13th November, 2016,
“That we lose not the eternal”
In 1971, I was a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary. Alexandria, Virginia, was and is adjacent to Washington, D.C., which in those days was blessing and curse. There was great unrest in our country. There was tragedy from Viet Nam. Veterans had been scorned and mistreated for years. There were demonstrations and violent anti-war protests in the news every day. It seemed that our beloved country was tearing itself apart.
Seminary life was not immune from the turmoil in the country. Students and faculty were divided, with passions defending America at all costs, and passions threatening to tear down the country. A professor had been arrested for celebrating a Peace Eucharist on the steps of the Pentagon, and there were student groups crying foul and demanding his resignation. The flash point came when a group of students demanded removal of the American flag which flew on the tower at the Seminary. The tower was at the center of the campus, and the flagpole was posted about two thirds up the tower, and at the top, was the cross. The charge was that the war was evil and the country was derelict in its participation in it. The matter came to a head when the seminary community, about two hundred faculty, staff and students, gathered, some to resolve issues, some to force them. It was scary, and felt a little dangerous, to be in the middle of so much rage, accusation and belligerence. Perhaps you remember those days.
Nevertheless, there we were. Arguments were made, people interrupted, mean names were used, tempers flared and one or two students stormed out. I was not the only one worried about our community being dismembered. The stress and pain of the meeting went on for more than an hour, and then, when the speakers began to repeat themselves and start their arguments over again, the Dean stood and went to the front. He was a very gracious man, soft spoken and elegant. Dean Woods said words to the effect that, while he understood the feelings on both sides about the flag, we must remember that the symbol which first claims our allegiance is at the top of the tower.
There has been much pain, argument and division in our beloved country throughout a most contentious presidential campaign. When I awoke Wednesday morning, when the results were in, I felt like a stranger in my own land. I had no idea that more than 60 million of my fellow Americans voted with values so different than mine, and that opposing passions were so widespread and deeply held. I felt like a stranger in my own land, but I came to see that was the way Trump supporters had been feeling for some time, like strangers in their own land.
Our country is divided. Republicans are asking their Democrat neighbors, “Can we still be friends?” Some see foreboding days ahead, while others sing, “Hallelujah.” Some citizens are feeling vulnerable in their own country, while mean words and hateful acts crop up in supermarket parking lots, on school grounds and on line. There are protests in our cities, and heartfelt prayer vigils all over. And as with any large conflict, there are people in the middle who just want the stability of their country back, and little ones who see fear on adult faces and feel overtaken by fear themselves. This much you know.
But this is not the end of the story. It is the present reality, but not forever. The sky is not falling; these are not the end days Jesus spoke about in the Gospel today. True, there are places where the earth is shaking, but just as true, there are places where the earth is not shaking. People of hope and good will from both parties are coming together across the land for prayer, for understanding, for healing of their hearts and the healing of this country. There is fear in places, especially among the vulnerable, but there are many, many standing together.
I saw it last night in the eyes and songs of children in Hood River, in confident words from the Sheriff and other presenters, particularly teenagers, and in the overcrowded church gathered to call out and honor our common humanity. If there is any lesson I learned as a Hospice chaplain, it is that there is always, always hope. Last night, hope was visible in Riverside Church.
And there is more to bind us together if we think about it. My son-in-law is a Trump supporter. He and I have been unable to talk much about the reasons for our different views, nor our feelings about the other’s view nor the problems of the nation. However, he is a man I love and respect. He is husband to my daughter and father of my Grandsons. There is so much that binds us together as family that we will not let our politics drive a wedge. For you and me, loved by Jesus and called to love in the name of Jesus, let us embrace his love and not let politics drive a wedge. It is that cross above the altar, the empty cross of the risen Jesus, above the flags of church and state, which holds our hope and claims our future.
In the name of God, then, as people of God, our job is to model a new reality, to speak truth and bridge gaps. Let us discover our own classism, racism, sexism, and elitism. And instead of preparing for combat, from fear and doubt and suspicion where we find it, let us make grace.
At the risk of quoting words you may remember about the kingdom of God: “In every act of generosity… the kingdom is present. In every hope and prayer, and every time prejudice and violence is sidestepped, the kingdom is present. In every moment when you and I are aware of our blessings, when we laugh with a child or weep with one who is grieving, the kingdom is present. When broken hearts are healed, in moments of reconciliation… whenever fear is cast out and love takes its place, the kingdom is present. No matter the darkness, when one candle is lit, one more light shines, and the darkness will not overcome.”
Friends, our times are not easy times, and our days must be lived with care, respect and a vision of hope. But we are Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. We can do this. Let us pray:
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal; through Jesus Christ our Savior, Mentor and Friend. Amen
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.