Homily from National Prayer Service by Bishop Diocesan John H. Taylor
'I Hear America Singing'
Homily during A Service of Prayer for Our Nation,
Oct. 29, 2020
One day on Facebook, I provoked a little controversy by writing this: Jesus Christ died so we could vote. For some of my friends, the idea associated our savior with the sordidness and crudeness of politics. Church values are theoretically the exact opposite.
You’re probably familiar with these words from our liturgy for evening prayer – the congregation addressing our God in Christ: “You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices.”
Such a contrast with our angry political voices. In one of our most beloved prayers, we pray for the peace that the world cannot give. For some, this is the solution to the seemingly irresolvable dissonance between the timbres of our worship and world. What we do here is of God; what they do out there is not.
Alas, I don’t think the gospel give us that easy an out. We heard the story from chapter four of Luke on a Sunday morning not long ago. In the synagogue in Nazareth, after he had read from Isaiah, Jesus said that, among other things, he had come to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, and let the oppressed go free.
But his saying it then hasn’t made it happen today. Jesus doesn’t operate an economy, prisons and detention centers, or oppressive governments. Jesus doesn’t go to war or crush the life out of a Black man in police custody in the streets of Minneapolis.
Jesus doesn’t close the border to the stranger and asylee. We do those things, or rather, our fellow denizens of humanity do them. For good or ill, whatever power does, it does in our name, with our sufferance and our taxes.
So Jesus’s proclamation of a kingdom of justice and peace requires more of us than thoughts and prayers. More even that outreach and advocacy. It requires us to lean into our freedom – our freedom as people of faith and our hard-won freedom as citizens.
These two freedoms are cut from the same cloth. Both are gifts from a Creator who yearns to set the people free. Which brings me back to Jesus and voting. My faith in the birth, teachings, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has as much to do with my freedom as my salvation.
Whatever the circumstance or sadness, the limitation or loss, my faith makes me free. In every situation, there’s always something I can do for the glory of God and the sake of God’s people. And yet the world is apt to try to make me forget my freedom. We just heard Jesus’s promise to set parents and children against one another.
This may resonate with anyone who’s experienced political discord in their families in recent years. It may also resonate with those who experience our national politics as an unending pitting of people against one another for the sake of getting and keeping power.
I hear Jesus describing a struggle that is always underway, and always will be, between entrenched power and interest and his values of self-sacrifice and love. Whether amid the brutal tyranny enforced by the Roman empire in our Lord’s time or, in my own lifetime, by state governments in the Deep South until 1965, freedom in Christ has always been a sword and shield for people suffering oppression.
Abrahamic values – an insistence on the dignity of every human being – have spurred humanity’s agonizingly slow recognition of the political value which holds that every human being has the right to petition, question, and constrain the state. And yet some still insist that voting is a privilege. It’s the opposite of a privilege.
It’s a hard-won, inalienable human right. Everyone is a well-informed voter, because everyone is an expert in the life they’re leading. Everyone has the government coming down on them one way or another. Whether our streets are clean and safe. Whether the police treat us and our neighbors fairly. Whether our taxes and our wars are just.
That’s why I don’t think Jesus’s expectations about voting could possibly be clearer. It’s inherent in the whole gospel. Everyone – and especially the poor, the captives, and the oppressed, the ones he came to set free -- should be free to express their hopes and fears to those in power.
And yet in our system, like all systems, politics privileges the already privileged. If you own property, you’re more likely to vote than if you don’t. The older we are, the more likely to vote. On average white people vote at higher rates than people of color.
The experts tell us why all this is true. We vote when we think we’re being heard, when we think it will make a difference, when we think we have a stake in the outcome. Because turnout is usually so low and uneven – because we make voting so cumbersome – government has gotten away with under-serving people of color, the housing insecure, the hungry, the formerly incarcerated, the young, and the unpropertied.
Some in power do their best, or worst, to resist the inevitable pluralizing of our country by engaging in the sin of voter suppression. Voter suppression grieves the heart of God and desecrates the grave of every patriot who ever fought for freedom. And yet the complexity of registering and voting itself is a form of suppression.
A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting in a parking lot in Orange County while my spouse, Kathy, shopped at Goodwill. Thrifting is her greatest recreational joy. I used the time to sit in the car and order my new computer on my telephone. It took six minutes. All I had to do was push the Apple Pay button. The cloud has all my financial information.
People who care about money made sure the transaction was secure. If the government really cared about everyone voting, it would make voting that easy. A political, poetic irony of this time that an unanticipated symptom of COVID-19 is that millions of new voters have caught the political bug.
Because we have gazed into the abyss. A global pandemic. Systemic racism and endemic anti-Blackness thrown into sharp relief. The highest death rates among older Americans living in isolation in nursing homes. Essential workers and people of color, those with the least political influence, suffering disproportionately. Government’s historic failures to protect the safety and security of the American people.
All contributing to a mighty chorus that has been swelling from pianissimo to fortissimo. By this morning, over 75 million have voted already, over half the 2016 turnout. 6 Can’t you hear the music? Next Tuesday, as always happens on Election Day, but as perhaps never before in our country, some of our leaders are going to face the music.
Before the Civil War, in a poem celebrating the American worker, Walt Whitman wrote these words:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Everyone brings their unique temperament and experience to their vote, what belongs to them and none else. As Christians, we celebrate the amazing diverse complexity which is the unity of the body of our Christ.
As citizens, it should be our priority to ensure that every voice in our diverse national family is heard, every narrative included, in our shared national canon. If we’re all in this together, then we must leave no one behind.
The more people vote, the more a civic spirit blows across the land that is akin to the Holy Spirit in its counseling, advocating, life-giving wisdom. So let’s vote. Let’s urge others to vote. And in the name of Christ, this year and in the years to come, let’s petition our government at last to honor its covenant with the people, be a light to the nations, and do whatever it takes to streamline, simplify, and encourage voting for all.
I hear America singing – in millions and millions of angry voices, loving voices, pleading voices. A freedom song, a justice song, a redemption song, a godly song. A song of hope that is loud enough and true enough to silence fear and set captive hearts free at last. May our God in Christ be with you, your families and friends, your neighbors and neighborhoods, and with our country and all its people this Election Day and in all the days to come.
My fellow pilgrims in the COVID wilderness, stay healthy and hopeful.
The Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor
VII Bishop of Los Angeles