Guest Post – Deacon Sue Bonsteel

Sue Bonsteel, our deacon at St. John’s, preached on the Sunday after this year’s presidential election.  It’s posted as a guest post here because it’s an important piece of preaching.  Thank you, Sue, for your witness and your ministry.img_20161029_165133434
You can read the lections for the day here.

I learned this week that sermons should never be written when you’re upset. And I confess that I was – and remain – saddened and more than a little worried about the outlook for our country. It took me three tries before settling on these words.

I think we can all agree this is a very trying time for our nation. The future seems bleak at the moment for so many. However we marked our ballots last Tuesday, most aren’t insensitive to the pain around us. It is a time unlike any other in our collective memory. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” seems to be the best advice these days.

I’m aware that there will be some who will hear this sermon as “political.”  I’m not sure why “political” is a term ever used to describe a sermon but I suspect it’s because what is preached at times may make some of us anxious or uncomfortable, the way politics can. We hope for sermons that will be thoughtful and scriptural (which they certainly should be). And perhaps we desire sermons that don’t challenge our long-held beliefs. We want to be reminded only of God’s enduring love and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. In difficult times, we want to be reassured that all will be well. I understand. I feel the same way. Yet, I also can’t help but wonder how we often listen to the Gospel on Sundays and still overlook the connection between the important lessons we are being taught and how to live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. The tenets of our faith aren’t debatable. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Looking around our nation these past few days, I think we can agree that few of us have that down perfectly.

A spiritual director once reminded me that faith is not static; it is a living thing; it is dynamic…it’s always in need of strengthening and growth. He suggested that dark times may actually help deepen our understanding of our relationship to God and to one another. The challenge, he said, is to not turn away in fear – or worse, because we don’t care enough – but to welcome the opportunity to grow closer to God and to one another. Perhaps a commitment to a deeper, more mature faith may help us in the days ahead to stand up to those who have distorted the teachings of Christ – those who mistakenly believe they now have permission to denigrate, harass, abuse and defile others.

During turbulent times, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Son of God was himself seen as a first century political revolutionary. He encouraged his disciples to get riled-up in order to take on societal injustices and to challenge the powers that be. One of the most familiar images we have is of a furious Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, tossing over the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps, my dear friends, it’s time again for you and I to turn some tables over and raise our voices, just as Jesus did, to be heard above the false prophets around us.

As I struggled with this sermon, I realized that if I didn’t get “political”, it would mean ignoring the pain of millions of our brothers and sisters. Rather than diminish what just happened to our country…to gloss over it with religious platitudes and “feel good” messages, I must speak as a deacon is called to do. And, if there remain any skeptics out there about the appropriateness of this, please check out my job description on page 343 in our Book of Common Prayer. It’s in the ordination rite and reminds the Church that deacons always have one foot in the Church and one foot out in the world, bringing the needs and concerns of the world to the people of God.

You and I don’t live in a bubble and the Church does not want us to. We don’t come to St. John’s to be sheltered from the world around us. We come to St. John’s to worship God and to learn how to live fully as Christian people in the broken world around us. You and I are called to change the wrongs we see and to work with love and compassion and hope in order to create a fair and just world for every one of God’s people. We are the Body of Christ and all shall always be welcome through these doors. ALL. Today it happens to be my job to remind us of this.

In 2001, just days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, I preached from this pulpit about the awful devastation and pain felt by our nation. I remember saying that it was probably too soon for us to be speaking about routine things such as vestry meetings, pledge cards and parish activities. Our country was in shock and the horror of that September day was just beginning to be felt by all of us. I remember speaking about ways we might come together through our prayers and love and support for one another and for our country. I’m sure you recall how people rose to the challenge. We expressed our unity through the hanging of flags on our homes, by donating to special concerts which raised money for the families of those killed, and by seeking out houses of worship as we sought comfort and peace in community as we reeled from the unexpected and horrific event. We needed to be constantly reminded that God was still in our midst. Our relationships to one another were stronger than the terrorists’ desire to tear us apart.

