So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. –Ephesians 2:19-22
Like many of my fellow citizens, I watched with a certain reverence and awe as the funeral tributes unfolded this week for the late Senator John McCain. Best known for his service in the US Senate, a former presidential candidate and distinguished military veteran, I think what I was most grateful for in Senator McCain’s long public services was that “maverick” moniker, well-earned if only for his bipartisan efforts to govern in an increasingly polarized body politic.
A person of deep faith, comingled with his Episcopal upbringing and his attendance at North Phoenix (AZ) Baptist Church, in these last years, McCain was not shy about sharing his faith – but understood that he was a person of a particular faith serving with and among people of many and diverse faiths. His writing and his speaking about his faith carried a similar theme throughout his career, and often focused on prayer and the call to serve God and neighbor: “No matter where you are, no matter how difficult things are, there’s always going to be someone of your faith and your belief and your devotion to your fellow man who will pick you up and help you out and bring you through … There were times when I didn’t pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute. So I have very little doubt that it was reliance on someone stronger than me that not only got me through, but got me through honorably.” (Faith of My Fathers, 1999).
Still, while there was an overwhelming bipartisanship to the tributes this last week, there were also signs of the deep divides just underneath the surface.
While Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona reminded those clamoring for the political chum of whom McCain’s senatorial successor would be that those conversations were inappropriate to the moment and would wait until after a reasonable time of mourning and remembrance, the 24 hour news cycle speculated and suggested possible candidates with their inevitable pros and cons – even as the senator’s body was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
While lauding the bipartisan participation of Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Joseph Liebermann, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama in the funeral tributes, the absence of President Trump, as requested by the family, only stirred the pot and created another story of division exploited by many for political purposes.
The congregations I’ve served over the last 20 years have largely been “purple” – a rich mingling of Republicans and Democrats, a few third-party folks, and not a small number of staunch Independents. Preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ was often heard as a call to justice for some, a cry for mercy to others. In the pulpit, I was often political – but, as a rule, I sought never to be partisan (though it has been pointed out to me more than once, I failed on occasion).
Still, echoing the theme of Dr. King that “11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America,” Dr. Bill Leonard, professor emeritus of divinity at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, amplifies that line of thought in today’s political climate: “If Sunday morning was the most segregated morning in American life, it may also be one of the most politicized hours in American life, implicitly or explicitly.” Recent research bears this out, with many American mainline Protestants admitting that they prefer to belong to churches where the congregation shares their political views. And this brings to a head the ongoing difficulty of pastors and congregations who do not align on the political spectrum and cannot find a way forward for their ministry together, difficulties that were once hot in the 60s and have been exacerbated in recent times.
Still, if there is anything to be learned in the Church from John McCain’s distinguished service to our country, it might simply be this: we need to work together, bridge divides with understanding, pray for our own hearts to be changed, and be open to serving God and neighbor, whomever that neighbor might be. A line from the hymn, This is My Father’s World, a John McCain favorite, rings in my ears this week: “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler, yet!” Senator McCain’s intentionality in building diverse coalitions is a lasting legacy that the church would do well to follow, by faith, not in Senators and Presidents, but in God, whose will in Christ Jesus is reconciliation and whose call is peace.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. –Ephesians 2:13-22