Text: Mark 12 28-34 (the greatest commandment)
November 11th is a solemn day of pride and pain in which we remember the fragility and sacredness of human life. Today's sermon ends on the theme of Remembrance. First, though, I reflect on our Gospel reading about love of God and neighbour. I do so by placing it against the backdrop of the results of the U.S. election last week.
These two topics -- Nov 11th and last week's election -- present a sharp contrast. Remembrance Day is a time for tradition, silence and ritual; a time in which we look back to the past with respect. The U.S. election highlights big shifts in our culture and points us to the future. My hope is that the contrast will help us to think about the challenge of how to respect the past and our traditions -- indeed the faith of our fathers -- in the face of rapid social change
Four years ago, the rise of U.S. President Barack Obama surprised and delighted many of us. But given the disappointments of his first term -- a slow recovery, high unemployment, and staggering deficits and debts; and given how vilified Obama has been in the media -- including outrageous claims that Obama is a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be President, and that he is some kind of communist -- his re-election with 51% of the votes surprised me.
Don't get me wrong -- like most Canadians, I had hoped that Obama would win again. But with a lot stacked against him, I didn't expect it. His re-election is a defeat for the right-wing who spent more than $1 billion trying to unseat him. I also believe that his re-election contains warning signs for the church.
Here are what exit polls tell us about the U.S. Presidential election: the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, received the overwhelming majority of votes cast by white males, people over 65, people from rural areas, evangelical Christians, and people who go to church at least once per week. Obama won an overwhelming majority of the votes of blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, city-dwellers, single women, unionized workers, and people who never go to church, as well as a healthy majority of the votes of people under the age of 30.
On Tuesday, voters in three states also voted to approve gay marriage and to legalize the possession and use of marijuana in two others. Candidates who had became notorious for their opposition to legal abortion even when a pregnancy resulted from rape were defeated. And the first Buddhist and Hindu candidates were elected to Congress as well as the first open lesbian.
These results reflect big changes in the United States. White male Christians and people of all colours and religions who oppose abortion, recreational drug use and homosexuality can now be out-voted by a coalition of secular city dwellers, recent immigrants, and non-Whites, even in a time of economic uncertainty.
I am pleased about the strength of the coalition that supported Obama on Tuesday, although according to the polls, I should be on the other side. I'm no longer young; I'm a white male; I go to church services . . . often three times a week; and I live in a rural area. OK, that last item might be a little suspect. I still feel pretty much like a city person, although I do love the beauty of this land, the people of our towns, and our work together in ministry.
And although I am one of those "suspect" church-goers, I worship and work in the United Church of Canada. Ours is a denomination that strives to become intercultural and to welcome newcomers, that has supported feminist, peace and anti-poverty concerns for decades, and that is now led by a gay Moderator.
The U.S. election signals trouble for right-wing, evangelical Christianity, I believe. The re-election of George W. Bush as President in 2004 was a high-water mark for the influence of the Christian Right. The 2012 re-election of Obama signals a marginalization of that current.
The urban, young and diverse coalition that voted for Obama includes many people who are turned off by religion. It's not that people in Obama's coalition would disagree with Jesus' teaching to love God and neighbour. The issue lies in how one answers the questions "what is the nature of this God whom we should love?," and "who are our neighbours?"
In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe we encountered in today's reading from Mark asks Jesus that latter question -- "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of that parable is a hated foreigner, a Samaritan; and thus the Parable suggests that love of neighbour extends to so-called "enemies."
Unfortunately, churches that campaign against gay rights and immigration reform seem to offer a different answer. In my opinion, the Obama coalition is more on the side of the Good Samaritan on the question of neighbourliness than are some churches.
Then there is the question of love of God. Even in this secular age, most people still believe in God -- but which one? There seem to be so many competing versions of God out there. Is God a terrifying Judge who punishes most people for all eternity in lakes of fire? Is God worried about petty issues of morality? Is God behind everything that happens, even pregnancies that result from violence or deaths in natural disasters and war?
