Articles, Essays & Sermons

Nevertheless

The Spirit’s plea from above whispered by voices from below

by Ken Sehested
US Presidential Inauguration • 20 January 2021

In the spring of 2016, when our pastors were planning the preaching schedule for the fall, I agreed to take that duty for Sunday 13 November. None of us were paying attention to the electoral calendar.

Long story short, it turns out I was preaching the Sunday after Donald Trump's election.

“Glad I don’t have to,” my normally very supportive spouse mentioned the following day.

My 8-year-old granddaughter was so distraught when she woke up to the election news that her parents let her stay home from school.

I felt pretty much the same.

A friend who learned of this assignment wrote me to ask “what on earth are you going to say?” I wrote back, “Don’t know yet—still sorting through my own emotional reactions . . . something between flame throwing and fetal crouch.”

I knew immediately that with this venal man’s inauguration, some of the ruinous legacy of our national history was catching up to us. Yes, our country has better angels; but also potent devils; and that some of those would be unleashed.

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case.

“Make America Great Again” is a slogan in service both to national amnesia and to reinforcing our country’s complicated caste system.

On that post-election Wednesday morning a vengeful scream was bubbling up my esophagus. Few are immune to such wrathful emotions. I am, as Cesar Chavez wrote, “a violent man learning to be nonviolent.”

§  §  §

We typically attend to the lectionary texts for our congregation’s weekly worship; but I wandered off that trail, immediately thinking of the Ezekiel passage: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2).

I closed that sermon with the following paragraphs.

The soured grapes of wrath and the ferment of generational trauma are coming with a fury we hardly understand; and I fear it will expose us to a bedeviled, long forgotten history. The work of unraveling the tangled knots, treating the festered wounds, and restoring neighborly bonds and bounds will require more than seasonal attention and a coat of pious enamel.

In the days to come, we must more earnestly tend the springs of hope, map those locations, become guides for those dying of thirst. Hope, as Krista Tippett wrote, “is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

To move toward healing streams, though, we must be subjected to godly grief’s refining fire; we must lose our innocence if we are to stand with the innocent; we must breach the boundaries that obstruct a critical assessment of our own complicity; we must return to the edge of our seats, listening to the Spirit’s plea from above whispered by voices from below.

“Then when the night is upon us, / Why should the heart sink away? / When the dark midnight is over, / Watch for the breaking of day. / Whispering hope, / O how welcome thy voice, / Making my heart in it's sorrow rejoice.” (Hymn lyrics by Septimus Winner)

§  §  §

Many of us, on this very day, are whispering hope that the reign of a calloused grafter is being exiled to his palatial resort, taking his grifter family with him.

I am among the many breathing a sigh of relief. And yet. . . .

This aria in our nation’s oratorio will echo for some time to come.

•Some 75% of Republicans still believe the election was stolen. About 45% of them thought the insurrection attack on the US Capitol was just fine.

•Our public health care system—underfunded for decades to grant “freedom” to health profiteers—is at its breaking point.

•Ten months of Covid deaths in the US now equal the troop fatality rate from four years of bloody combat in World War II.

•The richest in our nation have seen their wealth surge in the midst of our national crisis, while a great many citizens may never recover financial stability.

•The promissory note of racial justice has not yet cleared.

•And our biosphere's point-of-no-return looms, made all the more frightening because we likely won’t know we’ve crossed that catastrophic boundary until it’s already in the rear view mirror.

And yet . . . and yet.

People of faith know about redemptive power of penitence.  Repentance. Turning around.

Maya Angelou’s witness is enduring: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

The compounding gloom from daily headlines and the furrowed brows of “breaking news” commentators are our false prophets. Not simply because they are inaccurate about what they say (though some intend deceit); but that there is more to be said than they are able to film or photograph.

§  §  §

Several years ago, during my eight months of living with my frail Mom and my sister, Glenda, during her dying days, Mom said to me, “Sorry you have to go to so much trouble, son.”

And I responded, “Mom, trouble is where you go with people you love.”

Which reminds me of the sage encouragement of former Congressman John Lewis when he said, with a sly grin, “Get in some good trouble.”

Don’t do it merely for charitable reasons. Do it for your own spiritual health. For in the midst of trouble—when assets run low and prospects are dim—is often the place where hope, beyond human calculation, breaks out.

The Spirit’s Word from above is whispered by voices from below.

§  §  §

It was amongst the company of beaten civil rights marchers that folk found the resolve to sing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Such music may arise in sanctuaries, but it propelled bodies into streets and every place where life is at risk.

That’s the purpose of sanctuaries: where identity is formed; where communities of conviction are fashioned; where weak knees are strengthened and trembling hands are soothed; where hearts are captured by the beatific vision, a vision so potent that it galvanizes and focuses energy and talent and assets in unfettered allegiance.

Allegiance to the psalmist’s foretelling of the day when “justice and peace will embrace;” to the prophet’s disclosure of the day when swords will be forged into plowshares; to be captivated and animated by Jesus’ prayer, “Thy kingdom . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”

We need not turn a blind eye to the “and yet. . .” realities that bedevil our body politic. But sustaining resources are available and allow us to say, “Nevertheless.”

Another world is not only possible, it is promised, and its scouting party is already showing up in a neighborhood near you.

Ask for directions. See for yourself. Look for an investment with your name on it, a place where your agency matches the world’s urgency.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org