This is the time of year when change is in the air. We marvel as leaves take on brilliant hues, we remember our school days when we see yellow buses on the road, we recall our favorite Halloween treats as pumpkins appear on doorsteps, and we recoil in terror as yard signs spring up reminding us of the presidential election swirling around us. Now don’t worry, I am not going to talk about the candidates so you can take a deep breath and relax. I do want to explore how we respond to one another in such a polarized political climate, but first I want to tell you about a wedding cake.
John and I recently celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. We met in 1994 just two years after Bill Clinton became president defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush in what was then considered a highly charged political campaign season. John and I had voted differently in that election, and we held strong and quite different political perspectives. These differences became the basis of some lively conversations as our relationship blossomed. There were of course other things that drew us together, shared interests, cats, and a growing sense that we were meant to be together. So, we decided to marry, and because our political differences had become a source of amusement among our family and friends we adorned our wedding cake with a donkey and an elephant. Our ideologically diverse wedding guests loved it and our cake was probably photographed as much as we were.
I can’t help wondering how this story would have unfolded if John and I had met each other in an ideological atmosphere more like today’s. Political discourse has devolved into hurtful spewing of angry rhetoric. Facebook and other social media are overflowing with broad generalizations demeaning everybody who aligns with one party or the other, and many people are already dreading the prospect of holiday dinners with politically divergent family members. If John and I were planning our wedding in this context, I suspect we would go with a different cake topper. But would we even be meeting at the altar? Would we still find our ideological differences amusing and appealing or would we have fallen prey to today’s demonizing approach to political rhetoric? I fervently believe we would have ended up together regardless but wonder how many potentially rewarding friendships have been stymied by the alarming level of political enmity that is present in our current culture?
Last week I attended a clergy retreat at Shrine Mont facilitated by two brothers from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. During one of his reflections Brother Curtis Almquist talked about our need to accept that we are all creatures with limitations. Fortunately, God sees past our flaws to the essence he created within each of us. We need to see ourselves and others as God sees us – beyond the flaws that life layers upon us. He suggested that when we do not have a heart of mercy for certain kinds of people we probably do not know enough about them. Mercy occurs as we move from judgement, to compassion for others, and ultimately identification with other people as children of God.
In today’s Gospel we meet two men who go to the Temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee who lifts up a prayer that begins, “God I thank you…” – a good start, but then he quickly devolves into a rant about people who are unlike him. His gratitude is fueled by his belief in his superiority over those he disdains. Clearly this Pharisee is firmly stuck in a place of judgement and a long way from comprehending mercy.
The tax collector prays in words of contrition. He recognizes that he has sinned, and cannot look toward heaven, perhaps feeling that he does not deserve to be noticed. Yet he is noticed. Jesus says that he is justified – God grants mercy to this man in response to his sincere humility in acknowledging his brokenness. We are not told what crisis has brought this man such despair over his sinfulness, leading him to come before God in the Temple, nor can we know for sure what he does after he departs. But we know that he leaves with God’s mercy, and we know that God’s mercy is always transformative.
In the Letter to Timothy, Paul also lifts up a prayer of thanksgiving in which he cites his hard work in sharing the Gospel and his assurance that he will realize the “crown of righteousness.” Paul’s optimism is not due to the merits of his own work but rather God’s mercy bestowed on all those who have humbly accepted this freely offered gift. Paul mentions his own accomplishments with gratitude for the opportunity to bring others to this knowledge of God’s love for everyone. This recalls Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” If Paul were writing today he might add, “there is no longer republican or democrat.”
So what are we called to do in this climate of growing divisiveness and polarization, where we are bombarded with vitriolic aspersions cast at those whose ideologies differ from one another? Well, first we should all vote – though some of us may be weary of this campaign season, voting is a precious right granted to us, and we should exercise this right informed by our faith. The way we respond and relate to one another in these contentious times must also be informed by our faith in our shared identity as children of God – brothers and sisters in Jesus. Underlying much of the acrimony and animosity around us is fear, and as the Body of Christ we have much to offer the world in the way of hope.
Bishop Shannon announced at clergy retreat a diocesan-wide prayer vigil beginning at noon on November 6 through 8 pm November 8. Everyone is encouraged to participate in this vigil and at St. Andrew’s we can explore ways in which we might engage as community during this time frame. St. Andrew’s will hold an Election Day Communion as we did four years ago at 7:00 pm Tuesday November 8. This is an opportunity to come together on a day potentially filled with rancor and anxiety to celebrate the love of God freely offered to every one of us. It will be a time when we bear witness that it is our common faith that truly defines and sustains us. Standing together at the Lord’s Table we are a body that offers healing to a wounded world where the gifts of friendship and community can overcome the sorrows of judgement and division.
 Brother Curtis Almquist. SSJE, Reflection 3a Optional Session, Shrine Mont Retreat Center, http://dovmedia.org/annual-fall-clergy-retreats/2016-fall-retreat
 Laura Sugg, “Proper 25 Year C, Luke 18:9-14, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year C: Volume 4 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 214.
 Sugg, 216.