Rector's Ramblings January 13, 2021
I hope that we all continue in our prayers this week as we process and try to move forward after last week’s distressing events. I addressed the Capital attack head-on in my sermon on Sunday because it represents such a dramatic and powerful moment for all of us; it was on the lips and minds and in the prayers of everyone I spoke to after it happened last week. I didn’t really have a choice but to address it.
The preacher’s role is a combination of that of comforter, motivator, and prophet, among other things. What happens in our democracy is not directly related to the Church, and yet our faith is what informs our citizenship and our behaviors, and we surround ourselves, our leaders, and our nation in prayer during such times. “The Church” does have a voice to add to national conversations, and so I have added to our context as the Spirit led me.
I was intentional about not calling out individuals or parties, but rather offering analysis and challenge to all of us where we have failed as a nation. As you will see (or as you heard) I likened part of our experience to the challenges we face in relationships, noting that it takes two to heal a broken marriage. We also know it typically takes two to wreck one. We are rarely blameless. Nonetheless, we all share a common commitment to one another and to our nation, with the latter, through the very founding documents of our country, calling us to the former.
Our national crisis is not over, even if we can move away from an acute part of the crisis embodied by last week’s events. We need God’s guidance and to live out our baptismal vows now more than ever. I am grateful that God goes with us now, and in the days to come. Let us walk the path ahead humbly with God, and together with all our American brothers and sisters.
I am sharing the text of my sermon here since so many have asked me to share it in the last few days.
A sermon preached by The Very Rev. Tom Purdy
Rector, Christ Church, Frederica
The Feast of the Epiphany (transferred)
January 7, 2021
Priestly ministry is so often crisis ministry. When my phone rings there’s a pretty good chance that the person on the other end is facing a challenge of some sort. Sometimes people want to sit down and talk through whatever they’re struggling with; maybe they just want a thoughtful outside perspective on a problem. Typically, I share comfort and guidance, connecting our faith to the issue at hand, and offer appropriate prayers.
One of the most common reasons a family reaches out is when there has been an illness or a new diagnosis. Such moments can be full of confusing information, the proverbial drinking from a fire hose experience. I often speak with families about treatments and care plans. How much and what kind of treatments, or whether there will even be treatments? Sometimes the diagnosis leaves no option other than hospice care. Such conversations are holy and heavy at the same time.
Some calls are about relationships, like a marriage relationship. Persons find themselves at a point of uncertainty. Sometimes they are lost in the relationship, and they are at a fork in the road. We may talk about how to come back from the brink of breakup, or how a couple might rekindle what has been lost. Maybe we try to figure out what has to happen so things can move forward again. On occasion we talk about endings, when forgiveness and healing aren’t possible.
Not unsurprisingly, I also get calls from folks who are having a crisis of faith. Sometimes a person isn’t sure what they believe anymore. What they’ve held onto may have run into so many bumps and contradictions that it’s tempting to end the entire endeavor and give up on God. I find myself offering reassurance and inviting discernment so that we can listen for God and the movement of the Spirit. I remind people that God never strays and never gives up on us.
What I witnessed this week, and how I’ve seen us respond, feels like a person coming into my office sharing with me that they have just received a terrible diagnosis, that they aren’t sure they want to stay married to their spouse, and expressing that they really don’t know if they believe in God anymore - all at the same time.
The events that took place on Wednesday, the Day of Epiphany, shook this nation and many of its people to their core. We have witnessed history taking place right before our eyes. We have seen unthinkable images taking place in the halls of Congress, in a building that represents something, not only to this country, but to free people, and those who wish to be free, all around the world. We will not soon forget the pictures of rioters smashing windows, or clashing with Capitol Police, or of members of Congress hunkering down while doors were barricaded. These images will be replayed in our heads and included in our children’s children’s history books.
The storming of the Capitol building is an important moment, even if we don’t yet fully understand just how important. It means something now, as we certainly know and feel, but we can’t begin to grasp what it will mean to future generations who look back on it. We don’t know if will be a high-water mark or a low point; a turning point; will it be seen as the start of something or did it signal the end of something? What we do know is that it has been an upsetting and frightening event that also managed to bring more people together in their shared concern and condemnation than anything since September 11. So, what do we do now?
For many Americans there is a sense that we’re special. For some there is a specific belief that God has set us apart and guided us in righteous ways, helping us win in battle at times and uniquely guiding our journey through history. While I do believe that God blesses us, I don’t subscribe to the idea that we are any more or less blessed than any other nation full of God’s children. I do agree that these United States have created something beautiful and so needed in the world; I believe many great Americans have been inspired by God; I believe that when our Republic is functioning well, that by and large, God smiles on our efforts despite our imperfections. This reality tells me we have something worth preserving. Which is why anything that threatens it’s survival must be addressed.
This seditious behavior (as it’s been called by the highest officials in both our major parties) has served as a diagnosis of sorts, once and for all. We’ve talked about the symptoms for a while, but now we can call it what it is, a cancer. Like a cancer, what we face replicates and destroys and kills little by little and will eventually kill the host if we do not treat it. This cancer has many names, like hatred, tribalism, and it’s defined the death of truth in favor of falsehoods and conspiracies. This cancer thrives when we put personalities and parties above the Nation and every other institution, above every source of knowledge and truth that we have developed over the last 4000 years, and even above our faith itself. If we didn’t know that we were sick with a potentially fatal disease on Tuesday, there can be no question now. We now also see, unquestionably, that rhetoric and words have consequences that manifest in flesh and blood.
