Texts: John 21: 15-17
Philippians 4: 8-9
How Firm a Foundation
We gather today as we do every Sunday, because this is where we turn when we need to be reminded of that within our world and within our lives that has the greatest value. We gather in worship this morning because we know in a moment like this how vital it is to organize our lives around that which is good, around that which is just, around that which is honorable and decent and true. We gather here just as we do every week to recall the message that Jesus proclaimed, calling us to the best of who we are, appealing, as Lincoln once put it, to the better angels of our nature. We gather today as we do every Sunday, because in moments of uncertainty and apprehension, we instinctively reach out to that which can anchor us in a swiftly tilting world, calling us to be mindful of the precious humanity and the precious creation that we all participate in.
For 351 years, this has been a congregation that has honored and affirmed the freedom of the pulpit. For 351 years, various ministers have stepped into this holy and sacred area and have attempted to speak words that are honest and real, words that stand a chance of landing somewhere, and of making some sort of difference. That freedom has been granted because an equal and correlative freedom has also been affirmed in this congregation, that, as the words of our mission statement read, “every member shall have the undisturbed right to follow the word of God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” In my time with you, I have been grateful for that freedom, and I’ve tried my best never to abuse it, even as many of you have exercised your own freedom of conscience with me and with one another. That represents the best of our Congregational tradition, and it’s something that I wish to honor and uphold this morning. That represents one part of the firm foundation that is ours.
As you can imagine, I’ve thought and prayed about what I might say to you this morning, recognizing that many of us interpret the results of Tuesday night in different ways. For some among us it felt cataclysmic, not simply because our preferred team lost, but because of what that loss signified about what we value most. For others of us, what happened on Tuesday, however surprising, is simply a part of the ebb and flow of American political life, no more alarming than any other presidential election. I want you to hear this morning that I understand and respect those differences. I want you to hear and understand that I affirm your freedom to construe this event in a way that feels sensible and right to you. Hear me say that first and foremost. But let me also say that I intend to claim the freedom of the pulpit this morning. I intend to do so not to provide a platform for my own personal views, but to say what I believe needs to be said in light of the faith tradition that we all claim. I intend to do so in order to suggest what following in the way of Jesus might require of us just now.
Let me begin by stating the most obvious thing. The sky didn’t fall on Wednesday morning. The world didn’t collapse on Thursday when the president and the president elect finally met. The apocalypse has, so far, failed to materialize. The sun still rose and it still set, as it has every day before and as it will every day after. The kids went to school, and ordinary and decent people went to work and met the needs of those in their care. In my world, I encountered people who had every reason to feel anger or apprehension, and what I witnessed was extraordinary generosity. I was in Harlem on Wednesday for a meeting, and an African American woman at a restaurant there told us that even though she was nervous, she was admonishing everyone she met not to behave toward the president elect the way some people behaved toward Obama. So too, when I spoke to some of our friends in the Muslim community, they told me that though they had deep concerns, they were trying to trust that this wasn’t ultimately a vote about racism or Islamophobia, but rather an expression on the part of many people for change, no more and no less. When I went to check in on our Syrian refugee friends, they shared that they were OK, and that they were grateful to have a network of friends who were supporting them. Finally, another friend who works on issues related to Palestine reminded me that if Palestinians can get up every morning and retain a sense of hope, then my God, surely we can do the same. There are, in other words, people all around us – Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, people of color, folks in the LGBTQ community, young people, and older folks – who are urging and imploring us to do precisely as Lincoln said – appealing to the better angels of our humanity. We need those voices right now, and I was grateful to find them throughout the week.
That’s the first thing to say. But we also need to be honest and forthright about what took place on Tuesday, because I believe the best parts of our humanity, the best parts of our democracy, and the best parts of the faith tradition that we all value are at risk. No matter what the reasons ultimately were for the way individuals chose to vote, our country has elected a man who was endorsed by the KKK. We’ve elected the man who began the birther movement, cynically stoking racist conspiracy theories about our first black president. We’ve elected a man who has boasted of sexual assault, and has humiliated women on the basis of their looks. We’ve elected a man who has denigrated the disabled. We’ve elected a man who, at his rallies, routinely instructed his supporters to silence, or “take out” those who dissented, including members of the press, instruction that led to some rather ugly scenes. We’ve elected a man who has called Mexicans rapists and murderers and who has vowed to build a wall stretching across our border. We’ve elected a man who has said he would like to ban Muslims from entering the country. We’ve elected a man who has called climate change a hoax. We’ve elected a man who has avoided paying income tax for more than two decades. These are things of public record. And while it might sound pedantic to rehearse that litany for you, to ignore or forget all of that in the post election rush toward unity seems to me unconscionable. I don’t believe people of faith and conscience can afford to do that. I don’t believe anyone can.
