Service: “Forethought of Grief” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
I will not insult anyone in this room by explaining why it is crucial that you vote on Tuesday – if, in fact, you have not already done so. If you have any doubts on the matter, I will be happy to share my thoughts in a private conversation. Ditto if you are curious about who I am voting for; this pulpit is not the place, but I’m not shy about who or why if you ask me. More than just your own vote, I do urge you to do whatever you can to help others among your friends or in your neighborhood get to the polls themselves. Encourage them to prepare for long lines, and a lengthy ballot. Attempts at voter suppression must be countered by efforts at voter facilitation.
We all know we have to vote; it’s the only way democracy works, and democracy is one of the foundational principles of our faith. The trouble is, you know, that democracy is unpredictable; none of us can count on our own opinions being always in the majority. Actually, democracy works a lot like god does in more conventional liberal faiths; god is always surprising. God does not make things turn out the way we want all the time. Part of god’s job is to bring novelty into the world, and as often as not that is an unpleasant turn of events. In many traditions, god is a trickster, precisely because the divine is not accountable to human expectations. Same thing with democracy; just because we are morally or pragmatically or historically right, doesn’t mean we will get our way. The difference is that for the most part, we don’t think of democracy as actively benevolent. It is a decision-making tool, not an infallible force. And it only has as much moral integrity as we who use it give to it. You can’t count on democracy to come up with the right answer, just the popular one. Some people think that we are actually smarter in groups than we are as individuals, but it seems to me that mob psychology – or ‘the madness of crowds’ as Charles McKay once called it – can make us both stupider, and more cruel, collectively than any one of us would be alone. So Churchill’s observation stands, I suppose: ‘Democracy is the worst system of government – except for all the others.’
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that blue wave or no blue wave, many of us are probably in for some disappointments Tuesday evening. Maybe a couple of the candidates we have been rooting for will bring it, maybe a handful, even, but probably not all of them. Maybe your issue, for the libraries or campaign reform or legal marijuana, will prevail, but chances are you will have something to be more unhappy about than ever on Wednesday morning. And that unhappiness is what I want to talk about this morning. You’ll be fine with the victories, as long as we avoid unseemly gloating; it’s the losses that challenge our integrity, our courage, and our faith.
Of course, it’s one thing to know that you lost an election fair and square; it’s another thing altogether when we have cause to suspect that the process itself was rigged. It seems clear to me that we, the ordinary voters, ought to stop out-sourcing our confidence in the electoral process to corporations and technology. Those of us who have any expertise in the matter ought to be pestering election boards about the machines that are used to cast and count ballots, and educating ourselves about what actually can go wrong with them. It is certainly tempting to return to universal paper ballots – is that really the answer? I don’t know, but someone should be teaching us. In terms of what I can do, I am going to apply to become an election judge in Jackson County. If the only people who take on these kinds of civic duties to safeguard our voting process are conservatives, then the temptation to cut corners in their own favor will in time become overwhelming. As the 19th century abolitionist Wendell Philips once reminded the nation, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few… Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.” The same consideration applies to gerrymandered districting, and to the revolving door between government office and highly paid lobbyists. In short, if you don’t have confidence in the mechanics of our electoral process, what piece of it are you undertaking to do something about?
As citizens we deserve, and should demand, a sound process for casting and counting our votes; that really is one of the minimal expectations for which government should be held accountable. Yet even so that would not mean that we would always get our way; the candidates and causes we believe in might still really not be supported by the majority of our neighbors, for good reasons or bad. Crucial decisions may still be made, with urgent consequences, and not go the way you think they should. In those times, it is important to remember that history has never been a linear progress from one common good to the next, but rather a lurching from one crisis and over-reaction to the next failure of nerve and collective surrender to fear. It matters, in the near term, tremendously. People die from the things we don’t get right. There are human beings who would be alive today if it were not for the policies, and the rhetoric, of the current administration in Washington. Not just the high visibility victims of mass shootings, but people who died because they couldn’t afford their medicine, or because they were deported back to the gangs they had fled asking for asylum, or because police officers with a history of violence were not held accountable, or because their abusive partners had easy access to guns. Policies are not abstractions; they have real-life outcomes, that matter.
So it is easy to despair, when what seems so obviously right and necessary and humane to me, does not appear that way to the person in the voting booth next to mine. This is why we need something like faith – a long perspective, the humility to acknowledge that we could be wrong after all, and the willingness to go right back to the persistent effort to build a better, more just, more humane, more workable world even when it isn’t popular. My colleague Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer compares this process to an act of prayer:
I walk in, as on pilgrimage.
The altar cloths are red, white, and blue;
the ushers are the women who have been running these things,
who have been running everything, since before I was born.
I’m handed the ballot like a scroll
because the questions seem that important—
ancient and modern, of what my God and country ask of me: who?
Who—for commissioner, mayor, president—
who—for district 8, ward 7, school board—
who—will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly?
I make my mark with at least a shred of hope
that something good will come from this.
And regardless, I remember:
the world won’t be destroyed, entirely, by this;
the world won’t be saved, entirely, by this.
Marking my vote is like kneeling in prayer
because neither will accomplish anything right away—
but the purpose of both is to remind me
of my deepest hope for the world that I’m trying to help create.
So I rise from prayer, and turn in my ballot
and remember that the ‘who’ is me, and us, and we the people—
and again I set to the task that is mine: justice, mercy, humble service
in my small corner of the world.
