Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Church has become Politically Irrelevant

The most contentious presidential election in modern times is over. The division in our country is visibly pronounced. If our congregation and the Episcopal Church is representative of America, and I imagine it is, then twenty-five-percent of you voted for Donald Trump and twenty-five- percent of you voted for Hillary Clinton. And sadly, fifty-percent of you who were eligible to vote, didn’t. Without regard to whether you voted or not, we are all in the continuing chaos of this divide that will not go away. Maybe you came to church this morning to get away from the political conflict? Maybe you came this morning to hear some comforting words; some words of inspiration or some words that would ensure you that all will be well?

As synchronicity would have it, this morning’s assigned gospel reading offers not one word of solace. (Luke 21:5-19, assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary) The reading contains the final teaching of Jesus before he was to be crucified. The Roman government executed him because he was a threat to the status quo. Jesus’ message in this reading was not inspiring, uplifting, encouraging, or comforting. To the contrary, Jesus told his followers to expect doom and gloom: war, revolution, family betrayal, famine, and natural disasters. He didn’t promise them personal security. Jesus didn’t tell them they would be saved from their troubles. He didn’t tell to be calm and that all would be well. Instead, he told them to prepare for more oppression.

He acknowledged the reality of their suffering. And then he offered them a way to move forward. The only thing Jesus promised his followers was his wisdom. (21:14-15) Jesus doesn’t say where this wisdom will come from or what it will look like. But Jesus’ brother, James, tells us his interpretation of what Jesus meant. James said, “You must understand this my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19) James is echoing the words from the wisdom text of the Hebrew Bible, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. James is saying that listening is the source of wisdom.

We are a divided nation because we have not listened to one another. But in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, if we are going to have chance to move a bit towards unity, we must listen to those who don’t agree with us. And that will not be easy. It might even make us angry, something James warns us against.

If the church has anything left to offer our country, it is to create a safe space where we can gain wisdom through listening to one another. In my opinion, the church has failed to create this space.

Basically, the church has avoided providing safe space for the conversation about the painful fears we have experienced during this presidential election. While millions of Americans stayed up until wee hours of the night to hear the results of the most tumultuous election in modern history, the church remained on the sidelines, silent. The church was unable, or unwilling to offer a place for us to talk about our divisions. Why—because the church has been afraid of offending the offering plate.

The church didn’t want to face the painful and difficult conversations about the political world we live in, the world that causes us to be afraid, to hide, and to avoid talking to one another. Listening, deep listening, the kind of listening that brings true empathy, the place where it hurts to listen—the church has been afraid of that kind of listening because it might offend someone. And that failure has made the church politically irrelevant.

One of my mentors is Hugh O’Doherty. I met Hugh at the Clergy Leadership Project. He’s a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s from Northern Ireland and has worked for decades on issues of peace and reconciliation in many war torn countries. I have learned from him that to be leader, I must listen, even when it’s most risky.

Hugh stood before our class one morning, simply holding silence. Standing perfectly still, he made eye contact with each of the twenty-five people sitting in our circle. His eyes continued to go around the room for what was easily twenty minutes until finally one person couldn’t stand it anymore and broke the silence with a question.

Then Hugh told us a story that changed my life. He was working with a Para-military group in Northern Ireland. It had taken him months to gain their leader’s trust. He convinced them that if the group would meet with him, he would listen, and only listen. For safety sake the Para-military group felt they had to meet in secret. Secrecy and safety are illusions.

About halfway through the meeting, a few men from the opposing Para-military group entered the house where they were holding their secret meeting. They demanded that Hugh follow them outside. At that moment he said he knew his life was at risk. He knew that whomever he faced outside might kill him. But he willingly went with them. First they began to threaten him. But he held silence. Eventually, they started to tell him their version of the troubles in Northern Island. He listened. He held silence. Finally, they felt heard. They drove off and he went back into the house. He told the group inside what the opposing group outside wanted them to hear. Both groups simply wanted to be heard.

I asked Hugh what brought him to the place where he had the courage to listen under such great risk. He told me it was through his practice of meditation. In meditation, he said, he held silence. There he listened to the silence of God.

To listen like Hugh means to hold silence with no intention of responding to what is being said. Listening like this means that we take the other person’s pain into our heart. By doing so, we know that their story will effect us in ways we couldn’t imagine. Trying to listen like Hugh has been painful and risky for me, but it has changed the core of my being. I don’t listen because it’s a leadership strategy. I don’t listen so that I can convert someone to my way of thinking. I listen because I know it will have a deep, deep transformative effect on me. Listening has changed how I see the world, and how I respond to other people.

Jesus has taught us that there aren’t any easy answers. Empty platitudes that sound like comfort and solace are meaningless in times like these. Only the wisdom of listening can help us. Jesus said there would always be wars, international conflict, and natural disasters. The question is, will we listen for Jesus’ wisdom? Will we do what Jesus told us? Will we feed the hungry and listen to them? Will we clothe the naked and listen to them? Will we give water to the thirsty and listen to them? Will we visit the sick and listen to them? Will we visit people in prison and listen to them? Will we welcome immigrants into our country and listen to them? Will we listen to the homeless? Will we listen to those without insurance? Will we listen to women? Will we listen to people of color? Will we listen to the gay person, the lesbian person, the bi-sexual person, and the transgendered person? Will we listen to the disabled person? Will we listen to the Republicans? Will we listen to the Democrats? Will we listen to the Independents? Will we listen to the Tea Party? Will we listen to the Socialists? Will we listen to those who didn’t vote? Will we listen to our neighbors? Will we listen to our enemies? Will we listen to Jesus?

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