The phrase we’ve heard over the last several days is that the president-elect’s opponents took him literally, but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. The phrase is meant to reassure us that what was said and promised during the campaign won’t come to pass, and that it was all a kind of show. Could be. It might be that the most extreme statements we’ve heard will never be enacted. It might be that some things run quite well over the next several years. It might be. But I believe that words matter. We’re part of a tradition in which words and language matter immensely. The single icon we display in this Meetinghouse is this open Bible, a demonstration of the centrality of the Word, and of words. John’s Gospel puts it thus: “In the beginning was the Word.” And then it continues, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s a way of saying that ideas and ideals circulate in the world, but that eventually they tend to be enacted, given flesh. Our tradition affirms that in Jesus of Nazareth the best and noblest of ideals became enfleshed in a powerfully significant way, showing us what it means to live lives of service and self sacrifice. We affirm that God was present in that enfleshed Word. But if that’s true, the opposite must also be true: hostile and angry words can also become manifest and incarnate in human lives.
Years ago, the novelist Chaim Potok wrote about the power of words, and especially about the power of poisonous rhetoric. He said, “This is a time when one must be especially careful about the power of language – that mysterious and otherwise blessed invisible bridge that binds us. It would help us a good deal now if we worried about the law of unintended consequences and considered words as sticks of dynamite, as nitroglycerine.” He then went on to warn: “A constant quantity of raging words turns, after a time, into the cruel quality of a speeding bullet, or a ghastly explosive.”
I’m sorry to say that it’s already begun. In truth, it began a while ago, but starting on Tuesday night and accelerating throughout the remainder of the week, we’ve seen an increase in threats and intimidation against minority populations, stirred up by the words that have thus far been uttered by our president elect. Here are several notable instances: at Texas State University, fliers depicting men in camouflage, wielding guns and an American flag appeared in restrooms across campus. Below the image, the fliers said “Now that our man Trump is elected, time to organize tar and feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting that diversity garbage.” At Wellesley College, two male students from nearby Babson College drove through campus in a large pickup truck adorned with a Trump flag. They parked outside a meeting house for black students, and then they spat at a black female student walking on the sidewalk. In Durham, North Carolina, walls at a busy intersection were painted with the message: “Black lives don’t matter and neither does your votes.” In Greenville, Mississippi, a black church was burned, and the words Trump 2016 were spray painted across the ruined walls. In towns in New York and Pennsylvania, swastikas have appeared, while a high school in York, Pennsylvania reported a band of students moving through the halls yelling “white power.” And in East Haddam, a sign much like the ones we now have on the Meetinghouse steps, a sign demonstrating solidarity with a number of vulnerable populations, was defaced, with the words Trump 2016 scrawled across it.
Words matter, and whatever this administration does or doesn’t do, the words of our president elect have enabled some of our very worst tendencies to surface. Those of us who live in an affluent cultural bubble like Old Lyme aren’t the ones who face the greatest risk right now. But we need to have the courage to look beyond ourselves, and beyond the affluent white bubble that many of us inhabit. The measure will be what happens to Muslims, to people of color, to women’s reproductive rights and to LGBTQ folks, to immigrants and to refugees. In truth, the measure will be what happens not only in this country, but in other countries that see this election as legitimating their own nativist tendencies. We ourselves may not face the worst, but we need to be mindful about the ways in which those ugly tendencies will materialize.
I’ve promised to deliver a word of hope to you this morning. So far what I’ve delivered are cautionary words that I believe people of faith need right about now. But I would be remiss if I didn’t use the freedom granted me to offer words that provide some orientation, some direction, some assurance. The word I have is this. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the trauma of the crucifixion, Peter shares an intimate moment with Jesus. You recall that it was Peter who betrayed Jesus, insisting at the moment of Jesus’s arrest that he never knew the man. The writer of the Gospel tells us that Peter immediately regretted what he had done, breaking down and weeping bitterly. And so it’s poignant that in the aftermath of the crucifixion and resurrection, in the aftermath of Peter’s bitter tears, Jesus seeks out his friend Peter first of all. Their exchange is brief and to the point. “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus says. “Lord, you know I do,” comes the response. “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Once again, the question comes: “Peter, do you love me?” “You know I do, I love you,” Peter says. “Then feed my sheep.” And then again, to reinforce the point, Jesus asks Peter, the Rock upon which his community will be built, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, you know I do,” Peter replies again, frustrated now. “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says.