I think we are going to need this depth, and this simplicity, while all the frantic, angry chaos swirls around us. At some level, faith is always about this paradox – that we are called to do all that we can imagine for the sake of the highest good we know, and at the same time, to recognize that we are finally not in charge. No matter how clever and strategic, no matter how outraged and urgent, no matter how truthful, and ethical, and just plain right we are, we still don’t run the universe. I don’t; you don’t; your race doesn’t; your heritage doesn’t; your language doesn’t; your army doesn’t; your nation doesn’t; your laws don’t; your good intentions, your sacrifices, your most earnest aspirations don’t; nor does your vote. Your vote has its power, much like the example of the way you treat people has power, but it is not dispositive.
Would the world be a better place if you did run it? Of if I did? Perhaps. And yet the randomness of evolution and the arbitrary turnings of history have gotten us this far, and they always win in the end. Not only does death come to us each individually, but systems and empires crumble too; governments and civilizations fall. It wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t care so much. That’s the price we pay for consciousness, for free will, for awareness and hope – that capacity for suffering is our cost, and not just in the present moment. No, the thing that really gets us is that forethought of grief, the things that might happen, the foreseeable consequences of the choices we are making now. It’s a kind of torment in the human condition; to be able to imagine what we cannot control; to see calamities on the horizon, without being able to stop them; to cherish the good that we know we stand to lose.
One alternative, of course, is to turn away, to refuse to see; when the vision is too painful, that can be a tempting choice. Another is to grasp for the reins of power by force, to use every means necessary, however dishonest or violent, to seize control and just dictate the outcome that you are certain is right. It rarely works out as planned, but this approach does have the advantage of keeping grief at bay. Indulging in anger and blame is a way to bury unbearable sorrow so that we need not do the emotional work that it entails. One can also retreat into cynicism and moral despair, concluding that since the universe does not seem to honor our values, why bother with them ourselves? Just live out your days in immediate self-concern and little pleasures; leave the greater good and the larger goals to other people, who are willing to stand the heartache. These are the paths of abandoned integrity, of faithlessness. But there is another choice – more difficult, more painful, more real, more holy. My colleague Rev. Chip Roush puts it this way:
Bombs in the mail; assassination attempts.
More white gunmen, murdering black strangers in stores,
Jews in synagogues, women at yoga.
Threats against the very lives of our transgender kinfolk and friends.
Efforts to close our national borders, in violation of international law.
Yet another week in the struggle for the soul of America.
Perhaps some of you find yourselves struggling, too.
And even so, even with all of that,
I know that goodness has survived challenging times before.
We have faced oppression, and domestic terrorism,
and we have changed our nation for the better
by persevering, and by allowing courageous compassion to lead us.
I am reminded of the words of Booker T. Washington, who said
(in the gendered language of his time),
“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”
So may we be.
Particularly in times like these, he continues,
it is good to recall, and reconnect with, the deepest parts of ourselves:
our values, our determination, our hunger for justice, our love of mercy,
our capacity for change, our stubborn hope, our faith in the bending of the universe.
There is change coming, that much is certain.
As with most change, there is bound to be significant resistance.
We will probably see more violence, before the deep change finally breaks through.
And…yet…it will break through.
We are awakening from this trance of separation,
re-membering and re-embodying
the full wholeness, wisdom, and transforming love that is our living core.
Deeper than DNA,
more fundamental than molecules or quarks,
always already present in us and to us — if we are open to it.
We are compassionate courage,
roaring forth to save our human cousins from the effects of their own hatred,
and rescuing the ones we love, and all who are vulnerable, from those who would harm them.
Every person in sympathy with these ideals is welcome here, in this house of reverence,
This covenant community of memory and promise.
In times like these, and for the rest of our lives,
may we be ever more aware of the Spirit of Life evolving through and within and among us.
Change is coming; that much is certain, and some of it will come on Tuesday. We will bring it about, we who show up at the polls, who see to it that others come as well. We who mark the unwieldy ballot that is our prayer flag, our act of faith. Change is coming, as it always does, and some of it will make us excited and happy; some of it will feel like redemption and revenge and reclaiming our country, no doubt. And some of it, as always, will feel like a blow to the chest and a lead weight in the stomach and a foretaste of fathomless sorrow. Democracy is not a fair-weather faith; it confronts us with a world that is not as we would have wished it to be, sometimes in urgent and crucial ways.
None of us does not know about cruelty, and hunger and disease brought about by inhumane policies; about pain and shame and the discouragement of watching the majority reject our vision of the common good. But even though it can be wrenchingly difficult, even in the aching forethought of grief, we must hold on to tenderness, and friendship, and the Spirit of Life, and the knowledge of love that never ends. These are not complicated things, but they are the antidotes to despair. They are the path of integrity, of change, of the Spirit evolving through and within and among us.
What happens on Tuesday will change the world for us,
in ways both good and bad, small and large.
What we must not allow it to do is to change us;
to break our faithfulness to the covenant promises that have made us who we are;
covenants of community and a common good;
of democracy and equity and power that is accountable to serve our shared well-being.
The same honesty that has always mattered, will matter still;
the same hunger for justice, and yearning for mercy, and path of humility,
will still be required of us;
the same gentleness with each other,
the same simple love of goodness will be just as needed as it has always been.
The world will go on turning, turning in the orbit of change
as election days come and go, for that is the nature of things;
and the place just right will be found exactly where it has always been –
in the open heart, the generous hand, the kinship of our shared humanity,
and the assurance that while we are not in charge, we are not alone.