The Widow’s Note

Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.

Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death. Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”

Miserere Mei

Sermon for Sunday, November 23, 2014 || Christ the King, Year A || Matthew 25:31-46

misereremeiWhen I was a kid, there was a series of books called the Magic Eye books. Each page of these books was filled with what looked like very precise and geometric versions of Jackson Pollock’s art work. The pictures were just jumbles of kaleidoscopic lines and shapes, and if you didn’t know any better, that’s all you saw. But the trick with these books was that if you looked at the pictures a different way – sort of squint a bit – then you saw an image hiding beneath the jumbled surface picture. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never once saw anything besides the geometric Jackson Pollock’s. No matter how often I lied to my friends and said, “Of course, I can see the person walking the dog,” I just could never get my eyes to focus correctly to see the hidden images. Let me tell you, it was quite frustrating.

Every single day, we live in a world like the Magic Eye books, and the feast we celebrate today reminds us of the true picture buried beneath the jumble of lines and shapes. The foundation of our existence is the reign of our king Jesus Christ. This fundamental reality of existence is, if you will, the image concealed beneath the geometric Jackson Pollock. The kingdom of Christ is our true home; this is where we live and move and have our being. But most of us spend much of our time seeing only the jumble of lines and shapes, all the clatter of this broken world that redirects our attention away from the reign of Christ. I could never see the image hidden in the Magic eye, and my success rate at perceiving the reign of Christ in our midst isn’t much better.

And yet, I believe Christ isn’t through with me yet. Unlike other kings, who might have cast me from their service upon my first failure, Jesus, in his mercy, gives me a second chance. And then a third chance. And then a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is, by the way. Mercy is the action of giving someone another chance.

In today’s Gospel lesson, neither the sheep nor the goats see into the heart of the Magic Eye picture. When the king says those famous words about being hungry and thirsty and alien and naked and sick and imprisoned, both groups ask, “Lord, when was it?” When did we see you in these circumstances? And he responds, “That was me. I was there shining from within the least of those who are members of my family.” One group serves and the other does not, but neither group knows whom they, at least, have the potential to serve. They do not have Kingdom Eyes. They do not see the presence of Christ buried beneath the need.

When we see those who are in need, we have so many different reactions. We might cringe and turn away. Or we might be spurred to help, to show compassion. We might be paralyzed by indifference. Or we might reach out in love. We might wonder where the reign of Christ is in the face of so much need. And that’s when we need to pray for Kingdom Eyes, so that, with God’s help, we can see the presence of Christ in the least of the members of Christ’s family. And in witnessing that presence be spurred to help, to show compassion, to reach out in love.

But even when we witness God’s presence amongst the need in this world, even when we see the image hidden beneath the Magic Eye picture, we are not guaranteed to respond in a way that makes the reign of Christ more complete in this broken world. And this is where the mercy of Christ returns to this sermon. You see, none of us is a sheep or a goat. It’s just not that cut and dried. Sometimes we act like one and sometimes like the other. But Christ is not through with us yet. We have a second chance to respond with compassion when we see Christ’s presence in the least of these. And then we have a third chance. And then we have a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is. Through the mercy of God, we have a chance each and every day to respond with compassion when we say, “When was it, Lord? When did we see you? Oh, right there…today…on the street corner.”

The Latin phrase for “Have mercy on me” is Miserere Mei, which is the title of the song I’d like to share with you to close this sermon. This is a song about second and third and fourth chances. It is a song about seeing the reign of Christ in the midst of need and praying for the will to engage that need.

Miserere Mei, by Adam Thomas

Lord, I saw you yesterday
You were holding a cardboard sign near the highway
I tried not to notice when you looked at me
All I saw were a duffel bag and tattered jeans
I looked without seeing
I felt without feeling
You were so easy to ignore
How can I stand here being
A rich man while I’m stealing
The lives of the least of these your children, Lord?