Those are the words you and I need right now. In a time of uncertainty and apprehension, the words spoken to us by Jesus from across the ages, are precisely those: feed my sheep. If you love me, as you say you do, take care of those who are most vulnerable right now. The sheep aren’t members of a religious club or fraternity. The sheep are those in every time and place who are most vulnerable, whether from predation or neglect, from prejudice or from fear mongering. The work of Peter, the work of all of those who follow after Jesus, is to take care of those who need it the most, exercising compassion, mercy, and if need be, protection from the wolves of the world. What Jesus tells Peter, what Jesus tells all of us, is this: don’t get stuck. In the wake of a turbulent event, don’t get trapped pointing fingers or assigning blame. Confront what has happened, be realistic about what took place, but do not wallow in it. What Jesus tells Peter, what Jesus tells all of us, is that if you love me, you’ll get moving, and that right soon. If you love me, you’ll get to work, because there’s work to be done.
People of faith have heeded that wisdom for a long time now. I think of Augustine, perched at the edge of the Roman Empire in North Africa as that ancient order fell apart around him. Augustine didn’t remove himself to a private locale. He didn’t move to Canada. He got to work, writing some of the most trenchant theology the world has ever known, while also taking care of those within his community that needed his care the most. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who chose to return to Nazi Germany from the safety of the United States. He didn’t go to Bermuda. He effectively entered the viper’s nest, precisely so that he could take care of the needs of those he knew were being harmed by his government. I think of a Lutheran minister in East Berlin that I once read about, who was given the opportunity to flee that city with his family as the Berlin Wall was going up. He had several hours, and he faced an agonizing choice: to stay in that city, trapped behind a wall for the foreseeable future with his congregation, or to escape while he could. He chose to stay, heeding the words of Jesus all those years ago: feed my sheep.
I cite those examples not to suggest that our situation is analogous to any of those historical moments. We don’t know precisely where we are or what’s going to happen. But neither did any of the individuals I mentioned. They only knew that their times required their participation, and so, heeding the words of Jesus, they got to work. And that’s what we’ll do too. To start, we’ll stand proudly beside our Muslim friends, and do everything within our power to stand against any Islamophobia that arises in our community. Next Friday at the Berlin mosque, there will be a demonstration of solidarity for our Muslim friends. I’ll be going to prayers at noon, and if anyone would like to join me that afternoon, it would be good to have your company. But we’ll also continue our work with refugees. We’re still getting the Hamous stabilized, but perhaps now is the time to redouble our efforts, lest it become more difficult to resettle refugees in the future. Perhaps it’s time to create another team to prepare for receiving another family. But we’ll also have to be attentive, and responsive, to incursions on the environment and to the repeal of freedoms for those in the LGBTQ community. We’ll have to be mindful about outbreaks of racism, or bullying in the schools. We’ll have to be responsive to cuts in social services that will send more people to our food pantry, and to the Homeless Hospitality Center. This is going to test us and stretch us in ways we can’t yet foresee, but we know what we must do. Jesus said it all those years ago, and people of faith and conscience have been doing it ever since: feed my sheep. That’s what we’ll do.
I’ll close with an affirmation sent to me yesterday evening by one among us. They come from a minister in Berkeley, California, adapted from a meme now circulating in cyberspace. They form the resolution that all of us need right now, individually and collectively. I invite you to make it your own.
If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.
If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.
If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.
If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.
If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.
If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.
If you’re LGBTQ, I’ll remind you that you are beautiful and beloved, just as God made you.
If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home ok.
If you’re tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too. Together, we’ll be the strong arm of God.
We’ll do this together, heeding the words of Jesus, and feeding his sheep. We’ll do this together, reminding ourselves of the firm foundation upon which we stand. We’ll do this together, confident of the strength and wisdom that are ours in Christ. We’ll do this together, trusting the Spirit of the living Christ to uphold us as we do.