The End of the World – November 13, 2016
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
It was Sunday, December 11th, 2011, the Third Sunday of Advent, and Barack Obama was closing in on the third year of his presidency. He woke up that morning and took a short walk with his family to a yellow Episcopal Church called St. John’s located across Lafayette Plaza from the White House. St. John’s is known as the “Church of the Presidents,” and is no stranger to presidential worshipers; every President since John Madison has attended a service there at least once. This church visit, then, was no unusual occurrence; the President had simply decided on this morning that he wanted to go to church.
The preacher that day was the Rev. Dr. Luis León, the Rector of St. John’s and a hardened Washington veteran. León had begun his term as Rector shortly into Bill Clinton’s first term, and had shepherded his elite Washington flock through some of the most tumultuous struggles of the previous two decades: the Lewinsky scandal, 9/11, the Iraq War. León was no ignorant, simple pastor; he had seen it all—the ups, the downs, the wins, the losses, the triumphs, the heartbreaks. León had also managed to achieve that most elusive of Washington accomplishments: bipartisan respect. By Obama’s second term, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama would have, at various points, asked him to participate in their inaugurations and other official national events.
So when León decided to use his sermon on that Sunday to opine about the man sitting in front of him, I’m sure that everyone was all ears. León, after all, knew about Washington; he knew about politics; and now he was daring to speak in church for minutes on end about a sitting President—right in front of his face.
The Gospel lesson assigned for that Sunday was a passage from John’s Gospel in which John the Baptist is asked whether he was the Messiah, and the occurrence of this passage in the Church’s lectionary immediately flashed León back to the last time the passage was read in church, three years before, just weeks after Obama’s election. Pointing out the potential danger in assuming that any human being is the Messiah, León recalled the national mood in December 2008. “I thought we were creating an illusion about what was happening in America,” he told the congregation gathered at St. John’s three years later, “and that we were going to be disillusioned somewhere down the pike…we were…casting our aspersions and projecting on somebody something that person was not. I was worried. I was worried the whole time we were expecting a Messiah to be our president…and we were all going to be disillusioned because we were electing a president, not a Messiah.”
And now, eight years later, as we begin to recover from yet another long presidential election, the national mood is distinctly different, at least in this part of the country. While over 30 percent of Norwalk voted for President-Elect Trump, I know that there are many people here and elsewhere in the country who do not believe that we elected the right candidate this time. The feelings others have shared with me or posted on social media often go beyond disagreement and lack of confidence and veer into shock, shame, and fear. Memories of an extraordinary virulent campaign linger; racism, sexism and xenophobia hover in the air. People are upset. People are angry. People are scared.
But the reaction to the 2008 election and the reaction to the 2016 election have one key characteristic in common: an unmistakably apocalyptic tone. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, after all, the apocalypse is both when the Messiah appears and when the world ends. In 2008, many of us were convinced that we were experiencing the triumphant arrival of the Messiah, an almost divine figure who had the power to save us from everything that ailed us. In 2016, many of us fear we’re facing the end of the world, that our new President is a dangerous threat to everything we hold dear. In both cases, we’ve made the mistake of making politics our religion, of treating the question of our new President as the be-all-and-end-all.
Don’t get me wrong: politics can play an important role in addressing real and significant issues like those our country faces right now, and I have some serious reservations about the selection of our new President and the effect it could have on the future of our politics and our country. The result of the election on Tuesday stunned me; it was neither what I expected nor what I wanted. In the past few days, I have seen how so many feel hurt, how so many have suffered, and I too have been disappointed; I too have been afraid. But it’s also important to remember that the presidential election that was just completed was not—at least in a very literal sense—the end of the world.
Jesus says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” Jesus simultaneously dismisses both the idea that any one person or thing other than God can ever truly save us and the belief that any one person or thing can ever completely destroy us. Yet how often have we let our politics lead us so easily astray! How effortlessly do we treat presidential elections as a total referendum on our integrity and our humanity! No one presidential election, I think, can fully redeem all the wrongs we have participated in as a nation and as individuals, just as no one presidential election can condemn us with confidence to certain destruction. We are more than our elections; and the entire reality of our present and our future is far too complex for any one media circus, however immense and exhaustive, to capture or comprehend.
At the same time, we must be reminded that Jesus never says things will always be easy. Jesus never promises eternal, unchanging harmony and peace. In today’s Gospel lesson, in fact, he explicitly promises the opposite, speaking of conflict, of natural disaster, of persecution, of betrayal, of hatred, of the destruction of buildings. I have noted with alarm the unfortunate uptick in the reporting of hate crimes in the past few days, and I do hope that the reality of the next four years is not nearly as awful or dramatic as Jesus describes. Still, I think Jesus’ point is that even when things get difficult, the world is not necessarily ending. There is still, even when things are at their worst, the potential for change, for hope, for a different future.
What, then, do we do? Change doesn’t happen overnight, we know, and the election our country just underwent highlighted attitudes and divisions that will elude any attempt at hasty revision. The reading from the second letter to Thessalonians, I think, provides a hint here in its focus on work. It reminds us that we have work to do—hard, tedious, back-breaking, time-consuming, unglamorous work: we have to communicate with and understand one another better in our relationships, in our families, in our communities and in the whole public square; we have to research and educate others about the core issues facing our nation and the world; we have to do the best we can to contribute to society in the places in which we are already located; and yes, in time, when it is appropriate, we have to confront, to protest, to organize. All of this, I think, is true however you identify politically and however you voted (or not) on Tuesday. “Elections are easy,” to play off an idea from the musical Hamilton, “living is harder.”
On the eve of the election, Monday night, NBC’s Kevin Tibbles spoke to Bob Frobose, the owner of a meat market in Pemberville, Ohio. Frobose didn’t much care for either of the candidates. He hated the “hostility” and the “name-calling” of the campaign, and felt “worn out” and “demoralized” as election day neared. “At my age,” he told Tibbles, “I’m shocked that our country has gotten to this point.” But, he said, he had hope because of one thing, anticipating the assertion President Obama would himself later make. “The good part of this,” Frobose explained, “is come Wednesday morning, the sun is going to come up. No matter whether your candidate wins or loses, it’s going to be ok.”
He wasn’t completely correct about the weather, of course, at least here in Connecticut, where on Wednesday the sun hid behind clouds pretty much all day and we even saw some rain. And I’m not wholly convinced myself that everything is going to be ok, and whether that will really be the case certainly will depend on one’s own perspective. But Frobose was right in the sense that the sun eventually did shine through and still comes up on most mornings, and that the earth keeps turning whomever our President is.
No, the world did not end on Tuesday, November 8th. We did not reach a state of nirvana where all is perfect nor did we suffer an apocalypse of total catastrophe and doom. Instead, the sun continues to rise up almost every morning, and with it comes a call to get to work—to engage in, not a fantasy world, but the world that we have, to love each other with as much passion as we can muster, to care for the outcast, the overlooked and the oppressed, to listen to those with whom we disagree. Even in the age of Trump, there is still hope left and there is still much work to do. So keep on moving. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. Don’t be weary in doing what is right. The project of politics, like the project of life, is not a sprint, but a marathon. Put in the work each and every day. Persist, whatever it takes. By your endurance you just might gain your souls.