Lord, I saw you on the TV screen
Your belly distended, your arms so lean
You looked at the camera, your dark eyes burned
But I pressed fast-forward till my show returned
I’m all the time pretending
The next time you’ll be sending
Me out to serve is not today
But I feel my lethargy is ending
My tattered heart is mending
When next I see you Lord help me not to turn away.

Miserere mei

Lord, I saw you at the hospital
You were lying in a bed surrounded by white-coated people
You watched me standing frozen at the door
I was looking for the courage to take one step more
I feel myself regressing
My lack of faith is pressing
Me to rely on self alone
I am always second-guessing
When I should be confessing
That I will trust your strength O Lord and not my own

Miserere mei,
Lord have mercy on me.

*You can listen to the live recording of  “Miserere Mei” in the sermon audio above or download the original recording here.
**The image associated with this post comes from magiceye.com and serves as the sample image there. I still can’t see the hidden image, even with instruction.

Playing with Purpose

Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2014 || Proper 28A || Matthew 25:14-30

playingwithpurposeAs an avid game player, one of my favorite things to do is teach other people how to play games. Leah and I have several dozen board games in our upstairs hall closet, but we don’t have people to play them with because games like Monopoly have, over the decades, taught Americans that board games are not fun. But the ones we play come mostly from Germany, and the Germans sure know how to make fun board games. These games are beautifully designed and highly strategic, so a new player often doesn’t catch on until near the end of her first game. For the bulk of that first game, she plays by the rules, but she doesn’t play strategically. Then something happens. The light goes on, and she realizes why she might do this instead of that. She realizes how a choice made now will affect the game in a few turns. I love watching for this moment when I’m teaching a game. Suddenly, the new player stops wandering through her turn and begins striding through it. She’ll need several more games under her belt before she really understands the strategy, but she’s taken the important first step. She has begun to play with purpose.

Like many of the lessons board games can teach, playing with purpose stretches far past recreational outlets and touches all facets of life. Playing with purpose encourages us to act intentionally rather than spasmodically. Our daily questions of “What?” and “How?” deepen with the addition of “Why?” We plan, we set goals, we care about the destination and the journey.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond because he realized he wasn’t playing with purpose. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” *

To live deliberately. To live with intention. To waken to all the ways God could be calling you to make the most positive difference with your life. This is what playing with purpose means.

Most of us take a while to start playing with purpose. Case in point: allow me to introduce you to Glenn. Glenn graduated from college three years ago with a degree in history. He thought about law school but never got around to registering for the LSAT, let alone studying for it. In three years, he’s worked five jobs but none has held his attention for long. Same with girlfriends. A few dates here or there, but he’s never made a true commitment to any of them. He’s also moved back home twice since college for a couple months at a time. When his parents ask him what he wants to do, he says things like, “I dunno,” or “Something’ll come along.” Glenn does everything vaguely, indistinctly, like he’s a figure in a coloring book, who’s only partially colored in.

Then he meets Helen, and the light goes on. They really click, but Glenn knows that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone as luminous as she. She is so full of life. She pursues her passions. She has dreams, yes, but more than that, she has lists of conscious steps to achieve those dreams. Opening her own bakery is just a year or two away. Seeing himself through her, Glenn realizes just how listless he has been, how the last three years have been one long meander. And yet when Helen looks at him, he feels fully colored in.

Following her example, Glenn begins playing with purpose. He remembers his love for history and the high school teacher who fired that passion. He starts substitute teaching at a private school, and soon he’s there everyday filling in for a history teacher on maternity leave. He starts taking night classes to get his masters in education. Two more years sees him in a classroom of his own. His purpose is to teach, and he’s never felt more alive.

Before Glenn met Helen, he could have been the third servant in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his servants with extraordinary wealth. The first two play with purpose and double that wealth by the time their master returns. But the third servant never uses the wealth given to him. He just puts it in the ground and goes about his regularly scheduled life.

