A Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind on Nov. 13, 2016.
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – Matthew 25:14-30
November 13, 2016
I feel like we’re living in a different world today than we were last Sunday as we celebrated Trinity’s bicentennial. Life in this nation feels like it has changed since Tuesday’s presidential election.
I’ve heard from you by phone, in-person, by email and on Facebook. You’ve sent me articles and editorials and asked for reflection from the pulpit. Many of you are grieving, angry and frightened. Others are concerned but curious. Some are celebrating believing it’s about time that we change the direction of our nation. Some are taking to the streets, and some have gone into hiding. Others are just shrugging shoulders, shaking heads, and throwing up hands in disbelief. So many different perspectives.
To paraphrase the words of Paul Tillich, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, “It is hard to speak after the [voters have] spoken as they have in this presidential election.” Preaching to students at the Union Theological Seminary around the end of World War II, Tillich was not talking about ballot boxes or electoral college results. Responding to the words of the prophets that we hear in this morning’s scripture lessons, he said: “There was a time when we could listen to such words without much feeling and without understanding. There were decades and even centuries when we did not take them seriously. Those days are gone. Today we must take them seriously.”[i] As I struggle to understand both Tuesday’s election and the landscape that now lies before us, Tillich’s message resonates with me.
This morning we heard the sobering prophecy of Zephaniah delivered during the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE. This Judean prophet lived in a time when trouble was brewing in Assyria (the land we now call Iraq), Egyptian nationalism was experiencing a revival, Babylonian power was on the rise, and barbarians were invading Israel from the North. It was an era when in Jerusalem the gap between rich and poor was growing, religious and political leaders were becoming increasingly corrupt, and people were falling away from God. In the face of it all, Zephaniah characterized his nation and its ruling people as “complacent” (1.12).
Then we received the apostle Paul’s apocalyptic warning to the early Christian community in Thessalonica that depicts the Day of the Lord coming as a thief in the night, as labor pain coming upon a pregnant woman, resulting in the sudden destruction of our world as we know it.
What are this morning’s scripture texts trying to say to us? As complicated as they are, they might inform the way in which we should live in our trying and frightening times. First, I want to remind us that we are not the only generation to be tested. Other centuries have faced equally, if not more trying times.
Many in this country, like our spiritual ancestors in Jerusalem, have become comfortable and complacent while others have been left-behind and disenfranchised. The resulting frustration and anger have been expressed in a variety of ways: riots, violence, disengagement, religious fervor, and political action. Last spring, four significant political candidates emerged – one to the left, one to the right, one in the middle, and one an unpredictable lone ranger. And last week, the U.S. electorate (rather, the electoral college) voted for unpredictability – at least, that’s what we think at the moment.
The events of the past few days have resulted in a rude awakening, so startling an alarm that many of us don’t know how to respond. Might this be – in an ironic way – the dawning of the Day of the Lord that has shaken our foundations?
I know that many of you are struggling with a sense of impending doom, despair and destruction. You have spoken openly of your fear, anger, and anxiety about the recent presidential election, and you’re trying to figure out how you shall live it in these uncertain times.
We all are living in the last days and the end times. It’s nothing new, because every day is the first day of the rest of our lives, and every day could be our last day on this earth. When we awake in the morning, each one of us greets the Day of God as we tremble on the end of a moment and the edge of a maybe. Thus, each one of us – young, old and in-between – has to determine for oneself how we will invest our time, talent and treasure in these uncertain times.
St. Paul offers great advice as we stand on the precipice of time and space. Reminding us that we know not when the fullness of God will come upon us, Paul urges us to stay awake and alert. He also tells us to put on the armor of God: the breastplate of faith and love, the belt of truth, the sandals of peace, the sword of the spirit and the helmet of hope.
In these troubling times, we are called to wear the armor of God. We need to clothe ourselves with the protective covering of God’s love on our breasts, to gird our waists with God’s truth; to stand firm on the earth as we walk in God’s peace; to turn those weapons of violence into plowshares of God’s spirit, and to wear God’s hat of hope.
Clothed in garments of faith, we can invite the God of love and peace, the Bearer of justice and mercy, the Eternal Name of righteousness and honor, and the Holy One to come close and near, to lead, guide and protect us as we try to determine how to both reconcile with those who see the world with a very different lens and how to resist the evil that confronts us. We can stand firm in the whirlwind and not relent to the madness growing around us. We can seize the day with God’s love and passion, use our energy and talents to live every moment as if it might be our last. What are we to do you ask? I believe we are called to be agents of both reconciliation and resistance as we seek to bend the long arc of justice forward.
What might this mean in this new political era? First, I think that Bill Clinton was correct when he told a group of clergy that we needed to get close to those who support Donald Trump and understand their concerns and perspectives. That’s part of the work of reconciliation – to really try and understand our neighbor who sees and experiences the world from a very different point of view. Reconciling is to seek Christ in each and every person. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, urged his followers to see that the light of God is inside each and every one of us.
I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone and do just that.
Second, when I speak of resistance, I’m recalling our Baptismal Covenant wherein we promised to resist evil and strive for peace and justice and respect the dignity of every human being. We must renew our commitment to our baptismal promises. Lots of people have started wearing safety pins as a way of expressing vulnerability with those who don’t feel safe. I fashioned a collection of safety pins into a cross to remind me that we are all bound together on this ship.
Now is the time to not just wear a symbol of our solidarity with those who are vulnerable and at risk, but to act on that symbol. This has been the work of Greater Cleveland Congregations for the past five years. On Thursday at 7pm, we will gather at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church to show our solidarity with one another as we speak truth in love to power about criminal justice reform and job creation. Joining in this effort might be a good first step into the public square after this tumultuous election season.
As this morning’s gospel parable reminds us, while some, out of fear, might have the urge to hide, this is not a time to allow fear to hold back our gifts and talents, but rather to live fully in the moment and move with renewed commitment into the future.
Fear is one of the most primal emotions known to humanity. Fear can motivate and guide us, or it can paralyze and deceive us. Fear can direct us to reform, or it can push us further away from our vision. Fear is something we all face, and I’m afraid that playing to our fears has become the modus operandi of our current political, moral and economic climate. The choice of how we will respond to fear is up to each and every one of us.
In Paul Tillich’s 1948 sermon, he reminded his congregation of soon-to-be-preachers that, “beyond the sphere of destruction, [the prophets] saw the sphere of salvation.” The sphere of salvation that lies with God is, as Jesus said, at hand, living in the place beyond fear. God is always in the midst of our fearful world – as close as the whisper of silence in our ears, the rush of blood to our hearts, the warm breath of air that fills our lungs, the imagination in our brains, and the love in our souls. As Tillich once said, I believe God is the ground of our being. And that God is calling us out of fear and into the foolishness of faith.
In these trying times and frightening days, it is natural to be afraid. But do not let fear (no matter what its source) paralyze and deceive you, and do not be wary of God coming close. Don’t bury your gifts and talents out of fear. Rather, get quiet and listen: listen to the passion inside of you, listen to the divine voice in your heart, and listen to the way of peace. And then, put on the armor of God, go into the world and seize the day. Live fully and bravely with the breastplate of faith and love, the belt of truth, the sandals of peace, the sword of the spirit, and the helmet of hope. And believe that the realm of God is at hand. Let it be said, Carpe Diem in the Name of the Living God!
[i] All quotations of Paul Tillich’s are taken from The Shake of the Foundations, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NYC, 1948.
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