Mysteries of the Faith (5 of 6): Mission, or Religion and Politics

A sermon for Nov. 8, 2015, based on Psalm 146 and Luke 22: 24-30

Today we address the mystery of our mission, our being sent into the world by God. There are many sides of this mystery, but when we consider that we have been sent to announce and to be God’s Kingdom on earth, we run smack into the further puzzle of how religion relates to politics. Last week we were able to avoid this issue, because in the Gospel of John the emphasis is on loving one another. But in the other gospels, the Kingdom of God is the central theme. Evidently, we are not sure what to do with this. I looked for hymns in our hymnals that would help us grasp the theme of God’s kingdom, and had trouble finding any that used that language, even though it pervades the gospels. But consider the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. … For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the Glory.” Our reading in Luke makes it even plainer. “I confer on you, just as my father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Jesus confers his kingdom to his disciples; and this isn’t just a heavenly kingdom: the Gospel of Luke continues in the book of Acts, showing how the new church begins to fulfill Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom. The Apostles and the church will “judge the twelve tribes.” This is a traditional Kingdom of God theme that goes deeper that today’s judges presiding in a courtroom. The judges in Israel, from Moses on, would ensure the peace by settling disputes with justice. They combined the roles of priest, king, and prophet. / We balk at receiving what Jesus promises. Are you ready to be judges of the world? You are probably more familiar with Jesus’ words: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” But we have been elected to be the judges of God’s kingdom. It is for us to establish the peace by settling disputes in our world. While we are not yet ready and worthy to assume that role, we have to face the fact that what Jesus has in mind is very much a collision of faith with politics.

So we rightly shudder, because we have seen so much damage come from that collision. There is a tremendous problem today of Christian ideologues, whether left or right. These are those Christians who, amid all the confusion of modern times, have latched on to their political convictions as the surest object of faith. To this I hear the Psalmist say, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Now the Christian ideologues on the left are weaker and for that reason, of lesser concern to me. (And in the name of full disclosure, I’m generally on the left.) To my mind they have dispensed with some of the profound mysteries of the faith in favor of social justice concerns, which I think are good. But they pick and choose certain issues to obsess about, and then try to outdo one another to see who can most purely and radically “subvert” the system. (I was a college professor, I know of what I speak.) But I’m more worried about Christian ideologues on the right, who hold more power (at least, outside our denomination); at their best, they raise valid concerns about a relativism of values, individualism, and moral issues like abortion—and no one should be untroubled by abortion. At their worst they have simply merged Christianity with a fabricated image of a ‘traditional’ America that is white, straight-male-dominated, middle class, and therefore ‘Christian’; thus they use faith to ignore the valid concerns of, indeed the very humanity of minorities, people of other nationalities, women who are not ‘traditional’, people who are non-heterosexual, and people calling attention to the dangers of our economic and military dominance in the world. In resisting any deviation from this largely made-up tradition called “Christian America,” they have committed a grave idolatry by equating faith in God with loyalty to a system that benefits themselves at the expense of outsiders. Yeah, that’s harsh. I’d love to unpack all that more sometime, and to hear your thoughts. But whether we think they’ve exaggerated a bit or committed blasphemy, let’s agree on this: the Christian Right should not be the only voice of Christianity in our culture, yet they seem to dominate the media.

Confronted by the dangers and even violence posed by those bad mixings of religion and politics, most American Christians have tried to evacuate religion of any political importance. They have mostly adopted the great American compromise when it comes to religion: your faith is your business, and my faith is none of your business. Let’s not talk about our religious views. Let’s just agree that God is nice; and we should be nice to each other—civil, polite. Faith is not political: it simply concerns how I as an individual find inner peace and comfort amid life’s troubles. There is a certain peace that we have achieved by way of this compromise, which makes it so tempting. But it simply does not square with faith as described in the Bible. And it cannot challenge injustices that exist in our world. Nor does it seem capable of producing a life of faith that is powerful, compelling, and even interesting enough to sustain itself.

Besides, we in this room and marked by so many social forces and powers that go beyond these walls; these are matters of political concern that we ignore at our peril. Recent events have reminded us of how racism continues to affect our society (we should know by now that racism is not limited to bigotry; racism names the way that in our society it is in general easier to be white than to be a person of color, especially African American.) And issues about gender continue to haunt us. Just the other day I found some plaques in the nursery…. But let me give you a more subtle example of social issues that affect our relationships here in this room: it’s best described as classism. I am a snob. I can talk at great length and passion about wine. French wine. And jazz—not smooth jazz, try “hard bob” or “avant-garde.” I’m one of those people who like music that hurts to listen to. My parents aren’t that way. But I was shaped by my education and the kinds of friendships and cultural expectations that went along with it. I am now indelibly stamped as an intellectual. Some of that formation as an intellectual helps me to be a good Christian, but a lot of it is just about taste. And let me borrow Paul’s crude language from Philippians to describe his illustrious training: I don’t think God gives a crap about all that, not next to what I have by faith in Christ, in common with you all. But you have your own tastes, and some of your tastes have been formed within families and communities that reject people like me, as snobs and bad Americans. Some of you like tractor pulls; and maybe Budweisar and guns. I don’t. Well, it is much easier for us to be friends with people who share our tastes. That is the way of the world, and the way of the internet which is excellent for finding your “tribe”; but our faith tells us that we have been called to be one in Christ. So we are affected by a social reality called class that we are not in control of and that threatens our calling. And we have no hope of addressing social realities beyond our personal control except through politics.

