The basic ritual has essentially stayed the same in the United States for generations. Voters wake up on election morning and plan their day around going to the polls. Some arrive at polling places before dawn, waiting for the doors to open so they can cast a vote before any line forms. Some take a long lunch break. Some stop on the way home from work.
After we mark the ballot we peel off the little sticker that says “I voted” and we display it prominently and proudly on a shirt or a jacket. If we bump into people we know at the polls, friends and neighbors and candidates running for office, we stop for a few moments to chat. Then we head home at days end, cozy up to the radio or the television or the internet, and wait for the results to come in.
If you are someone like me who has always had an affinity for politics…an affinity that rises to the level of borderline obsession around the time of an election…you go into Election night with mixed feelings. Hoping on the one hand that your candidate will win early and often and you will actually get to bed at a reasonable hour. While hoping on the other hand for enough drama and intrigue that you will stay on the edge of your seat and awake long past your typical bedtime to witness all the twists and turns.
At some point in the evening of Election Day or perhaps early the next morning, the election race is over. The votes are all counted. Someone is declared the winner. A bunch of people are happy while others are distraught. The candidates offer their victory speeches and their concession speeches. The pundits stay busy trying to analyze how and why the election results turned out the way it did. And somewhere in the back of our minds we begin to look ahead to the next elections, imagining who the players will be, what the country will look like, and how the political fray will unfold from now until then.
All those things happened on Tuesday. It was an American election driven by the same election rituals we have cherished in this country for hundreds of years. To be sure, a few things have changed over time. The population, technology, the amount of money spent. Nevertheless, the basic election process remains the same.
Even the words people say at the end of every election night sound familiar. How many times on Tuesday night into early Wednesday did you hear a candidate, a pundit, a winner, a loser offer some version of the following statement. “Well, the American people have spoken…”
That’s what I want to talk about this morning. In a week where it’s been clear to me that I needed to say something about the election, I keep coming back to those five words. The American people have spoken…
The truth is some American people have spoken. You could say that a large number of American people have spoken. In reality, however, millions of Americans did not speak on Tuesday. Some of them chose not to speak because they made a choice not to vote, and that reality is subject for another sermon. It’s the Americans who weren’t able to choose that I keep thinking about.
We live in a nation where we love to define ourselves. To be more specific, we love to define ourselves in binary categories. We live in red states. Or we live in blue states. We are progressive or we are conservative. We are Democrats or we are Republicans. Or if we are Independent, we tend to lean one way or the other.
We look at the graphs and the data and the electoral map and we monitor the returns as they come in on Election night and we eventually wind up either in the winning camp or in the losing camp. But in the wake of Tuesday’s election I keep wondering about a third group of Americans. Americans who are neither blue nor red because they are largely invisible.
Aside from children and youth who were too young to vote on Tuesday, consider the millions of faceless, nameless men and women who had no voice in this election. One of the great indictments of our current political process is the fact that most politicians only address the citizens who they believe will actually vote.
How many times over the course of the campaign did you hear a candidate talk about what they might do for men and women who are homeless? The ones who couldn’t vote on Tuesday because they have no formal address and no form of identification to present to a poll worker. Did you hear any candidate in the campaign talk about what they might do to help facilitate recovery for men and women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol? The ones who couldn’t vote on Tuesday because they spent every hour of that day and that night looking for their next fix or their next drink.
How often did you hear either candidate talk in the campaign about men and women living below the poverty line? The ones who struggle every day just to make ends meet and literally could not afford to leave their hourly wage jobs even for a short time to vote on Tuesday. How often did the campaign address the plight of single parents in this country? The ones who didn’t have time to vote because they woke up at the crack of dawn to feed their children before heading off to work. And as soon as their first job was over they rushed home to be with their children, helping them with homework before quickly preparing dinner and tucking the kids into bed. Then they asked a neighbor to come over and sit in the house while they headed off to a second job working the overnight shift.
How many times during the campaign did you hear about people of color who could not vote in this election because their names were purged off local voter rolls without their knowledge or their consent? How often did you hear a candidate speak about the problem of mass incarceration in this country…a system where a disproportionate number of men of color get arrested and imprisoned for minor crimes and yet when they serve their sentence and are released from prison they are denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives? How many times did you hear a candidate express solidarity with Native Americans at Standing Rock who are maintaining round the clock vigil and protest so that no company can run a pipeline through land they consider sacred? Think about how many people didn’t vote on Tuesday because they couldn’t vote on Tuesday. For millions of Americans, voting in this year’s election was not a choice.
Over the past year and a half, we heard a lot in the campaign about middle class and working class Americans. And we heard a lot about wealthier Americans. The bottom line is we heard a lot about the people in this country who vote. But we heard next to nothing about lower class Americans. About the people who got up on Tuesday and went from food pantry to soup kitchen to dumpster wondering where their next meal was going to come from. About the grandparents in their seventies and eighties who woke up on Tuesday wondering where they were going to find enough energy to raise their children’s children. The people for whom Tuesday was not so much Election Day. It was simply another day. Another struggle. Another twenty-four hours filled with trials and obstacles to overcome. Another night that ended with exhaustion and only a few hours of sleep before Wednesday started the same cycle over again.
In an election on Tuesday where the United States vote was, for all intents and purposes, split right down the partisan middle, it’s easy to get the impression there are two different Americas. In reality, though, there are more than two Americas. Even if candidates and political parties and voters rarely acknowledge it.
So in the wake of this 2016 election, the question remains. Who will speak for the countless American men and women this election left behind? Who will speak for the millions of nameless, faceless, voiceless brothers and sisters that do not get heard at election times or most other times…?
“Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
As you and I gather here for worship this morning, five days after the national election, do you hear the prophet speaking? Isaiah is the one speaking today for those who didn’t have a chance or a choice on Tuesday. The hungry, the poor, the homeless. The addicted, the disenfranchised, the imprisoned. Children of God each one of them, just like you and me, who were left behind. Left behind throughout the campaign. Left behind now that the campaign is over.
As you and I gather here for worship this morning, five days after a national election, do you hear the prophet speaking? Isaiah is also the one speaking today to people of faith who are willing to listen. People who care about justice. People invested in freedom. People who prize equal opportunity. People who believe in peace and hope and mercy. People who stand up and feed and heal and advocate and pray. People in the church. People here in Wapping Community Church…
America spoke on Tuesday. At least some of America. But today is Sunday. And on Sunday, God speaks. God speaks loudly and clearly through the prophet Isaiah who will not allow us to forget. Who refuses to let us off the hook. Who knows deep down in God’s heart that the United States of America won’t be the best it can be until every single one of its citizens can have their say.
Friends, we have plenty of righteous work cut out for us, building God’s realm here on earth. But God isn’t asking us to do something God isn’t working hard at already. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and reach out in God’s name. Letting our actions speak loudly until every American is heard. And all Americans move forward together. Amen.