It's an old American custom to preach, on election day, a sermon about our
responsibilities as citizens before we go to the polls. So here goes ...
This year, in our presidential elections, we've heard a lot about character. In fact, one might say, that second only to the economy or the corona virus, the character issue is the number one subject that people have been thinking about. We've been thinking about it since the stories about Donald Trumpís serial adulteries first surfaced, way back there in the primaries. It has continued in the rhetoric of candidates in both parties, at every level of our pubic discourse.
Since this is to be an election day sermon, and since such a sermon has belonged with the rituals of our democracy since the very beginning, in preparation for today I dusted off my copy of one of the great novels in all American literature, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Published in 1850, Hawthorne is writing about events that took place more than a hundred years earlier. And he tells a story that reveals a great deal about the formation of our character as a people; itís a story that begins like this yearís election with a scandal of adultery and ends with an election day sermon.
Hester Prynne, the adulteress is condemned to wear the scarlet letter, a letter of scarlet fabric which is sewn permanently on her clothing. The scarlet letter ďAĒ is to remind her, and to remind everyone, of the wrong that is done in adultery. As the story draws to a climax, we find Hester Prynne on election day, waiting on the public square with her daughter Pearl. There is a parade scheduled before the services in the church. And in that service, the young, and highly charismatic minister, The Reverend Dimmesdale, preaches an election day sermon. Preaching this sermon from that prestigious pulpit is the pinnacle of his career.
What the people do not yet realize, what they are soon to discover: The Reverend Dimmesdale, their beloved pastor, is the father of Hester Prynne's child. Itís for this that Hester has worn her scarlet letter in open shame for the past seven years, and itís for this as yet undisclosed and secret sin that the Reverend Dimmesdale has suffered such pain and anguish over those same seven years. The Reverend's health has deteriorated to the point, that this is to be his very last sermon.
Just before the services in the church, there's a parade. And all the people of Salem, Massachusetts are gathered in the public square to watch it. First comes the music. The marching band at the head of a long and stately column. Then there's the militia, or rather the veterans organizations, with the English citizens in their finest uniforms and their ceremonial armor. Behind the military there are the Town Fathers, the elected and appointed officials, men of stability and dignity of character, walking in proud step, confident of the esteem of their neighbors. Finally, after the magistrates, comes the young and famous minister of the church, the Reverend Dimmesdale, the Speaker of the Day.
During the services, Hawthorne leaves us standing there with Hester Prynne outside the church, so that instead of listening to the sermon we have time to reflect upon our place in the unfolding story.
Though this story takes place more than 250 years ago, Hawthorne makes it contemporary. In a real sense, I was there and you were there too. If you weren't important enough to be in the parade, you were certainly in the crowd. If you weren't one of the town fathers, perhaps you were a visitor from out of town. Or one of the sailors from a ship that happens to be in the harbor that day. You have come ashore to share in the festivity of election day, and perhaps to gaze at the adulteress and her daughter standing there in public shame and humiliation with that blazing scarlet letter sewn upon her breast.
We belong to that crowd as much as we belong to that earlier crowd that was assembled so many hundreds of years earlier in the streets of Jerusalem. That crowd of witnesses who gathered on Palm Sunday to watch Jesus leading his parade of palm branches, and returned again to watch his public humiliation. There was an election day in Holy Week too. When Pilate came out upon his porch and asked the crowd to elect one of the accused to go free, and direct the other toward crucifixion. And the crowd voted for the freedom of Barabbas, and for the crucifixion of Jesus, and they cried out as with one voice: "Crucify him, crucify him." It was a landslide vote.
On this election day in 2020 as on every election day including that one in Jerusalem and the later one in Salem, each of us is called upon to cast our ballot, to express our will, and to make a judgment of character that reveals as much about ourselves as it reveals about the persons we elect.
After his election day sermon, the Rev Mr. Dimmesdale walks out of the church behind the band and the military escort, and the dignified town fathers. The parade heads down the street to the Town Hall where there would be a banquet to complete the ceremonies of the day. But the Rev Dimmesdale lags behind. Though he is the star of the show, he seems reluctant to go on.
In fact, he is too weak to proceed. As he walks by the scaffold where Hester Prynne and her child are standing, he stops. The minister faces the adulteress. "Hester," he cries, "in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what I withheld from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me!"
