I was traveling these past two weekends trying to squeeze the last inch of summer out of the year before, well, you know, this: back to church, back to school, back to real life. On the first trip, I took my sons to Midland, Texas, my hometown, to visit my family. As I am sure you’re aware, Midland is the birthplace of First Lady Laura Bush and the childhood home of President George W. Bush. I mention this because this part of the country is as “red” as it gets, so much so, one can buy Barbie dolls in the likeness of both Mr. and Mrs. Bush at the airport. And last weekend, Labor Day, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit friends. I can assure you that the Portland airport was bereft of President and Laura Bush collectible dolls.
I couldn’t help but notice the tone of the opposing political cacophonies on both of these trips. As I was flying home from the Northwest and reflecting on my travels I felt as if I had been batted around like a tennis ball. The politics were as different as each geographical landscape. Here’s what I’m talking about. I think many people in Midland are convinced that Barak Obama is a Muslim. My 80-year-old aunt was reading Obama Nation and cursing him for the sins of Bill Clinton—apparently the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. And my own sister-in-law confessed to me that she is not certain she could vote a black man into the White House. What I noticed in Portland were the people perched on overpasses everywhere holding gigantic signs that read “John McBush” and “McCain = War.” I noticed that most bumpers and front yards were littered with Obama for President stickers and signs. And then there were the discussions marked by skepticism about the surprise pick of Sarah Palin for vice president. One woman on Monday brought over to my friend’s house a newspaper article with a picture of Ms. Palin campaigning in large hoop earrings. The consensus at their dinner party that night was that her earrings were too big and tacky and she should have known better. All of this was before news of her daughter’s pregnancy broke.
I don’t know where you are on the heels of the both political conventions. You may have reached the oversaturation point as this campaign has seemed to go on ad nauseam. Yet some of you may be fired up because the conventions did what they were supposed to do by energizing the political process. And I’m sure many of you came to church today in hopes of escaping it all. I am sorry to bring it up, but I do think it’s relevant. The reason why I mention any of this is because of what the political process reflects back on us. Where and who are we in all of it? Does it have any bearing on our faith community? And as we gather here on Opening Sunday, renewing friendships and committing ourselves to a new program year, does it matter to you that the person sitting next to you could be a political rival? If that person were wearing a McCain or Obama button would you still be inclined to share the peace? How do we stay in communion with one another when each of us may represent an opposing or downright offensive viewpoint?
In our Gospel this morning is the famous verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18: 20). I had to snicker when I thought of that verse in light of each political convention. While it’s true that the Democrats and Republicans were not gathered in the name of Christ—Christian values are often a litmus test for candidates and their parties just the same. What would Jesus think of it all? When I think back on my schizophrenic back-to-back weekends it makes me ask the question: When we gather with our like-minded friends to discuss politics do we behave and speak as if Christ were present? Or when colleagues or clients whose viewpoints differ from ours, do we go on the attack or politely disagree? With the emails that have been flying over the internet these last two weeks, I’d say that it can get pretty personal? Does one party have to win at all costs? Do we? There is a German term known as schadenfreude. It means that one takes enjoyment in the misfortune of another. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of schadenfreude at one time or another, but I’ve noticed that the political machines seem to revel in it. Bombshells make great fodder for 24-hour news programs, often with us watching and savoring it. In my opinion, this can lead to our own diminishment.
The 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel focuses on life in the community of believers. The chapter begins with Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Pointing to a child Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 4). What Jesus means is that our relationship to God should reflect that of parent-child. It should not reflect our own agendas, stubborn will, or childish behavior but one of respect and submission. Think of the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Further on in the chapter, today’s verses illustrate how the faith community is to deal with the painful issues of dissent—dissent that threatens to disrupt the bonds of community. The Episcopal Church is no stranger to dissent. We live within its tension every day—hopefully becoming better for it. Some of us tread lightly within our families because both government and church politics are too volatile and painful—I know I certainly do. The process of reconciliation, Jesus describes, emphasizes the need to do everything possible to maintain community, maintain family and friendships, to avoid schisms, and win back any who might have gone astray. It is confrontation enveloped in empathy, fairness, and love.
The Apostle Paul gives further instructions in his letter to the Romans on how those in community are to relate to one another. Such relations should be based on love for one another, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13: 10). For Paul, love fulfils the commandments against adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness, and leads to the understanding of loving “your neighbor as yourself.” It is imperative for Paul that Christians live honorably by laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Just as daylight follows the night, we are called to cast aside irresponsible behavior, quarreling, and jealousy so that we can truly “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 14).
What both Jesus and Paul are saying is that our community—our faith community— is to have more influence on our lives than all the rest of society combined. God’s primary way of accomplishing his purposes in history is not through governments and bureaucracies, but by gathering together a people who will embody and respect diversity as God’s will for humanity. It is not an idealistic dream either, but what God calls all of his people to. Community begins with an inspiration that brings us together out of scatteredness and isolation and binds us in one covenantal hope. It finds authority in Christ’s assurance that where we are gathered so is he. For you see “in a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone. Let’s take it one step further, a covenant of faith, what we commit to here at church in this community, transcends all divisions. It is made by a people who share dreams, aspirations, ideals. We don’t need a common enemy, because we have a common hope. We come together to create something new. We are defined not by what happens to us but by what we commit ourselves to do.”i This is our covenant of faith. The question then becomes are we willing to relinquish our pride, egoism, schadenfreude, and loyalty to false gods and behave and live the way God calls us to live.
In the midst of decay and darkness there is new birth and light. On this opening Sunday please know that we are each other’s community—for better or for worse. My hope is that it is more beacon than burden. While the political campaign roils around lets us try to keep it in perspective. Is it worth losing friends over? Is it worth disowning a family member? Can we employ Jesus’ model of confrontation and Paul’s model of covenant in our professional, personal and religious lives? You bet. The fact is we cannot dismiss politics in any sphere of our lives as inappropriate or unimportant because lives have been lost as a consequence of political decisions. As citizens, our role is always to have a voice in the process and always, more importantly, to pray for it. We are Christians, Episcopalians, St. Jamesers and we are called to be open-minded, kind and respectful just as we are called to be committed, passionate and carry our share of the burden. When fastening on your armor of Christ’s light this fall remember this quote: “Watch how you live. Your lives may be the only Gospel your hearers will ever read.”ii
i. Address by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks to The Lambeth Conference, 28 July 2008.
ii. Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara, speaking to his catechists, published in the Synthesis, Proper 18—Year a, 9/7/2008.