A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 13, 2016
University Baptist Church
I’ve started this sermon many times over the past week. Some of it was written in the middle of the night as the election results sunk in. I read several eloquent Facebook posts and editorials and reflections, most more eloquent and insightful than what I have this morning. But what we have as our bread and butter is the Gospel. That’s our perspective. It informs and challenges the way of the world, and calls us to be faithful in the most trying of times. So, it’s important to be together this morning. I chose the title for this sermon way back in August. Now it seems pretty appropriate, maybe even providential. Mercy me.
I really want to tie up all of this heartache of the past few days in a bow and put it away. But the world and the gospel won’t let me. I want to mourn. I fear for the people who have already felt the backlash. I fear that our country appears to have lost its soul. And that is what we are called to get back. But we can’t get there until we have come to terms with our reality.
This loss of soul didn’t happen with this election. It has been on shaky ground for a long while. It was there when we conquered the Native American people. It was there when our ancestors enslaved a whole race of people. It was there when we founded our nation on religious liberty only to persecute those of religions that threaten white Christian sovereignty. The election exposed the brokenness of our soul as a nation. And it demands to be seen and heard.
Like many of you, I stayed up into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Which became Wednesday mourning. What we thought impossible, happened. Mercy me.
How could we elect someone who played on our basest fears, who lied over and over and over again? Who appealed to hate? Who calls for division? Who insults, who exaggerates, who brings out the worst in us and calls that great? I mourn for the soul of our country.
CNN commentator Van Jones called the election a whitelash—a reaction to a black president and the fear of Muslims, immigrants, women and anyone that is other. It is saying that white lives matter most—something that has undergirded our nation from the get go. It has also undermined our highest ideals and has resisted any real reform. Sure, we’ll give some crumbs, like the right of women to vote 150 years after our country’s founding, or the right of blacks to vote 45 years after that. And here we are with the first election after the repeal of the voting rights act. Do we even know how many votes were purged from the rolls, their ballots discounted or only counted provisionally? Mercy me.
If the Affordable Care Act gets repealed, health costs will only go up. And what about those of us with pre-existing conditions? Are we now on our own, like we were before Obamacare? Repeal has a nice rallying cry to it, but it needs to be replaced with something better. That part of our history was not great and I don’t want to make healthcare worse again. Mercy Me.
Mr. Trump has promised to drain the swamp, but then is proposing to put the old swamp monsters in charge of cleaning the swamp. Mercy Me.
The media gave him a free pass. The right wing media insulted and vilified Clinton for decades. The Obama Administration was public enemy #1, even though Democrats have had the best economies, the lowest deficits and the least wars. The so-called free press gave free air time to the carnival barker and repeated his lies until they became indistinguishable from the truth. Mercy Me.
Mercy Me is often the lament on the other side of trauma. And it seems so appropriate this week.
The election left people hurting and we say Mercy Me.
The election exposed racism and the complicity of the media who exploited it and the church who turned a blind eye to it. Mercy Me.
Mercy Me. It can sound like the southern “bless her heart” or the Minnesotan “that’s interesting.” A well-veiled statement that resists going further. Mercy Me.
But we need to go further, deeper, if we are to emerge with any kind of hope. We have sinned as a country by courting such a sinister outlook on the world, such a racist and sexist campaign. And yet it touched a spirit of alienation, a vague sense that we are on the wrong path.
There’s a scene in An American President. Presidential advisor Lewis is arguing with President Shepherd. Here’s what they said, “The America People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They're so thirsty for it, they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand. We've had Presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink it because they don't know the difference.
We have been sucked into this sideshow. It exposes America’s original sin of racism and declares it alive and well. It shows itself in the contrived victimhood of the descendants of slaveholders. It manifests itself in the continued disregard for native rights. It manifests itself in the disregard or hostility toward women’s power and agency. It manifests itself in the way we continue to scapegoat the LGBTQ community or exploit them for political gain. Mercy Me.
Here’s a thought I have been pondering all week: If Hillary had won, might we in our white privilege think that we beat racism and that it was over? Trump’s victory exposes the racism that engulfs our country. It means we can’t ignore it. It will be on display even in the Oval Office. Mercy Me.
Psalm 51 says Mercy Me. “Have mercy on me, O God,” the Psalmist says. The Psalmist then spends the next several verses confessing his or her sins. The Psalmist asks, “Create in me a clean heart” and then calls for us to do good for the holy city. These are good words to hold in our hearts on the other side of the election. Will we be led by mercy or revenge? That is a core question as we emerge from this divisive election season.
Will Campbell and Michael Moore call for understanding the other side. We hope for the implosion of the racist and sexist and homo-prejudice side of the Republican party. We hope for the reformation of the Democratic Party that is beholden to unions and Wall Street. We hope for a better America. Mercy Me.
One of you told me that you wished that we would stop all of this character bashing and come together as a country. I said it will take a lot. The President-elect can do a lot by apologizing for his lies and demonization of women, minorities and immigrants. He could do a whole lot by reading Psalm 51 and taking it in.
Dave Chappel hosted Saturday Night Live last night. At the end of his opening monologue, he said, “I’m gonna give him a chance. And I’m gonna demand from the historically disenfranchised that he give us a chance.”
