The Gospel reading this morning would seem to play perfectly into the hand of a preacher seeking to comment on this week’s election. Saint Luke reports that Jesus paints a picture of apparent doom, social and environmental destruction, and false leadership, as well as suffering and disdain for the righteous. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says. “… there will be dreadful portents… they will arrest you and persecute you… you will be betrayed… and they will put some of you to death” Many Episcopalians will find in these verses pitch-perfect echoes of how this year’s election feels.
But, to be a little flippant, to me the present moment feels a little more Old Testament than New, so why not reach for the short excerpt from Malachi instead. For here, too, this morning, we are not disappointed if we are looking for biblical commentary on the national moment: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble;” we hear the prophet Malachi warn, “the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” Now we are getting close to fire and brimstone!
Unfortunately for the preacher, if you check the context, you will find that, as was the case with Saint Luke, the prophet Malachi was not writing in an election year: a detail that impresses upon the preacher the need to step back, and a take a deep breath, and just check himself for a moment.
It turns out that the prophet Malachi was not, in fact, addressing American voters, neither Republicans nor Democrats. His prophetic rant was actually addressed not only to the children of Israel, but specifically to their priests, who were responsible for the sacrificial offerings to the Lord, and whose offerings were found in the sight of God to be wanting. And the prophetic complaint is not about the politics of the priests, it is about the insufficiency of their offerings. Yes, it turns out that the prophecies of Malachi are essentially a stewardship sermon, which, of course, suits the purposes of a preacher perfectly on Commitment Sunday, when you are asked to consider your offerings for God’s church.
The prophet announces that God holds the priests in contempt, and with them all of Israel, because of their lax and un-generous giving. By being so cheap, he tells them, they “despise” God’s name. And he clarifies his thinking: “You say, how have we despised thy name?”
“By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised,” he asserts, going on to list the ways the offerings have been inadequate.
But Malachi knows how easily the priests are bored by stewardship sermons. He can already hear their indifference: “’What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence, or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering…. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence.”
Admittedly, as stewardship campaigns go, the thing with the dung is not a tactic that has been often used. We will continue here at Saint Mark’s to go instead with the pledge cards, and the celebration brunch, and the word of thanks for your giving, rather than employing dung in any way, shape, or form whatsoever. But I joke about it mostly because God’s impatience with cheap offerings actually cuts a bit close to the bone. And it’s always easier to laugh at God, to sniff at him, when he’s getting especially close to the truth about us, than to take his rebuke seriously to heart.
The clever preacher, having thus far avoided serious mention of the election (and having justified said avoidance early in the sermon, with the suggestion of high-mindedness) might continue to steer clear of this particular mine-field. Having successfully alighted on the ironically safe theme of giving… I mean giving your money… which, you see, is not normally considered the welcomest of topics… but under the circumstances… well …he might bask in the moment and remind himself to “stay on point, Sean, stay on point. Nice and cool….” But to do so, the preacher would have to ignore the fact that this particular moment in America is somewhat fraught, and that a resounding rejoinder to give generously might be counted as somewhat less balm than is required to soothe the present moment, if indeed soothing is what’s called for.
To steer wide of such commentary would also be to ignore the fact that even if it was not an election year when he was writing, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus himself did not avoid this kind of talk when he painted that picture of apparent doom, of social and environmental destruction, of false leadership, as well as of suffering and disdain that await the righteous – a picture that overlays our own moment a little imperfectly, perhaps, but maybe only a little imperfectly. And it turns out that Jesus does, in fact, have advice for his followers under circumstances like these, and this is his advice: “Beware that you are not led astray.” Beware.
The careful preacher this morning, is careful to reassure his flock that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. I have been reading and hearing such assurances from preachers for the past four days. But Jesus is not always a careful preacher, and he does not always give his preachers a careful word. And following an election in which an air of convenient religiosity was occasionally and cheaply borrowed with what appeared even at the time to be complete insincerity, the dominical injunction to beware seems timely. Beware that you are not led astray. Beware.
We should be able to say conclusively, incontrovertibly, and un-controversially after this campaign and election, in the words of another prophet, that truth has stumbled in the public square. Indeed, truth is still lying bleeding in the public square, if you ask me. It remains to be seen what shall become of it, since basic honesty seems to have been seldom in evidence these past months. And where can truth be found if the conversation we are having is not even honest?
Now, the United States is not a Christian nation, thank God, and has never really set out to be. But Christians in America, like all Christians, should be concerned about the truth – always elusive, but never insignificant – since our Lord prayed that we would be sanctified by the truth, reminding us by his prayer that God’s word is truth.
But after this sad electoral cycle, what can one say about the truth, except to stand uncomfortably with Pontius Pilate asking, “What is truth?” And if the position we have found ourselves in is one of ready communion with Pontius Pilate, then by all means beware, beware, beware that you are not led astray.
And for now, I’d say, the church has given us the perfect response to the present moment by leading us directly to Jesus’ own instruction to beware in times of trouble, for indeed the moment is fraught in all kinds of ways. So, beware. I, for one, will be watching, to see if we are being led astray, for this moment of our history calls for wariness.
But the moment may not call for the preacher to end his remarks with a warning – few moments do. And every preacher should be driven by the desire to proclaim the Good News that comes by Jesus, and perhaps never moreso than in times that are fraught with anxiety. For which word, we may turn back to the Old Testament, where the prophet Malachi, so adept at the language and imagery of doom and gloom, is nevertheless able to turn a brilliant phrase of hopefulness. Having given voice to a full-throated warning, he is ready with God’s still more fulsome reassurance that “for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
Two words, then, this morning, and one promise. Give and beware. Give because it’s what God requires of us to whom he has given so much. Beware that you are not led astray because many there are who would lead you.
But even in times fraught with anxiety and danger, remember the promise of God, embedded even in the ancient prophets: that after the dark night of suffering, after the truth has stumbled and bled, after you have been arrested and persecuted, after you have been thrown into prison, after you have been brought in chains before kings and presidents because of your faith in and fear of the name of the Lord, then the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings!
Two words and one promise. Give. Beware. And wait with me for the sun of righteousness to rise!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 November 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia