“The End or the Beginning?”

Isaiah 65:17-25

On Wednesday evening we had our weekly rehearsal for the Old North Festival Chorus. Earlier in the day Maria, our minister of music, had dropped by the church office to talk about how she would begin the rehearsal, knowing people would probably be dealing with a host of emotions following the outcome of Tuesday’s election. She wondered how or even if she should acknowledge what was obviously the only thing anyone was talking about all day Wednesday. Should she mention the election, she wondered?  Maybe have a prayer? A moment of silence to collect our thoughts?  Would acknowledging the variety of people’s feelings be helpful or only make matters worse?  I told her it was a tough call, then did what a supportive pastor should always do: I wished her luck.  

Once we were all seated for the rehearsal, Maria stood on the podium, welcomed everyone, then said, “Before we begin, I’d like to address the elephant in the room.” She paused just a moment, then smiled and said, “We have a concert in three weeks. So let’s get ready for it.” 

I thought it was brilliant. There was an implicit reference to what was on everyone’s mind, but nothing else needed to be said. We had work to do, so we got busy doing it. First some Bach to warm us up. Then a bunch of Mendelssohn to plow through. Finally some John Rutter to wind things down. It was good to immerse ourselves in doing what we’ve always done at Festival Chorus rehearsals: we set about to learn music that’s way too difficult for most of us, but always winds up, by some miracle, sounding the way Bach and Mendelssohn and John Rutter meant for it to sound when they first heard it emerging from wherever music is born in the sacred spheres of the human soul. Whatever emotions we were carrying with us when we arrived for rehearsal on Wednesday evening, it was good to be together doing something we all love to do, which is to join our voices and call forth something big and beautiful and far beyond what any of us could do without the others.

Last Sunday we considered, from some distance, the old New England tradition of the Election Sermon.  I mentioned the challenge of tying to preach the gospel in the context of a political system that has erected a wall of separation between Church and State while acknowledging the intersection of an individual’s religious and political views. No one paying attention during this most recent election can deny the inseparability of religion and politics in America, and every preacher knows the risks of bringing partisanship into the pulpit.  That is probably why Election Sermons have fallen out of fashion in the old Protestant Mainline; preaching on the Sunday before people head to the polls can be tricky. But, let me tell you, preaching the week AFTER the election is a whole different kettle of cod. I wonder what the good Parson Barnard would have to say after an election cycle like the one we’ve just been through. 

Look, the elephant is in the room, the truth is in our face: Tuesday’s election was by no means the end of the deep and bitter divisions between the citizens in these un-united states. We, the people, have spoken. But not with one voice. Some people are elated by what they hope will now be a radical course correction in our nation’s political trajectory. Others are feeling deeply dismayed and frightened that we are stepping back into a shadowy past.  Still others are saying it’s way too early to tell what will happen now that the overheated rhetoric and political theater of the campaign are over and the reality show of actual governance begins. Whether you believe America is now on the brink of greatness or spoiling for an unprecedented catastrophe depends on what you believe was at stake in this election, and what you believe you now stand to gain or lose.  The elephant in the room is that we are as deeply divided as we have ever been, and no one knows what will happen next.

The elephant was in the room in all my social media feeds this week, and it seemed like nobody was ignoring it. In fact, people on all sides were continuing to feed the elephant more of the venom and vitriol it’s been feeding on, which has added to the stinking mess.  So where do we start cleaning up after this elephant in the room?  That’s a question I know lots of you’ve been wrestling with this week: what do we do now that the election is over and the nation is as divided as ever? 

I have to confess I was hoping to avoid dealing with the elephant in the room this morning. I kept hoping for a call from our daughter in Seattle saying she was in labor so Susan and I could hop on the first plane out and head west to meet our first grandchild.  He was due to arrive this past Tuesday. But apparently he was not interested in having his arrival upstaged by a little thing like a presidential election. As of this morning, he is still waiting for the right moment. Once it was clear I would be here preaching instead of in Seattle beaming and posting pictures, I took a look at the scripture lessons appointed for this morning, hoping the heavens would open and some nearby bush would burst into flame. Alas, ‘twas not to be, although there was this: in Isaiah, the prophet gives voice to a divine proclamation. 

For I am about to create new heavens

   and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

   or come to mind. 

But be glad and rejoice for ever

   in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

   and its people as a delight. 