To be a politically healthy and vibrant church, I think we need to build each other up, without using the scare tactics or authoritarianism of the Christian Right, to be a powerful and cohesive voice of Christianity that does not fall prey to the more and more vicious division between Red America and Blue America, but which can speak and act on political issues—that is, matters of policy and practice affecting the common good. If we can do that, people will flock to us, because hardly anyone can bear the business as usual of our current political life in America. The world needs us, now more than ever, to bear God’s light by our way of being a community, by our service to the world, and our testimony. As we each consider what kinds of stewardship are possible for us in the coming year, I ask you to remember that we are not just maintaining a building and an organization; we are bearing God’s light in world that is dim if not dark. The body needs to be strong to do this: we need financial support, we need commitments to leadership roles, and we need active participation. There is so much good we can do, and good we can be. I want to give my suggestions for how we can, by being the body of Christ, redeem the meaning of politics. And I want to hear what you think about it.

As we turn to politics, above all we mustn’t lose sight of our humanity. Politics threatens to turn us all into instruments of power, and so we begin to calculate how to get people to do what we want. That is how our political and commercial worlds regard people, and our humanity slips away. In politics we use “wedge issues” like abortion or gay rights to drive people into camps. One wise way to practice a responsible and loving politics is to pay the most attention to local issues that we can actually do something about, rather than focusing on the ‘hot button’ issues and make pronouncements designed to create camps. But some division is inevitable in politics, and we must resist the effects it has on us. According to our faith, each one of us continues to be a vulnerable and blessed child of God, sharing the humanity that Christ redeemed. One benefit of being pastor is that I cannot but help to see you all that way. I see you as individuals who are estranged from your parents; or marked by complicated and messy relationship with each other, as well as amazing bonds of love; you have lost children, in one sad way or another; you face addictions, illness and death and live in fear of these. We all need to be personally touched by God’s comforting, healing, and transforming grace, and that touch needs to come from someone sitting near you in this room. As we invest ourselves in political concerns, we cannot lose sight of our vulnerable but graced humanity. As we saw in John’s gospel last week, we participate in God’s love by loving each other—and that means being honest with each other, forgiving, and nurturing. We are not yet doing that as God would have us. I try to do my part as a part-time pastor; but I’ve made the case that we need a strong diaconate, and we’re working to develop a system whereby each one of you will have an individual Deacon to keep tabs on you, and your needs.

So to practice politics in a godly and loving way, we need to uphold each other’s humanity and resist breaking into factions by practicing active love and care for one another. When it comes to owning our role as judges in God’s kingdom, we should also seek a unity of perspective by attending to what kind of political values God announces in the Bible. Psalm 146 gives us a classic rendition of how God judges disputes: The Lord “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free,” and takes the side of the widow and the orphan, those who are bowed down. This is not the only description in the Old Testament of what justice means to God, but it is a very prevalent one that certainly influenced Jesus.

Presumably, God’s way of judging should influence how we make our judgments, if we are indeed more ready for that role than the bickering disciples were. If we turn again to our gospel reading, Luke alone places the story of the disciples arguing about who is greatest right at this critical juncture, showing first of all that the disciples were as yet far from worthy of the kingdom Jesus bestows—a good lesson for us. But this story also shows Jesus renouncing the politics as usual in his day. The disciples shall not by like the Gentiles, that’s the Romans, who wield their authority with a swagger. Jesus even seems to renounce the term “benefactor”: “Those in authority over them are called benefactors.” This certainly refers to the patron-client system of the Roman world: the great men in charge would lavish charity on those below to secure their loyalty. So Jesus might be calling into question even the practice of charitable giving as insufficiently radical, because it preserves hierarchy. “The greatest must become like the younger,” something unheard of in patriarchal Rome; “and the leader like one who serves.” “Servant” in this story in Greek is “diakonōn,” typically one who waits on tables (related to our word “deacon”), a much lowlier profession back then than it is now. This is how Jesus is to us.

The Kingdom Jesus is describing is not a politics of deal cutting, of I scratch your back and you scratch mine, and certainly not a politics of cutthroat tactics and attack ads; it is a politics that undoes power by humility. We have to find a way in our time to renounce the politics of the Gentiles, the business-as-usual in our world which are all participants in. That shouldn’t be too much to ask: it seems that absolutely everyone hates the way we do politics.

As a Congregational body, we have already renounced having any among us who lord their authority. But that means it’s on us to not settle for our private opinions, and to not disdain the wisdom outside these walls, but to reason together about how to judge the world, and about how to become worthy of that destiny. That will take a lot of work: a lot of education, a lot of working with our community and the larger church, and a lot of loving one another. Holy Spirit, make it so. Amen.

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