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Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
A sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Hodges on October 23, 2016


On Sunday, October 23, 2016 at Christ Church in Andover I preached sermons at our services (at 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.) which were my reflections on the upcoming Presidential election in light of that days’ gospel reading. Because of technical difficulties the sermon was not recorded so that it could be listened to. Scores of people (well, at least 3), were disappointed in this. The following is a re-creation, to the best of my ability, of that sermon. As the folks at Christ Church know, I do not write out my sermons and this is being written some 10 days after delivery. As such it is likely a combination of those two sermons as well as some embellishments and some things I wish I had said, but might not have. At any rate, I am certain that the two refrains and many of the expressions here faithfully capture the sermon from that day and certainly capture my own reflections on the election.

Faithfully,

The Rev. Michael J. Hodges, Rector
November 1 (All Saints Day), 2016
_________________________________________________________________________________

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

I have some bad news and some good news for you today. Contrary to the rule of our household I am going to share the good news with you first. I had originally planned for this Sunday to be the annual stewardship sermon by the Rector – that day when I had to talk about “money” and our annual fund campaign. The good news is that I am not going to do that, much to the chagrin of our stewardship committee, wardens and treasurer. And please note that in today’s gospel passage the Pharisee boasts about how he gives 10% of his income! A set-up for a stewardship sermon if there ever was one.

Now for the bad news: I would instead like to talk about the election. (Audible groans were heard at both services).

Now, I know that many of you have heard all you want to about the election. I get that and I myself cannot wait until it is over. I also understand that many of you look forward to coming to worship here at Christ Church because it guarantees you an hour or so of respite from the endless barrage of information and opinion about the election. I get that many, if not most, if not all, of you feel that politics should not be preached from the pulpit (and luckily for me, this is not a pulpit!).

But given today’s gospel passage I cannot help but reflect on how I am responding to the election, so I ask your forgiveness and indulgence.

Today’s parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the temple is told by Jesus to those who “trusted in themselves, that they were righteous”, and those who “regarded others with contempt”. Those two characteristics of human nature caught my attention and that attention turned to the election and the place we find ourselves in American society.

Many people have shared with me how anxious they are about this election. I understand and experience some of that anxiety as well and I do not mean to belittle it. Yet our faith teaches us that our trust is not to be placed in a political candidate, not even one who is running for the highest office in our nation, if not the world. Our faith teaches us that we should not put our trust in any political party, in any platform or set of policies or laws. And while I understand that I am taking a risk of being condemned as “un-patriotic”, our faith teaches us that we are not to put our trust even in our nation. Now, I am not saying that these are unimportant and do not deserve our careful discernment and passionate commitments.

But our faith teaches us that first and foremost, before all else, our trust is in God, and God alone. It is God who saves us, frees us, loves us, gives us hope and promises that God’s kingdom will last forever. Rather than “trusting in ourselves, that we are righteous”, we are asked to put our trust in God.

Now, I am not so naïve that I do not realize that this dichotomy between God and human beings and human institutions can be so easily maintained. That is to say, we are called to discern where the God in whom we place our trust is active in the world.

There is an old joke about a man who was in his home and caught in a flood. First a police car arrived and they warned the man to get in so that they could take him to safety. “God will save me” he replied. The waters rose so that he had to climb the stairs to the second floor. A boat went by and they offered to deliver him to dry ground. “God will save me”, was his refrain. Some time later the man found himself on the roof of his house and a helicopter came to evacuate him. “God will save me” was all he would say. Finally the man drowned and when he came before God he asked, “God, I trusted in you to save me, why didn’t you?” And God replied, “I sent the police, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

It is perhaps one of the more profound and important question for people of faith to grapple with. Namely, “in what way does God interact with our lives and with this world”. And it is the work of careful discernment as individuals and in communities like this one to see where God is active in bringing about freedom, reconciliation, justice, and mercy. It takes careful discernment to claim by faith how God is working in and through our socio-political systems. Yet to claim that God works in and through human beings and human institutions is not to conflate the two, ever, and our trust is always to be in God and not misplaced in those human beings and human institutions that God may use for God’s purposes in mysterious ways.

The second characteristic of the crowd Jesus was speaking to in today’s Gospel lesson was that they “regarded others with contempt”.

Much has been made in this election of the contempt that exists between the two candidates, the contempt they have shown to others at times, and the contempt we Americans, across many divisions, have shown and are showing to each other. On one side a candidate has been accused of judging entire groups of people and on the other side a candidate has described those who support the opponent as “deplorables”. And their contempt for each other has been on full display. In fact the most shocking thing to me of the third and final debate was not any of the many statements that were made. The most shocking, and disappointing, thing to me was that neither candidate had the basic decency, common courtesy, and deep respect to shake the hand of their opponent. They didn’t shake hands at the beginning or at the end of the debate. And they are equally to blame. All it would have taken was for one of them to make the slightest move in the direction of the other with out-stretched hand. The other would have had to shake hands or endured the scorn of the American people. What message was sent to our children watching when they saw two fellow Americans who aspire to be President, two fellow human beings, who, no matter how strongly they disagree with each other or hold each other in contempt, could not honor the dignity of another, acknowledge the deep bonds of their common humanity, and respect each other enough to simply shake hands?

This is not simply about the candidates. Sadly, on a much more profound and far more lasting level, the candidates are simply a reflection of where we are in this country. It seems that so many of us in America are very quick to pray the prayer of the Pharisee, “I thank you God that I am not like other people.” We are so quick to regard others with contempt because of our quick judgments and categorization.

I truly believe that if we took the time to have deep conversations, conversations that went beyond the all-too-easy posts on social media, the bumper sticker slogans or sound-bites that are all too often mere mimicry, we would find that people we disagree with share the same hopes, fears, and joys that we do. It may not mean that we will end up agreeing. It certainly is true that we are divided as an American people and have profound differences. But I believe we also share things in common just as profoundly. At the end of the day, even in our differences and disagreements, our faith teaches us, in the words of our baptismal covenant, “to respect the dignity of every human being”. To do so leaves little room to “regard others with contempt”.

In this season in our country as we prepare to cast our votes – and I will encourage you all to vote! – let us put our trust not in ourselves or in others, but in God and let us stop regarding others with contempt and instead regard them with the dignity and respect they have as children of God.

Perhaps a place to start is to follow the example of the tax collector, despised, perhaps corrupt, perhaps as prone to being contemptuous of others as any of us, yet he entered the temple and cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”. Then we might realize how much each one of us in in need of God’s mercy and are called to put our trust in God. And we might realize how much others are in need of God’s mercy and how they are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, and not with contempt.

Amen.

Last Published: November 3, 2016 3:51 PM