This story fits snugly between last week’s Gospel lesson and the one we’ll read next week, which make up the entire twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. In each parable, there are characters who make deliberate, intentional decisions to act and those who don’t. The wise bridesmaids bring extra oil. The foolish ones don’t. The first two servants invest their master’s wealth. The third doesn’t. Next week, we will hear of the sheep who feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. And we’ll hear about the goats who don’t.

In each story, the ones who act with intention – the ones who play with purpose – remain in right relationship with the various persons of power: the bridesmaids enter into the wedding banquet with the bridegroom; the first two servants “enter into the joy of their master”; the sheep who served the least of God’s family “inherit the kingdom.”

If we stop there, however, then we will see these stories merely as quid pro quo. Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t and you’ll be punished. But such a conclusion reduces our relationships with God to mere transactions. If God desired for us to live these quid pro quo kinds of lives, God would have given us a rule book or a scorecard. But God did something else. God gave us God’s son. And this Son taught us to live with intention, to keep awake for opportunities to bring the kingdom closer to earth, to play with purpose. And more than that: this Son, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, wiped out the quid pro quo system entirely when he died and rose again.

If it’s a scorecard you’re looking for, a measuring stick to see if you’ll be rewarded or punished, then you’ve come to the wrong place. In this place, we practice playing with purpose. We act as Helen does with Glenn, as catalysts for each other’s dreams. We pray for clarity about where God is calling us. We discover how our passions fit those callings. We partner with one another to strengthen each other for service. We take risks, knowing that the Holy Spirit will lead us through both failure and success to greater collaboration with God in our own lives and in the life of this community.

If you feel like a figure in a coloring book who’s only partially colored in, then ask God to help you play with purpose. Playing with purpose is the difference between talking and proclaiming, the difference between swaying and dancing, between running and racing. Playing with purpose is the difference between floating along and trimming the sail to catch the wind.

*Henry David Thoreau. Walden. (But I first hear it in Dead Poets’ Society.)
**Image of Walden Pond courtesy of my sister, Melinda Thomas Hansen.

Tend Your Light

Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2014 || Proper 27A || Joshua 24:14-25; Matthew 25:1-13

tendyourlightLast Wednesday, I was visiting Gene and Judy Roure at home as Judy continues recovering from surgery. I arrived right after lunch and we were having a pleasant conversation when something unforeseen happened. My eyes started to close. I couldn’t help it. I made a conscious effort to keep them open as we talked, but you know if you ever try that tactic, your body just assumes you’re using reverse psychology. I knew the lack of sleep Leah and I have been experiencing would catch up to me eventually, but I sure didn’t want it to happen during a pastoral visit! So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked Gene and Judy if it would be okay to close my eyes for five minutes while sitting in the terribly comfortable rocking chair in their living room. Being the lovely and gracious people they are, they readily said, “Yes.” I put my head back and let my eyes do what they desperately wanted to do. I shut them and slept for five glorious minutes.

So when I read the end of today’s Gospel lesson, all I can do is chuckle half-heartedly. Jesus sums up the rather strange parable of the ten bridesmaids by saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Keep awake, he says. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months since the twins were born, it’s this: trying to keep awake makes you really sleepy.

Even the bridesmaids in the story don’t keep awake. All ten of them — the wise and the foolish — get drowsy and fall asleep when the bridegroom is delayed. They all wake up at midnight, but only the five wise ones have enough oil in their lamps to see the bridegroom coming. These details of the parable make Jesus’ summary sound a little off. Rather than “keep awake” shouldn’t he say, “tend your light” or “keep your lamp lit?” If this parable were one of those stories on a standardized test, one of the questions might be, “Which title best describes this story?” If my choices included both “keep awake” and “tend you light” I think I’d choose the latter. But Jesus chooses the former.

(As an aside, I don’t think Jesus would have been a very good standardized test taker, what with his penchant for answering people’s questions in wildly creative and unexpected ways.)