We have known that our relationships have been strained for a long time. Despite identifying and naming this reality as it has worsened over the last couple of decades, it has reached a level previously unseen and unmeasured in modern history. It’s fair to say we’re facing uncertainty - a fork in the road. When a couple is facing a broken relationship, one of the questions that has to be answered is whether both spouses still want to be in the marriage. If one person doesn’t want to make it work, it will never work. It seems that an unanswered question in our national life is whether we want to be in relationship with one another or not? We’re not sure if we can work on healing relationships, but more importantly, it may be that we no longer find value in the togetherness we once championed and cherished. If we don’t value such relationships, we won’t ever heal them.
Then there are the questions about our faith in the American experiment itself. There are those who don’t think democracy will give them what they want. There are also those who don’t value democracy because it may give something to a person they don’t think deserves that thing. Often, when someone describes the God they don’t believe in, I tend to agree that I don’t believe in “that God” either. Usually, it’s our concept of God that has failed us, not God’s self. I see the same crisis now but it’s not our democracy that is failing us so much as our flawed understandings and expectations of what democracy is that have not and will not match the truth of our reality.
How do we come back from this? Is unity even possible? Can we forgive one another and reestablish trust? What are we going to need to do to sustain our democracy?
WE have to fight for it – not what we want, but for democracy itself. Fighting for our democracy is not the same as fighting for our political wants – not the same as fighting for what we want out of our democracy. We must cherish what we hold in common at our foundation, and hold it in trust for the next generation. Each generation wrestles with democracy; we owe it to them, not to solve the problem of democracy once and for all, but to recognize that the back and forth, the disagreeing and the compromise is what democracy is and always has been about. This isn’t a political holy war. We have to stop pretending that any idea from the “other side” is going to spell doom the country. It isn’t, not usually. History confirms this. We’ve endured much and overcome even more. It’s the tension of opposing ideas and the preservation of peace at the same time that makes us different and makes our approach to common life special.
I hope that we can also see that labeling diminishes and devalues, and that when we don’t think the other is worthy to have an opinion, let alone share power, there is no way forward. If we’re going to dismiss others with a label and then stop listening - even if our “side” wins, we’ve lost. Civility is a prerequisite for democratic success. We cannot write off half the country and say that they don’t deserve to share power and authority and that their very existence is a threat to us. And we have to quit listening to, following, and reading anyone who says such things. That’s fear talking, not the reality, again, as history confirms.
We transferred Epiphany from January 6th to today long before we knew what the news of the week would hold. Epiphany literally means revealing; we celebrate in the Church that God reveals God’s self through the incarnation, when God became human and dwelt among us. We’ve had other epiphanies this week, I hope. I hope that in addition to the revelation of our failures, our shortcomings, it’s also been revealed to us that there is something worth fighting for; something bigger than ourselves and our ideas and our political affiliations.
We need to seek unity and we need to love one another, that’s clear; that’s what Jesus taught us, even if we’re not sure how to do that. At the same time, we also need to be able to hear and see the diagnosis, name the symptoms, and recognize the disease in our midst. We have unanswered questions to address about our relationships with one another, and whether we have faith in our efforts at all.
As I look at the cancer in our society, my faith teaches me how best to treat it with love and humility. I must trust what I know to be true and rationally discard that which is unproven and without merit, or at least set it aside until more information is available. Although relationships are strained, I know that we are stronger together than divided and I’m not ready to give up on those who think differently than I do. I still have faith in our little experiment and the messy realities of our common life. I believe we have something worth fighting for, something that it is worthy of our effort and our sacrifice; something we want and need to pass down for generations to come. This mission absolutely requires us to wrestle and problem solve together, but democracy won’t survive if we get caught up in literally fighting with each other to the death. This is heavy work, but in its own way it is holy work, too.
I’m just one person. We each have to answer these questions on our own; we each have to decide for ourselves. There are no guarantees, and nothing can be taken for granted. We used to say, “It can’t happen here,” but we can’t say that anymore. It can happen here, and it may happen again very soon. We’re still in crisis. It’s time to get to work.
We have to do some discernment right now about what we want, and what this country needs. We need to get on our knees and pray and listen, but then get up and start embodying and living out what we hear from God. God is with us in this work; not for any one side to succeed, but for all sides to succeed. God has revealed God’s self to us again and again, and it is always a revelation that calls us together in love. God will continue to reveal this truth to us. The rest is up to us.
Let us pray.
God of ages, in your sight nations rise and fall, and pass through times of peril. Now when our land is troubled, be near to judge and save. May leaders be led by your wisdom; may they search your will and see it clearly. If we have turned from your way, help us to reverse our ways and repent. Give us your light and your truth to guide us; through Jesus Christ who is Lord of this world, and our Savior. Amen.
~ The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church USA, 1946