[Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints' Day, Church of the Transfiguration, NY, November 6 2016]
As the praise of all saints resounds here in hymns and psalms today, I am sure we are all focussed on the one theological question:
Could Trump really win?
In case at this point you are a little afraid, or perhaps a little hopeful, that I might tell you how to vote, yes I will - but, no I won’t. It’s not my job as a preacher or as a sojourning non-citizen for that matter to offer an endorsement of candidates. Yet there are more profound issues at stake even than those of candidates, which do connect our celebration today with your responsibilities on Tuesday.
The reading from Daniel today may seem a little more apt than the framers of the lectionary imagined decades ago, when it was selected:
“I...saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another...As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones [saints] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”
There were times in the summer when this seemed to describe the Republican primary contest - and in fact as you may know, Christians have sometimes attempted to correlate such symbolic characters, here and in the Revelation to John especially, with particular figures of their own time. Daniel and John the Divine may really have had ancient kings or other historical characters in mind, but underlying these visions was a deeper message of hope in troubled times. Although would-be kings (and presidents) will come and go, there is a true king and a different kingdom for the “holy ones” as this translation puts it, but which is the same word we otherwise use for the “saints."
The first saints were just the Christians as a group. Saint Paul often addresses his letters to the “saints of God” in a certain place, referring to all the believers by that term, even though in the course of the letters we sometimes find reference to behavior that is anything but “saintly.” Paul calls the Corinthian Christians, who seem in theological terms to have been an ancient basket of deplorables, “saints” because God by calling them had made them holy in ways they did not yet seem to understand.
Gradually the idea of a “saint” became more narrowly defined, as martyrs who died for their faith rose from the mass of faithful and less faithful Christians to be represented as models and heroes; and when the Church became established and there were fewer martyrs, other forms of heroism were recognized as appropriate to offer for imitation and veneration.
The feast of All Saints was added to the calendar somewhat late in the piece to allow for the fact that there were such exemplary Christians who were known only to God, or who simply couldn’t be squeezed into a crowded liturgical calendar. But as time has gone on, the Church has now come almost full circle to see this as an occasion to celebrate not just the great and the good, but all the baptized, including those to whom we look with admiration and hope and whose prayers we seek, but also the curious, the flawed, and those others whose participation in the category of “sainthood” by its very nature makes us marvel at the character and the extent of God’s grace.
God’s view of what is great and good is not the same as ours, whatever our preferred policies or candidates. God does not have the view of one candidate on Tuesday that only the superficially strong and those who are not “bad hombres” are the chosen. God does not have the view that those who disagree are a basket of deplorables either.
The issues that face those of you who vote extend far beyond the characters of the individual candidates, although neither the candidates nor the platforms are morally equivalent by any means. Neither this nation nor by extension the world affected by its choices will have solved the problems this election has rendered so stark merely by choosing the better of these two.
The deep divisions in political culture reflect a nation divided: where economic inequality is getting worse, not better, where racism seems as intractable as ever, where things women should have been able to take for granted since at least the 1970s if not forever seem to be as elusive now as then. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, behind which the like-minded shout at each other in furious agreement, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently .
What is the Christian then to do in the polling place? Again, I will not answer that in terms of which handle to pull or box to check, although I am very far from thinking the alternatives are neutral or indifferent. Neither candidate or party is really your party, as a saint. We make tactical alliances with these causes, seeking the good and avoiding evil. I suggest however that when you undertake that civic duty, you act and think in particular ways. How to vote? Vote in hope. Vote in faith. Pray before you vote. Pray for the candidates you deplore as well as those you admire. Pray for the outcomes on the lives of people in this and every country.
Whether the result is the one you favor or not, and even if it seems to bring us closer to some apocalyptic future with beasts and false rulers, that this is not the most important kingdom or nation to which you belong, not since you were baptized and joined the saints. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” We are members of that citizenry of the saints not because we were good, but because God is good. Celebrate or mourn what the Times tells you on Wednesday but give thanks for that calling, and keep building with God that kingdom where walls are broken down, where all are included, where justice and peace are known and where true greatness is found in the treatment of the weakest. May Mary and all the Saints pray with us, for this nation and every nation.