Whether or not the testing board would accept Jesus’ answer of “keep awake,” that’s the one he gives. This leaves us in the position of reconciling the content of the parable with Jesus’ odd summary. What about tending our lights leads to “keeping awake?”

First of all, we mustn’t take Jesus’ summary literally. Obviously, we can’t survive if we stay awake all the time. If we don’t sleep, eventually we go insane. (There’s a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about that, by the way.) So if we can’t literally keep awake all the time, how do we live into Jesus’ instruction? At Wednesday’s visit with Gene and Judy, my eyes started closing of their own accord because of my physical exhaustion. But there are plenty other types of exhaustion that lead us to close our eyes and ignore our part in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of heaven.

There’s emotional exhaustion. You carry the burdens of so many others on your heart. You worry. You fret. You can’t help vicariously feeling their pain, and it overwhelms you. There’s the exhaustion of crises. Everything in this world seems to be going haywire. Famine, poverty, war, discrimination, disease. You can’t even watch the news anymore because the compounding crises overwhelm you. There’s the exhaustion of resources. You give and you give, and there’s always more need. It never stops and the direness of the need overwhelms you. You start to see a pattern here. When we feel overwhelmed, we get tired. We just want to close our eyes and enter the blissful ignorance of sleep. So we disengage. We fail to keep awake.

And this is where tending our lights comes into play – because there’s another term for disengagement and failure to keep awake. It’s called “burn out.” Show of hands: how many of us have used the phrase, “I feel so burned out right now,” at some point in our lives? Being like the wise bridesmaids in the parable means keeping oil in our lamps so they don’t burn out. After all, it’s a whole lot easier keeping a fire burning than it is to light a new one.

Burn out happens when we exhaust our supply of oil and have no way to replenish it. You take on too many responsibilities and pretty soon juggling all of them is the biggest responsibility you have. You start to wonder if there’s any way for a day to be more than twenty-four hours. To stick with our metaphor, you’re burning the candle at both ends and your fuel ain’t gonna last much longer. Burn out is inevitable. And when it comes, you don’t necessarily stop. You might continue your breakneck pace with no fuel until you enter freefall and crash land in the desert.

So tending our lights means making good choices about what to spend our oil on, so we don’t exhaust it. If we choose everything, then nothing gets the attention it deserves, we never achieve the excellence that focus instills, and, more to the point, we burn out. But by carefully and intentionally choosing where to place our energy, we keep the oil burning in the lamp longer, and, in a happy coincidence, our choices can lead to replenishment of the oil.

Let’s take Joshua’s speech to the people of Israel for example. At long last they have occupied the Promised Land, and now Joshua puts a choice before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are the Lord, the God of their ancestors or the false gods of their neighbors in their new home. Joshua makes his choice clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

This is the first choice Joshua puts before the people. And it is the first choice that confronts us each morning when we wake up. Who will you serve today? The Lord, who calls us to be lamps shining with the light of the kingdom, or the false gods that litter our lives with the junk of the world and scream in our ears words like “more” and “now.” When we wake up in the morning and answer “The Lord,” then all the other choices we make that day will be built on the sure foundation of the God who yearns for us to be shining versions of ourselves. This yearning leads to us burning bright, not burning out.

When we tend our lights to burn brightly, we first choose to serve God each morning. Then, with God’s help, we decide how best to move through the day so that our own personal flourishing contributes to the flourishing of the world and the coming of the kingdom. Rather than taking on too much, we focus on those passions, which God gives us the gifts to pursue. Rather than being overwhelmed by crises and need and emotional entanglement, we say, “I can make a difference,” and then we shine our lights into particular dark corners of this world that we can, in fact, help to brighten.