 

It’s worth remembering that the prophet delivered these words to the people of Israel during a time of national crisis. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we find the dramatic, even hyperbolic language of crisis and promise. In the vivid imagery of destruction and restoration, the people of Israel were reminded of their unique role in the story of redemption God was at work achieving in and through them. It was a story the early Church believed was continued in and through the messianic promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Crisis and promise. Destruction and restoration. Ruination and redemption. The prophets often spoke as if it was a matter of choice: crisis or promise; destruction or restoration; ruination or redemption. It sounds a bit like the language of our politics: crisis and promise; destruction or restoration; ruination or redemption – the binaries of a zero-sum game where there’s a winner and a loser and everyone else chooses sides.

Early Wednesday morning, as the outcome of the election was beginning to sink in, I posted a message on one of my social media sites. I have never tried to conceal my political views on social media, although I always try my best to be respectful of people with other points of view. I truly believe that social media has the potential of building community and fostering understanding rather than destroying it. But it is a challenge to avoid being drawn into the fray with nothing more than a few ill-chosen words.  So in my first post early Wednesday morning, I wrote: And so we awake to face what will emerge from the collective dreams and nightmares of our changing nation. Whether we are elated or depressed, we must remember that nothing – whether for good or ill – can happen unless we, the people, consent. Now the real work of democracy begins.

Of course, like a lot of my fellow citizens, I’m not convinced that the “real work of democracy” has begun in any meaningful way.  We’ve been to the polls, but we all know that wasn’t the end of the process, it was only the beginning. It is still early; tensions are still running high and divisions seem to be deeper than ever. Like many of you, I am deeply concerned for the most vulnerable members of our society during these worrisome times: those whose religion or race or country of origin sets them apart as suspicious in the eyes of others; those in the LGBTQ community whose equal protection and civil rights have only recently – or still haven’t – been won; those whose immigration status puts them at risk of being forcibly separated from loved ones; those women and girls traumatized by the specter of sexual assault, the loss of reproductive rights and equal status under the law; those at risk because of their physical ability or mental health; those who have, for whatever reason, been kicked down the social ladder and can’t find a way to climb back on; those of future generations who will have to survive on a fragile planet which we are using and abusing as if it is ours to subdue.  

The elephant in the room is that we have work to do make sure our religion and our politics do mix in a way that is faithful to our call as Christians, our values as Americans, and our responsibility as stewards of Planet Earth. This is especially urgent now that others are invoking their Christian convictions as justification for repealing duly enacted laws, voiding multilateral treaties, and overturning decisions made by our highest courts. This is no time for people of progressive and generous Christian orthodoxy to shrink from creative political engagement in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. If anything, it is time for urgent and principled action rooted in what we believe God calls us to do and be. As the Church, the Body of Christ, we are called to stand with, watch over and protect what Jesus called “the least of these, my brethren.”  We have work to do, work we were already doing, and will now need to do with renewed conviction and energy.   

I will confess that like many Americans, I badly underestimated the depth and breadth of the impatience and anger over what many of my fellow citizens see as America’s unredeemed flaws, and I sincerely hope Tuesday’s election will somehow lead to making this great nation better. I take no small comfort in what our still-speaking God said through the prophet Isaiah and is still saying to people of faith down through the ages:

For I am about to create new heavens

   and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

   or come to mind. 

But be glad and rejoice for ever

   in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

   and its people as a delight.

There are those who seem genuinely perplexed that many of us are deeply unsettled and fearful about the future of our nation in the wake of Tuesday’s election. We are being chided for over-reacting out of a profound sense of disappointment, or of harboring irrational concerns over what some are saying was nothing more than the over-heated rhetoric and political theater of a hard-fought election campaign. “There’s nothing to worry about,” we’re being told. “Give it time.”  That remains to be seen. Meanwhile our nation is badly broken and deeply divided. That is the elephant in the room. 

But, as always, God is at work creating new heavens and a new earth. Jesus showed us that the path to peace and reconciliation begins in empathy and understanding. In these times of crisis and promise, no matter who we are or how we voted, if we are to clean up after the elephant in the room, we all need to get outside our own skin and story, then imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s skin, someone else’s story. That will help a whole lot more than telling those who are feeling unsure about the future that it’s time to move on. This is a time to reach out in love and understanding to embrace the better angels that dwell in us each and all.

Our still-speaking God has said:  

For I am about to create new heavens

   and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

   or come to mind. 

But be glad and rejoice for ever

   in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem/America as a joy,

   and its people as a delight.

It will take all of us working together to see to it that comes to pass.

Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Dennis B. Calhoun

Senior Minister

Old North Church, UCC

Marblehead, Massachusetts

13 November 2016