And so together, the minister and the adulteress climb the steps of the scaffold, and the Rev. Dimmesdale confesses. He says he is the father of Hester's child. And as he talks, he tears the shirt from his chest, revealing a horrible red scar over his own heart, like the ďAĒ sewn on Hester's dress but branded on his skin, and then he dies in the arms of this woman, who still loves him, despite all that she has suffered. In his dying breath the minister whispers to her: "God knows (all that has happened here), and (yet) God is merciful."
We are living in a time when the shock of confession is not so shocking. We have lost the innocence which would give our candidates the benefit of the doubt. Instead we assume that the worst is true. That every candidate conceals some hidden and secret sin, some covert flaw; we suspect that all the politicians should be wearing a scarlet letter, if not for adultery, then some other breach of ethics, some scandal yet undisclosed, some betrayal of our trust.
But in Hawthorne's story the minister turns at last to God and in confessing his secret sin, he receives God's mercy. He dies at peace with himself for he is confident in God's mercy.
We of the crowd are quick to condemn; God is fast to forgive.
So too at the final hour does the grace of God touch Hester Prynne. Because she has suffered so much, and because Hester's humanity and her vulnerability are displayed so openly, others feel comfortable about taking their problems to her. She becomes the undeclared pastor to an entire colony, offering an island of understanding and sympathy unique along that cold and rocky coast of puritan rectitude. Some conclude the ďAĒ sewn on Hester's dress now signifies her new standing as an angel of god's mercy. The ďAĒ now stands for the angelic works that she is able to perform as a sinner redeemed by the grace and the mercy of God. As Hawthorne puts it, "The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be ... looked upon with ... awe and reverence."
Of course, this is the part of the story we have difficulty understanding. We don't have any difficulty believing in the scandal and in the public humiliation of a respected figure who is found to be guilty of some terrible crime; we do have difficulty believing in the grace of God which can redeem and save.
But a belief in the grace and the mercy of God is the unique gift we bring to politics.
We know that none of us is in a position to condemn. For all of us have some scarlet letter or other emblazoned upon our hearts. Whether itís some secret behavior that could become a scandal were it known to others, or whether it simply be those nameless and anonymous sins that belong to the crowd. Few of us suffer the kind of public humiliation that Jesus knew, or Hester Prynne, or a contemporary politician, forced to resign in shame.
But many of us wear the scarlet letter that belongs to the crowd, quick to condemn, slow to forgive, fickle in our loyalties, shallow of faith.
Why is it we are so fascinated by the scandal that we witness in public life, but do not notice God's grace at work?
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, God was able to work within the lives of two people, a man who had harbored a secret sin, and a woman who has been branded publicly in shame, yet despite all their problems and all their human weaknesses, the mercy of God prevailed.
So too in the early church, God was able to work despite the facile judgments of the crowd, and the betrayal of Christís closest friends, and out of the suffering of the cross there came a rebirth of character.
Then, as always, character is formed not through preaching or teaching about it; character formation is something that happens as we experience pain, as we confront conflict, as we wrestle with our weaknesses, as we learn from our failures. By the grace of God character comes as much from our suffering and sorrow, as from triumph or success. Itís in and through the grace of God that real character is born.
So, on this election day following a campaign where character has been so much at issue, the truth about character remains largely an untold story. While we have focused on the character of the individual candidates, the real story, the one, completely truthful, yet untold story, is the story of God's grace.
While the media tries to capture the drama of this election, they almost entirely miss out on the real drama. While they and we try to understand what is happening, one of the things that is most certainly happening is the saving and redeeming action of God. God doesn't wait around for an ideal candidate to appear on the scene like a knight in shining armor; God doesn't wait until every one of our citizens is so thoroughly informed of the issues as to vote unerringly for the right man or woman. On the contrary God is at work amid all the noise and confusion of politics to extend mercy where there is sin, to offer forgiveness where there has been a breach of trust, and to take flawed and fallible creatures such as we and of this mess to make a new heaven and a new earth.
Yes, the character issue may be the primary issue we should be concerned about his year. But the real question goes not to the character of the candidates, the real question is nature and character of God.
The true sovereign of the universe is the one who knows how to make all things work for good. So that even the evils of politics can become the agencies of God's work in the world. And even we, a crowd who is so quick to condemn, can become the agents of God's grace and God's mercy, and we can share in God's saving action to build a new heaven and a new earth, even from the rubble and the wreckage of our political life. Thanks be to God for this victory which was achieved for one and all in and through the love of God which we have seen in Jesus Christ, God's sovereign one.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.