Today, I invite you, I urge you, to make the active, conscious, and intentional choice to serve the Lord. With this choice made, see how God helps guide your other choices so that your lamp stays lit and so that you keep awake to the coming kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been burned out before. Some of us might be on the edge of burn out right now. When you feel yourself approaching that edge, just stop. Stop and focus on your own light. How much oil is left? Can you really sustain the pace you’ve set or will the fuel run out before the race is run? Tend you light by overhauling your choices. First choose the Lord. Then ask God to guide you to make choices that will replenish your oil so your light will grow all the brighter. And with this fierce conflagration shining inside you, you will awaken to the coming kingdom of heaven.

Just Roy (Davies Tales #2)

Aiden Davies looked out his second-story window and saw yesterday’s snow retreating from the small quad that his dormitory bordered. That didn’t last long, he thought as he raised the window to let the cool February morning freshen his musty room. “It smells like my old soccer bag,” he said aloud to no one in particular. He pinched his nostrils together with one hand and with the other ineffectually pushed the stale air out of the room. His eyes traveled from the green islands emerging in the melting snow to the brick sidewalk, which looped like a pretzel across the quad – and was salted like one, too. A man he had never seen before on campus stood at the far end of the quad, looking up and squinting in the morning sun. The man surveyed each of the buildings enclosing the quad and then turned up the street, one hand shielding his eyes as he glanced at the other buildings on campus. Davies watched him walk into the library and then, promptly, forgot about him.

After lunch, Davies returned to his room to exchange his winter jacket for a lighter one. The day, it seemed, had botched its cue and started singing of spring a few measures early. After his morning class, Davies had walked past a pair of sunbathers in swimsuits and winter hats reading on the quad. He had thought it oddly incongruous – not the winter hats and swimsuits – but the tanning while reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a volume that Davies had used to prop his door open when he moved in last August. His second year of graduate school (which is what he called “seminary” to non-church people and to women he met) was on the downhill climb. In a month, he would attend his “Candidacy” meeting, a forty-five minute chat with eight members of a committee, which advised the bishop whether Davies should be ordained to the priesthood. After that, a few short months would see him become a senior for the third time in his life.

He pulled on the corduroy coat, grabbed his backpack, and snatched his sermon from the printer on his way out the door. As he walked to class, Davies spoke his sermon aloud to the trees and benches, delighted that he couldn’t see his breath. His disappointment that yesterday’s snow turned out to be a one hit wonder was forgotten in the sun-drenched promise of spring. After homiletics class, Davies left the academic building and began walking back to his dorm when a man came up to him from the direction of the library.

He wore a heavy winter coat, puffy with insulation and frayed at the cuffs. His gloves were cut off, allowing the tips of his fingers to poke through. He was shaped like a retired linebacker, tall, a slight limp in his right leg. But his arms, Davies thought, looked like they could remember their old strength if push came to shove. As the man approached, Davies recalled him from the morning and realized he had been on campus all day. The heavy winter coat on a cool, but not cold, day. The loitering on a seminary campus. This man’s homeless and he’s looking for a handout. Davies hated himself for making such a snap judgment, but he knew he was right all the same. “Hello there, sir,” Davies called out, his “sir” ringing false and he knew it and he smiled too widely to cover it up.

“God bless you, bless you, I know you could. I seen you from across the way and know you could. I read the Good Book and I know, I know the Lord helps the man to do whatever he set his mind to. I’m from down South Carolina, and I’m trying to get back home. God bless you, son, bless you, praise Jesus.” The man said it all in one breath, like a telemarketer trying to keep a customer from hanging up.

Davies held out his hand. “My friends call me Davies,” he said. My friends call me Davies? I never say that. “What’s you name, sir?” The “sir” came out more naturally this time, and Davies wondered if the man noticed the difference.

“Roy. Just Roy.” His linebacker hand found Davies’s and squeezed. “I believe what the Good Book say, yes I do. I been saved since I was eleven years old, praise Jesus.”

