes a long way in defusing highly volatile interaction, but a safety pin won’t protect you from violence.

Finally, and I close with these words because I need them maybe even more than most of you here this morning. Recite the Serenity Prayer to yourselves. Often. Right now, in fact—those of us who know it, let’s say it together:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I can scarcely remember a time when I have needed this prayer more than now. I cannot change the outcome of the election. I cannot personally stop what Mr. Trump’s candidacy and election has unleashed across the nation—a kind of casual cruelty, breathtaking in its ugliness. I cannot change those things. But there are a few things I can change, and those are my responsibility to do. I can be kinder myself, and more courageous in standing, physically, beside someone who is afraid. I can work harder locally for gun violence prevention, genuine interfaith relationship building and calling out racism in myself and others. I can do those things. And to keep from slipping into depression, or rage, or old behaviors that lead to self-destruction, I can work at knowing the difference, and so can you. So must you. So must we all.

Old South Church in Boston, a colleague congregation to which I turn for strength, good ideas and encouragement, posted this message on its Twitter feed, so I close today with their words:

What is our role in the wake of a painful presidential election? What is our role, Christians? This:

  • To be light and salt wherever we go.
  • To protect and defend the vulnerable.
  • To comport ourselves with both courage and kindness.
  • To be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
  • To pray for our leaders and our nation, while bending no knee to any earthly potentate.
  • To break the law when and if the law becomes insupportable.
  • To read our Bibles and hew to the ancient ethic of welcoming the stranger, for we were once strangers ourselves.
  • To love God who authored our diversities and proclaimed them good.
  • To honor the Prince of Peace by redoubling our commitment to the One who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.
  • To defend those who have been called out, ridiculed and threatened: persons with disabilities, Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBTQ folk.
  • To remember the plight of those middle- and working-class people whose economic suffering is real and whom globalism and technology have left in the dust and rust of the industrial past.
  • To speak the truth that persons of color are disproportionately subject to mass incarceration, racial profiling, poor schools and environmental racism.
  • On behalf of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have a role to play and work that we cannot shirk. Bow your heads and roll up your sleeves, Christians. Let us get on with it.

Let us get on with it. Amen.

[1]Ezra Klein, “The hard question isn’t why Clinton lost—it’s why Trump won,” Vox.com, November 11, 2016, http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/11/13578618/why-did-trump-win (accessed November 16, 2016).

[2]Fred Rogers, “Fred McFeely Rogers 2002 Commencement Address at Dartmouth College,” Dartmouth.edu, June 9, 2002, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2002/june/060902c.html (accessed November 16, 2016).

[3]“Over 200 Incidents of Hateful Harassment and Intimidation Since Election Day,” SPLCenter.org, November 11, 2016, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day (accessed November 16, 2016).

[4]Isobel DeBrujah, “So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin,” What a Witch, November 12, 2016, https://isobeldebrujah.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/so-you-want-to-wear-a-safety-pin/ (accessed November 16, 2016).