Psalm 51 is the lament attributed to King David. I’ve been thinking a lot about King David. He was a child musician who soothed the soul of King Saul. He was the little boy who slew the Philistine Giant Goliath with five smooth stones and some cunning and luck. Such a good start. He rose to power and started a united kingdom. People praised him as better than the one whom he defeated. “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his ten thousands.” The kingdom was vast, the largest in Israel’s history. David had it all going for him. But then power corrupted him. He took revenge on his enemies. He was not satisfied with the woman who was his wife, so he sought out another. Bathsheba was married, but David lusted after her. He lured her into his home and had his way with her. He even saw to it that her husband was killed in battle. So, the King was a rapist and a murderer. But he was still king. He controlled the military. He had this great name, and all this power, but at what price? His children followed in Daddy’s footsteps. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. His half-brother Absolom killed him in revenge. Mercy Me.
David’s dynasty didn’t last more than a few generations. The nation was divided into a northern and southern kingdom, both of which eventually fell. Revelation talks with suspicion about popular political rulers. They appropriate the language of the people of God for their own selfish ends. Revelation calls this person the beast. Mercy me. But in the consciousness of the nation, they harkened back to David’s reign as the time when Israel was great. Great for some. The messiah is said to be the new David. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus didn’t want to be known as the messiah. For with that triumphalism comes hubris and the temptation to demonize those with whom you disagree.
Today’s psalm is said to have been written by David after his rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. Whether it was or not is immaterial. What it shows is what we need if we are to really attain mercy.
The psalmist asks for 2 things. The psalmist wants God to forgive sins and to make the psalmist a new person.
It asks more than forgiveness. It uses words like cleanse, restore, wash, and blot out. We could use this in our nation, too. At the bottom of that pit of mistakes and contrition is God’s endless and abundant mercy. We are not the people we want to be. And God’s mercy can make us better. “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me…wash me…create in me a clean heart, put a new and right spirit within me.” The psalmist expresses remorse. We could use that now, too. How many times have we acted like we are God, accountable only to ourselves, that we have no responsibilities for our actions. Confession is a good start. Verse 17 says that an acceptable sacrifice to God is a contrite heart and a broken spirit. Mercy me.
We are people of broken spirit. Many of us don’t know how to go on. But this I know. We need each other. We can’t face this alone. We need mercy and strength.
Luke tells this story of mercy and strength in the 18th chapter of his book:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
What does this mean in this context? The psalmist confessed to his crimes, unlike some other public figures we know.
Some say this psalm is not for reading. It is meant to be wailed. We could use some wailing from time to time. But we can’t stop at the wailing.
The psalmist does not seem to be asking for acceptance or even resurrection. It’s about restoring right relationships. It’s mercy for mercy’s sake. It’s about being a good and faithful person. And it’s so countercultural to what we are experiencing on our national scene.
We are a broken people. Donald Trump is broken. Hillary Clinton is broken. I am broken. We hold that brokenness in our very bones. The hope comes when we see that and work to make ourselves better. Mercy Me.
Bryan Stevenson says at the end of his book Just Mercy, “there is a power, a strength even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” (Just Mercy p.290)
I read somewhere that God’s reign starts with voices crying in the wilderness. Maybe that’s where we belong. In exile, we find our truest selves, our strongest voices and our best bravery.
Isaiah said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips........ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Governing authorities always opposed Jesus. We’re in good company. The beast is a poor imitation of Jesus, says the writer of Revelation. Luckily, over half the country was not drunk by the wine of the beast. We are not the small remnant. We are the majority. We need to claim our moral authority. We need to raise up new leaders.
All politics is local. We need to not be drawn into the fray of a national party that seeks to divide. We need to find new ways to forge a different and better narrative. We need to take back the soul of America. We need to find a way to be better locally. We need to befriend those whom our leaders would demean. We need to put our bodies on the line on behalf of our Muslim sisters and brothers. Our cities are not a disaster. The only disaster is our faithlessness. We have to have faith in God, not some false messiah.
One thing is very true. We need each other. When Becca asked if she could skip school on Wednesday. I told her no, we need strong smart women now more than ever.
We need musicians more than ever. We need artists to interpret the times and give voice to our angst and rekindle our hopefulness. Amidst this gloom and doom, we need some beauty.
Katy Perry sings the song Rise. Here are a few of her lyrics that are appropriate this week: “I won’t just conform. No matter how you shake my core. My roots run deep. Oh, you have so little faith. When the fire’s at my feet again and the vultures all start circling. They’re whispering ‘You’re out of time.’ Don’t be surprised. I will still rise.”
The darkest times in our world usher in some of our most creative and hopeful times.
We need the faithful to be faithful. God is not done with us. We have to find our voices in this wilderness. For that is where we get hope. That is where we speak with transformative words. The church is a movement that sets the moral code. It doesn’t just reflect it. When the moral code is off kilter, it’s our job to right the ship. We’re the country’s rudder. We can guide it through this storm. Because we have a story of one who calmed a storm and said, there’s a better course on the other side. We follow one who was maligned, abused, mocked, and followed by a bunch of misfits. And that one changed the world for the better. We shall rise. Just as Jesus did. Just as the early church did. We will rise and live out our best ideals. If our leaders challenge us, then we are doing the right thing. If they are comforted by our silence, then we have lost our soul. The time has come for us to say Mercy me. We repent of our silence, our numbness, even our despair. It will not be the last word. For together we have power. It’s the power that is on the other side of God’s mercy. God grants us mercy and forgiveness so that we can live to fight and struggle another day. God grants us mercy because our neighbors need mercy too. Mercy me.
Since I have received mercy, let me be the one to grant it as well. And in doing so, grab onto the real power of God. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But we don’t do it alone. Let’s get on with it. Mercy me.