The Election Sermon is an old and venerable tradition in this country -- I believe the first on record in New England was 1633, far before the separation of church and state, but the tradition has lasted well into our times. And that's a good thing, I think. By now we've watched the debates, we've seen dozens of ads, we've read the editorials, the blogs, the magazine articles, we've watched the talking heads discuss the candidates. And now we come to church to think about the coming election from the perspective of that thing called faith which, for today, we can define as having confidence that there is more meaning to the events of our shared lives than a series of random events.
We do not go to the polls as machines tallying up numbers and factoids neither do we go as brute creatures struggling to survive in a wilderness we don't understand -- we are human beings; and the values, hopes and dreams we bring to our civic life have a tremendous impact on our present and future. Whatever decisions we make around our selection of a candidate will be decisions we've ideally made from not only a practical and reasoned perspective, but an emotionally and spiritually engaged one as well. Before we go to fill in little circles or to pull levers, we should be sure that we have brought the dignity of our full attention to the decision-making process -- in other words, make sure we're not pulling levers or pushing buttons as a response to having had our buttons pushed!
In the Election Sermon, it has always been traditional for the minister to bring to the attention of his or her flock the major issues facing the nation. I feel I hardly need to do that. You know what the issues are. Unless you've been living on a very happy planet far from this one, you know that the economy is a major area of concern, to put it mildly. We have been fighting a war in Iraq for five years; that is another challenge facing the next administration. International diplomacy and policy; our relationship as a nation with other nations. Some other issues: The Supreme Court and how it, and the Oval Office, interpret the Constitution. Questions of leaders--who might come along as a team with the elected President and Vice President, what kind of Congress they will be working with. Taxes. Education. Civil and human rights. What are we going to do to address the health care crisis in this country? The role religion plays in policy-making. The role and scope of the federal government.
That's a long and serious list of responsibilities and concerns. I don't have to tell you.
I think to myself, "Who on Earth could genuinely want these jobs!?" Stepping aside from politics for a moment, we have to know as compassionate people that no matter what promises the candidates make, the fact is that they are taking on impossible jobs, really. Whoever achieves the highest office in the land will be bitterly complained about, mercilessly lampooned, accused of being a failed messiah by disappointed supporters and derided by certain heads of state no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, and no matter how fine and upstanding a human being they may be. The President of the United States, whoever holds the office, is a personage of so much power that we forget that he (and someday, she) is also a figure to be pitied. I hate to be a killjoy, but no one is going to "win" this election. This isn't a game one wins or loses. It is a most solemn mantle of responsibility one assumes, and it comes with, in the words of the old hymn, immediate and unavoidable "dangers, toils and snares."
Winston Churchill once defined leadership as "going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm," and we must assume that those who make the expensive and exhausting run for President and VP do it because they love it and have a calling for it. And I see that in all four of the candidates. No matter what we may think of them individually, there is no doubt that they are excited about, and believe themselves to be fully ready, willing and able to be the best leaders for this country at this moment in our history. When I watch Sarah, Joe, John and Barack, that's what I look for: what kind of leader is this? What are his or her ultimate values around leadership itself?
Peter Senge is a guru of organizational change, whose book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization has been a real treasure-trove for me. Based largely on Senge's work, I offer for your reflection ten qualities that I agree with Senge make for an effective leader in our culture and for this specific time in history:
Two Tuesdays from now, this country will elect a new president. I know that you will make your choices carefully and according to your deepest values and feelings. As your minister, I am going to ask one thing of you as you prepare to go to the polls, and it is an unusual request. In your own fashion, I ask that you pray for these candidates, and for this country. For whoever it is that is inaugurated in January of 2009, he has a truly Herculean task ahead of him and neither John McCain nor Barack Obama can save America. We are not electing a superhero, we are electing a man. To quote the Unitarian politician Adlai Stevenson, "Who leads us is less important than what leads us what convictions, what courage, what faith win or lose."
As we sang at the beginning of our service, "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days… for the living of these days."