Davies suppressed another smile, wondering if Roy always gave his Christian resume before asking for help. Maybe he’s been to churches that only give handouts to born again Christians. What a depressing thought. “What brings you here, Roy?” Davies said, hoping that both asking the question and using the man’s name would help him care about the answer, but it didn’t. I’m going to be an awful priest.

“I’m trying to get back home, but my car’s got a flat and it’s up near St. John’s church and they said if I could get to them by three they’d help me out, but I need a ride up there and God bless you I been saved since I was eleven, praise Jesus.”

The part of Davies that wanted to quit seminary and become a staff writer for Law and Order wondered how Roy got to campus if his car was up near St. John’s, five miles and change away. He tried to push the incongruity out of his mind. You gonna tell me the truth, he wanted to say, but it came out, “I think I’ve got time to drive you up to St. John’s.”

“Bless you son, I know you could. The good Lord has a plan, don’t he, yes he do. Yes. He. Do. I just got to get to St. John’s church by three and they say they can pay for my tire, praise Jesus.”

“Okay, Roy, let’s go.” They turned a corner onto the salted pretzel sidewalk and headed for the parking lot. “One second,” Davies said, and he held up his backpack. “Let me drop this inside.” My friends call me Davies…do you have any friends? I think I’ve got time…which is obviously more precious than yours. Let me drop this inside…so you won’t steal it from me. Who the hell am I to say such things? Davies flung his backpack onto his bed and slammed the door behind him.

He pounded the steps back downstairs, letting his frustration absorb into the staircase. He passed an open door, stopped, and turned around. He popped his head into Mark Riley’s room. “What’s up, brother,” Mark said, swiveling around in his desk chair, Calvin’s Institutes and a highlighter in hand. He always called Davies “brother.”

“I’ve got this guy, Roy, outside who’s looking for a ride up to St. John’s. You got a few minutes to go with me? I’m just not…” Davies’s voice trailed off. Mark jumped up, put the highlighter in the book, and tossed it onto his bed. Grabbing a hooded sweatshirt off the back of his chair, he said “Sure thing.”

Davies and Mark Riley met Roy outside. “I got to get St. John’s church by three, the good Lord has a plan, yes he do.” Mark shook Roy’s hand. “Yes he do,” Mark echoed.

They piled into Davies’s car and Davies turned out of the parking lot, while Mark and Roy chatted, with a “praise Jesus” and a “the Good Book says” punctuating their conversation every few sentences. He does it so easily, Davies thought. I feel inconvenienced. Mark feels…joy.

They arrived at the St. John’s parking lot ten minutes later. No car with a flat tire. No cars at all. Davies looked at the dashboard clock. Two-fifteen. You gonna tell me the truth now, he wanted to say, but he said nothing instead. “They said three, they pay for my tire, the good Lord has a plan.” Roy didn’t seem to notice the lack of a car to put his new tire on.

Davies looked at him in the rearview mirror: “There’s no one here, Roy. What do you want to do?” A long pause. A siren from the main road. Mark drumming his fingers on his knee.

“I could use some food.”

He said it without a “God bless you” or a “praise Jesus.” Davies turned around and looked at Roy. The imposing retired linebacker was gone. His need had deflated him. The heavy winter coat with the frayed cuffs seemed the only weight on Roy’s frame. He looked straight ahead and rocked back and forth, his exposed fingertips pressed together. Davies stared at him for a long moment. I feel like a plantation owner. The thought made Davies want to vomit.

“There’s a Panera Bread right over there,” Mark said, pointing to the shopping center across the street. Davies put the car in gear and reached into his back pocket at the same time. A twenty and two ones. He passed the singles to Mark who added a few of his own. They dropped Roy off, and Mark pressed the bills into his hand. Roy squeezed the money, a new smile creasing his face. “The good Lord has a plan, praise Jesus.”

“Bless you, brother,” said Mark. Roy walked toward the restaurant. Davies pulled out of the parking space. He looked at Mark. Mark looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “He could’ve just asked us to buy him lunch,” said Davies.

