When we planned our sermon series earlier this year, none of us gave any thought (at least in so far as I can remember) about the particular Sunday when we would be preaching on these texts. Back then it was just the second Sunday in November, but as we lived through the election this week all of a sudden this Sunday took on special significance. And the scripture themes of unity, care, and bearing each others' burdens are especially appropriate.
I wrote in my enews piece this week that after a campaign season that both nationally and locally had way too many exaggerated accusations against opponents, that distorted facts, deceptively edited sound bites, that questioned persons' faith, patriotism, and integrity, it was an especially moving conclusion to the presidential election to hear Senators McCain and Obama speak to America. Senator McCain's concession speech was unquestionably heartfelt, and his appeal for national unity and support for Barack Obama by saying, "He is my president," established him as not just a politician, but a statesman. Sometime later, President-elect Obama's praise for Senator McCain, and his request for Americans to rise to what they do best when faced with challenges: to come together, brought the long evening to a close for me with a sense of pride and hope for our still-emerging democracy.
But Wednesday was a different day. Remember, it was overcast all day. For a little more than half of the electorate it was a day of tremendous joy, but for almost as many others it was a day of deep disappointment. About the only thing everyone could be happy about was that commercial time on television dropped political ads and went back to grease-busting dishwashing detergent, 24 hour deodorant, three-ply toilet tissue, and that annoying guy selling the Sham-Wows! I never thought I would be happy to see him again!
Both Barack Obama and John McCain stated in their own words what we all need to remember: government doesn't do it all. A president doesn't do it all. Our strength, our hope, our ability to rise above adversity all reside in our resolve to work together despite our differences. America at its best has always done this. We have done this in facing the tyranny of aggression in international conflicts. We have done this in facing the broken economy of a Great Depression. We have done this in facing the injustices of slavery and segregation. We have done this successfully again and again because we have always done it together! At our best we always rise above our political, racial, economic, and ethnic differences to be that city set on a hill.
During the month of November, when our attention is not on elections, it is on Thanksgiving, and our thoughts invariably turn to the history of Pilgrims and Puritans. It will soon be four centuries ago that a group of Puritans led by John Winthrop left England and came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop was elected governor there, a position he held for 20 years. But in April of 1630 while at sea in the Atlantic Ocean on the ship Arabella, Winthrop spoke to those embarking on the trip to New England. In his address, virtually a sermon, entitled "A Model for Christian Charity", he said this:
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Many of you who are old enough will remember President Reagan using the imagery of the city on a hill from Winthrop, but most of us would miss the context here. It is all being visible to the world that looks to see how we share with each other, care for each other, work with each other, and keep a unity of spirit in the bond of peace. It is this that will empower ten of us to stand against a thousand of our enemies. It is what the writer of Ecclesiastes was trying to say when he wrote that a threefold cord is not easily broken. It is two bound by charity, which in Winthrop's time meant love. And love is not warm fuzzy feelings; it is the selfless offering of your self to someone else. Jesus said, "There is no greater love than this: when you lay down your life for another."
Ecclesiastes can be a pretty somber book, but here in the middle of it is this wonderful image of one lifting up another, of two keeping each other warm and protecting each other. The threefold cord: two entwined in love.
My staff was especially helpful to me this week. Lynette Fields put me on to the John Winthrop quote, and Tweed Swenson offered an entirely different take on the same topic. Something tells me there might be more of you who relate to Tweed's contribution. It is the philosophy of Charles Shultz, the creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip. It comes in the form of two short quizzes.
First, try this:
- Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
- Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
- Name the last five winners of the Miss America Pageant.
- Name ten people who have won a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
- Name the last six Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
- Name the last ten years of World Series champs.
How do you think you would have done if I had actually had you take out a paper and pencil and answer those?
Try this instead:
- List a few teachers who had aided your journey through school.
- Name three friends who were there for you through a difficult time.
- Name five people who taught you something worthwhile.
- List four people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
- Name five people you enjoy spending time with.
Easier? The lesson here is that the people who make a difference in our lives are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones who care. And the people whose lives you make the most difference in are the ones for whom you care.
It breaks my heart that in the midst of our national campaigns people who claim the name of Christ can be so un-caring. For those on the "outside" of the Christian faith, there is often no distinction made between those whose primary mission seems to be judging others and those whose primary mission is to love others. It is part of the reason why you and I have to work extra hard at getting our friends and co-workers to visit St. Luke's even once. For all sorts of legitimate reasons they just don't trust that inside these walls they still won't be made to feel like outsiders.
That's why it is so very very important that when we ourselves are outside, we are constantly aware of being kind, being care-full, being helpful, being loving. As Winthrop said, when we do that, we will see more of God's wisdom, power, and truth. No matter what our political opinions and commitments might have been, there were few of us on Tuesday night who were not deeply grateful that the world was seeing America at its best, affirming our unity and our resolve to put the divisions of the past election season behind us and to move ahead together.
I often say that when God looks upon this beautiful planet, God sees it like the astronauts do: without borders, without nationalities, without political parties, without sectarian divisions, without all of the things by which we try to separate ourselves. God sees us as equally and individually loved with an everlasting love. And God's hope for us is that we will love each other, bear each other's burdens, and simply be kind.
Listen as Kevin sings.
I want to end with Margaret Sangster's poem, "The Sin of Omission."
It isn't the thing you do,
It's the thing you leave undone,
Which gives you a bit of heartache
At the setting of the sun.
The tender word forgotten,
The letter you did not write,
The flower you might have sent
Are your haunting ghosts tonight.
The stone you might have lifted
Out of a brother's way.
The bit of heartsome counsel
You were hurried too much to say.
The loving touch of the hand,
The gentle and winsome tone,
That you had no time or thought for
With troubles enough of your own.
The little acts of kindness,
So easily out of mind;
Those chances to be helpful
Which everyone may find.
No, it's not the thing you do,
It's the thing you leave undone,
Which gives you the bit of heartache
At the setting of the sun.
It doesn't take all that much to be kind, to be helpful in bearing another's burden. And the cord of hope you make when you choose not to go it all alone or let someone else do so is one that really never breaks. It is the one that binds us together in love, in God.