Further, does loving God mean we have to turn our backs on science? Vote against gay marriage? Picket outside abortion clinics? Support tax-breaks for billionaires?
Many of those who voted for President Obama answer "no" to all the above questions. Many of them also think the church answers differently, which explains why they are turned off. They perceive church to be hostile towards them. They perceive the God who is worshipped in church to be a God of hate and not love . . .
Our culture has shifted, and the shift is not to the advantage of religion. Old certainties and traditions seem to be melting away beneath our feet.
A few weeks ago at a Bible Study in Coronach we were talking about immigration, and I suggested that all of us were immigrants. We have emigrated from a far off land called the 20th Century where values seemed more stable and have landed in a strange place called the 21st Century where the culture looks foreign to us.
Mostly I am encouraged by these cultural shifts even though they present challenges to the work of the church. I want to live in a society where "neighbour" is defined as broadly as possible. I want to worship in a church where "God" is a God of Love, of inclusion, of justice, and of welcome. I am grateful that the United Church is one in which humble service, faith in the midst of doubt, hope in the midst of darkness, and love in the midst of diversity are encouraged.
Here in Borderlands, the population shifts reflected in last week's U.S. elections are not readily apparent. But 90 years ago when our towns were founded, Borderlands was about as diverse a place as anywhere in the world. People from all corners of Europe and of many languages and creeds came to homestead and work here. Now, four generations later, our differences have withered away after years of joint work on the land, in communities, and in churches.
Still, the winds of change from big cities, immigration, and new lifestyles affect us just as much as people elsewhere. We may not always know how to relate to these shifts, or even notice when they are occurring deep within our own hearts and minds. But mostly I think that we should welcome them; and I look forward to our ongoing discussions about them.
War is another area where attitudes are changing; and once again, Barack Obama can serve as a marker of this change. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Obama was a State Senator in Illinois where he voiced his opposition to it. The rationale for the war -- that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction -- was proven false after the U.S. invasion. So now after the deaths of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and more than $1 trillion in expenditure, Obama as Commander in Chief has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq.
In the light of this history, how do the families of loved ones who died in Iraq confront this sacrifice on Remembrance Day?
For those who have lost loved ones in war, and for those who have served their country and survived to return home, coming to grips with their sacrifices must be that much more difficult when the legitimacy of the war is questioned.
Here in Canada, we have not had to face such dilemmas. Canada, unlike virtually every other country, has never lost a war. Nor have most of the wars we have fought in been controversial. These facts don't make our losses less painful, but perhaps they make our task of Remembrance more straightforward.
So, in a society that is rapidly changing, we take time each November to stop out of respect; to look back in gratitude; to honour the sacrifices of past generations; and to offer support to those who have suffered in war or who mourn the loss of loved ones.
Love of neighbour demands that we honour and respect the ultimate sacrifice made by over 100,000 Canadian soldiers in wars of the last 100 years. We do this by wearing poppies and attending community services like the ones in the schools in Rockglen and Coronach on Thursday. We do it by offering prayers of thanksgiving for the freedom and prosperity most Canadians enjoy today and for the willingness of so many young people to offer themselves in service to their country.
Another way we remember war and honour the dead is by praying and working for a world of peace with justice.
The cultural shifts I have mentioned today also affect our work for peace. The church in North America is moving to the margins. From these margins, I pray that we can better speak out for peace. From this more modest place, we can continue to try to live out the commandments to love God and neighbour. We may not have the same reach that church had 100 years ago, but we have the Gospel, which is a pearl of infinite price.
Who is our neighbour? All of war-weary humanity is our neighbour. With God's help, we are commanded to love everyone in the world as ourselves.
Who is the God we are commanded to love? God is Love Incarnate -- Jesus the Christ. God is Love's Power -- the Holy Spirit. God is Love's Source -- our Heavenly Father.
Today with love, we remember and honour the sacrifices of our ancestors. We also look forward in modest hope to greater peace in this strange and wonderful new world called the 21st Century.
Peace with justice is not an easy goal. But we know that with the help of the God who is Love, all things are possible.
Thanks be to God.