Mark scowled. “You ever ask anyone to buy you lunch?”

“No.”

At the traffic light, Davies looked back at the Panera. What the hell is wrong with me? It was Roy. Just Roy. He needed help. That didn’t make him another species. That didn’t make him less than human… It made him Jesus. “For I was hungry and you gave me food…” The Good Book say. Yes it do. Yes. It. Do.

Our better angels: The two things you’re not supposed to talk about (part 3)

Election day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every even-numbered year. That day happens to be today.* West Virginia has early voting and the polling place happens to be next door to my church, so I took advantage of that a few weeks ago. But I’ve been keeping on top of the political scene in the country: the campaign tactics, the exchanges, the (gotcha!) media, the blustering pundits and blundering surrogates. I’ve at times in the last weeks been both enthused and disgusted, hopeful and resigned. Every sign of progress I see shares the spotlight with the tired old prejudices of the past. I hope with all the fervor of my heart that, no matter the outcome of this election, the United States continues to strive for that “more perfect union,” to which our Constitution sets its lofty heights.

This hope stirs in me a refrain that has been playing in my head for days: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”lincoln

Abraham Lincoln spoke these words on March 4, 1861. The dust of 150 years has made these words no less relevant today. Chorus. Union. Bonds of affection. These are powerful words that tell of a truth, which these years of dust could never obscure: We can do great things when we come together, when we embrace the power of unity. This is Lincoln’s charge to us all. This is the truth which we entrust to our next president. And this is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples and for all of us: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)

Jesus lived this prayer for unity when he welcomed everyone to come to him, and all those who were thirsty to drink. He lived this prayer when he ignored the racial barriers between Jews and Samaritans. He lived this prayer when, dying on the cross, he created a new family for his mother and his beloved disciple.

But uniting is not enough. Uniting is only the exposition of the story. We must unite for something. We must come together to fulfill those tasks which the better angels of our nature invite us to accomplish. Too often, the ingrained talking points that showcase the worst of partisan bickering shout down these better angels. Just last week, I was sitting at Panera bread and overheard a conversation between two businessmen — the gist of their chat simply rehashed the tired old stereotype that all people on welfare just sit at home watching Oprah. Surely, these two suits would have more political acumen than to recite such a line of attack, I thought. But no. In election years, by some strange alchemical process, saying something enough times makes it true, no matter the veracity of the claim. In the absence of any real hope, any real truth, whoever steps up to the mic to fill the dead air is the ruler of that fifteen second soundbyte.

But our better angels fill in that dead air. When we turn our attention inward, we will find those angels speaking the words of the only Truth out there worth subscribing to, the words of life that God writes on our hearts. These words will never fit into a soundbyte. They will never succumb to the tired old prejudices. They will only urge us to join together to accomplish God’s work on earth. The mystic chords of our better angels’ chorus echo with Jesus’ words: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)

We can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and shelter the homeless and nurse the sick. We can respond to that image of Christ in the faces of the least of Jesus’ family. Far be this from some misguided philanthropic diversion to the benefit of Oprah’s sweatpanted viewership. We are called, not just as Christians but as human beings, to help those who are suffering, to bring hope to those who are despairing. I ask you: how much better will we be, how much more unified, when today’s least of these are in the position to help tomorrow’s?

This is not the time for a bootstraps mentality. This is not the time to recline in the illusory comfort of self-interest. This is not the time to relapse into a tired old hoarding way. Be touched by the better angels of our nature.  Know that this is the time to give. This is the time to tug on your neighbor’s bootstraps. This is the time to enter into the kinectic delight of unity and labor for the kingdom of God on earth.**

Footnotes

* Incidentally, figuring out when Election day falls is similar to figuring out the date for Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Fun times.

** Here is a list of links to help you get involved:

The ONE Campaign

The United Way

Habitat for Humanity

Heifer International

Episcopal Relief and Development

CNN: Impact Your World

Idealist.org