On Wednesday morning I watched a few video clips of election-night victory speeches, and speeches conceding defeat. And the one that really moved me was given by Tammy Baldwin, the congressional representative from Madison, Wisconsin who became the first openly-gay person elected to the United States Senate. I have two brothers who live in Madison, and I called one of them, my younger brother Gareth, to congratulate him on the historic moment. And he thanked me and said, “Yeah, it’s really great. But I have a hard time seeing it from the whole historic-achievement angle. To me Tammy is that lady whose partner used to be on my softball team.”
I’m reminded of that conversation this morning because the readings today tell us that while it may be true, as was popularly said in the 1960s and their aftermath, that the personal is political, the reverse is also true. The political is personal. Take the story of the extraordinary loyalty and friendship between Naomi, and Ruth, the wife of her deceased son. Naomi and her husband seek refuge in Moab during a famine in Judah and her sons marry Moabite women. Naomi’s husband dies, and then her sons die, and Naomi decides to return home, where the famine is ended. She tries to leave her daughters-in-law behind, but Ruth refuses to stay or to look for another husband among the Moabites, and so the two of them go together, back to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem. The faithfulness of Ruth and the wiliness of Naomi enable them together to overcome loss and migration and economic insecurity, and at the end of the story we learn, almost as an afterthought, that this foreigner Ruth is the grandmother of the greatest of Israel’s kings.
In the story of Naomi and Ruth we see something of the vulnerability of widows in a patriarchal society like ancient Israel. If Ruth had not had Naomi to guide her to the bed of her kinsman Boaz, and if Naomi had not had the youth and beauty of Ruth as an asset, things might have turned out much worse for them. Indeed, in the Books of Moses “widows and orphans” appear again and again as a kind of shorthand for the most economically and socially precarious members of the community. The very heart of the Torah, the very essence of the righteousness that is the Hebrews special vocation among the nations of the earth, and the true measure of their holiness that is like the holiness of their God, is that they care for widows and orphans.
Jesus has this tradition in mind when he walks into Herod the Great’s vast gold-plated shopping mall of a temple and starts turning over tables and knocking down chairs, calling it a “den of robbers.” He is not interested in the religious rituals that are going on in the temple. Its grandiose architecture doesn’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know about God. This wonder of the ancient world doesn’t fill him with nationalistic pride in the power of Israel and its place among the nations. He’s there to meet the people, to see for himself what is happening to them.
When we catch up with him today he has been three days in the temple, teaching the crowd, refuting the priests and the scribes, parrying their verbal attacks, evading their rhetorical traps, exposing their hypocrisies, and now he is done. He has shut up all his critics, and now he is making ready to leave the temple for the last time. And his last stop is at the treasury. A lot of words have been said but they really all come down to this--“All of these splendid buildings and ceremonial pageantry, all of the mountains of donated money and heaps of sacrificed animals, all of these priests and scribes living large on the name of the God of Israel, but the only person who really sacrificed, the only person who really gave everything for that God, was this little old lady. Oh, and by the way, look at how little she had left to give.”
The Episcopal Church, and the church in general, has been the site of a bitter struggle in the last few decades, a struggle that has affected this congregation in a personal way. Whatever other kind of struggle it has been, theological, moral, or spiritual, it is also political. The main flash points have been the personal politics set in motion by the social movements of the 1960s—questions about women’s rights, and reproductive choice, and human sexuality. For over a generation, the church has been consumed with battles over these issues. And it has carried the fight into the public square, to the point that these battles have come to define the church, and the Christian faith, in the minds of our people.
But the general election last week gave a pretty good indication that the United States is moving on. It’s not that the battles are over. And it’s not that there aren’t still real moral dilemmas to hash out, or that electoral might makes right. But it seems clear that for most Americans, and especially for the younger generations that are our nation’s future, sexual politics are no longer a compelling issue. And I think this is also true for the Episcopal Church. It took a generation. There is still work to be done, especially the hard work of healing the battle-wounds. Our church still encompasses a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of political and moral issues, and that’s a good thing. But we’re also ready to move on.
We’re starting to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and look around at what’s happened to our churches during the generation we spent fighting about sex. And while we’re at it, we’re asking what’s been happening to our neighborhoods? And what’s happening to our schools, and our jobs? What’s happening to the earth? What’s happening to the widows and the orphans?
When Father Norm Cram and Betty and Joe Petrillo and some other folks decided in 2007 to continue the life of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and to fight to regain the property of this parish, it was a personal decision, but it was also a political one. It was a campaign in the church’s long war over sexual politics. But it was more than that. We know and are proud of that story. We always will be. But we also need to move on.
We need to start to put the renewal of St. John’s in the context of another political decision, one that was also deeply personal. It’s a story that began at the Washington Hotel in 1856, when a group of people who were engaged in founding a new community on the banks of the Petaluma River, came together with the Book of Common Prayer in their hands. They decided that the public life of this new town should be formed by the public worship of the Episcopal Church. It’s a story that continued with the decision, a couple of years later, to purchase some land on this corner of 5th and C, and to give that public worship a permanent address, a home in the neighborhood. It’s a story that includes the 1890 decision to build this building, and the 1940s decision to tear down the old guild hall over there and the rectory over there and build the building that stands there now.
Those decisions were political. Underlying each of them was a vision not just for St. John’s Episcopal Church, but for Petaluma. They were made with a sense for the way our particular take on the gospel of Jesus Christ forms people for life in community, and that it is something that needs to be shared. So what is our vision for Petaluma now? What might we contribute to the public life around us? Well, we might remember the politics of Jesus, a politics that is personal. That is to say, it is about human relationships and human needs. It will be about breaking through ideological divisions and fostering new networks of common interest and mutual belonging. It begins with simple questions—“What is going on in our neighborhood? Who lives here? Where do they work? What do they need? Where is new life stirring? What is passing away?” And maybe most important questions are, “How will we find out?” and “How do I talk to a stranger?”