Matthew 6:24-25, 33
Isaiah 58:9-10, 12
Once upon a time, back in the days before there even was a United States of America, back when Massachusetts was only a colony, before Amherst was officially a town but after First Church in Amherst had established itself as a new community of believers, . . . Way back then, Election Day was a holiday.
But the Election Day holiday was not a time to hit up the latest sales at the mall or to spend all day electioneering. It was a time to go to church—to worship God and listen to the preacher’s Election Day sermon, which could last an hour or two, before the white, property-owning males would cast their ballots.
There have been many election and pre-election sermons preached since then; I’ve preached a few myself. But never have I preached an election sermon when many, if not most of us, have already voted, or when so many of us have been working hard from our homes to get out the vote here and in other states.
We might think that there is nothing left to be said and maybe nothing left to be done between now and whenever we get the election results—except to wait and pray and hope and try to remember to breathe.
But as we continue to work for and worry about the future of our democracy, it feels to me like a good time to reflect on the realm of God and the tension that has always existed between God’s dream for humanity and humans’ dreams for themselves. It seems like a good time to reflect on who and what we worship, and what government is for.
According to the Hebrew Bible, humanity’s first system of societal rules and structures was inscribed by God’s hand on two tablets of stone and brought down a holy mountain by Moses, whose face shone with the glory of God. The structure of the Ten Commandments was intended to help the Israelites build a community of God-loving people who treated one another with something like the love and honor God had for them.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work that all that well, and before long the Israelites were clamoring for a king. Being God’s chosen people wasn’t good enough for them; they wanted to be a nation and have a human ruler like other nations did. God thought it was a really bad idea and told them so—but they insisted.
You know what happened: Some kings were corrupt, while others were just plain incompetent—and the people suffered. Nations warred against nations; clan and tribe fought against one another for power; people looked out only for themselves; the poor were forgotten and mistreated. And all while the people pretended to care about God’s ways.
God called prophets to try to set them straight—people like Isaiah and Amos, Jeremiah and Micah, who told them that what God cared about most was not sacrifice or empty praise but justice for the poor and the orphaned, compassion for the sick and the broken. Sometimes the people would return to God with all their hearts, but more often they lived as if it was their armies, wealth and power that would save them from their enemies and their fears.
By the time Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry, the people of Israel had been living under the thumb of Rome for some time. While the religious establishment made deals with the empire to try to keep an uneasy and unjust peace, most Jews lived with their backs against the wall. They were poor, powerless, and desperate, once again, for deliverance. Some people plotted an armed uprising against Rome, some just tried to keep their heads down and their families fed, and others prayed day and night for a messiah who would deliver them out of Rome’s hands and into power and prosperity.
Jesus came preaching something that threatened the status quo, frustrated the activists, and both confused and enraptured the masses: the way of love. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, hung out with the outcasts, dignified the marginalized, built community, and preached freedom from fear. Jesus called people to follow him—that is, to choose between God’s way of selfless giving and transforming love and empire’s way of accumulation and power, violence and division.
This is the same fundamental choice we face today and every day, election or not: Whether we will live primarily for ourselves and our security and well-being, or whether we will let God’s love and grace so completely heal, liberate, and transform us that we join together with other children of God to lift up the lowly, seek out the lost, bring in the outcast, free the prisoners, do justice, and make peace, to create a beloved community and the kin-dom of God.
That choice was not on my ballot. And still, I chose the candidates who I believed would create the greatest opportunities for justice to be done and for the least of these to be respected, empowered, and treated equally. And still, I prayed over my ballot, that it would be received and properly counted, and that everyone who wanted to cast a ballot would find a way, all voters would be treated with respect, and that all ballots would be counted.
Yes, I realize how important this election is. For the first time in my life, I have made political campaign contributions and I have worked to get out the vote. Like most of us, I see it as the most important election of my lifetime, and I feel that almost everything I care about is at stake. I feel like almost everything God cares about is at stake. And I sometimes get sucked down into the rabbit hole of fear and worry about what will happen if our guy loses or if the other guy and his supporters try to invalidate the results or if, God forbid, wage violent attacks on their opponents.
There is so much corruption, dishonesty, interference, deception, and hatred that there is much to be worried about.
But our faith teaches us that the new life we long for, the new realm we work for will, indeed, come—but not from doing the same old things the same old ways only with more money and better organization, and not from political parties or presidents, resistance or our best-intentioned all-out activism. Jesus shows us that the new life and beloved community of God’s realm will grow from our willingness to give and love and maybe even die to our own self-serving ways so that others might fully live, that national unity derives not from agreement but from choosing to love and working to understand and uplift those who are different from us.
The opportunity to choose and choose again the Jesus way comes to us not once every four years or two years, but every moment of every day. And we are not left to walk God’s way alone. Rather, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, rooted and grounded in an unfathomable love, and filled with a Spirit more powerful than death.
Yes, we must work with the system we have. But let us also remember, beloveds, that no matter what the outcome of the election is it will not save us or our nation or the earth. Only God’s transforming and empowering love, working through imperfect systems and broken people, can do that. Only God’s mercy and grace, working in us and through us, can deliver us from division and self-destruction.
So let us strive first for God’s kingdom. Let us pray without ceasing for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And let us run with perseverance, hope, and joy the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who shows us the way.
It is because of Jesus, because of God’s still-speaking voice, still-working Spirit, and ever-extravagant love, and with the example and encouragement of that great cloud of witnesses that we can join the poet Seamus Heaney is saying:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So [let us] hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
[Let us] Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
[Let us] Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term…
May it be so.