It’s better to be lucky than good. I retired from active parish ministry July 31 of 2019. I did so because I no longer felt I have what it takes for that ministry, and because I could. I had no more idea than anyone else what was coming. I am in awe of those who continue to serve so well in parishes and congregations during this difficult time. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have done well at all.
I am quite sure I would have struggled mightily with how and what to preach today, in the shadow of a decided (well, you know) American presidential election. Anyone who knows me a little and/or reads my social media posts knows that I supported the election of the Biden/Harris ticket. Anyone who knows me better (not many, I admit), knows that I am not much for celebrating at any time. That includes today.
So I wonder what I might have preached today. Counterfactuals are in one sense pointless exercises since they cost no one anything but a bit of time. Yet, perhaps I can look in the mirror a bit and be reflective (groan, groan groan). At my best, what might I have said today?
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4). I take this as one of my texts today. Most of our congregations, online or in-person, will consist of people who are celebrating and people who are grieving — in ways that are productive, destructive or some combination of the two. I imagine we will hear many sermons today about unity, about getting along, about recovering. I imagine we will hear many sermons today about resisting, about revenge and impending judgment and doom.
I don’t want to hear either one. Human leaders vary greatly in their abilities, capacities and agendas. But one thing is certain. We have not yet elected either Satan or Savior. And we will not. The Psalmist puts to rest our desire for mortal messiahs along with their bones in the earth. There are certainly better or worse human leaders, and we are equipped to tell the difference. However, we tend to elevate our favorite leaders to demi-godhood, especially in times of great distress.
We will always be disappointed. The plans and projects of mortals perish with them.
Nor can we trust in any human system for salvation. I am with Churchill in his view of democracy — the worst system of human government, except for all the others. I read Heather Cox Richardson’s commentary on events of the last week, and one statement stood out for me. She suggests that a takeaway from the week is that “we are our own saviors.” She and I share a deep caution about trust in princes. However, human systems of government, including democracy, can only do finite amounts of good. No human system delivers salvation.
Of course, I write this from my white, male, educated Christian perspective of privilege. I don’t pretend some sort of objectivity. Those who do cannot be trusted. If I were preaching, I would be speaking to at least a nominally Christian audience. That’s a given.
So if the message is not, “Can’t we just all get along?” or “Burn it all down!” or “Thank God for democracy!” what is it for us?
The work continues. That’s how I view things today. The work continues.
The gospel reading in many of our congregations and parishes happens to be the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Wedding Attendants. The focus of that parable is the importance of faithful and ongoing preparation. The election has been called in America. But the Bridegroom has not arrived (or been delayed) as a result. We are still waiting and watching — and working.
The Psalmist puts no trust in princes. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,” the Psalmist writes, “whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever…” In season and out of season, in simpler times and more complex ones, this is where Jesus followers expect to find their hope. That’s why we keep our lamps filled and our wicks trimmed.
The work continues.
Now, the Psalmist is specific about the work. It is according to the priorities of the God of Jacob. That God is the one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.” The Lord who made all things “sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.” No matter who the prince or president is, that is the work for the people of the Lord.
The Psalmist summarizes the mission of God’s people in verse 9: “The Lord watches over the strangers; [The Lord] upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked [The Lord] brings to ruin.” The work continues, and that is the call of Jesus followers, whoever is in charge of the secular order.
So what stance do I occupy today? I have the same stance I had a week ago — a critical distance from power that seeks to hold any and all human power accountable to the Lord’s standards of justice and righteousness. I’m not too terribly concerned about the faith positions of those in power. My focus is on how policies impact the orphan, the widow and the sojourner — all who are vulnerable to the exercise of power. Again, I think democracy is the best way humans have of approximating the Lord’s priorities, but I expect that system to fail at least as often as it succeeds.
Martin Luther is reputed to have said that he would rather be governed by a competent Turk (a Muslim) than an incompetent Christian. I agree with Luther. The role of human government is not to move people toward love of God. The role of human government is to provide vehicles and policies to foster effective love of neighbor. When the system does that, we Christians are grateful. When it does not, we Christians are critical. When the system works against love of neighbor, we Christians must resist that system.
All that was true before the election. And that truth has not changed in the last twenty-four hours. So I think I would proclaim unity in the end — our unity in the mission of God for the sake of Christ and by the power of the Spirit.
Our unity is in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One we proclaim as Savior. Since we don’t need to work to save ourselves, we can devote all our energies toward loving our neighbor. We can and do differ in how that work is accomplished. But we who follow Jesus dare not differ in the nature of the work itself.
How do I meet the realities of today? I plan to continue to hold my elected representatives accountable for a government that fosters love of neighbor. I plan to maintain my stance of critical distance from any and all who hold power over others. I know that such power is always dangerous in the hands of fallible mortals. I plan to support good government but not to put my trust in princes or any other human rulers. Many things have changed in our political landscape, but my role in that landscape has not.
In the end, the Bridegroom comes. We know the Bridegroom has come, crucified, dead and risen. We know the Bridegroom comes among us in Word and Sacrament and the gathered body (whether actual or virtual). We know the Bridegroom comes to us in the least of our sisters and brothers, as we will read in a few weeks. So we keep our lamps filled and our wicks trimmed.
There’s still work to do.