Certainly the election that took place on Tuesday does not compare to the September 11th tragedy. But I discovered this week that the depth of the emotions felt by so many people was as visceral and heartfelt as it was back then. There is real suffering in the lives of our brothers and sisters who now sense a physical and spiritual threat to their very existence. We have already seen shocking post-election images of gay men being beaten on the streets of our cities, parades being organized by the Ku Klux Klan, Muslim college students attacked on their way to classes, graffiti written on walls taunting our African-American brothers and sisters with hateful messages about returning to Africa, high school students in Pennsylvania marching down the hallways carrying political signs and yelling “White Power.” Folks I‘ve spoken to the past few days are inconsolable at the outcome of the election after a cruel and divisive campaign. The hateful and explicit language by a Presidential candidate, the attacks on Muslims, the disabled, Latinos, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women and African Americans are shameful and as members of the Church, we must publicly denounce them. Yet somehow…someway…enough of us felt that a national leader could still be worthy of the highest office in our land despite his outright racism, coarse and misogynistic language and incendiary threats and lies repeated over and over again. Many Americans went to the polls and chose to look past this for reasons still difficult for so many others to fathom.

One of the most disturbing things about where we find ourselves now is the effect this campaign and election is having on our children. On the morning after the election my daughter sent an email that read, in part: Thomas (who is 8) woke up to the news that we had a new President this morning and asked if I was kidding when I told him who was elected. He had tears in his eyes and said “but he’s mean to women. Is something going to happen to you and Grandma?” Later, at the bus stop, our Muslim neighbors came over with their young son and said “We all need to pray.”

Perhaps you’ve heard similar disturbing statements from the children in your life. Little ones frightened by the rhetoric we adults allowed to continue and – in some cases – laughed at and shared on social media. It’s too late to take it back. But we must take responsibility for it and help reassure our children that they are loved and will be protected from harm, real or imagined. It will take a village to bind up the hurts felt by so many during this contentious election.

And this is where we need to focus our efforts as professed followers of the King of Peace. For we find ourselves in a crucial time to live like we are truly disciples of Christ.  We CAN make this better. We HAVE to make this better.

In 2004, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a wonderful book called God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.” In it he writes that God depends on us always to be our best selves – to be carriers of justice, healing and wholeness in a world that is twisted and torn by hatred, divisiveness, and violence. His own country’s painful experience with apartheid helped shape his understanding of how God can lead humanity to create order out of disorder, peace out of chaos. He refers to the African ideal of ubuntu, (uu-boon-too) which acknowledges that our own well-being is contingent on the health and happiness of those around us. It’s a philosophy that emphasizes a universal bond of sharing that connects all people. Ubuntu (uu-boon-tu) speaks particularly about the fact that we can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It reminds us of our interconnectedness. In other words, I can’t be human all by myself – you can’t be human all by yourself. Tutu suggests that we think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another. But this is simply not true. We are connected and what we do actually affects the whole world. When we do well, it spreads out; it becomes a ripple effect of goodness and generosity and love that is for the whole of humanity. Only then is there hope for a better tomorrow.

The Good Bishop challenges us to work as “God’s rainbow people” and see our suffering neighbors and even strangers around us as part of our family. He asks, “Would we let a member of our brother’s or sister’s family – our relatives – eke out a miserable existence in poverty? Would we let them go hungry or homeless?” Yet, in reality, every 4 seconds someone dies of hunger and three-quarters of these are children under the age of 5. Bishop Tutu argues that if we truly realized that we are family, we would not let this cruelty happen to our brothers and sisters. To see others who may be marginalized in our society as members of our family…makes it much more difficult to turn aside when they are suffering from discrimination, religious intolerance, verbal abuse, physical violence and economic inequality.

Our own Bishops Dietsche, Shin and Glasspool issued a pastoral letter on Thursday which reads in part: “Our election on Tuesday was not what was expected, or at least not what we were led to expect. We discover now the depth and breadth of the rift that divides and separates Americans one from another…these differences, this divide cannot and must not be smoothed over in false hope of an easy reconciliation…the much harder task before…us…is to really listen to one another, to hear another’s pain and fear, to understand one another, and by the God’s grace to find together the deeper hopes and dreams which we all share…this task may be our most urgent work now as a church.”

You and I are God’s agents of transformation in this world. As Bishop Tutu writes: “Without us, God has no eyes; without us, God has no ears; without us,  God has no arms. God waits upon us, and relies on us.” Let me say that once more. God relies on us. That’s a big job on good days; it seems overwhelming at a time like this. But being a disciple of Jesus Christ means we have to work harder; to more fully commit ourselves to justice and to peace. For when one member of our family suffers, the entire family suffers.

In the days ahead we have to be willing to be uncomfortable…to be political…to be courageous. To stand with the stranger. To defend those who are made scapegoats. To speak for those without a voice. To protect the innocent. To name the evil for what it is. For once we do that, once we decide to risk it all, we will have finally chosen to leave the darkness of these days behind us and live in the Light.


About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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